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Warrior Wisewoman
edited by Roby James
Norilana Books, 276 pages

Warrior Wisewoman
Roby James
Roby James is the author of the Starfire Saga which includes Commencement (1996) and Commitment (1997).

Roby James Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Amal El-Mohtar

I have been quite impressed with what I've seen Norilana Books putting out recently, especially through the Curiosities imprint for poetry collections. It has shown Catherynne Valente and Mike Allen's work to good effect, and I look forward to picking up JoSelle Vanderhooft's Memory Palace collection when it comes out in January of 2009. By and large, I've seen this publisher showcase strong talent with good production values slanted along diverse and interesting themes, so I was excited to pick up a copy of Warrior Wisewoman, particularly since I enjoy short fiction and often seek out collections deliberately centered around strong female characters.

Warrior Wisewoman is the first volume of what's to become an annual anthology put out by Norilana Books as a sister-series to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress. The idea is to have a series devoted to women's science fiction with a strong focus "on the interface between scientific exploration and our sense of wonder." It consists of twelve short stories, by Douglas A. Van Belle, Rose Lemberg, Catherine Mintz, Bhaskar Dutt, Nancy Fulda, Fran LaPlaca, Mary Catelli, Anna Sykora, Peg Robinson, Vylar Kaftan, Colleen Anderson and Sally Kuntz.

The stories are generally good, but while a couple of pieces stood out particularly well for me, many of the stories felt like they could have benefited from further drafting. I often found myself thinking that an otherwise good story ought to have taken a different approach to its denouement, such as Bhaskar Dutt's "An Ashwini Apart," or perhaps trimmed out a few repetitive sentences and sentiments, as in "As Darwin Decreed," by Peg Robinson. Overall, the choice of stories seemed to privilege idea over execution, and most of my quibbles with them are technical, while the plots, ideas, and characters tend towards being interesting, original, and strong. Unfortunately, I found the editing so intrusive and distracting as to thoroughly undermine my enjoyment of the anthology as a whole.

This is the first collection I've come across where the editor felt the need to preface each story with a paragraph explaining how it fits into the anthology's overall theme. I firmly believe that the editor of an anthology ought to state his or her intentions at the outset and leave the rest up to the reader; Roby James' approach had the unwelcome effect of making me feel like she was taking me by the hand to make sure I understood what a given story was about before I'd even begun reading it. This made it extremely difficult for me to enjoy the stories on their own merit, particularly because the editor's views, as set out in her introduction, are completely repellent to me. You can find the introduction online; if you enjoy it, perhaps you won't be as annoyed by the consistent and explicit restating of its contents as I was.

Let me wear my bias on my sleeve: I consider myself a feminist. In her introduction, Roby James takes exception to "the feminist argument that there [are] really no differences between men and women," which she says comes back "to haunt us" in things like Ridley Scott's Alien, where Scott had two women play characters that were originally men in the screenplay without altering the text. She is certainly entitled to the view, but it's one that I don't share in the slightest -- which made me all the less keen to see it repeated before every single story and downright angry to see the editor attempt to shoehorn those stories into an extremely narrow vision.

More than that, the paragraphs preceding each piece make blanket statements about women, suggesting that not only are they essentially different from men, they are all the same. In introducing Douglas A. Van Belle's "Ungraceful Cliff Dwellers," she says "one of the things that characterize women is the importance of relationships in their lives." In the introduction to Rose Lemberg's "To Find Home again," she states that "a woman's strength is not monolithic. Unlike a man's, it can manifest itself in what looks like subservience." Others are less offensive than just plain twee: the introduction to Bhaskar Dutt's "An Ashwini Apart" claims that "women can fight for the wrong causes, as well as for the right ones. The wrong may make them no less warriors, but the right can be what makes them wise."

Rather than positioning them in relation to what they do or don't say about women, I think it's more valuable to consider each story as its own unit, with each character taken in the context of the tale, not of the anthology. Douglas A. Van Belle's "Ungraceful Cliff Dwellers," for instance, presents a startling and interesting view of human aspiration and relationships. It opens with a group of highly telepathic youth becoming aware of two of their number having sex for the first time and reflecting on how strangely that coming together in the flesh separates them mentally, both from each other and from the rest of the group. The first-person narrator observing this could as easily have been male as female; I never felt that her womb informed her reflections or her decision-making. The main point of interest for me, in the story, was that this girl was part of a mixed-gender group all growing together, sharing their knowledge and sensations the while; she defined herself in relation to the group, not in relation to the boys within it.

Rose Lemberg's "To Find Home Again" is about a woman who is both a deadly soldier and a devoted slave to her male master. It's an uncomfortable story, but nowhere is it implied that the protagonist's femininity is responsible for her strength, subservience, or the compelling mixture of the two that made me enjoy reading through her point of view. The story has its flaws -- this is one of the ones I felt could have been tightened, as I found some of the mechanics of the space-faring world confusing, and the representation of the protagonist's motivation sometimes inconsistent -- but I thought it thoroughly engaging in spite of that and successful on the whole.

Vylar Kaftan's "Christmas Wedding" is definitely my favourite piece; the narration and dialogue are genuine, there's horror and humour and bittersweetness mixed in good proportion, and the whole of it comes together as an effective, lovely story that makes you want to hug your loved ones and prepare for the apocalypse all at once. Other highlights for me were Fran LaPlaca's "Faith," Mary Catelli's "Among the Wastes of Time," and Colleen Anderson's "Ice Queen."

I was glad to find these stories much better than the telescoped paragraphs made them out to be, but the fact that I had to make an effort to separate them from the editorial apparatus of the collection makes it difficult for me to recommend the whole. I would look for more stories by these authors, but had I picked Warrior Wisewoman up in a bookstore, I wouldn't have made it past the introduction.

Copyright © 2008 Amal El-Mohtar

Amal has a history of reading anything with pages. Now, she reads stuff online, too. She sometimes does other things, but that's mainly it.

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