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
Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons was my introduction to the author’s novel-length work and a good place to start in my opinion. Dragons are an often-used trope in fantasy, but Brennan puts a different spin on hers, making them the subject of scientific inquiry. She also wisely keeps the dragons largely in the background, focusing on her human characters and their relationships. One of the things that struck me most about the book was its portrayal of a marriage that is a partnership and friendship first and foremost. Too often, particularly with historical novels, husbands are presented as unrelentingly cruel, controlling, or dismissive of their wives, too stuck in traditional gender roles to be otherwise. Here, expectations are subverted as Isabella’s relationship with her husband becomes a springboard to further her scientific career, rather than an obstacle to thwart it. Brennan also shows there is more to spectrum of love and marriage than all consuming passion or cold indifference. A wealth of possibilities lie between these two extremes, and it’s depicted perfectly here as a love that grows out of friendship and mutual respect. Isabella is allowed to explore her passion and break out of the traditional roles available to women at the time, but it is handled realistically. The men around her still feel the need to protect her, but they are not condescending or cruel about it. Similarly, Isabella’s knowledge and skills are appropriate to the things she was allowed to learn; she isn’t suddenly an expert in areas she has no experience with, but she’s shown to be intelligent and competent and able to make accurate deductions based on her observations and research.
Have you ever come across a story where everything strikes you just right? K.M. Ferebee’s “The Earth and Everything Under” was one of those stories for me. It’s also an appropriate story to recommend as a starting point since it was the starting point to launch the new digital version of Shimmer, which debuted in May. “The Earth and Everything Under” is a beautiful story about death and loss and life going on regardless. There are birds and witches and a sheriff, and it all starts off with a killer opening line: “Peter had been in the ground six months when the birds began pushing up out of the earth.” The story is full of evocative images like that, drawing a picture of a world simultaneously wondrous and mundane. The fantastic is woven seamlessly into everyday life, part of the fabric of living. It’s a mature story, not in the sense of a mature rating on a tv show, but mature in the sense that it isn’t afraid to be quiet. It resists the easy path of setting up the law as the villain. People even talk to each other and make the effort to understand where the other is coming from. The story also shows the ways in which people can grow up and grow apart. Using the fantastic to illuminate the human condition, Ferebee gives us two sides of a relationship ending – Peter with his grand gestures and drama and refusal to let go, and Elyse, who is practical and full of quiet strength despite being the one left behind. In the end, we aren’t given trauma and heartbreak, but the natural outcome of people taking different paths in life. Peter and Elyse change more than they fall out of love, becoming more true to who they are at this point in their lives, even though it ultimately means going their separate ways.
In its own way, LaShawn M. Wanak’s “21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One)“, which appeared at Strange Horizons in February, is also a story about growing up. Similar to K.M. Ferebee’s “The Earth and Everything Under,” it presents the fantastic as mundane, with spiral staircases made of wood and crystal and bone appearing out of nowhere to offer enlightenment. Rather than reacting with shock, the characters simply choose whether or not to climb the staircases. Sometimes enlightenment is something grant, like a glimpse into the future, steering someone away from a bad relationship. Sometimes it’s simple, like the perfect grilled cheese sandwich recipe. There are touches of whimsy in the story, perfectly balanced with more serious fare – issues of race, the gap between parents and children, and the idea of taking responsibility for your own life and happiness. It is a story about growing up literally, but also about coming to have a more grown-up outlook on life regardless of age.
My first introduction to Alice Hoffman’s work was the movie version of Practical Magic, starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. It brought her to my attention as an author, however, and led me into reading her work, including my recommended starting place, The River King. In terms of genre, the novel rides the edge, occupying the liminal space between mainstream and speculative fiction. For the most part, the world is straightforward, with the exception of a ghost that may only be a figment of a guilt-stricken imagination. Whether or not the ghost is real, the haunting is, both for the character and the book as a whole. The River King is pervaded by a sense of loss and regret, a yearning toward something that can never quite be obtained – the very definition of a ghost by some measures. The novel is made of layers, peeled away slowly to reveal deeper truths about characters who appear to be entirely made of their surfaces at first glance, surfaces which often make them unlikable. The more layers that are revealed, the richer the story becomes. Hoffman’s language is poetic and beautiful, making the real world seem magical, regardless of whether the work is speculative fiction or not.