Elizabeth A Lynn, ‘Watchtower’ (1979) #20BooksOfSummer

Ryke wakes after the battle is over, to find Tornor Keep has been overrun by the forces of a Southern conqueror, Col Istor. As one of the few surviving warriors, his life is spared so that he can assist with the transition to Istor’s rule, his obedience secured only by the conqueror’s promise not to harm the old lord’s heir, Errel. Ryke agrees to the terms and is horrified when Errel is forced to act as the Keep’s jester.

Just as it seems that resistance is hopeless, a pair of sinister messengers arrive, bringing an offer of truce from another keep. Ryke is surprised when Errel proposes asking for their help to escape, but all is not as it seems, and Errel knows more than Ryke can imagine. So begins a journey South to meet the dancers of Vanmina, a journey that challenges everything Ryke thinks he knows about the world. But before too long they will have to return to the North and face Col Istor again.

Watchtower is the first book in Elizabeth A. Lynn’s acclaimed trilogy, The Chronicles of Tornor, and it won the World Fantasy Award in 1980.  Lynn is one of many well-regarded women writers who were publishing science fiction and fantasy before the 2000s, but whose work is now rather neglected and in danger of being forgotten. Considering the way that women writers have been treated by SFF, it seems sadly appropriate that Watchtower is partly set in a ruthlessly patriarchal society where women are not truly “seen”.

I really loved Lynn’s short stories in The Girl Who Loved the Moon, so I was looking forward to starting on The Chronicles of Tornor. Watchtower is superbly written, at least on a level with Le Guin’s Earthsea in terms of quality. It has a compelling story and interesting main characters. It even has queer characters and a lesbian couple, although this is not too surprising when you realise that Lynn wrote A Different Light, one of the first science fiction novels to feature openly queer characters, and after which a famous gay bookshop was named.

I’m not a fan of high fantasy, but I did enjoy Watchtower and will read the rest of the trilogy. If I have any criticisms, I thought the middle section dragged a bit and Ryke does have to “hold the stupid ball” a lot for the plot to work.

Just a note, there are some depictions of rape during war towards the end. It’s not too much, or too graphic, but just be aware if you’re thinking of reading this and it’s something you’d prefer not to come cross unexpectedly.

Recommended if you like high fantasy or want to explore the writing of women fantasy and SF authors from the 1970s and 1980s (who are not Ursula Le Guin).  

20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge

Theodora Goss, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (2018) #20BooksOfSummer

I really enjoyed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, so I was looking forward to reading the sequel. Overall, it did not disappoint.

Our heroines, the gang of monstrous “daughters” from the first novel, also known as the Athena Club, continue their investigations into the nefarious activities of certain rogue members of the Societe des Alchemistes. Mary, Beatrice, Cat, Diana and Justine find themselves in peril again as they travel across Europe to try and rescue Lucinda Van Helsing who has been infected with a strange disease.  Oh, and they have to prevent Van Helsing and Dr Seward from taking over the Societe.

That’s basically the plot which unfolds slowly over 700 pages while our heroines eat a lot cake and make a lot of new friends, including Irene Adler, Mina Murray, Laura and Carmilla, not to mention Count Dracula himself. They also have to face some old foes, some of whom could be considered family, before finally confronting the President of the Societe, the mysterious Ayesha.

If, like me, you grew up reading the Victorian Gothic, this series is especially enjoyable. It’s like returning to a familiar world, but this time with women taking centre stage. It was great to meet Irene Adler and Mina Murray again and I thought they were very well done. It was also nice to see that things are working out for Laura and Carmilla.

If I have any criticism. I thought it was a bit too long and rambly and that there were too many characters. The final third dragged a bit, especially with Bea and Cat’s story. I felt that the author wanted to give all the main characters equal attention, but maybe that wasn’t entirely necessary.

At a whopping great 708 pages, this was not the best choice for a time-limited reading challenge, but I really liked it and will read the final book in the trilogy.

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman is the kind of huge, cosy, fun fantasy novel you can just sink into. Perfect for curling up with on a cold rainy afternoon with a nice cup of tea.

Mary Dorcey, ‘Kindling’ (1982) #20BooksOfSummer

Kindling is the first collection of poetry published by Irish feminist poet, Mary Dorcey. It’s a short book which you can easily read in an afternoon.

Some of the poems do feel very much of their time, rooted in second wave lesbian feminist politics and culture. They fall into two (linked) groups, poems that challenge the oppression of women under patriarchy (‘the vicious bigotry of all the Pope’s boys’), and poems that explore relationships between women, especially as lovers, friends and mothers and daughters.

There are poems about the position of women in Ireland (‘coming Home’, pornography (‘Photographs’), women’s incarceration in prison (‘Night Protest’) and mental institutions (‘Rope’), and conflicts within feminism (‘Colonised Minds’). ‘In a Dublin Nursing Home’ a lesbian couple have to pretend to be relatives, an experience I’ve heard older lesbians and gay men describe.

They are ambitious, powerful poems, but overall, I preferred reading the more ambivalent, and perhaps messier poems about relationships between women, such as ‘Full Circle’, ‘The Quarrel’, ‘Night’ and ‘Friendship’. These are poems about the unruliness of desire and it’s rather consoling to see that ‘lesbian drama’ hasn’t changed that much in thirty years.

I will definitely look up more of Dorcey’s poetry and will be interested to see how she’s developed since 1982.  

You stretch your hand
to mine
and some ember of the me
that I was to you,
rekindles
and and in silence,
recovers the power
of speech.

‘After Long Silence’

Mary Oliver, Red Bird (2008) #20BooksofSummer

Red bird came all winter …

I read Mary Oliver’s collection, Red Bird, in one evening. Then I got up the next day and read it again on my commute to work. This is not her greatest work, but something about the poems really resonated with me. I rarely read a book twice in forty eight hours.

The poems in Red Bird are set in winter, which it soon becomes apparent is a metaphor for living through a time of grief and loss. The many birds, and other animals, that appear are metaphors for psychological and emotional states. The ‘big’ connecting theme in this collection is the inevitability and relentlessness of death: ‘Death waits for me, I know it, around one corner or another’ (p.38). The speaker is an older person, confronting loss and their own mortality, reflecting on the past, and fearful for the future. But, as ever in Oliver’s poetry, the poems convey a luminous quality of hope and resilience in the face of suffering, that has made her poetry so beloved. Oliver’s dog Percy makes a few appearances too.

I love bird poems and there are so many here. Goldfinches, night herons, hummingbirds, mockingbirds, crows, nuthatches, meadowlarks, teals and the ‘Red Bird’ of the title, who reappears in various guises, firing up the winter landscape with ‘the music of your heart that you wanted and needed’ (‘Red Bird Explains Himself’ p. 78).

There are some overtly political poems that address the destruction of the natural world by human civilization and the horrors of war (‘the terrible debris of progress’) in poems like’Red’, ‘Showing the Birds’, ‘From the River’, and ‘We Should be well Prepared’.

The collection includes Oliver’s famous ‘Instructions for living a life’:

Pay attention

Be astonished

Tell about it

‘Sometimes’, (4.) p. 37

Taken out of context (the poem is about death), it’s the kind of thing that gets her accused of being a bit ‘live, love, laugh’, but I don’t think there’s anything ‘live, love, laugh’, about Oliver’s poetry. She understands and fully acknowledges the pain and suffering of life, and wrote to try and help us deal with it.

As someone who has been living through their own ‘winter’ for the last two years, the collection had a special resonance for me at this time in my life. A reminder that the red bird is out there.