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. As occasionally happens in my reading, an accidental pattern emerges, so this time around I’ll be recommending four stories all dealing with gods and religion. March is a good month for the mystical and spiritual, right?
First up, my recommended starting place for Nghi Vo’s work is “Lotus Face and the Fox” from the January/February 2016 issue of Uncanny. The story opens with three masked figures, two wearing the faces of gods and one the face of a fox spirit. They are tricksters, inhabiting the their masks and using them as armor against the world. But fox’s assumed identity is starting to slip and the lost and grieving girl underneath is showing through. Once upon a time, their band of thieves were four, but fox’s sister was lost. Fox sets out to climb the jade tower where Lotus Face lives, as its said she has immense power and can grant any wish. The climb is painful and dangerous, but fox succeeds. She confronts Lotus Face, expecting to be struck down, but instead, Lotus Face offers fox a deal. She will trade faces with fox so fox will no longer see her sister’s features every time she looks in a mirror and be forced to revisit her grief. However, the trade comes with a price. Fox will have to take on all the burdens and loneliness that Lotus Face’s powers entail. The story is beautifully and efficiently told, unfolding layers as it progresses. Its structure echoes its content, both are a journey, as fox climbs and the reader moves deeper into the tale. In a relatively short space of time, the story reflects on family, sorrow, identity, and memory, all wrapped up in a package of poetic imagery. For all these reasons, it’s a wonderful starting place for Vo’s work.
Next up, “Counting Mississippis” from the Winter issue of Kaleidotrope is my recommended starting place for Dora Badger’s work. The story is structured as a countdown, the way one counts the space between each crash of thunder to see which direction a storm is moving, lending tension and electricity to story. Though the gods in this story are never explicitly named, it seems the unnamed protagonist is a former lover of Zeus’ (or perhaps a victim, it’s hard to tell with gods, Zeus especially). Whatever their relationship, it ended unhappily, and with her carrying his child. Now she’s trying desperately to hide her daughter, and keep them both safe. Her daughter, however, wants to know her father. She is convinced a reunion between her parents would make them both happy. This echoes the protagonist’s own childhood. She may well be Poseidon’s daughter, as evidenced by her shimmering waves of blue hair. Her relationship to her daughter is similar to her relationship with her own mother, who raised her in a desert, far away from any hint of water, and told her nothing about the father she so desperately wanted to know. In the here and now, her daughter gets more extreme in her attempts to contact her father. She steals a lock of her mother’s hair, which is what first attracted Zeus, and which the protagonist keeps hidden now as a result. She dares the storms, calling the electricity ever closer, forcing her mother to move them again and again. In the end, the protagonist is faced with a choice – keep running forever, or sacrifice herself. Even with the mythological elements removed, this is a chilling story, one that can read as an allegory for spousal abuse. It’s also a story about failure to communicate and differing perceptions; the daughter sees her father as a wild, romantic figure, while the mother sees him as a monster. Because they don’t communicate clearly, resentment grows between them. The structure of the story is very effective, keeping the reader on edge as events countdown to an inevitable conflict. All in all, it’s an excellent starting place for Badger’s work.
My recommended starting place for Sandra Odell’s work is “Godfall” from January’s GigaNotoSauraus. The story offers quite an interesting take on gods, following a group of scavengers who harvest useful material from fallen gods. The prime resources go to various nations, but whatever is left is taken by independents like the main character, Tully. As the story opens, Maya has fallen, and the various groups are moving in to claim their portion of the spoils – gold and precious stones from her jewelry, metals and minerals from her bones; even her skin can be treated and turned into armor capable of stopping nearly any bullet. On the other side of the equation are Mummers, a wandering group of pilgrims who have a religious interest the dead gods. Regardless of their motives, everyone is on a strict timer as celestial carrion worms will come down to devour anything that is left of the corpse, and anything that happens to be in its area, humans included. An atmosphere of tension surrounds the fallen gods – nations protecting their stake, independents distrustful of each other and the Mummers, and the clock working against all of them. Fallen gods have a tendency to cause destruction as well, cities and citizens alike crushed by the massive corpses. A god falling is akin to a natural disaster, but one that turns up precious resources in its wake. Even with this wealth of resources though, Tully is still struggling for one last take big enough to let him retire. However his current assistant, Marco, seems far more interested in the Mummers than working salvage. The rising tension between them, as well as the race against time makes for a fast-paced second act to the story. Odell works elements of horror into the story – the gods are meat to be carved up – but there’s poetry in the descriptions as well. Overall, the story offers a fascinating take on religion, how it can literally sustain a population, as well tear it apart. The final scenes bring an atmosphere of Lovecraftian weirdness, which plays well with the almost clinical idea of dividing gods up for scrap, and the semi-post-apocalyptic science fiction feel to the earlier parts of the tale. The styles blend seamless, and taken all together, this is an excellent starting place for Odell’s work.
My final recommendation this month is Barbara Krasnoff’s “Sabbath Wine” from Clockwork Phoenix 5. The story centers around a young girl curious about religion, who is drawn to the local church by the lovely choir she can hear, but whose father has forbidden her to go inside. While listening outside the church, she meets a boy about her age who claims to be dead. She takes him at his word, but isn’t bothered by the fact. At home, she convinces her father to put together a proper Sabbath dinner just once, so she can invite her new friend, and experience the religious ceremony herself. Her father agrees, but almost immediately runs into a snag. They’re living under prohibition, and it’s almost impossible to get Sabbath wine. This situation could be played for humor, but Krasnoff uses it first to show the political and racial tensions running throughout the city, and also to show the more personal conflict the father feels between wanting to grant his daughter’s wish and his own obvious issues with religion. Finally the father goes to his daughter’s new friend’s father, who just happens to be a bootlegger. There’s a quiet tension to the scene when the two fathers meet, cuing the reader to a sense of wrongness without giving anything away. The bootlegger ends up accompanying his son to dinner, and over the course of the meal, both fathers reminisce about how they lost their children, and how their ghosts followed them to their new lives and new homes. Rather than coming off as a ‘gotcha’ twist ending, there’s a lovely melancholy to the reveal that the little girl is dead. The story deals with faith, both fathers having lost faith in different ways after the death of their children. At the same time, they both live daily with a miracle of sorts, their children’s continued presence in their lives. The story also deals with persecution. One father lost his daughter fleeing persecution in the old world, and the other lost his son to a lynching. Despite the darkness, Sabbath Wine is ultimate a story about hope and friendship, between the children and the fathers, and it is an excellent starting place for Krasnoff’s work.
That brings us to the end of another Women to Read: Where to Start. As always, I invite you to leave your own suggests for fantastic women to read in the comments!