There are two approaches to fairy tale retellings: ones that re-map the original story as a whole into a new setting that shifts the reader’s vision to a different angle, and ones that take the original premise as a jumping-off point then map entirely new territory thereafter. Walking on Knives by Maya Chhabra is definitely of the second type. The jumping-off point is not one of the more sanitized versions of The Little Mermaid, but something much closer to Hans Christian Andersen’s original, complete with hazard to one’s immortal soul and the virtues of physical suffering. Readers who expect a feel-good romance rather than a hard-edged tale of impossible moral choices and unbreakable magical contracts may find themselves off balance.
We have, as a given, the unexplained desire of the mermaid for the prince whose life she saved—a desire so strong she is willing to face enormous risks, sacrifices, and suffering for the merest chance of success. We have the foreign princess who is willing to take credit for the prince’s rescue. But throw into the mix a sister to the sea witch, who has her own goals and desires and is willing to make her own ruthless bargains to achieve them. And crucially, we have a tacit acceptance of same-sex attraction that needs no special pleading or justification.
The story is not about romance, but about working through misunderstandings and barriers to communication. It’s about negotiating your way out of a maze of bad alternatives and choosing which consequences you’re willing to accept. And it’s about the pain that comes from forcing consequences on other people when there is no clean way out. I found the plot delightfully unexpected and challenging. Once it diverged from Andersen’s road map, I had no idea where it was going to take me, but I was satisfied with where I ended up.
The prose style is ambitious, though not always successfully so. There is a wavering between a more formal fairy-tale style and unexpected shifts into colloquial language. Flights of description sometimes veer into excess and I occasionally stumbled over words being used outside their expected meanings. The story has the substance of a fresh and individual voice and I expect that, with practice and maturity, that voice should come into its own.
Ordinary historical romance is a bit of a rarity in the lesbian publishing field. The majority of lesbian historicals fall solidly on the erotic side and tend to stick very close to the 20th century (with a small foray into the American West). It is, perhaps, understandable: authors of lesbian historicals report that sales are much lower than for other subgenres, and this doesn’t encourage writers to develop the sort of research background and writing expertise necessary to write the books that could expand readership.
Penelope Friday’s The Sisterhood is a refreshing exception to this trend. Like her previous novel from Bella Books Petticoats and Promises, this story is set in England in the early 19th century
, a bit late in date to be a true “Regency Romance” but very much with that flavor.** Although the romance plot is central, The Sisterhood expands beyond the small personal dramas of a young woman whose secret desires set her at odds with society’s expectations for her. Charity Bellingham has been an awkward tomboy all her life, burdened with the knowledge that she wasn’t the son her father wanted. Her older sister accepts an advantageous (if far from brilliant) marriage to a wealthy social climber and when their mother washes her hands of her daughters and decamps to Bath, Charity is left as a dependent on her brother-in-law with no good prospects of escape.
Her life changes when she falls in with a circle of women who secretly share same-sex desires--a circle that cuts across the barriers of class, wealth, and education and gives Charity access to possibilities beyond being an eternal wallflower at balls. Where this book takes a step in seriousness beyond Friday’s earlier endeavor is that “the Sisterhood” as they call themselves, also have strong (if variable) interests in social welfare, and especially in anti-slavery activism. If the activism of the characters sometimes seems naive and superficial, it is true to the times. Also true to the times is the overlap between the communities of female social activism and women-centered women (whether or not romance was involved). In my opinion, Friday’s previous Regency suffered for the lack of a parallel non-romance plot and I’m delighted to find this book much stronger in terms of story.
Just as the non-romance plot adds complexity, the romance is far from straight-forward and the reader is allowed enough hints to be kept on the edge of their seat as Charity stumbles through her choices. I think I would be tempted to classify this as a “sweet” romance, in that there is very little in the way of on-page sex (though much implied off-page activity). The sexual content felt very natural and comfortable. There are a few hanging threads left at the end of the book, but tying up the largest of them would require significantly more writing--possibly another entire book--and the conclusion comes at a natural point for both major plot elements.
[Minor disclaimer: Penelope Friday is a fellow Bella Books author, but people who follow my reviews know that I call 'em like I see 'em and am not influenced by personal connections to authors.]
**ETA: I was confused as to the date of the setting due to having used the keywords "Slave Trade Act" and "William Wilberforce to triangulate. There was more than one act by that name that Wilberforce was involved with and I had mistakenly thought it was a later one.
We finally come to a close in this re-read. The final chapter provides a perfect conclusion to the overall plot shape. After the very intense conflicts and resolutions in the previous chapter, we have a chance to breathe and relax and enjoy the continuing “magical” delights of Sara’s return to “princess” status. But the structure of the moral accounts includes one more balance item.
The return of Sara’s fortune, her return to a luxurious lifestyle, and the restoration of a benevolent father-figure can be seen as zeroing out all the trials and traumas she’s been through. But for her to continue to “deserve” her good fortune, under this model, she should continue to put good deeds out into the world (alternately: she should continue to have misfortunes, but that would be a different story). And Sara is no longer simply being an inherently kind and thoughtful person. She’s had experience of how sharply an undeserved misfortune can affect someone’s life, and how much it can mean to reach out and actively help people, even at a cost to one’s self. That cost no longer need be personal hardship. But Sara thinks back to the “dreadful day” and how much it meant to the beggar girl to have a sack full of hot buns literally dropped in her lap.
So Sara conceives of an ongoing charitable endeavor to help hungry children in a very direct way—a way that would have meant a great deal to her at the time (though it’s an open question whether she would have felt comfortable accepting it). She wants to arrange for the bakery owner to feed any hungry children that hang around her shop at Sara’s expense.
I confess that one of my first thoughts is for unintended consequences. Occasionally handing out bread to hungry children is an admirable thing, but what happens when word gets out that if you’re hungry you should go to this specific bakery for free bread? How will the regular customers (who may have rather unenlightened views on ragged children) react to the new clientele? Would the arrangement eventually result in the bakery shifting from being an independent self-supporting business to being a fully-subsidized bread line? How would its proprietor feel about that? Would she find the same satisfaction if she moved from independent businesswoman to being Sara's de facto employee? (I'm a writer. I can't help spinning off possible plot-threads and consequences.) But these questions are in that awkwardly practical realm that the story side-steps, as well as lying in a hypothetical future that it doesn't cover.
Sara—escorted by Mr. Carrisford—presents her proposed arrangement to the bakery owner, who recognizes her from their last encounter and rejoices in Sara’s good fortune. She mentions that she was aware of Sara giving away her buns to the beggar and how it inspired her to do her own bit of charity as she was able since then. But the frosting on the cake is the proof of how good deeds inspire continued good deeds and personal transformations. The bakery owner reveals that her conversation with the beggar girl led to sporadic exchanges of chores for food and eventually to regular employment. The girl, now christened Anne, has become a productive, upstanding member of the workforce thanks to the hand up. (As there has been no mention of the bakery owner having immediate family involved in the business, I’m free to visualize Anne eventually becoming almost an adopted daughter and taking over the business. Once more my writer-brain is spinning future scenarios out of control.)
* * *
In conclusion, what is my overall take on the book? Have I achieved my purpose in this re-read? My goal, as I attempted to describe it from the beginning, was to explain why I find this story a soothing comfort-read, despite the rather dated moral lessons, the regular cringe-inducing stereotyping along a wide variety of axes, and occasional gaping plot holes. It isn’t that I actually believe in the truth of “moral accounting”. Worthy people living virtuous lives get shat on by fate all the time and arrant villains achieve fame and fortune. (*cough* Trump *cough*) The value I see in such old-fashioned (to use one of Burnett’s favorite descriptors) moral structures is not in a belief that they reflect reality, but in the recognition that—like Sara’s example to those around her—they can inspire us to be our better selves. Just as Sara never really believes she is a princess, and just as her image of what it means to be a princess is a collection of unrealistic ideals that have little to do with the historic individuals she spins tales about, Sara's fictional example is a model--an unworldly idea--whose purpose is not to reflect reality but to create it. She inspires us to act as if our virtuous actions will be rewarded by fate, even when we know there’s no cause and effect.
Because the one part of Sara’s moral arc that is true, is that one person’s example can inspire (or shame) others to behave similarly. And seeing Sara as a flawed, struggling, three-dimensional human being (which isn’t necessarily typical for moralistic literature) who still holds to kind, virtuous, generous action, even when she has no expectation of it bringing her a return, is a timeless inspiration to my mind. One that overcomes the limitations of her creator’s vision and understanding.
Do you have a book that stuck with you over long years because it hit a similar chord with you? One that speaks to some essential inner truth that transcends simple entertainment?
This is an intricate, sprawling (if that isn’t self-contradiction) alternate history of how key aspects of African politics might have evolved differently in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, given the right nudges. One might call it “steampunk” it one also pointed out the ways in which it critiques the oft-unexamined colonialism in that genre and makes the point that technology and gadgets do not change essential human nature and human relations.
The basic story is that British Fabian socialists raise the money to buy a chunk of the Belgian Congo to try to set up a political and social utopia, as well as a foothold for undermining what they (rightly) see as the exploitive hellscape King Leopold has created. This planned utopia, christened Everfair by its British founders, rapidly becomes central to a broad struggle that eventually wins against Belgium and shifts the balance of power in Africa against colonialism. This is made possible, in part, by the introduction of several of the darlings of steampunk: dirigibles, creative use of small-scale steam power, mechanical prostheses. But these are assisted by a few less standard elements, such as what is clearly meant to be some sort of small-scale nuclear power, the assistance of a reluctant god-ridden warrior, and spying talents enabled by spirit transfer to animal bodies.
The worldbuilding is ambitious and stunning, as well as being refreshing. I felt that certain aspects of plot and characterization were weaker. There’s a very wide array of viewpoint characters, some of whom had so little page time I still have no idea what their internal motivations were. One of the strong points of characterization was the unflinching look at how racism touched every interaction, and how difficult it is to step outside of the attitudes and assumptions one is raised in. The European and American residents of Everfair struggle to get past a literal “white savior” approach and to accept when they are no longer welcome to steer the land they’ve made home.
The plot…was as diffuse, rambling, and slow-moving as a history book. (It reminded me of some of the aspects I struggled with in Nicola Griffith’s Hild.) I never really felt the shape of what it way trying to do. Characters moved from one event to the next through time…and then the book ended. And even when it ended, it trailed off for several chapters of “what are they doing now?” sort of like an engine dieseling down to a coughing finish. The book gets my bonus point for normalized romantic/sexual relationships between women (in a solidly historically grounded way--look up the "free love" movement), but not my bonus point for “kept me on the treadmill past my exercise target. I struggled a bit to keep going to the finish.
This is an ambitious book and achieved some of those ambitions very well, but for me it fell short of "blowing my mind".
In the second half of Chapter 18, we finally have the satisfaction of seeing Miss Minchin receive her just desserts, though it's a very self-inflicted and forgiving comeuppance. Miss Minchin, having heard from one of the housemaids that Sara had gone into Mr. Carrisford's house, comes in high dudgeon to fetch her back, only to find her worst nightmare has come true: Sara has turned out to be a "princess" after all, with a wealthy benefactor who knows the whole sad story of Sara's degradation. We see Miss Minchin's worldviews come crashing into each other. She tries to lay claim to being Sara's friend--after all, she didn't throw her out on the street when she could have!--and attempts to slip back into the role of flattering wealth and power. But Sara is having none of it, and Carrisford has no reason to follow any lead but Sara's. (Though this is, perhaps, less believable in the real world, where adults often reflexively support each other against the testimony of children.) When Sara holds fast to her own truth, Miss Minchin tries to turn and bite, threatening Sara with the loss of access to her friends and telling Carrisford that his new ward is "neither truthful nor grateful." It's a last stab and falls short.
And now we see Miss Minchin's edifice of control tumble down. Just as she failed to maintain her chosen narrative against Sara, she now fails to maintain control over her household. Miss Amelia challenges her version of the truth and makes it clear that she won't subordinate her conscience to her sister's lead in the future. The pupils are in an uncomtrolled uproard, knowing only that something is up, until Sara resolves their confusion in the form of a letter to Ermengarde, explaining the whole matter. There is an intimation that Sara's sudden good fortune will rub off on Ermengarde, not only via access to Sara's fabulous new/restored life of privilege, but by conveying status as Sara's friend that will fortify Ermengarde in her relations with the other girls.
Now we get to the episode where the possible realities of the story seem utterly unfair to me. And where analysis by Moral Accounting indicates that the fact of being born into a life of hard labor and uncertainty is not treated as a "credit" (and therefore inherently worthy of being balanced by reward) in the same way that being born to a life of wealth and privilege is treated as a "debt" (and therefore a state that requires balance by going through trials.)
Becky realizes that Sara's escape and the restoration of her "princess" status means the loss of her own access to Sara's friendship and the pretend worlds that had made her own life worth enduring--as well as the loss of the magical transformed attic. For nobody would continue mysteriously providing food and heat and comfort for an ordinary scullery maid. And--to a certain extent--Becky's fears are correct. Recall that Becky was only given second-hand inclusion in The Magic, and only because Sara automatically included her in every part of the good fortune. If it had been left entirely to Mr. Carrisford, no doubt Becky would have been forgotten. But Sara didn't forget her. Sara sends Ram Dass across the attic roof one last time to give Becky reassurance. Becky is to come join her at Mr. Carrisford's house...as her personal maid.
Somehow it seems a betrayal. Sara could have continued to see Becky as "just another little girl like me". They had shared all their sorrows and small comforts for two years. Sara had made sure that Becky was included in every piece of fortune she received, whether it was sharing Ermengarde's food hamper or enjoying the gifts of her mysterious benefactor. But now, when Sara has the wealth and power and freedom to do pretty much anything she wants, the most she can find to offer Becky is a slightly higher position in service? It wouldn't occur to Becky to question the arrangement. She always knew that their apparent equality was an illusion. Sara never stopped being "miss" to her. But it seems an unexpected failure of Sara's imagination not to suggest adopting Becky as a sister and an equal, now that she has the power to do so.
To be sure, it might not be the kindest thing to do in the long run. It's unlikely that Becky would ever be comfortable being elevated to such a status. When I brought up this issue at the begining of this series, some commenters pointed out that raising a working class girl up to the middle class would have been a much less possible thing than a middle class girl falling nito poverty. But I wish Sara had thought to try, because it makes me think less of her.
Next week I'll look at the somewhat different fate of Anne, and how she demonstrates the lasting effects of Sara's example. And I'll do some sort of sum-up of why I've done this series. It's been an interesting project.
I think I mentioned previously that, having bought the Comixology app for my iPad to read a particular title, I went hunting around in their catalog to find other things of interest. Since they have a GLBTQ category in the catalog, I figured that was a good place to start. Mostly filled with very pretty boys kissing each other, as might be expected. But one title caught my eye for featuring a female POV character, a historic setting, and the promise of exciting adventure.
A young woman in late 18th century Spain, on the eve of her debut into society, receives a mysterious message and gift from her missing father: an astrolabe. As a child, her father had trained her with games of puzzle-solving and mysteries, so she takes the gift as a signal and sets off on her own to answer it and reunite with her father. Along the way, she finds herself in company with a brother and sister (or so they present themselves), and is flustered and intrigued by the sister's habit of wearing male clothes and wielding a deadly sword. There's a very Dumas-like feel to the story and setting, but with female characters far more centered than he ever did.
Windrose is a fun little adventure story with mostly excellent art. The first volume (which is what is currently available and appears to collect the first 6 issues) is only the very beginning of the story. It's not so much that there's a cliffhanger as that we're only beginning to climb the cliffs in the first place. It's promising enough that I'll be continuing to follow the series, but I'm also reminded of why I generally don't follow graphic stories much. And this isn't in any way a fault of the particular title, but rather of the format. There's just a very low story-to-page content, and while the art is enjoyable, I tend to read for story rather than art. So here are my likes/dislikes about this specific work.
- The attention to historic detail in the art. It isn't necessarily completely historically accurate (especially in the clothing) but this is a fantasy version of history so I'm generous on that point. And it has a solid look-and-feel. The characters are well-differentiated and realistic within a manga-style presentation.
- The plot moves quickly but sets up a lot of structure for a complex story.
- The female characters are complex and engaging.
- I'm pretty sure this is a standard artistic convention of the genre, but the faces of background characters and characters in intense emotion are often shown in distorted charicature (often with emoji-like simplicity). I found it jarring and distracting, especially when it was done to one of the viewpoint characters.
- At the current point in the story, I'm feeling a little queer-baited. We have a cross-dressing female character and some slight hints of "same-sex attraction from gender confusion," but I'd be more excited about investing in this title long-term if I'd been given in-story evidence that I'm going to get more than that.
If plucky 18th century girls hanging out with sword-swinging cross-dressing girls is your thing (and it very much is mine) I suspect that Windrose will be very much up your alley.
Once Sara encounters the Indian Gentleman in person, everyone’s truth starts coming out fairly quickly, only drawn out by Carrisford’s stumbling reluctance to ask directly, lest he be disappointed once again. Sara refers to Ram Dass as a Lascar, leading to the revelation that she was born in India. Now, this on its own means little--no doubt all sorts of Anglo-Indian girls were sent to school in London. As Sara’s position at the school is teased out, Carrisford becomes more and more agitated and hands the questioning over to Carmichael. But Carmichael, too, seems strangely reluctant to simply ask her name outright. So we’re led through the circumstances of Captain Crewe’s ruin and death and Sara--not suspecting anything--lays the blame squarely on her father’s friend. This knife-twist releases the last of the debt between them. Now Carmichael asks her name and all is revealed.
Sara is stunned and bewildered to think that her salvation had been right next door all this time. (We’ll continue right on in to Chapter 18 now, since it’s all part of the same scene.) When Sara is sent out of the room to join the Carmichael children while Carrisford recovers, Donald is the one who point out this irony: “If I’d just asked what your name was when I gave you my sixpence, you would have told me it was Sara Crewe, and then you would have been found in a minute.” But like Dorothy and the ruby slippers, if the connection had been made at the beginning, there would have been no opportunity for all the spiritual growth along the way. And it is Carrisford's (in his mind) displaced charity toward "the little girl who is not a beggar" that creates his own redemption--a redemption that wouldn't have occurred if he had simply tracked Sara down at the beginning of his search. (Though--standing outside the narrative framework of Moral Accounting--it's a bit abhorrent to think that two years of suffering on both their parts is a fair trade for a neat redemptive arc.)
Mrs. Carmichael comes over to take charge of Sara and mother her (which must have felt peculiar to Sara, given that she had never been mothered in her life). And she is the one who makes the other connection for Sara: that Mr. Carrisford is Sara’s benevolent friend who transformed her attic. This allows Sara to forgive him everything else and they can begin their new relationship as guardian and ward with a relatively clean slate. All that remains, is for accounts to be settled with Miss Minchin and the school...
As I’ve indicated above, I think that from the Moral Accounting point of view, this scene completes both Sara and Carrisford’s moral arcs. Sara is rewarded for her virtue, and Carrisford has atoned for his sin. What they do moving forward is written in a new account book.