Review – The Good, the Bad and the Undead

The Good, the Bad and the Undead (The Hollows No.2) – Kim Harrison

HarperVoyager, 2006

Originally published in 2005

Everyone likes the idea of an independent ‘runner’ taking down Inderlanders who break the law, but paying one is another matter. Having barely survived the exit from her last job, Rachel Morgan is struggling to make a living from her new one. When she’s brought in as a consultant on the notorious ‘witch hunter’ murder case, it’s exactly the break she needs, particularly since she has a strong theory in mind. But there are a few things she’s failed to take into account. Her messy history with councilman Trent Kalamack. Her moody partner and housemate Ivy’s connections to the city’s vampire underworld. And how Rachel fits the murderer’s profile to a T…

I had a few minor reservations about the first Hollows novel, Dead Witch Walking, but overall enjoyed it very much and was looking forward to reading this one. Unfortunately, it disappointed me badly. There were multiple gaping plot holes that made Rachel look anything but competent, and her relationship with Ivy – integral to my enjoyment of the first book – suffered so much damage that, while Harrison could clearly move past it, I certainly could not. I’ll explain that in more detail under the spoilers tag. The world Harrison created is an interesting one and there’s a lot to like about the central characters, but this was much too frustrating for me to continue with the series.

Spoilers: (Trigger warning for references to rape) The scene in which Ivy pressures Rachel to become her ‘scion’ (a position somewhere between servant and lover, there to provide their vampire master with blood) is written as a sexual assault – Ivy taking advantage of her superior physical strength to manhandle Rachel, using the scar from a demonic injury to further distort Rachel’s ability to give informed consent, ignoring all of Rachel’s boundaries and pleas for her to stop – but nobody within the narrative treats the incident as a serious violation and Rachel consistently blames herself for it happening at all. This is classic victim-blaming, which makes it all the more bizarre when Ivy later suffers a similar experience and Rachel calls it rape – because while that’s undoubtedly what it is, how is it possible for the two events to receive such different treatment? Just because Ivy’s attacker got what he wanted from the encounter and Ivy did not get what she wanted from Rachel does not make the attempt any more acceptable. And neither incident is acceptable in the slightest.

Ladies of Legend: Circe and Medea

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards (Carlton Books Ltd, 2007) by Tim Dedopulos

Circe is a sorceress from ancient Greek myth, the daughter of the sun god Helios and either his wife, the Oceanid Perse, or the goddess of dark magic, Hecate, depending on which version you believe. Given her life choices, I’m betting on Hecate.

 Circe’s name means ‘falcon’ and she was very beautiful, but with a destructive streak a mile long and a disastrous love life. When an Italian prince called Picus rebuffed her, she turned him into a woodpecker; when the sea god Glaucus preferred her half-sister Scylla to herself, Circe turned the poor girl into a terrifying sea-monster with twelve dog legs and six fanged heads. Though that particular curse is also attributed to the sea-nymph Amphitrite, it’s well within Circe’s abilities.

Another, less vicious example of her skills is the invention of a prophylactic draught using magical roots, allowing the drinker to be unaffected by disease. An Athenian princess called Procris made use of it to have a fling with Minos of Crete, since his wife Pasiphaë had cursed his sperm to become snakes, scorpions and millipedes when he took any lover but herself. The draught worked beautifully. Procris later died a violent yet completely unconnected death, because myths.

Circe ruled Aeaea, Island of the Dawn, a place rich with alder trees and oaks. Her palace at the centre was encircled by wolves and lions, but not for protection – the animals actually welcomed guests, because they were once humans themselves before she transformed them with her magic. Non-consensual transfiguration was one of Circe’s favourite hobbies, the other main ones being working at her loom and singing.

Her life intersected with that of Odysseus, the notorious adventuring king, when he came across her island after the fall of Troy. He sent a group of men to scout the land and Circe turned on the charm for them, spreading out a feast of cheese, barley, honey and wine. Only one man, Eurylochus, lingered outside, distrusting her motives. Sure enough, as soon as his friends started eating, Circe hit them with a wand and turned them all into pigs.

Odysseus was, naturally, livid. On his way to confront Circe he was intercepted by the messenger god Hermes and given a white flower called moly that would make him resistant to Circe’s magic. When her wand bounced uselessly off his shoulder, he drew his sword but she broke into dramatic tears and offered him a life of luxury on her island (plus a place in her bed) if he would let her live. Odysseus, I should point out, was en route at the time to his home of Ithaca, where his beautiful and very competent wife Penelope was patiently awaiting his return. Being a terrible husband, he agreed to Circe’s offer on the condition that she restored his men and did not plot against him again. They lived amicably enough for some time – long enough for her to bear three sons, Agrius, Latinus and Telegonus.

Eventually, however, Odysseus wanted to return home. Either she was already tiring of him too or had matured in her attitude toward relationships since the woodpecker incident, because Circe took the break-up exceptionally well. She sent him to see the seer Teiresias in Persephone’s Grove first, to predict what would await him in Ithaca – and yes, I mean that Persephone, this is the land of the dead – not only offering very precise advice on how to get there and what to do when he did, but also a sacrifical ram and ewe, and a favourable breeze to carry his ship. Odysseus was counselled by numerous spectres in the Grove, including his own dead mother Anticleia (who interestingly did not mention her daughter-in-law’s suitor infestation, possibly aware of how badly her hypocritical son would take that information).

Afterwards he returned to Aeaea for more of Circe’s excellent advice. Knowing his journey would take him past the Sirens, whose singing was even more perilous to hear than Circe’s own, she suggested the sailors plug their ears with beeswax and if Odysseus absolutely had to listen – she knew him pretty well by that point – she advised he be tied securely to the mast so he couldn’t do anything reckless. He eventually reunited with Penelope and his son Telemachus in Ithaca, but in Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, even this homecoming is not a happy ending, because Circe’s youngest boy Telegonus later mistakenly launched an attack on Ithaca, killed his father and married poor Penelope. In the same version of the story, Telemachus goes on to marry Circe. EW.

Circe was not Helios’s only child. Pasiphaë of Crete was actually her sister. The sun god also had a son called Aeetes, the king of Colchis, who in turn had a daughter called Medea. There is an argument to be made that much of what happened in Medea’s life was the result of divine argument. The very powerful goddess Hera developed a deep grudge against King Pelias when he had a woman killed in Hera’s temple, and recruited Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to her cause; Medea was their weapon of choice. I think we can credit the princess with some agency, however. She’s too ingeniously murderous to be anyone’s pawn.

And for another thing, Pelias was the kind of person to make enemies everywhere. Dethroning his half-brother, he claimed the throne of Iolcus and tried to rid himself of his nephew Jason too, promising to relinquish the throne if Jason brought home the legendary Golden Fleece. Jason pulled together an ancient Greek version of the Avengers, including big names of the day such as Orpheus and Heracles. They set off on a ship called the Argo to fetch the Fleece, encountering characters along the way such as the genocidal Queen Hypsipyle of Lemnos (with whom Jason had a lengthy affair) and King Amycus, who challenged any male visitor to a boxing match to the death. Though they lost a few friends on the way, the Argonauts eventually reached the palace of Aeetes.

The king was not at all inclined to give up the Fleece. Jason could only take the treasure if he first completed three tasks: matching Aeetes’ fire-breathing bulls in plowing a field, taking the Fleece away from its guardian serpent and lastly, sowing a dragon’s teeth and defeating the warriors that grow from them. Jason did not have a hope. Medea, however, was a sorceress like her aunts and had fallen head over heels for Jason. To survive the bulls, she gave him a magical ointment that protected his skin from their heat. For the next task, she met him at midnight in a grove sacred to Ares, the god of war, where Jason swore to marry her, be faithful to her and take her away to Greece in exchange for the Fleece. Her engagement gift to him was to sing the fearsome guardian serpent to sleep, allowing Jason to claim his prize.

Remember how Circe was reputed to be Hecate’s daughter? Medea was Hecate’s priestess. In Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies, the goddess of dark magic manifested triplefold in the tradition of maiden, mother and crone: Persephone, goddess of spring and queen of the Underworld, being the maiden, the harvest goddess Demeter as the mother, and Hecate herself as the crone. The concept of this triptych certainly adds an interesting depth to Circe’s familiarity with Persephone’s Grove.

Jason managed to defeat the warriors of the dragon’s teeth with his own trickery and ruthlessness. With Medea aboard, the Argo ses sail for home, pursued by the warships of Colchis. Medea was prepared. According to one version of the story, the pursuit was led by her half-brother Apsyrtus, who tried to make a deal with Jason to keep the Fleece if he left Medea behind, and was killed by the lovers instead. In an uglier version, Apsyrtus was a baby snatched from his cradle by the fleeing Medea, who butchered him and threw the pieces into the sea so that her father would leave off the chase to collect the remains of his son.

The Greek gods might be capricious and brutal, but the only one willing to forgive such an act was Hecate; all the others turned against Jason and Medea after that. Medea took her lover to Aeaea for a ritual cleansing from her rather unwilling aunt. Though Circe wouldn’t allow them in her house, she performed the purification.

The return journey to Ioclus was just as demanding and eventful as the way to Colchis, and Medea’s magic proved a decided asset. Upon arriving home, Jason found his father Aeson deathly ill and Medea once again showed her skills by ordering the old man dismembered and boiling him…back to life…in her magic cauldron. Improbable as this sounds, it worked. Even his youth wasrestored. Hoping to receive a similar treatment, Pelias submitted to the same ritual, but she did not perform the same magic and he was left very dead. That she had his daughters do the dismembering is a particularly nasty touch.

As a result, she and Jason were both exiled to Corinth by Pelias’s son Acastus. For a decade their love remained strong and Jason was faithful, as he promised. Then, unfortunately, he got it into his head to marry Princess Glauce of Corinth instead, putting aside Medea by claiming their marriage was invalid. All Medea’s passionate arguments meant nothing to him. So, being Medea, she sent Glauce a poisoned dress that burned the bride, her father and their entire castle to the ground. She then stabbed her own sons to death. Devastated, Jason either committed suicide, or – in one even more morbid version – lingered on as a broken and forsaken man until a piece of his own mighty and now decaying ship fell on his head, killing him. Talk about heavy-handed metaphors.

And still Hecate stood by her priestess. Medea escaped the scene of carnage in a chariot pulled by dragons and went to Athens, where she married King Aegeus and had a son named Medus with him. Unfortunately for her, Aegeus already had an heir, though he didn’t know it until Theseus – he of the Minotaur episode – turned on the doorstep. Medea tried to have Theseus killed, but his influence won the day and Medea was exiled with her son. Aegeus, surprisingly, survived the break up. Well, Medea didn’t kill him, anyway. Theseus managed to bungle up that one all by himself.

Having sort of run out of banishment locations, Medea went home to Colchis. In her absence Aeetes had been dethroned by his brother Perses, whom Medea promptly murdered so her father could take back the kingdom. Medus went on to be a king as well. As for Medea, she claimed a place called Aria and called everyone ‘Medes’ in her own honour. There is no reference to her death in these stories.

I have a particular aversion to the phrase ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’. It makes it sound like female anger is a baseless hysteria, almost a joke. Revenge is unisex. Circe knows precisely how to get what she wants. Medea is a woman with no priority higher than her own survival; she’d wade through any amount of blood to get where she wanted to be. To quote Moriarty from the TV show Elementary, “As if men had a monopoly on murder.”

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 1: The Princess and the Flamethrower

With the sad news of SF Signal’s closure, I am reposting the first article in my Feminism in Fairy Tales series here on my own blog. It was originally posted on the SF Signal website on 13/06/13.

Tales are not lies, nor are they truths, but something in between. They can be as true or as false as the listener chooses to make them, or the teller wants him to believe.

– Juliet Marillier, Son of the Shadows

I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but I’m pretty sure 2012 was the Year of the Fairy Tale. There wasn’t an official announcement or anything, but the nod was clearly given in secret circles and the retellings spread outwards like ripples on the waters of speculative fiction. Novels such as Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens, Sophie Masson’s Moonlight and Ashes and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder were released, there were big movie adaptations Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, there was even a TV series. Hell, there were two TV series! I’m a fiend for fairy tales; I was in paradise. And I was seriously impressed by the ingenuity of all these storytellers for finding something new to say about stories that have been retold over so many years.

But there was also a bitter aftertaste that’s been bothering me for some time. It was so subtle, and so pervasive, that it is difficult to pin down when exactly I first noticed it – in the reviews? The promotional interviews? The posts I read afterwards? What I noticed was this: that when people spoke about a fairy tale adaptation, the assumption was that it would be better than the original. Specifically, that the women would be better.

Because everybody knows women in fairy tales are weak. They are at the mercy of wicked stepmothers and nefarious kings! They always need princes to ride to their rescue! And that’s really pathetic, right? We of modern times are better than that. We know that what every princess really needs is to ditch the frocks and get herself a flamethrower. (Admittedly, I have not yet seen a fairy tale adaptation in which the princess literally has a flamethrower. It is the new dream of my existence that one exists.)

The popular impression of a fairy tale princess is a Disney beauty in a ball gown. The thing is that, like a lot of the other things that ‘everybody’ knows, it’s wrong.

I grew up on the fairy tales retold by Ruth Manning Sanders: a handful of loved-to-death ’80s reprints with missing pages and cracked spines. Manning Sanders covered classics like ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘Aladdin’, but she didn’t stop there. Through her, I discovered stories from Jamaica and Iceland, Sicily and Russia, Switzerland, Denmark and Italy. I read about girls who bribed themselves a better destiny, who freed slaves, who met and married wizards or witch’s sons as well as princes. I learned, not by anyone telling me but from my own insatiable reading, that women in fairy tales are not weak. They are not necessarily strong either. They are something more than either.

They are people.

And I kept reading. I found myself heroines like Tatterhood, the hideous elder daughter of a queen, who goes forth to fight witches and rescue her sister; Princess Blue-Eyes, the gorgeous ruler of her own kingdom who beats a Czar and all his three sons in battle; Tokoyo, daughter of an exiled samurai, who saves a sacrificial maiden by jumping off a cliff and fighting a sea monster. Where are their retellings? Why aren’t there movie adaptations of their stories, or an introduction to the Disney canon? If readers of the 21st century are so dissatisfied with the way women are written in fairy tales, why not look beyond the standard Grimm brothers selection pool?

But let’s take a look into that pool, since it is rather irresistible with its sparkling shallows and murky depths. The women in Grimm favourites tend to get the worst kicking, so stuck with labels you’d think they’d been mistaken for a corkboard. Passive! Submissive! Weepy, soppy, weak.

Why? Because they don’t get into swordfights with their evil stepmothers? Because they don’t take on all comers with a metaphorical flamethrower? Modern retellings often put an emphasis on their heroines physically or verbally defending themselves, which can be excellent and deeply satisfactory, but there are other ways of being strong. Surviving in an atmosphere of hatred without letting yourself get infected by it, like Cinderella does – that takes strength. Making a new life among strangers, like Snow White, takes courage. Being imprisoned with no resources for an escape, like Rapunzel, and keeping on hoping for something better anyway, takes fortitude. It’s a quiet bravery, easy to ignore, and so people do ignore it. They pretend that women in fairy tales don’t ‘do’ anything. But they are wrong.

It isn’t about the stories. It is all about the telling. There are very few fairy tales out there that can’t have excellent female characters if they are told by someone who wants them to be that way, and you don’t have to change the stories at all – all you have to do is understand and respect the characters in them. Women in fairy tales can be villains, they can be heroines, they can be ordinary and in between, but they all have individuality until a storyteller chooses to take it away.

Or gives it back.

As Aladdin could tell you, something new is not automatically better than something old. We need them all, the fairy tales that have been transmuted into shining unfamiliar shapes standing beside the ones that are as old as the path in the dark woods. There’s magic, and strength, enough to be shared without belittling either one.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go write a fairy tale about flamethrowers.

Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 2: The Demon’s In the Double Standard

Feminism in Fairy Tales Part 3: In Dire Need of Dynamite

Review – The Lake House

The Lake House – Kate Morton

Allen&Unwin, 2015

Detective Sadie Sparrow is far from a sentimental woman, certainly not nostalgic. When she goes to stay with her grandfather, troubled by the aftermath of an unsettling case, she intends to return to work as soon as she can. But then she stumbles on Loeanneth, the hidden lake house. Seventy years ago, during a glittering garden party, a baby boy disappeared from his bed and was never seen again. His older sister Alice became the famous A.C. Edevane, the prolific and extremely private crime writer. She is haunted by the night of her brother’s disappearance, guarding a secret that Sadie’s sudden fascination threatens to uncover. Loeanneth may have been abandoned, but the lies of a lifetime are coming home to roost.

The Lake House is an enormous book and it does not give up its twists easily – the plot moves slowly, but it’s written so well that didn’t bother me at all, Morton’s attention to detail conjuring rich imagery for the characters and for the Lake House, which is almost a character in its own right. While the criss-crossing of familial secret-keeping was at times confusing, and the ending was a bit too convenient for my liking, the story was overall very satisfying and a pleasure to sink my teeth into. Morton’s other novels include The Shifting Fog/ The House at Riverton and The Secret Keeper.