Review: Warrior Wisewoman, edited by Roby James


(Norilana Press, 978-1-934169-89-6)

(Review first published on the Australian Specfic in Focus website, May 2008)

Warrior Wisewoman is an anthology of twelve SF stories featuring female protagonists or, at least, making some statements on the female condition. It also contains an introduction by the Editor, Roby James, which lays out a history of the changing societal attitudes to female protagonists in science fiction. In the context of this introduction, I find it interesting that the anthology is identified as an SF collection, while the title chosen (with its arguably tribal overtones) is perhaps more reminiscent of the fantasy genre. The cover, also, as viewed on the Norilana website (since I reviewed a pdf version of the book, the cover was not included) appears to invoke fantasy tropes rather than science fictional motifs, which might lead book-browsers to prejudge the volume’s themes inaccurately. Whether this inference on my part indicates a shortcoming in my thought processes, or a demonstration that I am not so free of indoctrination as I might consider myself, is a matter for further deliberation … but I think it’s best, at this point, that I turn my attention to the contents.

“Ungraceful Cliff Dwellers” by Douglas A. Van Belle is disorienting, but given its subject matter and viewpoint character this is understandable. The ‘cliff dwellers’ in this story are a group of young people in whom a condition of effective telepathy has been inculcated. The background situation is only slowly unfurled, and the decision taken by the narrator is starkly laid out. There were aspects to the story that I felt weren’t adequately explored, and some of the character motivations didn’t feel entirely consistent, but overall this is an intriguing story, with an interesting and unusual mindset.

Rose Lemberg’s “To Find Home Again” is a simply told, deeply felt tale of Ria, a slave on a military spacecraft, in the aftermath of a war. I found its use of first person, present tense to be awkward in places, and a shortage of scene breaks gives an illusion of continuity that’s at odds with the story’s rather sudden, disjointed nature. As a narrative, it’s often frustrating (it feels like much of the detail is missing), but as an exploration of character it’s well-informed.

“Heaven Shed Tears” by Catherine Mintz is the collection’s shortest piece, and has something of the feel of a vignette. It’s set on an interstellar colonisation ship, and explores the need for stoicism and sacrifice without any guarantee of reward. It’s moving enough, but felt unfinished.

“An Ashwini Apart” by Bhaskar Dutt is the story of Charunee, an Ashwini: a genetically-modified twin who’s trained in a form of psychic healing. In the story’s setting, most gene-modified people (‘numans’) are regarded as misfits by society, and Charunee hides a guilty secret … This story, another first-person present-tense offering (at this stage, the third in a row) has a little too much tell, not enough show, but the dilemmas it presents are logically consistent with the world the author has crafted, and the overall effect is pleasantly intriguing.

“A New Kind of Sunrise” by Nancy Fulda is a coming-of-age story set among a nomadic clan on a world whose walking-pace rotation rate makes for an environment of extremes. Mikki is a teenager within the clan, whose worldview is changed when she discovers a sun-sickened stranger sheltering under a rock outcrop along their migration path. The new ideas the stranger sparks in Mikki’s head are at odds with the clan’s traditions. The tensions between the hardships of her old beliefs and the untested promise of his radical suggestions are well handled, and the surrounding world is described with a luminous simplicity.

In Fran LaPlaca’s “Faith,” Luisa is a navy officer whose warship lands on a planet she had previously visited in more peaceful times, a dozen years ago. Luisa’s mission is one of recruitment, but the local population have become followers of a new religion that preaches peace. There’s a definite undercurrent of tension throughout the story, with just enough background information skilfully peppered through the narrative to illuminate the story’s conclusion.

“Among the Wastes of Time” by Mary Catelli posits an interesting moral dilemma: can the rights of the one ever outweigh the rights of the many, when the one is genuinely unique? There are a lot of shades of grey in this story, and a fair degree of ambiguity, and in the end I wasn’t entirely clear on the actions of Catelli’s protagonist, April. The writing in this story robbed it, to my mind, of some of the pathos to which it should have laid claim – there are a couple of intrinsically dramatic scenes which felt oddly flat – but the central problem, around which the story is assembled, is memorably intriguing.

“Keepers of the Corn” by Anna Sykora is a short, direct, and effective tale. Water Child is a young girl in a neo-traditional Amerindian village, and finds herself in trouble when the village is besieged by ‘digiters’ who want to get their hands on the world’s last viable corn plants, over which the villagers claim stewardship.

Peg Robinson’s “As Darwin Decreed” is an imaginatively detailed story set on a recently-colonised world beset with problems of biological incompatibility. Thomasin has the gene-tweaking expertise to fix the colony’s problems, but such fiddling goes against the precepts of the local religion. The story started with perhaps too much invented jargon for my liking, but it carries it off with consistency, emerging as one of the anthology’s stronger offerings.

“Christmas Wedding” by Vylar Kaftan is set in snowy Miami, in the aftermath of the Yellowstone supervolcano eruption. The wedding it describes is unconventional – three brides, no groom – and the story oscillates between past and present as it sets the scene for the upcoming ceremony. The story is self-assured and warmly amusing, but it irked me that it sometimes took a paragraph or so of reading to have established when a flashback had begun or ended.

In Colleen Anderson’s “Ice Queen,” Janie Blue is an icebreaker, someone who virtually infiltrates computer-controlled systems to clean up programming glitches and code problems. It’s an occupation not without risk, and Janie doubts her survival when she encounters a glitched system that behaves unexpectedly.

Finally, Sally Kuntz’s “Only A Personal Tragedy” shows us one woman’s response to the wastefulness of war. Hyacinth, unlike most of her compatriots, greets enthusiastically the news that offworld peacekeepers have taken an interest in ending the civil war that’s been laying waste to her planet. Naturally, ending the war is not as tidy an affair as might be hoped, and Hyacinth ends up with a desperate choice. There were aspects to this story I found implausible, and Hyacinth’s wholehearted goodness was difficult to accept – flawed characters are always more interesting – but the story is well told overall.

Anthologies, whether themed or not, are always a mixed bag by virtue of the juxtaposition of writers who have differing strengths, and themed collections run the additional risk that their content can appear sufficiently homogenous to induce a blandness of response from the reader. I would say that Warrior Wisewoman avoids most of the potential pitfalls. The stories are almost all long enough to invite immersion into the imagined worlds, but are not so long that they overstay their welcome. There’s sufficient breadth in the storylines, too, that the collection doesn’t feel repetitive. My principal quibble is that, with the first four stories all involving first-person narration, the book can feel stifling to begin with. This is not to say that the first-person stories are weaker – some stand out as highlights within the anthology – but I would have preferred a more even distribution of first- and third-person perspectives. Overall, it’s an intriguing, varied collection, emerging solidly as SF rather than fantasy, and I suspect there would be plenty of scope for further volumes in a similar vein. (This, by the way, is a conclusion the publishers seem also to have reached. Having just checked the website for further information, I’ve found a statement that the intention is for the anthology to be an annual series. If subsequent volumes can match the quality of this first offering, they’ll be well worth checking out.)


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