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The Wild Machines: The Book of Ash #3 by Mary Gentle, Avon Eos, 2000, 391 pages, $6.99
Lost Burgundy: The Book of Ash #4 by Mary Gentle, Avon Eos, 2000, 464 pages, $6.50
The King's Peace by Jo Walton, Tor, 2000, 416 pages, $26.95
The Angel and the Sword by Cecelia Holland, Forge, 2000, 304 pages, $23.95
We're living now in a post-feminist world.
Not long ago I went to my first live WNBA game. I've been a huge fan from the start, cheering on my hometown New York Liberty (the "Libs"), but it wasn't until I sat at Madison Square Garden watching them live, surrounded by a roaring Liberty crowd, that the full force of what was happening reached me.
These were female basketball players—professional female basketball players—scrambling around the famous Garden court. But that wasn't the truly striking thing. More thrilling than the fact of their playing was how they played—physically, aggressively, roughly, all-out, sweaty and bruised and never giving an inch. Not the slightest sign of demure "femininity," and yet my Libs were nothing if not feminine. Gloriously feminine, tough, gritty athletes.
But even that wasn't the most notable thing. All around me in the stands there were women, alone and in groups, with boyfriends or girlfriends, mothers with daughters, teenagers in clusters, hooting and hollering and carrying on. Raucous female fans watching hard-nosed female basketball players compete like gladiators.
And it was no big deal.
That's what made it so wonderful: It was no big deal. This wasn't some consciousness-raising exercise; these mothers weren't instructing their daughters in the fine points of gender politics; this was not a demonstration. This was just plain everyday life.
It's not that feminism is dead, or has lost relevance—there's still plenty of work to be done—but many of the things for which feminism has fought have not only come to be, they're largely unremarkable. There are girls and boys growing up today who will be surprised to learn that it was ever considered inappropriate (or even impossible) for women to do anything that men do. A post-feminist world bears the unique imprint of a feminist past.
Like the WNBA, or a Republican National Convention at which the hope for a female president is openly declared, Mary Gentle's rich and wild Ash series (originally published as a single 1100-page volume in the UK) would be impossible to imagine in anything but a post-feminist context. This tale of a nail-tough female mercenary captain in an alternate 15th-century Europe begins (in its first volume, A Secret History) with an unflinching feminist flair: "It was her scars that made her beautiful." And the opening scene, in which the eight-year-old Ash kills her two adult male rapists, seems cut and sewn to fit a novel centered on gender politics. But Gentle doesn't make a lesson out of her story, or out of her colorful, fallible Ash. She doesn't feel the need. Her female soldier needs no more ideological support than the Liberty guard Theresa Weatherspoon. Ash is free to be a complex, contradictory person rather than an icon of identity politics.
When the third volume—The Wild Machines—opens, the armies of the Visigoth Empire have stormed through Europe, bringing with them a deadly blight: the absence of the sun, a permanent darkness. All that stands between them and complete conquest is the duchy of Burgundy, and the city of Dijon, wherein Duke Charles the Bold and his remaining forces are beseiged by the Visigoths. Ash has fled Carthage—the Visigoth capital city—with her mercenary company, having learned that the Visigoth invasion is driven by the ambitions of the "Wild Machines," computer-like intelligences that have grown in the sandstone monuments of the Tunisian desert. They seek more than conquest; they hope to bring about the complete extermination of humankind, and if Burgundy falls, the sun will shine no more, and humanity will be wiped out.
This drama remains the center of focus throughout The Wild Machines and the final volume, Lost Burgundy, as Gentle works the desperate tension of the siege with a handful of well-turned twists and surprises. Just as she did in her earlier novels, Rats and Gargoyles (1990) and The Architecture of Desire (1991), Gentle enriches her story with a sensual, tactile, masterfully-detailed setting; the story's a stimulating blend of history and fantasy the reader can practically smell. I have rarely if ever encountered a more convincing portrayal of pre-modern warfare.
Given such a grounding in historical realities, issues of gender do inevitably crop up. (Being post-feminist doesn't mean ignoring such matters, it just means approaching them differently.) So we have Ash the mercenary captain, hated by some for her unconventional vocation and un-ladylike manners, but it's hardly Ash against the world. For every occasion on which Ash endures someone's disdain, there are two or three moments when her crew or her warrior peers proclaim their untroubled acceptance, fervent regard, even awe. We meet another female condottiere in charge of her own company, and Ash's platoon has a healthy share of female soldiers sprinkled through it. Even the Visigoth armies are led by a female general known as the Faris (who happens to be Ash's twin—I won't explain).
Despised though she sometimes is, Ash herself is no paragon of tolerance. She's as quick to sneer at battlefield cowardice as any of her male counterparts, and she's perplexed and even a little disgusted when she learns that her long-time camp surgeon is actually a woman in disguise—and a lesbian. (Ash does defend the woman, though, when some even less tolerant folk try to burn the doctor.) Ash is most unlike, say, the female warriors of Suzy McKee Charnas's landmark Holdfast novels, who combine fierce combative prowess with a deep sense of sisterhood and a nobility of spirit unmatched among men, and who inhabit a world in which male and female are locked in literal war. Ash's allegiances care nothing for gender—she's as attached to the men under her command as the women, and but for Floria (the surgeon) all her closest companions are male.
If there's any consistent thread of gender-related commentary to be teased from the Ash books, it's very different from the starkly polarized views of the feminist classics. Ash declares in The Wild Machines that "War makes nothing" of the distinction between men and women, and Ash herself is the manifest proof. She suffers from the horrors of battle and the lonely responsibility of command like any male commander would, and she hasn't found a way to make war any less devastating because of her gender. (At one point she and the Faris exchange thoughts on the subject directly: The Visigoth general ridicules the notion that men, naturally less sensitive, endure the trials of war more easily than women. Her qa'ids, she says, can "tell this Frankish knight how much easier it is for a man to stand covered in the brains and blood of his dearest friend.")
If anything, the men around Ash seem to suffer even more than she does. The character of Ash argues plainly for the essential similarity of men and women, and for the view that taking on the roles of men might not be the best goal of a feminist revolution. War is no better with female commanders, and some jobs aren't fit for man nor woman to hold.
Though such matters will—and should—occur to the reader of the Ash books, they remain for the most part implicit, items to be observed amid the clatter and roar of the action-filled plot and a narrative fabric of rare complexity. Gentle adds a layer of extra interest by framing the account of Ash's life as the (rather loose) translation of several disparate ancient documents by a pioneering historian. We're treated to interludes during which the historian and his editor discuss the increasingly unsettling implications of the events recorded in the "Ash texts"—what starts out seeming like a literary conceit or medieval imprecision becomes ever more undeniably a different history from the one we (and they) recall. And as the series progresses these interludes themselves take on greater significance. By the end, Gentle has turned her immensely engaging historical fantasy into a thoughtful science fiction novel based on the fringier speculations of contemporary physics.
The Ash books (or book) are a stunning achievement, an example of the best that the genre can produce—rich in action and event, wonderfully inventive, erudite but never dull, with plenty for a thoughtful reader to chew on after the page-turning frenzy is over. With Ash, Mary Gentle has given us the first great fantasy of the '00s.
* * *
Jo Walton's first novel, The King's Peace, reworks Arthurian legend and the little we know about the true "Arthurian" period (the late-fifth and sixth centuries) into something less familiar, creating an imaginary world very much like Britain in that chaotic time between the withdrawal of the Romans and the rise of relatively stable Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Here it's the "Vincans" who once ruled "Tir Tanagiri" before pulling out in the face of increasing barbarian pressure on the frontiers. Ireland is Tir Isanagriri, and the Holy Land is Sinea, where the White God once walked as a man. For the figure of Arthur, the war leader who unites the British tribes against their common enemy (here the "Jarns" rather than Angles and Saxons), Walton gives us Urdo. By and large, Walton's imagined world is simply our own renamed.
With so much running closely parallel, it's easy to expect the storyline to adhere to the Arthurian pattern, but Walton wisely follows the well-worn path only in general outline. Urdo battles invaders from across the Channel, as well as petty kings in his own territory, and he gathers about him a core of great warriors. He wins a telling battle which gains at least a brief reprieve for Tir Tanagiri. His scheming half-sister Morwen certainly brings to mind Morgan le Fay. And we meet an Irish knight whose illicit love of a young Irish princess married to the ruler of what in our world would be Cornwall reminds us not a little of Tristan's doomed affair with Ysolde. But Walton centers her story on young Sulien ap Gwien, one of Urdo's warriors who bears no obvious resemblance to any character of Arthurian legend—not least because she's a woman.
Walton kicks her story off—after a brief prologue—with Sulien returning to her family home to find it burned and pillaged by raiders. Before she can determine what's become of her kin, she encounters the raiders themselves, who subdue and rape her, dedicating her as a sacrifice to one of their gods and leaving her for dead. Walton quickly establishes rich ground for the plot to grow on, as Sulien leaves home to become a warrior, discovers she's pregnant by her rapists, and while convalescing in a monastery after the birth encounters the witchy Queen Morwen, who tries to kill her. After that, though, the pace and structure of the narrative slacken. There's still plenty going on, but scenes often shift just when they should linger, foreshadowings tend to bear little fruit, and more time is spent describing people's features and clothing than on their thoughts or motives.
The best parts of The King's Peace come in the interstices. Each chapter begins with an epigraph, a fragment of verse or prayer or chronicle that sheds a little light on the societies that are mixing and clashing up on stage. We get a bit from the heroic poem "Lew Rosson's Hall," a Tanagan charm for purifying water, and a paragraph from the Vincan historian Marcia Antonilla's The Third Malmish War. Walton does an excellent job of mimicking the styles and cadences of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon poetry—her chief inspirations—and for any reader familiar with those sources her epigraphs are a delight. Even for readers without such background they provide vital color and mood that's too often missing from the main text.
The King's Peace also shines when Walton brings us into contact with the old gods, whether in their realms or among mortals. She evokes these mysterious powers elegantly, communicating both their fearsome strangeness and their relationships with the human world with rare skill and understatement. If only the scenes without gods had shown the same deft touch.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The King's Peace, though, is the social system it portrays. From Tir Isanagiri to the far city of Caer Custenn (our Byzantium), men and women enjoy what appears to be near-total equality. (Only among the Jarns are women significantly oppressed.) As a result, there's hardly any sign of gender conflict or strife. Many women do play the role of housekeeper ("key keeper"), but it's a respected social role, not subservient to a husband. Many other women train and fight as warriors, and it seems from the internal evidence that this has always been so. Urdo's first battle was won against a ferocious female outlaw, Goldpate, and her troop of marauders. Unlike Ash, Sulien is anything but unusual in her world.
This unusual social climate makes Walton's novel worth noting all by itself. The King's Peace gives us a world in which few roles are defined by gender, and the sexes co-exist without any history of oppression and resentment. The effect is almost as thrilling as a WNBA game. The King's Peace lets us glimpse what it might be like—or, more properly, might have been like—to live in a world untroubled by the problems that cloud gender relations in our own. I only hope that in the next volume (yes, there's certainly at least one more coming) Walton finds her narrative footing more solidly, so that the conceptual interest of her story can be matched by a suitably compelling drama.
* * *
Cecelia Holland's latest novel, The Angel and the Sword, is the story of another warrior woman, based on French medieval legends of "Roderick the Beardless" who helped save Paris from the Vikings. This Roderick is actually Ragny, a princess of Spain, disguised as a man, fleeing her father Markold and intent upon avenging her mother, whom Markold has almost certainly killed. On her deathbed, Ragny's mother Ingunn promises her daughter a guardian, and it comes in the form of an angel who protects Ragny in battle and strikes fear into her foes.
The angel, while rarely glimpsed and (wisely) left mostly undescribed—"only half-visible, like a crumpling of the air too fast and too dazzling bright for the eye"—nevertheless appears to be entirely real within the world of the book, adding a dollop of the fantastic to Holland's solidly realistic historical setting. The Angel and the Sword doesn't ring with quite the power of, say, Jerusalem (1996), Holland's novel of the 12th-century Latin Kingdoms of the East, wherein she conveyed both the deep alienness and common humanity of people in such a far past, but it does offer both a soberingly honest picture of life in 9th-century Europe and some wonderful glimpses of medieval ways of thought. The Paris of Charles the Bald (a much different sort from Burgundy's Charles the Bold) is little more than a shanty town set up amid the crumbling ruins of its past, and we feel acutely the weariness of the King and his people amidst the steady attacks of the Vikings. Ragny's piety outdoes even our current politicians, and yet seems heartfelt and true, a reflection of her time and place. And the battle scenes, while not nearly so harrowing or grisly as those Gentle describes, have a similar gritty believability.
Holland is at her best, though, with the character of John Scotus Eriugena, a real and fascinating historical figure (c. 810 - c. 875), one of the era's great scholars who helped gather, preserve, and transmit the learning of earlier centuries, and a notable free thinker. He's a rare and lonely man in his time, a devotee of learning and reason in a world dominated by dogma and superstition. The words Holland ascribes to him—perfectly in keeping with what we know of his character—show us what, to a modern mind, is the best side of the medieval character. "Not to think," he says at one point, "is a sin as much as not to love." And later: "God gave us words, and reason, too, that we could read the world, and find Him everywhere in it." John is the one person to see through Ragny's disguise, and he stands by her when her secret is revealed.
Though Holland works from legend, and veers not nearly so far from history as Gentle or Walton, her telling of Ragny's story betrays every bit as much its origins in a post-feminist world. Indeed, it may be the most "post" of them all. Here's a tale of a female warrior in a time of heavy oppression of women, saving one kingdom and winning back her own despite the irrational hatred and suspicion of others when they discover her true identity. But Holland doesn't play it as a lesson in women's equal or superior abilities. Rather, the central conflict for Ragny is her unhappiness with concealing her female self, her growing dislike for the character of Roderick she has invented and for all the social expectations it brings on her. Early on she enjoys it, and even finds in herself a thirst for battle—but that bloodlust reminds her too much of her father, and she begins to feel trapped: "Roderick was trying to stop thinking about the fighting, about that deep hot fury that had come over her, the delight in seeing other men down before her. That was not her, not really her." Later, tangled even deeper in her masquerade, Ragny prays, "Please, God, make me a woman again. Please." And when her secret finally comes out, and she's imprisoned awaiting judgment, she puts on a dress again and "shut her eyes, luxuriating in the freedom at last of being who she really was."
In the end, Ragny, like Ash, embodies the argument that true freedom for women does not lie in adopting the manners and roles of men—and that even men suffer from the traditional dictates of gender roles. "It isn't hard to be a man," Ragny tells Charles the Bald's daughter, Princess Alpiada. "You only have to give up everything sweet and good in life, and do murder, and trample other men under your feet . . . . They give men everything, as you say, to make up for that they really have nothing, no babies, no love, no sweetness in life, save what they can steal or beg from women." Perhaps the greatest triumph of feminism—or post-feminism—will be to free men as well from the sour burdens of the past.
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