I met Kate Elliott at last year’s WorldCon in London. She was funny, knowledgeable and insightful, and a passionate advocate of greater diversity in speculative fiction. She also moderated my favourite panel of the weekend – “Your ‘realistic’ fantasy is a washed out colourless emptiness compared to the Rabelaisian reality.” Discuss. The panel, including a Celticist and a Medievalist, comprehensively debunked the idea that the default faux-medieval setting of so much of contemporary fantasy writing is in any way an accurate portrayal of history by giving vivid examples that contradict received ideas about what the past was like. My particular favourite was the story of the wife of a European ruler who was put aside for a younger, prettier woman and got her revenge by repeatedly slamming the head of her rival in the lid of the chest that housed her jewellery.
Fantasy has always tended to be an inherently ‘small c’ conservative genre. Its typical themes are about preserving or restoring the status quo in the face of an external threat. Typical fantasy world-building can often be a lazy heteronormative legitimisation of sexist, racist, ableist and any-number-of-other-ist attitudes with a disproportionate focus on the young, the privileged and the powerful. .
As Kate Elliott explains in the introduction to The Very Best of Kate Elliott, throughout her writing life she has struggled to add breadth and depth to the genre. Her focus has, in the main, been on creating believable female protagonists with agency, in realistic settings, of the kind she fruitlessly searched for as a child. This collection of her short fiction and essays represents her manifesto for this, showcasing the diverse range of compelling stories that can be told by using the full creative breadth of the genre.
Some of those stories, like “Riding the Shore of the River of Death” and “A Simple Act of Kindness”, show women breaking away from the confines of social and cultural expectations due to the experiences that show there are other possibilities. In “With God to Guard Her” we see the risk and consequences of resisting those expectations.
Others like place to the fore characters that would otherwise have a marginal or no role in the genre. In “Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine” we are introduced to Anna, an older woman and a healer who finds power and freedom in her marginalised status and perceived insignificance. She is able to use that in a ‘heroic’ way.
Still others, like “The Queen’s Garden” or “On the Dying Winds of the Old Year and the Birthing Winds of the New” show how even within confined social roles, there are ways of effecting change by exercising soft power.
And “My Voice in in My Sword” perfectly illustrates how groups can tolerate and reward and tolerate bullying and sexual harassment when the perpetrator is in a position of perceived power.
For me, I’ve always found Elliott’s fiction to be something that appeals to me intellectually. It feels like the kind of writing I should like. But while its intellectual richness is very satisfying, Elliott’s work has often failed to connect with me emotionally at times. I’ve never had that “I-can’t-put-this-down” experience with her wok. So for me, one of the strongest part of this collection is the non-fiction work. The essays at the end of the novel explore sexism, racism and the responsibility of writers to deal respectfully when portraying violence (and in particular, sexual violence). So, while “The Omniscient Breasts: The Male Gaze through Female Eyes” lacks the verve and elan of Kameron Hurley’s barnstorming essay “We have always fought …”, it encourages writers to be more consciously aware of the ‘default’ settings that can apply to one’s writing. And making conscious and informed choices is the start of progress.
GoodReads rating: 4*
Advance review copy provided by NetGalley.