It Takes Two: Magical Women with Manners

This installment of It Takes Two deals with two novels that fall into the fantasy of manners subgenre in a very unique way.  Both Shades of Milk and Honey (SoMaH), by Mary Robinette Kowal, and The Beautiful Ones (BO), forthcoming from Silvia Moreno-Garcia, feature women main characters who practice particular forms of transformative magic within their worlds.  They also feature main characters who align with the “ugly duckling” or “cinderella” trope which is popular in fantasy stories that include romantic relationships as a main plot driver.

Let’s start with the setting.  Though BO is set in an alternate world, it resembles 18th to 19th-century Europe, particularly France, in important ways, including the implied technological timeline, patriarchal values, style of dress, and emphasis on the fashionable “tonne.”  Correspondingly, SoMaH is set in an alternate England, and closely models the 18th-century world of Jane Austen’s novels.  Even though these novels are not set in the same world, they feel as though with a quick train ride, Jane could be in Loisail to visit Nina, and they could talk about art and bugs and societies that don’t value the magical abilities of women in the same way they do with men.

Which brings us to the second, and perhaps most satisfying similarity between the two novels: women using magical abilities as an important plot element.  Not only are both of the main characters magically talented–Jane uses glamour, while Nina is telekinetic–but we have love interests for each main character who are also magic users and whose abilities give them much more social and economic currency than is available to the women.  Jane is lucky enough that modest use of glamour brings her a certain amount of attraction, because glamour falls under the “category of skills and talents that all gentlewomen should have,” however Jane has a markedly higher skill level with glamour and so it becomes a liability at times.  Nina’s telekinetic ability has made her a social pariah since she was a child, and a large motivator for the plot comes in her family’s sending her to the big city of Loisail for the Grand Season in an attempt to marry her off to someone who has never heard of the Witch of Oldhouse, her family’s country estate in Montipourret.  People see her ability, and willingness to use it, as a marker of her childishness, untrustworthiness, and lack of ladylike manners.

To add insult to injury, Jane’s love interest is a man who travels as an artist, using his ability with glamour to successfully support himself and gain fame, while Nina’s love interest, Hector Auvray, is a world-famous performer with his telekinetic ability, who has made enough money in ten years of performing to set himself up comfortably for the rest of his life.  It is not surprising that people with the same talent would be drawn to each other, as friends and lovers, because in straight-laced societies it is nice to have someone who understands the restrictions under which one lives, however what does it mean that magical women end up with men whose practical societal advantages are compounded by their ability to freely and productively use their magical ability, where the women are not?

It is largely a convention of romantic plot building that makes this kind of resolution possible.  Something built into the story makes them an unlikely pair from a conventional standpoint–Jane is a “spinster” at 28 years old, while Nina is an unmannered country girl who is more interested in collecting bugs than collecting suitors and fancy dresses–which calls for a “happy” conclusion involving the social outcasts finding common ground and respect in a society based on having the right connections and conforming to superficial norms.  In both stories, the magical abilities of the characters has the potential to disrupt the mannerly societies in which these characters are mired, and it is almost as if the young women’s choosing to acquiesce to the love plot and form traditional romantic relationships is necessary for the ability of the story to end, in essence for the magic to let go of the characters and allow for the more palatable, more acceptable focus of marriage.  To contrast, Sarah Monette’s The Goblin Emperor doesn’t need the happy resolution of a traditional love plot to find its end.  Instead, it is the main character’s ability to make sense of the rigid society into which he has been thrust, and come to terms with its demands upon himself that wraps up the novel.

Perhaps it’s a function of the strict economies upon which these stories are based, with social capital being so closely tied to personal wealth due to its requirement for appearances, and the potential for magic to circumvent this structure in some way, or maybe it’s something else that drives the resolution.  Either way, both these stories have a unique chemistry that is highly satisfying on a number of levels.


Stories That Aren’t, or, Smokescreens for Other Stories

A few months ago I read The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, edited by Karen Joy Fowler (spoiler alert: I only read the stories by women, fite me), and had the pleasure of encountering Cat Valente’s “Planet Lion” for the first time.  Just now (literally) I had the further pleasure of listening to “Planet Lion” being read aloud on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast (from a few years ago, I know, but I’m a completist and I just started it a week ago).

And even after two exposures to it, I had a hard time following the action completely, which didn’t actually ruin the effect of it because the way that Valente uses words is a pleasure in itself, and she’s the kind of writer that makes you feel confident that she knows where she’s going with it so if you don’t follow completely it’s ok.  It was also a somewhat complicated story because it dealt with narrative not only on multiple levels, but the protagonists of the story were a civilization of marsupial lions able to communicate sort of telepathically with one another.  Marsupial, three-gendered lions, I should be so precise to say.

Anything could have happened, really.

But the second listening and subsequent interview she gave with the podcast got me thinking about how some immensely effective writers can write a story that is ostensibly about one thing, when really it’s about another thing entirely, and I don’t mean metaphorical meaning, but actual narrative meaning.  Valente’s story about marsupial lions on a fictional planet also tells the story of an interstellar war and the people whose brains have been cannibalized to harvest military skills that the combatant planets or governments can use against each other.  It’s the kind of stealthy reveal that you can (case in point) miss if you’re not paying close enough attention.

Thinking about this complicated swirl of storytelling in which Valente has engaged got me pondering another story that makes use of this tactic, which is “How Dogs Came to the New Continent,” from Cat Rambo’s story collection Neither Here Nor There.  The narrator of this story is writing a preface to a study about the proliferation of species from one continent to another, but the story itself is actually about the people who have gone forth to explore and colonize a newly discovered continent in a fictional world, with a poignant twist at the end which reveals much more about the fictional narrator than one would expect to find, and a pointed commentary on colonialism and racial supremacy in our own very real world.

As Rambo says herself in her afternotes, “I love stories that are disguised as other tings, and so this is a story disguised as a scholarly monograph from a Tabatian scholar, whose underlying story is much more interesting than the pedigrees of the dogs he’s discussing.”  Like Valente, Rambo imbues her prose with a richness of meaning and imagery that makes fictional worlds come alive and linger on the palate long after they’ve been consumed.  They are both author’s whose work I will be actively seeking out in the future.

I’ve only really encountered this disguised story gambit in short stories, and I think it would probably be difficult to keep up the conceit in a longer novella or novel-length work.  Be that as it may, it’s certain a conceit I enjoy and hope to run into again.  It brings out a certain attention to detail in world building that provides a solid foundation for plot.  In the case of “Planet Lion,” the fact that we know so much about the lions lets Valente get the ball rolling with the human stories that are intermixed, as the lions become more and more wrapped up in the lives they have absorbed, more and more densely the longer this war over their planet is waged.  It’s almost a surprise the first time, yet as it happens over and over the reader becomes hungry for this secondary narrative, wondering what could be so compelling that the lions can’t help but re-enact it.

“How Dogs Came to the New Continent” is presented by the erstwhile narrator as a dry introduction to a longer, drier tome, yet it’s almost as if the narrator can’t help but tell his own story, as if the entire reason for the long monograph is so that he can unburden himself of the history he’s long kept hidden.  Rambo uses the trope of the dusty scholar to good effect, layering in commentary of those who seek to tell the stories of others with a moving tale of childhood friendship.

These are the kind of stories that get one out of bed in the morning.

Merry Christmas, Everyone Dies

(Note, I started this blog post last Christmas-ish when I was reading Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. Don’t let that contain your enjoyment.)

This isn’t really a review, as I tend to stick to newer books for that.  It’s more an homage, a glorious spewing of words towards the best Christmas book I’ve ever read.

To be fair, I don’t read a lot of Christmas books.  This might not even be a Christmas book.  I don’t know.  It takes place during Christmas, but there might be something more going into that than just a date.  That seems to be what the romance and mystery genres would have you believe, anyway.

Back to the point.

A few (24-ish) years ago Connie Willis wrote a novel called Doomsday Book, a near-future science fiction historical that imagines a future Oxford University in which time travel is possible and historians are constantly going back to their favorite centuries just to see how things were.  Throw in a little snafu and the usual Willisian personalities, and you have a set up for a novel that somehow manages to be both farcical and deeply poignant, packed with meaning from end to end of the irony to super-serious scale.

No, that’s not what I mean.  What I mean is it rips your heart out, beginning to end.  And some in the middle.  While being funny.  And smart.

Meet James Dunworthy, head of 21st century history at Balliol (or was it Brasenose) College at Oxford, who somehow ends up tutoring a student at the other college that starts with a B that isn’t the one he’s at, a student who wants to study the Middle Ages.  From the Middle Ages.  Dunworthy has a ton of experience going to the recent modern past, and understands how time travel in 2054 works.  Gilchrist, his erstwhile rival at said other college, has no flipping idea how time travel works, has never done it, and is of course acting head of the History department at his College and gets to be the one making the decision about whether to send an undergraduate to the Middle Ages.

It’s all going smoothly, despite Dunworthy’s misgivings, until a rogue virus shows up, confusing the hell out of modern medicine and basically making retrieval of the undergraduate historian two weeks later, as planned, impossible.  As people begin dropping like flies in the modern world, Kivrin, the historian, learns that the Middle Ages are more different than historians could ever have imagined, especially when met close up in the form of a spoiled six-year-old girl named Agnus and her 12-year-old and soon-to-be-married older sister Rosemund.  When the past becomes the present, it’s a lot harder to just stand by and watch people die of mysterious maladies, or hunger, or frostbite.

The twist is not so much a twist as what you might expect reading a Connie Willis novel, ie, everything that can go wrong will, with a straw boater on top, but somehow everything comes right in the end.  I think the fact that everything comes right, as right as it can, given the gruesome ordeals that both Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy experience, is the most wrenching part.  Eventually, the past is safely put back in the past and whatever affect on the Middle Ages that Kivrin might have had is revealed to be as little as possible.

The idea of historians using time travel, vs. tourists or looters or other types, forces us to remember that there were real people living through those plagues and war and riots and other horrible times that we’ve cataloged and dissected with facts and statistics and artifacts.  For historians, who think they know so much about a time long past, who care enough to devote their lives to studying it, to be brought face to face with that past, is a powerful kind of, well, everything.

Connie Willis continues to amaze, even years on.

Passive Females, Aggressive Bodies

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about abortion and the constant push by so-called “pro-life” individuals to limit the ability of those with birth-capable bodies to control their reproductive health.  Ok, let’s be honest, I think about this stuff all the time but I read an article not long ago, the second such in the past year or so, that talks about the biology of human reproduction and the ways in which the gestating parent’s body literally fights for control, and survival, with the growing fetus pretty much from the second the thing is implanted.

The article, published on, essentially lays out the many ways in which human reproduction is anything but romantic, natural, or, especially, safe for those doing the gestating, and only instilled in me even further the idea that a fetus, until the person carrying it effectively gives it birth and, by so doing life, is nothing more than a parasite that will kill the person carrying it if it can, all in the name of its own survival.  Likely, this is largely–the article goes on to explain–due to evolution, which has caused these conditions to occur over many thousands of years in order to create humans with large brains, brains which require huge amounts of resources during the pregnancy stage in order to properly develop.

Further, the number of pregnancies successfully carried to implantation, and not even to term, is significantly lower than those which end up in the toilet every month, carried away by a menstrual cycle that is guarding the person’s health so rigidly it is literally safer for the person to bleed for 5-7 days than to carry a developing fetus anywhere other than (un)safely attached to the uterine lining where the parent’s body can keep a watchful eye on it.

This isn’t the miracle of life, it’s fucking war.

But the point I’m trying to make is that in a situation where the person’s body is actively trying to starve and stymie a fetus’ access to the parent’s resources, for so-called pro-life individuals to portray abortion as an act and allowing an unwanted fetus to gestate as simply allowing “nature” to take its course is not just hypocrisy but actually quite monstrous.  The act of gestating a child has become so dangerous to the human species that the parent’s body will fight tooth and nail to get rid of it because the alternative is being stripped of health and life one heartbeat at a time until the parent’s body is nothing more than an essenceless husk at the end of it.  I’m put in mind of the scene in Mad Max: Fury Road in which the lifeless fetus is cut out of Angharad’s dying body in order to take possession of a potential male offspring.  So-called pro-life individuals see only the poor dead fetus, so ripe with potential and life, while completely ignoring the life of the woman draining out on the dashboard, robbed of autonomy and made into just a vessel for someone else’s ambitions.

The passivity with which so-called pro-life individuals try to paint themselves is so aggressive, so demeaning to people with pregnancy-capable bodies.  It’s wrapped up in the false premise that pregnancy, the state of being pregnant, is a passive state, and any movement to change that state is an aggression, when, as the article referenced earlier ad nauseum shows, pregnancy is anything but a passive thing.  To end a pregnancy is less violent than the violence being enacted daily between parental body and fetus.  The article poses it as a sort of natural selection, that any embryo not strong enough, not fully implanted, must die in order to protect valuable resources, but when it comes to abortion, shouldn’t it be only the natural progression that the final say over the continued existence of a parasitic embryo lie with the one in whose body said embryo came to be?  And to take it further–because a lot of people are afraid of so-called late-stage abortion because suddenly the even-more-voracious parasite is bigger and has a face–shouldn’t the decision of whether to potentially sacrifice one’s own life in order to bring that squalling parasite into the world lie with the one, the only one, who will forced to give up their life for that to happen?

But this all plays into the idea that pregnancy-capable individuals–generally gendered female–be always passive, accepting of whatever comes to them, never taking what they want or in any way making demands on others, especially on cis males.  Besides being just wrong–not all pregnancy capable bodies are female–it feeds into cultural norms that are designed to privilege the cis male individual, which we can all identify as patriarchy.

In thinking about these juxtapositions of passivity/aggressivity, I’m minded of a novel I read recently (on audiobook, to be specific), by Emma Donoghue.  Her most recent novel, The Wonder portrays the experience of an English nurse, a Nightingale Nurse, to be specific, trained by the redoubtable pioneer of the profession herself, hired by a tiny Irish village to investigate the wondrous little girl in their midst who seems to subsist indefinitely without eating.  Now, this post is soon going to cross over both into the realm of Discussion of Actual Scenes in the Book (aka spoilers) and also pregnancy and sexuality specifically dealing with cis women.  I’ve done my best to keep this post as non-transphobic as I am capable till now, but as the subject matter of the novel specifically deals with cis-coded women, I will generally be talking about women and gendered cultural expectations around being women, so please just know that I’m not unaware of what’s happening, but to avoid complications I’ll use the gendered terms from the novel itself.  (I certainly understand that trans women and trans men are even more pressured to conform to cultural gender expectations and receive even more harassment.)  As to the spoilers, well, reader beware, I guess.  Or stop here and go read the book.

The Wonder deals with the parallel storylines of Lib Wright, a widowed nurse, and Anna O’Donnell, and eight-year-old girl who refuses to eat and has become a source of spiritual tourism for her community.  Lib has been hired to watch Anna and ascertain whether she is in fact eating from some hidden source, or to keep her from eating, or to prove she is a saint, depending on whom Lib meets during her two-week stay in the impoverished village.  Already this is ringing cultural bells–a little girl becomes famous for literally doing nothing, the only acceptable way for a female to gain notoriety.  Lib, on the other hand, is part of possibly the only profession remotely acceptable for a woman to have outside the home–taking care of others, mothering–even though to do it for money is a cultural indicator that Lib is used up, not good enough even to care for her own family, which the reader finds out is far too close to home for her.

Throughout her two-week stay in Ireland, Lib fights the opposing urges to nurture Anna and convince her to eat, and to conduct her watches as a strict experiment, reveling in the moment she foresees herself finding Anna out and proving that there is no such thing as manna from heaven upon which a little girl can sustain herself.  Lib wants science, not superstition, to be proven the authority–something all people who believe in reproductive autonomy can support–and yet for that to happen Lib must completely relegate Anna to the guardianship of people who have something to gain from her continued starvation, which runs completely counter to what Lib’s professional calling.  This internal conflict isn’t helped by the apparent inaction of Anna’s parents, who seem to revel in Anna’s wondrous behavior and treat her as though she were some sort of saint come to earth.  The aggressive passivity of Anna’s mother, in particular, is almost violent in its insistence that Lib, a representative of science and reason, is an enemy to be defeated through Mrs. O’Donnell’s faith alone.  Adding to all this is Lib’s own ignorance of Catholicism and treatment of the Irish she encounters; she looks at all of them as superstitious savages who continue in their poverty and malnutrition out of some perverse desire to follow their backwards religion, when in reality the post-Blight state of Ireland is anything but simple.

Lib’s ability to solve the mystery of Anna’s wonder is primarily the result, though, of her character arc as she meets various members of the community as well as an outsider–a newspaper reporter from Dublin who is both educated and intelligent–and comes to understand their position and why they act the way they do.  Lib grows as a character, is brought to see her own errors, and is then in a position to investigate the true mystery behind Anna’s situation.  Lib is that horror, the intelligent woman capable of thinking for herself and coming to logical conclusions, whom many of the so-called pro-life agenda seek to hobble, or in whom they don’t believe; they harbor such fear of those capable of pregnancy making their own choices about their bodies, and take the–un-asked-for–role of “my sister’s keeper,” seeking to take away choice before a choice can even be made, in case that choice runs counter to the aggressive and broken morality of those who value the unborn over the living.  Of course, as Lib learns, so does the reader.  The reader is exposed, through Lib’s interactions with Anna’s family, and eventually with Anna herself, that Anna’s wonder is a result of sexual abuse and the inaction of those who are supposed to care for her physical and emotional well-being–namely, her parents and her priest.  Anna is starving herself to get her brother into heaven, on the belief that reciting a particular prayer while fasting will release him from purgatory sooner.  The problem is that her dead brother is only in purgatory–or better, hell–because of the sins he committed against her.

Like Lib, Anna’s situation is a direct result of the actions of a male member of her family, but she has been blamed for it.  Nothing Anna could have done could have prevented her brother’s desire to rape her, just as nothing Lib could have done would have saved her newborn child and made it live, and thus her husband’s leaving her because, in his words, there was no reason to stay any longer.  Even when women are passive, they are forced to carry the blame for men’s actions.  Lib went to the Crimea and became a nurse, attempting to care for men injured in imperialist violence; Anna tried to starve herself.  Both were trying to atone for something they didn’t do, and for which they could never be redeemed in the eyes of their respective societies.

The events of The Wonder may not be identical to what happens today, in a modern society that still actively keeps women from exercising autonomy over their own bodies, but it is a stark illustration of the fact that women–and girls–will always be held responsible, will always be culpable for the actions of men, will always be expected to adhere to an enforced–and false–passivity, as long as women are considered second-class or not-the-default.  Being pregnant is not passive; to be and remain pregnant is the violent path, the way of force, the dangerous way to travel.  To end what can turn out to be the most perilous thing a person can do–is the path of least resistance.

Unless, that is, those who would prevent an abortion consider it a personal attack on themselves and their petty, interfering morality, just as Mrs. O’Donnell considered Lib’s attempts to find the cause of Anna’s starvation a personal attack on the righteousness of the entire family, on the Catholic church itself.  Lib only wanted Anna to do what was natural–to eat, to take care of herself, to find a way to live a good and normal life–just as every person capable of bearing a pregnancy should have the ability to make the natural choice about what is right for themselves and their bodies, independent of the self-righteous and holier-than-though guilt being heaped upon them by those who violently persist in confusing intrusiveness with saintliness.

It Takes Two: The Ballad of Lost Souls

Parable of the Sower and The Heart Goes Last

This one brought to you by the U.S. presidential election.

Parable of the Sower, for anyone who’s read it, has distinct parallels with today’s United States, even though it was first published over twenty years ago.  Minorities scrape a life out of bombed out residential streets while whites live in gated compounds with military-grade security, all presided over by an inept president who doesn’t seem to give a shit about the lives of the people, even if he had the wherewithal to actually fix anything.

The environment has gone to hell, it barely rains in southern parts of the country, and the north is guarded against people trying to emigrate for a better life.  Wage slavery is a thing again, and the only ones doing well are corporations.  But Parable of the Sower also contains a message of hope and self-determination, an undeniable statement that the people in the novel–and those the allegory is really about–are not going to take the world lying down.  Those some may give up, others are going to fight, and find a unity that can’t be defeated by mere hatred and bigotry.  It’s a message we could all use, in these dark times.  Even though we’ve lost a visionary in Octavia E. Butler, we can still read her words and take heart.

Margaret Atwood made her name in the speculative fiction world, with Oryx and Crake, and the Maddaddam trilogy.  Though many cite The Handmaid’s Tale, Maddaddam was what brought her to the forefront in climate change, dystopian fiction and showed that literature could take on these topics in a smart, ironic way that was both entertaining and horrifying.  As if that already needed proving, but that’s a topic for another day.  

But this post is not about Maddaddam, but The Heart Goes Last.  Until last month, her most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last deals with climate change and post-corporate-takeover America on a deeper level than Maddaddam, tracing the story of a middle-aged, middle-American, middle-class couple as they keep trying to take the easy way out of the dystopia.  While MaddAddam is a series about fighting, The Heart Goes Last is a novel about giving up.  

While MaddAddam openly pushes the ridiculous as a contrast to the real world–a covert, ugly sort of ridiculousness that can’t be wiped away by closing the cover of a novel–The Heart Goes Last camouflages the bizarre beneath a veneer of the expedient, the necessary, the no-other-choice.  Perhaps the best part about Atwood’s novel is the depths of irony it plums.  Or doesn’t.  It’s difficult to tell where sincerity ends and irony begins; it’s difficult to hate people who are so irretrievably inept at everything.  Are they reaping the rewards of their own inaction, or innocent victims of a world gone mad?

Either way, both of these novels are good reads for bad times.

Bring Your Ladies Down to Camelot

“Beautiful women rarely work strong magic.” In the Night Garden, Cat Valente

They cross’d themselves, their stars they blest,
Knight, minstrel, abbot, squire, and guest.
There lay a parchment on her breast,
That puzzled more than all the rest,
      The wellfed wits at Camelot.
‘The web was woven curiously,
The charm is broken utterly,
Draw near and fear not,—this is I,
      The Lady of Shalott.’

The Lady of Shalott, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

This is going to be an odd one, so just bear with me.

Two things happened recently: I’ve been reading Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden and I watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (MBFGW2).

MBFGW2 was nothing to get excited over.  I laughed at the funny stuff, cringed a bit at the overly gendered stuff, and was suitably heart-warmed at the revelation that one of the over-masculine male cousins is gay and has a long-term partner and his family is totally cool with it (and kinda knew all along but were waiting for him to feel comfortable telling them).  

As you might expect, it’s the cringe-y stuff I’m going to talk about today, mostly because all the gendered stuff was really, ridiculously focused on female gender expression and the idea that all women want, and ought to want, to be considered pretty.  One of the things I enjoyed about the first film was the fact that Toula’s “transformation” was as much an emotional, intellectual journey as it had anything to do with her changing how she looked.  

So let’s go ahead and talk about that in terms of something completely unrelated–two things, actually–Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott and Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden.  My Big Fat Greek Wedding had a bunch of stuff about how women ought to present themselves, but it also had a lot of women with different interests and roles within their own lives and families.  Toula was the odd one because she had no particular role; she was merely a follower, going along with whatever her parents said because the idea of pushing her own agenda was too… let’s just go with too much, at this point.

So, the Lady of Shalott lives up in a tower, Rapunzel-style, except there isn’t a prince to rescue her.  There is no rescue at all, in fact, because there is a curse that keeps her locked up in this tower, looking down on Camelot and everything it represents.  It is a beautiful tower, to be sure, but the Lady of Shalott has no real time to dwell on it, or enjoy it, because she has a web she must weave, never stopping, all her life, lest the curse fall on her.

Of course, there are numerous ways that this poem may be interpreted, but juxtaposed with the freedom and unadulterated beauty of Lancelot, one possible way to look at this is from the angle of female beauty, and expressions of female gender.  The Lady of Shalott is trapped in a tower she can never leave because she is doomed to weave a web–a maze of misdirection used to trap the unwary–for her entire life and giving up on it is life-ending for a Lady.

Many people like to look on the legends of Camelot–and, later, Robin Hood–as whimsical fantasy stories.  The Once and Future King is a notable example of this, not necessarily because the novel itself is whimsical–it can be read as extremely foreboding and pessimistic at times, in fact–but because our collective memory of it is influenced by Disney animated films and Richard Gere and all manner of modern stories based on those old tales.  

The Morte d’Arthur would seem to say it all though.  The Death of Arthur.  The story of how a great king comes to be and then dies, and the treachery that can be wrought because of so many uncrossable boundaries and unknowable truths.  The stories of Arthur may have been accepted as taking place in the distance past–to the Medieval poets who wrote them–but the stories were mired in the mores of the time, particularly the rules of the court and the demands of chivalry–by which I don’t mean simply holding open doors occasionally when you want to get brownie points for being not all men.

Men and women both, in Medieval France and England, were constrained by gender norms, but men at least could go out into the world.  Their expression was active; women’s was passive, could be no more than that.  The Lady of Shalott was a thing in a tower to be looked at, whose appearance in a boat at the foot of Camelot was so perplexing to the brightest of the court because she was not sitting, stationary, performing her feminine deceptions.  She was only herself, unadorned.  She had crossed an inscrutable boundary, and was in turn punished.

Toula, when the audience first meets her in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, is in a different sort of tower, and one of her own making.  She lacks the confidence–for reasons that won’t be discussed here–to participate in the world around her.  Toula is the unknown quantity that the Lady of Shalott becomes when she has left her tower, she is presented as a monstrous woman, untouchable and alien to everyone, including other women.  This is where fantasy and fiction diverge.  Toula is part of a fictional world that can only mirror the world of the audience.  Her transformation, her decision to transform, is what gives her the power to become.

In Valente’s In the Night Garden, an astounding work of fantasy, it is the monstrous women, the ugly women, the women who don’t participate in the mores of feminine beauty, who have power.  Toula is intelligent and quick no matter what she looks like, but in the world of the film, she can’t find her power until she takes the step to interrogate beauty and its norms.  Until she confronts the monster in the mirror, the rest of the world isn’t able to see her either.  

I’ve always seen Toula’s transformation as more empowering than conforming, however there are plenty of issues inherent in the Cinderella story.  At the very least, Toula is shown experimenting with expressions of femaleness, rather than simply buying wholesale into the form she’s been familiar with her entire life.  She finds a level of expression with which she’s comfortable, and that meets her needs.  The web she weaves begins to free her from her lack of agency, instead of keeping her imprisoned.  But like all transformation stories, it can’t help but expose the fact that women are not seen until they look like women, that identity is still conflated with expression, and that the only power one has is in conforming.

The women of In the Night Garden often live outside society, sometimes come to violent ends, or are imprisoned by those who wish to take their powers, but in all of the tales, these monstrous, ugly, unfeminine women have agency, have a story to tell, and are an integral part of the greater tale.  The payoff of reading In the Night Garden is not the tiny stories that make up the greater whole–which never resolve themselves without outside help from other stories–but getting to the end and finding out how the lives of the many women carry through like bright lines to the end of the tale, how they interconnect, how they burn more brightly the more the reader dips into the world of the novel.

Then there’s MBFGW2, in which the lives of Toula and her extended family are revisited 20 years after the first film.  Everyone is older, except Paris who wasn’t born yet and is now a bright young–pretty–woman getting ready to leave her parents and go off to college.  And great care is taken in the film to emphasize how old the women are, how much they have changed, and how little they want to admit it.  

This time, Toula is ugly because she is participating too much.  She has forgotten how to perform womanhood because she is too busy being a mother–to both her daughter and to her parents.  It was an interesting concept at first, until the constant emphasis on how Toula looked overwhelmed whatever other sentiments the film may have been trying to express.  Her husband was pulling away from her, her daughter wouldn’t trust her, until she magically brushed her hair, and put on makeup and a fancy dress.  Then Toula somehow became assertive, confident, and with that gained a new desirability to society that allowed her to have stronger relationships with people.  

The juxtaposition of these stories raises compelling questions not only about the demands of beauty and societal expectations of gender expression, but about the nature of engaging with those questions at all.  How close should a work of fiction mirror the real world, especially if it intends to interrogate questions like how women are controlled through gendered behavior?  And how does one engage in discussions such as these with those so baffled by woman’s free expression that she would prove wholly inscrutable to their own inestimable wit?  

It Takes Two: Radiance and A Stranger in Olondria

So I sat here at my computer, staring at tumblr posts as the scrolled by, and thought to myself that I hadn’t done much writing–of any stripe–in quite a while.  I’ve really fallen off the book reviewing wagon. My reading hasn’t dropped off in any significant way, but I just don’t have the mental energy to write reviews, edit them, and then get them out.

So instead, I thought back to a few things I’ve read–recently and not so recently–and tried to come up with a theme-y feeling, or feelings-ish theme that I find weaving through at least two novels.

And lo, a theme post is born.

Here I’m going to talk about Cat Valente’s Radiance, and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, both of which I’ve read and reviewed in the past six months. (You can find those reviews here on or my Goodreads page).  I’m probably going to be too lazy to go back and find links for them.

It Takes Two: Stories of Dead Women

Radiance is (spoilers?) the story of Severin Unck’s final days, her final film, her final journey out among the stars of the alt-Solar System discovered in the Victorian period and subsequently settled all the way out to Pluto itself.  In A Stranger in Olondria, the reader is presented with the coming-of-age story of Jevick, and islander who travels to the mainland nation of Olondria chasing stories and the learning he has glimpsed via a foreign tutor, but his quest for self-fulfillment is subsumed by the story, of a sick young woman he met on ship during the crossing, who revisits him as a ghost and haunts him, prodding him to write her story as she tells it in Jevick’s dreams.

What these two novels have in common is not simply the fact that each is concerned with the story of a woman who is now dead, but that each woman’s story is being told, in some way, by another character–or characters.  Severin’s father, the most famous filmmaker in that version of the solar system, is trying not only to recreate her last days from the memories and speculations of those around her, but to find a proper film medium in which to tell this story.  Jevick’s obsession with the written word is whatt draws the young woman’s ghost to him, an unrelenting commandment to put words to paper, to save her story in a way that her body, her life, could not be saved.

Each novel is a heartbreaking and stunning look at the power of art.  Art creates and drives people to create; stories tell more than their text.  Art is also sinister and dangerous, driving people to the edge, further, making them vulnerable to the manipulations of others.  Severin was driven to understand the murky ends of a small town on Venus, the inhabitants of which were divers for one of the companies who harvested milk from the great, semi-sentient beings living in Venus’s warm seas.  With her documentaries, she pushed limits in ways her father never would with the drama and intrigue he ladled into his fictional films.  Having grown up in a house where nothing was ever really real, having all been caught on film, Severin spent her life documenting instead of creating fiction.  In this way, Valente continues to play with notions of the real–as every documentary is still an interpretation, and is informed by the experiences and opinions of the documentarians.

A Stranger in Olondria pulls from the vast tradition of telling stories with other stories.  It is an astounding piece of worldbuilding, creating not only the people and living culture of Jevick’s home, Olondria, and other nations, but also the stories by which those places know themselves.  Jevick is so caught up in what he thinks is his story of discovery and growing up–almost a sort of ironic “noble savage” narrative, on his part–that he fails to see what is right in front of him.  In the same way, Severin’s father is so caught up in turning everything into fiction that in the end he doesn’t really understand his daughter, and is obsessed with crafting the perfect fiction to describe her real, non-fictional life.

The importance of these two narratives dealing with the stories of dead women is twofold.  First, in pushing each story-writer character to craft the story of the dead woman in each–via their different but equal motivations–the authors are not telling how these women died, but how they lived.  Though one is dead at the beginning of the novel and the other dies at an important turning point for the main character, the reader is fully immersed in the very real and vibrant lives of these women.

The second aspect of importance is not simply that these women had lives which are a strong part of the narrative, but that they did something with those lives.  These women had, and throughout their respective novels continue to have, agency and effect over the course of their lives.  Severing took control of a life she’d grown up feeling she had no control over, and went out amongst the planets to give context and reality to other worlds.  The ghost haunting Jevick belongs to a young woman who grew up illiterate, daughter of two worlds in a bizarrely colonial landscape that left her little room to be herself.  She dies from exposure to a disease she had contracted while on an adventure, and even in her sickness she refuses to be treated as a simple invalid.  In death, she is powerful and takes on a new life, part of which is the telling of her youth, and the other a hunger for literacy and immortality in the stories that Jevick prizes so highly.

The glint of immortality shines strongly through each of these novels, hastened by their meta-textual themes–film in Radiance, and writing in A Stranger in Olondria.  Not only do these novels share a similar theme, but they also share a carefully crafted duality that is both satisfying and challenging to read.  Though these novels are different in voice and style, they are well-matched.