Strange Horizons, 7 March 2005

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"La Malcontenta" by Liz Williams (illustration by Emily Tolson)

"La Malcontenta" by Liz Williams takes place on wintry Mars in the city of Winterstrike.  It is the coldest day of the long year, a time of festival, of masks and ceremonial robs, where identities are hidden and sins may be overlooked.  It is the only day that Shorn, so named because she has been stripped of her name for her transgressions, may emerge from her windowless prison.   

With the frigid world of bitter cold, populated by a genetically-engineered, gender neutral society, the parallels between "La Malcontenta" and Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness are hard to escape.   It's tempting to dismiss this story as something of a "Left Hand Lite."  Not that there aren't admirable qualities to this tale.  The language is beautiful, downright poetic at times—flawlessly highlighted by the illustrations of Emily Tolson—and the society Williams introduces is intriguing.  But generally, this story fails to totally satisfy.  It suffers from a sense of incompleteness, with large swatches of background and fleshed-out setting waiting in the wings, but never given their stage time. 

As a full story, it doesn't succeed, but as a glimpse into an alien society, it does captivate.