Fairy Tale Tuesday No.113 – The People Could Fly

Stories are powerful. They are the amber in which lost voices are preserved; through them, you can slip inside someone else’s skin and see out of their eyes. Stories turn wishes into opportunities, because if you can imagine a thing then it is not quite impossible. This week’s Fairy Tale Tuesday is taken from Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (Walker Books, 1988), an anthology of stories originally told by African slaves and retold by generations of black American storytellers. This one is the last in the book, and the one for which the collection is named. I warn you, it’s not easy to read.

‘Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic’. And these magicians can walk through the air, or spread wide wings and fly away. Nevertheless, when the slavers come, many are captured and forced to leave their wings behind. Crowded onto ships and carried far from their homes, the magic is buried deep. A secret that must never ever be told.

Two slaves with the secret end up on the same plantation – an old man known as Toby, and a young mother called Sarah. Their ‘owner’ has thugs in his employ to patrol the fields with whips and savage tempers, keeping everyone in such a state of terror they keep labouring through the long day. These are about the worst possible working conditions for the mother of an infant. When the baby strapped to Sarah’s back wakes up and starts crying, she dares not stop. What comfort can she possibly give? The overseer tells her to make the baby shut up, because he is not only a thug, he’s really stupid – as the crying continues, he HITS THE BABY WITH HIS WHIP.

Sarah falls to the ground, her baby screaming twice as loud. Toby comes to her side to try and help her up, but she can’t stand – burnt by the merciless sun, heartsick at the sobbing of her child, she sits there despairing in the row. The overseer returns, swinging the whip until her skirt is tattered and her legs are bloody – a mindless, pointless brutality. “Go,” Toby whispers to her, “as you know how to go!” Lifting his hands, he breathes words of magic and Sarah rises into the air, her baby clasped tightly in her arms. Clumsy at first, she rights herself in the air and soars above the trees. Though the overseer runs after her, his shouts are empty threats: she’s gone and she’s never coming back.

So what’s a petty tyrant to do? Pretend it never happened, of course. The next day things go on the same way as before, and because that way is horrific beyond all description, another slave collapses. All the overseer’s beatings can’t get the young man up, but Toby leans to whisper in his ear, and the words lift him up like gravity itself is rebelling. He rides the air currents higher and higher and at last disappears into the distance.

As one slave after another succumbs to heat and maltreatment, Toby is there to give them wings. Even the overseer can’t deny this is magic any more, and that every time it happens, the same old man is there. He shouts for Toby to be seized. The plantation’s owner comes running, drawing a gun to murder the old man in cold blood.

And Toby laughs.

“Don’t you know who I am?” he demands. “Don’t you know some of us in this field? We are the ones who fly!” Throughout the field the slaves stop work, caught by the elusive whisper of the language they have been forbidden to speak. They catch each other’s hands, rising through the air like a flock of birds, far beyond the reach of a whip or bullets. Toby flies behind them, looking down at the seemingly endless fields, and the wondering slaves watching him pass above their heads. He has no time to stop, no time to give them wings – he can’t save them all. They must wait, and run if they can.

This story is rooted in one of the ugliest events of human history. It is the dream of freedom, devastatingly out of reach for so many of those who needed it most, but kept stubbornly alive – after all, if you can’t escape in body, you can try in mind. Stories like this took courage. The least they deserve is remembrance.

Review No.128 – Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch No.1) – Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2014

Originally published in 2013

Deep in the outreaches of human civilisation, far from the heartland of the Radch where her life began, Breq is searching for a secret that could topple an empire. She is all that remains of the vast military starship Justice of Toren – an artificial intelligence that once commanded thousands of human ancillaries. It was lost twenty years ago, and now Breq is alone. But she knows who betrayed her. And she knows how to avenge herself.

Ancillary Justice is a remarkable novel, skilfully constructed around a fascinating concept. Breq is one of the most unusual characters I’ve ever encountered and it took me some time to settle into the structure of the book, but its quiet emotional depth and excellent world-building hooked me in. I especially love how Leckie plays with different languages within her universe to reveal cultural norms and ingrained biases. There were a couple of characters whose behaviour changed too quickly for my liking, without quite enough explanation, but overall the support cast of Ancillary Justice were strong. The Imperial Radch series continues with Ancillary Sword.

Review No.127 – The Islands of Chaldea

The Islands of Chaldea – Diana Wynne Jones (completed by Ursula Jones)

HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2014

For time out of mind the Wise Women of Skarr have been granted visions when they undergo initiation, but when twelve-year-old Aileen emerges unenlightened she takes it as confirmation she’ll never live up to her indomitable Aunt Beck. She’s given no time to dwell on her disappointment, however. As the only Wise Women left on Skarr, the two of them are summoned in secret and tasked with fulfilling a prophecy – to break down the magical barrier that cuts off the island of Logra from Skarr and its neighbours, and rescue the High King’s long-lost son. A task that would be much easier if the prophecy were not so hazy, Aileen’s companions not so incompetent, and someone was not trying so hard to see them fail…

This was the novel Diana Wynne Jones was working on at the time of her death and as such would have remained unpublished had her sister not finished writing it in her stead. It is to Ursula Jones’ credit that I couldn’t tell while reading where one author left off and the other started. Diana Wynne Jones was one of the greats of British fantasy – The Islands of Chaldea is not the best of her works but it contains the same eccentric magic and playful twists that made her work so irrepressibly fun. She will be much missed.

October is the Month of Authorial Announcements

phantazein2014 has already been a fantastic year for me as a writer, and this month kicked off to an excellent start with the launch of Phantazein, the latest FableCroft anthology. It is home to my fairy tale retelling ‘Twelfth’, which is about love and betrayal and bad life choices. As you can see, my copies arrived today in a parcel of gorgeousness. Print and electronic options are available here.

My work will also be appearing in Lethe Press’s anthology Daughters of Frankenstein, scheduled for release in February next year! It’s a collection of short fiction about lesbian mad 1590213602scientists, which has to be one of the most fun themes I’ve ever written for. My story is called ‘Doubt the Sun’ – you can expect an argumentative artificial intelligence with a Regency haircut and an ever diminishing tolerance for fools. It will be the second science fiction story I’ve published. My first, ‘The Oblivion Box’, is being reprinted by Ticonderoga Publications in The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2013. It is such a great honour to be chosen for this collection, alongside so many wonderful writers! You can see the full table of contents here.

years-best-fantasy-and-horror-v4-slideI have one more announcement to make. For over two years now I’ve been posting weekly fairy tale reviews, analysing and enthusing and exploring folk stories from all over the world. I have loved every minute of it. I am particularly delighted at the responses I’ve received and the conversations readers have shared with me in the comments – thank you all, so much, for sharing this with me. But it feels like time to strike out for new ground, and sadly that means that at the end of this year I’ll be bringing Fairy Tale Tuesdays to a close. That does not mean I plan to stop writing about fairy tales. (Honestly, is that even possible?) I have big plans for blogging in 2015, not complete enough to share yet, but I promise there is much more than a glimmer of the fantastical on the horizon.

In the meantime, there are dragons to rescue, princes to fight, and stories to tell. Always, there are more stories.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.112 – Monster Copper Forehead

This Russian fairy tale is taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Monsters and begins with a hunter called Zar, who is having a bad day. Having utterly failed to find any game, he’s dispiritedly turning for home when a creature called Monster Copper Forehead springs out at him from behind the trees. Zar panics and tries to shoot him in the head – which does not work so well, because copper forehead.

“Now I shall eat you!” shouts the monster. Zar offers anything he owns in exchange for his life and Monster Copper Forehead agrees to spare him, at the price of something at home Zar does not know he has. Of course, when he gets home his wife has given birth, and he realises that what the monster wants is his infant son Ivan. Sure enough, Monster Copper Forehead shows up on the doorstep the very next day to claim his prize. When both parents plead to keep their child, saying they’d rather give anything else, the monster points out they have nothing else to give. Nevertheless, he grants them a delay of twelve years. At the end of that time he’ll come back, and this time he will take the boy.

Twelve years is a lot of time for Ivan’s desperate parents to plot. They dig a huge cellar under the garden, stock it well with food, and as the time draws near for the monster’s return, they move in. Zar’s mother is installed in the house instead, with the promise she will not give them away. That promise counts for a lot less when the monster himself arrives. “If you lie to me it will be the worse for you,” he menaces. “I have been known to make my dinner off little old grandmothers.” YOU FIEND. Terrified, the old lady tells him to take the poker and toss it in the garden. By weirdly predictable good luck – or bad luck, depending upon your position – it lands precisely against the hidden trapdoor to Zar’s family bunker. Before long the monster has dragged out all three of its residents.

“If I weren’t a kind-hearted fellow,” he roars, “I’d crack your skull in, Zar, for so deceiving me!” He settles for taking Ivan away to his house in the deep dark woods.

He does not, however, want to eat him – far from it, he does not want Ivan for himself at all, but for a little girl called Berta who already lives with him. He took her away from a wicked stepmother and now keeps her locked up inside the house like a beloved pet. One day while he’s out, however, a huge raven visits the house and calls out to the children. At his suggestion they climb up the chimney, jump onto his back and fly away for home.

Unfortunately for them, Monster Copper Forehead is quick to notice their absence. Using his villain of the story superpowers, he scans the skies and spots the runaways, then stamps his foot and sends a flame spearing up through the air. The fire singes the raven’s wings and he falls to earth, where Monster Copper Forehead is waiting. He snatches up the children and storms home, thoroughly put out.

The raven is not the only bird to have noticed their captivity, though. The next time Monster Copper Forehead is out, a huge falcon comes flying to his house. “Creep up the chimney, young Ivan,” he urges. “Creep up the chimney, little Berta, and I will carry you home.” But the falcon is no more able to elude the monster’s fire than his predecessor, and the children’s escape fails again. This time Monster Copper Forehead blocks up the chimney, to prevent a third attempt.

But he lives in a fairy tale and can no more prevent the Third Thing taking place than he can reverse gravity. This time a huge bull shows up outside his house. The children break a window and clamber onto the beast’s back, and he runs like a monster is on his tail. Which, of course, one is. He runs so fast it is too late to employ the fire, so Monster Copper Forehead pursues on foot instead. He corners the bull at a lake, and it seems like this rescue will fail too – but across the water come the bull’s friends, Sharp-Clawed Cat and Bristle-Haired Dog, who just happen to have a raft. They pick up the bull and the children and Monster Copper Forehead is left stranded on the other side, crying out to the children, begging them to come back. Ivan has no sympathy, being kidnapped and all, but Berta has lived with the monster longer and knows he’s not all bad. One day, while the assorted beasts and birds she now lives with are busy with other things, she borrows the raft and crosses the lake to where Monster Copper Forehead is still crying.

“Ah, ah, you will come back and live with me, my darling!” he cries delightedly, at the sight of her. “No,” Berta corrects him, “but get on the raft, and I will take you to live with us.” I like you, Berta, I like the way you think. Her hopes for forging one big happy family are crushed, however, when she hears her housemates returning, singing about how they want to kill the monster. While their attitude is understandable, given the history, it’s ultimately unhelpful. Berta has extracted a promise from the monster not to harm Ivan; at this moment she realises Ivan has made no similar promise and isn’t likely to do so. Monster Copper Forehead quickly turns himself into a pin and she hides that in the wall. The cat and dog are suspicious and try to search the house, but Berta has prepared supper and soon everyone is eating instead.

The next morning, when they have all gone hunting, Berta pulls the pin loose and it turns into a monster again. She tells him he must go home or her friends will murder him – and I think it’s significant she uses the word ‘murder’ rather than ‘kill’. Monster Copper Forehead would rather run the risk of bows and arrows than return alone to his empty house, so Berta agrees to go with him. “But you must never again lock the door and bar the window and keep me prisoner,” she warns him, and he gives her his word he won’t.

Ivan’s reaction when he realises Berta is gone is mild annoyance. “We have lost our housekeeper,” he complains. “Now we must take it in turns to stay home and do the cooking!” No wonder she ran away to live with her monster. The whole Lost Boys lifestyle suits Ivan for a while, but eventually he begins to think about his parents and decides to go home. As a farewell gift, the cat and dog dig him up a cache of gold coins, and the bull helps him carry them home. His parents had given up hope of his ever returning – they are so overjoyed at his suddden appearance that they adopt all his friends too, an assimilation made much easier by the riches in Ivan’s bags.

So Ivan is happy, his parents and friends are happy, and Monster Copper Forehead – who never liked Ivan that much anyway – is happy, because he has Berta. But Berta herself is beginning to feel her isolation. As she grows up she often feels very alone, and the monster, being a surprisingly attentive father figure, realises she needs other humans in her life. One day he stays out late and eventually comes home with a startled prince tucked under his arm, whom he promptly pushes at Berta like a doll. “What did I tell you?” he exclaims proudly. “Isn’t she good? Isn’t she beautiful? Doesn’t she shine like the very sun, doesn’t she, doesn’t she?”

Ahem. I may have something in my eye.

“She make the darkness bright around her,” says the prince, who is not an idiot. Berta laughs. When she agrees to marry her giftwrapped suitor, the monster gives them both a very literal lift back to the palace. “I will not come in to fright the wedding guests,” he tells them sadly. “I will say goodbye to you here, my little Berta.” He may be an incompetent parent, but he means well and he’s tried very hard. She kisses him affectionately on the cheek, and though he returns home alone, it is with a smile on his face.

SHE DOESN’T MARRY IVAN. I was so sure that was coming, I was bracing myself for it – but no, she doesn’t have to marry the neglectful hunter who saw her only as a housekeeper, she gets a poetically minded prince! She also has a terrifying adoptive parent to call on in times of crisis, always useful when you enter a royal family. If anyone ever threatens her children, I’m pretty sure they’ll regret it. After all, what prince or princess’s life story could not be improved by the presence of a ferociously protective monster grandad?

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.111 – The Four Clever Brothers

Yes, you read that right, this Grimm fairy tale is about four brothers, not three, in a startling reversal of narrative norms – but it starts off with a totally familiar scene of the boys gathered together receiving their father’s wisdom. And for once it’s pretty good wisdom. He has no money to bequeath them so advises his sons to all go forth and seek a trade. This they do, and when they come to a crossroads each brother takes a different direction, having first promised one another to return to the same spot in four years time to see how the others have fared. This makes no sense because one of those four roads must lead back the way they came, but four is an important number to this family so let’s pretend we didn’t notice.

The eldest brother tells the first man he meets that he’s looking for a trade and this man immediately offers to teach him – how to be a thief. “No,” the eldest brother replies, shocked, “that is not an honest calling, and what can one look to earn by it in the end but the gallows?” The thief points out this is only a problem if you get caught. “I will only teach you to take what no one else wants, what no one else can get, or care anything about, and where no one can find you out.” The eldest brother overcomes his moral objections pretty quickly and turns out to be really good at thieving. So he’s all right.

The second brother takes the same approach. His random stranger offers to teach him the art of star-gazing, and thus how to read all manner of secrets in the heavens. This brother needs no convincing, and takes to the work well. At the end of his service his master gives him a spyglass. “With this,” he explains, “you can see all that is passing in the sky and on earth, and nothing can be hidden from you.” That sounds more like magic than skill, but whatever, that’s the two eldest brothers set up just fine. Normally by now they’d both be enchanted or dead. This is confusing.

The third brother runs into a friendly hunter, who takes him home and trains him up; at the end of his service, he gets a particularly impressive bow. Meanwhile the youngest brother almost bucks the trend of jumping aboard the first trade suggested to him, because he doesn’t want to be a tailor, but his prospective boss is cunningly enigmatic about the work and eventually rewards his pupil with a needle that can sew anything without leaving behind a visible seam.

So the four brothers meet up at the appointed time and return home to show off their shiny new skills. Their father tests each boy with a small but difficult task. The second brother is told to divine the number of eggs in a birdsnest; his elder brother is told to steal the eggs without the bird knowing they are gone, upon the success of which the third brother is told to shoot all the eggs in half at one shot. Afterwards, it falls to the youngest brother to sew up the eggs and the baby birds inside, so his eldest brother can slip them back into the nest. A few days later the eggs hatch and the baby birds emerge quite well, though with a thin red line across each of their necks as evidence of their brush with the brothers.

Having established the boys are experts in their individual fields, it does not take long for a real challenge to emerge. The king’s daughter is abducted by a dragon and the king has no idea what to do, beyond sending out word that whoever comes up with a successful rescue plan will win the princess’ hand in marriage. Imaginative, he is not. It has the desired effect, though, because the brothers set out straight away. The stargazer looks through his glass (please stop acting like this is science, Grimms, IT IS MAGIC) and sees the princess trapped on a rock in the middle of the sea. The brothers ask the king for a ship and travel to the aforesaid rock, where the dragon is napping, his huge head balanced on the princess’s lap. That cannot be comfortable. The hunter does not want to risk a shot, lest he kill the princess, so the thief sneaks her out from under the dragon and they sail away.

They have not gone far when the dragon wakes and realises his new pet has disappeared. As he dives for the ship, the hunter shoots him through the heart. Unfortunately, the corpse lands square on the ship, overturning it and throwing them all into the water. This is when Brother No.4 comes into his own. Quickly stitching up a few planks into a raft, he paddles about rebuilding the ship. It’s close enough to seaworthy that they reach the shore safely and the princess is returned to her home.

Here arises the first real difficulty of the whole endeavour – if the reward is marriage to the princess and there are four equally worthy candidates, what’s to be done? The brothers squabble about it in frustrated circles, pointing out the value of their own talents, until the king intervenes. “Each of you is right,” he says, “and as all cannot have the young lady, the best way is for neither of you to have her; and to make up for the loss, I will give each, as a reward for his skill, half a crown.” Not an actual crown, it should be pointed out, he’s talking about money, and not very much of it. The brothers, though, are so glad to have a solution they take the coins and go home happily.

This story is unconventional in a few different ways. The elder brothers make it through the story without turning into terrible and/or dead people! The princess doesn’t have to marry anybody! Though I’d be happier if someone had asked her what she thought about her suitors, and whether she fancied any of them. There are quite a few similar stories from all over the world, including Sicily and China – the number of brothers vary, as do their abilities, challenges and eventual reward, but in every story success depends on the whole family working together. This story may be ambiguous about the morality of thieving and financial compensation for heroic action, but its heart is in the right place.

Review No.126 – The Broken Kingdoms

The Broken Kingdoms (The Inheritance Trilogy No.2) – N.K. Jemisin

Orbit, 2010

A decade ago the city was known as Sky, for the floating palace of the Arameri, and strict monotheism was enforced upon its citizens by the followers of Bright Itempas. Now that palace is ensnared between the branches of the World Tree that towers over all, giving this place the new name of Shadow, and it is overrun by the children of the gods. They walk among mortals, making homes, taking lovers, answering the prayers of their worshippers in between managing their more mundane enterprises. The trails of magic they leave behind are visible to Oree Shoth alone, and magic is the only thing she can see. Beloved of one godling and living with another, she is already subject to more celestial attention than she would like; then she finds an impossible corpse, and realises the disaster has just begun.

Jemisin has a clear, engaging style and a wealth of beautiful imagery – which, given the book’s blind protagonist, is presented in an inventive variety of ways. It is rare to see a character with a disability placed at the centre of a novel-length narrative, and Oree holds that space decisively. Hers is a different kind of strength to Jemisin’s previous heroine, Yeine, but she’s equally enjoyable company. I also loved some of the secondary characters, particularly Lil and Nemmer. The trilogy concludes with The Kingdom of Gods.