Women To Read is a regular column from A.C. Wise highlighting female authors of speculative fiction and recommending a starting place for their work.
Welcome to the first Women to Read of the new year! As noted in my final column of 2018, my Women to Read and Non-Binary Authors to Read columns at The Book Smugglers will appear roughly quarterly instead of monthly, alternating between the two. For this installment, I have two short stories, and two novels to highlight. Let’s dive in!
Ephiny Gale is an author, poet, and playwright. My recommended starting place is “In the Beginning, All Our Hands Are Cold“, originally published in Syntax and Salt, and reprinted in the author’s collection Next Curious Thing, which is a fabulous collection for which this story sets the perfect tone as the opening tale.
In this world, all children are born handless. They learn to get by with elbows, chins, and mouths, expressing affection by biting each other lightly on the shoulder. When they reach a certain age, the children go into the forest where the cold hands of the dead hang from trees, and choose a pair for their own. The hands bind themselves to the children, informing their personality as they grow, and vice versa. Gale focuses on a group of friends as they chose their hands and the way those choices ultimately inform the people they are meant to be.
It takes them about an hour to reach the grove. Sally has been here before, but she still feels mesmerised. Hundreds of pairs of severed hands, tied with every colour of ribbon around the branches of the trees. Hands of every size and shape, hanging down from their wooden bones.
The imagery of a forest of hands is a striking one, and Gale uses it as a jumping off point to explore the fluid and evolving nature of identity, as well as the power to define oneself and reject labels and expectations. There’s a lovely sense of continuity in the tale as the hands of the dead return to the trees and await someone new to choose them, creating a link between past and present, and a sense of tradition and self being carried on into the future. As in real life, the children in Gale’s story are shaped by those who came before them, but each takes that gift from the past and forges their own path, in turn passing on bits of themselves when they die. The story is beautifully written and profoundly human, with just the right touch of eeriness.
Inda Lauryn is a writer, editor, and co-host of the Black Girl Squee podcast. My recommended starting place is “Dustdaughter” published in the January/February 2019 issue of Uncanny. Like “In the Beginning, All Our Hands Are Cold”, “Dustdaughter” echoes with themes of family and traditions passed from one generation to the next.
The titular character, Dustdaughter, is so named for the hard times she was born into, and her parents’ grim world view. At nine years old, she is sent to the house of a woman she doesn’t know and told to spend the day there without explanation. Dust is understandably nervous, but the woman, Star, is kind to her. She hints at a power in Dust and takes her to yet another mysterious house where a group of women referring to themselves as a coven is gathered. Though the situation isn’t explained to her fully, Dust learns they are there for a ritual, one in which she will play a role, and that she will soon have am important choice to make.
Something in her tuned in with the others and the space they shared. They were in tune with the universe, the woods that surrounded them, each other. They were out of place and time but also the only thing that made sense within them.
All her life, Dust has been taught to be afraid of herself in various ways – as a woman, as a black woman specifically, and as a woman with power. With Star and the other women, Dust feels at home for the first time, and part of something larger. Lauryn gradually reveals the incident that caused Dust’s mother to send her away, but with the coven, Dust finds acceptance, and learns her power isn’t a sign of wickedness. It’s her natural birthright, a power her grandmother had too, even though Dust’s own mother turned her back on it.
Like Gale, Lauryn explores the idea of rejecting labels and not letting others define you. Dust is given her name to remind her she is small and the world is cruel, to dampen her spirit and teach her to keep her head down. Star reminds her that dust is also the stuff of the universe and a tie to those who came before as all life comes from dust and returns to dust in the end. The story is beautifully written, and confronts the idea of who is allowed to have power as Dust and the other women break out of externally imposed constraints and make room for themselves to flourish and grow.
Rebecca Roanhorse is a Nebula and Hugo-winning author. I loved her winning story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience TM”, however I’m recommending her debut novel, Trail of Lightning, which I also adored. Trail of Lightning is set in a post-ecological-disaster world, among a series of scattered desert settlements protected by a massive wall built by the Dinétah. In this new world (the sixth world, to be precise) gods, monsters, and legends walk alongside humanity. Maggie Hoskie is a monster hunter, or was until her mentor abandoned her, fearing she was becoming a monster herself. When a family comes to her for help finding a missing girl, Maggie learns someone is deliberately creating monsters and setting them loose on the world. With the help of Kai, a medicine man, Grace and her family who run a bar, and the occasional interference of Coyote, Maggie sets out to uncover the truth behind this new threat.
He was gone the next morning. Why he, the Monsterslayer, didn’t just kill me if he thought I was becoming a monster, I’m not sure. Maybe those years as his apprentice meant something. Maybe he had second thoughts about it all in the end.
Maggie is a fantastic character, spiky and violent, but allowed to be vulnerable and frightened as well. Despite her fear, she never backs down, and fights fiercely for her friends. Roanhorse inverts the typical roles that appear across much of fantasy media – Maggie is the muscle and the fighter, Kai is the healer, and his strengths are a of a different kind. The relationships between all the characters are wonderfully done, and the novel perfectly balances action with quieter moments where the characters are allowed to grow. I’m a sucker for any fiction where tricksters show up, and Coyote does not disappoint here. The future Roanhorse imagines is a fascinating one. I can’t wait to read more of the Sixth World series, and I’m eagerly anticipating the next installment, Storm of Locusts, which comes out in April.
Lauren Teffeau is an author based in the Southwest, who has spent time living in just about every part of the country. My recommended starting place is her debut novel, Implanted, which was shortlisted for this year’s Compton Crook Award.
Like Trail of Lightning, Implanted is set post-ecological disaster. Instead of scattered settlements in a desert, Teffeau gives us a city in layers, protected by a massive dome. The world outside is toxic, but people have been working to make it safe again. In the meantime, the richest folks in the dome live on the top layers, closest to the sunlight and an approximation of the old world, while others live in increasing darkness below.
Almost everyone inside the dome is implanted with technology that allows them to navigate the world and stay connected. There are a few splinter groups who refuse the technology, and there are those who abuse it including criminals who hunt people and harvest their implants. Emery was the victim of such an attack. She managed to escape, and has dedicated her life since to hunting down harvesters, hoping to find the man who attacked her. Her vigilantism lands her in trouble however, putting her in a position to be blackmailed into accepting employment at a very unusual courier operation that moves data around by encrypting it and injecting it into couriers’ blood. It’s dangerous work, and even though it physically means moving up in the world, and comes with money for her family, it also means assuming a new identity and everyone Emery knows believing she is dead.
There are a million reasons to keep my head down and follow the rules Aventine’s laid out for me. Good reasons, sensible reasons that’ll pay off handsomely in the end, so I’ve been told. But I’ve tried telling all that to my heart, and it refuses to listen.
Teffeau does a fantastic job of exploring humanity’s increasing reliance on technology, and the benefits and dangers that come with a connected world. She also uses the idea of connectivity to explore different ways of being close to someone, what it means to let other people into your life, and whether trust and gut instincts are even viable in such a world. The action sequences are excellent, and Teffeau does a fantastic job of putting Emery in an impossible situation, turning her world upside down, and carrying the reader along as she copes with it. I look forward to the author’s future novels.