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. Spring is upon us, which seems like the perfect time to talk about stories focused on birth, death, and transformation. Shall we?
First up, my recommended starting place for Kate Lechler’s work is “Cottonwood” from the December 2014 Issue of NonBinary Review. It just so happens to be the author’s first published piece of fiction, which makes it the ideal starting place. “Cottonwood” is a lovely, poetically-told story that revisits Oz in its later years after Glinda and Osma have both vanished. Dorothy is the dying Empress, one who has spent years trying to remake Oz into her personal vision of Kansas, planting non-native trees and grasses, and destroying the current ecology. It functions on a story level, and as an allegory for the hubris of humanity, colonization, and the environmental impact humans have on the world. At the same time, it weaves a picture of violence and regret, and layers it with loss and devotion, all within the space of a few thousand words. Everyone in the story has lost something or someone, or they are in the process of losing them, and their reactions are quite different. Dorothy turns to brute force, trying to recreate a lost world and install her vision of paradise in its place. Nick Chopper has lost ‘his’ version of Dorothy, the one he loved, but he does his best to support what Dorothy has become, attending her in her dying days and trying to help her find some measure of peace. It’s the kind of story that hints at a much larger world while employing an economy of words. One of the benefits of drawing on existing stories is that the author can use shorthand to fill in much of the back story, and use that as a jumping off point to craft something new and affecting, which Lechler does beautifully here.
“Red Mask” by Jessica May Lin from Shimmer 30 reads like a mash-up between a fairy tale – complete with its original darkness before it’s been sanitized – and a superhero origin story. Set in a future New China, Xiao You is a dancer at the Green Dream, a gentleman’s club providing entertainment, companionship, alcohol, and recreational drugs. All the dancers have had their 11th and 12th ribs removed to improve their flexibility and allow them to perform amazing feats of contortion. Xiao You mourns Feng Guniang, a friend and fellow performer, who killed herself, but still lingers as a ghost, wondering if anyone remembers her or cares what has become of her. Xiao You seems to be the only one, regularly visiting her, and bringing her offerings of food. Feng Guniang’s lover, a German business man, has moved on, and there are other problems plaguing the girls of the Green Dream. A serial killer hunts then, murdering them and stealing their faces to be sold as accessories at a high end shop. Xiao You sets out to stop the killer, and here the story twists sharply from the expected path. She loses her face, but not her life, sliding the tale seamless from dark fairy tale to super hero origin story. Feng Guniang crafts a beautiful red mask for Xiao You to wear in place of her face, and she sets out to do right in the world. This is a story of transformation, loss, and the way the world cruelly discards women. It is also a story of survival, and fighting back against that casual cruelty. Furthermore, the story deals with scarcity, desperation, and people scrabbling to live and to forget the misery of their lives in an over-taxed world. It’s full of gorgeous imagery, with darkness lurking underneath, like all the best fairy tales, and it is an excellent starting place for the author’s work.
“The Governess with a Mechanical Womb” by Leena Likitalo from the March 2016 issue of Clarkesworld is a deeply creepy and atmospheric story. It might be best categorized as science fiction with undercurrents of horror, and a surprisingly touching ending. Agneta and her little sister Saga live in a dark, future version of Finland, which oddly echoes England’s Victorian past. They are cared for by their Governess – a creature who was once human, but who has been converted into a semi-mechanical being by the mysterious Victorians, aliens (maybe) from another planet or another time. Their motives are unknown, but after arriving on earth, the Victorians began imposing their own rules of morality on humanity. The girls’ mother was killed by the initial arrival of the Victorians’ ships, and their father was later executed by the Victorians for breaking their rules. Young as she was, Saga only remembers their parents vaguely, but Agneta remembers and resents the Victorians and the way they are forced to live now. The Governess provides for the girls by means of a portal that accesses pockets of time. They take excursions together to ‘acquire’ clothing and other items from empty houses. Technology is forbidden, as is anything plastic or not fitting in with the eerie aesthetic adopted by the Victorians – crinoline, top hats, natural fibers and so on. Agneta is doing her best to make life normal for her little sister, sheltering her from what she perceives as a harsh new reality. For Saga, however, this is how she world has always been. She bonds with the Governess and considers her a friend. Through coming to understand her sister’s point of view, Agneta finally sees the humanity buried in the Governess and the horror of her situation, leading to the story’s emotional climax. The world-building here is lovely and unique. The whys of the Victorians are not explored; the point of the story is the characters, the relationship between the sisters, their unique viewpoints informing their actions in the story, and the subtle horror of the situation. It’s a moody piece with a strong character arc, and an excellent starting place for the author’s work.
Last, but not least, my recommended starting place for Kelly Sandoval’s work is “Memory and Iron” from the March-April issue of Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. The story takes on the myth of the changeling child, telling it through the eyes of a mother who knows exactly what her daughter is – not quite fairy, but not quite human, a little of both, and it’s left mostly to implication as to how she came to be that way. Katherine is a good mother. She wants what’s best for her daughter. She wants to protect Elizabeth from the wilds of the world, and from fey creatures that might steal her away. She hangs iron and horseshoes, and binds up her daughter’s hair, ignoring her husband when he calls her superstitious. The subject matter is familiar, but Sandoval approaches it sideways. It’s not a story about loss, but about guilt, a mother who sees her daughter as the manifestation of her sin, but loves her fiercely and wants what’s best for her nonetheless. It’s a bittersweet story, and a fine character piece, accomplishing a lot with very few words. Overall, it’s a lovely spin on a familiar tale, and a wonderful place to start with Sandoval’s work.
I’ll be back in May with more recommendations of Women to Read. In the meantime, leave your own suggestions for fantastic stories by women in the comments!