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 edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. By coincidence, all four stories I’m recommending deal with characters who are not-quite-human, and who are more than they appear.
“To Megan, with Half My Heart” by Vida Cruz was recently reprinted in the January 2015 Expanded Horizons, and originally appeared in The Silliman Journal in 2012. The story is framed as a letter from an absent mother, explaining to her daughter Megan why she isn’t part of her life. Elena never fit in at school, but immediately bonds with Vince; they’re the only two English-speakers in their Tagalog class. He’s the only one who gets her, perhaps because he’s even more of an outsider. He hears voices, he has strange dreams, he doesn’t know who his father is, and suspects he might not be human. Vince and Leni’s relationship grows from the intensity of young love, to something increasingly complex over the course of the story. A subtle sense of threat underlies their time together. Vince would never deliberately hurt Leni, but he’s not wholly human. He doesn’t belong in this world, which makes hurting Leni inevitable, a situation that can be seen as a metaphor for the pain often inherent in first love. Vince’s heritage reclaims him, and he takes half of Leni’s heart with him. He returns for her years later, but here Cruz steers the story away from the fairy tale ending, offering a more considered and mature take on love. Leni’s first love scars her, she loses half her heart, but she isn’t the same person Vince left behind. She’s grown up, she’s married, and has a child. She follows Vince, but not because he’s the ‘one who got away’. She doesn’t have an idealistic view of their relationship, and she has no illusions about him. As an adult, she’s found where she belongs, and she wants the other half of her heart back so she can love her family as fully as they deserve. Cruz traces the way love can mean different things over the course of a lifetime – belonging, passion, loss, and sacrifice that returns as much as you give. As the best speculative fiction does, “To Megan, with Half My Heart” uses the supernatural to explore what it means to be human.
“Be Not Unequally Yoked” by Alexis A. Hunter in Shimmer #23 is another coming of age story about a character finding their place in the world, but taken in a completely different direction. Hunter offers one of the most unique spins on the human-animal transformation tale I’ve ever seen. Joash is an Amish teenager, but he’s also a horse – a change he can’t explain or control. His horse-self, Belle, is female and this dual nature both isolates Joash and gives him strength as he struggles with his sexuality and his growing attraction to his neighbor Daniel. Further complicating matters, Joash’s dual nature risks his family’s place in the Amish community. He can’t stand to see a horse yoked to a plow, because he knows exactly what it is to wear a bit and be made to pull. Joash’s parents are wonderfully supportive. They hire out their plowing to English farmers, but this leads to suspicion from their neighbors and the threat of being asked to leave the community, something they’ve already had to do once before. Joash struggles to do what is best for the family, putting aside his own needs. He encourages his father to go back to the traditional way of plowing, as much as it pains him. As a dutiful son, he even tries to find a nice Amish girl to marry, knowing it’s what’s expected of him despite what he feels. Hunter provides a rich exploration of isolation and acceptance in this story, delicately balancing the two. The more Joash embraces Belle, the more she lends him strength, providing a kind of togetherness within one skin, but the story’s resolution is still bittersweet. Joash accidentally reveals his true nature to Daniel. Much to his surprise, instead of revulsion, Daniel calls him a wonder. However, even as Daniel’s acceptance gives Joash the key to seeing himself as something beautiful – gifted rather than cursed – Daniel makes it clear he doesn’t share Joash’s attraction. The author pulls off a neat trick here. She’s made you care for her main character and root for his happiness, but at the same time, it’s impossible not to appreciate Joash’s letdown, because life isn’t like a fairy tale. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow and become a stronger person from the experience.
Veering sharply away from the coming of age story, my recommended starting place for Brooke Bolander’s work is “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” from the February 2015 Lightspeed. In this case, the inhuman characters is an android/skin-doll who ventures into the virtual world to save her partner’s life. There are mythological underpinnings here, a fairy tale drenched in cyberpunk style. Bolander offers us a gender-flipped Orpheus and Eurydice, or a high-tech version of Janet rescuing her Tam Lin. Except instead of a Faerie Queen, there’s a mobster with a gun. These archetypes are the skeleton of the story, and Bolander drapes the bones in bloody flesh. The prose is cutting-sharp, full of jagged edges, harsh language, and a harsher character. Rhye resents the very idea of emotion, of caring for someone, let alone the idea she might succumb to it herself. She isn’t human, why should she be subject to their weaknesses? She holds her lover/partner Rack at arm’s length, constantly pushing him away, and yet she goes through hell for him, confronting her demons in the form of herself, as Rack once saw her – heartless, relentless, and without remorse. Rhye and Rack’s relationship is complicated, brutal, never saccharine, but also feels true. It flips the traditional gender roles by putting Rack in the role of caregiver and nurturer. He patiently patches Rhye up when she gets herself shot, stabbed, or otherwise broken, and continually offer his love without reserve even when Rhye refuses to reciprocate. Rhye on the other hand is a cast in the warrior role – a violent, distant woman with no patience for the trappings of romance. Bolander garnishes the story with the perfect tone. There’s a rhythm to the language, and the whole thing drips with cyberpunk atmosphere and killer turns-of-phrase.
Finally, “What the Highway Prefers” by Cassandra Khaw in the Winter 2015 Lackington’s offers a more subtle take on the extra-human theme. Subtle may sound like an odd descriptor for a story about a sentient highway populated by hungry ghosts, but on the surface, the old woman who cares for the highway is wholly unremarkable. Her knees ache. Her back complains. She’s rooted in her humanity, and at her age, her flesh is beginning to fail her. Despite this, she diligently cares for the shrines around the highway, clearing brush and making the long march no matter how slowly she moves these days. Even with its relatively short length, the story packs a punch, exploring the idea of roles and expectations imposed by society, and notion of people who are ‘invisible’ by virtue of their age/gender/race, etc. Khaw’s main character is not simply more-than-meets-the-eye, she is someone the eye does not meet at all. Old women are useless. They aren’t wives or mothers, therefore they can easily be dismissed and overlooked. Part of what makes her extraordinary is that Khaw’s main character embraces her role. She has no interest in glory or recognition; she does her work because it is necessary. Without her tending of the shrines, the ravenous highway would take its toll in innocent lives. She is human, but she is also extra-human because she is the only thing standing between those around her and death. She is a hero, and no one sees her. On top of all this, the story is full of gorgeous, poetic imagery, and it has a killer last line to boot.
There you have it – another round up of amazing stories by amazing women. I’ll be back next month with more recommendations. In the meantime, leave your own suggestions in the comments. Who are your women to read, and where should we start?