A review of Lydia M Hawke’s Becoming Crone (Michem Publishing, 2021). By Derek Newman-Stille
We hear popular, ageist phrases like “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, and “past your prime”. In our society, ageing is presumed to be a process of decline, an increase in loss, and not a time of growth or learning. Yet, of course learning never ends and there are always new and exciting moments of growth and change throughout our lives. Becoming Crone is a revolutionary urban fantasy story because it presents ageing as a time of growth and not decline.
Lydia M Hawke’s Becoming Crone is a coming of age story that reminds us that coming of age is continually happening throughout our lives. Claire has just turned 60. It’s been a year since her divorce and she is expected to define herself exclusively as a grandmother. Her child and in-laws are constantly worried about her health and assuming that she is on the verge of decline. Yet something new is arising in her, a truth that she has denied while she has been complacent in her role of mother and grandmother. She has been seeing crows near her house and messages are arriving for her. She is about to undergo a massive change in lifestyle and begin a new set of learnings. She’s been chosen to be a Crone, a powerful priestess of the Goddess Morrigan. Nothing makes sense for her any more… and yet, in a way, everything makes sense. Suddenly she knows who she is and is becoming who she always needed to be.
Becoming Crone is Lydia M. Hawke’s challenge to ageist tropes and an opening up of new narrative possibilities that challenge the limiting views of women over 60. Hawke engages with social assumptions about ageing while reversing them with a bit of her own magic.
A review of Liselle Sambury’s Blood Like Magic (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021) By Derek Newman-Stille
Choices. They are something that beleaguer every teen. Teens are constantly having to think about the future, but also about how to acknowledge their past. Voya is known for being indecisive, but now she’s reached an age where she needs to make a decision that could have an impact not only for herself, but for her whole family. Voya is from a family of witches and their magic is passed down at puberty when they are given a challenge they have to complete in order to inherit their family’s magic powers. What makes things worse, her whole family could lose their magic if she makes the wrong choice.
Voya is suspended between obligation to her past and her future. She is finding out more about her family’s secrets and the things she didn’t want to believe about her family, but she also knows that her every decision could influence what happens to the people around her.
Liselle Sambury’s Blood Like Magic is a powerful near-future fiction book that blends science fiction with urban fantasy. With a smattering of genetic engineering and a lot of magic, Blood Like Magic defies easy genre definitions and creates something new, exciting, and compelling to read.
A review of Natlie Walschots’ Hench (HarperCollins, 2020)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Natalie Walschots’ Hench is powerful inspiration for the reader to become a villain. Walshots takes her readers into the mind of a temp hench person, exploring what it is like to work for supervillains, but, perhaps more importantly, what it is like to be the victim of superhero violence. Anna’s temp work for supervillains isn’t glamourous and it often only includes data entry and data analysis, but it is this skill that brings her to the (dangerous) attention of the superhero community. After Anna is disabled by a superhero while he is attempting to get to a supervillian, Anna starts to crunch the numbers and explore the cost of superheroes – the property damage, the loss of life, and the health costs to civilians and hench people. The numbers are astronomical and horrifying and Anna publishes them, bringing her to the attention of Supercollider, the superhero who disabled her and wants to maintain the status quo. Buuuuut, it also brings her to the attention of one of the major supervillains and begins a new stage in her life.
Although Hench is a superhero narrative and full of the fantastical, it calls out real world systems of power and violence, bringing attention to the cost of a punitive justice system. Walschots critiques binaristic approaches to justice and engages in philosophical questions of the nature of good and evil.
Reading Hench, I am reminded that I am dangerously close to becoming a supervillain at any moment!!
A review of Karleen Pendleton-Jimenez’ The Street Belongs To Us (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021)
By Derek Newman-Stille
America is a thin veneer over a much more complex world, and in 1984 when Muscatel Avenue is torn up there are new possibilities and potentials in the mud. In The Street Belongs to Us, Karleen Pendleton Jimenez explores a street in Los Angeles that is torn up to put in sidewalks and that kids decide to make their own, building trenches, playing in the mud, and ultimately finding themselves beneath the ground. The grandmother of the main character, Alex, tells the reader “The land wants to be adored and you kids know best how to do it”, and that is what The Street Belongs to Us does, it exposes a fundamental love for the land and its potential. While digging, Alex and her friend Wolf find the deed to Aztlan, a creation of the Chicano Movement around land stolen from Mexicans by Americans. It is a deed to a place that can’t be owned, a place of stories and tales of belonging. Like Aztlan, Alex holds the stories of her people and her grandmother’s stories even though she has a conflicted identity as a Mexican American. She observes “I feel kind of ashamed of the stories she’s telling. Even though I’m part Mexican, I’m also quite a bit American. It’s like one part of my body was mean to the other”. She feels the pain of American oppression of the Latinx community in her own body.
Though Nana also warns Alex that digging up the dirt also means exposing all of the things that lay buried and Pendleton Jimenez examines the complexities of childhood experience living alongside family secrets, ideas of belonging, and notions of gender and growing up. When the ground is disturbed, Alex and Wolf see new possibilities, examining their relationships with their parents and their relationships to their own bodies. Alex begins to develop breasts and has to explore questions of whether she is a boy or a girl and whether breasts mean that she is forced to become a woman or whether there are other possibilities for her body. The Street Belongs to Us is an exploration of belonging, whether that be to a community or to one’s own body and who gets to decide how we belong. Like the ground in the story, The Street Belongs to Us unsettles, digs up, and shuffles foundations.
A review of James Alan Gardner’s Ascending (Open Road Media)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Ascending is James Alan Gardner’s discourse on boredom wrapped up in science fiction. Gardner’s narrator Oar is from a genetically modified species that at the age of 50 literally just becomes bored with the world and lays down to sleep for eternity…. and Oar has just reached the age of 54. They refer to it as having a “tired mind”. In order to keep going, she needs to stay stimulated and keep her mind active. She already has moments when her mind is tired and she loses minutes and hours as she spaces out. She finds herself losing time and becoming disconnected to the world around her even as she sets out on a galactic adventure full of action-packed excitement and new challenges.
Oar was first introduced in Gardner’s Expendable, when Explorer Festina Ramos was dropped off on her planet and changed the world that Oar had known. Now, Oar has sought out Festina again and the two are plunged into a galaxy of conspiracies, advanced paranoid aliens, and secret discoveries.
Although Oar is 50 and that is normally the end of her species time awake and active, Ascending is a coming of age story for Oar as she faces the reality of the universe around her, challenges her pre-existing ideas, and grows up. Growing up is never easy and Oar’s coming of age is one that involves painful awakenings.
Through the lens of Oar, Gardner presents an examination of the social meaning of boredom and writes a discourse about ennui through an exciting sci fi adventure.
Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell folks a little bit about yourself?
Amanda Leduc: Absolutely! I am A Canadian writer currently based in Hamilton Ontario. I’ve been an avid reader of spec fic for most of my life, and have a BFA in Creative Writing and Philosophy from the University of Victoria and a Masters degree in Creative Writing from the university of St. Andrews. I’m disabled, and have cerebral palsy. And I work for the Festival of Literary Diversity in Brampton, ON.
Spec Can: I am really interested in your use of fairy tales in your fiction. I think they are so powerful and convey so much. What got you interested in incorporating fairy tales into your work?
Amanda: I’ve always been a huge fairy tale fan—I’ve always loved them. But it took a long time for me to be comfortable with using them in my own work—partly because I felt like I needed to write realist fiction in order to be taken seriously in the literary landscape.
My first novel is not about fairy tales, but uses fabulist elements under the guise of spiritual discussion—again because o felt like that was the only way to “seriously” sneak magical elements into “lit”, whatever that means.
But after MIRACLES (my 2013 novel with ECW), I really found myself drawn to stories that were strange and had all kinds of strange things happen in them.
Spec Can: I love that idea of sneaking in the magical elements.
Amanda: I was working on a short story collection in 2015 and just let myself go into the strangeness of that world—it was very liberating. And then in 2018 I was working on The Centaur’s Wife and was away at a writing retreat, and walking through a forest, and I started ruminating on the connections between fairy tales in particular and disability.
Understanding that I could then write my OWN fairy tales was very liberating. The omniscient narrative style of many fairy tales—plus the understanding that anything goes with magic!—really made me feel like I had license to write about whatever I wanted.
Spec Can: I love that image of the freeing power of writing your own fairy tales. What was freeing about writing your own tales?
Amanda: Just that anything could happen in them—anything at all! I could make a mountain talk. I could make an octopus into a character. I could make a woman give birth to centaur triplets without worrying (too much) about the scientific impossibilities of it.
Spec Can: Can you tell me a little bit about the need to write realist fiction as part of the literary landscape?
Amanda: I don’t think there’s as much of a stigma now, if at all—and in fact I think that spec fic is very much having a moment. But when I was in school, back in 2003-2006, there was definitely a kind of snobbery around fantasy and spec fic in particular vs. so-called “literary” fiction.
And I internalized so much of that! I remember writing a story that became the basis for THE MIRACLES OF ORDINARY MEN in 2005–it REALLY went over well with my class.
So even back then, people were receptive to my weird stories—but *I* was also being a snob.
*I* was afraid of putting them out in the world, of not being seen as a “literary” writer.
Spec Can: It’s fascinating how much we absorb and internalize some of that literary snobbery even when we, ourselves, enjoy reading spec fic and imagining fantastic possibilities. What helped you to start to recognize the potential of the speculative and fantastical?
Amanda: Oh, writers like Karen Russell and Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Carmen Maria Machado, etc. Karen Russell in particular was like…a knight in shining armour!
I also really loved how non-fiction writers like Maggie Nelson and Sarah Manguso were doing speculative things, if you will, with non-fiction—blowing the form wide open, re-imagining what it could be.
But the seeds were there in my younger years. In a 2003 workshop class with the writer John Gould, he once told our class, “You can do ANYTHING YOU WANT in a short story, so long as you do it well.” It took me a long time to really embrace that.
But also—I just loved, and continue to love, reading literature of the fantastic. It gives me a very particular kind of reading joy…and writing it does the same for me. So eventually I was like…why not give in to joy? WHY NOT?
Spec Can: In Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, you examine the role of disability in fairy tales and the ways that we disabled people are often either erased from the fantastic entirely or portrayed as villains, but while doing so, you also examine the subversive power of fairy tales and I really noticed that subversive power in the fairy tales you wove into The Centaur’s Wife. What gives fairy tales that subversive power?
Amanda: I think part of it is that when it’s a fairy tale, we allow anything to happen. We allow for magic, we allow for a world to change. And for me, that gets my subconscious going and asking: why do we allow the world to change in fiction, but don’t stretch our imaginations to meet that change in real life?
Spec Can: Well said! I love that.
Amanda: In the TCW fairy tales, I was particularly interested in how we use fairy tales in two ways: to inspire possibility (the tales that Tasha’s parents tell her), but then also as cautionary tales (the tales Heather’s father tells to her).
So they are tales that at once hearken to possibility but also strive to keep the world as it is to help everyone stay “safe”, such as it is.
Spec Can: As a fellow disabled person and fairy tale enthusiast, it meant so much to see your writing about disability and fairy tales and then to see a disabled protagonist in The Centaur’s Wife. So often, we, as disabled people, are often encouraged to write disability in a way that is laden with tropes or to ONLY tell autobiographic stories. What inspired you to bring disability into the fantastic and to write a complex disabled character who didn’t fit into easy tropes or categories?
Amanda: Well—to start with, Heather was not disabled when I began writing the book. I only realized that she was disabled about 2-3 years into writing it. The novel came out of a short story written in 2014, and I started writing it as a novel in earnest in 2016. And I also started working for the FOLD (Festival of Literary Diversity) in 2016, and really started to explore my own identity as a disabled writer during that period. So the centaurs, which initially were meant to be a metaphor for desire, morphed into a metaphor for disability in the early stages of writing the book. And then in and around early 2018 I realized that Heather was also disabled—that she HAD to be for the story to do what it needed to do.
Which is—it’s a story about grief, and also still about desire, and about how the way that we survive trauma and grief is through community. But how do you do that when community is broken—when it keeps people out? How do you learn to adapt in the face of world-altering sadness? This is something that disabled people are VERY familiar with.
I do feel like I needed to come into my own as a disabled woman in order to full write this story the way that it was meant to be.
Syrus Marcus Ware quoted Octavia Butler in a panel I was in with him last year—I don’t remember the quote exactly but the idea is that it’s actually disabled people who fully understand what it means to create a world that is radically different—and that spec and sci-fi in particular are genres that have a responsibility to make this happen through words and narrative.
So as I came into the fullness of writing TCW I think I was also reckoning with the radical responsibility of writing dystopian fiction from a disabled perspective as well. It is too easy to assume that disabled people are left behind when the world collapses. We need to imagine different futures.
Spec Can: I feel like we are at a critical moment in the potential to develop a disabled fantastica (a delving into the possibilities of writing speculative fiction from our perspectives as disabled people) and possibly shifting the way that disability is represented. What are some things that you think we can do to develop a disabled fantastica? What are some things that you feel are important to the genre?
Amanda: Well, for starters I think it’s important to include disabled characters in all elements of storytelling. Both narratives where disability is at the centre, but also narratives where disability just IS.
I also think it’s important to include wide-ranging representation. I have no problems at all with disabled villains if I can also be given insight into their motivations and understand WHY they do what they do.
Heather for example—she’s not a villain, but she’s also not perfect! She is not Tiny Tim! Her disability HAS made her bitter and makes her put up walls that hamper her happiness. But this/these are tools she’s using to survive.
I think it’s important that we showcase a huge range of disability representation so that audiences understand that disabled people, just like their non-disabled counterparts, should be allowed to have messy lives and make questionable decisions.
Just as they should also be allowed to triumph. So many narratives don’t let disabled people do either.
Spec Can: I absolutely adore Heather in The Centaur’s Wife because she isn’t the Tiny Tim ‘Good Cripple’ figure. She is complex, often engaging in problematic behaviour, and isn’t particularly nice. I think this makes her such a wonderful character. She is fundamentally human and not a trope.
Amanda: Yes! I love her so much. She’s so prickly, but I think that she’s also very loyal.
And HURT. And ANGRY.
Spec Can: I think it’s so important that we showcase characters like her who are complex. They aren’t a villain just because they are disabled and they aren’t a hero because they are disabled either. They are morally complex as so many of us are.
Amanda: Yes! Exactly.
Spec Can: Did you find any resistance to writing about disability in this way? So many people in our community have tried to create manuscripts with complex disabled characters only to be told by publishers that the character didn’t reflect their image of disability or that the character’s narrative wasn’t about disability enough.
Amanda: I was lucky to not encounter resistance…but then also lucky, har har, in that I had signed for the book before it was written. So PRH gave me the go-ahead for a book and then I snuck disability in while I was writing it, heh heh.
My editor was REALLY lovely and absolutely adored the disability angle, especially the way that Heather’s relationship with her father is so fraught.
Spec Can: I think that was the most devastating and also incredibly significant part of The Centaur’s Wife – when you reveal that her father brought her up onto the mountain to try to ‘cure’ her of her disability. So often, the cure is represented in fiction about disability as the goal of every disabled person and the ‘solution’ to their disability and I thought it was so powerful that you presented a character who was devastated not by not getting a cure, but instead by her father’s insinuation that she NEEDS a cure.
Amanda: I actually wish this was talked about more in interviews. You’re the first publication to really ask about it! (Not surprising, I guess.)
Spec Can: For me, I always find it so problematic to see cure narratives and again see the way that abled people believe that we are incomplete until cured. Can you talk a little bit about your feelings about the cure narrative?
Amanda: Yes, the cure narrative is so complicated! I think the issue in many ways comes back, again, to limited disability rep in the world. Look—most people who see “A Marriage Story” don’t leave it saying, “I am NEVER GETTING MARRIED because that looks awful!” because we have been exposed to millions of different kinds of marriage representation on our screens and in our books.
People understand that there are so many ways to have a marriage because we SEE so many ways to have a marriage.
But we only see a few dominant narratives about disability, and these all too often fall into the villain/Tiny Tom tropes. So people who don’t have experience of disability see the same narrative about quadriplegics through movies like My Left Foot and Me Before You and think that’s it, that’s all there is to the disability experience—why WOULDN’T anyone want a cure. But if we saw more widely varied representation—and understood that there are ways to support disabled lives that mean they don’t necessarily NEED to be cured in order to gain the things they want—love, acceptance, freedoms, autonomy etc—then the understanding shifts.
I also want to leave space for the realty that some disabled people DO want cures. I think it’s so complex. Do I want to be cured of my CP? No. Do I want a cure for my chronic pain? Yes, absolutely.
In order to showcase this complexity, the stories we tell must also necessarily be complex.
Heather as a character both accepts her body and also rails against its limitations.
Spec Can: I think that’s why she speaks to me as a disabled reader.
Amanda: I don’t think it’s realistic (ironically) to have characters who DON’T hold both of these things at the same time.
Spec Can: When I have been recommending The Centaur’s Wife to people, I’ve been calling it Mythopocalyptic because you blend the mythical so beautifully with the apocalyptic. There have been so many different apocalyptic narratives in recent years, but I think you take a really interesting route with the narrative by weaving the mythical and magical through the apocalypse. Can you talk a bit about why you decided to tell an apocalyptic narrative and also why you decided to go with a mythical reclaiming of the world?
Amanda: Well, the apocalyptic narrative came first, and it was only after I’d written Disfigured that I understood where the fairy tales fit in the narrative.
But also, the element of storytelling was very much a part of the story from the beginning—i just had to figure out why.
It’s a novel about survival, and the way that we survive is by telling ourselves stories.
Spec Can: I think it’s so significant that your book came out in the middle of a pandemic because so many of us have been surviving by telling ourselves stories or reading the stories of others.
And of course, you know I am excited to ask about the centaurs. What inspired you to use these amazing creatures in your narrative?
Amanda: Well the centaurs were initially a metaphor for desire. I was interested in writing about forbidden love—what it looks like when you love someone you can’t have.
And that does continue through the book, with Heather and Estajfan, but when I wrote the centaurs’ origin story and saw what happened to them at birth, the disability metaphor was immediately apparent.
I also knew fairly early in that they weren’t “traditional” centaurs as we know from Greco-Roman myth. They needed their own origin story, partly because I didn’t want to be beholden to the established myths in place.
Spec Can: To wrap up our interview, is there anything else you would like to mention or any new projects you can tell us a bit about?
Amanda: I want to just mention that The Centaur’s Wife is available in all accessible formats.
I am working (very slowly, much slower than I’d like) on a few new projects: a novel about a pair of sentient hyenas, a book of collected fairy tales, and a memoir/exploration of grief and friendship using the cosmos as a guide. Small potatoes.
Spec Can: That is fantastic. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview and for your incredible and brilliant insights. I hope we get a chance to do another interview soon!!
Amanda: Oh thank YOU, Derek! I’m excited to see the interview up and this was so lovely. Thank you so much for this space.
Amanda Leduc is a writer and disability rights advocate. She is the author of THE CENTAUR’S WIFE (Random House Canada, 2021), DISFIGURED: ON FAIRY TALES, DISABILITY, AND MAKING SPACE (Coach House Books, 2020), and THE MIRACLES OF ORDINARY MEN (ECW Press, 2013). Her essays and stories have appeared across Canada, the US, and the UK, and she has spoken across North America on accessibility, inclusion, and disability in storytelling. She has cerebral palsy and lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where she serves as the Communications Coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), Canada’s first festival for diverse authors and stories.
Interviewed by Derek Newman-Stille, MA, PhD ABD (They/Them)
A Review of James Alan Gardner’s Hunted (HarperCollins, 2000).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Edward is a man with an intellectual disability who grew up being treated as a child by his sister and as an embarrassment by his father. He was taken under the claws of the queen of the Mandasars, a race of strictly hierarchical lobster-like aliens until their planet went to war. He was then made part of the Explorers, who are better known as Expendables because they are sent into risky situations that no one else is sent into. The Expendables are all made up of people with disabilities and “disfigurements”, people who didn’t fit into their society’s ideas of beauty, and it is because of these disabilities that the Explorers are treated as expendable people. James Alan Gardner’s Hunted begins with Edward being taken to a new planet but when the entire crew of his spaceship except for him dies as they cross into open space, he is placed at the centre of several conspiracies with galactic consequences and implications for what it means to be human. As Edward’s body and mind begin to change, he comes face to face with his own identity and questions what it is to be himself and who he is as his selfhood becomes unfamiliar.
Hunted, much like Gardner’s Expendable is an exploration of disability and what it means to be disabled. Few authors examine disability in future settings, erasing the idea of a future for disabled people. Most science fiction authors treat the future as a period in time when all disabilities are “cured” and erased. This has implications for the disabled community because this negates the important role we play in our current society and even the possibility of us having a role in our future. Much of Sci Fi’s treatment of disability is eugenicist in nature, treating disabled bodies as ‘mistakes’ that are meant to be rectified out of existence. For disabled readers, this has implications about our identities and reinforces ableist practices and ideologies in our current cultural circumstances.
Although there are some challenges to the way that Gardner constructs disability in Hunted, he powerfully presents disability as an essential part of Edward’s identity and illustrates Edward’s fear of becoming something different and losing his disability. Gardner also recognizes the way that disabled people tend to form our own communities and Edward is placed in the context of other disabled Explorers Festina Ramos (who has a reddish mark on part of her face) and Kaisho (who is a wheelchair user and has a symbiotic relationship with sentient glowing moss). Characters have complicated relationships with their disabilities just as disabled people do, but both Edward and Festina embrace their disabilities are part of their identities, not wanting to change them.
Hunted in addition to its disability narrative, and perhaps because of this narrative, is a discourse on identity and what makes a person an individual. Gardner questions ideas of individuality and the idea of a stable personality and personhood and instead illustrates that personhood is intensely malleable and changeable and that people are not nearly as independent as we think. In addition to Edward’s identity crisis about who he would be without his disability, Edward also discovers that he has alien DNA, questioning the barriers of his humanity and whether he can consider himself the same person he has always been. His identity is shaken by changes in his body that make him question himself. Kaisho is similarly presented as a question in individualism and identity as someone who is human, but whose body and mind are symbiotically connected to sentient moss that is considered a more advanced and more intelligent life form. Gardner invites the reader to question where one being ends and the other begins. In addition, Gardner brings attention to questions of identity and individuality by presenting us with the Mandasars, a race of beings that have an insect-like relationship to authority and hierarchy. Their entire society is controlled by their queen through pheromones that immediately overpower most of their sense of will, and, additionally, each of the Mandasar social/biological subsets needs to be in contact with the other two subsets or they will change their personalities – for example, workers kept amongst workers will become so complacent that they become slavish and warriors kept among warriors will become more war-like and violent, and gentles will become sociopathic individuals who privilege science over anything else.
Hunted plays with ideas of identity and examines the barriers of individualism while illustrating that those barriers are not as firm as we like to believe.
A review of Julie Czerneda’s Changing Vision (Penguin Random House, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Julie Czerneda’s Changing Vision is a tale of found families across space. Esen is the past of her species, the final member of her Web. This could leave her isolated and alone in a massive universe, but, instead, she finds a human companion, Paul, who bridges the species divide and proves that friendships can be incredibly powerful.
Czerneda focuses her space opera on the ability of people to create family even out of the completely alien and challenges ideas of family that are limited to biological or legal relations. This is a friendship that not only survives the species divide, but survives war, intrigue, lies, and torture.
Changing Vision is a tale of diplomacy in the face of warring species that deny the sentience of each other, espionage, xenophobia, and space battle, but it’s quintessence is the power of cross-species friendships as ways to create family and a sense of home for an alien shapeshifter who at times feels like she has neither as the last member of her species.
A review of Julie Czerneda’s “Beholder’s Eye” (Penguin Random House, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille
In Beholder’s Eye, Julie Czerneda explores the possibilities of consciousness in varying shapes and forms. From pig-like creatures who communicate by clicking their hooves and by emoting smells to canid-like beings, to large cat-like beings, to a puddle of goo, Czerneda explores the diversity of bodily possibilities and envisions their impact on consciousness and culture. She examines the impact of herd mentalities on sentient life forms, and the pull of herd instinct along with conscious thought, and envisions possibilities for sensory differences and the intellectual possibilities that come from sensory diversity. As always, communication is key to Czerneda’s narratives and she explores cross-species interactions and cross-pollination of ideas within different environments.
Beholder’s Eye focusses on the narrative of Esen-alit-Quar, a member of an extremely rare shape-shifting species in a universe that doesn’t believe that there are shape-shifters. Esen can take on the form of any sentient being and Czerneda uses this ability of her character to bring the audience into multiple different possibilities for consciousness and it’s relationship to the body. Czerneda often has a fascination with ecosystems and the diversity of life, so a creature that shifts into multiple shapes allows for her to take the reader through an examination of what consciousness could mean as well as allowing us to imagine the way that different bodily forms and ecosystems could produce different cultures.
Esen-alit-Quar is not only the perfect figure for examining the relationship between body and culture because of her ability to shape-shift, but also because of her species imperative to preserve the memories of sentient beings and sample their cultures. She is the ultimate anthropologist, able to not just study a culture from the outside, but shift her body to examine it as an insider.
With Beholder’s Eye, Czerneda not only creates a fun galaxy-spanning science fiction story, she creates speculative anthropology, bringing her readers into an exploration of cultures, bodies, and potentialities.
A review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow (Del Rey, 2020)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Gods of Jade and Shadow is a discourse on the Hero’s Journey while it also serves to disrupt that cycle. Silvia Moreno-Garcia presents readers with a girl in a fairy tale circumstance, being used and abused by her family. But Cassiopeia doesn’t seek out a prince who will rescue her from household drudgery, instead she craves her own adventures. She keeps a little collection of magazine cut-outs showing aspects of the life she wants to live, but hides them from everyone, almost burying them from herself because she considers them so precious.
When she is left alone with her grandfather’s key, she opens up a world of new possibilities by awakening a Mayan god and binding him to her. She becomes part of a mythic narrative, conscribed to the role of the hero, a plaything of the gods. Here Cassiopeia also resists her role, not willing to just follow the edicts of the god that is tied to her but instead being a shaper of her own destiny and possibly a shaper of the destiny of the gods who are trapped in her orbit.