Friday, April 20, 2012

R is for Recommended Reading List (speculative fiction, grrls edition)

With only nine of these leftit appears that we're to make it through the whole alphabet. I wanted to do "recommended reading" today, and chose to focus on women after a conversation I had with Chloe (age 5.5) about the upcoming "Take your children to work day". I'll be taking her to AVI-SPL to see the excciting world of commercial audiovisual integration. She asked about my office (which she's seen once), what my boss looks lile, who my office-mate is. Then:
"Are there any girls, or is it all boys?"
We do have a few women in coordination and administrative positions and one female CAD technician, but that's all. All of the technicians, engineers, salespeople, and programmers are men.
The programming class I just took for Crestron had fifteen students, all men.
The class Biamp gave on their Audio DSP products had about fifteen students, all men.
Extron's AV technologies class had one female student out of about a dozen.
It becomes a self-perpetuationg cycle, that young girls who see certain fields dominated by men never picture themselves there, so the next generation is dominated by men, leaving a lack of role-models for the following generation of girls.  Sometimes speculative fiction literature falls into the same "boy's club" mentality, in which the big names are all men. So, to remind us all that the world can be a more diverse place if we let it, I'll give recommend three female fantasy authors and highlight one work from each.

The Orphan's Tales, by Cathrynne M Valente (In the Night Garden and Cities of Coin and Spice)

Those who know me shouldn't be surprised to see Cat Valente topping this list; I find her to be one of the most compelling and original voices in modern fantasy fiction. She has a poet's ear for language and can weave intricate and complex plots. I could have picked many of her books - her middle-grade novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Boat of Her Own Making, her Russian fairy-tale interpretation Deathless, or her in-progress A Dirge for Prestor John trilogy, but The Orphan's Tales were the books that first introduce me to her.  The story is about a young girl with a series of stories tattooed in tiny, tiny writing across her eyelids and in the creases of her eyes. After slowly and laboriously reading them with a magnifying glass and a mirror, she tells them to a young boy. One story leads into the next, like the tales in 1001 Arabian Nights, but they weave in and out of eachother with more complex interconnections. We sometimes see the same story from different perspectives, sometimes realize that what we think we knew was wrong. There's also a feminist subtext to the book, but not in an agressive or didactic manner. It's more that, although there are male protagonists, the stories are very largely women's stories. This is one of those books I cannot recommend strongly enough.

The Edda of Burdens, by Elizabeth Bear
(All the Windwracked Stars, Under Mountain Bound, The Sea Thy Mistress)
Again I was faced with a difficult choice of which of many very strong works by a talented author. I could have chosen her more science-fiction-y Jacobs Ladder or the surprisingly ambitious and  clever Promethean Age novels. The latter contail a veritable laundry list of the most compelling fantasy tropes: wizards, secret histories, fairies, dragons, and some familiar figures from history and myth (from King Arthur to Marlowe). The Edda of Burdens took a little more effort to get into; we get norse mythology, apolcalyptic battles, failures, sacrifice, and romance. The first book, All the Windwracked Stars, opens with the aftermath of a great battle in which Waelcyrge (Valkyries) have been defeated and slain by the forces of darkness - save for the historian and poet Muire who broke ranks and fled from the battle. We follow her to a distant, post-apolcalyptic future in which dying technology shares the stage with the stuff of myth and legend - including the immortal Muire, and suneater Mingan the Grey Wolf. That's right, we get a far-future in which one character has eaten the sun. It doesn't sound as if it should work, but it somehow does.

Shades of Milk and Honey
Glamour in Glass
Without a Summer (forthcoming) by Mary Robinette Kowal
Kowal doesn't have the impressive body of work that either Bear or Valente does (at least not yet - unless there are a whole stack of novels which I missed), but the trilogy beginning with Shades of Milk and Honey is an impressive effort worthy of a place on anyone's reading list. This trilogy starts off as Kowal's take on a Jane Austin-style regency romance. It's full of all the things that make such a book fun; secret agendas, love triangles, mysteries and, of course, literal magic in the form of illusionary "glamours" which can be used as performance, decoration, or misdirection. I discussed the second book, Glamour in Glass, earlier in this blog. The forthcoming Without a Summer will wrap up the tale, and take on the social and political upheaval of the early industrial revolution as well as focusing on the remaining family conflicts. I eagerly look forward to it.

The challenge of this sort of thing is that there are so many great writers I missed. I'll give an honorable mention to Jacqueline Carey's BDSM-tinged Kushiel's Legacy series (taking place in a sort of alternate France in which houses of courtesans worship the angels who walked the earth with the son of Yeshua and the Magdalene), and Kelly Link's brilliant short-fiction. I was also tempted to go back in time to the earlier work of the incomprably brilliant Ursula K Leguin, way back to the short fiction of James Tiptree, Jr or back a whole century to Mary Shelly's Frankenstein - which reads very well today for a hundred year old novel. Check them out. And the next time someone tells you that speculative fiction is a boys' club, club them over the head with a hardback copy of one of these.

See you tomorrow with another book review for 'S'

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