A memoir has been chasing me for years and I’ve kept running. Recently, like the last three years or so, it keeps popping up in writing assignments or conversations with mentors and teachers.
Today’s revelation by Billy Porter that he’s been living with HIV for 14 years wasn’t stunning. The things he had to say about shame, and hiding his status because of that shame was stunning. Little electric thrills ran around my brain.
Then things really clicked for me when he spoke about figuring out why he was still alive to tell the story. I was brought to tears at the bravery and vulnerability he showed.
My journey for several years has been to understand myself and what feminism means for me. You might recall I wrote about Kameron Hurley‘s book The Geek Feminist Revolution making me ugly cry and having a profound affect on me. After realizing I can only look at a book through the lens of Feminist theory made me decide to go all in and declare I specialize in SF/F feminism.
There’s a gaping hole in the SF/F community where good critical theory would fit nicely. There’s an even bigger hole where equal rights should go. I want to be a part of the fight to make things better for everyone in the community.
Every day, there are little revelations and realizations about the gaping holes in my emotional structure. The trauma and dysfunction that I somehow survived, and managed to come through. Healing and understanding is a lifetime process. It is slow, frustrating, and terrifying.
Given the state of women’s rights around the world, the not so creeping misogyny and sexism, I realized I can’t run anymore. My memoir insists on being written, and so it shall. Slowly, frustratingly, and very terrifyingly.
I have much to be grateful for, and today I give a big chunk of it to Billy Porter for being the light.
Publisher’s Blurb: A dystopian tale of a power struggle between the sexes in the post-nuclear future, perfect for readers of Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin.
After a nuclear holocaust, women rule the world. Using advanced technology, they’ve expelled men from their vast walled cities to roam the countryside in primitive bands, bringing them back only for the purpose of loveless reproduction under the guise of powerful goddesses.
When one young woman, Birana, questions her society’s deception, she finds herself exiled among the very men she has been taught to scorn. She crosses paths with a hunter, Arvil, and the two grow close as they evade the ever-threatening female forces and the savage wilderness men. Their love just might mend their fractured world—if they manage to survive.
Hailed as “one of the genre’s best writers” by the Washington Post Book World, Pamela Sargent is the author of numerous novels, including Earthseed and Venus of Dreams. The winner of the Nebula and Locus awards, she has also coauthored several Star Trek novels with George Zebrowski.
A dear friend knowing my proclivity for all things feminist in SF/F took some of his hard got by money and bought the ebook for me.
Things in 1986, when it was written, were much different than 2020, when I read it. But I’m still appalled The Shore of Women would be considered feminist. My review is part of a larger project I have in mind considering the treatment of women in books I’ve recently read, both in LitFic and SF/F.
Publisher’s Blurb: Who Cooked the Last Supper? overturns the phallusy of history and gives voice to the untold history of the world: the contributions of millions of unsung women.
Men dominate history because men write history. There have been many heroes, but no heroines. Here, in Who Cooked the Last Supper?, is the history you never learned–but should have!
Without politics or polemics, this brilliant and witty book overturns centuries of preconceptions to restore women to their rightful place at the center of culture, revolution, empire, war, and peace. Spiced with tales of individual women who have shaped civilization, celebrating the work and lives of women around the world, and distinguished by a wealth of research, Who Cooked the Last Supper? redefines our concept of historical reality.
Ugh, I really hate the play on words using phallusy in this blurb. Let’s not make light of the topic at hand.
Rosalind Miles’ Who Cooked the Last Supper? is dense to read at times. It is well-researched, which does not mean it’s an easy read. A review will come when I’ve had more time to mull over what she has to say.
Publisher’s Blurb: This collection of feminist writings has theory and praxis as its focus. The theoretical underpinnings of feminism, as well as the social action that it fuelled, are given full attention. Feminisms and Womanisms includes writings about First, Second and Third Wave Feminism, the voices of First Nations feminists, and those of feminists of colour. The reader includes chapters by feminist theorists such as Bell Hooks, Linda Briskin, Christine Bruckert, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill-Collins, Tammy Landau, Audre Ldrde, Inga Muscio, Viviane Namaste, Makeda Silvera, Dorothy Smith, Alice Walker, and Naomi Wolfe.
True story. In the pre-plague times when we were still required to work at the office, I’d befriended a lunch-time buddy because I thought he was a fellow reader. Turns out his actions showed him to be the sort of man who thinks himself a staunch feminist but really isn’t. He loved to tell me how I should do things and what I was allowed to talk about. One day, I’d had enough and told a fib.
“I have deadlines so I can’t eat with you anymore.” The next day, I sat at a different table reading Feminisms and Womanisms, taking notes. As he walked past, lunch buddy said, “I hope that pays off for you some day.” I let all sarcastic comments stay in my head.
Feminisms and Womanisms is a heady collection of excerpts from seminal feminist texts. It helped me on my journey to my own feminism, and gave me much to think about.
Now, I’m thrilled to be participating in the cover reveal for Leah Angstman’s debut novel, OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA, coming January 2022 from Regal House Publishing.
OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA:
A Novel of King William’s War in 17th-Century New England
BY LEAH ANGSTMAN
Publication Date: January 11, 2022
Regal House Publishing
Hardcover, Paperback, eBook, Audiobook; 334 pages
Genre: Historical / Literary / Epic
**Shortlisted for the Chaucer Book Award**
OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA is a historical epic of one woman’s survival in a time when the wilderness is still wild, heresy is publicly punishable, and being independent is worse than scorned—it is a death sentence.At the onset of King William’s War between French and English settlers in 1689 New England, Ruth Miner is accused of witchcraft for the murder of her parents and must flee the brutality of her town. She stows away on the ship of the only other person who knows her innocence: an audacious sailor — Owen — bound to her by years of attraction, friendship, and shared secrets. But when Owen’s French ancestry finds him at odds with a violent English commander, the turmoil becomes life-or-death for the sailor, the headstrong Ruth, and the cast of Quakers, Pequot Indians, soldiers, highwaymen, and townsfolk dragged into the fray. Now Ruth must choose between sending Owen to the gallows or keeping her own neck from the noose. Steeped in historical events and culminating in a little-known war on pre-American soil, OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA is a story of early feminism, misogyny, arbitrary rulings, persecution, and the treatment of outcasts, with parallels still mirrored and echoed in today’s society. The debut novel will appeal to readers of Paulette Jiles, Alexander Chee, Hilary Mantel, James Clavell, Bernard Cornwell, TaraShea Nesbit, Geraldine Brooks, Stephanie Dray, Patrick O’Brian, and E. L. Doctorow.
“With OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA, Leah Angstman reveals herself as a brave new voice in historical fiction. With staggering authenticity, Angstman gives us a story of America before it was America — an era rife with witch hunts and colonial intrigue and New World battles all but forgotten in our history books and popular culture. This is historical fiction that speaks to the present, recalling the bold spirits and cultural upheavals of a nation yet to be born.”—Taylor Brown, author of PRIDE OF EDEN, GODS OF HOWL MOUNTAIN, and THE RIVER OF KINGS
“Steeped in lush prose, authentic period detail, and edge-of-your-seat action, OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA is a rollicking good read. Leah Angstman keeps the story moving at a breathtaking pace, and she knows more 17th-century seafaring language and items of everyday use than you can shake a stick at. The result is a compelling work of romance, adventure, and historical illumination that pulls the reader straight in.”—Rilla Askew, author of FIRE IN BEULAH, THE MERCY SEAT, and KIND OF KIN<
“Lapidary in its research and lively in its voice, OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA by Leah Angstman is a rollicking story, racing along with wind in its sails. Though her tale unfolds hundreds of years in America’s past, Ruth Miner is the kind of high-spirited heroine whose high adventures haul you in and hold you fast.”—Kathleen Rooney, author of LILLIAN BOXFISH TAKES A WALK and CHER AMI AND MAJOR WHITTLESEY
“Leah Angstman has written the historical novel that I didn’t know I needed to read. OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA is set in an oft-forgotten time in the brutal wilds of pre-America that is so vividly and authentically drawn, with characters that are so alive and relevant, and a narrative so masterfully paced and plotted, that Angstman has performed the miracle of layering the tumultuous past over our troubled present to gift us a sparkling new reality.”—Kevin Catalano, author of WHERE THE SUN SHINES OUT and DELETED SCENES AND OTHER STORIES<
“OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA is a fascinating book, the kind of historical novel that evokes its time and place so vividly that the effect is just shy of hallucinogenic. I enjoyed it immensely.” —Scott Phillips, author of THE ICE HARVEST, THE WALKAWAY, COTTONWOOD, and HOP ALLEY
“OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA is a meticulously researched novel that mixeshistory, love story, and suspense. Watching Angstman’s willful protagonist,Ruth Miner, openly challenge the brutal world of 17th-century New England, with its limiting ideas about gender, race, and science, was a delight.” —Aline Ohanesian, author of ORHAN’S INHERITANCE
“Leah Angstman is a gifted storyteller with a poet’s sense of both beauty and darkness, and her stunning historical novel, OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA, establishes her as one of the most exciting young novelists in the country. Angstman plunges the reader into a brilliantly realized historical milieu peopled by characters real enough to touch. And in Ruth Miner, we are introduced to one of the most compelling protagonists in contemporary literature, a penetratingly intelligent, headstrong woman who is trying to survive on her wits alone in a Colonial America that you won’t find in the history books. A compulsive, vivid read that will change the way you look at the origins of our country, Leah Angstman’s OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA announces the arrival of a preternatural talent.” —Ashley Shelby, author of MURI and SOUTH POLE STATION<
“Rich, lyrical, and atmospheric, with a poet’s hand and a historian’s attention to detail. In OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA, Leah Angstman creates an immersive world for readers to get lost in and a fascinating story to propel them through it. A thoroughly engaging and compelling tale.” —Steph Post, author of HOLDING SMOKE, MIRACULUM, and WALK IN THE FIRE
“It’s a rare story that makes you thankful for having read and experienced it. It’s rarer still for a story to evoke so wholly, so powerfully, another place and time as to make you thankful for the gifts that exist around you, which you take for granted. OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA is a book rich with misery, yet its characters are indefatigable; they yearn, despite their troubles, for victories personal and societal. Leah Angstman’s eye is keen, and her ability to transport you into America’s beginnings is powerful. With the raw ingredients of history, she creates a story both dashing and pensive, robust yet believable. From an unforgiving time, Angstman draws out a tale of all things inhuman, but one that reminds us of that which is best in all of us.” —Eric Shonkwiler, author of ABOVE ALL MEN and 8TH STREET POWER AND LIGHT
About the Author
Leah Angstman is a historian and transplanted Michigander living in Boulder. OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA, her debut novel of King William’s War in 17th-century New England, is forthcoming from Regal House in January 2022. Her writing has been a finalist for the Saluda River Prize, Cowles Book Prize, Able Muse Book Award, Bevel Summers Fiction Prize, and Chaucer Book Award, and has appeared in Publishers Weekly, L.A. Review of Books, Nashville Review, Slice, and elsewhere. She serves as editor-in-chief for Alternating Current and The Coil magazine and copyeditor for Underscore News, which has included editing partnerships with ProPublica. She is an appointed vice chair of a Colorado historical commission and liaison to a Colorado historic preservation committee.
Title: The Women’s Revolution
Author: Judy Cox
Publisher: Haymarket Books
Publisher Blurb: The dominant view of the Russian Revolution of 1917 is of a movement led by prominent men like Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Despite the demonstrations of female workers for ‘bread and herrings’, which sparked the February Revolution, in most historical accounts of this momentous period, women are too often relegated to the footnotes. Judy Cox argues that women were essential to the success of the revolution and to the development of the Bolshevik Party.
A thousand years ago, in a place barely remembered, my pursuit of a history degree involved picking electives about places I didn’t know. Thus Russia, one quarter with a paper on the October 1917 Revolution led by golden boy Alexander Kerensky. In addition to the text, A History of Russia by Nicholas Valentine Riasanovsky, I read Robert K. Massie‘s biography of Peter the Great. Having learned a little about the Streltsy, revolutions, and communism, I moved on.
My search for identity leads me to delve into feminism and what it means to be a feminist. Along with my history degree, this brings a strain of “where are the women?” into my reading.
A book sale gives me The Women’s Revolution by Judy Cox. This slender book works as supplemental material to Russian histories, but cannot be considered a primary history book.
A brief summary of women in revolutionary history during the years 1905 – 1917 begins the book. The second part of the book is a list with brief biographies of the women mentioned in part 1. The Women’s Revolution stands as an addition to Russian studies, adding a list of women overshadowed by their more famous male counterparts to investigate. I think of it more as a type of bibliography than anything.
One of my favorite male writers posted on Twitter recently about learning how his behavior towards women has made them extremely uncomfortable. He was completely chagrined. His apology and promise to do better seemed heartfelt. I only know this author through his books and his presence on Twitter. It does not come as a surprise that he was unaware of what his behavior towards women really was.
He shared a post he’d written on his blog about owning his mistakes. This post is not about that.
This post is about what someone said in the comments:
but it’s outright demoralizing for newbie writers who come to a convention to try to network, and they see that the male pros are bro-ing it up as colleagues, and they’re talking to the pretty women (who then have to fend off unwanted advances) … but the women they see as plain are entirely shut out of conversations.
Story. of. My. Life.
Shit like this brings me to my knees. Someone’s saying the thing I’ve been struggling to explain for years. I have been ghosted, over looked, looked over, looked through, gaslighted, etc. because as Kameron Hurley said, “My body isn’t coded correctly.”
I can’t tell you how many people, especially men, have told me my experience is “not that bad,” or “didn’t happen.”
I’m done with all that. This behavior has taught me to keep to myself and not seek advice or attention. Those who chose to treat us like that can just suck eggs right about now.
Once at a holiday party, a male co-worker sat next to me and we had an interesting talk about something. We talked until he got a better offer from a pretty, vivacious woman across the room. He would have denied that’s what happened, but I knew.
Another time, a friend and I had just finished dinner. She was thin and pretty with long curly hair. A drunk Asian man walked right past me to talk to her. When he wobbled off, I asked if she knew what had just happened. She didn’t see it and thought I was being too hard on myself.
No. There was a time when I once thought there was something wrong with me to be treated that way. For decades, I fought for recognition as someone who existed and took up space in her own right. It was exhausting, and led to some really embarrassing and truly terrible events. I berated myself for being so sensitive and crying over “every little thing.”
Guess what? Those things weren’t little and they hurt like hell. My heart was so battered and bruised I couldn’t see it wasn’t my fault. I was doing nothing to be treated that way. Nothing.
So men, take a look at your actions around women. Do you drink a lot and then flirt mercilessly, thinking her many replies of “no” and “go away” are a game? Stop that.
Do you stand in the hall at conventions having an interesting conversation with a woman who is less attractive, and then abandon her the second a prettier woman walks past? Knock it off.
Do you stand at the bar with your male compatriots yucking it up, refusing to acknowledge the woman standing there wanting to ask for you advice about a writing problem or to tell you how much she loves your work? Seriously, knock that shit off.
Do you hit it off with someone and she doesn’t return your calls? Ask yourself why. She’s not the bitch, you probably are.
There are so many other stories to tell about this. A lifetime of stories. Doesn’t matter to me if you believe them or not. My lived experience trumps your expectation of a skewed truth.
Bitter, resentful, angry, desperate, etc. I’ve been called them all, and more. So what? Maybe you could look at your own behavior and think about what might have made me, or a woman of your acquaintance feel that way.
The lowest setting on the privilege scale is cishet white male. Maybe the reason no one’s telling you about your behavior is because she’s scared to. A lot of men don’t handle it well and they lash out.
There are moments of agonizing pain because, damn it, that scar just got opened for the 700th time, and someone should pay for the pain they’re causing. Society trains women to be docile and submissive and then wonders why we’re angry. Dude, have you met you?
There was a time I didn’t want to identify as feminist because they just seemed so strident. Then I started reading and listening and learned feminism is about equality. It’s about my right to exist in my own space and not be hassled by some man who thinks he can, and should.
On a group trip to Canada, I was insulted over my weight. Aghast, I walked away. Next morning at breakfast, the very same man walked up behind my chair and put his hands on me. It took both my friend and I to convince him he needed to leave. I had no room to maneuver or I would have gotten up and left. He put his hands on me and he thought it was okay. Not only that, when I asked him to stop, he wouldn’t.
This is not anomalous behavior. It happens every day. Probably to someone you know. Men, before you get yourself twisted up over some man putting his hands on a woman friend of yours without permission, take a good long hard look at yourself. Do you walk up next to/behind a woman you vaguely know and touch her? You may think it’s just an innocent, friendly gesture and you’ll probably never know she flinched when you did it. We’ve been trained not to let you see us flinch. But we do. If you have ever put your hand in the small of her back and she is not a very good friend you have just committed assault.
She knows she’ll get laughed at for even complaining or asking you politely not to do that. She knows you probably won’t understand because you’re a good guy and you treat women with the utmost respect. No, you don’t. You don’t. And you need to look at your interactions before you pass judgement on women who refuse to be in your presence, or to get close enough for you to touch.
A writer friend completely objectified a woman to me based on her author picture. The red-headed lass was to his liking. Sat there, looked right at me as we’d been talking about feminism in speculative fiction and objectified her. The pain ripped right through me, both because it was obvious he didn’t hear what he was doing, and because he’d just made me feel small and unworthy because I wasn’t a red-headed lass. I got over the small and unworthy part fast because fuck him. He’s not the first to look right through me and compliment another, prettier woman. He probably won’t be the last.
If you don’t know whether you do this, ask your friends. Especially ask your women friends. Be prepared for some hard truth. And then be prepared to do the work to do better.
Don’t treat women like that. Don’t do it. We’re not a glass of your favorite whiskey to be sipped at. We’re not your favorite cigar bought and paid for. We are people. We are your mothers, sisters, aunties, daughters, wives, writing partners, and comrades in arms.
Do not make the mistake of thinking we like how you treat us. And do not make the mistake of thinking that our silence makes your behavior okay. Knock that shit off and evolve. To truly be the man you think you are takes honesty and work. Do that and see how much better all your friendships are. Do the work.
Title: Cinderella Liberator
Author: Rebecca Solnit
Publisher: Haymarket Books
Publisher Blurb: Rebecca Solnit reimagines a classic fairytale with a fresh, feminist Cinderella and new plot twists that will inspire young readers to change the world.
Fairytales made no sense to me. Even as I tried to fit myself into what society believed girls should want, which included some fairytale version of finding a husband and having children, it didn’t make sense. And I didn’t understand why.
I mean, why should Cinderella want to go to the ball so much, and why would she want to marry a prince? Did that really mean happily ever after? What if she – what if I – wanted something different?
The appeal of being rescued is certainly be understandable, especially when growing up in a dysfunctional, unpredictable environment. When your whole life feels hopeless, rescue seems like the best chance. When one wants to be rescued from misery, there is no understanding about agency. So, in some ways, Cinderella’s traditional gambit of marrying the prince and leaving behind her wicked steps makes a tremendous amount of sense. If only there was another way ….
Rebecca Solnit’s Cinderella Liberator begins with the familiar story. But when the lizards become stagecoach women for Cinderella’s carriage, one sits up and takes notice. And when Cinderella asks if the lizards want to be human, the reader understands this isn’t the same Cinderella of childhood.
At its base as a political structure, feminism is about the right to make choices based upon personal agency. Women get to choose what they want to do, or should be allowed to, anyway. Solnit takes that one step further. Not only does Cinderella get to choose, but so do the animals who help her get to the ball. The entire cast gets a makeover.
This more equitable story in which Cinderella opens a cake store and become friends with the prince who wants to work on a farm is one everyone should read. Especially those with small children entering the world of make-believe and fairy tales.
Solnit’s version is more hopeful and happier, giving children (and adults) space to learn about equality and choice. It certainly gave me happiness and hope.
Random thoughts about the madcap year that was 2019 reading. Some events were so glorious as to be unrecognizable as anything I’d ever dreamed could happen to me. Others predictable and necessary (day job). In addition for my own blog, I now write for Hugo award-winning fanzine Drink Tank, and M. Todd Gallowglas’ Geek’s Guide to Literary Criticism.
In Toni Morrison’s Beloved Paul D’s story about learning to read and being beaten for it just leaves a hole in my heart. He kneels on the ground with a bit in his mouth and notices the rooster named Mister doing whatever he wanted.
“I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub.”
I’m not qualified to review Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power. How does one speak to a tragedy caused by differences in pigmentation?
“Barack Obama [governed] a nation enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House, but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as president.
Trump, more than any other politician, understood the valence of the bloody heirloom [slavery] and the great power of not being a n*****.”
As Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution brought me to myself in 2018, so too did Feminisms and Womanisms edited by Althea Prince & Susan Silva-Wayne. The taste of seminal feminist works from Emma Goldman, Simone de Bauvoir, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem made it easier to understand big parts of my life.
It is truly amazing how long we can go on accepting myths that oppose our own lives, assuming we are the odd exception.” – Gloria Steinem
The need to be noticed and liked, the need to be listened to and accepted, the need for encouragement and praise; all became sources of shameful, rather than normal, neediness in my mind. Especially the need for affection.” – Nancy Graham
Susan Sontag’s essay on women and aging made me want to throw the book across the room in a fit of rage.
The rules of this society are cruel to women.” – Susan Sontag
Stealing: Life in America by Michelle Cacho-Negrete, sent to me for a review by Adelaide Press. Her essays are powerful as she relates the stories of a life lived right, doing everything she was supposed to do and still needing to steal food to feed her children. Her triumph over that and the particular experiences of being “other” really sang to me.
Stopwatch Chronicles, M. Todd Gallowglas’ collection of flash fiction bowled me over. He is sharp, witty and fun. His insights are dead on and I love his wordplay. Ditto Bard’s Cloak of Tales.
The Killing Light, the triumphal conclusion to Myke Cole’s Sacred Throne trilogy. I’ll just quote myself here, “Heloise remains the hero we need for today..”
How Fiction Works by James Wood . I will forever be grateful for the phrase “flaneurial realism.”
Literary Theory by Sarah Upstone – this little book packs a lot into it and is one of my go to reference books.
The Art of Fiction and Moral Fiction by John Gardner
“… in order to achieve mastery [they] must read widely and deeply and must write not just carefully but continually.”
“… the temptation to explain should almost always be resisted.”
“Art, in sworn opposition of chaos, discovers by its process what it can say. That is art’s morality.”
“…art can at times be baffling …”
Wizardry & Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock. Each reading enriches my understanding of the genre I live and breathe.
Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott. Scott’s commentary helped give voice to the questions I’d been asking about what criticism is and why it has value. His outstanding thoughts on art and criticism as a conversation resonate deeply. As does his insistence criticism is a way to seek out the excellent as a foodie demands excellence from their favorite chef or restaurant.
“… our understanding of art emerges from our experience of it.”
Writing for Drink Tank led me to works I might never have read. Chris’ unbounded knowledge of books and themes kept me busy.
Challengers of the Unknown by Ron Goulart led me to one of the cheesiest books I’ve ever read. (Drink Tank#414)
Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov, From the Earth to Around the Moon by Jules Verne, and First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells were fodder for thought about Antique Space. (Journey Planet/Drink Tank Crossover)
Title: The Killing Light
Author: Myke Cole
Publisher: Tor.com Publishing
Publisher’s Blurb: Heloise and her allies are marching on the Imperial Capital. The villagers, the Kipti, and the Red Lords are united only in their loyalty to Heloise, though dissenting voices are many and they are loud.
The unstable alliance faces internal conflicts and external strife, yet they’re united in their common goal. But when the first of the devils start pouring through a rent in the veil between worlds, Heloise must strike a bargain with an unlikely ally, or doom her people to death and her world to ruin.
I was provided an Advanced Reader’s Copy by Tor Publishing in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!
“But I am thine Emperor, and the harder the step, the closer it taketh thou unto me. –Writ. Lea. IV.2.” (p. 167)
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes, “The primary subject of fiction is and always has been human emotion, values, and beliefs.” (p. 14) and “The writer must enable us to see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel …” (p. 44)
Any writer who can make the reader feel great anxiety for his characters and drive them to tears in relief has most definitely met the criteria set forth by Gardner. That Myke Cole’s writing kept me fully engaged and emotionally involved says something about the great talent he has for telling a story.
There’s a thread running through The Killing Light about men and how they must be treated by women. Repeatedly a female will say something like, “Everything with men is a great care.” (p. 46)
Heloise was never meant to be and do all the things she does in The Sacred Throne trilogy. She was meant to be a young woman who marries the man her parents have chosen for her and to settle into the role of home keeper, as women in her village have always done.
But we don’t always get to choose the shape our life takes and who we fall in love with. The best we can hope is to be gentle with ourselves when we are tested. This is part of the story Myke Cole tells with Heloise, how she must accept and come to terms with herself, and her evolving beliefs and leadership skills.
Her world is one in which only hetero normative standards are accepted. In Book 1, The Armored Saint, she finds herself in love with her best friend who not only doesn’t reciprocate those feelings, but is horrified by Heloise’s feelings. Shortly after this reveal, Basina is killed and that death haunts Heloise more than anything else through the series.
Cole portrays her struggle with tenderness, and introduces Xilyka from one of the Traveling People clans who join Heloise’s army. Xilyka becomes one of Heloise’s bodyguards, never leaving her side. It is in the most tender moments we see Heloise began to overcome her fear of being a lesbian, and of driving Xilyka away.
In one such scene, Heloise’s father, Samson, has arranged a private place with hot water so Heloise can bathe after many weeks on the battlefield, stuck in the war machine. At this point, the agoraphobic leader trembles in abject terror at leaving the machine which has protected her and allowed her to become the leader she is. Samson the loving father tries to coax her out. Xylika literally rides to the rescue, leading Heloise in her machine behind the screen and bathes her tenderly. Cole does not ignore the sexual tension such a situation would create, but neither does he dwell on it. His deft writing shows us the normality of two people getting to know each other, carefully exploring the beginnings of a physical relationship.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is Onas, a 16-year-old boy from a different Traveling People clan who also becomes bodyguard, and tries to assert his authority over Heloise as potential husband. This does not go well. Heloise is exhausted, she doubts her moral imperative to be leading this fight, is grieving for the many deaths caused in this war, and is in despair over having to re-evaluate the values she was taught about the Emperor and the Order. She literally has no energy to put into this boy’s demands for romance.
Onas keeps pushing. Heloise side steps, telling him when the war is over, she will think about it. He sees what’s going on with Xilyka, which infuriates him and makes him push even harder. Then, the unthinkable happens and Onas’ mother, the leader of his clan, dies in battle. Onas blames Heloise for his mother’s death.
It becomes too much for him to bear when they stumble upon a band of the Order whose leader has killed so many, and Heloise refuses to let anyone kill Brother Tone. She recognizes Tone can provide entrance and information into the Emperor’s city and palace that will prove useful. Onas throws a teenaged temper tantrum and runs off taking other disgruntled fighters with him.
This is not unusual behavior. Boys have been conditioned to believe that their wants and needs take precedence over a girl’s. So it is with Onas and Heloise. Despite the many stupid reasons he throws at her as he storms away, the one he cannot voice is he expected her to fall into his arms and she did not. All logic does not penetrate.
Onas is not the only male in this story who treats her as less than because of her gender. Sir Steven, leader of the Red Army which falls in with Heloise and her villagers, treats her with great disdain both because she is young and, more to the point, a woman. During a council at which he has commanded Heloise attend, she questions him. Obliviously he says, “This is my punishment for taking a council of war with a girl.” That word, that attitude, meant to demean her in the presence of other leaders has exactly the opposite effect. She draws herself up and asserts her authority as the one who has killed a devil and therefore, has more expertise on this subject than Sir Steven.
When they reach the capital city, Steven’s attitude has changed and he treats her as equal. He has seen her leadership grow, witnessed her wisdom. It is her determination to get through, and her insistence on continuing to fight when too many have died and others have given up, which leads Steven to fight more equitably alongside her.
Even Brother Tone who for two books did everything he could to kill Heloise and her village because of her questions regarding the Emperor’s governance comes to accept, and follow, her leadership.
In one of the pivotal scenes of The Killing Light, the reveal literally drives Tone to his knees, and makes him question everything he has ever believed. He becomes vacant and only continues the fight at Heloise’s insistence. His knowledge is the key which will lead to stopping the war between Devils and humankind.
Tone goes from murderous devotee to thoughtful follower, all due to Heloise’s mission to settle things once and for all. Most of the characters, male and female evolve, becoming more self-aware and thoughtful about their actions and the effects those have on the bigger picture.
Teenaged Onas is not completely immune to this, but his maturity will come only through time. Myke Cole’s writing shows he’s attentive to what makes the most sense for the entire cast, including keeping Onas true to his male teenaged arrogance.
The Killing Light is the satisfactory and logical ending to this trilogy. Heloise becomes what she’s destined to become after all the pain and death she’s been witness to. Heloise remains the hero we need for today.