THE FOURTH WHORE by EV Knight

The Fourth Whore
By EV Knight
Raw Dog Screaming Press — March 2020
ISBN: 9781947879164
— Paperback — 226 pp.


Struggling day-by-day to survive in the slums of Detroit, Kenzi Brooks does whatever is necessary to keep control of her life, using the power of her body as a woman, supported by her street-wise friend Gloria, but at odds with her alcoholic, hostile mother. As rough as Kenzi’s present may be, her past has been even more damaging. Sixteen years ago, at the age of seven, she walked to the store with her brother, and watched him struck down in a hit-and-run. She would have died in that accident as well, were it not for the strange, dark-robed figure she saw. A man who made her pause, a man with scrawled writing up his flesh, and a large black bird with him. Through the ensuing years she years Kenzi couldn’t be certain if this Scribbled Man was a figment of her imagination or something very real. Arguing for the latter, she carries a lucky rabbit foot that she recalls him giving her. It serves as a reminder of that tragedy, of her father’s subsequent death, and her continued pain; the sharp edges of the claw used to cut herself in ritual self harm.

An attack by members of a drug gang after payments leaves Kenzi badly injured and her mother dead. During the assault, Kenzi unknowingly releases the spirit held within the rabbit foot: Lilith, the first created mate for Adam, who was cast from the Garden of Eden for refusing to be subservient to her husband. Abandoned and tormented by fallen angels, Lilith becomes mother to half-breed demons and slowly a demon herself, or as she comes to think of it, a goddess. One of the angels she trusted, but who ended up failing and betraying her, is Sariel. For Sariel’s actions in defiance of the Creator, he is punished to serve as the Angel of Death, forced to collect human souls with his avian companion Enoch until he also captures all of Lilith’s demon-spawn. Sariel is Kenzi’s Scribbled Man, and he has plans and hopes for this special girl who can see him through her heterochromatic eyes.

But, the escaped Lilith has very different plans for Kenzi, and for the world. Lilith intends to usher in the apocalypse, to destroy the world and remake things in her image where women are not terrorized in subservience. Where she is worshipped. She recruits other women to her path, to serve as the Whores of the Apocalypse (parallels to the Four Horsemen of Revelation). Due to the unique nature of Kenzi and what Sariel has done, she will make the ideal fourth whore. But who will Kenzi choose to believe and follow: Sariel her Scribbled Man from her childhood, or the powerful and vengeful Lilith?

The Fourth Whore thus has a lot going on in it for ~225 pages: multiple intersecting back stories as well as competing paths for Kenzi’s future. Knight structures the novel with short chapters written from different points of view. Sariel, Lilith, and Kenzi account for the most, but other chapters use the point of view of the Whore of War, the Whore of Pestilence, and a young male doctor who sympathizes with/is attracted to Kenzi. This organization works really well, and the chapter titles, rendered as “The Book of Sariel” (for example), make it easy to figure out what character or plot thread will be featured. Even with two “Books of Kenzi” in a row, Knight splits her protagonist’s point of view into two chapters that break with the action and a hook to keep reading. This makes The Fourth Whore easy to make one’s way through it.

What may make The Fourth Whore more difficult to get through it, for some readers, is its uncompromising and unflinching intensity. It features dark, troubling themes of rape, mental/psychological trauma, self harm, and perverted abandon. Readers can almost hear, see, smell, and feel the viscera that fills the pages with all bodily fluids imaginable. Knight writes raw, graphic scenes of sexuality that equally don’t shy from biological frankness.

Some may then wonder why would somebody want to read such things? I imagine that regular fans of dark fantasy and horror know exactly why such brutal honesty can be therapeutic, while others know it is something that they just have to avoid and can’t manage. Either is fair. For those who aren’t so sure, or wonder how all of that could transcend simple vulgar gore to mean something significant – and something feminist at that – read on…

The Fourth Whore is a fascinating work of feminist fantasy/horror built upon the iconic JudaeoChristian mythology of Lilith, the Nephilim, and the history of the Salem Witch trials. It illustrates the many ways in which women have been suppressed, oppressed, demonized, controlled, and assaulted. Literally and symbolically. Mentally and physically. It also contains female characters who have all witnessed or experienced this and chosen to reject being trapped within that system. To act differently with unapologetic pride and fervor. They take derogatory language and weaponize it. They take something that they’ve been historically asked to view with shame, guilt, and submissiveness and made it into a celebration of power. The question that all of the The Fourth Whore hinges upon becomes one of at what point does rebellion against an unjust system of power become equally hurtful in new ways? Or, is one really free from that system of power if it merely redirects harm?

Kenzi’s internal battle through the novel is between trusting two powerful forces of authority who both lie to her and want to use her. One is male, admits mistakes in the past, but professes to be trying to do better. The other is female and says that the male just wants to continue using her. The kicker is, both are kinda right! Kenzi comes to appreciate just how horribly and awfully Lilith has been treated. Without excusing any of that, though, she cannot necessarily come to condone what Lilith has become or now desires. She confronts the realization that victims might turn into the monsters, continuing the pain that was visited upon them. Others might act as monsters – and still have that in them, but perhaps want something more. These realizations become symbolic for Kenzi’s own victimhood. Without losing sight of what unfair trauma she has faced and the wrongs done to her by others without any fault of her own, she sees a fork in the road of what can be done to perhaps heal. One pathway exists as the one she herself has so often taken: relief by further pain. Cutting. Another path is turning that vengeance away from oneself and outward to the world – the route of Lilith and her disciples. But perhaps there is also a third to find.

All readers may not agree with how all these themes and questions go in the novel. And frankly many – including Knight – might disagree with my interpretation of things. It’s important to note I am male and coming at this from a different perspective than other readers may. As a male I really appreciated the characters of Sariel and Henry (the doctor). Not because I wanted someone like me in the story, but because Knight does convey that male perspective so well (imho) of wanting to do better, to do right, but likewise existing on societal pillars both conscious and unconscious that might work against it. Even if others end up feeling very differently about the novel’s themes, the one thing I think it’s safe to say is that The Fourth Whore invites analysis around them.

The only significant criticism that I might make of the novel is that the dialogue becomes very stilted and hammy at times, particularly in the more sexually or generally emotionally charged scenes. Some of those lines then make secondary characters comically clichéd, or at the very least too un-nuanced. Despite such moments of unevenness, the overall arching plot of the entertaining story, as well the depth and complexity of its themes, makes The Fourth Whore an overall success.

This should give potential readers an idea if they fit into the novel’s audience. But even if this isn’t a fit, I would say that the name EV Knight is one that you should keep an open mind for with future titles. She writes intelligent and perceptive horror, and future things from her may connect to dark fantasy fans who might not be able to quite manage this particular intensity of content and themes.

EDIT IN UPDATE:

I just realized that I completely neglected to say more on Enoch! Enoch is the real star of the book :D. I particularly love the running ‘gag’ that Enoch’s gender is abundantly clear to Kenzi, but Sariel remains mostly obstinate and clueless. She could star in her own series.


LAST ONES LEFT ALIVE by Sarah Davis-Goff

Last Ones Left Alive
By Sarah Davis-Goff
Flatiron Books — January 2019
ISBN: 9781250235220
288 Pages — Hardback


A friend and I have a disagreement each time The Road comes up in conversation. I find the novel overly sparse and dull, and its literary accolades frustrate me given that genre has done the same themes well for years (albeit also poorly). My friend explains that both the novel and movie resonate with him as a father, and I concede that’s a connection I wouldn’t have.

Last Ones Left Alive represents an opposite of The Road in a couple of respects. Davis-Goff employs a feminist focus where McCarthy wrote of masculinity, and she reverses the parent-child relationship and point-of-view so that it is the younger generation bearing the responsibility of care. For whatever reasons, although being male myself, I found Last Ones Left Alive‘s take on the post-apocalyptic setting and characters for more relatable and interesting.

Orpen has grown up living in relative isolation on an island off the coast of Ireland with her mother, Mam, and Mam’s partner Maeve. There are no reasons to travel off the island, and many reasons not to. Civilization has collapsed and zombie-like monsters called skrake prowl about, savage remnants of what used to be human. Mam and Maeve have raised Orpen to defend herself, but also to be extremely wary of both the unnatural skrake and natural dangers, including what the human male could present to a young woman.

Orpen has had no choice but to leave the island in search of survivors on the mainland, in the fabled Phoenix City, a bastion of peace protected by a class of warrior women called Banshees. As the novel begins, Orpen trudges on blistered feet, pushing Maeve in a wheel barrow, a dog at their side:

Around us the landscape changes constantly. The road shifts beneath me, twists and slopes, and every time I look up, the world presents me with something new and I feel fresh too. Despite myself, despite everything. The world ended a long time ago, but it is still beautiful.

We are moving.

Looking at her lying slumped in the barrow makes my chest feel like it’s collapsing in on itself. She is so small- “scrawny” is the word. She never used to be small. I look away, and twenty paces later I’m at it again, watching the closed-up face with the sweaty sheen.

We move. We rest again. The dog beside us, the nails on his paws clacking against the road. I can feel the hesitation off him. He’s asking me do I know what I’m doing and don’t I want to go home.

I do, I tell him. But I can’t.

Maeve’s lined skin is being burned by the sun underneath its grayness. I take off my hat and put it on her lightly, so most of her face is in shadow. I can pretend she’s asleep. I stop again and rearrange her so she’s facing forward, facing into whatever’s coming at us. She’d feel better that way. I feel better. Maeve wasn’t one for looking too often at me anyway, unless for a fight.

I’ve a new pain, then, the sun pounding down on one stop at the top of my forehead.

We move. My fear so big, so palpable, that it could be an animal walking beside us. I try to make friends with it.

pp. 2 – 3

Davis-Goff’s writing thus moves fluidly, a mixture of hopeful, imaginative descriptions punctuated with short, hard truths. She gives Orpen a voice of utter exhaustion, yet propped up from despair through resilience. Through the clouds of melancholy and fear poke shines of her faith and wonderment.

A short novel, Last Ones Left Alive has the feel of a perfect novella, though I don’t know its word count for where it technically falls. The pace starts off wonderfully, immersing the reader in Orpen’s world amid a struggle to figure out precisely what is going on. After a short time, action breaks out, and soon Orpen meets other humans. Things slow after the initial start, as Davis-Goff takes us both deeper into Orpen’s character and provides flashbacks into her life before on the island with Mam and Maeve. Falling onto the literary side of things, the novel is never really about action, and the skrake play minor roles in comparison to the focus on Orpen’s maturation and discoveries.

Last Ones Left Alive is a coming-of-age tale about a young girl’s self realization, but also evolving from what she has internalized from parental instruction to form her own perceptions of the world in its beauties and dangers. Her guardians and protectors lost, she rapidly learns to be this herself, for self and others.

Only one male character appears in Last Ones Left Alive, one of the people Orpen encounters while on her journey to Phoenix City. Based on what she has been taught of men, she nearly kills the man upon meeting him in order to protect herself, little different from if she ran into a skrake. However, the behaviors of the man soon show her the faultiness of a simple anti-male perspective. Unlike skrake, humanity is complex.

The novel ends with many questions unresolved, several possible futures for the fate of Orpen, secondary characters, and the role of the Banshees. While I was happy with the ending, I imagine some readers wanting more closure and answers could be disappointed. I do not know if a sequel is planned, but one could easily work. Though satisfied with where things sit, I would certainly not turn down more.


THE GODDESS OF SMALL VICTORIES, by Yannick Grannec

The Goddess of Small Victories
(La Déesse des petites victoires)
By Yannick Grannec
(Translated by Willard Wood)
Other Press – October 2014
ISBN 9781590516362 – 464 Pages – Hardback
Source: Publisher via Atticus Review


FOLLOWING THE COLLAPSE

“In 1931, soon after finishing his doctorate at the University of Vienna, mathematician Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems that demonstrate that a closed system of axioms cannot be used to demonstrate its own consistency. The broad themes and implications of Gödel’s work are popularly known in the foundation of Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Recently, in La Déesse des petites victoires (The Goddess of Small Victories), Yannick Grannec approaches the emotions and personal events around Gödel’s life and achievements through the point of view of his wife, Adele…”

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review for Atticus Review.

BAD GRRLZ’ GUIDE TO REALITY, by Pat Murphy

21842809Bad Grrlz’ Guide to Reality
(Wild Angel and Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell)
By Pat Murphy
Open Road Media – 15th April 2014
ISBN 1480483206  – 578 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


 I had originally planned for this one to fit into Skiffy & Fanty’s 2015 theme of female authors, but after reading it I wasn’t sure that the genre would be a suitable fit, as wonderful as this omnibus is. Composed of two complete novels, Wild Angel and Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell, Bad Grrlz’ Guide to Reality is two thirds of a meta writing exercise tried out by Pat Murphy, a writer whose back catalog of fiction I increasingly realize I need to seek out in its totality.
The one third missing from this omnibus is There and Back Again, the first novel of the loosely linked ‘series’, and as you can probably surmise from the title, it’s inspired from The Hobbit. And, apparently the Tolkien estate took exception to that. Following some threats it was apparently taken out of print, and in this state it remains. The purpose of the three meta volumes and some of their links (which arise mostly in the third novel) seem to be lost due to this unfortunate control, but for the most part the two novels here can be read effectively on their own (particularly Wild Angel) or in combo as presented by Open Road Media in electronic format for a great price.
There and Back Again was the fantasy component to the trilogy and you can probably tell from its titel that the second novel of the omnibus here is the science fiction component. This leaves Wild Angel, which is basically a Western adventure, or historical novel. I found Wild Angel absolutely brilliant and empowering, dominating over Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell, which seems bound in the meta construction of the trilogy, interesting, but not profound.
In Wild Angel, a young girl named Sarah witnesses, while hidden unseen, her parents horrifically murdered by opportunistic bandits in the hills of California. Scalping the victims to make the attack superficially appear like a native American raid, the bandits steal the gold that Sarah’s parents were collecting while Sarah flees silently into the wilderness. Traumatized and alone amid nature, Sarah is adopted by a she-wolf who raises her among the pack. As Sarah grows and learns survival as a wolf, one of the thieves secures the gold and begins using it to establish a reputation in the budding old west town, only to hear rumors whispered of a young wolf-girl in the wilds, a potential witness to his crimes and ill-gained position.
 Partially inspired by Tarzan, more generally the novel seems influenced by timeless legends of feral children and most particularly the archetype of the wild woman (turned to from time to time for feminist analysis as by Estés). Murphy also uses Sarah and the plot to explore feminist themes and to criticize concepts of Western culture exceptionalism. The civilization of Western expansion is contrasted to the civilization of native populations and the inherent biological capabilities, instincts, and intelligence of humans when even stripped of all ‘civilized’ remnants. This permits Murphy to highlight absurd social constructs that people, especially females, are expected to conform with for no rational purpose other than to facilitate separation or oppression. Things that otherwise we take for granted until stripped down to the simplest of lives that Sarah enjoys.
Beyond the significance of its themes, Wild Angel is simply well written and a fun read. It has a good mixture of contemplative seriousness, light humor, conflict and danger, and tenderness. In contrast, Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell is far more limited in scope and vision. Taking place on a cruise ship full of eccentric characters as it heads into the Bermuda Triangle, the novel mixes quantum physics with a murder mystery to tie together the other two novels in the series into its recursive plot. It is in this third novel that the Bad Grrlz’ Guide (to Physics) comes into play, comparing facts of quantum physics such as entanglement, with events in the macro. Aboard the ship reality begins to go askew as events turn surreal and the line between characters real and imagined, living and dead, begin to blur as if existing in two states simultaneously.
Events from both There and Back Again and Wild Angel are retold by characters in this book, for instance one ‘scene’ in Wild Angel where a surreal turn of events uncharacteristic for that novel’s setting and tone. In Wild Angel, this is where the universe of Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell become entangled with its plot. Characters appearing in Wild Angel (and presumably There and Back Again) reappear in this third novel, including a character named Pat Murphy. The real Pat Murphy actually writes Wild Angel as an artist and adventurer named Max Merriwell, who is also a major character in that novel, and who writes frequently under pseudonyms like Mary Maxwell. This recursive structure for the novels with its gender swapping is in the background of the other novels, not essential to the stories or themes, but relating to them. In b Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell this becomes the crux, in relation to modern physics and in relation to writing. Point to point decisions, quantum events end up defining observed reality as a wave of possibilities collapse. Or in the Bermuda Triangle, the reverse happens and perspectives, possibilities all coexist like in the mind of an author, a creator.
Personally I found Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell too gimmicky in this respect, and think that its surreal, almost farcical nature would have fit better into shorter form. Though more lighthearted, Murphy does still compose this final novel exceptionally well, keeping a consistency with references to the previous novels and vice versa, despite the walls, laws, of normal macro reality breaking down. Very different novels, though interlinked on many levels, both are worth checking out. And now I’ll have to scour second-hand shops for There and Back Again.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Open Road Media via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Women Destroy Science Fiction!, Edited by Christie Yant

Women Destroy Science Fiction!
Lightspeed Magazine #49 (June 2014)
Edited by Christie Yant
Publisher: John Joseph Adams
ISBN: 1499508344
488 pages, paperback (special ed.)
Published 1st June 2014
Source: Personal purchase

Fiction Contents:

“Each to Each”, by Seanan McGuire
“A Word Shaped Like Bones”, by Kris Millering
“Cuts Both Ways”, by Heather Clitheroe
“Walking Awake”, by N.K. Jemison
“The Case of the Passionless Bees”, by Rhonda Eikamp
“In the Image of Man”, by Gabriella Stalker
“The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick”, by Charlie Jane Anders
“Dim Sun”, by Maria Dahvana Headley
“The Lonely Sea in the Sky”, by Amal El-Mohtar
“A Burglary, Addressed By a Young Lady”, by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall
“Canth”, by K.C. Norton
“Like Daughter”, by Tananarive Due
“The Greatest Loneliness”, by Maria Romasco Moore
“Love is the Plan the Plan is Death”, by James Tiptree, Jr.
“Knapsack Poems”, by Eleanore Arnason
“The Cost to Be Wise”, by Maureen F. McHugh
“Salvage”, by Carrie Vaughn
“A Guide to Grief”, by Emily Fox
“See DANGEROUS EARTH-POSSIBLES!”, by Tina Connolly
“A Debt Repaid”, by Marina J. Lostetter
“The Sewell Home for the Temporally Displaced”, by Sarah Pinsker
“#TrainFightTuesday”, by Vanessa Torline
“The Hymn of Ordeal, No. 23”, by Rhiannon Rasmussen
“Emoticon”, by Anaid Perez
“The Mouths”, by Ellen Denham
“MIA”, by Kim Winternheimer
“Standard Deviant”, by Holly Schofield
“Getting on in Years”, by Cathy Humble
“Ro-Sham-Bot”, by Effie Seiberg
“Everything That Has Already Been Said”, by Samantha Murray
“The Lies We Tell Our Children”, by Katherine Crighton
“They Tell Me There Will Be No Pain”, by Rachael Acks

Also including a novel excerpt, nonfiction, personal essays, artist gallery,  and author spotlights

 ‘Women don’t write real science fiction.’ ‘That isn’t what a story written by a woman should be like.’ ‘If women try to write science fiction they will just destroy it.’
Many things out there seem to be an all-male’s club (or predominantly so). It kinda boggles my mind that statements like those above were ever tossed around in the field – or that they even are still today. Compared to the past there are a lot of women science fiction writers out there, as this collection testifies. Part of any issues I feel come down to the matter of the definition of science fiction. What is ‘real’ science fiction? There is no single answer, and to some the answer is a sub genre that may be called hard science fiction which ultimately will come down to facts related to physics.
As there appears to be fewer women in the ‘hard’ sciences (a separate problem in itself) it comes as not too big a surprise then that there aren’t many female science fiction writers that could be put in that category of ‘hard SF’. Yet, even when they could, it seems like their inherent gender make people consider them something else.
Take Margaret Atwood – a writer whose stories feature reasonable futures based on present-day scientific reality (a relatively narrow, but common definition of hard SF as put forth recently for example by Norman Spinrad in Asimov’s). Her work is easily classified as hard science fiction. But she herself eschews the label, preferring to call her work speculative fiction to avoid the negative associations of ‘science fiction’ with a particular kind of space story and an interest in scientific details over a more human or literary picture.
Whatever the definitions and whatever the reasons why some have an issue with women writing science fiction, the stories here prove that one should be overjoyed if they continue to find voice in ‘destroying’ science fiction.
The stories included here make this easily a year’s best of collection in itself. They are varied in tone from the humorous to the serious, and in genre from hard and futuristic to the more fantastic (alternate) historical. As such, unless you enjoy a wide range of types of stories, there may be some stories in here that just don’t interest you despite each truly being top-notch. I personally had my favorites within each section of new fiction, reprints, and flash fiction. And there were some I just didn’t enjoy though I recognized their merits as intended. However, even if you only like a particular kind of story in the SF landscape, the collection is well-worth the cheap admission price.
I particularly liked the opening story by Seanan McGuire. Out of all the stories in this collection I feel this one significant to discuss due to its embodiment of what the entire collection represents.
There are conflicting expectations in a collection with the theme this Lightspeed issue has. On the one hand one has the expectation that the stories will relate the female-specific condition within the confines of the genre. They ‘should’ feature female characters that aren’t stereotypes, they ‘should’ deal with feminist issues, they ‘should’ focus on matters unique to female biology and social practices built around that.
Yet, on the other hand the point is that women writing science fiction should be no different, no less worthy or capable, than men writing it. And the point is that there is no single thing that women writing science fiction ‘should’ write about. If a female author writes a story with no female characters that says nothing about her gender, does that matter? Does it by virtue of her gender automatically become a feminist work even though the story itself is so devoid?
Seanan McGuire’s “Each to Each” is brilliant in its playing with expectations of what females are, the roles they ‘should’ serve, and how they are viewed both by others and by themselves. These sorts of themes echo throughout the remainder of the collection, whether explored implicitly or explicitly. The stories (and the nofiction in the issue) don’t offer any kind of clear answers to the matters of dealing with gender disparities, or of dealing with the general Other. Instead they offer a celebration of what all is possible with women writing science fiction. That celebration shows that women writing science fiction is just simply humans writing science fiction – a world of disparate experiences and possibilities, with aspects that no one really has a premium on beyond the fact that each is a personal story, unique and meaningful each to each.
They are women, but they are not just women. They are Charlie Jane Anders. They are Rachel Swirsky. They are Marissa Lingen. They are Nisi Shawl. They are. And listening to their voices is the closest we can come to understanding them, and for that their talented and competent voices deserve to be heard, however they choose to raise them.
One of the things I really enjoy with Lightspeed Magazine are the author interviews that accompany each story, that highlight the individual and personal nature of each story. These give insight into the author’s inspirations, writing process, and at times show interpretations which may coincide or be different from the reader’s. The other nonfiction here includes a host of personal essays. I found these okay by and large, though I do wish there were one or two longer and more in-depth essays or analyses rather than the more brief or superficial feel that some of these had.
If you haven’t picked up this issue yet, I really encourage you to do so, and to look for the two upcoming Women Destroy… issues featuring a Fantasy and a Horror focus, and the Queers Destroy… issue that will follow.
Decades ago a large part of science fiction was not just about technological or scientific speculation but also social speculation, a means to explore the disenfranchised and the Other. It is nice to see something returning in full force to this purpose.
Five Stars out of Five

The Memory Garden, by M. Rickert

The Memory Garden, by M. Rickert
Publisher: Sourcebook Landmarks
ASIN: B00HUTVFYE
304 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

There is something magical in stories that focus on the relationship between the young (particularly in the tween and teen years) and the elderly. The traumas and uncertainties in the lives of the teen find a certain solace in the wizened eccentricities of the elder. The elderly have gotten through that period of their lives, but are not like the other adults. They are no longer in their productive prime and they are in another transition stage of our existence, one even more uncertain and potentially traumatic. From the other side, the connection with the vibrancy of youth seems to magically transform the elderly, as they recall with fondness moments of their own history, and perhaps reconsider past events that were more dark and difficult to confront in their earlier years. With “The Memory Garden”, M. Rickert explores these themes of the young connecting with the old through one teenager (Bay) and three older women, her adopted guardian (Nan) and two of Nan’s childhood friends, who Nan hasn’t had contact with in years (Ruthie and Mavis).

I know Mary Rickert’s name from her stories that have appeared in “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction”, and it is always a joy to see novels appear from authors who I fondly recall from those pages. Like her stories, “The Memory Garden” is written in a delicate, understated manner. Bright, lush, and full of life on the surface, the lives (and deaths) in the novel hide dark matters underneath. Nicely, these serious (and unfortunately very realistic, not fantastic) horrors are included perfectly, neither downplayed nor exploited.

Rickert’s writing is beautiful, full of rich, sense-evocative elements. Most overtly, chapters are built around descriptions (definitions) of particular plants that fit into the theme or events of that given chapter. But throughout the book Rickert is able to fully immerse the reader in this fairy-tale like world with its sights, smells, feelings, and tastes. The highlight of the novel in this respect comes at a high point of the narrative arc as Ruthie concocts a lavish feast for the others built around edible flowers.

Although a couple of secondary characters are not strongly developed and largely fulfill plot-related purposes, the major characters of the novel – Bay and the three elder women – are superbly written, realistic women with personalities each unique and fitting for their ages and experiences. Given the three older ladies, my mind happened to go immediately to “The Golden Girls”. Indeed, each of the women had aspects to their personalities that I could map to Dorothy, Blanche, or Rose. (With Ruthie for instance reminding me often of Rose with here naive nature, to the point where my mind would read “Ruthie” as “Rose”). However, these personalities didn’t line up perfectly, and as the novel progressed, these elderly characters also changed significantly, and the reader learns that they each are far more than they show at first sight. These characters don’t just have secrets that get revealed, Rickert is able to show how they hold more of themselves inside than just some historical events. They keep emotions and personalities hidden due to their experiences, which in turn inform how they are interacting with Bay and the crises she faces.

The plot is more firmly in the ground of fantasy than the more agnostic ‘fantasy realism’, but it should nonetheless be an easy fantasy pill to swallow for general fiction readers. The plot of the novel is slow-moving, as well as the character development. Coupled with its understated style overall, it is not the most ‘engaging’ novel from the onset, requiring patience and lingering appreciation for the quiet beauty of the text as things slowly unfold. With the complex conclusion to it all, I can’t be remotely disappointed with the novel as a whole. Though I look forward to future novels from Rickert, I really hope to keep seeing “M. Rickert” in the table of contents in F&SF in the future still too.

Five Stars out of Five

The Falling Woman, by Pat Murphy

The Falling Woman, by Pat Murphy
Publisher: Open Road Media
ASIN: B00J84KLNK
273 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
(Original Publ: 1986)
Source: NetGalley

Pat Murphy’s name and writing were only familiar to me from the nonfiction articles that she coauthors for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Always interesting and well written, I was excited for the opportunity to read some of her fiction, this one a Nebula award winner.

Structured as alternating chapters between the points of view of Elizabeth, a respected archeologist leading an expedition studying Mayan ruins, and her estranged daughter Diane, the book explores dichotomies that exist within us all and how these influence both the individual and relationships. A certain conflicting contrast is present throughout “The Falling Woman” at al levels. There is the realism/fantastic divide in its genre: it could arguably be either a fantasy novel, or firmly grounded in reality. Elizabeth is haunted by her past, and by visions of ghosts, such as the Mayans who continue to wander the ruins and talk to her, sharing their own secrets, and their own world views. Unsure if she is crazy, or merely ‘gifted’, Elizabeth, and the reader are forced to consider whether it matters, or whether the two possible extremes can exist comfortably side by side.

The novel also delves into cultural divides, of being Western or Mayan, from the United States or a Mexican, Christian or ‘pagan’. How are these each different, and how might they be surprisingly similar? However most prevalent, the book explores the dichotomies of male/female and mother/daughter. Elizabeth’s eccentricities and uncertain sanity are tied to emotional pains she has dealt with in her life to varying success. She has cut herself and has attempted suicide. These and other darkness led her to separation from her husband, and abandonment of her daughter. Unable to conform to the accepted societal maternal position, and female submissive position, Elizabeth goes out on her own, to deal with her emotional darkness, gain a college education, and try to find a passion for something in life. Diane as a result, views her mother as a mystery, but with love and devotion despite her abandonment, Diane seeks Elizabeth out, and together begin to evoke certain maternal aspects in each of them, and deeper connections.

The emotional frailty of Elizabeth, relatively frowned upon by traditional American society is contrasted nicely with the maternal cultures of the Mayan, with their infant sacrifices. Similarly it is contrasted with the traditional, and largely accepted, male answer to addressing emotional pain: drunkenness. Filled with these sorts of relationship complexities and profound insight in feminist and other cultural matters, “The Falling Woman” is simply a brilliant novel. The writing is simple and straight-forward, but in that way it is delicate and poignant, precise, without ever being over-bearing or too frenetic. Although marketed as SciFi/Fantasy, this is far closer to a literary novel, and fans wanting hard genre adventure may be disappointed with what is here. But those open to exploring dichotomies of culture and characters will find this richly rewarding. Open Road Media, who is publishing this in ebook format, is putting out other works by Murphy as well, and I am definitely putting those on my list to pick up.

Five Stars out of Five

A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren

A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren
Publisher: Diversion Books
ASIN: B00DTTQBDE
363 pages, Kindle Edition
Published July 2013
(Originally Publ. 1990)
Source: NetGalley

The entry for M.K. Wren in the “Encyclopedia of Science Fiction” aptly describes this novel as ambitious and eloquent. I was unfamiliar with her work before coming across this ebook reissue, but now I will eagerly pick up the “Phoenix” fantasy trilogy for which she is apparently best-known.

“A Gift Upon the Shore” uses the post-apocalyptic scenario to delve into two unique responses to wide-scale tragedy where civilization has collapsed and individuals are forced to give up or survive. The first response is one of fear and the erection of a rigidly controlling, false worldview based around the worst of Biblical literalism. The second response is one of careful rationality, deciding to preserve what is beautiful about humanity: art, knowledge, and compassion.

The conflicts between these two world-views drives the plot of the novel, related through the first person present point-of-view of protagonist Mary Hope, an elderly teacher living amongst (though philosophically apart from) a small Christian community. The origins of her present conflicts within the community are related through her first person past recollections of the advent of nuclear holocaust, her survival along with friend Rachel in solitude as they turn to preserving Rachel’s library, and their joyous, though ultimately disastrous, encounter with another survivor sent forth from “The Ark” to find potential mates to repopulate the devastated Earth.

The dichotomy between the rationally agnostic (or atheist) Rachel or Mary and the fervently ignorant religion of other characters has led some to criticize the novel as anti-religious or anti-Christian. This is only true, perhaps, if you accept reason and faith as diametrically opposed. Instead, the novel is more aptly described as being a reaction against the anti-intellectual Conservatism that we sadly see all to frequently coming from political and social news. Wren’s target is not Christianity itself, but rather a form of religion that grabs hold of simple, comforting answers or interpretations and holds onto them vehemently in the face of reality, because if they were to acknowledge reality their rigid and weak system would crumble, leaving them exposed to fear and despair. Rather than investing energy to support a dogmatic system of suppression, Wren argues that something more divine (and, I would argue, more religious) is possible, namely focusing on what is beautiful about humanity and about creation.

Wren masterfully uses female characters, something sadly not that common in science fiction. Rachel and Mary are each memorable, finely rendered and realistic characters. However, the other characters are less developed. The major antagonist is dogmatic repression made manifest and many of the rest are simply literal weak-willed followers. This arises from Wren’s separation of the two philosophies: one very liberal humanistic and the other totalitarian and thus unsympathetic and less ‘humane”.

These religious or philosophical points of the book are thus perhaps too overt and not presented as complexly as one would hope. But, the heart of the novel doesn’t lie in simply presenting the conflict between these two opposing ideas, it lies in Wren’s appreciation for life and the world, which the beliefs and behaviors of Rachel and Mary merely echo.

Here is the true gift presented by Wren to the readers of the novel: her descriptions of nature are profoundly beautiful. Numerous passages describing the Oregon coast and its surrounding ecosystems are rendered in hauntingly poetic language. Reading this and thinking of another literary ‘post-apocalyptic’ novel, “The Road”, I can only think how much more evocative and meaningful is “A Gift Upon the Shore”, though admittedly, they are very different kinds of books. This is truly eloquent and ambitious, and though it may not attain the profound heights that it strives for, I would easily recommend it.

Five Stars out of Five