Special Double Review
Martha Burns & Charles Payseur
Reviewed by Martha Burns
Women Destroy Fantasy! began with a Kickstarter to raise money for a special edition of Lightspeed called Women Destroy Science Fiction! What the editors got was enough to finance not only Women Destroy Science Fiction!, but Women Destroy Fantasy!, and Women Destroy Horror! That, in my opinion, is the critically important thing to emphasize about the project. The editors asked for donations to make a park and what they received was funds for a city. Why?
In the introduction to Women Destroy Fantasy!, Rambo discusses the underrepresentation of women in the field, references sexism, and says the aim of the collection is to provide “a structure more welcoming of women’s voices.” What she’s talking about, in part, is the phenomenon of bracketing. It’s what dedicated readers do when we set aside a part of a story that makes us wince so that we can enjoy the whole. Dedicated readers who are hungry for a decent story will put aside stilted dialogue, wooden characters, plot holes, plot caverns, and the occasional grammatical gaffe. Many of us also have to put aside sexbots, harridans, sweet young things, boobtopia, reformed lesbians, satisfied rape victims, and plain old tokenism just to enjoy the story. It gets tiring. Readers are tired and angry, some of us are very angry. We want freedom from that. Here, have our credit cards.
Yet there is something else readers want. If it were only about sexism, the implication would be that readers want a day in which it’s no longer necessary for there to be a Destroy! project. Terri Windling, editor of the reprint fiction, says that’s her view. I don’t believe that’s what readers want. Rambo references the difficulties of teaching Women’s Studies when she was a university lecturer, since “The problem was that Women’s Studies is less a body of knowledge than an approach to knowledge, a way of looking at things.” She’s getting warmer or maybe she knows and, as an editor, she’s afraid to say it, so, I, fearless reader, am happy to oblige.
Women simply do a better job at what the readers who financed the project want. Better. Not different, not free of sexism, but better. We want aliens and fairies and vampires, just like every other reader of science fiction and fantasy, but we also want recognition that we are the other. We do not need to regard the other and experience that shock of recognition. Certainly, we do not need story upon story dedicated to that realization when all we have to do is wake up every morning. Furthermore, being the other is not half bad. Those who have no choice but to exist as others have got to stop being cagey about that. It’s not just about sexism and being free of it, it’s about getting access to an approach to knowledge, to use Rambo’s phrase. It’s a cool approach to knowledge, some of us believe. You see things non-other people don’t see, so those of us who experience both the good and bad of being on the outside want good science fiction and fantasy that engages our perspective and recognizes it’s worth. And you know what? The other as a category will never cease to exist though sexism may, it is hoped, fizzle out. Human brains conceive of reality via concepts (little, big, sweet, sour) and to be a concept is to distinguish between what is and is not in the concept. So readers who paid for the Destroy! project not only paid for freedom from bracketing, we paid for something positive that science fiction and fantasy has delivered more consistently with female authors. Long live the Destroy! project.
But does this collection meet those needs? Sometimes the answer to the question is no, sometimes sort of, but more often the answer is yes.
I’m only reviewing the original short fiction, but this should not be taken to imply that the reprinted fiction or the nonfiction is undeserving of notice.
In “The Scrimshaw and the Scream” by Kate Hall, a young woman lives in a community in which people regularly turn into birds. Some of them are able to stop the process and Felicity desperately wants to be one of them but then, again, she doesn’t want to pay the price. Staying human involves giving up on your passion, which may be practicing an art, as it is for Felicity, or loving someone inappropriate, as it is for Felicity’s erstwhile fiancé. Whatever it is that prompts the thing that Felicity’s friend Claudette calls the “scream inside me” has to be drowned out for the feathers to fall off. The imaginative story uses magical realism to add richness to a cautionary tale of the deformity involved in social respectability. Felicity’s art is unusual and evocative, but it is not given enough attention, which something so unusual requires. It’s very easy to understand Claudette’s passion, which is the piano, because it’s familiar. Scrimshaw is not only unusual, it is downright odd, and so to share in Felicity’s passion for this art, we need more help than Hall provides. That said, the story will likely stick with you and the horror of Felicity’s transformation surely will.
The one misstep of the four original stories is “Making the Cut” by H. E. Roulo, which wears its agenda so openly it’s hard to read it as fiction. The narrator is a female superhero who tries to recruit Aisha, a woman in South Asia who has been disfigured by her male relatives. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that the shapeshifting superhero apologizes for choosing to look thin and white, explains that despite all of the trading cards Aisha has, it’s only one woman in different outfits, and then goes on to lecture Aisha about representations of women. Readers of this issue are the wrong audience for this. We know these things. We want female superheroes doing fabulous superhero things, not talking. We want Black Widow and Wonder Woman pummeling something and then going out for drinks with the Amazons.
“The Dryad’s Shoe” by T. Kingfisher is a keeper. It’s a sprightly retelling of Cinderella in which a tree that grows over the grave of Hannah’s mother tries to help Hannah marry the duke’s son and outwit her stepmother and stepsister. Hannah isn’t interested, so Hannah and an enchanted bird who’s supposed to speak to her in poetry (but can’t quite stomach the stuff), arrange things so that everybody gets what they want. The “everybody” includes Hannah, who likes to garden, one of her stepsisters, who likes making dresses, and a servant girl, who likes the duke’s son. This is the type of story that one wishes were in collections like Jack Zipes’s Don’t Bet on the Prince. Those feminist retellings try too hard. This story gets it right and is fun and even likely to be enjoyed by younger readers as well.
Ann flees a city infested with plague, where there are rumors that the dead still walk. Ann’s been promised by the goddess of the sea, Tethys, that the new city is safe, but Ann immediately meets a shady character up to no good who uses “darling” so often it becomes annoying. This character, Arachne, drugs, seduces, and manipulates Ann, who we gradually learn is more than she seems. There are hints of a rich backstory in “Drowning in the Sky” by Julia August, including the fact that Ann has turned her bones to stone. I would like more about Ann’s former life and more about her relationship with Tethys, but instead the story gives hallucinatory interludes in Arachne’s house that go on too long and, in doing so, both reduce the impact of the final scene and keep us from experiencing what life must be like for Ann. She is a full character and, as such, deserved more time in a sober state.
* * *
Though I felt the issue struggled a bit with what it meant by its title, this special Women Destroy Fantasy issue still manages to contain a slew of entertaining and powerful original and reprinted stories and non-fiction pieces well worth reading. The original fiction especially shows some of the diverse ways that women writers portray female characters in fantasy stories, from superheroes to fairy tales, and does it in a way that is engaging and resonant. I felt that, at times, the issue stumbled a bit over itself with how to define Destroying Fantasy, at times treating it like the tearing down of walls within the genre and other times assuring that most of the barriers are not professional and that destruction is not really the goal. As a celebration of female penned fantasy, however, the stories speak for themselves, and present an excellent range of voices and styles.
A young woman with a scream inside her learns the price of suffocating her inner voice in Kate Hall‘s historical fantasy “The Scrimshaw and the Scream.” An artist who makes scrimshaw figurines, Felicity is on the verge of marriage, and is being pressured into giving up her art in order to conform to the strict and proper society of her mother and neighbors. Just as she is engaged, though, and her mother destroys nearly all of her figurines, Felicity begins to transform into a bird, an affliction that seems to threaten most of the people of her community, though most never make the full change. Felicity struggles to fit in, to be good, but only discovers that giving up her art, her passion, only made the transformation worsen, and she realizes too late that the scream telling her to rebel was trying to save her and not condemn her. Tragic and slightly disturbing, the story hits in all the right ways, showing Felicity’s struggle and, ultimately, the cost of her difference.
In “Making the Cut” by H. E. Roulo, a shape changing superhero tries to convince a damaged young woman to embrace her own gifts and potential. Pregnant and in need of another superhero to help her, the main character seeks out Aisha, a young woman who has had a very rough life. Though Aisha looks up to superheroes, because of how perfect they seem she doesn’t believe that she belongs to stand with them, as she was disfigured by an acid attack when she was younger. The main character bears some of that responsibility, because it turns out that she is really most of the female superheroes, and made each of them ideal in her mind, which meant conforming to Western beauty standards. But when it comes time to step up, Aisha realizes that she has something to offer, something that no one else can do. Effective and uplifting, the story does some interesting things with the concept of superheroes and how even someone trying to help can end up doing harm.
The tale of Cinderella is reimagined as that of the much more plant-enthused Hannah in “The Dryad’s Shoe” by T. Kingfisher. Most of the details of the original story are unchanged, except that instead of being an outcast because of the evilness of her stepmother, Hannah simply can’t be bothered with the role of being a lady, preferring work in the garden instead. When a titmouse and a dryad decide to intervene and try to have her catch the eye of the duke’s son with a stunning dress for her to wear at the ball, they don’t expect her to trade the dress for access to the ducal orangery. But Hannah doesn’t want to dance or be a wife, wants only to work in the garden and figure out better ways of growing things. And in the end it is she who sets everything in order and gets more or less what she wanted, though it isn’t what anyone seemed to want for her. Charming and clever, the story turns a lot of the old fairy tale on its head while keeping the frame, and at its core it’s still about a woman following her heart in the face of the expectations placed on her.
Julia August tells the story of Ann, a woman with great power who cannot escape a cycle of destruction in the mythological fantasy “Drowning in Sky.” Possessing the ability to manipulate the earth and plants and even animate the dead, Ann leaves a trail of destruction wherever she goes, and comes to the city of Khelikë with hopes of finally being free of it. Her power draws unwanted attention, though, and she quickly finds herself brought under the power of a magical weaver, a woman who pretends to love her even as she plots to use Ann’s powers to benefit the city. When Ann is deemed too dangerous to use, and the leaders of the city conspire to murder her, Ann finds destruction trailing her again, and brings the city crashing into the sea. Visceral if a bit opaque at times, the story sets itself up like a myth, with characters full of power and passion, and the ending does not disappoint on the potential of the premise.
Charles Payseur lives with his partner and their growing herd of pets in the icy reaches of Wisconsin, where companionship, books, and craft beer get him through the long winters. His fiction has appeared at Perihelion Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, and Dragon’s Roost Press.