Before I dive into this topic, I just need to ask – who’s excited for LadiesCon 2018? It’s just a week and a half away and we are so excited for the show we’ve put together for you this year. Besides the incredible guests and talented vendors, I’m particularly excited for the panel line up that we have this year. We’ve got some fascinating people talking about a wide variety of topics at the intersections of feminism, body positivity, and fandom, and I just hope I get a chance to hear some of them! We also still have a few tickets for our early access breakfast left! While the con itself is free, we sell these tickets as an opportunity for those who can afford it to help KEEP it free for those who can’t, and the benefits are great – a chance to meet our guests with only a few other folks in the room, first crack at all of the vendors, a bag full of awesome gifts, and breakfast!
With that out of the way, let’s get down to business. I know that Smalerie gave you a great list of late-summer reading material last week, but I’m still devoting my week to book recommendations for two reasons – first, while she suggested graphic novels to keep that summer feeling going, I’m going to recommend some prose to snuggle up with when the temperature starts to drop. Second, I’ve had a special request! Since I now have evidence that at least one person reads both these recommendations and the books I recommend, how could I refuse?
So here are three books by women with a slightly fantastical bent. If you have read or do read them, please tell me what you think in the comments.
The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley
We’ve all heard that mothers will do anything to protect their children – terrible, even violent things. So what’s the difference between a mother and monster? How do we know who is a hero and who is a villain? And does the answer change depending on who’s telling the story? Headley takes a familiar tale – the epic saga of Beowulf – and completely upends it into a modern feminist fairy tale. She was inspired when she started crafting her own translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic. For those who don’t remember, it’s the story of a hero, Beowulf, who comes to slay a monster who’s been plaguing a keep for 12 years, murdering the inhabitants and ransacking it each night. The monster, Grendel, is hunted and killed by the hero, but soon after, Grendel’s mother comes around, looking for revenge. The word for Grendel’s mother in the original is æglæca – but it’s also the word used for Grendel and for Beowulf himself. In the early English translations it was translated for Beowulf as ‘hero’, for Grendel as ‘monster,’ and for Grendel’s mother as ‘wretch of a woman’ or ‘hag.’ How they’re all really the same word became the basis for The Mere Wife. In her tale, Grendel’s mother is a former soldier in Afghanistan, Dana Mills. Taken prisoner and, she thinks, beheaded on television, she wakes up with no memory – and pregnant. When she flees back to her hometown in the rural Appalachians, she discovers it’s been sold and reimagined as Herot Hall, a gated community, suburban perfection. So she decides to live on the mountain that borders the community, to keep herself and the child, whom she names Gren, safe from the world. But as Gren gets older he starts to wonder about the other world of Herot Hall, and forms a friendship with a boy there, setting off a chain of events that there’s no turning back from.
Headley packs a lot into a relatively short novel – the perils of motherhood, class war, police brutality, and racial tension – while maintaining a compelling story with some unusual literary devices. The novel has several point of view characters, including the mountain itself and a Greek chorus of the older women at Herot Hall, who show us just how monstrous mothers can be. I just finished reading this, and I know I’m going to be thinking about it for a long time. If this doesn’t convince you, check out this video review from the Washington Post’s Ron Charles. It, like the story of Beowulf, has a dragon!
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado
Like The Mere Wife, Her Body and Other Parties uses the form of fairy tales to illuminate the horrors modern women face in daily life, though Machado’s stories use a different inspiration. The set piece of this collection, Especially Heinous, is a novella modeled after nearly 300 synopses of Law and Order: SVU episodes, though it goes into territory Dick Wolf never imagined – doppelgangers of Stabler and Benson, ghosts of girl victims whose eyes have been replaced with bells. Through a near dreamscape of speculative fiction, it manages to make you wonder why so many women and girls are in jeopardy, and why that real danger and sorrow has been repackaged for our entertainment. The other stories in this collection deal with similar themes – sometimes the danger of being a woman in the world, other times the ways in which women themselves are dangerous. It most reminds me of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, but a modern take – fairy tales filtered through the current pop culture zeitgeist.
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Though this isn’t a tale of motherhood, per se, it IS a story about how society can make us into monsters, and how, if you’re smart, you can make that work to your advantage. Leigh Bardugo wrote a successful trilogy prior to this, set in the same universe, called the Grisha trilogy. If you’re a stickler, you might want to read that first – some of the characters in it make small cameos in this series, and it sets the rules for the universe and its magic a bit more overtly. However, I read this book and its sequel first and it did me no harm, and this book was far too much fun not to be the one I recommended. The story is set in a world where a limited number of people are born with powers (think the X-Men, but magic). These people, called Grisha, are able to do miraculous things – control tides, change people’s faces, change their moods, create super strong armor. The Grisha call their abilities “the small science” – basically, they’re manipulating different aspects of matter on a molecular level. Someone has created a synthetic drug that can amplify these powers to godlike – though it takes a toll on the Grisha, eventually killing them. Still, the various governments of the world are very interested in the formula to this drug – and the creator is being held prisoner in the one country that kills Grisha as unnatural. A ragtag team of thugs, assassins, and refugees is assembled to try to break the scientist out of his unbreakable prison – if they can manage it without killing each other, first. This book has all of the fun of best heist movies, set in a compelling, fresh fantasy universe. The cast is diverse and compelling, and best of all – it’s a duology! Just two books! Clearly Bardugo is writing other stories set in the universe, but at least you don’t have to commit to a 20 issue series to get some resolution.