Rich and Strange: “Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy” by Saladin Ahmed

This week at Tor.com I review Saladin Ahmed’s wonderful subversion of long-standing racism in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

“Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy” has a straightforward structure: using quotes from the Faerie Queene as a frame, it takes up and subverts each of the incidents involving the three evil Saracen brothers—Sans foy, Sans loy, Sans joy—who beleaguer Una and the virtuous Redcrosse Knight in Book I. Translating their names to Faithless, Lawless, and Joyless, Ahmed imagines that it is Redcrosse himself who is a wicked sorcerer, having stolen three brothers from their lives in Damascus and stripped them of their names and memories in order to make them enact a lurid pantomime for Redcrosse’s benefit and spiritual advancement.

This story is one that Ahmed has reprinted on Medium for free. If you enjoy it, I hope you’ll consider supporting his work with a donation.

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Rich and Strange: “Stalemate” by Rose Lemberg and “Bonsaiships of Venus” by Kate Heartfield

This week’s column is up at Tor.com!

A new issue of Lackington’s magazine, edited by Ranylt Richildis, went up this week, book-ended by two searingly beautiful meditations on the relationship between aesthetics and utility. This week on Rich and Strange, I want to talk about Rose Lemberg’s “Stalemate” and Kate Heartfield’s “Bonsaiships of Venus,” both far-future science fiction stories told in awe-inducing language. They’re also two stories that fit together in a way that delighted me into much-needed catharsis after a hard week of reading very upsetting fiction.

You can read the rest here.

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Goblin Fruit: SUMMER IS DEAD

A new issue of Goblin Fruit has landed!

Art by Grant Jeffery

Art by Grant Jeffery

It contains poems by Lindsey Walker, Steffi Lang, Shweta Narayan, Lynette Mejía, Sara Norja, Lizzy Huitson, Mari Ness, Andrea Lam, Helen Marshall, CSE Cooney, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, Canese Jarboe, and Neile Graham, as well as art by Grant Jeffery.

Enjoy! And if you like it, do consider supporting us with a Paypal donation or by contributing through Patreon!

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NPR Books Review: A Woman Without a Country

My review of Eavan Boland’s new poetry collection, A Woman Without A Country, is up at NPR Books. It’s wonderful. Here’s some of what I have to say about it:

A Woman Without a Country is a collection in four parts: “Song and Error,” “A Woman Without a Country,” “The Trials of Our Faith,” and “Edge of Empire.” It feels curated with the ease of old habit, a sequence that feels inevitable in its elegance and grace. Of course a poem breaking down the etymology of the word “nostalgia” will lead to a poem featuring Greek myth; of course that poem will pour itself into Roman Ovid. When I speak of inevitability, I don’t mean predictability; I mean that structure of limb and likeness that takes hold of our gaze and makes us follow a line of marble statues, marvelling at the hand that broke them out of stone.

Here’s an excerpt from “Letter to a young woman poet,” mentioned towards the end of the review. She’s amazing.

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Rich and Strange: “If You Were a Tiger, I’d Have to Wear White” by Maria Dahvana Headley

This week’s instalment of Rich and Strange is up at Tor.com! Here’s a taste:

This story is pitch-perfect where tone, voice, and setting are concerned; reading it I felt awash in the kind of California sunlight that feels grim and desolate in its inescapability. The story’s pace is a beautiful thing, too, a slow unfolding of narrative sleaze running parallel to an urgently building emotional crest. Like a film from the classic period it portrays, it’s a story both coy and breathtakingly passionate, wringing wonder from bleak, drab despair. There’s magic in the fade of diamante, in the reduction from main-stage to side-show, in going from riches to rags, and Headley captures that mixture of self-destructing desperation perfectly.

Read the rest here. This is a story definitely going on to my for-award-consideration list.

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Linkstravaganza: Uncanny Issue #1 and the BUTT Panel

A bouquet of links for you today!

First, Uncanny Magazine has launched its inaugural issue! It’s bursting at the seams with fantastic content:

Featuring new fiction by Maria Dahvana Headley, Kat Howard, Max Gladstone, Amelia Beamer, Ken Liu, and Christopher Barzak, classic fiction by Jay Lake, essays by Sarah Kuhn, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Christopher J Garcia, plus a Worldcon Roundtable featuring Emma England, Michael Lee, Helen Montgomery, Steven H Silver, and Pablo Vazquez, poetry by Neil Gaiman, Amal El-Mohtar, and Sonya Taaffe, interviews with Maria Dahvana Headley, Deborah Stanish, Beth Meacham on Jay Lake, and Christopher Barzak, and a cover by Galen Dara.

All of that plus two podcasts!

I contributed a poem and voice-work: I read Maria’s “If You Were a Tiger, I’d Have to Wear White.” Be warned: I am rubbish at accents. In order for the marking of accents in this story to make any kind of sense you have to assume the narrator is unreliable OR very very bad at determining other people’s accents, and also that everyone in the story is some flavour of transatlantic.

That said, I was honoured to read so utterly gorgeous a story. Also: I need more friends from New Jersey.

About the poem: I wrote a poem for Lynne’s last issue of Apex and now have written a poem for Lynne and Michael’s first issue of Uncanny. The poem is, in some ways, about that — but mostly it’s what happens when you get all messed up on Loreena McKennitt’s music, Galen Dara’s art and Coleridge’s letters at 3:00 AM of an autumn night/day.

The issue just looks incredible. I highly recommend subscribing. I have a huge amount to say about Maria’s story in particular but that’ll go live with Rich and Strange on Tor.com tomorrow.

In other news! At Readercon this summer I moderated a panel about butts. If you missed it there through the vagaries of time and space, you are IN LUCK, because the magnificent Julia Rios recorded it for poster(ior)ity on The Outer Alliance! Listen to Mikki Kendall, Julia Sparkymonster, Emily Wagner, Vinnie Tesla and me having a grand old time over the course of a Very Serious Conversation About Butts.

Also this happened.

That is a bunch of distinguished panellists having a twerk. So that was pretty great.

 
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NPR Reviews: Heap House, The Accidental Highwayman

Here are a couple of books I’ve recently enjoyed and reviewed for NPR Books:

The Accidental Highwayman, by Ben Tripp.

Kit Bristol, a former circus performer, is the only servant employed by James Rattle, charged with supplying his dissolute gambling addict of a master with food and beer as well as looking after his magnificent horse, Midnight. Kit enjoys his life, and is fervently loyal to his master — even when the latter stumbles home dressed all in black and bleeding from gunshots, revealing himself to be Whistling Jack, a famously wanted highwayman.

Jack dies in spite of Kit’s ministrations, bequeathing to Kit his clothing, dog and horse, and a mysterious mission that will embroil him in the politics of two nations — one of which is Faerie Land. Joining Kit on his adventure are several small fairies, an exiled witch, an acrobat from his circus days, her amnesiac uncle, a shape-shifting fairy princess and an orangutan.

Heap House, by Edward Carey.

The year is 1875, and Clodius Iremonger is a member of a very strange family with a very strange lineage, occupying a borough of London called Forlichingham (or Filching), where they minister to the heaps. The heaps are piles of refuse and salvage that have been accumulating for decades, to the point where they have developed their own climate and a rather mercurial geography. The Iremonger family has evolved alongside these heaps in a symbiotic relationship that, over the course of the book, goes from quaint and whimsical to harrowing and bleak: each Iremonger is given an object at birth that comes to represent them, and from which it is dangerous to be parted.

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Rich and Strange on Tor.com

It’s done! Today saw Rich and Strange move over to Tor.com, where it will run weekly on Wednesday mornings (this week being an exception due to first-time scheduling). I’m excited and a little nervous about this; I do hope it travels well.

For my first piece there I reviewed C.S.E. Cooney’s “Witch, Beast, Saint: an Erotic Fairy Tale,” which I love primarily for the character of the witch, but also for an overall ethos of passion, women’s desires being unabashedly fulfilled, tongue-in-cheek (and, er, well) descriptions of sex and overall gorgeous writing. I highly recommend checking it out, and noting, too, that Strange Horizons is running a fund drive, so if you enjoyed it, do consider supporting them! You’ll be entered into a prize draw for some really neat stuff.

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Rich and Strange: “The Scrimshaw and the Scream,” by Kate Hall

This week on Rich and Strange, an announcement: beginning next week, this column will be running on Tor.com instead of here on my blog, though I’ll make sure to post notifications here. Thank you so much to everyone who’s donated and supported me up to this point; your contributions have been very welcome and helpful.


Kate Hall’s “The Scrimshaw and the Scream” appears in Lightspeed magazine’s Women Destroy Fantasy special issue. I highly recommend reading Cat Rambo, Terri Windling and Wendy Wagner’s respective editorials explaining their choice of stories and the rationale for the project. I read these editorials after having read the fiction, and was pleased to see that, of the original pieces, the one to have struck me hardest was the first one Rambo chose for the issue, determining in some ways the other kinds of stories she’d choose to accompany it.

Felicity is a talented scrimshaw artist, etching images on to bone. But this is ill-seen for a young woman of her class and breeding; scrimshaw’s a rough sailor’s art, no fit accomplishment according to her mother, who forbids it. Cut off from her art, Felicity begins to succumb to an ailment common to those perceived as disobedient in her region: she begins to sprout feathers all over her body, slowly transforming into a bird.

The reason for this localized sort of curse is never explained: a visitor to the area asks, outright

“You’re all like this here.” The woman shook her head. “What is this place, that it turns broken people into birds?”

“We aren’t broken,” Felicity said through her fingers. “I listened to my scream.”

This is a story that squeezes the lungs and maintains its grip from beginning to end. The imagery is viscerally powerful: when people begin turning into birds, they pluck the feathers out of their skin as best they can, and Hall’s descriptions of this made me wince and gasp every time with beautiful, heart-breaking economy. I was fascinated, too, to see that it isn’t just women at risk of turning into birds:

“You are looking very fine today, Felicity,” Ernest said, tucking her hand into his elbow. His watery blue eyes peered at her, skittering over the pale pink wounds on her face as if they weren’t there, as if they didn’t mirror the ones on his own.

The “scream” that Felicity speaks of begins in response to social constraint, but this understanding of the process is muddled in the story, as people are assured that the feathers will stop sprouting when they stop disobeying, when they reconcile themselves to their expected positions, whatever those are. The movement towards understanding the mechanics of the curse is one of the key tensions in the story.

There was a point at which I thought I knew what kind of story this would be and what form its resolution would take; the story blew threw that knowledge. I then thought I could see all the different paths it could take, having moved beyond a relatively common fantasy trope — but I still didn’t foresee quite the resolution it took. While I was pleased to be surprised – especially in light of the story’s general theme of the pressures and constraints expectation place on us – I’ve found myself re-reading the story repeatedly to have a sort of conversation with it, feeling something amiss in it, as if it had an ideal shape it had deliberately stepped aside to avoid.

Spoilers from here on in!

My main quibble is with the unnamed woman, in her dresses of yellow and blue, and her place in the story. Had she been named — had she been more than a foil to Felicity and an object to catalyze her downfall and release — I think I would have been better pleased; had the narrative’s shape around her been different, it might not have left me this niggling. Had the story been about Felicity and Claudette in the present tense, trying to figure out the curse between them such that one’s succumbing to it delivered a crucial message to the other in time, I would have loved it better.

As it was, it was painful to see Felicity’s message delivered to someone who had no need of it. Admittedly this pain lives simultaneously with the pleasure that someone heard it, that someone took to task those who would pretend they hadn’t seen a woman transform into a bird in order to release the scream inside her. But Felicity’s previous interaction with the woman sees the woman almost mocking her, then instructing Felicity on the scrimshaw’s capacity for saving her. This was not a woman who needed that message.

Part of me wanted the story to end with Felicity-the-gull cradled beneath the woman’s arm, leaving towards something more hopeful, a relationship with someone who understood her, who would work to give her back what she’d lost. Most of me, though, remains in awe of the story’s sharp language, its sense of encroaching threat and terrified horror of bodily changes over which we have no control, the brutality of the cosmetics required to keep those changes in check. And as much as I felt for Felicity, released into the oblivion of a bird’s perspective and shrieking flight, I found myself feeling much more keenly for those other women I sometimes felt the narrative despise: the mothers with talon-hands and mouths hardening to beaks, half-twisted into and out of two shapes, who force their daughters to behave themselves because it’s the only way they know to protect them — when in fact those repressions are the root of the harm.

It’s devastating, and accurate, and I recommend it highly.

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Rich and Strange: “Santos de Sampaguitas” by Alyssa Wong, Part 2

Last week I reviewed Part 1 of this story; this week I’m reviewing Part 2, as well as reflecting on the story as a whole.

Briefly: it made me gasp and cry in that mixture of shocked, satisfied pain that comes from a story that’s managed to truly, suddenly surprise you with the places to which it was willing to go, the comfort it was willing to strip away. I recently had the experience of moving my body through increasingly heated rooms before plunging it into a pool I hadn’t been told was not just cold, but icy–and the experience of this second half was very similar. I hadn’t realized, after reading Part 1, quite what kind of story this was.

Spoilers follow!

Continue reading

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