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 another installment of Women to Read. I’m writing this in the midst of yet another snowstorm, but hopefully by the time you’re reading it, spring has finally arrived. This time around, I have two debut novels to recommend, and two short stories – a nice balance for all your reading needs!
Miriam Seidel is an author, curator, and long-time sci-fi fan, who wrote a libretto for an opera about Nikola Tesla, which has been performed in Belgrade, New York, and Philadelphia. Her debut novel, The Speed of Clouds was released this month from New Door Books. (Disclosure: I received a pre-release copy and provided a blurb. I adored the book, and wanted to highlight it here.)
The novel, set in the early 1990s, centers on Mindy Vogel, a devoted fan of SkyLog, a sprawling science fiction property spanning multiple series, and inspiring fan fiction, fan publications, fan groups, and conventions. As the novel opens, Mindy learns the ‘zine she’s been running, “Voice of the Cyborg”, has been co-opted by her supposed friend, Sheryl, who has also usurped Mindy’s place as president of her fan club, essentially kicking her out. Mindy’s sense of betrayal is worsened by the fact that “Voice of the Cyborg” and her fan club were escapes from a life where she feels stuck in place. Mindy lives with her mother, who supports them both by selling collectibles at trade shows after her parents recently split. Due to her spina bifida, lack of driver’s license or a car with adapted controls, and the fact that she now uses a wheelchair to get around, Mindy primarily relies on others for transportation, making her life feel increasingly claustrophobic.
Mindy’s other escape had been her ongoing fan fiction following the adventures of Transortium Fleet Officer Kat Wanderer, but after some nasty anonymous feedback accusing her of writing a “Mary Sue” self-insert character, she stopped publishing it. Despite everything, Mindy is determined not to be cut off from the SkyLog community. With the help of her friend Zu, she sets out to launch a new publication, venturing into the new frontier of the world wide web to publish it online. Meanwhile, Zu tries to get Mindy to join a club devoted to the ways of SkyLog’s Santaks, an alien culture Mindy sees as fundamentally opposed to the values of the Transortium. Furthering Mindy’s resistance to joining is her dislike for Len, a member of the Santak group who made a bad first impression and continues to rub her the wrong way every time they meet. Zu eventually wears Mindy down, and Mindy agrees to give the Santaks a shot, beginning the slow process of getting both her fictional life and her real life back on track.
I wheel on back, blocked every few feet by the growing crowd of browsers, wishing I could just run them over. My attempt at cyborg cool has been shattered by one asshole, someone who clearly knows nothing about what matters in the Transortium. In my head, I subject him to some choice insults.
The Speed of Clouds is a love letter to fandom and to embracing geeky passions – whether it’s collectibles, science fiction, music, art, architecture, or web design. Seidel balances Mindy’s day-to-day life with excerpts from her fan fiction, and the fan fiction she receives as editor of her new online venture. The two worlds inform and enrich each other, adding depth to the characters through their inner lives. Seidel’s exploration of fan fiction, and fan culture in general, is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. She tackles the notion of the “Mary Sue”, an accusation of poor writing/wish fulfillment typically leveled at female creators and characters as a way of excluding them from fan spaces. Seidel also shows the positive side of fandom, and the way fan fiction expands existing universes to make them more inclusive, for example exploring ramifications and consequences too complex for episodic TV, or making space for queer narratives that networks aren’t comfortable showing.
The Speed of Clouds also shines in its characters, especially Mindy who is allowed to be flawed, and in her own words “bitchy”. She’s a fully-rounded human being, pushing away her friends and family without losing them, experiencing self-doubt, but managing to fight through it, and taking control of her body through her decisions about her health, mobility, and her sexuality. It’s a poignant novel, and as a debut, leaves me eager to see what Seidel does next.
Bennett North is an author, runner, and a rock climber. My recommended starting place for her work happens to be her debut short story “Smooth Stones and Empty Bones” originally published in the January/February 2016 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, and recently podcast at GlitterShip.
There’s a skeleton in the chicken coop. It’s some bare collection of abandoned bones, maybe a former fox, and it’s slishing through the pine needles and bumping liplessly against the gate. The chickens, for their part, don’t look concerned.
Helena’s mother is a witch, at least according to rumors in town, but she does indeed have knowledge and tools beyond what most humans possess. This includes a box of stones buried in Helena’s yard, which act like batteries capable of re-animating the dead, at least for a time. Helena steals one of these stones to bring to her girlfriend Mariposa, whose younger brother Javi has gone missing. If Javi is dead as Helena fears, she hopes the stone will help Mariposa to gain closure. The stones have a finite life, and their magic has a tendency to leak, hence the skeletal fox slinking about Helena’s yard. If Helena’s mother discovers one is missing she’ll be livid, but Helena is willing to risk it. She hates seeing Mariposa in pain, and wants to be a hero to her girlfriend, cementing a relationship that feels tenuous for its newness and the grief and fear Mariposa is experiencing over her brother.
North’s writing is lovely and evocative and perfectly captures the rollercoaster of emotion associated with a new relationship, including the way wanting to impress someone can lead to impulsive and dangerous behavior. The story encompasses themes of family, loss, and surviving grief in beautiful ways, making it a satisfying and bittersweet read (or listen).
Jeannette Ng is a Medieval and Renaissance Studies scholar, game designer, and author, who is also brilliant when it comes to cosplay and nail art. (Seriously, follow her on twitter.) Her debut novel, Under the Pendulum Sun, was published in October 2017 by Angry Robot Books. I try to avoid spoilers when it comes to books, so I had no idea what to expect when picking up Under the Pendulum Sun. It turned out to be exactly the book I wanted to read without knowing it, and it took my breath away.
Catherine Helstone travels to Arcadia where her missionary brother, Laon, is trying to convert the fae to Christianity. She hasn’t heard from him in a while, and is growing concerned, especially since the last missionary disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Upon arriving in Arcadia, she is welcomed to Gethsemane, the vast, empty castle where her brother has been staying. The only inhabitants beside herself are a changeling woman named Ariel Davenport who acts as an intermediary between the fae and the missionary’s household; Mr. Benjamin, the gnome gardener who is the sole convert to Christianity among the fae thus far; and the Salamander, a housekeeper Catherine never sees.
Left to her own devices, told the world outside the castle is hostile and dangerous, and haunted by a sense of foreboding, Catherine stumbles across the journal of the previous missionary, along with several letters written in a language she can’t understand. With nothing else to do, she tries to translate the letters, suspecting they may be Enochian, the fabled tongue of the angels, and possibly also the language of the fae. The letters seem to be an attempt at translating the bible, but not any passages Catherine knows. Like everything else about Gethsemane, the words are slightly off. The letters, the ominous excerpts from the old missionary’s journal, a door to empty air in Catherine’s room that refuses to stay closed, the fact everyone around her is keeping secrets, her brother’s strange behavior when he finally returns, and an impending visit from the Pale Queen, leaves Catherine determined to unravel the truth of Gethsemane and Arcadia no matter what it costs.
…the moon dangled from a pole in front of a wide-jawed piscine. As it swam closer, I saw the light gleaming off its long, long teeth that curved from its lips. Its eyes bulged from its face, white, lidless and staring. Tail whipping back and forth, its scales shimmered, iridescent in its own light.
Ng’s language is gorgeous, immersive, and evocative. Even throw-away lines conjure whole worlds and stories of their own. Under the Pendulum Sun combines the haunting and haunted feeling of works like Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, and John Crowley’s Little, Big, with the feeling of classic gothic romances like Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Ng presents fae that are truly other and occasionally terrifying. There’s a sense throughout the novel of a darker world moving just out of sight, one full of elusive truths that are better off left unknown. At times, the novel also evoked weird fiction works like Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch, Shriek, and his Area X trilogy, yet with all that, Under the Pendulum Sun remains unique, and Ng’s voice is original and strong.
The novel is breathtaking and eerie – part ghost story, part the account of a missionary in a strange land, part a story about family, part a story about buried secrets, and wholly wonderful and weird. It explores what happens when a colonialist/missionary mentality goes up against a truth that doesn’t meet with preconceived notions and expectations. At the same time, it treats faith and religion respectfully, and asks deep and thoughtful questions. It’s the kind of novel that left me longing for more, while also feeling like the perfect length, leaving space to imagine what came before the first page, and what might occur after the last.
Maria Haskins is a writer, translator, and reviewer. My recommended starting place for her work is “Hare’s Breath” from the September 2017 issue of Shimmer Magazine (https://www.shimmerzine.com/hares-breath/). The story moves fluidly through time, but is primarily set in 1940s Sweden, when sterilization could be forced on individuals, even children, without their consent (and sometimes without their knowledge) for just about any reason. The unnamed protagonist’s best friend, Britt, is sterilized when they’re both fifteen, though the protagonist doesn’t understand until later in life what was done to her.
The hare reminds me of Britt: dark eyes watching to see if you’ve come to kill it; long legs always ready to run.
What the protagonist does know is that Britt’s father beats her, though Britt claims he isn’t her real father – her real father lives in the river. Britt showed her when they were eight, taking her to see a naked man floating among the lily-pads who looked dead, but who wrapped Britt in his arms and pulled her under the water, holding her there for what seemed like hours. The protagonist doubts what she saw, and begins to wonder in general what is real and what is mythology, especially in a world where the truth seems to bleed back and forth across the line between fantasy and reality, and where everyone keeps secrets and there are certain things that simply aren’t talked about. Abuse certainly isn’t discussed, and neither are the kinds of feelings the protagonist has for Britt, but can’t quite name.
“Hare’s Breath” isn’t an easy read, given the subject matter, but it’s beautifully written. Haskins’ language is poetic, her imagery draws the reader in, and the way the story moves through time gives the piece a dream-like feel. Where is the line between fairy tale and horror story? Where is the line between myth, and the harsh reality of a life full of repression and pain? With its ambiguous ending, which can either be read as hopeful or tragic, “Hare’s Breath” reminds us that sometimes the best way to combat the world’s darkness is through stories. The stories both Britt and the protagonist weave for themselves throughout “Hare’s Breath” not only allow them to make sense of their lives, it allows them to take back some measure of control by choosing a happy ending.
That wraps up April’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.