Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Book Reviews: September 2017

Monstrous Women in Refrigerators

Lately I’ve discovered that my soul-deep craving for books in which women talk to each other is not easily sated, as every instance I find only makes me hungrier for more of the same, and less inclined to tolerate its absence.

Luckily for me, Saga Press released two books in June that play two ends to an ideal middle where my taste is concerned: Theodora Goss’ The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and Catherynne Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues. Both take as their premise a group of women—dead, transformed, poisonous, powerful—telling each other their painful origins and writing back, throwing the stories of their subjugation into the teeth of the world that decided their place.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter
Theodora Goss
Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
ISBN 978-1481466509
Saga Press, June 2017, 416 pages

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's DaughterAfter her mother’s death, Mary Jekyll faces down the reality of her sudden poverty: Orphaned, she is mistress of an empty house she can’t sell, without any income or the means to obtain one. But in the course of sorting her mother’s papers, Mary finds a strange account: Her mother had been making regular payments over the course her life to someone named Hyde. Recalling a hundred-pound reward for information leading to the whereabouts of Mr. Hyde, murderer-at-large, Mary enlists Sherlock Holmes’ help in unravelling the mystery—one that leads her to the daughters of other unscrupulous, scientifically minded men. Together they set about solving the Whitechapel murders—and room by room, Mary’s empty house fills up.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is told as a nineteenth-century thriller written by Catherine Moreau, intercut with commentary from the women it’s about. Literally from the epigraph we know that this is going to be a narrative destabilised by several voices, even as the novel itself challenges the familiar stories of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Rappaccini’s Daughter. As a device, this took some getting used to—the real-time nature of the interruptions gave me pause and seemed overly precious until Catherine writes in her justification for them, absorbing them into the structure of the novel. But once I’d accepted it, I deeply appreciated the flexibility it allows the characters and their stories, not to mention the flexibility it allows Goss to challenge various commonly accepted tropes of nineteenth-century novels. Diana Hyde and Mary Jekyll, for instance, interrogate and debate respectability and class rigidity; Justine Moritz and Catherine interrogate and debate Christian morality; Mary and Catherine interrogate and debate the very notion of monstrosity; all of them have varying opinions on femininity and gender performance. As much as these women dismantle the received stories about themselves, they also passionately disagree with each other—which makes their fierce support for each other against an oppressive world all the more powerful and moving.

That said, I did find myself wishing some of those received attitudes were more challenged, given the power and dexterity of the corrective framework Goss has built: As much as these Western European women disagree with each other about foundational elements of Western European society and literature, and as much as they’re sensitive to the use of the term “monster” where they themselves are concerned, they all seem perfectly at ease with talking about “savages” in reference to the indigenous people of Africa and North America. I kept waiting for this, too, to be challenged, and was frustrated to find it wasn’t—but knowing that there’s at least one sequel in the works, I live in hope that it will be, especially if the Athena Club’s members begin travelling abroad, as this book hints.

Overwhelmingly, though, I loved this book, which delighted and nourished me with the introduction of every new voice. I loved how different all these women are and how those differences build into strengths that bind them closer to each other, and how the end-point of this book is the formation of an unusual family. It’s a book of powerful conversations circling an engaging, well-paced plot, and left me feeling happy and satisfied and enthusiastically recommending it to all.

The Refrigerator Monologues
Catherynne M. Valente
Hardcover
ISBN 978-1481459341
Saga Press, June 2017, 160 pages

The Refrigerator MonologuesInspired by and dedicated to Gail Simone—originator of the now ubiquitous term “Women in Refrigerators”—Catherynne Valente builds a stage on which the murdered girlfriends and wives of superheroes tell their stories, gorgeously illustrated by Annie Wu.

Paige Embry is dead, but alive in Deadtown—an underworld mirror of New York City. She’s the president of the Hell Hath Club, a group of women who meet once a week in the Lethe Café to talk about their lives, to show themselves as more than their deaths. There, listening to gargoyle bands and drinking from empty glasses, Valente’s analogues of Gwen Stacy, Jean Grey, Harley Quinn, Mera, Karen Page, and Alexandra DeWitt tell familiar superhero stories slanted, from the perspective of the women who supported them, endured them, or invented the source of their super powers. It’s a passionate collection of anger, humour, and tenderness, told in a smooth, whip-cracking voice that’s equal parts wry stand-up and heart-breaking soliloquy.

It’s possible that voice might be startling to readers familiar with Valente’s more lyrical work, or her Fairyland series. But she’s always written vinegar as well as honey, especially in her short fiction and essays; I’ll always remember her stating, years ago, at the beginning of a foray into webcomics, “There comes a time in every ballerina’s life when she wants to play basketball.” By that token, The Refrigerator Monologues is kickboxing in high heels.

Spotting the analogues is fun if you’re familiar with comics, but that familiarity is by no means necessary to enjoying the monologues; each of these women is breathtakingly real, even the extra-dimensional Atlantean, and their lives and problems are hashtag relatable. The connective tissue between the stories—pulling back to the Lethe Café, to Paige Embry’s narration—offers up bitter, wistful, beautiful glimpses of Deadtown, and how each woman fits into it.

While every story is a moving, dazzling punch to the heart, the stand-out for me was Julia Ash, the Jean Grey analogue, that I loved best for its perfect folding of our-world comics meta into the story’s soft tissue. You’d be forgiven for thinking the concept of Not-Jean battling a villain called Retcon would be played for smug laughs—but it’s absolutely not, and left me stunned and shaken.

Towards the end of the book, I found the monologues lost the individuality of the character voices; where Paige, Julia, and Pauline were all remarkably different, starting with Bayou I found the monologue-voice didn’t match up with the preface-voice. But that monologue-voice is so flexible and dexterous, I can’t really fault it for being more itself than any one character—the effect overall was one of women’s rage pooling, taking on its own life, lending volume and texture to an open-throated scream until it becomes a song.

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Amal El-Mohtar

Amal El-Mohtar

Amal El-Mohtar’s essays have appeared in Chicks Unravel Time, Queers Dig Time Lords, Science Fiction Film & Television, Apex, Stone Telling, The Outpost, Cascadia Subduction Zone, and Tor.com. She reviews books for NPR, edits and publishes the poetry in Goblin Fruit, is a Nebula-nominated author and founding member of the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours, and has been known to deadlift other genre professionals. Find her on Twitter @tithenai.