Women to Read: Where to Start (January 2014, Originally published at SF Signal)
A new year is upon us, which means a whole lot of new reading needs to be done. Or is that just me? Regardless, if you’re new to this series, welcome! Basically, I recommend women to read and where to start with their work. Sometimes there’s a theme, and sometimes there isn’t. This time around, there isn’t an overt theme, but there is an underlying thread of conflict and a questioning of the notion of self in these works. Either way, I hope you enjoy them, and I wish you happy reading in 2014!
Ann Leckie‘s Ancillary Justice has received quite a bit of praise, and rightly so, making it a logical recommended starting point for her work. There are several fascinating things about the novel, but one of the most interesting is the way it removes gender from the equation. The default pronoun is female (she/her), and many characters have more than one body, allowing every character to be simultaneously male and female in the reader’s mind. It also brings into the play the question of self-perception vs. being perceived by others, and which is more authentically true. This is powerful stuff, and it’s made even more powerful being an undercurrent, only the bones upon which the novel is built, making for a rich, deep world. The plot itself is an intricate puzzle box, slowly unfolded (or put back together if you prefer) to reveal a central conflict. It’s masterfully done, and as I said, deserves every bit of praise it’s received.
Benjanun Sgriduangkaew‘s short fiction has been popping up all over the place recently, including in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Clockwork Phoenix 4. My recommended starting place is one of her most recent publications – “Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade“, in the December 2013 issue of Clarkesworld. The prose is lush and evocative. Even the smallest details hint at entire stories: an orchid blade, a helm of black scarabs, a sky of fractal glass – and that’s all within the first few paragraphs. Beyond the poetry, the story is lovely – a weary soldier of fluid gender is brought back from the dead and forced into confrontation with her ex-wife. The story portrays a world of conflict on multiple levels, many happening beneath the surface. Fittingly, the story ends just before the first punch is thrown.
Last but not least, my recommended starting point for Priya Sharma‘s work is “Egg”, appearing in Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales. The story deals with conflict on very personal level as well, and circles back to the notion of self. Sharma crafts a new fairy tale, built on the bones of old tropes and presenting a unique twist on the mother-daughter relationship and the classic wish for a child. The story is complicated, it portrays the sacrifices one makes becoming a parent in a realistic and brutal manner, but still gives the story the veneer of the fantastic. Here, reality is pushed to the extreme through the lens of fantasy, showing a parent caring for a child that is barely human and wholly incomprehensible. The story is beautiful and brutal, showing the struggle between self and other, between a parent’s desires and the way they can, and possibly must, become subsumed and erased in their life of their child.
Women to Read: Where to Start (February 2014, Originally published at SF Signal)
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Lauren Beukes made her fiction debut with Moxyland in 2009, but her first novel to garner widespread attention, and my recommended starting place for her work, is Zoo City, which won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award and the 2010 Kitschies Red Tentacle Award, along with being nominated for several other awards. In addition to presenting a fascinating world where characters’ past misdeeds manifest physically as animals bound to them for the rest of their lives, Zoo City does something fairly rare – it offers a genuine female anti-hero as a main character. Too often, female characters are held to odd standards, forcing them into boxes of pure good or pure evil, virgin or whore, with nothing in-between. Rarely do we get women who are as many shades of gray as Beukes’ Zinzi December – a finder of lost things, who also happens to be an email scammer/spammer, a former junkie, the cause of her brother’s death, and a character who genuinely cares about the welfare of others, going out of her way to look out for two teenage pop stars who everyone else seems determined to either tip-toe around or manipulate and use. In short, she has all the classic hallmarks of an anti-hero; she’s a complex, multi-faceted character who, despite her flaws, the reader roots for, and there are far too few examples like her in fiction. Based on Zoo City, I’ll be circling back to Moxyland soon, and picking up The Shining Girls, Beukes’ latest, which looks similarly intriguing, and which is slated to become a movie in the near(ish) future.
Ursula Vernon’s webcomic, Digger, won the 2012 Hugo for Best Graphic Story, but the first of her works that really caught my attention – and my recommended starting point for her work – is the beautiful “Jackalope Wives” in the January 2014 issue of Apex Magazine. “Jackalope Wives” retells a classic story – a man stealing a shape-changing woman’s skin in an attempt to make her his bride. Unlike most stories of this nature, the story is told neither from the man nor the woman’s perspective, but from the perspective of the man’s grandmother. Despite a character seemingly one step removed from the situation, Vernon give a sharp sense of all three characters, and offers up the notion of consequences that feel more immediate than most other skin-stealing stories. Instead of a quiet, seething anger from the Jackalope Wife, Vernon gives both the sense of an animal that’s been hurt and doesn’t understand why it’s in so much pain, and the sense of a being older, wiser, and more incomprehensible than most humans can imagine. It’s a truly lovely and haunting tale.
Margo Lanagan is multiple award-winning author, and an extremely prolific one as well. You could start just about anywhere with her work, but my recommended starting point is “Singing My Sister Down”, which is included in her short story collection Black Juice, as well as several anthologies. In my opinion, it’s the strongest piece in an overall strong collection, and was rightly nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula Award. It tells the story of a public execution in a way that is both brutal and uplifting. While it is a story about a horrific act, it is also a story about family, mercy, and compassion. It shows how acts of rebellion can be small and quiet things that never break the law, but reveal an unbreakable spirit in the face of an impossible situation.
Finally, to round out this post, I’ll give you a classic recommendation: Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave. I actually came to this series in a roundabout way, by being given the fourth book in the series. However, I’m a sucker for Arthurian Legend, so I took it on good faith I would enjoy the other books and ran out to buy the first three in the series without reading a word of the one I’d been given. The series follows Merlin from his childhood to the end of his legend, which typically has Nimue/Niniane/Viviane imprisoning him in an oak after usurping his powers. Their relationship is more complex in this series, as is the whole of Merlin’s story, making him a more rounded character than the archetypical wise and mystical old man with a beard. While the story of Arthur and Merlin has been told countless times, The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment, as well as its two sequels, add dimension and their own particular spin to the tales, filling in gaps in the original legends in a way that feels both true to their spirit, and fresh and new.
Women to Read: Where to Start (March 2014, Originally published at SF Signal)
Amal El-Mohtar is a poet, author, and the editor of Goblin Fruit. There are many places one could start with her work, but my recommended starting point is “Hollow Play” from the anthology Glitter & Mayhem (an also available in an audio version from Podcastle). In addition to the positive portrayal of trans* and gender queer characters, El-Mohtar deftly portrays how painful, beautiful, complicated, and messy human relationships can be. “Hollow Play” both is and is not a happy-ending story, with characters finding their own way to peace despite broken hearts and loss. The mythical elements are beautifully woven into the story, allowing both the mundane and the magical worlds to shine. El-Mohtar’s language and imagery are gorgeous as well, making it one of the strongest stories in an overall very strong anthology.
Jo Walton‘s Among Others is an award-winning/nominated novel that stands as a love letter to SFF, a genre women aren’t supposed to be interested in reading or being a part of, according to some detractors. Frankly, I’m amazed I haven’t covered it in this series before. It’s also a story about chosen family versus the family you’re born into, and finding the place you belong in the world. The speculative element is subtle, and there are hints that it may not even be present at all. Rather than being frustrating, the ambiguity makes the story even more powerful. Mori can be an unreliable narrator, and Walton never fully reveals if the supernatural events described actually occurred, or if magic is the filter through which Mori perceives the world. This uncertainty allows the novel to be read in multiple ways – as a straightforward narrative, as an escapist fantasy helping the main character cope with loss, or as something existing in the liminal space in-between these possibilities, encompassing them both and more. Either way, it’s a beautiful story and a perfect starting place for the author’s work.
It may be cheating to recommend starting with a series, but Francesca Lia Block‘s Dangerous Angels series (a.k.a. The Weetzie Bat Books) books really need to be read together. Besides, once you start, they’ll make you want to keep going until you’ve devoured them all. Block’s voice is strong, poetic and twisty, and unlike anything I’d read before when I first came across them. There is an irresistible rhythm to the words; Block’s language itself is a character, guiding the reader through the book. To give an example:
“Weetzie and My Secret Agent Lover Man and Dirk and Duck and Cherokee and Witch Baby huddled on the pink bed and cried. Grief is not something you know if you grow up wearing feathers with a Charlie Chaplain boyfriend, a love-child papoose, a witch baby, a Dirk and a Duck, and a movie to dance in. You can feel sad and worse when your dad moves to another city, when an old lady dies, or when your boyfriend goes away. But grief is different.”
They’re billed as YA books, but strike me as equally appealing to adults. The books are important in offering up a strong female protagonist who is allowed to fail and be flawed, and be changed by the mistakes she makes. I don’t know if the Weetzie Bat books were a source of inspiration for Ysabeau Wilce (another author whose work I highly recommend and in fact have done so in this series before), but Weetzie feels like a spiritual predecessor to Flora Segunda. The two characters have a lot in common, which probably means they wouldn’t get along at all, and it would be a lot of fun to watch them spark off each other.
Mary Robinette Kowal‘s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” originally appeared in the audiobook anthology, RIP-OFF, and was recently reprinted at Tor.com. As with many of the other authors included in this series, Kowal is multiply award-nominated and award-winning, and there are numerous places one could start with her work. “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” struck me in particular as a good starting point because it does something not a lot of SFF stories do – it deals with age and aging in a painful and straightforward manner, rather than presenting it as something science has magically cured or otherwise eliminated as a factor in daily life. Older characters in general tend to be largely absent within the genre, and rarely get the starring role as Kowal’s Elma York does in this story. Here, the reader gets a fully-fledged character, rather than a hastily sketched caricature – the wise/wicked old crone, the kindly/evil wizard, the mad scientist/aging starlet futilely trying to regain their youth, etc. On top of all that, the story presents the character with a heart-wrenching choice, and doesn’t do the audience the disservice of a stark right vs. wrong scenario; both options are valid, and the character has motivation for wanting either, making the story all the more effective. As an extra bonus starting point, I’d also recommend following Mary Robinette Kowal’s twitter feed (@MaryRobinette). In addition to being an award-winning author, she’s also an accomplished puppeteer and frequently tweets hilarious, innuendo-filled things about puppets.
Women to Read: Where to Start (April 2014, Originally published at SF Signal)
It just so happens the first two stories I wanted to talk about this month dealt with apocalypses, so I figured why not make it a theme?
Claire Humphrey’s “The End of the World in Five Dates,” which appeared in the March 2014 issue of Apex, offers another variation on the lone hero trope I mentioned in relation to Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City in last month’s post. There are plenty of examples of prickly/unlikable male characters holding everyone at arm’s length, but fewer female characters, so I always appreciate when it’s done and done well. The characters in general are what really make this piece shine. Humphrey does a wonderful job of showing where each one is coming from, and where their desires and personal baggage clash or mesh with everyone else. For an apocalypse story, I particularly appreciate the ending, in that it’s a beginning. Now that the protagonist has survived her personal apocalypse, she can begin living, which makes me wonder about the other seers/prophets who predicted the end of the world and what happened to them when the world stubbornly kept on turning.
Shira Lipkin’s “Becca at the End of the World“ is another Apex story, speaking of themes, appearing in the October 2013 issue. Like “The End of the World in Five Dates,” this is another story of a personal apocalypse. You may start to sense a sub-theme here; the personal moments within a vast crisis have always been the most interesting to me. Watching the major monuments of the world blow up is all well and good, but I want to know how Jane Doe and John Smith experience the apocalypse, what specifically are they losing and what does ‘the end’ mean to them. In “Becca at the End of the World,” it means a mother dealing with a daughter who has succumbed to the zombie plague and faced with the heartbreaking choice of whether to kill her. The ending can be read as a metaphor for the selfless way parents sacrifice themselves for their children, sometimes literally, subsuming their lives in the next generation. It can equally be read as a selfish choice on the part of a mother unable to deal with survivor’s guilt. Either way it’s a lovely, wrenching story, told in a pared down way that packs an emotional punch into less than 2000 words.
Megan Arkenberg’s “Final Exam” originally appeared in Asimov’s and was reprinted in the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 5. I’ve been impressed with every story I’ve read by Megan Arkenberg thus far, so really I could recommend starting anywhere with her work, but in keeping with the apocalyptic theme, I’ll go with “Final Exam”. I like stories that play with structure, particularly ones that allow the reader to piece together a larger narrative or deeper truth through fragments that fit together like puzzle pieces. For example, list stories, which often “tell” the story in the spaces in-between the words on the page. “Final Exam” employs this method to great effect, telling intertwined stories of a personal and global apocalypse as a series of questions posed on a school exam. There are horrible, world-ending type creatures, completely changing life as we know it, but there’s also a quieter kind of apocalypse – the slow unraveling of a relationship – which is equally devastating and even more final by the end.
Christie Yant’s “The Revelation of Morgan Stern” originally appeared in Shimmer #16, has been produced as a podcast at Drabblecast, and will appear in the upcoming anthology Wastelands 2: More Stories of the Apocalypse. The story is told through a series of letters written by a survivor crossing a post-apocalyptic America. Like the list story, this is another structure I enjoy as it allows authors to play with how much the letter-writer is willing to reveal, and what frequently slips through the cracks of the words they do commit to the page. Of all the stories I’ve discussed here, this is the one that best captures the loneliness of the apocalypse and just how much has been lost and changed. Still, the story manages to perfectly balance the global with the personal. For extra bonus points, once you’ve read the story, go read Christie Yant’s author interview on the Shimmer blog to see how the story came to be, which makes it that much richer.
Women to Read: Where to Start (May 2014, Originally published at SF Signal)
In terms of beginning as you mean to go on, Helene Wecker has set herself up beautifully with her debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni. It is a novel of opposites. It starts quietly and builds to a full blaze. It is full of the small, intimate details of life, yet sprawling and epic at the same time. The streets of historic New York City are gorgeously drawn and feel real, but also steeped in myth and the fantastic. In all cases, neither side overwhelms the other. The way opposites come together throughout the book – where they temper each other and where they clash – is where the novel’s strength lies. All of the tension and balance is encapsulated perfectly in the main characters, Chava a stoic woman of clay, and Ahmed an impulsive man of fire – a golem and a jinni. The story offers multiple levels of conflict – between the characters on a personal level, on a cultural level, on a generational level, and along gender lines. Wecker makes you care deeply about each character, and presents each point of view with such clarity it’s easy to find yourself simultaneously agreeing with completely opposing opinions. The relationships in the novel feel organic as people grow beyond their prejudices or grow into them more deeply. Even the characters who don’t spend much time on the page make a strong impression, leaving you with the sense of fully developed lives extending beyond the narrative as written. I certainly hope Helene Wecker does indeed go on as she began.
Continuing the theme of brilliant debuts, Meda Kahn’s “Difference of Opinion“, which appeared in Strange Horizons in September 2013 is the author’s first published story. Much of the story’s beauty lies in showing real characters who are allowed to have complex relationships with each other and not have everything turn out perfectly or even happily for them. Life is messy, and sometimes fiction should be as well. Not all conflicts have solutions, nor do they need them. Kahn’s main character, Keiya, is autistic and the author doesn’t shy away from showing the sharp edges where her experience of the world clashes with the experiences of neuro-typical characters around her. Themes of self-perception versus external perception and the damage that can be done by trying to force another person’s reality to fit into your worldview run throughout the tale. Another part of the story’s beauty is in its rejection of the too-often seen ‘cure narrative’; no cure is wanted or needed. The story delivers on the title’s promise – one way of experiencing the world isn’t better than another, it comes down to a difference of opinion.
[ETA: Rose Lemberg is non-binary, but I was unaware of that at the time I originally wrote this post. I am letting the entry stand, as the story is worth talking about and deserves attention.] In the interest of full disclosure, “Geddarien,” my recommended starting point for Rose Lemberg’s work was reprinted in the architecture issue of Unlikely Story, which I co-edit. Personal connection aside, I would still recommend it is a starting place for Lemberg’s work. The story struck me and stuck with me from the first time I read it when it was originally published in Fantasy Magazine in 2009. The story is haunting, resonating long after its last word, which is appropriate for a story centered around music. The story deftly balances whimsy and magic, the idea of dancing houses, with the horrors of the Holocaust and the persecution and murder of Jews. Much like Pan’s Labyrinth, the story can be read for a happy ending or a tragic one, depending on your belief in the magic presented. At the heart of the story is the relationship between the young protagonist, his grandfather, and his grandfather’s tales. In addition to music, “Geddarien” is a story about stories and the way passing them from generation to generation creates history and memory and allows the past to survive. For an interesting companion piece to “Geddarien,” read Lemberg’s “A City on Its Tentacles” in Issue 1 of Lackington’s Magazine. It also holds story and family at its heart and underscores stories, and faith in stories, as a means of preserving life as a mother struggles to save her daughter by journeying through story to an impossible city.
Closing out this post with another strong debut, Sophie Werely’s “Ansa and the Lost Thing,” published in Daily Science Fiction, was the author’s first professional publication. It’s another story that resists easy answers and wrapping things up neatly for the sake of a happy ending. Like “Geddarien,” it centers on family, and can be read as a straightforward tale of loss or something more supernatural depending on your belief in magic as presented in the narrative. Here, two sisters cope with their father’s disappearance and their mother’s illness by building a trap for a unicorn in order to wish their father home. Memory is also key to this story, but rather than tales passed from generation to generation keeping memory alive, the cause of the father’s disappearance is rooted in him forgetting to remember himself. The story puts a different spin on the theme, but both “Ansa and the Lost Thing” and “Geddarien” link memory and story to life – whether it’s the stories we tell others or the stories we tell ourselves.
Women to Read: Where to Start (June 2014, Originally published at SF Signal)
Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons was my introduction to the author’s novel-length work and a good place to start in my opinion. Dragons are an often-used trope in fantasy, but Brennan puts a different spin on hers, making them the subject of scientific inquiry. She also wisely keeps the dragons largely in the background, focusing on her human characters and their relationships. One of the things that struck me most about the book was its portrayal of a marriage that is a partnership and friendship first and foremost. Too often, particularly with historical novels, husbands are presented as unrelentingly cruel, controlling, or dismissive of their wives, too stuck in traditional gender roles to be otherwise. Here, expectations are subverted as Isabella’s relationship with her husband becomes a springboard to further her scientific career, rather than an obstacle to thwart it. Brennan also shows there is more to spectrum of love and marriage than all consuming passion or cold indifference. A wealth of possibilities lie between these two extremes, and it’s depicted perfectly here as a love that grows out of friendship and mutual respect. Isabella is allowed to explore her passion and break out of the traditional roles available to women at the time, but it is handled realistically. The men around her still feel the need to protect her, but they are not condescending or cruel about it. Similarly, Isabella’s knowledge and skills are appropriate to the things she was allowed to learn; she isn’t suddenly an expert in areas she has no experience with, but she’s shown to be intelligent and competent and able to make accurate deductions based on her observations and research.
Have you ever come across a story where everything strikes you just right? K.M. Ferebee’s “The Earth and Everything Under” was one of those stories for me. It’s also an appropriate story to recommend as a starting point since it was the starting point to launch the new digital version of Shimmer, which debuted in May. “The Earth and Everything Under” is a beautiful story about death and loss and life going on regardless. There are birds and witches and a sheriff, and it all starts off with a killer opening line: “Peter had been in the ground six months when the birds began pushing up out of the earth.” The story is full of evocative images like that, drawing a picture of a world simultaneously wondrous and mundane. The fantastic is woven seamlessly into everyday life, part of the fabric of living. It’s a mature story, not in the sense of a mature rating on a tv show, but mature in the sense that it isn’t afraid to be quiet. It resists the easy path of setting up the law as the villain. People even talk to each other and make the effort to understand where the other is coming from. The story also shows the ways in which people can grow up and grow apart. Using the fantastic to illuminate the human condition, Ferebee gives us two sides of a relationship ending – Peter with his grand gestures and drama and refusal to let go, and Elyse, who is practical and full of quiet strength despite being the one left behind. In the end, we aren’t given trauma and heartbreak, but the natural outcome of people taking different paths in life. Peter and Elyse change more than they fall out of love, becoming more true to who they are at this point in their lives, even though it ultimately means going their separate ways.
In its own way, LaShawn M. Wanak’s “21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One)“, which appeared at Strange Horizons in February, is also a story about growing up. Similar to K.M. Ferebee’s “The Earth and Everything Under,” it presents the fantastic as mundane, with spiral staircases made of wood and crystal and bone appearing out of nowhere to offer enlightenment. Rather than reacting with shock, the characters simply choose whether or not to climb the staircases. Sometimes enlightenment is something grant, like a glimpse into the future, steering someone away from a bad relationship. Sometimes it’s simple, like the perfect grilled cheese sandwich recipe. There are touches of whimsy in the story, perfectly balanced with more serious fare – issues of race, the gap between parents and children, and the idea of taking responsibility for your own life and happiness. It is a story about growing up literally, but also about coming to have a more grown-up outlook on life regardless of age.
My first introduction to Alice Hoffman’s work was the movie version of Practical Magic, starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. It brought her to my attention as an author, however, and led me into reading her work, including my recommended starting place, The River King. In terms of genre, the novel rides the edge, occupying the liminal space between mainstream and speculative fiction. For the most part, the world is straightforward, with the exception of a ghost that may only be a figment of a guilt-stricken imagination. Whether or not the ghost is real, the haunting is, both for the character and the book as a whole. The River King is pervaded by a sense of loss and regret, a yearning toward something that can never quite be obtained – the very definition of a ghost by some measures. The novel is made of layers, peeled away slowly to reveal deeper truths about characters who appear to be entirely made of their surfaces at first glance, surfaces which often make them unlikable. The more layers that are revealed, the richer the story becomes. Hoffman’s language is poetic and beautiful, making the real world seem magical, regardless of whether the work is speculative fiction or not.
Women to Read: Where to Start (July 2014, Originally published at SF Signal)
Welcome to another installment of Women to Read: Where to Start. I missed the anniversary mark for these posts last month, so happy anniversary plus one month to celebrating fiction by women! This time around I’m recommending circuses, time travel, living toys, and genetic modification against the backdrop of human-extraterrestrial relations.
I’ve been consistently impressed with Caroline M. Yoachim’s short fiction, making it hard to pick just one piece as a starting point. Ultimately, I decided to go back to the first story of hers I read, “Time to Say Goodnight“, published in Fantasy Magazine in 2007. “Time to Say Goodnight” was listed as a notable story in the 2007 Million Writers’ Award, and deservedly so. Presented as a sweet, fairy tale-like story about a little girl and her magical toys, it’s also a story about family, loss, growing up, and dealing with the realities of life – like divorce and death – from a child’s perspective. The story balances these elements perfectly, never becoming saccharine or heavy-handed. I would also recommend Yoachim’s “Pieces of My Body” – a delightfully creepy story full of poetic imagery, recently published in Daily Science Fiction, and “The Carnival Was Eaten, All Except the Clown“, in the final issue of Electric Velocipede. All three stories showcase the author’s talent for offering layers of depth and emotion in her stories, while maintaining an economy of words – not an easy thing to do.
Mary Anne Mohanraj is the founder of Strange Horizons, one of my favorite publications. She edited the magazine for several years, and currently edits Jaggery, a South Asian literary journal, as well as being an incredibly prolific poet and author of short and novel-length fiction. My recommended starting point for her work is “Communion“, published in the June 2014 issue of Clarkesworld. Mohanraj packs a lot into this story – ideas of beauty, moral questions surrounding genetic modification, differing traditions surrounding death, and what it means to be a family and a community – among others. My only complaint regarding the story is not exactly a complaint, but more a wish that the work was longer and had more time to explore each individual component of the tale. The question of genetic modification in “Communion” was particularly intriguing to me. A couple – one modified by her parents to have advantages such as beauty and perfect health, and the other not modified by her parents – are faced with the question of how far they will go as they prepare to start a family of their own. Every parent wants their child to be healthy and happy, but where do they draw the line? Wrapped around this question is a story about bridging the gap between human and alien culture, how each culture honors their dead, and the tension surrounding a world that has recently suffered a violent attack. Again, I’d love to see each piece unpacked and examined in greater depth. Perhaps, if I’m lucky, the author will expand the story into a novel some day.
A.M. Dellamonica is a fellow Canadian (always a bonus), a novelist, and a writer of short fiction. My recommended starting place for her work is the recently-published “The Color of Paradox” at Tor.com. The story straddles the border between horror and science fiction, as time travelers are sent back to postpone the extinction of the human race. Note that it is postpone, not prevent, as there’s a certain sense of inevitability to the end of the world, though Dellamonica never definitely answers whether it can be stopped. Rather than making the characters’ actions feel futile, the idea of inevitability speaks to the perseverance of humanity in the face of seemingly impossible odds. It also adds an interesting dimension to the travelers’ mission – is it worth taking a life or giving up your own just to buy time? One of the things I found particularly interesting about the story is that some of the most intriguing bits lie not with the protagonist, but with the secondary character, Willie. As someone pointed out recently, there’s a dearth of female time travelers in general (if you don’t count the Doctor’s companions, and even they are mostly along for the ride and not the primary instigators of travel), so it was refreshing to see Willie presented as the first successful time traveler in this story. A lot of Willie’s story is implied, rather than told outright, and as with the character’s of Mohanraj’s “Communion”, I could easily see reading a novel focused on her if Dellamonica ever chooses to expand the story.
Is it possible I haven’t already included Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus in this series? That seems like a major oversight on my part. The Night Circus was Morgenstern’s debut novel, and as debut novels go, she couldn’t have asked for a better one. I’m a sucker for circus stories, and this one is enchanting in all senses of the word. A magical battle spanning centuries and generations? Check. A gorgeously described black and white circus, filled with impossible people and creations? Check. A love story? Check. A ghost story? Check. Lavish dinner parties and world travel and intrigue? Check, check, and check. There are novels one appreciates from a distance, and settings one reads about, but would never actually want to visit. That is not the case with the Night Circus or the world surrounding it. To quote Liz Lemon, “I want to go to there.” I want run from tent to tent and drink the circus in night after night. I want to attend the dinner parties and meet the people of the circus and its followers. Thanks to Morgenstern’s gorgeous prose, I almost feel like I have done those things. Almost, but not quite. I’m still hoping the Night Circus will make a stop in my town.
Women to Read: Where to Start (August 2014, Originally published at SF Signal)
Welcome to the August edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. I’m focusing exclusively on short fiction this time around – stories that pack a punch in just a few thousand words, but linger with you long after you’ve put them down. Two of the stories are older ones, relatively speaking, which have stuck with me ever since first reading them, and two are so new you can practically smell the wet ink.
I’ve long been a fan of Samantha Henderson’s work, and could recommend a good number of starting places for her work – “The Black Hole in Auntie Sutra’s Handbag“, “How I Got Fired from the Best Damn Job in the Entire World”, or “Honey Mouth”, to name a few. But I’m going to go with “Five Ways Jane Austen Never Died,” originally published in Fortean Bureau in 2005, and podcast at PodCastle in 2011, because I’m a sucker for list stories, and this is a particularly pleasing twist on the form. The story offers a series of vignettes reimaging Jane Austen’s death at a young age as the result of time travel assassination, an encounter with an eldritch artifact, and a vampiric encounter, among other scenarios. As the introduction to the podcast points out, Henderson was ahead of the mash-up trend that brought us Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. While “Five Ways Jane Austen Never Died” offers scenarios that sound on the surface like the result of a drunken ‘what-if’ conversation at a convention bar, it never devolves into silly or gimmicky mash-up. Henderson injects a darkness into each scenario and relates each in lovely prose. The story embraces each genre it straddles and showcases Henderson’s talent for adopting multiple voices in her work. Speaking of voices, as an extra bonus, the podcast version is wonderfully narrated by Amal El-Mohtar.
I’m cheating a little bit with my recommended starting place for Shveta Thakrar’s work. I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of “Krishna Blue”, which will appear in Kaleidoscope, an anthology of diverse YA coming out from Twelfth Planet Press later this month. The excerpt Thakrar read at Readercon was enough to convince me this was a story I wanted to read. I got extra lucky however, as the author just happened to be a passenger in my car on the drive home from the convention, so I got to hear the whole thing. Krishna Blue is a rare creature – a story that manages to put a new twist on the vampire genre, to the point where calling it a vampire story may not even be fair. Rather than blood, the main character thrives on color, and each color she devours is described in rich, sensual detail evoking all the senses. Vampirism – typical or not – isn’t the story’s point, however. It’s a story about family and searching for your place in the world amidst pressure and expectations and bullying. It captures the uncertainty of the teenage experience, the struggle to be true to yourself and fit in, and wraps it all in gorgeous, poetic language that is almost tangible in its richness. After you’ve started here with Thakrar’s work, keep an eye out for her other pieces. I have a feeling you’ll be seeing them all over the place soon.
Jennifer Pelland’s Captive Girl has stuck with me since it first appeared in Helix SF in 2006. It seems I’m not the only one, as it was a Nebula Nominee and on the short list for the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards in 2007. Like Kij Johnson’s “Spar”, which I covered in an earlier installment of this series, it is not a remotely comfortable read. Rather than looking at humanity through the lens of alien contact, it looks at the darkest impulses in human to human relationships, questioning the nature of love, dependence, abuse, vulnerability, and the balance of power between two people. The main character, Alice has been stripped of her humanity, having her sense organs removed, and spending her entire life bound, captive, and utterly dependant on her caregiver, Marika. She claims to do this of her own free will, in the name of protecting humanity, but Pelland raises the question of whether free will is even possible for someone who has essentially never known any other way of life. Given the choice of regaining a ‘normal’ life, Alice ultimately refuses. Her ulterior motive is her supposed relationship with Marika, who can only love her as a broken thing. Alice chooses to remain in an abusive relationship, a fetish object for a lover who wants nothing to do with her unless she remains a powerless, captive girl. The story is beyond bleak, but as good art should, it pushes the reader beyond all comfortable boundaries, and leaves mark that will remain long after the reading is done.
Jamey Hatley’s “Collected Likenesses” was recently published in the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. I’m always impressed by short stories that manage to feel epic, making you feel like you’ve journeyed with a character for a lifetime rather than a few pages. Over the course of the story, the narrator grows from a young girl caring for her grandmother, to a young woman who has assumed her grandmother’s life’s work – to take vengeance on those who hurt her in her days as a slave. The story stretches beyond a single character though, which is part of what gives it an epic feel. Everything is connected – grandmother and granddaughter, the present and the past. Rather than presenting a simplistic revenge story, the idea of interconnected lives carries throughout the tale as the pain experienced by the grandmother as a slave is visited on her masters and their descendants, but at a cost to herself and her granddaughter. “Collected Likenesses” goes beyond the idea of the symbol for something – in this case a collection of silhouette portraits – becoming the thing itself to the person acting upon the silhouette becoming an analog for the person they wish to cause pain. It’s sympathetic magic at its darkest. Similar to Thakrar’s story, amidst these overlapping and intertwined lives, “Collected Likenesses” is about a young woman trying to find her place in the world and carve out an identity for herself that honors her family and her history, but is true to the person she wants to be.
Women to Read: Where to Start (September 2014, Originally published at SF Signal)
It’s September, the weather is starting to cool down, which makes it the perfect time to curl up with the hot beverage of your choice and a good read. I’ll even start with something seasonal to get you in the mood.
I’m going a little outside the norm with my first recommendation. Abby Howard’s webcomic, The Last Halloween, is primarily visual, but it’s not the number of words you use, it’s how you use them. Abby Howard is from my hometown, Montreal, and attended my alma mater, McGill, which may make me a little biased, though I would recommend The Last Halloween regardless. Howard hits so many of my soft spots. Halloween? Check. Monsters? Check. Dark humor? Check. She gets bonus points for offering three female main characters, each strong in their own way, while still fully human. They face terrible and literally monstrous situations; they are realistically traumatized by these encounters, but they find a way to prevail. Howard’s art style is reminiscent of both Edward Gorey, and Roman Dirge’s Lenore. Each panel is a visual feast. Where The Last Halloween really shines is when Howard pulls back to show a wide landscape scene, with a detailed foreground and a gorgeously dense, swirly background that perfectly conveys the mood of the season. Art aside, the story is ongoing, so I can’t say whether it delivers on its promises, but what it promises is strong. There’s a charming humor to the strip along with some genuine darkness and hints at more complex storylines. Given Howard’s young age, if nothing else, she is definitely an artist to watch. The Last Halloween is off to a wonderful start, and I look forward to seeing where she takes the series and what else she has in store.
There’s a visual tie-in with my recommended starting point for Lauren Groff as well. I was initially drawn to The Monsters of Templeton based on the silhouettes on its cover. The genre element is light in this novel. What may or may not be a prehistoric sea monster washes ashore in the main character’s hometown of Templeton, just as she returns home to lay low for a while after having an affair with her married archeology professor. Questions of what the monster is and what to do with it run throughout the novel, tying it together. However, The Monsters of Templeton is primarily about family, messy relationships, and day to day life. Willie attempts to reconnect with her mother, deal with a possible pregnancy, discover who her father is – a puzzle her mother leaves her to solve – and put her life back together. Like many of the best works of genre, The Monsters of Templeton uses the fantastic to explore the mundane, setting her look at the human condition against a backdrop of monsters.
My next recommended starting point is unabashedly genre, a secondary world fantasy with deep, rich worldbuilding. Katherine Addison (the alter ego of author Sarah Monette) does something rarely seen in modern fantasy with The Goblin Emperor. She offers an epic fantasy revolving entirely around court politics and the day to day life of the ruler of an empire. Sure, there’s an assassination attempt and the mystery of the former emperor’s death to solve, but these are background details to the meat of the story. Addison’s worldbuilding is incredibly detailed, a tapestry where the smallest threads shine. The correct forms of address, when to bow, who to appoint to what position, and the delicate balance of political and inter-personal relationships provide as much or more tension than an attempt on the emperor’s life. What is truly impressive about The Goblin Emperor is the way Addison manages to provide an epic backdrop out of seemingly mundane details, while also painting a sympathetic portrait of a main character trapped by his circumstances. Her goblin emperor, Maia, faces race issues, class issues, and age issues, all the while maintaining a distinct personality. The novel takes the trope of the outsider/nobody turned king and sets it on its head, showing how truly terrible, weighty, and lonely being ‘chosen’ can be. But it never strays from the personable, the intimate, even when the fate of an empire hangs in the balance. Any work that encompasses the intricacy of an entire world, language, and system of politics within such a personal story is definitely worthy of notice.
Yukimi Ogawa’s short fiction has been popping up all over the place lately, but my recommended starting place for her work is “The Colorless Thief“, which appeared in Ideomancer in March 2014. The main character, Hai, is a performer in a traveling freakshow, living on an island that outsiders treat as a freakshow in its own right. Foreigners come to gawk at the residents, admiring the jewel tones of the hair, skin, and eyes, viewing them as exotic curiosities, rather than humans. Hai’s colors only show when she’s bruised, her unique beauty a product of her pain. The story offers a commentary on the way people, particularly women, suffer for their appearance, and a commentary on cultural appropriation and the idea of adopting traditions as though they’re nothing more than a meaningless costume. The heart of the story lies in Hai’s exchanges with an artist who comes to draw her, using the color of her bruises as inspiration. When the artist shows Hai her sketch, the way Hai mentally assesses it says everything: “This strange costume looked like “the way foreigners would think of us,” exotic to them but meaningless to us; she didn’t seem to even understand that we had a rule for the way collars were folded one over another.” In the same scene, Hai calls the artist out on her clueless attitude saying: “…that beauty only comes from beating me, you see? It hurts, but that’s how we get by. If I could help it, I would’ve chosen a life without bruises.” The way the story is written mirrors its message, using lovely, poetic descriptions to confront hard and uncomfortable truths.
Last month, I recommended a Halloween tale. Now that it’s actually October, I’m being contrary and recommending works focused on love. If you’re the sort who is afraid of ‘mushy stuff’ and ‘kissing books’, never fear! These are mostly melancholy stories about love. It is October, after all.
My recommended starting place for Isabel Yap’s work is “A Cup of Salt Tea,” recently published at Tor.com. It’s a gorgeously written story, full of heart-breaking poetry, combining mythology and real world pain. Grief permeates the tale, which subverts the often romanticized idea of being loved by an otherworldly creature. The story’s protagonist has been watched over almost her whole life by a kappa who saved her from drowning as a child. The kappa finally makes himself known to her as she worries over her husband who is dying of cancer, drawn out of hiding by the sweetness of her pain. The kappa professes love, but makes no attempt to hide the fact that he’s loved other women before her, or that each met a tragic ends. While the main character is intrigued by the kappa, she is also a practical woman. Love is offered as a bargain, but one laced with guilt. She finds release in being with the kappa, but it’s the kind of release brought on by drowning. It’s an absence of responsibility – an escape for just one moment from the reality of her husband dying – but it comes at the cost of a piece of her humanity. All the hurt and the painful choices in the story are wrapped in gorgeous prose and accompanied by a beautiful illustration, but make no mistake – this isn’t the kind of love story that plays gently with the heart.
Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love is a modern classic, and was a finalist for the National Book Award, making it the perfect starting place for her work. The geek of the title refers to the carnival variety, a performer who bites the head off a chicken live on stage. Al and Crystal Lil, the owners of a failing carnival, decide to breed their own freakshow to revive their dying business. As a result of their experimentation with drugs and radioactive material, Lil gives birth to Arty, a boy with flippers, Siamese Twins, Elly and Iphy, Oly, a hunchbacked albino dwarf, and Chick, who initially appears unaffected by his parents’ experiments. The love in Geek Love is contained almost entirely within Oly, who wants so much to be seen, cherished, or even simply acknowledged by her increasingly distant and cold family. As is fitting for a family born as a business venture, the characters become worlds unto themselves as the novel progresses, passing each other in their orbits, but unable to connect. The speculative element is light in Geek Love, revealing itself when Chick manifests telekinesis just as his parents are ready to give him up as a failed experiment. The fact that Chick is valuable to his family only as a freak who will draw paying crowds, and that his parents are perfectly willing to abandon him otherwise, tells you everything you need to know about the idea of love in Dunn’s novel.
“The Heart-Beat Escapement” by Rachael Acks, published at Crossed Genres and collected in Crossed Genres 2.0 Book Three, is another story of family and estrangement, but one counter-balanced by deep love. Owen is a boy with a clockwork heart and filigree hands, abandoned as a baby and taken in by loving couple – a doctor and an engineer who keeps Owen’s heart running with a beautifully-made key. Despite his mothers’ love, Owen has always wondered about his father, who turns out to be an Earl who swoops in to claim his son when he finds himself in need of an heir. While Owen is initially excited to explore his heritage and learn what he and his father might have in common, it quickly becomes evident that the Earl has no interest in his son as a person. Even as Owen searches for a way to connect with his father, the Earl betrays him, taking away the key that winds Owen’s heart, ensuring the boy can never stray too far from the Earl’s estate. Upon discovering what his father has done, Owen chooses to risk his own life rather than being a kept possession, and sets out to make his way back to the mothers who have always loved him and recognized him as his own person, trusting him to be the keeper of his own key. The story is a lovely reflection on chosen family, and the notion of being your own person and making a space for yourself in the world. Acks tempers the love in the story with the heartbreaking powerlessness Owen is subjected to at the hands of his father, raising issues of class and societal systems that leave vast segments of the population vulnerable. It isn’t all doom and gloom, however; Owen takes back his place in the world and proves that he is his own person, despite his father’s attempts to control him.
Last but not least, my recommended starting point for Nicole M. Taylor’s work is “A Spoonful of Salt,” originally published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and reprinted in Handsome Devil edited by Steve Berman. The story starts with some similarities to Isabel Yap’s “A Cup of Salt Tea,” subverting the romanticized notion of a supernatural lover, in this case a husband returned from beyond the grave. Even though Naomi only suspects Marco is dead when he appears in the kitchen even she knows he’s away at sea, rather than immediately falling into his arms, her first thought is of protecting herself – how quickly can she get to a weapon if she needs to fight for her life? As with Yap’s story, this is a practical woman. The bulk of the story however focuses on Mala, the child now confirmed-as-drowned-Marco leaves Naomi pregnant with after their encounter. Due to the unusual circumstances of her birth, Mala grows up as an outcast on the island where she lives with her mother. In addition to marking her as ‘other’ among the island’s residents, her ghostly father also left Mala with the uncanny ability to see stories in people, things they would never willingly tell another soul. Using her ability, Mala forms a friendship of sorts, or at least a respectful working relationship, with Dr. Benjamin who comes to island to collect its stories. She gives him the truth of her neighbors, rather than the cleaned-up versions of themselves they offer him. Taylor doesn’t depict this as an act of malice on Mala’s part; instead, like Acks’ “Heart-Beat Escapement,” “A Spoonful of Salt” becomes a coming-of-age story as Mala finds her place in the world and ultimately decides she’s outgrown the island. As the story ends, Mala is ready to make her own way in the larger world, hungry for the stories it has to offer.
Women to Read: Where to Start (November 2014, Originally published at SF Signal)
Welcome to another edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. Winter is almost upon us. With the chill air, howling wind, and snow threatening in the clouds, it’s the perfect time for tales told around the fire. This time around I’m focusing on four short stories offering their own spins of fairy tales, myths, and urban legends – the right kind of stories for an almost-winter’s eve.
To kick things off, I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to recommend a starting place for Kelly Barnhill‘s work, and then offer another story as an exercise in comparing and contrasting (it’s like English class all over again). “Mrs. Sorenson and the Sasquatch,” recently published at Tor.com, is a sweet story, with a relatively light tone layered over darker undercurrents. As the title suggests, the story centers around a woman and a mythical sasquatch who happens to not be so mythical. The recently widowed Mrs. Sorenson has set the whole town a-flutter, simply by being herself. She’s always been a bit of an outsider, but since her husband’s death, many of the local men are a little too interested in her, and many of the local women are convinced there’s something not just scandalous, but downright wrong about her. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear Mrs. Sorenson has taken up with a rather unconventional lover – a sasquatch, who may or may not be her old flame. The relationship isn’t handled salaciously; it’s a tender thing, though there is an element of sexuality. Mrs. Sorenson, by her very nature, is a sexual creature, a woman in touch with her desires and unapologetically so, despite the puritanical attitudes and gossip running rampant in the town. These elements combine to make the story a fascinating contrast with another of Barnhill’s stories – and one of my favorites – “The Taxidermist’s Other Wife,” which appeared in Clarkesworld in 2006 and in the anthology Clarkesworld: Year Five. Both stories feature a spouse dealing with the loss of their partner. “The Taxidermist’s Other Wife” is a creepy and dark piece, exploring a possessive and unhealthy relationship, one that doesn’t end with death, but rather only becomes truly fulfilling for the taxidermist once death has occurred. “Mrs. Sorenson and the Sasquatch” is the opposite. Here is a woman who is self-possessed, rather than being a possession, whose reaction to her husband’s death is to close one chapter of her life and move onto the next one. The taxidermist’s wife is, by necessity of the story, defined entirely by her relationship to her husband. “Mrs. Sorenson and the Sasquatch” is a story about a woman embracing her nature, and becoming who she was meant to be, while not downplaying the importance her husband had in her life, or their love for each other. Even without taking them as a study in contrasts, both stories are worth reading, as is Kelly Barnhill’s work in general.
“Santos de Sampaguitas” by Alyssa Wong, recently published in Strange Horizons, is another story that makes the mythological personal. The women of the narrator’s family have been tied to the dead god by blood and promises for as far back as anyone can remember. Despite being the younger of two sisters, Christina is chosen by the dead god as his heir, a role which comes with both power and burden. The story is poetic and touching, and uses the framework of mythology to provide a rich character arc for the narrator, and to examine issues of class, disability, and disenfranchisement in society. One of the things I particularly appreciated about the main character was her wisdom, which transcends traditional deal-with-a-supernatural-entity narratives. Rather than jumping at a chance for power or trying to outsmart the dead god, Christina simply refuses the offer outright, until she has no choice in the matter. When she finally does call on the dead god’s favor, it is for her sister’s benefit and not her own. Although it isn’t dealt with explicitly in the story, this choice on Christina’s part casts her in a parallel role to the dead god in her sister’s life. With her mother’s death, Christina has no choice in her role as heir; with Christina’s deal with the dead god, her sister is given no choice in what comes next. The dead god’s boon is thrust upon her, and she will have to deal with the consequences. The story is perfectly satisfying in itself, but there are threads embedded in the narrative ripe for plucking and weaving into other stories to be told and retold both inside and outside its borders – as the best myths do.
From mythology, we move onto fairy tales with “Hunting Monsters” by S.L. Huang, published by the newly-launched fiction division of The Book Smugglers. This story mashes up several well-known tales, including Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, and Bluebeard, and goes beyond these tales to explore their consequences and introduce elements of moral ambiguity. In her author interview about the story, Huang says she has always been interested in what happens beyond the borders of traditional fairy stories, the ramifications of the blood and violence that are often presented as an end game, or a black and white cautionary lesson. But in a world where animals talk, how can humans justify eating meat, or claiming the importance of their own lives against those of intelligent animals? These questions raised by fairy tales form the backdrop against which Huang tells a beautiful and painful story of fierce women, family, and friendship. There are no easy choices here. Various notions of love and loyalty are played against each other here, with each character willing to uphold what they believe in, even at the cost of their own lives and happiness.
Last but not least is my recommended starting place for Carmen Maria Machado‘s work, “The Husband Stitch,” which recently appeared in Granta. Like Huang’s “Hunting Monsters,” “The Husband Stitch” mashes up several ghost stories and urban legends, and puts the blood and sex of the old tales front and center, while giving them true weight and consequence. The story plays on the reader’s familiarity with classic tales, particularly The Green Ribbon, to infuse the piece with tension. Nearly everyone knows how the story will end, how it must end, and yet the sense of impending doom, the question of when crawls beneath the reader’s skin and leads them through the story. Beyond using the familiarity of the tale to create tension in the story, Machado plays with the ghost story format itself by building in stage directions, harkening back to the oral tradition and the way stories are meant to be told. Machado also examines gender politics in this piece – the acceptable role of women in society, in families, and with each other, along with the expectations and pressure that come with simply being female in the world. “The Husband Stitch” is an interesting companion piece to “Hunting Monsters” in another way, in that it partially inverts the Bluebeard legend, making the husband the insatiably curious one and the wife the one asking for unequivocal trust. However, like the classic Bluebeard legend, it is still the wife who pays the price. She wanted a small piece of privacy, one single thing she could call wholly her own, but unlike Bluebeard, she is the only one hurt by the revelation of her secret. However there is yet another inversion here. The narrator chooses her fate; she gives up her secret and allows what the reader knows was always going to happen to occur on her own terms.
There’s no particular theme this time around, just some fantastic works to keep you company during the long winter nights. Or, if you’re the type who departs for warmer climes as the temperature drops, some excellent reads to stretch out with on the beach.First up, my recommended starting point for Erika Saftika’s work is “We Take the Long View,” from Shimmer #21. It’s a perfect example of alien culture done right. Too often we’re presented with aliens who reflect human (usually Western) values by either mirroring them or acting as an obvious foil for those values to triumph against. Any problems in communication are easily dismissed with a wave of the hand. The classic example is Star Trek‘s ‘forehead aliens’ – monolithic cultures who look and sound and act like us, except for the variation in their make-up prosthetics. While it isn’t practical to re-invent the wheel with every new species you meet on a weekly TV show, stand alone novels and short stories have more freedom to portray truly alien aliens. Saftika does this brilliantly, giving us a species with an entirely different set values, mode of communication, life cycle, and means of ingesting food. There are echoes of Speaker for the Dead here, which – problematic as Orson Scott Card may be as an individual – is still one of the most unique portrayals of alien culture ever put on the page. Elements of the story also call to mind Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest. The alternating viewpoints show that what is horrible to one species is normal to the other and vice versa without ever feeling preachy or heavy-handed. Overall, an extremely satisfying read.
There are many places I could recommend as a starting point for Fran Wilde’s work, but I have a particular soft spot for “Like a Wasp to the Tongue,” which appeared in the April/May 2014 issue of Asimov’s. It features one of the most innovative uses of wasps in fiction that I’ve seen, and editing multiple entomology-focused issues of Unlikely Story, I’ve seen my fair share. The wasps in Wilde’s story are bullets in a unique game of Russian roulette as bored miners let them walk across their tongues, waiting for a potentially fatal sting. The wasps are also used to detect heavy metals in the mining operation, and are the key to solving the story’s medical mystery. I always appreciate stories that take gosh-wow-neat scientific ideas, and work them into a narrative that goes beyond the gosh-wow-neat-idea story form. Making this story even more appealing is the way Wilde explores female power. She smashes the notion of the lone exceptional female surrounded by a company of men, and challenges the “kickass heroine” trope, showing there’s no one single or right way to be a strong woman. Through Rios, Lefevre, and Cabrese, we see a range of women in powerful positions with their own strengths and weaknesses, all fully developed characters with agency of their own. All of this is wrapped in sharp prose, which makes it the perfect starting point for Wilde’s work. To play the bonus round, keep an eye out for her next Asimov’s story, “How to Walk through Historic Graveyards in the Digital Age,” which will appear in the April/May 2015 issue, which combines tech, surveillance, memory, identity, PTSD, and ghosts. What more could you ask for?
At this risk of sounding like a shill for Shimmer (I swear their badgers aren’t hovering over my shoulder, dictating this post; it just so happens they just publish consistently brilliant work) my recommended starting point for Alix E. Harrow’s work is “A Whisper in the Weld” from issue #22. It’s a ghost story, seared with the hot-metal smell of industrialism, darkened by the shadow of war, and populated by fierce characters. It’s a story of family and loss, touching on the role of women working on the margins of the conflict itself, but impacted by it every bit as much as the men. It also deals with class issues and race issues, shifting the focus of the traditional war narrative to the stories we don’t hear. Too often, only the front line is seen as important, but tales from the home front can be just as brutal. “A Whisper in the Weld” centers on a woman of color working at a steel mill, the sole provider for her two daughters after her husband goes MIA. When she dies in a violent explosion at the mill, sheer tenacity, force of will, and love for her daughters keeps her around to watch over them. Though their role in the story is smaller, the daughters are every bit as fierce as their mother, offering a glimpse another perspective not seen as often – that of children impacted by the war. For a story about the harsh realities of war at home and abroad, Harrow fills the story with poetic language. I certainly look forward to reading more of her work.
Last, but not least, is my recommended starting point for Sofia Samatar’s work – A Stranger in Olondria. I fully recognize that I’m late to the party with this one, as it’s already garnered major recognition, including winning a World Fantasy Award and a Crawford Award in 2014, as well as several award nominations. Books and the power of the written word are at the heart of this novel, so how could I fail to love it? Samatar weaves a beautiful story about stories, about carrying on a legacy through the tales we tell, while also exploring themes of displacement, cultural/linguistic isolation, the rashness of youth, and ultimately finding or making a place for yourself in the world. One of the things that struck me most powerfully about A Stranger in Olondria is its brilliant travelogue style, evocative of novels of an earlier age. The world-building is so rich and detailed here, you feel as though you could step through the pages to each place the author describes. The awards and nominations are well-deserved, and as a debut novel, I can’t wait to see what Samatar brings us next.