Women To Read is a monthly column from A.C. Wise highlighting female authors of speculative fiction and recommending a starting place for their work.
Welcome to a new year of Women to Read and a brand new home for the series at The Book Smugglers! I’m delighted to be here. For those who are new to Women to Read, welcome. To give you a bit of history, in 2013, Kari Sperring started the #womentoread hashtag, in response to the persistent problem of women’s writing being under-recognized, under-reviewed, and under-valued. If you spend any time on social media, or on the internet in general, you’ve likely heard about yet another bookstore endcap filled with books written exclusively by men, or seen a ”best of” reading list with at most one title by a woman. As a reader, you yourself may have asked “Where can I find more speculative fiction by women?” Enter Women to Read.
Inspired by Kari’s hashtag, I wrote a few posts recommending some of my favorite women to read, and a starting place for their work. The series grew, finding a home at the much-missed SF Signal, where it lived from 2013-2016, before coming back home to live on my blog. (If you’d like to catch up on the series, you can read through the archive here.)
Every month, I pick three to four self-identifying female authors whose work I enjoy, and recommend a starting place for their work. I include older and newer works, short fiction, novels, and even the occasional graphic novel or web comic. My goal is to highlight the work of as many women as possible, so I try to never feature the same author twice. Luckily, there are tons of women out there writing fantastic speculative fiction, which makes my job easy. Now, onward to this month’s recommendations!
Andrea Tang is an author who works in international affairs by day. My recommended starting place for her work is “The Man in the Crimson Coat” published in Apex Magazine. It’s a little bit noir, a little bit cyberpunk, and a little bit fairy tale, opening in a bar with the protagonist, Josefina, watching a man with killer hands play the piano.
Literal killer hands. His left is a chrome-plated work of art, the overpriced sort that catches the light with flashy metal detailing every time the fingers move. […] The right is still flesh, the human skin well-tanned over long, lean bones. A classic musician’s hand, save the swirling red tattoo curled like a bloodstain at the tender juncture of his wrist.
Josefina buys the man a drink, brings him to a cheap motel and handcuffs him to a bed, demanding answers. He’s been killing Orange Corp executives, and she wants to know why, suspecting he can lead her to her real goal–a man named Marcellus. The story moves fluidly between the past and the present, relating how Josefina first met Marcellus (the titular man in the crimson coat) when he rescued her from the building collapse that killed her parents. Marcellus isn’t just any man; he’s a cyborg specifically built to end corruption and kill those who would harm the innocent, putting right the wrongs committed by his makers. As a young, impressionable child, Josefina is more than happy to follow in Marcellus’ footsteps, but as she grows older, she questions his mission and ultimately strikes out on her own. There’s a cinematic quality to the story, which is full of striking visuals–from the piano man’s metallic hand, to Marcellus’ red coat. The story drips with atmosphere, and is filled with intriguing characters. Tang draws parallels between Josefina and Marcellus, one literally programmed, the other metaphorically programmed by the way Marcellus raised her. The story questions the nature of choice, free will, and good versus evil, and wraps it all in a stylish package. It’s an excellent work of short fiction, and a perfect starting place for Tang’s work.
Natalia Theodoridou is a media and cultural studies scholar and an author. My recommended starting place for her work is her recent novelette “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” published at Strange Horizons. The title is apt. A fairy tale frames the story, being told by a mother to her unborn child, and the story itself has a fairy tale quality, as people are turned into birds by a mysterious plague, emptying the streets and leaving the survivors in an eerie, abandoned world.
On top of the bulky TV set, there is a photo of an elderly couple hugging, smiling at the camera. Are these the people who are now throwing themselves against the balcony windows? They probably are, but she pushes the thought out of her head. The birds settle on the wooden curtain rail as soon as they spot her. She wonders if they know why she’s there.
Maria is trying to make her way home to her husband. They weren’t together when the plague struck, and she has no idea whether he’s still human. She has her father with her, but he’s in process of transforming. He’s gone silent, and she isn’t certain if he still recognizes her, but she refuses to give up on him. As she scavenges in the city, she meets and travels together with a young woman named Elena whose girlfriend, Iris, has been transformed into a lark. The story is beautifully told, and the imagery of humans turning into birds is an effective and haunting one.
Elements of “The Birding” remind me of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Both stories feature quiet apocalypses–without the constant, unrelenting violence of many other end-of-the-world stories. Instead, there is a pervasive sense of loss, and a reflection on how the world has changed. Even so, there’s a sense of hope to the story. El and Maria support each other and work together, and Maria continues to care for her father despite his transformation. Through the story Maria tells her unborn child, she is trying to make a frightening situation into something beautiful in hopes that a better, kinder world might be born out of the old one. All of Theodoridou’s work is stunning, but this is one of my favorites.
Gwendolyn Kiste is the author of numerous short stories, however my recommended starting place is her debut novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row published by Broken Eye Books. Urban legends, nursery rhymes, and old myths come together in a story of five ghosts: Resurrection Mary, Bloody Mary, Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary, Mary Mack, and Mari Lwyd (or Gray Mary) – sharing a house. By night, they frighten the living to gather the essence of their fear in order to sustain themselves. By day, they are confined to the house and a kind of sleep where time passes differently than it does among the living. Resurrection Mary, known as Rhee, has been haunting the same stretch of road for countless years. She doesn’t remember who she was before she died, but her one constant, besides her sisters, is David. He’s been visiting her since he was a young man, picking her up on the side of the road, and driving her to the cemetery where she’s buried. David is adult now, married, with a young daughter named Abby. The pattern of their meeting, and Rhee’s un-life, has been repeating for years, but one night, Rhee experiences something strange in the void between words.
Something draws close to me, a hazy outline that’s almost iridescent in the shadows. It twists and gleams, and its presence is cold, even colder than the dead[…] I can’t see a face, but a voice boils like blood in my ears. Pretty Mary. Pretty, pretty Mary.
The voice is hunting Rhee and her sisters, picking them off one by one. Rhee suspects the voice is connected to her past, and with David’s help, she fights to save her sisters before it’s too late.
At its heart, Pretty Marys All in a Row is a story about found family, and the relationships between the characters is what makes it shine. Rhee and Mistress Mary may snark at each other, as sisters do, but there is genuine affection between them. The love between Rhee and Bloody Mary is stronger, but more bittersweet. Trapped in her mirror, Bloody Mary can never touch any of her other sisters, leaving her even more isolated in her death than they are. Rhee and David’s relationship is poignant as well, separated as they are by death. Even though they can’t have a conventional relationship, their friendship and loyalty to each other is real.
The idea of myths, nursery rhymes, and urban legends having a core of truth is deployed effectively. Kiste gives each of the Marys a distinct personality, bringing them to life (despite being ghosts), and each of the characters is strong in her own way. Rhee is never a victim, despite the violence of her death and the threats against her, and neither are the other Marys.Pretty Marys is at once touching and dark, and there are moments of lightness and humor as well–Abby’s delight at meeting a real ghost, the old woman Mari Lwyd haunts wanting to teach her how to bake cookies, and Mistress Mary’s prehensile vines. All these elements are perfectly balanced and make for a satifying whole.
Irette Y Patterson
Irette Y. Patterson is an author specializing in family, friendship, and happy endings. My recommended starting place for her work is “Survival Lies”, published in Fiyah Magazine #5: Ahistorical Blackness. After her marriage falls apart, Cynthia goes to stay with her Auntie Lynn, living in her family’s ancestral cabin. The cabin is on a larger piece of land, which also contains Auntie Lynn’s house. The family story has always been that the land was gifted to their family by a white man at the end of the Civil War out of the goodness of his heart. While Cynthia is trying to put her life back together, a ghost begins visiting her each morning.
She stood before me: a woman with long dark hair twisted in braids that hung down to her waist wearing a white dress that covered her from neck to bare feet. She looked like a woman from a squared, yellowed photograph, the kind with a white band around it, with wrinkles from age.
Auntie Lynn tells her the ghost is named Lizzie, that she’s an ancestor who has watched over their family for generations. Auntie Lynn’s grandson, Bowser, comes to visit almost every morning, letting his grandmother feed him and, to Cynthia’s eyes, taking advantage of her. He doesn’t believe in the ghost, which makes Cynthia determined to uncover the truth and prove Lizzie really existed. She sets off to the library, digging into historical records and old census data, eventually discovering that her family may not have been gifted the land after all. Lizzie appears to have married into the white family, an uncomfortable truth for many living in the area, even now. Through researching her family’s past, Cynthia comes to understand that some lies are useful, where others or not. Continuing to tell herself that she’s okay, and not allowing herself to fall apart in order to put herself back together again is more damaging than letting herself be a wreck and leaning on those around her.
“Survival Lies” is a lovely story about the importance of family, about emotional labor, and weighing when that labor is and isn’t worthwhile. It’s also about the value of truth being in what you do with it and not the mere knowledge for its own sake. This story does provide a happy ending, earning it through Cynthia’s struggle and growth along the way.
That wraps up January’s Women to Read. Hopefully you’ve found some new-to-you authors to enjoy. Tune in next month–same Smuggler time, same Smuggler channel–for more recommendations.