Siren Songs: Five New Fantasies by Women

The stellar work being done by women writers in the field of fantasy extends across a vast spectrum of vibrant storytelling. The necessarily limited selection of recently published novels discussed in this essay barely hints at the riches to be found.

We begin, literally and figuratively, on a high note. It’s puzzling to me why opera hasn’t figured more as a setting or motif in literature of the fantastic. Great fantasy and SF has been crafted around various MacGuffins involving theatrical plays and symphonic music. But opera — combining words and music, and offering a seemingly plot-rich environment, with its multimedia glamour, larger-than-life personalities, and epic or supernatural themes — has failed to provide the trappings for much imaginative fiction, despite lending its name to “space opera.”  Jack Vance’s novel actually titled Space Opera plays wittily on that derivation by featuring an interplanetary touring company. And Thomas Disch’s On Wings of Song uses technologized bel canto singing as a stunning concrete metaphor. But aside from that, not much.

Likewise, the early years of the Golden Age of Opera have been scanted as a historical venue for steampunk or fantasy fiction. Late-Victorian times have an unjustifiable, lazy writer’s lock on the imagination.

But now comes a remarkable book that remedies both deficits, Mary Gentle’s highly entertaining The Black Opera. Set in the second decade of the 1800s and utilizing the world of opera in brilliant, deep, and pivotal fashion, this brainy and action-stuffed book consequently feels fresh, surprising, and provocative. With its recipe of philosophy, theology, blood-and-thunder adventure, conspiracy theories, and artistic questing, it reads like a blend of William Goldman, Tanith Lee, Tim Powers, and Umberto Eco.

Conrad Scalese is a young man bound for glory. Living in Naples, he’s just completed the best libretto of his short career. Too bad the theater featuring his opera was struck by lightning right after the premiere, burning to the ground. The Church sees it as a sign of Conrad’s impiety (he’s a known atheist), and he’s on the point of being put to the Inquisition when King Ferdinand II intervenes — he wants Conrad’s skills to counter a diabolical plot by the secretive group known as the Prince’s Men. These Gnostic cultists plan to mount an unholy opera of their own that will not only literally ignite Italy’s dormant volcanoes (they’ve already done a successful demo in the South Pacific, causing the fabled “Year Without a Summer”) but will also usher in the Devil’s rule on earth. Conrad is set the task of writing a counterbalancing virtuous opera in a mere six weeks. And it merely has to be the best thing he’s ever done, full of divine power. Thank goodness he gets inspired by New World history to write The Aztec Princess

This propulsive scenario is sketched out in sumptuous detail over nearly the first hundred pages of the novel. Gentle is leisurely with her pacing, but her pages never drag, stuffed as they are with witty banter, vexing intellectual conundrums, historical tidbits, and emotional byplay. Her Technicolor cast of characters is absolutely wonderful: Loyal Tullio, Conrad’s friend and servant. Conrad’s independent-minded sister, Isaura, masquerading as a boy. The Conte di Argente, Conrad’s haughty composer partner and rival. Conrad’s ex-lover, Leonora, cursed with a strange affliction. The unconventional king himself. Captain Luigi Esposito, a policeman of refined tastes. The various self-centered, self-sacrificing singers in the production. And let’s not forget the ghost of Conrad’s father, who makes frequent appearances as if auditioning for Hamlet.

The overall effect of all this miraculously uncanny and realistic material, gracefully arrayed, is as if someone had mated the Gilbert & Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy with a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show!” movie, then got Umberto Eco to splice in some Foucault’s Pendulum. Yet the book is never top-heavy or dreary but always light and bubbly as a glass of prosecco, fizzing with operatic energies. Mary Gentle is the Maria Callas of fantasy. Bravissima!

Before cracking open  Lynn Flewelling’s Casket of Souls, the only book of the author’s I’d read was The Bone Doll’s Twin, which I reviewed ten years ago and found highly enjoyable and accomplished. Imagine my consternation to discover that her latest novel is Book 6 in the Nightrunner series that began even earlier, with 1996’s Luck in the Shadows. How time doth fly!  But even without knowledge of the previous entries, Casket rewards.

Flewelling’s book exists in the third great stream of fantasy that runs parallel to Tolkien (Epic) and Peake (High Weird), a tradition one might call Mannerist or Urbane or even plain old Sword & Sorcery. Arguably originating with Dumas and his Musketeers, then influenced by E. R. Eddison, James Branch Cabell, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Jack Vance, this kind of tale, practiced somewhat less than the other two, usually involves magic, politesse, swordplay, intrigue, and romance, generally in a city setting. Droll humor and a wry sophistication often obtain. Other modern writers working this vein are Caroline Stevermer, Galen Beckett, and Ellen Kushner.

Flewelling exhibits a sure hand with this mode, eliciting suspense and fascination mainly from social interactions — although some martial passages also offer thrills. Her two chief protagonists, Seregil and Alec — lovers, both male — are fey creatures partially removed from human concerns yet also intimately involved in all the machinations of a nation at war, functioning as agents of “a secret spy organization known as the Watchers.”

Yet this is hardly a battlefield opus, considering that Chapter 1 features Seregil attending a play where he “dabbed the sweat delicately from his upper lip with a lace handkerchief.” Instead of heroics, we get deftly staged, elegant Wildean set pieces involving parties and royal audiences and wizardly divinations, mixed with occasional violence, such as assassination attempts, amid a tangibly rendered exotic culture and environment.

Various entertaining subplots support the main thread concerning mysterious occult deaths among the nobility and a possible coup against the reigning queen. All the characters are engrossingly fallible and slightly, piquantly unsavory. And the book’s resolution satisfies while leaving matters unsettled enough for future adventures: a delightful cosmopolitan romp.

A. M. Dellamonica’s debut novel, Indigo Springs, was a sparkling, scary, chimerical fusion of science fiction and fantasy, something truly surprising. Its conclusion demanded a sequel, and that continuation arrives in the form of Blue Magic, an equally fine creation.

In the first book, the sleepy town of Indigo Springs, Oregon, proves to be the nexus of strange forces embodied in an eerie blue liquid named “vitagua.” Our heroine, Astrid, initiated half-unknowingly into the occult by her father, recently deceased, starts to explore the powers of vitagua, learning how to turn common objects into powerful mystical talismans. Trouble erupts when her friend, Sahara, a willful and greedy and manipulative soul, horns in, setting herself up as a kind of cult leader. Soon, “blue magic” is loose in the USA, wreaking dramatic, sometimes deadly sea changes on people, geography, and nature. The story is told as flashbacks from an imprisoned Astrid cooperating with frantic government authorities who are seeking Sahara’s capture and the restoration of normality.

Dellamonica limns the spread of the magic and the transformation of reality in the hard-edged science-fictional manner of a Greg Bear (Blood Music) or Kathleen Goonan (Queen City Jazz). Her rigorous and believable laws of magic might have come from the mind of Poul Anderson (Operation Chaos). But she’s equally adept at conjuring up beautiful supernatural effects that convey the frissons of a larger order of existence that operates beyond our ken: the “unreal.” As for the interactions among her cast, the author uses a kind of sparky rom-com dialogue and affect that counterpoints the serious doings at hand.

Blue Magic  is a more complex book than its predecessor, with a different, more apocalyptic tenor, an ambiance of ignorant armies clashing by night. (Often the book echoes The Blob, or some classic Japanese Kaiju film; if only Ishirō Honda were still alive to film it!) Astrid has escaped government control to return safely to protected yet interdicted and besieged Indigo Springs, with many followers, there to enhance her magics and further the paradigm shift overtaking the globe. Sahara stands trial, and Will Forest, the government interrogator who quizzed Astrid in the first book, has cast his lot with her. These three actors, plus a large cast of secondary characters, strive to channel and control the enormous powers they have unleashed, for separate and conflicting ends.

Dellamonica’s use of the term “terrorists” for Sahara’s Alchemite followers obviously resonates deeply with our current political landscape, as does talk of ecological contamination. (Indigo Springs is a kind of possibly benevolent equivalent of the Deepwater Horizon spill.) The intersection of conventional institutions with the eruptions of magic is logical and convincing. The characters are deepened in this second volume as well, with the conversations less flippant. And a rousing climax with no small personal sacrifices all around caps this new installment, leaving dazzled readers hoping for more.

Once upon a time, “urban fantasy” meant John Crowley’s Little, Big. Nowadays, it means Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga. ( I think I can safely say that the term has officially migrated from a Golden Age to one of Brass.) Originally, the terminology was coined to categorize works like Crowley’s, as well as the novels of Charles de Lint and others. In these stories, the sorts of magic we associate with fairy tales or legend manifested in naturalistic settings closer to modernity, and were treated with a certain maturity — a stance that did not preclude humor. John Campbell’s briefly enduring but fondly remembered magazine Unknown had pioneered and specialized in such tales back in the 1940s. But with the ascent of Meyer and her brood, the term — along with its sister coinage, “paranormal romance” — was co-opted to delineate squeetastic, Buffy-style franchises of trifling merit.

In her so-far-two-part saga that began with Of Blood and Honey, new author Stina Leicht returns to the older sense of “urban fantasy” with style and force. She successfully blends antique supernatural entities with a sensitively rendered, mimetically solid portion of consensus reality.

Northern Ireland, 1971: the land is in upheaval due to “the Troubles,” violent protests by Irish patriots. Liam Kelly is a young man on the activist fringes. He is also half fey, his blood father being one Bran, a full-blooded member of the Good Folk. But Liam, unaware of his true heritage, begins to manifest certain troubling powers. He’s a púca, or shapechanger, and can transform willy-nilly into murderous entities.

With all these strikes, mundane and occult both, against him — including a three-year stint in prison — Liam nevertheless strives for normality, getting a job and marrying his childhood sweetheart. This thread of the novel reads like one of Squeeze’s lyrical mini-novels in song. But at the same time, under the aegis of Father Murray (a member of the secret Catholic order Milites Dei that is charged with fighting demonic fallen angels), Liam begins to learn about his heritage and destiny. By the end of the six-year journey recounted in OB&H, Liam’s lost his wife and found a calling: brokering a peace between Milites Dei and the Fey, so that the potential allies can concentrate on their real enemy, the Fallen.

And Blue Skies from Pain, which takes up Liam’s biography hard on the heels of the first book, is different in a couple of ways from its predecessor. It’s more leisurely and decompressed, occupying only a year of Liam’s life. And, because Liam now acknowledges his supernatural side and needs to learn more, the ratio between mystical and quotidian events shifts a bit more toward the former. Finally, the reader’s view of the supernatural realm is simultaneously expanded. My favorite new bits involve a feisty female “merrow” (Irish mermaid).

Leicht continues to portray the historical elements of this period with fidelity and empathy, as well as some humorous irony as well. The burgeoning punk movement of 1977 looks a tad less transgressive in the context of a secret War in Heaven. She broadens Liam’s character and provides some touching moments with Father Murray as well. (Where’s a fighting Bing Crosby when we need him for this role?) With this sturdy, enchanting fusion of the mundane and the ethereal, Leicht has helped to rehabilitate “urban fantasy” for a new generation.

Librarians have recently come in for an action-packed makeover in fiction. First we got Rachel Weisz in the Mummy movies. Then came the Page Sisters in the Jack of Fables comic. The SF website io9 recently ran a feature on “20 Heroic Librarians Who Save the World.” This is probably the ripest cultural moment for librarians since the Music Man courted Marian. What the trend bespeaks is hard to nail down. Nostalgia? A testament to the powers of curation? Fear of the death of books? Or just plain old glorification by authors of their childhood mentors? In any case, this sub-subgenre receives a fine new addition — although the book is much more than mere “librarian fiction” — with Liz Williams’s Worldsoul and its heroine, Mercy Fane.

Williams begins with a meme that is a hardy perennial, what might be called “the Nexus of All Realities,” the term for such a place in the Marvel Comics canon where all continua converge. Michael Moorcock has effectively inhabited this sweet spot before, and Williams’s delightful, fabulous city of Worldsoul features some Moorcockian flavors, with Lord Dunsany-brand spices. It’s an eclectic mix of cultural tidbits, many of Arabian Nights vintage: a patchwork urban center that coheres into its own uniqueness. Worldsoul was always under the benevolent rule of aliens named the Skein. But at novel’s opening, they’ve already mysteriously vanished, leaving the city’s various institutions to fend for themselves, and unleashing quiescent rivalries.

Mercy’s Library is one power center. The texts in their holdings offer passage to a variety of realities. But sometimes, bad things leap out from the texts into Worldsoul. Hence the Library’s imposing armory. (Mercy favors a nice Irish rapier for herself.)  The Court is another player. Here, Jonathan Deed, a nonhuman malevolence masquerading as a man, seeks to accumulate power for himself. Finally, freelance alchemist Shadow, a woman cloaked in a magical veil and possessing an unstoppable blade of her own, begins to take an interest in these machinations.
Alternating short, punchy chapters among these three viewpoints, Williams has fun showing her city under siege (an irregular rain of deadly explosive flowers from an unknown source is also ongoing). She propels Mercy and her intelligent beast familiar (Perra, a toy-size sphinx), as well as Shadow and her neurologically embedded ifrit companion, through one ingenious peril after another, across many exotic venues. The tale lacks the depth and complexity of any China Miéville novel that might ostensibly be a kissing cousin, but it makes up for those missing dimensions with pulp brio of a Zelazny stripe.

“Stories don’t always reflect the world; they make it, too. A book is a world inside the world, and sometimes there are worlds within that. A galaxy in a speck of sand; suns in a water drop.”  And with that declaration, Williams succinctly defines why we admire and revere the keepers of the library stacks.

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