The King and the Kingfisher: Top 10 Reads of 2016

Top 10 Reads of 2016

  1. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club – Genevieve Valentine

  2. Fake Geek Girl – Tansy Rayner Roberts

  3. Le Morte d’Arthur – Sir Thomas Malory

  4. Check, Please! – Ngozi Ukazu

  5. Love and Romanpunk – Tansy Rayner Roberts

  6. The Wife Drought – Annabel Crabb

  7. Heir of Sea and Fire – Patricia A. McKillip

  8. Tam Lin – Pamela Dean

  9. Swordspoint – Ellen Kushner

  10. The Grass Crown – Colleen McCullough

I almost wrote ‘Top 10 Reads of 2017’, so that tells you how prepared I am to write this post. I haven’t reviewed as much this year – partially because I was reading more non-fiction as research for Ladies of Legend, but partially because some of my favourite stories to come out of this year weren’t in traditional formats. Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Fake Geek Girl was originally published in Review of Australian Volume 14, Issue 4 and is also available as an ebook, but I heard it on the podcast Sheep Might Fly and just adored everything about it. Magical university, alternate universe geek culture, a quirky band, sneaky mythology references, what is not to love? You can listen to it here. If you sign up to Tansy’s newsletter you can also get a free copy of the ebook, which I DID, and I love.

Check, Please!, meanwhile, is a web comic about sport. Usually I am drawn to neither of those things, but wow is this story a delight. It’s about hockey-playing, pie-baking college vlogger Eric Bittle, and it’s warm, fluffy and immensely lovable.

Most surprising of my favourites from 2016, though, is Le Morte d’Arthur, which I read as research and thus didn’t review. I started out immensely exasperated with it and finished as an emotional wreck. Also, with passionate feelings about a great many characters I had no firm opinion on either way before, particularly Guinevere. Insult Guinevere at your peril.

It’s been a…very strange year. The world stage has become a very ugly place indeed, yet so many wonderful things have happened in the small bubble of my day-to-day life that I cannot help but feel optimistic. My niece was born this year. I saw what I think might possibly be the most beautiful place in the world. The longest fiction I’ve ever had accepted for publication is going to be a book in February next year and I started writing a novel that I’m kind of in love with right now. And while it’s true I do not feel at all ready for 2017, it’s going to be here in about four hours. So the only thing to do is jump in anyway.

Happy New Year! Let’s do amazing things with it.

Review – Valor

Valor – ed. Isabelle Melançon and Megan Lavey-Heaton

Fairylogue Press, 2015

What’s in a name? Maybe a secret, maybe a spell. In this anthology of fairy tale retellings, you’ll have to run fast to escape the masquerade, and hold onto your courage to break a terrible curse. Monsters are not always what they seem, love can be discovered in the strangest of places and a happy ending is all about where you choose to look for it.

Most of the stories in Valor are comics, though there are a few that are almost entirely text. As with all anthologies, some stories were stronger than others – there were a couple that just felt incomplete to me. My favourites included the charming ‘Bride of the Rose Beast’, the bittersweet romance of ‘Nautilus’ and the utterly delightful ‘Lady Tilda’. This collection has a refreshing emphasis on diversity and I was very pleased to see retellings of some more obscure fairy tales.

On Heroines

I recently did an interview on Alyx Dellamonica’s blog, where I was asked about a fictional woman who inspires me, what influence she had on how I write, and what the word ‘heroine’ really means. They were fascinating questions to think about, and complicated ones, because I have had many heroines in my life to guide me onward, upward, to shape the way I think and act.

I have been thinking about heroines a great deal in the last couple of days. Mine is a generation that has never known a world without Princess Leia in it. Now we all do. Carrie Fisher’s death, so closely followed by the death of her mother Debbie Reynolds, is a horrible loss, and in a year when many towers of strength have already crumbled. It’s hard to know what to say when so much has already been said so eloquently. I didn’t know Carrie Fisher in person, I’ve never even seen her play a role outside of Star Wars. What I do know is that she was a brave, beloved woman who was honest and unapologetic about who she was.

Heroines are the women who inspire us, astonish us, who say with their lives: this is possible. When the towers crumble, you take that inspiration and start building. So that’s what we have to do.

May the Force be with you.

‘Humanity for Beginners’

I am delighted to announce that my urban fantasy novella Humanity for Beginners is now available for pre-order from Less Than Three Press’s website! It will be published on February 14th 2017 and will be 15% off until then, plus there’s a sale running until the end of this month that actually makes it 28% off through December.

Humanity for Beginners is an e-book about Gloria, who has accidentally ended up running a halfway house for lesbian werewolves in her idyllic little bed-and-breakfast. Between helping one young lycanthrope adjust to life after the bite, soothing ruffled fur when the other one brings home an unexpected cat and trying to figure out why her best friend Nadine has passive-aggressively taken over her kitchen, she’s not having the best month ever, and that’s before full moon hits.

This is the longest fiction I’ve ever had published and I couldn’t be happier to share it with you!

Return of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

From the moment I heard about the ‘reawakening’ of the Star Wars franchise, I wanted to love this movie and I was afraid that I wouldn’t. Rebooting a successful franchise is a chancy thing. Having assiduously avoided spoilers (not even watching trailers) I went to a screening very soon after it opened in Australia and I nearly cried when I heard the theme music and the familiar yellow lettering began to scroll up the screen.

Decades after the death of Darth Vader, the Empire lives on through the violent mimicry of the First Order. There is some version of the Republic in operation but it’s unclear how extensive its authority is and anyway, it seems disinclined to actively do anything about the neo-imperialistic organisation terrorising the galaxy, which leaves the work of actively fighting back to Leia Organa – now General Organa – and a new generation of rebels who call themselves the Resistance.

The First Order seem to blame the Jedi for all their problems, or perhaps more accurately, for them not being as big a problem as they want to be. They are ransacking the galaxy in search of Luke Skywalker, the last of the Jedi, who long ago performed a vanishing act so thorough that even Leia has no idea where he went.

Her most talented pilot, Poe Dameron, flies to the isolated desert planet of Jakku to meet with an old rebel, who I feel I’m supposed to know? But don’t, because he’s never been in the series before. Possibly he’ll show up in Rogue One. The old man has a piece of data that may lead to Luke Skywalker and he passes it into Poe’s possession. The First Order are hot on their trail; Poe’s little spherical droid BB-8 rolls up to warn him of incoming troops and Poe runs for his ship, but the initial attack damages it too badly for flight so Poe conceals the precious data in a compartment of BB-8’s casing and sends the droid away. “I’ll come back for you!” he promises, then joins the fight.

These stormtroopers are not Kamino clones. They wear the same uniform – partially, I’m sure, to both unify and dehumanise them, since they are brainwashed soldiers serving a meglomaniacal cause, but also to strike terror into anyone who remembers the might of the Empire. Marching into the desert encampment, they slaughter everyone in their path. One stormtrooper, however, breaks from the pattern. He stops to catch a fallen comrade and is marked by a bloody handprint pressed against his helmet. Staggering around the battlefield in a visible state of shock, the only reason he does not immediately draw attention is the dramatic arrival of a new First Order spacecraft. A man masked and hooded in black stalks out.

Watching this for the first time, my mother laughed at the sight of him and called him a wannabe Darth Vader. She has good narrative instincts

Wannabe-Vader calls himself Kylo Ren, though it is obvious that the old rebel who helped Poe remembers him as somebody else. “You cannot deny the truth that is your family,” the rebel tells him. Kylo Ren answers by cutting him down with a blazing red lightsaber shaped like a broadsword. Horrified, Poe breaks cover to try and shoot Ren, but the man he’s dealing with is a powerful Sith and he’s got all those stormtroopers to back him up, so that attempt goes about as well as can be expected.

Poe is taken for questioning (i.e. torturing) and on Kylo Ren’s orders, the remaining villagers from the encampment are lined up and shot. The stormtrooper with the bloodied helmet will not fire his gun. Ren looks straight at him, confused, but is otherwise occupied and stalks on by. He is going to regret doing that.

Returning to the First Order mothership, the renegade stormtrooper FN-2187 yanks off his helmet to reveal a terrified young black man underneath. It’s important to note two things here: contrary to some of the commentary around this casting decision, the clone troopers were played by a Maori actor and therefore have always been people of colour. But this is the first time a POC has played a lead in the Star Wars franchise, instead of a side character. There are actually two POC leads, if you count Poe Dameron, which I definitely do. It only took six movies to get here!

These new stormtroopers are not nearly as homogenous as the uniforms are meant to make them seem, on neither ethnicity or gender. For instance, FN-2187’s commander, Captain Phasma, is female (or at least vocally presents that way and is played by Gwendoline Christie). She demands that FN-2187 immediately replace his helmet and hand in his blaster for inspection, clearly suspecting that it was never fired. She also rebukes him for removing his helmet without permission and he obediently replaces it.

She is going to regret making him do that.

Meanwhile, on Jakku, we meet the young scavenger Rey. Left behind as a child and grown to adulthood still waiting for her family to come back, she spends her days picking through the vast, hollowed-out ruins of fallen Star Destroyers, remnants of a long ago battle that are by now half-buried in sand, consigned to the scrap heap of history. It was at this point that I realised I was irrevocably in love with this movie.

I also love Rey, who is resilient and agile and despite the incredible unfairness of her entire life – a whole day’s scavenging earns her barely enough food to get by – she still leaps to defend BB-8 when another scavenger snares the droid and Rey overhears its panicked beeping. Like Poe, she speaks fluent droid, among other languages. Once rescued, BB-8 follows her around like a lost puppy and the next morning she takes it into town to look for Poe. The scrap dealer there offers what to Rey is a small fortune if she’ll sell the droid. She is badly tempted, but refuses.

So BB-8 is doing okay, but Poe is in bad shape. Tortured for information by Kylo Ren, both physically and with the Force, he doesn’t so much give up the secret of where he put the data so much as have it torn out of his skull. He’s a mess when a stormtrooper enters his cell with orders to take him back to Ren.

Except, no. FN-2187 is breaking free of his brainwashing and has decided to bust Poe out too. “Why are you helping me?” Poe asks, bewilderedly. “Because it’s the right thing to do,” FN-2187 tells him. They steal a tie-fighter and Poe figures out how to fly the thing while in the air. He refuses to call his new friend by a number, nicknaming him Finn (checking first to make sure he likes it). They are both giddy with the shock of escape and they could not be more adorable.

Poe is determined to return to Jakku for his droid, despite Finn’s protests, but they are shot down just before they reach the atmosphere. Finn regains consciousness in the desert, amid the smoking remnants of the tie-fighter. It starts sinking into the sand and there’s nothing Finn can do to stop it, nor any sign of Poe. The only thing he manages to salvage is Poe’s jacket.

Devastated, he sets out alone, discarding his armour plate by plate. When he finally reaches a town, he practically drowns himself in the communal fountain, not caring how dirty the water is. He hears a scuffle and sees Rey getting jumped by a couple of other scavengers, who are trying to capture BB-8. Finn heads towards her, thinking he should intervene – and wow, what a strong moral compass this boy has, not even a lifetime with the space terrorists could cut it out – but Rey does not in fact need his help, handily taking out her assailants with her staff. Then BB-8 notices the jacket that Finn is wearing, gives a shrill squeal of accusation, and Rey goes after him, under the impression he’s some kind of grave-robber. She knocks him off his feet and BB-8 electrocutes his knee for good measure. Learning that Poe died in the crash, BB-8 droops miserably.

When Rey assumes that Finn is part of the Resistance, he goes with it. He is a dreadful liar but when he lets slip that BB-8 is carrying a map to Luke Skywalker, Rey is hooked. “I thought he was a myth,” she says eagerly. There’s not much time to talk, after that, because stormtroopers are already searching the town for the escapees. Finn seizes Rey’s hand and starts running. “I know how to run without you holding my hand!” she snaps. They keep perplexing each other with these gestures of kindness that they are unaccustomed to getting in return because they grew up in actual hell-holes with nobody to teach them proper humaning but they figured out how to be wonderful people anyway, and did I get this emotional this quickly on the first viewing? Yes. Yes I did.

Rey’s first choice of get-away ship gets blown up, so she diverts to Plan B, the one she dismissed as ‘garbage’. Otherwise known as the Millenium Falcon. She is a decent pilot but has never flown anything like this; it doesn’t help that the ship is in pretty poor condition and that it is being shot at by space terrorists. Finn is equally baffled by the antiquated defence systems. With tie-fighters hot on her heels, Rey flies through the interior of the crashed Star Destroyer that she knows so well from scavenging – an obstacle course only she is equipped to navigate – and successfully shakes off the pursuit.

Rey and Finn gleefully congratulate one another’s skill sets. Not to overstate this or anything, but they are so nice? Rey also checks in with an anxious BB-8, promising to get it safely back to the Resistance. They don’t have time to make a plan because a pipe breaks and Rey frantically tries to fix it before it can flood the ship with poisonous gas. Finn uses the distraction to make a deal with BB-8 – he acknowledges he’s not a member of the Resistance but offers to help out anyway and asks that BB-8 not reveal the facts to Rey. BB-8 is dubious but decides to trust Finn. Both are startled to learn that Rey doesn’t plan on coming with them. “Why does everyone want to go back to Jakku?” Finn moans, then adds “Do you have a boyfriend? Cute boyfriend?” He does not have subtlety. Rey tells him firmly that it’s none of his business.

Upon hearing that Finn helped BB-8 escape, Kylo Ren throws a flaming tantrum by slashing up a bunch of consoles and making everyone in his general vicinity wish they worked somewhere else. Between him and the stroppy General Hux, who poke jealously at each other’s authority whenever they’re in the same room, it’s like this joint is being run by extremely unpleasant children.

Poisonous gas is abruptly the least of Finn and Rey’s problems. The Falcon is seized by a tractor beam and dragged inside a much larger ship. Finn is terrified that they’ve been caught by the First Order. They hide together in a compartment under the floor as footsteps mark new arrivals, but it’s not stormtroopers. Chewbacca and Han Solo, greyed and weathered by the intervening years, have got their ship back.

They are unimpressed by the damage it has undergone and are even less impressed by its occupants. Rey can understand Wookiee, at least enough to recognise skepticism when she hears it. Finn is just grateful to meet somebody else who thinks Jakku is a junkyard. “Han Solo just stole back the Millenium Falcon,” Han informs the two of them, proving himself to be one of the galaxy’s legends, and promptly wrecks his first impression by planning to dump Rey and Finn on the nearest inhabited planet. Finn, who remembers the name Han Solo as belonging to a war hero – and it’s so interesting that he should phrase it that way, given which side he was raised on – tells him that BB-8 is carrying a map to Luke Skywalker and Han looks…hurt. “I knew him,” he concedes. “I knew Luke.”

Oh, honey. You’ve come such a long way since Tattooine.

Whatever questions might have followed this confrontation are abandoned when a clunk outside the Falcon catches Han’s attention and he runs out into his bigger ship, worried in case the Rathtars have got loose. Rathtars are huge tentacled beasties that eat people, you see, and he’s smuggling them because he’s an idiot. What’s more, he’s managed to doublecross two separate criminal organisations that catch up to him at the same time. Despite not wanting anything much to do with Finn and Rey, he hides them both in the under-floor compartments (I am convinced he does not fly in any ship without those compartments) while he deals with the gangs.

Unfortunately, the First Order has expanded its search and promised a hefty reward for the capture of BB-8 – plus two fugitives. Overhearing the speculation, Rey decides to try and trap the gangs by closing the blast doors on them, but in the process of resetting the fuses she accidentally frees the Rathtars. On the bright side, the gangs are no longer a problem! On the less bright side, Finn gets seized, but Rey quickly figures out how to close a door which cuts off the tentacle. These two are already very protective of each other. Which is lucky, because Han and Chewie are looking after themselves. Doesn’t work out so well. Chewie gets shot in the shoulder. When Rey and Finn catch up, Han assumes the role of captain and orders them into position for an escape on the Falcon.

When word of the failure reaches the First Order, it goes all the way to the top, this being Supreme Leader Snoke, who is…well. He looks a lot like Palpatine, only deader and a little bit rotten, but still alive and present as a giant hologram. I don’t think he’s actually Palpatine. Remember how I said Kylo Ren and General Hux acted like unpleasant children? They really look it here. Hux wants to use ‘the weapon’ to destroy the government that supports the Resistance. Snoke gives him a disappointed little handwave as permission and Hux gives Ren a meaningful ‘you’re in trouble’ look as he leaves. “The droid is aboard the Millenium Falcon,” Snoke says ponderously, “in the hands of your father.” “He means nothing to me,” Ren insists. The ‘you’re my new dad!’ is implied. And revolting.

The Falcon is in trouble. The modifications it underwent while on Jakku were all bad ideas, leaving Rey and Han scrambling around the cockpit trying to fix things while Finn attempts first-aid on a very uncooperative Chewie. But Han’s a lot more inclined to like confirmed fugitives and Rey has the sort of technological genius that impresses him very much, though he doesn’t want to show it. BB-8 shows them all the data. It’s incomplete, one puzzle piece in a wider map. “Why did he leave?” Rey asks curiously. Han explains sadly that Luke was training the next generation of Jedi when an apprentice turned Dark Side and destroyed everything. Guess who that was. Luke couldn’t deal with it. There’s a rumour he went looking for the first Jedi temple, but nobody knows where that is either, so it’s not enormously helpful as a clue.

Finn tries to convince Han that he’s a ‘big deal’ in the Resistance and a big target to the First Order – which is true in a sense but only earns him a mocking nickname. Han likes Rey in a grouchy sort of a way, offering her a job aboard the Falcon that she desperately wants to accept but can’t, for fear her family will come back to Jakku and she won’t be there waiting for them.

Han introduces Finn and Rey to his friend Maz Kanata, who runs a shady but nevertheless rather charming cantina on a planet so lush and green that Rey can hardly believe it’s real. Maz is tiny and intense. She likes Chewbacca (who stayed on the Falcon to recuperate) but is pricklier about Han, and who can blame her. Within minutes of BB-8’s arrival, both the First Order and the Resistance have been alerted. Kylo Ren goes to pray in front of Darth Vader’s warped helmet, begging for guidance on his path deeper into the Dark Side. I hope Anakin’s repentant ghost is bellowing insults at him from beyond the grave.

Maz, meanwhile, has been brought up to speed. She can get BB-8 to Leia – but she won’t. She thinks Han should face up to his issues and do it himself. Good on you, Maz. She also believes firmly that the First Order can be fought, but all Finn’s first-hand experience is telling him to run like mad. He grabs the earliest opportunity to get out. Confessing that he’s not part of the Resistance at all, that he’s just a soldier trying to escape, he asks Rey to come with him to the Outer Rim. She asks him not to leave, but he does anyway.

Standing there in misery, she hears a screaming child and turns around to follow the sound. It leads her down into an underground passage where she finds Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber and is confronted by a terrible vision of carnage. Kylo Ren is there, monstrous and terrifying. Then the vision changes and Rey is seeing herself, so small, abandoned on Jakku. A final switch to a snowy forest where Kylo Ren is once again waiting for her jolts Rey out of the vision and she crumples onto the floor, shaken. Maz is watching her. “Whomever you’re waiting for on Jakku,” she says gently, “they’re never coming back.” She tells Rey to take the lightsaber. Rey flatly refuses and runs out into the forest, too traumatised to take any more revelations. BB-8 trundles anxiously after her.

Hux is giving a hyperbolic speech to the First Order troops. As manifestos go, it makes no sense, but then dictatorial regimes don’t have to make sense and this group (as might be guessed from their name) is all about Order. Their order, specifically, and if the galaxy needs to be torn up in order to re-establish dominance, that’s what they plan to do. They have turned a whole planet into a war machine, powered by killing a sun, to wipe out whole solar systems. It’s an act of genocide that can be seen all across the galaxy.

Finn, who understands exactly what just happened, runs to find Rey but gets Han instead. They fight back when the First Order attacks. Finn takes up the lightsaber, but he’s so badly outnumbered; Rey tries to defend BB-8, but Kylo Ren just takes her instead. Just when it looks like all is lost, a fleet of Resistance ships come swooping over the water like the bloody cavalry, led by none other than the very much not dead Poe Dameron. “That’s one hell of a pilot!” Finn whoops, as Poe saves his life in a whirl of aerial derring-do. The First Order quickly retreat; they have what they want, anyway.

In the aftermath, General Leia Organa herself lands in the wreckage. She accepts a fond hug from Chewie then looks at Han with a sad, resigned affection. “I saw our son,” Han tells her. Yes, that would be the son who kidnapped Rey, dumped her in a cell and started an interrogation with all possible speed – definitely takes after Anakin’s side of the family, though to be fair we don’t know what dreadful relatives Han might have. But Rey proves a harder nut to crack than Ren was anticipating. Instead of getting inside her head, she manages to get inside his. First she offends him into removing his mask (revealing that he has a sullen face and great hair, also probably from Leia’s side of the family), then she taps into her own latent abilities with the Force to dig out his deepest fear: that he’ll never be as strong as Darth Vader. The look of shock on his face is SO SATISFYING.

Meanwhile, Finn is now more or less an official part of the Resistance. Brought back to their base, he is nearly barrelled over by BB-8, who reunites with a delighted Poe. Finn is overjoyed to see his friend alive; Poe feels the same way and they crash together in a bear hug. Realising that he’s still wearing Poe’s jacket, Finn offers to return it; Poe tells him “keep it, it suits you,” and it’s all just so sweet? Also, very flirtatious.

Leia has heard enough of Finn’s recent decision-making to thoroughly approve of him, but though she sympathises with his urgent need to rescue Rey, that’s just not possible right now. The piece of map is virtually no use, the First Order might at any time destroy another solar system, and the very sight of Han is getting on Leia’s nerves. Like a child hoping for a hug, BB-8 rolls eagerly up to an immobile R2-D2 – who remains immobile. He’s been like that for a while, ever since Luke left.

Side note: I realise that BB-8 is referred to as male within the story and I’ve been using gender neutral pronouns in this review, but it’s a bit weird that all the droids are guys and this is my little protest.

Leia blames herself for her son turning out…the way he did and thinks there’s still a chance for him to turn to the Light Side. Oh, Leia. You haven’t witnessed his latest hobbies. She blames everything on Snoke. Han is less convinced, but Kylo Ren used to be their Ben and neither of his parents can let go of the idea that he can be that person again. Nor are they the only ones to prioritise hope over good sense. Finn pretends to know a lot more about the First Order’s shield system than he does in order to join the mission, so that he can save Rey.

Kylo Ren and General Hux have another spat in front of Supreme Leader Snoke as Ren has to admit he’s not only failed to get anything useful out of Rey, he didn’t bring back the droid either. He insists that he can train Rey into an asset for the First Order and Snoke demands that she be brought before him. That’s going to be tricky, though, since Rey is not where Ren left her. She clearly knows the stories of Jedi mind control and finds an easy mark in her stormtrooper guard. Kylo Ren’s tantrum when he finds out she’s gone is epic.

Legging it out of there with a gun, Rey crashes into Finn. She is overwhelmed to know that he came looking for her; nobody has ever done that before. Everything about these two is SO PURE. Finn’s way of disabling the shields is ambushing Captain Phasma and making her do it. With a clear path down, Poe leads an aerial attack. “As long as there’s light, we’ve got a chance,” he tells his team, but the First Order fleet are quick to counter-attack. It falls to Han, Chewbacca, Finn and Rey – and the bag of bombs Finn is carrying – to take out the weapon, if they can.

Finn gives Rey his jacket. I just feel that’s very important.

They start laying the explosives. Kylo Ren, though, senses his father’s presence through the Force. Han confronts him on a narrow walkway and Ren removes his helmet at Han’s request, begging for help. Han reaches out to him – and Ren stabs him through the heart. Rey screams. Chewbacca howls, a sound of pure betrayal, and fires on the boy who was once like a nephew, who is now his worst enemy. Across the galaxy, Leia feels the impact of loss and nearly collapses.

But Chewbacca was always more than Han’s friend. He’s a rebel. He takes down stormtrooper after stormtrooper and hits the detonator. While the weapon’s oscillator is damaged, it’s not destroyed, and Kylo Ren survived the explosion. He cuts Rey and Finn off in the forest, the snowy trees and blood-red lightsaber straight out of Rey’s vision. Only Finn wasn’t there, in that image. When Ren throws Rey into a tree, Finn is there to defend her. Ren has the GODDAMNED GALL to lay claim on Luke’s lightsaber (in his mind, it’s probably Anakin’s lightsaber) and he fights Finn like he’s waiting for him to just give up. Finn doesn’t. It takes a terrible blow to the back to bring him down, and by then Rey has regained consciousness. The sight of her friend on the ground brings out the steel in her. She takes up the lightsaber herself for the first time – it comes to her hand, not Ren’s – and they fight savagely, right to the edge of a cliff. Ren is still, impossibly, trying to talk her into joining his side and letting him train her. She answers by slashing a scar across his face. NO MEANS NO, KYLO.

Poe seizes on the opportunity Han and Chewbacca bought him with the detonation and finishes the job, setting off a chain reaction that takes out the entire base. As explosions tear through the system, Hux obeys Snoke’s last directive to retrieve Ren and leave the sinking ship. Rey is left with Finn’s limp body, so badly hurt that she doesn’t know what to do for him. And yet, she is not abandoned. Chewbacca comes for them both, alone in the cockpit of the Falcon.

Despite heavy losses, the mood at the Resistance base is jubilant. The First Order has suffered a massive defeat. Chewbacca and Poe carry Finn to medical treatment and Leia, with so much to grieve herself, hugs Rey tight like a lost daughter. What’s more, R2-D2 revives to give the best news Leia could hear right now: he has the rest of the map. They finally have a way to find Luke.

R2-D2 has always been there for Padme’s children.

Rey leaves Finn still unconscious, but recovering, piloting the Falcon with Chewbacca at her side. The world the map takes them to is blue with ocean and dotted with islands. The one they land on holds the ruins of some ancient civilisation, steps leading up and up and up…and at the top is an old man with sad eyes. The legendary Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi, is not the optimistic farmboy he used to be, but Rey holds out the lightsaber without hesitation. It’s time.

Rogue One opens in Australian cinemas tomorrow. Star Wars is going back to its roots with the story of how the Death Star plans that Leia sacrificed so much to hide were stolen from the Empire in the first place. I’ve seen the trailers for this one. I’m going to do my very best to avoid spoilers.

I’m ready to cry in a cinema over a galaxy far, far away.

Review – Love and Romanpunk

Love and Romanpunk – Tansy Rayner Roberts

Twelfth Planet Press, 2011

Everyone knows Ancient Rome was full of monsters. They just don’t know how literal it really was – and is. In these four interwoven novellas, Julia Agrippina chronicles a story that is both bestiary and family tree; lamias roam 18th century Europe in search of a new home (and new blood); an Australian tourist town becomes the centre of a very old battle; and the past finds new faces aboard the very last airship you’d ever want to board. Welcome to the wide, wicked world of Romanpunk.

This book is one of the Twelve Planets, a series of novella collections highlighting short fiction by Australian women writers. I won my copy in a giveaway on Tansy’s blog by speculating about how Elizabeth I would handle a sea serpent, which is probably the best way I’ve ever acquired anything. Having just finished The Grass Crown, I was in an excellent mindset for reading about Romans, and this collection is a deliciously irreverent spin all the way from Ancient Rome to a future Sydney. My favourite was probably ‘The Patrician’, simply because the idea of a replica Roman town in the Australian bush is simultaneously entirely believable and delightfully strange, but these stories are at their best read together. You can listen to audio versions of ‘Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary’ and ‘The Patrician’ on Tansy’s podcast Sheep Might Fly.

Ladies of Legend: Maid Marian

References: “Robin Hood”, Fact or Fiction (Channel 4, originally aired 18/10/2003), Robin Hood and His Merry Men (Ward, Lock & Co., Ltd, publication date unknown) by E. Charles Vivian, Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (Dean & Son Ltd., publication date unknown) by author unknown,

Maid Marian is not the hero of this story. She didn’t even appear in it at the start – Little John has a longer history in the ballads about Robin Hood than she does – and her role varies from one version to another. I’m going to start with a pair of storybooks, to show how different her narrative can be depending on who is telling it.

Version A is from Robin Hood and His Merry Men. In this one, Maid Marian is a young heiress, the daughter of the Norman knight Sir Richard of Lea. She is described as being ‘slim and fair…with great blue eyes and hair of gold’. When her mother dies, Sir Richard decides to channel his grief into (period appropriate xenophobia) patriotism by joining King Richard the Lionheart on Crusade. To finance his journey and thus speed up his departure, Sir Richard borrows five hundred marks from Hugo de Rainault, the very wealthy abbot of the Abbey of St. Mary’s, at a rate of fifty marks interest per annum and with his manor house staked as surety. He also leaves Marian under Abbot Hugo’s guardianship.

Sir Richard promptly dies at sea.

Except, not really – he survives the shipwreck and washes ashore near home, where he is found and taken to the abbey. Hugo sees an opportunity to loan out his cake and eat it too. His local ally is the notorious baron Isambart de Belame, a man so hated by the local people that his castle is known as ‘Evil Hold’ and who is perfectly happy to throw the dazed, wounded Sir Richard into his dungeons, to be kept a prisoner until the four years of the loan have expired and Hugo can legally claim the manor. Richard has no idea where he is, only ever seeing Isambart’s friend Roger the Cruel.

Meanwhile, Marian is placed with the Abbess at Kirklees. Hugo intends to make a nun of her, thereby getting the rest of her inheritance for the church (read here: himself). Unfortunately for him, his habit of taking other people’s land has finally backfired. Robin of Locksley, a Saxon freeman with a defiantly philanthropic bent, flouted the game laws that declare all deer the property of the king – not by killing the beast himself, but by defending the starving serf who did it – and Hugo’s enthusiastic enforcer Guy of Gisborne seized the excuse to crack down on him. Robin turned outlaw.

The thing is, he’s really, really good at it and gains followers fast. The road through Sherwood Forest, which is the main route into Nottingham, is no longer safe, so Hugo has to strike a deal with Isambart for a squad of men to go clear Robin’s gang out of the forest. What Isambart, already once widowed, wants in return is a wife and Hugo concedes to his demand for Marian’s hand in marriage. Marian herself, still under Hugo’s guardianship, does not get a say; if she did, it would be a definite no.

Isambart sends his men, but it doesn’t do the least bit of good against Robin, who is a master strategist at guerilla warfare. Hugo tries to renege on his deal but can’t afford to make an enemy of Isambart and reluctantly dispatches the eternally incompetent Gisborne to go fetch Marian from Kirklees. Of course, they have to travel through Sherwood. Robin is fiercely indignant on Marian’s behalf, despite her being a total stranger to him, when his spies tell him who she is expected to marry, and he ambushes the party on their way through the forest.

Gisborne is more than willing to abandon his charge to the outlaws. Disgusted, Robin packs him off with his men, before turning to the problem of what to do with Marian now. She points out that if she goes back to Kirklees, Hugo will just figure out another way to send her to the man she describes as ‘the fiend who rules Evil Hold’. Having taken a strong fancy to Robin – well, he did just rescue her, plus he effortlessly bested Guy of Gisborne in a showy sword duel, he’s made a pretty good first impression – she asks to remain in Sherwood and pay for the shelter when she comes into her inheritance. Her skills with medicine will be put at the outlaws’ disposal and she offers to cook and sew for them as well. Little John immediately takes her side, pointing out that Will Scarlett’s wife already lives in the camp.

Robin, as taken with Marian as she is with him, proposes to make her Queen of Sherwood, and they are married by Friar Tuck. Marian never does end up doing any of the cooking, Tuck handles that himself, but she is an instant hit with the outlaws. Robin later helps another woman out of an unwanted wedding, barging into the church where Eleanor of Warsop is about to be married off to the elderly (but very wealthy) Sir Ralph. Robin pushes aside her bridegroom, her father and the priest so that he can personally give her away to Alan of Meden Dale, the sweetheart of her choice. The young couple become frequent visitors to Sherwood.

Another friend of Robin’s, Will Scarlett, is captured by Isambart. Disguised, Robin tricks his way into Evil Hold and distracts Isambart’s knights with weaponised beehives – I did say he’s really, really good at this – while he breaks open the dungeons. Among the escaping prisoners is Sir Richard at Lea, who politely and very formally thanks Robin for deliverance and helps him get Will to safety.

Robin is shocked to learn he just rescued his father-in-law. Marian is overjoyed and though he has doubts about Robin’s side of the law, Sir Richard is too grateful to make an issue of it.

Being something of a local hero, Robin follows up the attack on Evil Hold by going to the aid of a Saxon nobleman under threat from pirates. While Robin is away, however, Isambart strikes. Another escaped prisoner turns traitor against the outlaws, leading Isambart’s men to the forest camp. It is burned to the ground and Marian is brought back to Evil Hold, where Isambart tries to compel her into signing away her lands to him. Marian, however, is made of stern stuff. Tied to a chair, captive to the man who made her believe her father was dead, she refuses to give up her inheritance.

Robin is quick to come after her. Accompanied by a mystery knight in black, who insists on helping out, Robin uses the keys he stole to slip in a back entrance. He frees Marian and sends her across the moat to safety while the battle rages. The knight in black – who is none other than King Richard in disguise – kills Isambart in a duel and Robin, implacable in his fury, burns the place to the ground. An eye for an eye.

He then turns his attention to Abbot Hugo. Sir Richard at Lea goes to the abbey to plead for more time to repay his loan, but he has the money – Robin is a generous friend – and it’s entirely a charade to prove to King Richard (once again disguised) how bad the situation is. Abbot Hugo is put on notice. Sir Richard reclaims his lands. Robin, pouncing on Hugo as he travels through Sherwood, reclaims his money, plus some nice fabric that he thinks Marian will like.

Though Robin is pardoned by King Richard and made warden of Sherwood, the change of status doesn’t last long. The king leaves the country and the Sheriff of Nottingham, who is Hugo’s brother, gets Prince John’s permission to declare the whole band outlawed again. Bitterness builds and builds until it all comes to a head in a vicious run of confrontations that leaves both the Sheriff and Gisborne dead at Robin’s hand and Abbot Hugo too frightened to keep up the feud.

But Isambart’s crony Roger the Cruel survived the fall of Evil Hold and he never lets go of the grudge. Many years pass. Roger is an old man when he finally comes to Abbot Hugo with a plan. Masquerading as a peasant, he talks a trusted pedlar into taking him to the camp, intending to return with armed men – but Marian sees him, and recognises him. When she starts to cry out a warning, Roger stabs her.

Her scream brings Robin to her side. He shoots down Roger and takes Marian in his arms, though they both know there’s nothing he can do. She’s quite peaceful, telling Robin that there is no better way to die than ‘in the heart of the greenwood with [his] arms round her, and the evening light fading’.

The outlaws never recover from the loss of their queen. Robin can’t bear to go on living the same way without her; he settles each of his people with the wealth they’ve accumulated and travels aimlessly about the country with Little John, reminiscing on good times past. When Robin falls ill, he goes to Kirklees Abbey, where the Abbess Elizabeth is his aunt and he thinks he will be safe. He is not. Hugo has got to her; under the pretence of healing, she bleeds Robin to death.

Little John realises what she’s doing too late to save Robin’s life. Towards the end, Robin dreams of Marian and asks for his bow, shooting an arrow through the window and asking to be buried where it lands. Marian’s name is his last word.

Version B is from Robin Hood and His Merrie Men and introduces Marian earlier in the story, meeting Robin while they are still children. She is not Sir Richard of Lea’s daughter in this one; she is Robin’s cousin Will’s cousin – presumably not on the same side of the family as Robin – and comes to stay with them at Gamwell Hall. She likes to play with the boys, proving to be a good archer herself. They remain good friends even as Robin’s confrontational personality earns him the enmity of the Sheriff of Nottingham. He has to take to the forest, where he rapidly gathers a circle of friends and insists on them all wearing poncy green uniforms.

Not that he has a monopoly on resisting authority. There’s a battle at Gamwell Hall when the squire is accused of shooting the king’s deer and the people there put up a fight against the Sheriff’s men. Marian’s father is staying at the Hall at the time and is killed. Squire Gamwell manages to keep his lands and adopts Marian, but that safety is only temporary. The next time Squire Gamwell is attacked, he is killed too, and Guy of Gisborne claims the hall. To Robin’s alarm, Marian vanishes entirely and when he goes to confront Gisborne, she’s nowhere to be found. He’s terrified that she died in the attack.

Fortunately, she was away with Will Gamwell, visiting relatives. Upon their return, they quickly see how bad things are and take refuge with Robin. He’s delighted and relieved to see them, and when he sees how happy Marian is in Sherwood, he asks her to marry him. Their wedding is rudely interrupted by the Sheriff’s men, who are quickly repelled by Robin’s outlaws.

Robin continues to antagonise the Sheriff, more for fun than anything else. He wins a silver arrow at the Sheriff’s shooting contest, eluding the trap set for him, and gives the prize to Marian as a gift. He also intervenes when Marian learns from Alan-a-Dale that Lady Ellen is going to be married against her will and Marian gets really indignant on Ellen’s behalf.

When doing random acts of social justice gets a little old, Robin and Marian take a trip to the seaside, where Robin’s cover as a fisherman gets called by their elderly hostess. She needs someone to stand up to the fishermen crewing her dead husband’s boat, who cheat her of her rightful share in the catch. Robin is terrible at fishing but good at fighting pirates and bestows half the booty of his victory on the old lady. Marian finds these antics rather amusing.

King Richard also finds him amusing, and admirable enough to pardon and take into his service. Patriot that he is, Robin is happy to go, but court life proves toxic and on a visit to Sherwood his men ‘kidnap’ him so that he need not go back. He and Marian live long and happily in the forest, until he decides – please note, he decides – that she should go into a nunnery, because she’s getting too old to live this way. He stays in Sherwood. At last he calls Little John and they set off for Kirke Hall Priory to see her. It’s too late; saddened to be away from the greenwood, she died three months after her arrival. Robin dies there of old age, in Marian’s former room.

Of course, this kind of legend has countless variations. Sometimes Marian is the daughter of Lord Fitzwalter, other times she is the ward of the Sheriff of Nottingham or Prince John. Some stories have her as Norman while in others she is Saxon. One ballad introduces her as Robin’s sweetheart who dresses as a boy to come into the forest and find him. Both disguised, they don’t recognise each other and engage in a sword fight so fierce that Robin, acknowledging her as his equal, calls for peace between them and asks her to join his band. She knows him by his voice and kisses him delightedly. They feast together to celebrate and she becomes as trusted a lieutenant to him as Little John.

The earliest ballads of Robin Hood don’t actually come from Nottingham, but from Barnsdale in Yorkshire. In those stories the famous outlaw is a violent and unpredictable yeoman instead of a rebellious, idealistic nobleman. Among the variety of historical candidates that exist for a real-life Robin Hood, there’s a 14th century forester called Robert Hood from Wakefield who was married to a woman named Matilda. She joined him in the forest when he was outlawed. Many stories of Robin Hood have him betrayed by an aunt or a female cousin – Matilda’s cousin Elizabeth de Stanton was prioress of Kirklees in 1346.

Whoever really inspired the character of Marian, if in fact it was just one woman, she has gained a foothold that is no longer easy to dismiss in this very masculine legend. While her place in it varies from one version to another, and her relationship with Robin ranges from chastely long-distance to a full partner in crime, she is always – in spirit, if not in name – the Queen of Sherwood.

This is the last Lady for 2016 but I’ll be returning next year with more remarkable women of myth and legend!

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!

Review – The Grass Crown

The Grass Crown (Masters of Rome No.2) – Colleen McCullough

Random House, 1991

Rome is the city without kings. Its Senate is a constantly shifting balance of power between the ancient patrician families and the charismatic New Men. None symbolise that competition better than the fiercely ambitious patrician Sulla, desperate to advance his political career after a youth spent on the battlefield, and the adored war hero Gaius Marius, ageing and unwell but commanding a respect Sulla can only dream of. Both men foresee a war with Mithridates, the covetous king of Pontus – but unrest is brewing much closer to home, and when it boils over, nothing will be the same.

This book, like its predecessor The First Man in Rome, is enormous. There is no foreword to catch up on past events in the series so you’ll definitely need to read book one for it to make sense, but a glossary is included at the back to help with more obscure Roman terminology. The Grass Crown is frequently intensely violent in a way I’d usually find very difficult to read but McCullough’s writing is so skillful that she maintains the flow of the story even at its ugliest moments and she doesn’t dwell on them at unnecessary length either. It’s testament to her talent that I can’t say I really liked most of the characters but I always wanted to know what they would do next. This is rich, epic storytelling, all the more frightening – and amazing – because it’s based on truth. The series continues with Fortune’s Favourites.