A Spectrum of Heroines

By Ilana TeitelbaumFebruary 13, 2014

    A Spectrum of Heroines

    Dangerous Women by Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin. Tor. 784 pages.

    COMPRISING ORIGINAL short fiction from some of the most famous names in a variety of genres — mainly science fiction, fantasy, thriller, and historical fiction — Dangerous Women is a massive anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, aiming to place strong female protagonists front and center. Original short stories spun from bestselling series are plentiful, from authors such as Jim Butcher (“The Dresden Files”), Diana Gabaldon (“Outlander”), and Lev Grossman (“The Magicians Trilogy”). The anthology concludes with a novella by George R. R. Martin about warring monarchs, set in the land of Westeros where Game of Thrones takes place. 

    In some of the stories, the “dangerous woman” designation is interpreted literally. Joe Abercrombie’s female protagonist in “Some Desperado” is beset by bounty hunters, only to turn the tables on them in an outburst of violence. Carrie Vaughn’s Raisa Stepnova follows a skilled female fighter pilot in World War II who is determined to rack up as many “kills” as she can, whatever the cost to herself.

    In other stories, the “dangerous woman” appellation might be more subtle. In “My Heart is Either Broken” by Megan Abbott, a pretty young mother, Lorie, falls under suspicion for killing her baby daughter, who has gone missing. This psychological thriller unfolds from the perspective of Lorie’s husband, who first defends Lorie from the scourge of public opinion but over time finds himself questioning her innocence as he observes her behavior: is her crazed partying indicative of her grief, or a celebration of freedom from childrearing? Every memory and event from her past begins to take on ominous significance in his mind. Lorie is an enigma, and a sexually charged one at that: “Sometimes it felt like her body was never the same body, like it changed under his hands. I’m a witch. I’m a witch.”

    Abbott’s story is interesting in a number of ways, one being her refusal to fully resolve the question of Lorie, an ambiguity reflected in the story’s open-ended title. But a more significant aspect is that in Abbott’s depiction of the mysterious, fatal woman — a literary device used since Keats and perhaps earlier — is that this perception of Lorie by others takes a profound toll on her psyche. She is viewed as not quite human, a “witch,” even by her own husband; and a question emerges as to whether such women begin as witches, or if public perception becomes destiny.

    In contrast, Megan Lindholm’s “Neighbors” is about a woman at the opposite end of the femme fatale spectrum: a senior citizen whose life is beginning to slip from her control, and whose children urge her to sell her beloved home and move to an assisted living facility. Lindholm is a writer of dual identities in the fantasy genre; under the pseudonym Robin Hobb she has written bestselling epic fantasy trilogies involving intrigue, war, and dragons in a quasi-medieval landscape. Her fiction as Megan Lindholm tends to be contemporary in setting and fraught with more understated magic.

    So it is with “Neighbors”, which employs magic in ways that can be alternatively interpreted as imaginings of the main character. It is an example of fantasy used as a tool for exploring themes — in this case, the terror of being rendered irrelevant and incapacitated through aging. The protagonist, Sarah, lives a life defined by the past: she mourns the loss of her husband, and her one weekly outing is to visit her dying brother, who doesn’t recognize her. Her only solace is her independence, which her children seek to wrest from her, ostensibly for her own good but with a clueless lack of respect. In one telling scene, Sarah’s dislocation from the present day is made apparent by her obliviousness to her daughter’s probable lesbianism, even when the daughter shows up at Sarah’s house with a girlfriend in tow. Sarah dislikes both President Obama and the Tea Party, her own views no longer represented in the contemporary landscape. Finally her detachment from the present leads her to become “completely unhooked from time,” realizing it no longer applies to her: “Why not shop for groceries at one in the morning, or read the day’s news at eight o’clock at night while eating a microwaved dinner? Time didn’t matter anymore.”

    The story’s magic is embodied in the figure of an old woman who seems to represent the height of Sarah’s children’s fears—one who runs away from home, shouting, at three in the morning, and drapes herself in solar-powered Christmas lights. Ultimately, the magic empowers Sarah and provides an escape from her untenable life. It can in a certain light be read as wish fulfillment. But the premise, addressing a real human fear, is affecting nonetheless.

    Psychological exploration and an action-driven plot come together in Brandon Sanderson’s “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell, a finely structured narrative that never stops moving, yet ultimately hinges upon a woman’s inner life. A fantasy with overtones of colonial America, “Shadows” takes place in a forest haunted by lethal spirits — and bloodthirsty human criminals. Sanderson is best known for his popular epic fantasy series (Mistborn, Stormlight Archive) and his authorship of the concluding Wheel of Time novels following Robert Jordan’s passing.

    The protagonist’s name is Silence Montane, and perhaps not coincidentally she has a secret identity. Owner of a waystop in the deadly Forest, single mother to two daughters—one adopted, rescued from massacre—Silence supports her family through clandestine activities as a bounty hunter. By poisoning bands of criminals who patronize her tavern, she is able to later set upon them when they are in a weakened state. Naturally, secrecy is critical to preserving this arrangement. Meanwhile even as she struggles to maintain this secret, Silence is also waging a near-constant inner battle with the memory of her deceased grandmother, who engaged in ruthless tactics to train Silence to survive in the Forest against the spirits.

    Sanderson is revered in the genre for his creative magic systems, and here too, a system of rules is in place that underlies all that will follow in the plot. That silver is deadly to the spirits is one rule of the system. Another is that they are drawn to blood and fire, which includes gunpowder. Based on these rules, the story unfolds with precision, leading to a surprising twist at the end. The result is a work that, while compact, delivers more satisfaction than most short fiction does. Silence is a fully realized protagonist and her inner conflict the real focus of a story that otherwise involves a great deal of violence. A crisis of faith and ambivalence about her grandmother come to the fore and intertwine, and finally:

    “‘I hate you,’ Silence whispered into the air as she ran…‘I hate you! What you did to me. What you did to us.’

    She didn’t know if she was speaking to Grandmother or the God Beyond. So often, they were the same in her mind. Had she never realized that before?”

    As readers of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series breathlessly await the next installment, Martin has for this anthology plunged backward in time, into the  storied past of his creation. His novella in this anthology, The Princess and the Queen, is part of a larger upcoming work co-written by the author called The World of Ice and Fire, which will detail key events in Westeros history. This particular story, of the 'Dance with Dragons,' is set in a much earlier Westeros, though in most respects it will be familiar to readers of the series. The most striking differences are the reign of House Targaryen, ancestors of Daenerys, on the Iron Throne, and the presence of dragons as a military force. (We know that at some point the Targaryen dragons became extinct, until Daenerys revives them via ritual human sacrifice at the conclusion of A Game of Thrones.)

    Lev Grossman has dubbed Martin the “American Tolkien,” and The Princess and the Queen seems indicative of Martin stepping forward to assume the mantle.  If A Song of Ice and Fire is comparable to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, then this novella could be Martin’s Silmarillion (or a part of it, if The World of Ice and Fire follows a similar vein). Just as The Silmarillion chronicles the history of Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth in a high epic narrative, from an omniscient point of view, so does The Princess and the Queen do the same for Westeros. Rather than employing the third-person limited narrative from the viewpoint of specific characters as he does in A Song of Ice and Fire, in The Princess and the Queen we get a bird’s-eye view—the godlike perspective of the historian.

    Since this is still Martin, an author very much of our time, the formal narrative style is deliberately undercut — perhaps mocked? — with naked atrocities and profanity, with a queen uttering sentences like, “Mayhaps the whore will die in childbirth.” A pair of assassins nicknamed Blood and Cheese slaughter a royal child with a joyful cruelty that readers have come to expect as the standard Westeros experience; their oddly playful names are in keeping with the atmosphere Martin has built into his books … an atmosphere reminiscent of Stephen King or Joe Hill, where the lines between play and horror can be indistinguishably blurred, and innocence is often suspect.

    The novella’s dissonant tone is reflected in its content as well: while written with a lyric flourish, it is ultimately the story of people acting out of the most basic avarice and cruelty, rarely, if ever, possessing redemptive qualities. The princess, facing off against her brother for a throne rightfully hers, is loathsome despite the legitimacy of her claim: when she is shocked into giving birth after learning of her brother’s betrayal, she screams to her unborn child while in labor, “Monster, monster, get out, get out, GET OUT!” The Princess and the Queen is set in motion with the murder of a lord upholding a concept of honor, and the king’s corpse filling castle corridors with the stench of human decay seems a metaphorical premonition of the events to come. For anyone seeking to analyze Martin’s approach to fantasy, it may be that the novella — even more than the series — is the ideal place to start.

    LARB Contributor

    Ilana Teitelbaum has written about books for The Globe and Mail, The Huffington Post, and Salon. Previously she was a journalist in Jerusalem. Her debut novel, Last Song Before Night, was published in 2015 by Tor/Macmillan under the pen name Ilana C. Myer. Her forthcoming novel, Fire Dance, is slated for release in 2018.


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