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.
C.L. Polk writes fantasy and romance, and my recommended starting place is her brilliant debut novel, Witchmark, which combines both. Like Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, which I recommended in last month’s column, Witchmark grabbed me with its stunning cover and more than delivered with its contents.
Dr. Miles Singer is a veteran working at a hospital for soldiers recovering from the war. During one of his shifts, a man enters the hospital carrying a dying man in his arms. The dying man is Nick Elliot, who claims he’s been poisoned. He calls Miles by the name Sir Christopher, and begs him to uncover some truth the soldiers need to know. In addition to being a doctor and a former soldier, Miles is also a witch. When he touches Nick in an attempt to heal him, he sees fragments of Nick’s life, learning that he is a witch as well. Despite Miles’ best efforts, Nick dies. Only then does Miles realize the man calling himself Tristan Hunter who brought Nick in witnessed their entire exchange, including Miles’ use of magic. Miles fears Tristan will blackmail him, but Tristan claims only to want the truth. Together they set out to determine whether Nick was indeed poisoned, why, and by whom.
Polk builds a world rich in political intrigue and magic, and full of style, against which to set her mystery. As Miles digs into Nick’s death he uncovers disturbing truths and a web of secrets, seemingly tied to a series of violent murders taking place around the city, all committed by veterans returning from war. As he tries to unravel the mystery, he must also contend with an unexpected reunion with his sister, a family power struggle, and Mr. Hunter, who is not what he initially seemed. Amidst all this, Miles still finds the time to help his patients, trying to uncover the source of their nightmares, and determine whether those nightmares will lead them to violence.
We visited a stone bench by a fish pond, and he sat down to tell me what haunted him. He confessed the days and nights of helpless fear and the battles where he learned what a man would do in the midst of war. I knew what a man would do, if it meant living through it.
The novel is gorgeously written and fast paced. I devoured it in a single day, despite my best intentions to savor it. Along with a satisfying mystery, Polk wraps her novel in gorgeous world building, and delves into weighty topics such as issues of class, power, PTSD, and mental illness. Soldiers are ground up by war, forced to do terrible things, then expected to reintegrate into society. Though it is magic based in her world, the pain suffered by Polk’s veterans is real, and speaks to real world problems. Similarly, the issues of class she addresses, and the abuse of the powerless by the powerful, are all too real.
Polk’s characters are well drawn, and their relationships complex. Miles’ interactions with his family crackle with tension. At the same time, there is tension of another kind as Polk delivers one of the most satisfying slow burns of desire and sexual chemistry I’ve seen in a while. It doesn’t seem fair that this is Polk’s first novel, but that said, I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Francesca Forrest is an author of both short and novel-length fiction. My recommended starting place is her latest work, The Inconvenient God, a charming novelette from Annorlunda Books. An official from the Ministry of Divinities is sent to Nando University on a seemingly routine assignment. She’s there to decommission the god Ohin, a minor god according to her university liaison, but also an irritating one. Ohin is a dropout god, an embarrassment to the university. His worshippers are stoners who desecrate his shrine as a form of honor to him, leaving broken bottles, underwear, cigarette butts, and used condoms everywhere. However, as the official – who later grudgingly agrees to be called by her childhood nickname of Sweeting – begins the ritual to send Ohin away, she learns there is more to the story than she’s been told. Ohin manifests as she might expect, a roguish figure who seems only interested in drinking, seduction, and mischief, but he’s more powerful than she expected. She also learns he wasn’t always a god, but an elevated human, one who can’t remember his past. Who would have the power to create a god, and why create one like Ohin?
Ohin’s worshippers weren’t the only ones who didn’t remember when or why he had ascended to godhood. The Ministry’s brief had made no mention of the fact either. It had, in fact, failed to prepare me for anything I’d experienced at the shrine. It was a singularly worthless document.
As she delves into the mystery, Sweeting finds unexpected answers and unexpected allies. Forrest blends the frustrations of bureaucracy and red tape, the importance of language, and the flaws inherent in the brief span of human memory. Truths are easily forgotten and buried, and our view of history is always colored by those who write it. There are touches of humor in the story, and melancholy as well. Characters who could easily be flat tropes – the officious bureaucrat, the administrator with a secret, the slacker god – become so much more. Despite the story’s brevity, the characters are fully fleshed out, and they grow by the story’s end. I would be remiss if I also didn’t mention the gorgeous cover art by Likhain, which beautifully evokes the sacred, and fits perfectly with Forrest’s story of how we worship and why, along with what we honor and what we allow to be forgotten.
Celeste Rita Baker is a short fiction author who writes across multiple genres in both Standard English and Caribbean dialect. My recommended starting place is “De MotherJumpers“, recently published at Strange Horizons. Fair warning – this isn’t an easy story. It deals with physical and sexual violence, and the MotherJumpers of the title refers to slaves jumping from a ship during an ocean crossing. For all that, there is hope in the story, and much of it deals with fighting back, refusing to be defeated, and characters carving out space for themselves in the world.
She ears dem pop, one long hard pain and cause she to scream out but instead she scream in. De water full she mouth and nose and when she head again above de water she feel more dan possible coming out she ears. Was blood and flesh she shed but she ain’ die den neida. And even doh de healing was constant pain, she heal, she body changing to take in de sea water through de holes dat had tear under she ears.
Some of the slaves who jumped from the ship didn’t die, but transformed, founding an underwater society. Junpee is a member of that society, living with her mate, Amilo, and near her family, and friends. Despite the close-knit community, Junpee knows something is wrong. The water is changing, tainted with oil and pollution. People are getting sick, and animals are growing more aggressive. She’s been urging the others to travel in search of better waters, but the rest of the community is reluctant. Some of them even view her with suspicion, and when a tragic accident occurs, she is blamed and targeted.
Again, the story is not an easy or comforting read, but it is worthwhile, touching on resilience, bravery in the face of terrible choices, environmental issues, friendship, family, and love. Junpee is the second MotherJumper of the title – willing to jump into the unknown, despite the danger, for a chance at freedom and a chance to live on her own terms. She refuses to accept things as they are, and refuses to break, even when she’s hurt and scared. Baker weaves moments of hope and joy into the darkness. Junpee has a bond with QueQue, an octopus, and their relationship is lovingly depicted. Junpee and her friends tease each other and play in the waves. There is sex, and there is love. With all the light and dark taken together, it is an excellent story and well worth reading.
Cristina Jurado is a Spanish short fiction author, and the editor of SuperSonic. Alphaland, her first collection translated into English, was released earlier this year, and my recommended starting place is one of the stories included within – “Alice”. Many of Alphaland’s stories are short vignettes, dropping the reader into a moment in time without context, allowing them to experience the same bewildering dislocation as the characters. This is the case in “Alice” as well, which opens with the titular character waking in a medical facility, knowing she’s undergone a procedure, but knowing nothing about what brought her to this point in time. The procedure is known as integral personality cleaning treatment, effective erasing her past life and leaving her a new person.
“Decisions were taken in advance by your prior personality, who instructed us not to disclose anything else. Nobody knew you better than yourself. Honey, I guess you have to show a bit of faith in your previous you. You have a chance to start your life from scratch. What a wonderful opportunity! Embrace it!”
In just a few thousand words, Jurado captures the horror inherent in the science fiction memory-wipe trope. Alice has no choice in her current state of being, knowing nothing about herself, her past, or how she will live from now on. Some other her forced this upon her, and she is the one that has to live with it. Alice quickly moves from lost and sympathetic to lashing out as she discovers a clue that might connect her with her past. Is the violence a bit of her prior self leaking through, perhaps even the reason the other her chose to erase herself? Or is this the new her, the personality she’s choosing for herself in response to being lost in the world? The story packs a lot into a short space, leaving the reader with many questions and providing no answers. Again, like the beginning of the story, the ending mimics real life. Our personal narratives don’t tie up neatly. We’re left to find our own meaning and, like Alice, decide how we will react to what life throws our way.