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
Welcome to another installment of Women to Read: Where to Start. It’s September, the weather is starting to cool down, which makes it the perfect time to curl up with the hot beverage of your choice and a good read. I’ll even start with something seasonal to get you in the mood.
I’m going a little outside the norm with my first recommendation. Abby Howard’s webcomic, The Last Halloween, is primarily visual, but it’s not the number of words you use, it’s how you use them. Abby Howard is from my hometown, Montreal, and attended my alma mater, McGill, which may make me a little biased, though I would recommend The Last Halloween regardless. Howard hits so many of my soft spots. Halloween? Check. Monsters? Check. Dark humor? Check. She gets bonus points for offering three female main characters, each strong in their own way, while still fully human. They face terrible and literally monstrous situations; they are realistically traumatized by these encounters, but they find a way to prevail. Howard’s art style is reminiscent of both Edward Gorey, and Roman Dirge’s Lenore. Each panel is a visual feast. Where The Last Halloween really shines is when Howard pulls back to show a wide landscape scene, with a detailed foreground and a gorgeously dense, swirly background that perfectly conveys the mood of the season. Art aside, the story is ongoing, so I can’t say whether it delivers on its promises, but what it promises is strong. There’s a charming humor to the strip along with some genuine darkness and hints at more complex storylines. Given Howard’s young age, if nothing else, she is definitely an artist to watch. The Last Halloween is off to a wonderful start, and I look forward to seeing where she takes the series and what else she has in store.
There’s a visual tie-in with my recommended starting point for Lauren Groff as well. I was initially drawn to The Monsters of Templeton based on the silhouettes on its cover. The genre element is light in this novel. What may or may not be a prehistoric sea monster washes ashore in the main character’s hometown of Templeton, just as she returns home to lay low for a while after having an affair with her married archeology professor. Questions of what the monster is and what to do with it run throughout the novel, tying it together. However, The Monsters of Templeton is primarily about family, messy relationships, and day to day life. Willie attempts to reconnect with her mother, deal with a possible pregnancy, discover who her father is – a puzzle her mother leaves her to solve – and put her life back together. Like many of the best works of genre, The Monsters of Templeton uses the fantastic to explore the mundane, setting her look at the human condition against a backdrop of monsters.
My next recommended starting point is unabashedly genre, a secondary world fantasy with deep, rich worldbuilding. Katherine Addison (the alter ego of author Sarah Monette) does something rarely seen in modern fantasy with The Goblin Emperor. She offers an epic fantasy revolving entirely around court politics and the day to day life of the ruler of an empire. Sure, there’s an assassination attempt and the mystery of the former emperor’s death to solve, but these are background details to the meat of the story. Addison’s worldbuilding is incredibly detailed, a tapestry where the smallest threads shine. The correct forms of address, when to bow, who to appoint to what position, and the delicate balance of political and inter-personal relationships provide as much or more tension than an attempt on the emperor’s life. What is truly impressive about The Goblin Emperor is the way Addison manages to provide an epic backdrop out of seemingly mundane details, while also painting a sympathetic portrait of a main character trapped by his circumstances. Her goblin emperor, Maia, faces race issues, class issues, and age issues, all the while maintaining a distinct personality. The novel takes the trope of the outsider/nobody turned king and sets it on its head, showing how truly terrible, weighty, and lonely being ‘chosen’ can be. But it never strays from the personable, the intimate, even when the fate of an empire hangs in the balance. Any work that encompasses the intricacy of an entire world, language, and system of politics within such a personal story is definitely worthy of notice.
Yukimi Ogawa’s short fiction has been popping up all over the place lately, but my recommended starting place for her work is “The Colorless Thief“, which appeared in Ideomancer in March 2014. The main character, Hai, is a performer in a traveling freakshow, living on an island that outsiders treat as a freakshow in its own right. Foreigners come to gawk at the residents, admiring the jewel tones of the hair, skin, and eyes, viewing them as exotic curiosities, rather than humans. Hai’s colors only show when she’s bruised, her unique beauty a product of her pain. The story offers a commentary on the way people, particularly women, suffer for their appearance, and a commentary on cultural appropriation and the idea of adopting traditions as though they’re nothing more than a meaningless costume. The heart of the story lies in Hai’s exchanges with an artist who comes to draw her, using the color of her bruises as inspiration. When the artist shows Hai her sketch, the way Hai mentally assesses it says everything: “This strange costume looked like “the way foreigners would think of us,” exotic to them but meaningless to us; she didn’t seem to even understand that we had a rule for the way collars were folded one over another.” In the same scene, Hai calls the artist out on her clueless attitude saying: “…that beauty only comes from beating me, you see? It hurts, but that’s how we get by. If I could help it, I would’ve chosen a life without bruises.” The way the story is written mirrors its message, using lovely, poetic descriptions to confront hard and uncomfortable truths.
Thank you for joining me for another installment of Women to Read: Where to Start. As always, please feel free to share your own recommendations in the comments.