Tag Archives: catherynne m valente

New women’s worlds in fantasy fiction

Continuing the slow progress of archiving my pieces from The Guardian. It’s interesting to think that three years on from this piece, women writers now seem (to me at least) stronger than ever in all the genres of speculative fiction. I hope it’s a trend that continues. It’s also interesting for me to see how my own understanding of SF and Fantasy has developed over the same period. I hope that continues as well!

Originally published on 14th February 2008 on Guardian.co.uk.

Once thought to be a primarily male genre, women writers are expanding its frontiers in the 21st century.

The Secret History of Moscow, the new novel from Ekaterina Sedia is garnering widespread acclaim from readers of contemporary fantasy, and comparisons to some of the genre’s most respected writers, including Neil Gaiman and Charles de Lint. It also marks Sedia out as one of a number of women writers pushing the boundaries of fantasy writing.

Of course, women writers are nothing new in fantasy or even science fiction. Ursula K Le Guin’s work has long been one of the benchmarks by which others are judged. Alice Sheldon (better known as James Tiptree Jr) may have felt it necessary to adopt a pseudonym to penetrate the notoriously male-dominated arena of “hard” sci-fi before producing some of that genre’s best short fiction, but writers such as Connie Willis and Nancy Kress have proved that even among the rockets’n’rayguns brigade, women have achieved a level of equality. And in recent years, women have been at the forefront of an emerging brand of contemporary fantasy, very different from the mainstream epics of Goodkind, Feist or Jordan that many readers will associate with the genre.

Sedia’s novel is emblematic of much that is good about contemporary fantasy. It unites a classy prose style evolved through a string of small press publications with first-hand experience of a 90s Moscow crippled by post-Soviet economic decline. The story is infused with the tropes and traditions of fantasy, but set amid the grim reality of that decade’s turbulent politics. Sedia’s writing is a perfect example of the unique ways fantasy allows writers to examine reality.

A number of other, similarly distinctive voices are also refreshing the genre. One of the most influential writers of contemporary fantasy to emerge in recent years is Kelly Link. In just two collections, Link has shown herself to be among this decade’s most talented writers of short fiction, regardless of genre. Switching effortlessly between fantasy, horror, fairy-tale and literary fiction, her stories feature an odd assortment of young, marginalised characters who are often themselves obsessed with fantasy and fiction in its many manifestations, reflecting a readership as likely to quote Jacques Derrida as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Taking a different but equally striking approach to the fantasy genre, the wonderfully monikered Catherynne M Valente has characterised her own work as “mythpunk” (adapting the “cyberpunk” tag which has also spawned “steampunk”, “splatterpunk” and the wonderful “monkpunk”). Valente has built a reputation for retellings of myth and fairytale in contemporary settings, distinguished by their intense, almost obsessive approach to the crafting of words and language. In a genre where transparent prose is king, Valente’s opaque approach is both refreshing and confrontational, challenging the genre to wonder when it became so afraid of words.

Marly Youmans‘ work is rooted in American history, starting with historical novels such as Catherwood and The Wolf Pit, then evolving into the fantasy world of Adantis and her best known novel to date, Ingledove. Writing for the young adult audience, Youmans’ novels follow in the tradition of figures such as Diana Wynne Jones and Jane Yolen; fantasy for children that adroitly dissects adult reality.

And these women are far from alone. In recent years a host of fascinating (and fascinatingly named) women writers including Theodora GossCat RamboErzebet YellowBoy (yes, real names all) and most recently Rachel Swirsky have risen to prominence as writers of distinctive, contemporary fantasy.

Underlying the emergence of these writers is a flourishing small press scene that in recent years has rejuvenated contemporary fantasy. Small Beer Press, through which Link self-published her short fiction collections (the second of which, Magic for Beginners, was later picked up by Harper Perennial) continues to put forward new talent in the influential fanzine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Both Ekaterina Sedia and Catherynne M Valente’s work has been championed by Prime Books, which has quickly become the leading publisher of contemporary fantasy with a literary edge. And Marly Youmans’ latest work will emerge later this year from PS Publishing, the UK’s leading genre small press. These publishers and many others have established a market for contemporary fantasy that transgresses the boundaries of the genre by serving an audience that mainstream publishers seem to have abandoned. May the writers they champion go from strength to strength.

Shadows and Fairies

I had a little book shopping spree this evening. Jeffrey Ford’s World Fantasy award winning The Shadow Year and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Orphans Tale – Volume 1. I have read Jeffrey Ford’s short fiction and I’m excited to read him at novel length. Cat Valente has impressed me with her online serial novel, although I’ve followed it only sporadically. This makes up for all the books I resisted buying in San Jose.

Speaking of Cat Valente and her serial novel, the last chapter of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland has been posted.

Rachel Swirsky impresses with A Memory of Wind on Tor.com. I find the illustration quite beautiful.

A Circumnavigation

Excellent fantasy author Catherynne Valente has taken action against the economic meltdown of the western world by asking readers to support the writing of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. As I write Valente’s initiative has already generated enough support to alleviate the financial crisis she was facing, but please do pop over and donate if you are a fan of her writing.

I’m genuinely very excited to see Valente’s novel appear in real time online. I’ve been fascinated with the idea of serial fiction for some time, because the concept of shaping a novel episode by episode online seems so natural in the internet era. I wish Catherynne every luck and will be reading every Monday.

Vampires, Caesar and Fairytales

The infamous book pile grew considerably over Christmas, although not as much as it might have. I’ve been resisting temptation  wherever possible. It’s a struggle.

I dipped into the world of E-Books to pick up Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint. Mr  de Lint is a cult figure in contemporary fantasy but his books are almost impossible to find in the UK.  His work is very close to mainstream literature, with elements of magic and fantasy breaking through and tend to feature young, counter cultural character types which is why I was interested in reading some, as my own stories feature characters of this kind. I was greatly enjoying reading Forests of the Heart until the f@$king awful Microsoft E-Reader expired its trial period and I’m not paying Bill Gates any more money for such ‘premium features’ as being able to show pages two at a time! I will pick up a copy in paperback on Amazon and continue when it arrives.

One of my all time favourite novels is Drachenfels by Jack Yeovil, better known as British novelist Kim Newman. Newman as Yeovil wrote a batch of novels for Games Workshop when it first launched its Black Library publishing imprint under the leadership of David Pringle, the then editor of Interzone. Pringle brought in some talented young writers who produced great novels exploring the Warhammer worlds on which Games Workshop has made its fortune. Drachenfels was my favourite of these, along with the Konrad trilogy by David Ferring. The Warhammer world has a wonderful grittiness that comes from the collision of epic fantasy traditions with a particular kind of British gothicism imported via authors like Newman. Drachenfels captures this brilliantly, and the story of playwright Detlief Sierck’s encounter with the enchanter Drachenfels is one of the greatest works of gothic fantasy I’ve ever read. I was overjoyed then to find an omnibus edition of Drachenfels along with three other Jack Yeovil novels starring the vampire Genevieve Dieudonne, one of Drachenfels most intriguing characters. This was a bit like finding Godfathers 4- 6 on DVD so I’ve been working my way through the omnibus with excitement and glee.

The Works decided to make this a very happy Xmas for me by getting in a brand new stock of schlocky paperbacks to keep me entertained. I’m physically incapable of walking past a discount bookstore  so I’m a regular visitor to The Works. Having picked the graphic novel selection clean in November, the Christmas period brough a new batch of SF and Fantasy novels for a staggering 49p each! I really tried very hard to restrain myself but ended up leaving with four new books – Abarat by Clive Barker (who I met at FantasyCon but have never read), Bad Dirt by Annie Proulx (not SF but interesting none the less) and Assassins Apprentice by Robin Hobb. Hobb in particular comes highly recommended by George R.R. Martin so has been on my must read list for some time. The fourth book is Emperor: Gates of Rome by Conn Igulden, which I’m reading at the moment. Its very good and I can understand why it sold so well, although it has the biggest print of any paperback I’ve ever read so although it looks like a big book is actually quite short.

I’ve also been continuing my travels in online short fiction. Following my review of Cabinet des Fees I spent some time reading the online edition including a story by Catherynne M Valente, a writer I recently discovered I was published alongside in the now dead Muse Apprentice Guild way back in 2003. Serendipity magazine put out its fourth issue featuring my story Circe’s, as well as The Snow Globe by Jeff Haas, a fellow commentor at the Asimov’s forum. This just goes to show what a small online writing world we live in.