Fantasy Magazine Women Destroy Fantasy Magazine MondayFantasy Magazine was folded into Lightspeed Magazine in 2012, but it came out of retirement in October 2014 for the Women Destroy Fantasy issue, one of the stretch goals of a Kickstarter for an all-women edition of Lightspeed. I was one of the contributors to the Kickstarter, and, as my review last week revealed, I greatly enjoyed the Women Destroy Horror issue of Nightmare Magazine that was another stretch goal of the same Kickstarter. I’m pleased to report that the fantasy issue is just as “destructive” and enjoyable.

Cat Rambo guest-edited the new fiction for this issue of Fantasy. Her editorial remarks on the difficulty of seeing the shape of a field when you’re smack in the middle of it. You can see fine details, but the overall structure, size and scope tend to escape you. That means that sexism in genre literature, which has been very well documented, is sometimes invisible to those who aren’t women attempting to break into print. Terri Windling, the guest editor for the reprints, notes that women have been a driving force in fantasy from its earliest beginnings. Wendy Wagner, the nonfiction editor for this issue, opines that we need special issues like this “because fantasy is a genre that tends to destroy women — or if not destroy, then de-story.” These women are feminists of the first order, and the quality of the work they chose reflects their perspective. In short, these intelligent, perceptive women chose excellent work to publish in this special issue.

The first of the original stories is “The Scrimshaw and the Scream” by Kate Hall, a work of Weird fiction that illustrates the need to be true to oneself. Felicity is growing gray-white feathers, which she plucks regularly, just as do all of the upper class people in her world. Here, you ultimately turn into a bird if you do not follow all of society’s strictures, no matter what that does to you. For Felicity, it means giving up an art form she loves in order to enter into a conventional marriage. A woman from another land observes Felicity’s struggle, and speaks some solid truths to her. Whether Felicity can actually hear them, however, is another question entirely. The story doesn’t quite work, however, mainly because Felicity is not a likeable or insightful character.

“Making the Cut” by H.E. Roulo is narrated by a superhero — her principal superpower is shapeshifting — who flies over South Asia to recruit Aisha. The narrator, known as Vixen, needs help, because she’s pregnant. Aisha denies that she can be a superhero because, she says, she is not sufficiently beautiful. In fact, she is not at all beautiful, for a reason that I’ll leave you to discover. Vixen does not have an argument to convince Aisha that she is wrong, or at least not one that she is willing to share. But some months later, she is becoming desperate for help, and she returns to Aisha’s home. This entertaining story makes a point about beauty — not just about what society considers beautiful, but what women think of themselves. Unlike the usual fantasy, it is not a heroine’s looks that win the day, but her abilities.

I have always loved fairy tales and rewritten fairy tales, so T. Kingfisher’s “The Dryad’s Shoe” was a welcome addition to this issue. Hannah loses her mother when she is young. Anyone who is familiar with fairy tales knows what happens next: and enchanted bird warns her that her father is about to remarry, and that her stepmother will be unkind to her. Hannah, who is working in her beloved vegetable garden when she gets the news, rather matter-of-factly responds that she’ll just put nettles in her stepmother’s bed, but the bird nonetheless insists on giving her a rhyme (a very bad one) that will alert a dryad to help her out in times of need. And, in fact, Hannah does not get along well with her stepmother or the two stepsisters the bird had failed to mention. But Hannah has her garden, so she manages quite well nonetheless. At least, she does right up until the day when the Duke decides to give a ball for his son. From there, though, you might be surprised at how things proceed, and delightfully so. Hannah is a wonderful character, and Kingfisher writes in a straightforward fashion that reminds me quite a bit of K.J. Parker — tongue-in-cheek, with a straightforward style that tells the story with wit and elegance. Kingfisher wickedly subverts the normal fairy tale structure to show a woman who knows what she wants and is prepared to do what is necessary to make sure she gets it, a woman who refuses to be rescued by a handsome prince, a woman who finds her fulfillment in her “career.” This is the destruction of fantasy on a grand scale!

“Drowning in Sky” by Julia August is about a woman named Ann who has just survived a long sea voyage from Vitulia to Khelikë living on nothing but limestone. It’s a while before we learn just who she is and how limestone could nourish her. Even more mysterious is Araknë, into whose clutches Ann falls almost as soon as she arrives in Khelikë. The story is beautifully written, telling of old gods and old powers, but because August isn’t willing to let her readers know what is going on, not even from the perspective of either of her main characters, this makes for a confusing read.

The first reprinted tale is “Miss Carstairs and the Merman” by Delia Sherman, a delightful portrait of a woman who captures a merman and studies him scientifically — rather than falling in love with him, as one would expect in a more conventional tale. The tale has a feminist sensibility that is thrilling to read. Miss Carstairs is her own person, and knows her own mind. She wants to be a scientist in an age when such a career is not open to women, and so she arranges her life to accommodate her goal.  She observes closely and publishes often, using only her initials instead of her name so as to avoid rejection solely because of her gender. It is a strategy that has served her well until now — not because she swoons over the very male mer she has in her observatory, but because no one will believe that such a creature exists, despite her closely detailed observations of its anatomy and behavior.  Ultimately, she is as known to the merman as she is to herself, as he shows her telepathically, allowing her to see herself as he sees her: “Expressions of curiosity, wonder, joy, discovery darted across the woman’s features like a swarm of minnows, and she tasted as strongly of solitude as a free-swimming mer.” I would very much like to meet and befriend Miss Carstairs.

Emma Bull’s “Silver or Gold” is about an apprentice’s search for her teacher, who has herself gone searching for a missing prince. It is a tale of women’s magic, in which the apprentice learns how she can add to the knowledge of those who have gone before her. It is rather more conventional than some of the other tales in this issue, but Bull’s delightful plotting and her attention to detail make it special nonetheless. I’ve always enjoyed Bull’s writing, and wish there were more of it, making this story all the more welcome.

Carol Emshwiller is a fantasy and science fiction writer who is less known than she should be. Her writing is usually strange and wonderful, and “The Abominable Child’s Tale” is no exception. The narrator is a forest girl whose mother has left. She doesn’t know what she is supposed to do; her mother has always been there to tell her before. But her mother is different from her; they don’t look alike. Even more suspiciously, her mother always takes her to hide whenever people camp nearby. When the narrator finally leaves home to look for her mother, she discovers that she is, in fact, quite different. It’s a parable, ultimately, about how we are all strangers to ourselves, particularly when we’re on the cusp between childhood and adulthood.

Nalo Hopkinson takes on the fairy tale of “Bluebeard” in “The Glass Bottle Trick.” The viewpoint character is Beatrice, the third wife of Samuel Powell, a man rich enough that Beatrice lives in a fine house and has a woman to do the housework and a boy to do the yard work. The story is set somewhere exceptionally hot, though Samuel always insists on keeping the house very cold with air conditioning, which sounds like quite an extravagance in the Black culture of this story, set somewhere in the Caribbean. Beatrice has just realized that she is pregnant, and is steeling herself to tell Samuel, even though she expects the news will make him happy. The picture we get of Beatrice is of a woman who continually tells herself that she should be happy, that she is happy, but who is strongly discouraged — even forbidden — by her husband to do the things that she likes best. She must leave college before graduating, keep the house cold, and stay out of the third bedroom, which Samuel always keeps locked. Until one day. . . We all know how the story goes, but Samuel’s motivation is a new element added to the story, making it even more powerful than the original tale.

This issue also contains an excerpt of Silverblind by Tina Connolly. It’s Connolly’s third novel, and the third in a series, which makes it an odd choice to excerpt, but it did tickle my interest sufficiently that I’m likely to pull the first novel in the series, Ironskin, from the shelf and move it up in the TBR pile. Dorie is seeking a job doing field research in unusual life forms, like wyverns and basilisks, in a world where women are not expected to do such work. In fact, the prejudice against women is intense. Whether it’s worse or better for Dorie because she is fey, and therefore outstandingly beautiful when she wants to be, is an open question. Dorie isn’t prepared to set aside her dreams, not even when offered a job as a fundraiser for the lab for which she wants to do research. I’m curious about what she does after the events in this excerpt.

The nonfiction offerings are nearly as enticing as the fiction. Kameron Hurley’s “Language and Imaginative Resistance in Epic Fantasy” sounds like a dry academic essay, but it is a fine disquisition on the power of language to shape thought, written with humor and anger. Hurley’s discussion of how women writing epic fantasy are, even today, taking male-sounding pseudonyms to publish their work, and of how women who write epic fantasy are largely ignored, was eye-opening for me — and added a few writers to my “must read” list. It also made me much more eager to read Hurley’s own novel, The Mirror Empire.

Galen Dara led a “Women in Fantasy Illustration Roundtable,” in which Julie Bell, Irene Gallo, Rebecca Guay, Lauren Panepinto, Zoë Robinson, Julie Dillon and Elizabeth Leggett, art directors and artists all, discussed their careers in the speculative fiction industry, and, particularly, how women are faring as illustrators. We may be living in the 21st century, but women are still struggling for parity in this field, and, even more, struggling to portray female characters as something other than beautiful blonde waifs. In 2014, how is it that some men are still asserting that men are biologically better artists? It’s good to know that there are women who are fighting these warped perceptions (which is a mild and polite way to put it).

The Artist Gallery, featuring work by Julie Bell, Julie Dillon, Rebecca Guay and Elizabeth Leggett, features some wonderful work. As always, I encourage you to view this on a big color screen, rather than on a device like a cellphone or a black and white e-reader.

Sandra Wickham interviews Carrie Vaughn and Kelley Armstrong, two of the most popular urban fantasists writing today. These women are stereotyped not just because they’re women, but because they write urban fantasy, which is often dismissed as a genre in the same way that romance is. Their insights gave me a new appreciation for a genre I’ve been enjoying for years.

Shanna Germain is the host of a panel entitled “In Other Worlds: The Female Stars of Tie-In Fiction.” Erin M. Evans writes books set in the world of the Forgotten Realms; Elaine Cunningham has worked in a number of licensed settings, including Star Wars, EverQuest and Pathfinder Tales; Margaret Weis writes the Dragonlance Chronicles based on the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game; and Marsheila Rockwell has written official tie-in novels for the Dungeons & Dragons multi-player online role-playing game. They explain how they wound up writing in universes originally created by others, what it’s like writing with the strictures inherent in a licensed setting (Cunningham likens it to writing historical fiction, an interesting insight), and how to write female characters. It’s a good panel.

World Fantasy Award winner Sofia Samatar offers “The Frog Sister,” an essay about Shahrazad (also known in our culture as Scheherazade) — and a suggestion that all women fantasists all over the world share many traits with her. Samatar takes the position that “the roots of fantasy are oral, while the roots of science fiction are written,” and that fantasy existed in the oral tradition long before writing came on the scene.  (Samatar notes that the meeting point of the two traditions comes in Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein, which was a novel born from evenings sharing ghost stories around a fire.) Women are not only connected to the oral tradition, Samatar states, but have been and are more likely to be restricted to it. This distinction between oral and written fantasy works very well for her thesis, particularly when one considers that Shahrazad was at least partly successful in her game with the king because her sister was there to help her speak. It may be trite, but it’s true: sisterhood is powerful.

Kat Howard, whose short stories have recently made her one of my favorite writers, is the author of “The Princess and the Witch,” an essay about what we learn from fairy tales. Her conclusion is that now, as an adult, she no longer wants to be the princess; she wants to be the witch.

 [I]f you make us a princess, you will discover that we are witches. We can dance in glass slippers, true, but we can also wear out iron shoes walking to get what we want. We may well wear red, but we do so to show the wolves that they should be afraid to walk into the woods with us.

We remember that happily ever after is where the story begins.

Wendy N. Wagner puts together a guide and recommended reading list for those who wish to witness more destruction of the fantasy genre by women. The list isn’t nearly as long or complete as I’d like to see it, but it’s a great place to start. Other women writers make their own recommendations, and, as usual, my list of books to read grew longer with each new writer. Based on the books I’ve already read that appear on this list, my guess is that I’ll love the books that are new to me as well.

The issue concludes with the usual Author Spotlights, which I found particularly thoughtful this time around.  These women have thought hard about what they were seeking to accomplish in their stories, and they express their interpretations of their tales eloquently.  Kate Hall, for instance, speaks of the tragedy of losing one’s art, while H.E. Ruolo speaks of the unusual circumstance of pregnancy in a superhero story, and the loss of control over one’s body that it represents. T. Kingfisher speaks at length about what in fantasy requires destruction; she’d like a little less of what’s come to be known as “grimdark” fantasy, which details horrible people doing horrible things to other horrible people. August speaks of her main character’s remoteness and the reason for it, directly addressing what I found off-putting about the story.  I was surprised to read that “Miss Carstairs” was only Delia Sherman’s second story; it is so assured and even brilliant in its portrayal of a woman who knows her own mind.  Sherman enjoyed rubbing science and magic together, which in fact made for a fascinating story. Nalo Hopkinson explains the Caribbean traditions from which her story grew, as well as the effects of colonialism on Black people living in the Caribbean today.  She has clearly thought out her answer to the question of what requires destruction in fantasy, which I will leave for you to discover.

I recommend this issue of Fantasy Magazine. The fiction is excellent and the nonfiction is thoughtful and thought-provoking. It’s the most creative destruction I’ve ever come across.


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.