Let’s Have A Rousing Discussion About Truth, Dragons and Historically Authentic Sexism

For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.

– Virginia WoolfCranky Ladies logo

Tomorrow is the first day of Women’s History Month. Throughout March FableCroft Publishing are running a Pozible campaign for their new anthology, Cranky Ladies of History, and co-editor Tehani Wessely has organised a blog tour to explore the legacy of women who were unconventional, rebellious, or outright revolutionary. Which means we get to talk about HISTORY!

Most girls grow up surrounded by storybook princesses. The ones I liked best were Elizabeth, Victoria and Cleopatra, thanks to a series of fictional autobiographies in my local library’s children’s section. Having been consuming period dramas and documentaries from a very young age, my brain houses a disordered archive of historical detail, from the failed strategies of the Battle of Hastings to what wealthy Tudors used for toothpaste (sugar, if you really want to know. Don’t try this at home!)

History is, after all, one long, unpredictable story with countless fan fiction spin-offs, and I am easily hooked into a good story. All my life I’ve been fascinated by the past, but I have never had the slightest desire to actually go there. It is, as they say, a foreign country, and not a particularly pleasant one if you happen to be female. That we need a dedicated month tells you everything you need to know about the way women have been treated by humanity’s (mostly male) record-keepers.

There was some debate online in late 2012 about ‘historically authentic sexism’ in fantasy and science fiction, kicking off with this article on the Mary Sue and continuing with glorious sarcasm from Tansy Rayner Roberts and Foz Meadows. To summarise, if you find giant fire-breathing lizards more credible than women as active participants in a narrative, you may have problems. The best narratives, naturally, have both, but I digress.

History is a vast mosaic of human experience and for a very long time the pieces about women have been treated as insignificant. The very word woman, derived from Old English, is an amalgamation of wīf (wife) and man (person). According to the actual language, if you weren’t male, you were not really a person; you could only be married to one. Over the course of generations, women’s experiences and achievements have been belittled, forgotten and ignored, sometimes out of deliberate malice but more often from a pervasively misogynistic mindset. The wives of Henry VIII are still forced into the boxes they were given during their lifetimes, their contributions to the Tudor dynasty dismissed, while the nine days queen Jane Grey is held up as a martyr to the ambition of others instead of the intelligent and politically aware young woman she was. The dispute between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots becomes a beauty contest. Cleopatra is treated as a seductress, not a politician. Nuance, automatically granted to male contemporaries, is something women have had to win.

Which is incredibly frustrating, because there are SO MANY amazing women throughout history. If you want leaders, there’s the Iceni queen Boudicca, who struck fear into the heart of the Roman Empire. Cleopatra, the only Ptolemaic monarch who bothered to learn the Egyptian language. The African warrior Amina Sarauniya Zazzua, who led military campaigns while her mother governed then inherited power for a thirty four year reign. Not to forget Elizabeth, the ultimate politician and devastatingly brilliant academic, or Queen Victoria, who ruled over an empire so vast it was said the sun never set on her lands. Then there are the revolutionaries: Harriet Tubman, who escaped a savagely abusive plantation owner and went on to rescue more than three hundred slaves. Joan of Arc, the teenage girl who led a French army with force of conviction alone. Constance Markievicz, an Irish activist and the first woman to be elected to the British House of Commons. When asked to give fashion advice, her reply was “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver.”

In the sciences, there was Hypatia, inventor of the astrolabe and hydroscope; Maria Agnesi, so committed to mathematics she wrote solutions in her sleep; Marie Curie, who won a Nobel Prize for her investigation of radioactivity. In literature, well, take your pick. Aphra Behn was one of the first female playwrights in Restoration England and part-time spy for Charles II. The Brontë sisters created heroines fuelled by incontrovertible self-respect. Mary Shelley arguably invented the science fiction genre; Murasaki Shikibu arguably invented the novel.

I don’t require my favourite ladies of history to have been nice, or even on the paler side of moral grey. All it takes to get on my radar is to be interesting. Ching Shih, for instance, a former prostitute who became a pirate queen so unstoppable that the only way to end her marauding was to offer her a comfortable retirement – just knowing she existed makes me happy. But she wasn’t the only female pirate in history, not by a long shot. Every time someone says, ‘women never did that!’, I guarantee you there was a woman who did.

Writers of historical fiction incur an immediate responsibility, because the stories we hear are the realities we believe. Writing about real people from history is an even greater challenge. However detailed the account of their life, there are gaps where fiction can only conjecture – but it can also breathe life and soul into the names of people who died centuries ago. I’m glad those ‘autobiographies’ were waiting for me, and all the other stories from history I have read since. They are an important part of reclaiming women’s lives, so long belittled and dismissed. They remind us of the remarkable achievements of the past, and the limitless potential of the future.

And that being ‘cranky’ isn’t always such a bad thing.

Review No.144 – Blackout

Blackout – Mira Grant (Newsflesh No.3)

Orbit, 2012

The world is suffering through the beginnings of another apocalypse. Does it need to know that the most powerful organisation in America unleashed hell deliberately to bury the truth? Does it need to know that Shaun Mason, one of the last faces left that the public trusts, is in hiding with a mad scientist and the delusion of his dead sister? The end is coming, one way or another, and no one is getting out untouched. But death isn’t as reliable an ending as it used to be. And no one knows that better than Georgia Mason.

Deadline, book two of the Newsflesh trilogy, ended with one killer cliffhanger. Blackout takes that cliffhanger and raises it to epic proportions. I literally had no idea what would happen next, and read until it hurt. As the full depth of the conspiracy is revealed and the body count rises, the threads of three books come together in a fantastically intense finale.

Review No.143 – Cold Steel

Cold Steel – Kate Elliott (Spiritwalker No.3)

Orbit, 2013

The world is changing. The Wild Hunt has slaughtered the ruler of the Taino Kingdom and abducted a powerful cold mage to feed the spirit courts it serves. The exiled general Camjiata is returning to Europa to lead a revolution. At the centre of it all is Catherine Barahal, daughter of a renegade Amazon and the Master of the Wild Hunt. While the traditional balance of power breaks down into a chaos of discontent, defiance and outright rebellion, her priorities are simple: to save her husband and reunite with her cousin. All she has to do first is escape a murder trial, elude the wrath of a rogue fire mage and survive the storm of two worlds at war…

The third installment in the Spiritwalker trilogy brings Cat and Bee’s adventures to an explosive conclusion. The series has been an ambitiously original blend of steampunk, alternate history and epic fantasy, and this last book throws everything on the table. I had mixed feelings about Cat in this one – with Bee, she’s wonderful, but I felt her relationship with Andevai progressed to the detriment of her character. Of course, Bee makes everything wonderful just by being in the scene, so there’s that. This has been a solid, well-crafted and innovative series and all the threads come together for a strong ending.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.79 – The Red Pearls

This fairy tale comes from Chinese Fairytales, an anthology by Sun Xuegang and Cai Guoyun, and takes a delightfully unexpected approach to a familiar set-up. A young woodcutter called Liu Hai lives in a small cottage in the forest with his blind, elderly mother. One morning he goes out with his axe and spies a large dead tree that will be easy work to disassemble. In fact, it’s ridiculously easy. All he has to do is lift his axe and the tree falls to bits in front of him. Bewildered and a bit suspicious, he nevertheless makes use of his good fortune and ties the lot into a bundle.

His benefactor is not long in presenting herself. Liu Hai notices a girl on the path behind him as he returns home and when he reaches his cottage she tries to follow him inside. “Who are you?” he asks, baffled. “Why are you following me from the forest?” The girl introduces herself as Ninth Sister and asks for water. That’s only for starters, though; as soon as she’s finished drinking, she brushes blithely past her host to go chat with his mum. Pulling out a string of red pearls, she swings the jewels before the old lady’s eyes and her sight is magically restored.

That’s one hell of an icebreaker. Ninth Sister then goes on to explain that she is homeless, living in the forest, and has been watching Liu Hai for a while. “Forgive my boldness,” she tells his mother, “but I want to marry him and live here as your daughter-in-law.”

Liu Hai thinks this is a terrible idea. He can’t afford to look after another person, his time is taken up with the care of his mother, this girl is a bit odd…but she’s also beautiful and forthright and his mother thinks she’s fantastic, so it’s not that hard to win him over. They marry the same day. Life continues steadily for some time, until one day Ninth Sister goes to the market and a blind beggar comes calling on Liu Hai’s mother. Sympathising with the stranger’s plight, the kind-hearted old lady fetches out her daughter-in-law’s red pearls to replicate her own cure, but this beggar is not all he seems. As soon as the jewels are held before him, he snatches them and turns to run.

This is when Ninth Sister returns home. Realising what’s happened, she tries to stop the beggar too, but then he transforms into an enormous golden toad and leaps into a passing breeze. Clearly, this is not your run of the mill type burglary. Ninth Sister bursts into tears. “Now I can no longer live here with you and Liu Hai!” she cries, and runs away into the mountains.

When the news is related to her husband, he immediately sets out after her. She has made no effort to hide; before long he comes across a cave where she sits crying with her sisters. They are, as it turns out, all fox spirits. After millennia studying the Tao, Ninth Sister turned her life energy into the pearls and could stay in the human world, but now they are stolen she can’t come back. “Even if you were a fox, I would still love you,” Liu Hai declares. “I will find the golden toad and bring back your pearls!”

At this point, his walking stick starts to talk. It is apparently a god. Having listened first-hand to Liu Hai’s troubles, it offers to help him locate the toad, who is currently in his own cave gloating over the pearls. His plan is to swallow them and become immortal. When Liu Hai and the fox spirits appear outside, the toad throws handfuls of magic coins that become a minor avalanche of stones. The walking stick protects its owner/ worshipper and the sisters use their own magic to repel the boulders, but by the time they reach the cave the toad has already swallowed the pearls.

This is the sort of situation when it’s nice to have a god on your side. The walking stick turns into a boa constrictor and squeezes the toad so hard the pearls are forced out of his mouth. When Ninth Sister has safely reclaimed them, the walking stick releases its victim, and the toad limps unhappily away. The fox spirits don’t care; their sister’s life and happiness has been restored and she returns home with her husband. And his omniscient walking stick.

A supportive husband who doesn’t care his wife is supernatural, a clan of fox spirits and a walking stick with convenient godly powers – there is much to like. Best of all, Liu Hai doesn’t need to kidnap his magical lover to make her marry him. She could see what kind of a man he was for herself.

Review No.142 – Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire – Elizabeth Wein

Electric Monkey, 2013

During the summer of 1944, as the Allies fight their way across France, Rose Justice joins the war. A young American pilot delivering planes and taxiing passengers for the ATA, she has seen the impact of the past few years on Great Britain, but she has chosen to take the risks and chafes at not being allowed to do more. Then she is sent to France, and the same woman will never come back. Because in France, she is captured.

This book has been categorised as YA, along with Wein’s earlier novel Code Name Verity, and I really can’t understand why. YA is a fantastic and extremely flexible genre, and a teenage audience could certainly read Wein, just as they could read any other writer. But if these books are YA, what the hell does it take to be categorised as adult fiction?

Reading Code Name Verity was a shattering experience, but even that is insufficient preparation for Rose Under Fire. The only word is harrowing. And yet, this is Wein’s skill: she makes the unbearable real, makes it possible to read. She takes statistics and restores their humanity. This book does not have the devious twists and turns of Code Name Verity; it is the same war seen from an entirely different angle, and with a different kind of defiance, the kind that holds you together when an entire bureaucracy of the inhumane is doing its best to tear you apart. I could not bear reading stories like this very often, but they need to be told. They need to be remembered.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.78 – Three Heads of the Well

This week’s fairy tale is taken from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s collection The Magic Lands: folk tales of Britain and Ireland, and it certainly doesn’t mince words. Less than a year after the death of his first wife, a cash-strapped king goes looking for a wealthy new bride. The woman he chooses is a cranky, paranoid widow whose physical appearance is described in the most unflattering terms, and her reason for marrying a man who doesn’t love her is so that her daughter will inherit the crown. There is only one problem with that – the king already has an heir, his own daughter Eleanor.

Having a sad lack of witchcraft at her disposal, the stepmother launches a whisper campaign. The young princess is still grieving for her mother and her misery deepens at the unexpected distance growing between herself and her father. Taking the practical course, she goes to him and announces her intention to go on a journey. He’s all too amenable to the idea, but because he is an idiot he delegates the task of preparations to his wife. The bundle Eleanor receives contains no money and no clothing, and barely enough food to last a day.

She sets off anyway, walking all day through the beechwood beyond the palace, and only stops in the late afternoon when she comes to a glade. It is already occupied; an old man seated on a stone calls out a cheery greeting. Eleanor politely offers a share of her meagre supplies and they share a late lunch. As a reward for the kind gesture, the old man gives her directions to a thick thorn hedge just beyond the forest. That doesn’t sound like much of a reward, it’s true, but he throws in a rowan twig that will magically part the hedge. Further on, the old man continues, there will be a well and three heads floating in it. The princess should do whatever they say.

Well, Eleanor did go looking for an adventure. She follows the old man’s directions to the well and sure enough, there are three golden heads bobbing in the water. They ask her to wash and comb them, and Eleanor – who may have nothing else, but brought her comb! – does exactly that. When she’s done and all the heads are lined up on a bank of wildflowers, they discuss between themselves what to do for this lovely young lady. The first decides to give her enchanting beauty. The second gives her skin and breath a sweeter scent than a flower garden. The last head plots to match her up with ‘the best of all princes’. They then ask Eleanor to return them to the well, after which she continues calmly on her journey. She is now accompanied by an entourage of adoring birds. Basically, they’ve transformed her into a Disney princess.

The path she is following just happens to lead her through a beautiful park. Seeing a king and his huntsmen riding through the trees, Eleanor turns in a different direction; she’s had quite enough of kings for one day. Fairy tale royalty are not, however, reknown for their ability to take a hint, and the king is charmed by her amazing floral fragrance. He insists on inviting her inside. Once he has her there, he does everything he can think of to please and impress her, proving that perhaps he is the best of princes after all, only not actually a prince any more. Eleanor is won over by his skilful conversation and agrees to marry him. It is only after the wedding that she tells him who her father is; his reaction is to laugh and order his extravagantly fancy carriage for a family visit. That third head had excellent judgement.

When Eleanor arrives, her father is pacing the grounds, a tiny bit uneasy about sending his only child off into the unknown with so little ceremony. He is astounded to see her step from a royal carriage, bedecked in new jewellery with a handsome husband on her arm. The entire court goes into party mode, with feasting and music, but Eleanor’s stepmother is in no temper to join them. Drawing aside her daughter, she provides a bag of sweets and sherry and tells her to follow the same track as her stepsister. This naturally leads her to the same glade. The old man is still there, only this time the meeting doesn’t go so well; the girl won’t allow him a bite from her bag and he wishes her bad luck in her journey.

Untroubled, she continues on her way and comes to the thorn hedge. She thinks there is a gap, but as she’s squeezing through it closes around her and she emerges with torn skin and clothes. Her first thought when she sees the well is to wash away the blood and when three heads come bobbing unexpectedly to the surface, the girl reacts by whipping out her mother’s sherry and whacking each one with the bottle. “What shall we do for this girl,” the heads mutter darkly, “who has been so cruel to us?” They don’t take long to decide. The first head gives her sores, the second rancid breath, and the third predicts her marriage to a common cobbler.

There is no king awaiting her just down the track; she has to sleep on bare earth. The next morning she comes to a market town where everyone shrinks back in alarm from her livid sores – everyone apart from a kind-hearted cobbler. He offers to cure both afflictions if she will marry him, and given her options at the time, the girl accepts. In a strange turn of events, the cobbler only just mended a penniless old man’s shoes and took a bottle and box of ointments as payment. It takes a few weeks, but slowly the girl is restored to what she was. She marries the cobbler and returns home to introduce him to her mother.

That…does not go well. The queen commits suicide. Her husband inherits the wealth he married her for and has no remaining interest in his stepdaughter, so the girl returns home with her husband. While he mends shoes, she weaves cloth and dyes it all the brightest colours she can, and never returns to the palace.

There are endless variations on this particular fairy tale. A pair of sisters are subjected to the same magical test, with the first to be lavishly rewarded (note to magic-users: having diamonds drop from her mouth with every word is taking it way too far) and the second to be punished with equal severity (toads and snakes is WAY WAY too far). This one, though, is interesting. The stepsister has a story of her own – as the spoiled daughter of a wealthy, ambitious woman, brought into the household of a man who doesn’t give a damn about either of them, her brusqueness sounds like a self defence tactic to me. She takes on disembodied heads with a sherry bottle, and she only marries the cobbler after weeks experiencing his kindness. After the loss of her mother and inheritance, she makes a new life as a weaver, making cloth and dying it ‘all the colours of the rainbow’.

This is a girl who will make her own happily ever after.

Review No.141 – Here Be Dragons

Here Be Dragons (The Deep No.1) – Tom Taylor

Gestalt Publishing, 2011

The Nektons are a family of explorers. Their home is a state-of-the-art submarine, their version of normality teaching fish to play fetch. When stories of a sea monster emerge from Greenland, the Nektons are hot on its trail. This is the find of a lifetime! But can anyone really be ready for a creature that bites a blue whale in half?

I’d heard a little bit about Taylor’s graphic novel series before but it was this glowing review at No Award that made me borrow it from the library and I’m glad I did. Though it’s shelved in with the young fiction, Here Be Dragons is readable for any age – bright, funny and fast-paced, with a family of delightfully eccentric heroes – and James Brouwer’s art is full of personality. The series continues with The Vanishing Island.