But I’m not here to talk about them.
I’m here to talk about eavesdropping.
(Well, I’m here to talk about some books I read, but I’m gonna preface it by talking about eavesdropping.)
So, at KGB last May, I happened to be sitting at a table with an Agent and an Editor.
The Editor, she says to the Agent, “I really want to read fantasy novels with strong female friendships. WHY DON’T YOU SEND ME SOME?”
And the Agent, she sighs. “I’m trying. I’m trying.”
I found this conversation:
1.) SUPER REASSURING!!! I WRITE THOSE KINDS OF BOOKS! SOMEDAY AGENTS AND EDITORS WILL LOVE ME TOO!
2.) USEFUL! Particularly, as a segue point to talk about my awesome friend’s portal world YA fantasy novel with AMAZING CHARACTERS EVERYWHERE– especially the women!!! Okay, and the guys too. Really, EVERYWHERE!!!
(SPOILER: SHE IS NOW REP’ED BY AFOREMENTIONED AGENT!!! AAAUGGHH!!! IT WORKS! IT REALLY WORKS! WHO KNEW???)
3.) TOTALLY ENDEARING. This conversation, upon which I so shamelessly dropped my eaves, made me like these two women immediately. We had something in common, after all; female friendships are something I look for when I’m reading/writing fiction too. And it’s hard to find.
Except in these two books I’m about to speak of.
Female friendships are in these books up the WAZOO!
(Oh my gosh, I just looked up the word “wazoo” and it’s, it’s, I mean, I guess I never really thought about the etymology. Maybe “wazoo” isn’t the right word. But heck, it’s funny, so I’m gonna keep it. Well, maybe I should erase it. Well, I don’t know… Okay! I found the HTML for “strikethrough”! SCORE!)
Ahem. What I mean is, female friendships ABOUND in these books!
But as I read one and listened to the audiobook of the other in roughly the same time frame, it smote me most deeply that the gaggles of girls — or rather, young women — running around in these books were experiencing many moments of what I consider truly representative female friendship in fiction.
WHICH IS SO RARE AS TO BE NOTED!
A whole range of friendship spans these books: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the exquisitely heartbreaking. We see everything: squabbling, giggling, bitter fighting, shared agony, fierce loyalty, and finally — the willingness to sacrifice your own safety, even unto your life, for your sister-friend.
But here the similarity ends. Let me tell you about these books.
Who Fears Death won the World Fantasy Award in 2011, as well as the Carl Brandon Kindred Award in 2010. It’s the Sudan of a far future, a place of sorcery, technology, oppression, tradition, and rebellion. Our protagonist Onyesonwu, “Who Fears Death,” is a loud, froward, powerful, curious girl, raised by a broken-voiced mother in the heart of the desert. She can take various shapes and learns to master several magics. Her murderous sorceror father seeks to destroy her, even as he sets out to slaughter the Okeke people wholesale.
This… is not an easy book to read. It is well-written. It is strong. It is relentlessly violent — a violence that permeates not only the sociopolitical landscape (genocide, militarized rapes), but the smaller, intimate, domestic scenes as well (genital mutilation, incest, abuse). After the first forty pages, I backed away from the book. I thought, “This is not why I read. This is not what I come to books for.”
But then, discussing the book with a few friends, I came to realize that Who Fears Death is, in fact, was one of the reasons I read. Not the reason I started reading, maybe. Not the reason I fell in love with reading. But one of the reasons I find the written word important. Why I believe it can be revolutionary. Why artists are some of the first to be “disappeared” under military dictatorships and fascist regimes.
This book? Is that kind of art.
And it stays and stays and stays with you.
“It is the sort of book I’d read for a class,” I told my friend. “I’d read it just to discuss it with other people. But it’s hard to read… alone.”
“Well,” he reminded me, gently, “the world is your class now. And you want to be part of this discussion.”
That sparked whatever courage I needed to finish the book.
As I read, it picked up velocity, humor, sass, momentum. Fueled by the battery of prophecy, Who Fears Death propelled itself to a revelatory ending.
And oh, am I glad I stuck with it. This was my Tweet upon finishing:
First, a word on Sharon Shinn.
One morning, in 2007, at World Fantasy in San Diego, along comes John O’Neill to our breakfast table, Sharon Shinn in tow, and she looks at all of us arrayed, and asks, “So, I heard one of you is a fan?”
OH, I ALMOST SANK INTO THE ROSE CANYON FAULT RIGHT THERE.
I don’t know why I was so embarrassed. I just was. But I waved my hand, admitted that fan was myself, and I met Sharon Shinn, and now we’re friends.
This is secondary world fantasy, taking place in a world that, again, has both magic and technology. The tech is about equivalent to that of our world, late 19th Century, early 20th century, but with advances in genetic science that are nearer to where we are in the 21st century. The magic, of course, is ancient and powerful; some people have it, most don’t.
Now I listened to this audiobook, having read the first two a few times. And I listened to this over a matter of months, since I’m not often in a position to be able to listen for long stretches. Also, since receiving this book, I’d become an audiobook narrator myself, and for some reason, listening to a book after spending the day recording one just… got… harder.
But the narrator, Jennifer Van Dyck, was very pleasant on the ears. She had an even pace, was alive to wit and nuance, and best, distinguished all the characters beautifully — and it was a large cast, from disparate realms of this fantasy world. The audiobook experience was a true pleasure.
In Book Three, Jeweled Fire, a red-headed princess named Corine has run away from her home country of Welce to the court of Malinqua — where all sorts of nefarious intrigue is going down. This book is a tangle of politics, spies, international relations, murder, and romance–but at the heart of it, it is a story of friendship between four women.
Oh, it is SATISFYING! Especially Melissande — a character who made me laugh out loud so consistently I may as well give up my self-imposed boycott of the word “LOL” and use it here. I laughed out loud so much, I LOL’d.
There. I said it.
Not only are female friendships at the forefront of all, with their romantic counterparts taking a decided B-plot, but there is a bit more diversity of sexual preference than one normally sees in secondary world fantasy, and several pointed discussions about how the different cultures represented in the world treat the non-heterosexual members of their community.
It was sparkling fare, full of clothes and food and palace life — a disorienting juxtaposition to the bright angry glare of Who Fears Death, but not as much as you’d think.
I’d pair these two books for the women and the world-building: two great tastes that tasted… VERY INTERESTING together!
Our previous book pairings were:
C. S. E. Cooney (csecooney.com/ <csecooney.com>@csecooney) is the author of Bone Swans: Stories (Mythic Delirium 2015). Her novella The Two Paupers, the second installment of her Dark Breakers series, will shortly be appearing in Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy.
She is an audiobook narrator for Tantor Media, the singer/songwriter Brimstone Rhine, and the Rhysling Award-winning author of the poem “The Sea King’s Second Bride.” Her short fiction can be found in Black Gate, Strange Horizons, Apex, GigaNotoSaurus, Clockwork Phoenix 3 and 5, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, and elsewhere.