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Black Wine
Candas Jane Dorsey
Tor Books, 285 pages

Black Wine
Candas Jane Dorsey
Candas Jane Dorsey was named winner of the 1998 James Tiptree Jr. Award for Black Wine (she tied with Kelly Link). This award honours works of science fiction or fantasy that expand or explore gender roles. Black Wine also received the 1997 William J. Crawford Memorial Award for best first fantasy novel. As well, Dorsey was co-editor with Gerry Truscott of Tesseracts3, an anthology of Canadian science fiction. She is publisher of Tesseract Books, Canada's oldest speculative fiction publishing imprint, formerly of Beach Holme, now an imprint of the Books Collective.

Candas Jane Dorsey Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alexander von Thorn

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Black Wine is a visceral tale of female survival and sexuality in an unforgiving world. Candas Jane Dorsey is an established short-story writer, and her first novel has won the Crawford and Tiptree awards. The book is economically composed in less than 300 pages, but it takes time to digest this complex and potent story.

The story is set in an indeterminate future. The places, if they are named at all, bear no relation to any recognizable contemporary geography, but the people are human and there are a couple of subtle hints toward the end of the book that this world is descended from our own. Technology is similar to our own; slightly more advanced in a few areas, but more often somewhat backward. The absence of engines suggests a world which has no fossil fuels left, and the distance from one population centre to the next indicates a very thinly populated world. This is all by inference, however, as the world seems to have no history; there are no references to anything going back more than two or three generations. There are no fantasy elements at all except for the strange presence of Carrier of Spirits, whose powers are very hard to rationalize in any hard SF way. But one might argue that focusing on the geography misses the point, for this is a story where the setting is intended to be only the background for the conflicts between and within the characters.

I tried to make sense of this book as I was reading along, which is very much the wrong way to experience it. Shifting back and forth between three or four plot lines where few proper nouns are used for people or places creates confusion, which reflects the confusion of at least one of the viewpoint characters who cannot remember who or where she is. There are times when different characters turn out to be the same person (while remaining different characters to a degree), and in a way, the chain of experience from mother to daughter creates an archetype that encompasses them all. In a sense, each mother in this line creates a world which is safer and more sane than the world she came from, and each daughter rebels against the darkness and injustice of her mother's world. The author does use the naming of characters, and lack thereof, to indicate that only people who are valued for their identity (as opposed to their role) get named. In the end, although we are shaped by the choices of others, ultimately one defines one's own self.

The story begins with an amnesiac slave trying to make sense of her situation. It jumps to a trader who flees an uprising, and then to a pair of women who have escaped an oppressive society. The trader finds a home, but must leave on a quest to find her mother. The two women, sisters, also find a home, but they too must leave to protect the daughter of one of them. A combination of choice and mischance brings mother and daughter back to the "zone of control," the harsh authoritarian civilization the mother had escaped years before. The tale of mother and daughter becomes an instrument of change, contrasting the suffering and madness of the place with more humane societies elsewhere. It is perhaps a writer's conceit that simply telling a story can change the world, but it's done very effectively.

This is a very female book. Not that it's anti-male; there is no shortage of female villains and sympathetic male characters. Simply, all the viewpoint characters are women, and the issues and problems they face are mostly not ones that men would have to deal with. It is clear from the first page that the reader should expect some explicit sex scenes, most of them neither romantic nor erotic. Later on there are scenes of lesbian incest which, in the context of the story, I did not find offensive, although the descriptive details may raise some eyebrows. Even though the overall level of violence was quite tame compared to typical sword-and-sorcery stories (or the evening news for that matter), the emotional impact is extremely powerful. One of the strengths of this story is how close it brings the reader to the experience. This is a deeply interior tale, so much that it will make some people uncomfortable.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner wrote that "Fiction is about truth." Dorsey takes this opportunity to speak a truth about women's experience that is rarely shared even among women. She writes with Gibsonesque authority, simply displaying her world without bothering to explain things that her characters take for granted. After everything they go through, the story ends with daughters finding and coming to terms with their mothers. Black Wine is a powerful story which will change the world view of many readers.

Copyright © 1998 by Alexander von Thorn

Alexander von Thorn works two jobs, at The Worldhouse (Toronto's oldest game store) and in the network control centre of UUNET Canada. In his spare time, he is active in several fan and community organizations, including the Toronto in 2003 Worldcon bid. He is also a game designer, novelist-in-training (with the Ink*Specs, the Downsview speculative fiction writing circle), feeder of one dog and two cats, and avid watcher of bad television. He rarely sleeps.


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