Monday, January 18, 2016

The Fairy-Tale Archetype of the Sexy Witch

The Witch in Snow White
Last spring, I taught a class on fairy tales and fairy tale adaptations (you can see some of my student’s final projects here). I structured the class around archetypal characters or relationships, such as the Trickster or the Sibling Rivalry. One of the archetypes that I find the most fascinating, however, is that of the sexy witch*.

When I was growing up, I had one view of witches: the hairy-chinned, warty-nosed hag with the pointy hat. If she was stirring a cauldron of luminous green liquid, so much the better. Cackling on a broom was a given; a black cat familiar was just icing on the cake. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I thought that all witches were “old and ugly.”

The identification of witchcraft with old women has a long history. Many folk and fairy tales dating back centuries feature a crone figure, sometimes with magical powers, such as the Slavic witch Baba Yaga, whose name is often translated as Grandmother Yaga. Shakespeare’s Macbeth features iconic scenes of witches described as “secret, black, and midnight hags” whose appearance is “so withered and so wild” that they look unearthly.

The positive side of the crone-witch is the preserver of memory, the bone gatherer with her folk remedies and midwifery skills. She is aged but ageless, in tune with deeper truths of the universe, like Mrs. Whatsit from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. At the same time, she represents winter, death, and endings. Even in her darker connotations, though, the crone witch is not always evil as much as an uncanny figure whose goals may not be in line with the people who seek her help (as with Macbeth).

As I grew up, I realized that life was not that easily compartmentalized: not all villains twirl their mustaches, not all devils have pointy tails, and not all witches were old women. I encountered the even-more frightening figure of the witch who hides evil behind a lovely face. She is the mother-witch figure: a figure of fertility, sexuality, and power. While this figure can be good, Glinda was wrong when she told Dorothy that “only bad witches are ugly.” In many fairy tales, specifically those in the Aarne-Thompson 709 grouping (the same grouping where we find Snow White), the beautiful woman seeks to maintain her beauty and power at the expense of the life of an innocent. In the Scottish fairy tale "Silver-Tree and Gold-Tree," the queen Silver-Tree seeks to kill her daughter Gold-Tree for being more beautiful than she is. Like in the Snow White story, she asks to eat one of her daughter’s organs — in this case, her liver. When that fails, she stabs Gold-Tree’s finger with a poisoned splinter, and when that fails, she tries to poison her with a “precious drink.”

It is not explicitly stated that Silver-Tree is a witch. Perhaps she’s just a jealous queen. Perhaps all of her methods of murdering Gold-Tree are mundane, simply rat poison well-applied. But I don’t think so. Eating someone’s vital organ could merely be a handy way to prove that they are dead, and therefore no longer a threat to one’s status. But I think there is a more sinister reason that this story, and many others like it, demand the heart, lungs, liver, intestines, or a vial of blood from the young girl. In an act of black magic, the woman is taking the girl’s essence, using it to stay young and beautiful, similar to stories that circulated about Countess Elizabeth Bathory bathing in the blood of virgins to maintain her youth.

What’s behind these stories is complicated, but it’s clear that the concept of the mother-witch is bound up with sexuality. On the one hand, these horrific Snow White narratives mirror misogynistic fears of the mature woman as a sexual being. In medieval and early modern literature, there are concerns that women who know about sex can be corrupting influences on young women and men of any age. By passing on their knowledge of the arts of seduction, they can ruin a young girl’s innocence. By using their own knowledge of the arts of seduction, they can ruin a man’s reason, his reputation, his very life. The Malleus maleficarum, an early-modern treatise on witches, says that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”

So it’s no coincidence that charges of witchcraft, along with charges of incest and adultery, were brought against Anne Boleyn in her trial. Here was a woman who, in the public imagination, brought church, king, and country to its knees. Of course she was using some kind of weird sexy ju-ju to get inside Henry VIII’s head! Another early modern trial, that of Frances Howard, involved charges of magically-induced impotence (and inspired Thomas Middleton to write his play, The Witch, from which scenes in Macbeth were later taken). These stories blur the borders between sex and magic until every sexually-experienced woman becomes a potential witch. With these fears in mind, it only makes sense that fairy tales might portray the triumph of innocence and purity over sex-appeal and knowledge.

On the other hand, the portrayal of the beautiful mother-witch hearkens back to ancient pagan goddesses of fertility and life. The primeval procreative power that women have has always been mysterious and awe-inspiring. We see these positive aspects of the mother-witch in medieval tales of fairy queens who enrapture young knights, as in the lay of Lanval by Marie de France*. Lanval meets a young woman whose body was “well-shaped and sweet.” She offers him her love, “and what’s more, her body!” In the end, she rescues him from execution, bearing him off to Faerie and joy forever. We also see the life-giving aspects in the fairy godmothers that populate French fairytales. These marvelous women act as donors, giving treasure, talent, and luck to young men or women who need their help — often leading them to love and families of their own, perpetuating the cycle of life.

*Perhaps too fascinating. My students told me I talked about sex too much, although, as one of them said, that was “typical for an English class.”
*The divine Mallory Ortberg has a great post on The Toast about the lays/lais of Marie de France. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Hugo Nomination #4: Dennis Mahoney's Bell Weather

I've already covered Naomi Novik's Uprooted and Cat Valente's Speakeasy (a novella). Which brings me to the second full-length novel nomination ... Dennis Mahoney's gorgeous, strange, spell-binding Bell Weather.

I had never heard of Dennis Mahoney before picking up Bell Weather, but the bright green ARC cover (different than the published cover shown to the left) drew me in: a monochrome print of a woman framed by trees. A hummingbird with bat-wings flies overhead. And over this, in bold white letters, “Enter the world of Root.” Well, with an invitation like that, don’t mind if I do.

Bell Weather is an adventure story following a young woman named Molly Bell as she escapes from two dangerous men bent on controlling her. Molly is a fantastic heroine, kinetic and indomitable. She is described as a “quicksummer spirit.” Associated with images of flowers and flame, she embodies warmth and tenacity, clinging to life through trials that would have killed a weaker person. Near the end of the novel, her brother Nicholas describes these abilities: “It is a quality of yours: a marvelous facility to wriggle out, adapt, and bloom without light.”

This inner vivacity, though, becomes a problem for her when she tries to hide in Root, a small town in the largely-unconquered continent of Colonial Floria. Despite her best attempts to blend in and become part of town life, Molly draws attention — starting fires, injuring herself, arguing with town drunks, and causing gossip by starting a romance with Root’s bachelor tavern owner, Tom Orange. Her relationship with Tom sustains and changes both of them, but eventually, the secrets of her past come to light, drawing danger down on the town as her pursuers come ever closer.

One of Bell Weather’s many strengths is Mahoney’s facility with description and setting. He has created a marvelous place in Root, a homely colonial outpost set on a continent of wonders. Like Molly herself, the weather around Root is volatile, ephemeral, unique. Storms wash the land in color. St. Verna’s fire is green electricity which clings to objects and people that it strikes. Winter comes all of a sudden in a yearly event called “deadfall” when the temperature plummets. Plants like ember gourds, which combust if not harvested on time, and stalkers, weeds that can walk, populate the land alongside animals like winterbears, grey wolfish bears. But Mahoney doesn’t rely on the strangeness of his setting alone. His language is lovely and surprising, too. He shows us hoarfur dripping from the branches: “the filaments gave the woods a moldering appearance, like a spiderwebbed crypt far below the earth.” The flight of cravens, small black birds afraid of everything, is described as “whirl[ing], dark and fluid, in a smooth gorgeous panic.”

This magical, inexplicable setting takes a backseat to the story, though, which is largely based in realism. Like most of the plot of Katherine Addison‘s The Goblin Emperor, the major events of Bell Weather could have happened in our world. Fantasy colors but doesn’t overwhelm the human action, which includes grueling journeys, deception and disguise, and several near deaths for Molly, her brother Nicholas, and her lover Tom.

This is where Bell Weather comes alive: its people. Mahoney doesn’t spend a lot of time detailing the personal appearance of his characters, but he communicates the feel of them through tiny gestures, impressions, and dialogue. Nothing communicates the terror that General Bell can inspire better than his line to his children, “There is God, and there is me. And God cannot protect you.” Or the expression of keen disappointment following joy: “Lem’s smile grew deformed, tangling in his beard.” Or the feeling of knowing you are loved: “Molly’s heart became an orange, nourishing and bright.” Or what is possibly the funniest line in the novel, exposing how the Bell children allow the household to decay around them while their father is away: “The laundry maid, wearing a ball gown and surrounded by feral cats she had taken to feeding, was caught reading a scandalous novel in the library.”

Bell Weather’s characters are each imperfect: impetuous, hard-headed, selfish, devious, or cowardly. But on the whole, Mahoney is remarkably generous towards his characters, portraying tenderness, attraction, and steadfast friendship. Even those characters we learn to hate or fear the most — General Bell, Nicholas, or the odious Mrs. Wickware — benefit from moments of vulnerability and flashes of deeply felt emotion. And part of Molly’s charm is that she can’t help but love the people who have hurt her the most. For instance, her father, General Bell, was harsh and abusive towards both of his children. However, after escaping her father, Molly remembers him: “She thought of hugging him the day he said goodbye and left for Floria, of reaching for his saber when he dragged her on the floor. Love made her miss him, love and all its afterbirth.”

To sum up, Bell Weather was a rewarding, thrilling, and surprisingly touching read. I look forward to reading more of what Mahoney has to offer, especially as he’s left Molly and Tom’s story at a nice stopping point, but with the potential for a follow-up.

*This review was originally posted at, where I gave the book 4.5 stars.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Hugo Nomination #3:

Okay, okay, so this is one where I actually have skin in the game*. The review site that I write for,, is Hugo-eligible--yay!

I've been reviewing for FanLit for almost 2 years now, and it's been a great relationship. My SFF knowledge has grown by leaps and bounds from being forced ... ahem, I mean, encouraged ... to read more--both in terms of quantity and in terms of breadth. I read things I wouldn't necessarily have picked up on my own. And I found that reading consciously informed my fiction writing as well. Finally, I got plugged into a group of people who are just the smartest, weirdest, most fun group I've ever not-quite-met. When I first joined the site, the e-mail chains that the group sent blew me away ... they were so well-read and witty! I'm thrilled that several of us are planning to go to MidAmeriCon this year to attend the 74th World Science Fiction Convention, not only because I get to attend the Hugos but also because I get to meet, in-person, people who have become very dear to me.

So, all of that being said, here's our announcement:

"Fantasy Literature is Hugo-eligible in the category of Best Fanzine. Since 2007, the bloggers at Fantasy Literature have been committed to bringing you thoughtful, high-quality reviews, columns and news items about science fiction, fantasy, and horror. In the past two years, we’ve branched out to incorporate a larger social media presence, more author interviews, TV and film reviews, and special interest columns on topics like writing and comics. Our diverse global staff include bloggers from the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Portugal. Our New Zealand correspondent won a national Best Fan Writer award in 2014. Between the 20 active reviewers writing for Fantasy Literature, five are academics, three are lawyers, two are editors, and all are active, engaged SFF fans. We love the field, and we love a lively discussion! If you enjoy our columns and reviews, consider nominating us."

Monday, January 11, 2016

Hugo Nomination #2: Cat Valente's Speakeasy

For my first nomination, check out Naomi Novik's Uprooted. My first novella nomination is Cat Valente's Speak Easy.

I held off on reading Speak Easy by Catherynne M. Valente for a few weeks after it arrived because I knew once I started reading it, I’d want to do nothing else. When you look at the novella, this doesn’t seem like such a big problem. The advanced reader’s copy is a slim volume, thinner than my pinky finger (the signed limited-edition volumes for sale at Subterranean Press might be bigger; they are hardcovers, bound in cloth). But take a peek into the first page of Valente’s novella, and you get a sense of the denseness and beauty of her language:
"There’s this ragamuffin city out east, you follow? Sitting pretty with a river on each arm, lit up in her gladdest rags since 1624. She’ll tell you she’s seen it all, boy howdy, the deep down and the high up, champagne and syphilis, pearls and puke. Oh, she’s a cynical doll, nothing new to her.
Don’t you believe it."
As it was, it took only three nights of pre-bedtime reading to finish Speak Easy, and each night I went to bed with Valente’s gorgeous lines echoing in my brain.

Speak Easy is ostensibly a re-telling of the fairy tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” Valente sets hers in the Artemisia hotel, a Jazz Age palace of illegal drinks and scandalous dances. Zelda Fair is the Artemisia’s most alluring resident. Just when she’s growing impatient the ease and indulgence of her life, a small door appears at the back of her closet. When it finally unlocks itself, she makes her way down winding stairs to the basement of the Artemisia. The decadence of the upper levels of the Artemisia can’t compete with what’s in the basement. The party there rivals Jareth the Goblin King’s ball for intoxicating strangeness. The basement, and its residents, are controlled by by Al, a tiny, immortal ganglord who is also possibly a fairy lord (and not the good kind — wait, there’s no good kind). He is a terrifying figure who captures what I look for in a fairy story: the idea that Faerie is not a happy, sparkly, rainbow-hued place, but a place more akin to Lovecraft than to a Disney film: utterly alien, dangerous, and seductive.

The one-to-one references to the original fairy tale are complicated in Speak Easy by a few of Valente’s own inventions. Zelda has a constant companion in a large pelican that follows her around like a puppy. I’m not sure if this references something in the original tale; perhaps the pelican is meant to symbolize the loyalty and silence of the soldier who breaks the spell on the twelve sisters? Or perhaps he’s what lures the sisters to the fairy dance in the first place? Either way, he’s an evocative figure in Valente’s book, perhaps the only friend Zelda really has.

Even more interesting is who Zelda herself represents in the novella: that other famous flapper, Zelda Fitzgerald. Her suitor, Frankie the bellhop, is none other than F. Scott himself. As such, their story has a much more ominous ending than that of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” (depending, that is, on how you feel about kings giving their daughters away as reward).

Reading Speak Easy inspired me to read up on Zelda Fitgerald’s life, which did not have a happy ending itself. In real life, Zelda accused F. Scott Fitzgerald of stealing her words and experiences for his novels, building his own literary success while pilfering her creativity and autonomy. She struggled with alcoholism, thwarted talent, and mental health problems, and ended up dying in a mental hospital during a fire. These tragic themes make their way into Valente’s ending, but even the earlier scenes of madcap revelry are suffused with darkness. Given their history, I feel bad comparing an F. Scott novel to a book about Zelda, but Valente has captured the sense of existential crisis and impending doom that haunts The Great Gatsby.

Despite the tragedy, I will be returning to Speak Easy soon, and many times. It is a masterful fairy tale retelling with a side of literary history, and Valente’s language spins a spell that is hard to escape.

This review originally appeared on, where I gave the novella 5 stars.

Friday, January 08, 2016

The Teen Ghost-hunters of Stockton

A writing exercise from the Iowa Writer's Workshop MOOC I took in the fall. And yeah, it's based in a thinly-disguised Oxford full of old ghosts and teenagers so ... just a thinly-disguised Oxford then ...

The three of us are sitting on the balcony of the bookstore, eating stolen cookies and warming our hands on mugs of coffee, when Kaitlyn finally mentions the grave.

"I was walking down 14th last night, and right when I got to the bottom of the hill, I saw a light by the grave."

I know exactly what she's talking about. The only grave that matters in Stockton is Pentius Lamar's grave. Even though it's in a massive cemetery surrounded by hundreds of other graves, it's still "the grave," as if Lamar was Elvis or something. It's at the foot of a hill, with a giant oak spreading out over it, providing shade in summer and littering it with leaves in winter.

"It was his ghost," Cash says. I reach over and flick his ear. "Shut up, you don't know anything," I say, but not meanly. I'm glad he's deigned to hang out with his lame older sister for once. He rolls his eyes and keeps eating his cookie, huddling against the wind that gusts around the side of the building.

"Well, did you examine it?" I ask Kaitlyn. "What was it?"

"A phone light." She giggles. "Two people doing it."

I look pointedly at Cash, and then back at her. She is unrepentant, though. "I got an eyeful of pale white ass."

I make a move to cover his ears, but he shrugs me off. "I know what ass means already."

"Well, it weren't nothing, then." I cover my shiver with countrified bravado. That grave was the last place I saw—I think I saw—my mom. What I'm thinking must show in my face, because Kaitlyn leans forward and puts her hand on mine, crushing it against the rough wood of the table.

"We couldn't see anything behind all those branches. The mist was gathering, and it was dark. It coulda been anyone!" she says.

"I know what I saw," I say. "It was her. I saw her face." I saw my mother silhouetted against the dim lights of the cemetery, wearing her checked rain-jacket, the one that smelled like cigarettes because she got it at the Goodwill. Her hair was floating in the breeze around her face, and I saw her lift a hand toward someone in the distance. Her mouth was moving, but when I try to remember what she said, I only hear the sound of the wind, the crunch of the acorns underfoot as we shifted.

This is where our interpretations differ, although both are equally bleak. Kaitlyn maintains that whoever we saw down by the grave while we were playing spies in the bushes around the cemetery, it wasn't my mom. She said it was some tourist, taking snaps of the Lamar grave. What this means though is uncertain. Her working theory—formed from watching too many police procedurals--is that Mom got kidnapped, or killed. That thought makes my stomach churn, even now, 10 years later. But my theory makes a hot ball of rage sit at the base of my spine. She left us. And she was glad about it. I still remember the look of joy that lit her up from inside, just before we got scared and ran off.

Cash's theory, based on the fuzzy memory of a 3-year-old who tagged along even when he wasn't invited and did not stay silent despite big-sisterly commands, is that she went with the ghost of Lamar. "I saw her walk up to him, take his hand, and then walk into the hill," he repeats whenever anyone asks. When I ask him if she looked happy, he nods, and then tilts his head as if listening for something. "Sort of. More just ... peaceful," he adds.

I'd be inclined to write him off and stick to my poisonous resentment and pain, except that I've seen the lights, too. Because I've seen those lights, too, and they weren't always the harbingers of a hookup.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Hugo Nomination #1: Naomi Novik's Uprooted

I haven't sent in my Hugo nominations yet--I need to get on that--but one of the novels I'll certainly be nominating is Uprooted.

Agniezska is the brave, stubborn, sensitive heroine of Naomi Novik’s 2015 novel — and she’s about to steal your heart. She comes from Dvernik, a remote village on the edges of the enchanted Wood, the dark forest that creeps like a blight over interior Polnya. The only thing holding the Wood back from engulfing the land is the Dragon, a feared sorcerer who lives nearby. For his work keeping the danger at bay, every ten years the Dragon demands one young woman from the village. As the time for “the taking” approaches, everyone in the village expects the Dragon to choose Kasia, Dvernik’s golden girl and Agniezska’s best friend. However, something about Agniezska catches the Dragon’s eye and she is the one chosen to leave her family and friends for ten years to serve him in his tower.

The setup might lead you to expect a typical Beauty and the Beast story, but Uprooted quickly becomes to something else. Novik’s plot weaves in elements of myth, magic, politics, coming-of-age, and yes, romance. It is easy to see the fairy-tale inspiration at work, but not always easy to pick out exactly which fairy tales she’s working from. There’s a good reason for this: Novik’s novel grew out of Polish fairy tales that her mother read to her when she was a child, mixed in with a healthy dose of her own imagination. As such, her story is populated with figures we know, such as Baba Jaga, the witch from Slavic folklore who is ferocious or maternal by turns, and figures we don’t know, such as woods-walkers and heart-trees. And an ancient legend of a marriage between a human king and a fairy queen becomes the linchpin to defeating the evil in the Wood.

The myth and legend that Novik evokes in Uprooted is only one aspect of some fantastic worldbuilding. As with her TEMERAIRE series, Uprooted is an alternate history of a medieval Slavic world; Polnya is Poland, locked in a hostile relationship with its near neighbor, Rosya (Russia). The reason for the conflict lie in the Wood itself; the queen of Polnya was taken into the Wood by a Rosyan prince and has never been seen since. In their efforts to rescue the Queen, Agniezska and the Dragon visit the capital of Polnya, navigating the treacherous waters of politics at court.

They also enter deeper into the Wood than anyone ever has, encountering horror and death. In The Wood, Novik has created an incredible setting, the fairy-tale analogue to Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach series. It isn’t haunted — not precisely — but it is corrupted. Like more creepy versions of the apple trees Dorothy encounters in Oz, the very plants and animals of the Wood have become toxic. Something as simple as drinking water or touching a leaf in the Wood can sicken a person, sometimes with an illness that is visible like horrible deformation, and sometimes with an illness that doesn’t present itself until the person finds themselves in the midst of some unthinkable act, like murdering their family. The farther into the Wood one goes, the less likely it is that they will ever make it out, much less come out unchanged. [spoiler, highlight if you want to see it:] Kasia is taken by walkers, which are like giant men made of sticks and branches, and thrust into a heart tree, one of the Wood’s many strongholds. Although she only resides there for a night, cleansing her of the corruption inside and out requires all of the magic that Agniezska and the Dragon can summon. And even when they succeed, Kasia is forever changed into something part flesh, part wood. This kind of corruption is like possession, and it is a visual metaphor for something the Wood wants desperately—to overtake all of Polnya. It’s like evil kudzu.

I don’t use the word “evil” lightly here. When we finally meet the real villain, she is terrifying and powerful, but though the darkness within her threatens humanity, it is actually a creation of human hatred and violence. The final conflict is resolved a bit too quickly for me, but it works within one of Novik’s themes, the idea that human ties to the land are deep and healing and that, in reclaiming land, we restore and strengthen ourselves. While Uprooteddoesn’t telegraph any particular message or moral, this particular bit of the story could easily be a parable about our current relationship with the planet, reminding us that what we poison will eventually end up poisoning us.

Relationships are key to Uprooted. Agniezska’s relationship to the land, to the valley she grew up in, is part of what gives her such enormous power. But her relationships to others — her stubborn loyalty to Kasia, her affection for her family — are what humanize her and make her a fantastic character. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about one of my favorite relationships in the novel: the romance between Agniezska and the Dragon. Novik creates great chemistry between these characters, and Agniezska’s willful boldness complements the Dragon’s arrogant reserve. He has no idea how the outside world sees him until she comes into his life and shows him. It’s like a fantasy version of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, but Novik doesn’t gloss over the parts that Austen left out, if you know what I mean. In other words, the romance between the two fulfills all my dreams of what a satisfying fictional romance should be. Even if you’re not a fan of romance, however, there is plenty in Uprooted to enjoy and savor.

This review originally appeared on, where I (and the rest of the FanLit reviewers) gave the book 5 stars.