This has been a fortnight of femslash fantasy for me (look at all that alliteration!). I read Malinda Lo’s Ash, and was so enchanted by it that I moved on to Huntress. Although I also bought Malinda Lo’s other two books which are a lot more scifi-y, I decided to stick to fantasy, and as a result I read the first book of the When Women Were Warriors series. Honestly, all three of these books were wonderful. I’m going to review them in dialog with each other, but I quickly want to clarify that after I finished reading each of these books I recommended them to at least one friend and gave them a 5 star review on Amazon. So, you should buy them. I’m just interested in entering a critical dialog with these books, which sometimes means I focus on some of the more negative aspects. I repeat though: buy these books. They are gay, they are cute, and they are exactly what I needed. I rated them all above 3 stars.
When I was young, I read a lot of fantasy. As a child I disliked space and alien heavy science fiction and instead gobbled up all the fantasy as I could get my tiny hands on. The more obscure the world-building, the more complicated the concepts, the more I was there for it. I look at my shelves of books from Middle and High school, and they are full of familiar names like Anne Bishop, Robin Hobb, Garth Nix, William Nicholson and Ursula Le Guin. But then I grew up. Most of the adult fantasy I was given was very different from the YA fantasy and more female orientated fantasy I was given. Graduating to adult fantasy, and trying to join adult fantasy book clubs means I was suddenly burdened with 15,000 books about men discovering a male-dominated landscape. The stories became less interested in the mystical and the magical, and more interested in the protagonist. The authorial voices became more cloying, and I gave up on fantasy. I wanted to read stories about women dominating or exploring a landscape named explicitly after them, but I couldn’t find it in this genre, so I left. I left fantasy for science fiction, copying Ursala Le Guin’s movement from the Wizard of Earthsea Quartet to The Left Hand of Darkness. I started reading science fiction because I realized that even in male dominated space stories like Star Trek, a woman is allowed to exist.
In the end, I think this is why I loved this month’s reading so much. All three of those books were books that the young Elisabeth yearned for. They were magical, whimsical, and serious fantasy all together, and, most of all, they represented me within their pages.
I started off with reading Ash. I bought it because I felt lonely and frustrated in Germany, and living at home can be alienating, and this book made me feel better. Moreover, it allowed me to connect with people; my excitement at Ash was responded to with their excitement. It seems many queer ladies, like me, fell in love with this book through complicated paths. The book was by no means perfect, and it was very clearly limited by its genre (YA) and the nature of it (it was Malinda Lo’s debut novel). The book is a retelling of the fairy tale of Cinderella, but it complicates and nuances the story in interesting and unpredictable ways. The book is clearly interested in stories, however; who told them, who read them, and who understood them. This theme in particularly struck a chord with me, and I was interested to see that it was repeated in interesting variations in both Huntress and When Women Were Warriors.
In Ash, the love interest and Ash have several conversations about her favorite stories. The reoccurring question is “what’s your favorite fairy tale,” and Ash’s answer is a disturbing story about a girl who was so seduced with magic she died. At the end of the novel, Ash pushes against this narrative, and chooses to stay in reality with her girlfriend, despite her understanding of the attraction of disappearance and death. I read the novel as arguing that stories are tools: thanks to her understanding of the fairy tale, Ash was able to circumvent the story, and become something bigger.
But are stories only learning tools for us? The novel “Warriors Path”, the first book out of the When Women Were Warriors series offers us the juxtaposition between stories as learning tools, and simple learning tools. The book is interested in aphorisms and wisdom. It is a bildungsroman, after all. It is a victim of its genre, and yet, it still manages to reinvent its genre with every new lesson we as the reader are taught. The aphorisms and warrior lessons that Maara teaches Tamras each made me reflect on myself. Her lecture that allowing another person to illicit an emotion in you is a form of weakness really stuck with me. I loved that. These aphorism actually apply to real life! So many books that I have read that have aphorisms, especially in the intersecting genres of bildungsroman and fantasy, present you with generic life advice and dress it up as exotic. Phrases like ‘don’t count your chickens before the eggs have hatched’ are typically transformed into ‘don’t count your DRAGONS before the eggs have hatched’ and then marketed as new. No one is fooled. This book gives you interesting life advice and makes you think a lot about the nature of silence, the nature of understanding what times means.
I really liked that it taps into what Malinda Lo was recently talking about in reference to decolonizing your imagination, though in this case I am not referencing race, but rather books about lgbtq characters. A good lgbt book doesn’t need to draw attention to its character’s sexuality, but that’s difficult for the writer. Society has made us as queer women feel the need to explain and justify our emotions, but in this book Catherine M. Wilson seems to skip all that, whereas in Huntress I felt like Malinda Lo felt she needed to justify her worldbuilding. Wilson allows her characters to live and feel free in a matriarchal society without including flashing neon signs that say “THIS IS THE REVERSE IN THE REAL WORLD” or “WOMEN IN POWER ARE JUST AS BAD AS MEN”, which can sometimes happen in books that try and totally deconstruct our understandings of Matriarchal societies. Although I have never read classics such as Herland and Mist of Avalon, all of which deal with Matriarchal societies, I have read this awesome article by Sady Doyle that discusses in-depth why feminist matriarchal narratives are often considered a disappointment. Sady Doyle explains in most instance of societies dominated by women in pop culture that “these stories have usually ended with the women either voluntarily dismantling their society for boyfriends or being killed.” When that’s the legacy we are expecting, it’s no wonder that its so hard to break.