Barbara Hambly, ‘Dragonsbane’ (1985)

Dragonsbane begins in the bleak Winterlands, with a witch named Jenny Waynest meeting Gareth, a young nobleman who is seeking Lord John Aversin, a legendary dragon slayer. There is a dragon terrorizing the Southlands and Gareth has come to ask for Lord John’s help, with offer of a reward from the king. But when Jenny takes Gareth to meet his hero, he’s in for a shock. The famous Dragonsbane is a middle-aged, bespectacled scholar who is responsible for overseeing a small, muddy town. It’s true that he killed a dragon years ago, but by poisoning it and then sneaking up to hack it to death with an axe. John and Jenny are also long-term lovers and have two children together, much to Gareth’s disapproval. However, they agree to go with Gareth on the condition that the king will help them to defend their town against the bandits who plague the Winterlands.

But all is not as it seems. Gareth hasn’t been completely honest with them and the dragon seems to be a particularly ancient and powerful one. Worse still, there may be something even more dangerous than a dragon waiting for them in the shape of the sorcoress, Zyerne, who has wormed her way into the king’s affections and household.

Zyerne is seeking a source of magical power hidden deep in the caves of the gomes where the dragon has taken up residence. Jenny’s powers are average at best, and John isn’t much of a warrior, but they will have to find a way to defeat the dragon and prevent Zyerne from getting what she wants. Meanwhile, Jenny has her own internal battle to fight with the temptations and the price of power.

I’m not generally a fan of high fantasy, but I really enjoyed Dragonsbane. It’s a pacy, exciting read and the real strength is in the characters. Jenny and John are delightful protagonists. It’s so refreshing to have an older, experienced hero and heroine who have a healthy, adult relationship with each other. Gareth, the young, awkward man, trying to be a warrior, is also very endearing.

And then there’s the dragon. Morkeleb is the best dragon I’ve encountered in a fantasy novel since reading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. A complex alien being with his own needs and desires, I loved him.

I had one problem with Dragonsbane and that’s the representation of Zyerne. The novel is clearly working through its own ambivalence about female power, and when it comes to Zyerne, this ambivalence tips over into outright misogny. Without giving too much away, the character is a one-dimensional villain who uses ‘sexy’ wiles (of course) to get her way. There’s no attempt to give her any nuance or complexity, or to really dig into her motivations. She just wants power, so she’s evil. I felt this could have been much better done.

But overall, I found Dragonsbane a very enjoyable and satisfying read and I’ll be checking out the sequels. Recommended if you’re looking for a fantasy world to sink into.

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

A Tribute to Ursula Le Guin

I missed this at the time it was published, but want to flag up Vandana Singh’s lovely and moving post, True Journey is Return: A Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin

The best tribute I can give Le Guin, as a writer, is to honor her teaching and be conscious of what messages I’m putting out into the world.  Am I asking the hard questions?  Are there hard questions I’m avoiding?

New Books

I got some expenses back from work and decided to spend it on books, all of which happen to be part of series.

Martha Wells, Artificial Condition: The Murderbot Diaries (Murderbot #2)

I enjoyed the first one and everybody raves about Murderbot.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2) 

I read Ancillary Justice ages ago and keep meaning to continue with the series.

Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightening (The Sixth World #1)

This is a new one. I saw people talking about it online and thought it sounded like fun.

Theodora Goss, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (2017)

What if the “mad scientists” of Gothic literature had, in their various ways, produced a number of monstrous daughters who somehow find each other and start to investigate their mysterious origins? That’s the conceit behind Theodora Goss’s lovely fantasy novel, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.

Characters appear from Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Dracula and the Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s a book written by someone who obviously loved these tales, but who came to wonder, what about the women? What kind of story might emerge from those brief appearances, gaps and omissions?

After her mother dies, young Mary Jekyll find herself in dire financial straits. Suspecting that her father’s criminal friend, Edward Hyde, may still be alive, she enlists the help of Mr Sherlock Holmes and sets out to investigate, in the hope of claiming the outstanding reward for Hyde’s discovery.  But what she discovers is the existence of the troublesome teenager, Diana Hyde, who has grown up in a home for fallen women and who claims to be Mary’s half-sister.

As Mary delves into the mystery of Edward Hyde and his associates, she meets, and slowly fills her house with, a group of “monstrous girls” who have all been created through strange experiments: the poisonous Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau (a cat in the form of a woman), and the gentle giant, Justine Frankenstein. Each of the characters represents an aspect of how women are viewed under patriarchy and Goss has a lot of fun playing around with these tropes. With the slightly bemused support of Holmes and Watson, their investigations lead them to a confrontation with Frankenstein’s monster and the existrence of a secret society which seems to have had a hand in their creation.

This book is a delight for someone, like me, who grew up on these stories, but is very happy to see them being re-written from a feminist perspective. It’s also warm and comforting and has that “found family” feel which is so emotionally satisfying when done well.

Was there anything I didn’t like? Well, I have great fondness for Frankenstein’s monster,  and was a little saddened to find him represented so unsympathetically, but then again, it’s about time poor Justine got her own story.

Sherlock Holmes was also well done, if represented as rather nicer and more laid-back than Doyle’s creation, something Goss gets around by suggesting that that Holmes is the one in Watson’s stories. Dr Watson is perfect though.

I found the shifts in point of view a bit awkward and jarring at times, but overall thought that Goss did a good job of imitating the style of Victorian novels.

I’m looking forward to the sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, in which I’ve heard Mina Murray and Carmilla will be making appearances and there will be more cake.

Recommended if you’re looking for a cosy, rather than horrifying, Halloween read.

2016 Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Round-up

1. Books I Loved

Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)

Twenty years after a devastating flu epidemic wipes out most of Earth’s population, a band of actors and musicians, known as ‘The Symphony’, travel the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic North America, performing Shakespeare and classical music for the surviving communities they encounter. The novel’s title refers to a mysterious graphic novel treasured by Kerstin, one of the young actors in The Symphony.  As the story moves back and forth between ‘Year 20’ and the time before the plague, and the characters’ stories slowly unfold, Station Eleven becomes the lynch pin holding it all together.  I loved this evocative, powerful story about the ways in which our lives are shaped by history and circumstances. Station Eleven is a speculative novel about science fiction in which a line taken from an episode of Star Trek, Voyager (“Survival is insufficient”) becomes profoundly meaningful.

Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (2014) `

A young woman called Rosemary takes a job as a clerk aboard The Wayfarer just as Captain Ashby and his dedicated crew of wormhole builders receive the offer of a lifetime. A lucrative but risky job. There is an adventure and peril ahead, but really this is all about the characters and their relationships with each other. If you’re sick of grim dark, look no further. The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet is a lovely space opera with good people doing their best in difficult circumstances.   Plus it has bisexual aliens and that queer family of choice dynamic that so many of us find irresistible.  The aliens in particular are wonderful. I think my favourite is the Grum, Dr Chef. It does have a first novel feel and there were places where I thought things could be more developed, but overall I loved it and have already bought the next in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit.

Emma Newman, Planetfall (2015)

Renata Ghali is an engineer in charge of maintaining the 3D printers that supply her colony with all its material goods. She has a severe anxiety disorder and still grieves the loss of her beloved Lee Suh-Mi, the woman who led them to this distant world over twenty years previously. The community believes that Suh Mi has disappeared into the strange alien structure that looms over their town and that one day she will return. But then a stranger appears at the borders of their world, a young man who claims to be Suh Mi’s grandson and the sole survivor of a group of colonists who were lost in a terrible accident during Planetfall.  This young man comes with the power to destroy everything and reveal the lie upon which the life of the colony has been built. Planetfall is a compelling and desperately sad book about secrets, grief, loss and the inability to change and let go. It is also a book about materialism and the way that things can come to own us and prevent us from seeing the truth of our situation.

Nnedi Okerforar, The Book of Pheonix (2015)

Pheonix Okore is a ‘Speciman’ created in the laboratories of a corporation known as the “Big Eye”. Pheonix is intended to be a terrible weapon, a creature with the power to burn up and consume everything in her path, only to regenerate and return to life again within a few days. With the help of her fellow specimen, Pheonix escapes from her creators, and sets out for Africa where she finds community and love. But Pheonix is not left in peace for long. Like Mary Shelley’s monster years before, what Pheonix learns about the world soon sets her on a destructive course.  The Book of Pheonix is an allegory for our times. It is a highly literate and richly intertextual, post-colonial SF fantasy full of references to history (slavery, medical experimentation on women of colour), pop culture, religious texts, science fiction (Frankenstein, The Island of Dr Moreau), mythology, and theory (Roland Barthes makes an appearance at the end).  It left me wanting to read all of Nnedi Okerforar’s books. This novel is a prequel to Who Fears Death?, so I’m looking forward to that.

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December Acquisitions

We didn’t buy each other any presents this year because we spent our December budget on going away for the holidays. However, any hopes that this decision would result in less stuff entering the house were quickly dashed by the presence of secondhand bookshops in the town where we stayed.

I was very pleased to pick up Elizabeth A. Lynn’s fantasy trilogy, The Chronicles of Tornor (1979 – 80), which I mentioned in my post about her short stories. You’ll often see one of these in secondhand bookshops, but rarely all three together.

Lynn Trilogy

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Elizabeth A. Lynn, The Woman Who Loved The Moon and Other Stories (1981)

Lynn0001

Elizabeth A. Lynn is not a prolific writer. She’s published a handful of highly regarded books over the last thirty years, including a World Fantasy Award-winning trilogy and two science fiction novels. I’ve been looking forward to reading her work partly because she’s known as one of the first science fiction and fantasy writers to offer positive representations of lesbian, gay and bisexual characters. The famous chain of gay bookstores, ‘A Different Light’, was named after her first novel. The Woman Who Loved The Moon and Other Stories is her only complete collection and includes works published between 1977 and 1980. Each story is accompanied by a helpful authorial introduction describing its genesis.

Overall, I’m very impressed. Lynn’s writing is fluid and lyrical. She has that wonderful ability to engage your attention in the opening paragraph and, before you know it, draw you into the worlds she creates. Her stories are often unsettling, occasionally terrifying, and when I consider the collection as a whole, I do notice a recurring concern with death, grief and loss. But if death features heavily in her work, Lynn also places high value on love, friendship and moments of connection between people.

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This week’s culture round-up

I didn’t do a round-up last Sunday because I didn’t think I had enough links, so now I probably have too many.

George R.R Martin & Lisa Tuttle, Windhaven (1981)

Written by two highly regarded authors working in genre fiction, Windhaven is a science fiction/fantasy novel of the kind that appeals to both young adults and regular adults.

The story is set on a planet predominantly covered by a vast, dangerous ocean, where the only land consists of a few scattered islands.  Some generations previously, a spaceship from Earth crashed on this planet.  The crew hoped to be rescued, but when their children grew up they rebelled against their parents, dismantled the space ship and used the material from which it was constructed to create wings that could be used by flyers to facilitate communication between the islands. These wings are passed down from parent to child. Thus the society of Windhaven becomes divided between the land-bound majority and a high-status flyer elite who serve the land-bound communities, but also remain above the law.

Windhaven is the story of large-scale social change seen through the eyes of one individual, Maris, the liminal figure who stands between the flyers and the land-bound.  Maris is the adopted daughter of a hereditary flyer who, despite her obvious skill in the sky, is ordered to give up the wings to his biological child, her younger brother who has no desire to fly.  Maris refuses to comply, steals the wings and calls a council of flyers to debate the issue.

The first part of the novel covers Maris’s upbringing and the council at which she succeeds in making a fundamental change to society, namely, that flyers must now compete with land-bound for the right to use the wings.  The second part of the story takes place a few years later as the effects of the changes really start to be felt and Maris, now a respected flyer, must deal with the consequences of her actions in the form of Val, a land-bound boy with no respect for flyer traditions whose actions attract the hatred of the hereditary flyers.  Val is one of the most vivid characters in the book, infuriating, utterly unsympathetic, but not necessarily wrong in principle; he challenges Maris to think about where her loyalties lie.  The third part of the book tells the story of Maris’s later years when she is yet again called to deal with a crisis that stems from the changes she caused in her society and this time it might claim her life.

It’s refreshing to read a book set in a society that’s not divided along the lines of gender – in Windhaven social life is divided by status as flyer or land-bound – and the authors make efforts to embed this throughout the narrative. Maris has lovers, but sex is no big deal.  It’s also refreshing to have a well-rounded, brave, female protagonist who is represented as having agency and being capable of bringing about social change, as well as taking responsibility for her actions.

The novel features the strong characters and detailed world-building that you would expect from Tuttle and Martin and, for a book written by two people the narrative is pretty seamless.  If I have any complaints, I think it could have been a little longer, with more time given to the stories of the minor characters – I would love to have heard more about Val’s later life from his perspective, but he diminishes in the third section of the book.  I found the ending told in epilogue a little abrupt and again, would have liked an ending which told me something more about how the society has developed since we last saw Maris and her friends.

Still, it’s a good read if you’re looking for some intelligent, easy-to-read, science fiction and fantasy that isn’t going to inflict any nasty surprises on the reader.  I think it would make a nice gift for teenage girls in particular.

Susan Williams (ed),The Penguin Book of Classic Fantasy by Women

This anthology includes (loosely defined) fantasy by women published from 1806 to 1936.  I really enjoyed seeing a different side to writers I know far better for their work in other genres, writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Nesbit, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf.  I was also struck by the fact that the majority of the stories have male narrators which suggests that female authors found a freedom in creating male personas that they were denied elsewhere in their lives.

From the UK, there’s a fair bit of interesting, if not exactly earth shattering, hack writing from the likes of Mary Shelley, Amelia B. Edwards and Margaret Oliphant. These are the kind of stories women produced to feed their families and should be valued for that as much as anything.  I enjoyed Elizabeth Gaskell’s solid ghost story ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ (1852). I didn’t like Rhoda Broughton’s ‘Behold it was a Dream’ (1873) which was effective but brought into uncomfortable light the virulent hatred of the Irish that was normalised in the mid nineteenth century.  Edith Nesbit’s  ‘Man Size in Marble’ (1893) is chilling and uncanny.  If you go into the old church near your house one night and find that the figures on the tombs “drawed out man size in marble” have gone, well, you’ll be very sorry, especially if you left your nervous young wife home alone back at the rustic cottage.

The strongest stories are North American.  There’s Harriet Prescott Spofford’s, ‘Circumstance’ (1863) in which a young woman from a pioneering community is attacked by an “Indian Devil” which carries her up into a tree and holds her there in its claws.  She finds that she can prevent it from eating her alive by singing, but how long can she keep that up?  The story is an interesting (and probably unintentional) meditation on colonialism.  Harrier Beecher Stowe wrote some really good weird stories, of which ‘The Ghost in Capn’ Brown’s House’ (1871) is included here.  Is there a ghost in Captain Brown’s house, or is he keeping a woman in there? If so, who is she?  There are a couple of contributions from our favourite New England lesbians, Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins, both of which are really about relationships between women.  I also enjoyed Louisa M. Alcott’s ‘The Abbott’s Ghost,’ a rather complex gothic melodrama. It made me eager to read some of her gothic novels.  Perhaps the best written story in the entire collection is Edith Wharton’s ‘Kerfol’, a highly uncanny piece about a castle haunted by a silent pack of dogs.   Into the twentieth century and we have some science fiction with C.L Moore’s ‘Shambleau’ (1933). This is a nightmare of a story which taps into all my phobias. A mercenary on mars rescues what appears to be a young woman from an angry a mob.  He probably shouldn’t….

A good anthology for getting a sense of the tradition of women’s fantasy writing.