A.C. Wise is the author of numerous short stories appearing in print and online in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits Unlikely Story, an online magazine publishing three issues of fiction per year with various unlikely themes. Follow her on twitter as @ac_wise.
by A.C. Wise
Lauren Beukes made her fiction debut with Moxyland in 2009, but her first novel to garner widespread attention, and my recommended starting place for her work, is Zoo City, which won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award and the 2010 Kitschies Red Tentacle Award, along with being nominated for several other awards. In addition to presenting a fascinating world where characters’ past misdeeds manifest physically as animals bound to them for the rest of their lives, Zoo City does something fairly rare – it offers a genuine female anti-hero as a main character. Too often, female characters are held to odd standards, forcing them into boxes of pure good or pure evil, virgin or whore, with nothing in-between. Rarely do we get women who are as many shades of gray as Beukes’ Zinzi December – a finder of lost things, who also happens to be an email scammer/spammer, a former junkie, the cause of her brother’s death, and a character who genuinely cares about the welfare of others, going out of her way to look out for two teenage pop stars who everyone else seems determined to either tip-toe around or manipulate and use. In short, she has all the classic hallmarks of an anti-hero; she’s a complex, multi-faceted character who, despite her flaws, the reader roots for, and there are far too few examples like her in fiction. Based on Zoo City, I’ll be circling back to Moxyland soon, and picking up The Shining Girls, Beukes’ latest, which looks similarly intriguing, and which is slated to become a movie in the near(ish) future.
Ursula Vernon’s webcomic, Digger, won the 2012 Hugo for Best Graphic Story, but the first of her works that really caught my attention – and my recommended starting point for her work – is the beautiful “Jackalope Wives” in the January 2014 issue of Apex Magazine. “Jackalope Wives” retells a classic story – a man stealing a shape-changing woman’s skin in an attempt to make her his bride. Unlike most stories of this nature, the story is told neither from the man nor the woman’s perspective, but from the perspective of the man’s grandmother. Despite a character seemingly one step removed from the situation, Vernon give a sharp sense of all three characters, and offers up the notion of consequences that feel more immediate than most other skin-stealing stories. Instead of a quiet, seething anger from the Jackalope Wife, Vernon gives both the sense of an animal that’s been hurt and doesn’t understand why it’s in so much pain, and the sense of a being older, wiser, and more incomprehensible than most humans can imagine. It’s a truly lovely and haunting tale.
Margo Lanagan is multiple award-winning author, and an extremely prolific one as well. You could start just about anywhere with her work, but my recommended starting point is “Singing My Sister Down”, which is included in her short story collection Black Juice, as well as several anthologies. In my opinion, it’s the strongest piece in an overall strong collection, and was rightly nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula Award. It tells the story of a public execution in a way that is both brutal and uplifting. While it is a story about a horrific act, it is also a story about family, mercy, and compassion. It shows how acts of rebellion can be small and quiet things that never break the law, but reveal an unbreakable spirit in the face of an impossible situation.
Finally, to round out this post, I’ll give you a classic recommendation: Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave. I actually came to this series in a roundabout way, by being given the fourth book in the series. However, I’m a sucker for Arthurian Legend, so I took it on good faith I would enjoy the other books and ran out to buy the first three in the series without reading a word of the one I’d been given. The series follows Merlin from his childhood to the end of his legend, which typically has Nimue/Niniane/Viviane imprisoning him in an oak after usurping his powers. Their relationship is more complex in this series, as is the whole of Merlin’s story, making him a more rounded character than the archetypical wise and mystical old man with a beard. While the story of Arthur and Merlin has been told countless times, The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment, as well as its two sequels, add dimension and their own particular spin to the tales, filling in gaps in the original legends in a way that feels both true to their spirit, and fresh and new.
So there you have another installment of Women to Read: Where to Start. As always, I’d love your recommendations for fantastic works by women both new and old.