Daily Reads: 27 February 2015

Morning everyone 🙂

My Daily Reads don’t have a lot of actual reading today; just some cool stuff that’s popped up recently.

Academic ExercisesIf you haven’t already done so, you should really take advantage of Subterranean Press’s Humble Bundle sale. You can:
– Pay what you want and get seven ebooks.
– Pay above the average amount and get an extra twelve ebooks
– Pay $15 dollars or more and get EVERYTHING, which amounts to $123 of sff ebooks.

I might have bought this for the K.J. Parker collection alone, but it’s also got a ton of short fiction by authors I’m really excited to read – Elizabeth Bear, CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan, Joe R. Lansdale, Maria Dahvana Headley, Kat Howard, Tim Powers… Yeah. Best. Deal. EVER.

In case you didn’t know, Subterranean Press is a specialist publisher of sff and horror, producing exclusive titles by some of the best authors in the field. Their print copies are all special editions (hardcovers with leather or cloth binding, often signed, sometimes in slipcases, etc.). They also have loads of ebooks and used to have an excellent magazine, which you can still access for free.

Three Parts Dead

Hopefully that won’t keep you too busy just yet, because Lynn from Lynn’s Book Blog and Susan from Dab of Darkness are hosting a readalong of Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1) by Max Gladstone, starting in March. I’ve got a copy that I’ve been meaning to read for a while, so I signed up. It’ll be a very relaxed pace (about 100 words per week), and you can sign up on either blog by leaving a comment. You can blog along if you want, or just blog hop and comment on the weekly discussions.

Finally, Cat Hellisen is doing us all a huge favour by compiling a list of spec fic by South African authors.  Let her know if there’s anything she should add.

Happy reading!

Daily Reads helps me organise my online reading and share my favourite posts with you. If you know of any good SF/F and other literary articles, link to it in the comments.

Short Story Review: The Screams of Dragons by Kelley Armstrong

STPSpring2014-425x561I never paid much attention to Kelley Armstrong because it looked like her books are mostly of the paranormal romance variety, but I’ve just started reading Subterranean Press Magazine, and she has the leading story for the Spring 2014 edition (you can download the whole edition for free in epub or mobi format, or read the story on the Subterranean Press website). I now have to take another look at her books, because “The Screams of Dragons” is fantastic.

Bobby is a strange, unsettling little boy. He’s cold and distant. He never laughs, never plays, never feels happiness, except in his dreams of golden castles and green meadows. He also dreams of screaming dragons, after he hears a story about a king who suffers three plagues, one of which is the screams of fighting dragons.

The dragons start keeping him awake, but he thinks it best not to tell anyone about them. Instead, he tells his grandmother about the good gold and green dreams of castles and meadows, which are beautiful but leave him sad and frustrated when he wakes up. This turns out to be a dire mistake. His grandmother decides that Bobby is a changeling, and she uses cruel, folkloric methods to prove it. The evidence seems perfectly clear to her, but makes no sense to anyone else because Bobby reacts to the tests like any other child would.

You feel a brief sense of relief that the grandmother is dismissed as a superstitious fool, but things only get worse for Bobby. His family comes from some unnamed ethnic group, and his parents – who try to portray themselves as modern and educated – are ashamed when people start to see them as ignorant peasants. His grandmother starts abusing him, making up reasons to beat him or send him to bed hungry. His irritating little sister Natalie (he calls her the Gnat and she really is a horrible little thing) delights in his grandmother’s abuse and sometimes tries to make it worse. His parents don’t want any more trouble so they just ignore it all.

Rather than get angry, Bobby just tries to bear it, and even feels sorry for how fearful and desperate his grandmother can seem. But the abuse takes its toll. He is different, and starts to feel like he doesn’t belong in the family. The only place he does feel, if not happy then at least content, is in the town of Cainsville, where his mother’s family comes from. In Cainsville, people appreciate difference. The adults there take Bobby seriously, talk to him like an adult, and treat him as special. The residents seem particularly unusual themselves and either have supernatural powers or treat such things as the norm. Hannah, a little girl that Bobby likes to play with, can communicate with animals. Her friend Rose has some kind of prophetic sight. Bobby isn’t that unusual – he doesn’t have any powers as far as he can tell – but he fits in in Cainsville in the way he can never fit in at home or at school.

However, Bobby does get increasingly strange and undoubtedly sinister, if only in self-defence. It’s understandable, based on the way he’s treated by his grandmother and his sister, the bullying at school, his parents’ refusal to help him or even acknowledge that anything is wrong. At the same time, you have to admit that his dreams are strange and is connection with the mysterious town of Cainsville seems important. You have to wonder if there’s something seriously (supernaturally?) wrong with Bobby, or if he’s just an odd kid corrupted by people who torment him or ignore his suffering?

I could never answer that question and that’s one of the things I like most about that story. You can’t unravel the mystery of Bobby’s psychology and you’re left to wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t told his grandmother about the dreams, if she hadn’t abused him, if his parents tried to help him, if the people of Cainsville had taken a more active role in his life instead of just asking if everything was alright at home (he always says yes), if Bobby made different choices, if, if if.

The way things turn out makes for a great story in itself though, and there are lots of things I loved about it. Firstly, a creepy child, one of my favourite horror tropes. And this is a horror story – a psychological one. That’s another thing I like about it. Armstrong uses just the right amount of restraint, achieving the ideal balance (for me, at least) between revealing information and hinting at underlying terrors. It produces tension throughout the story, making it an excellent read.

Omens“The Screams of Dragons” is a prequel story to Kelley Armstrong’s novel Omens, a paranormal mystery. It’s the first in her Cainsville series and the second book, Visions, is due to be published in August this year. While I’m still not keen on her paranormal romance titles, Armstrong obviously knows how to tell a good story, so Omens immediately went onto my tbr list.

One last thing before I go – I’m really excited about Subterranean Press Magazine. How did I not notice it earlier?! I’ve been following Subterranean Press for a while because they publish collector’s editions, which I’ve recently started investing in. So far, I’ve only bought Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente, but I kicked myself for missing out on the trade edition of her collection The Bread We Eat in Dreams, (although there’s still a limited edition for $60) and I’ve got my eye on Equoid by Charles Stross.

Anyway, I knew Subterranean has free fiction available on their site, but I never got around to reading any because I prefer reading on my Kindle than a computer. But they have a quarterly magazine that you can download for free, in either epub or mobi format. They amount of talent they’re showcasing is just incredible, with stories from some of the best authors in the field – Catherynne M. Valente, Ted Chiang, Mary Robinette Kowal, Nnedi Okorafor, and loads more that I can’t wait to discover.

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow WhiteTitle: Six-Gun Snow White
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Published: 28 February 2013
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Source: own copy
Genre: fantasy, fairytale, western
Rating: 9/10

This is as much my analysis of the story as it is a review, so it contains some spoilers, although I have not discussed the specifics of the ending.

I’ve never found the story of Snow White particularly compelling, but Catherynne M. Valente reinvents it in ways I could never have imagined. She takes the basic elements of the tale – the stepmother, the mirror, the huntsman, the heart, the seven dwarves – and reworks them into a story about racism, love, and mothers.

In North America’s Old West, a wealthy mine owner known to us as Mr. H sees a beautiful Crow woman named Gun That Sings and decides her wants to marry her.  Mr. H “had a witch’s own knack for sniffing out what the earth had to give up” (10), and Gun That Sings has the kind of beauty that seems to appeal to his business interests: “her hair had the very color of coal […] Her dark mouth as a cut garnet, her skin rich copper, her eyes black diamonds for true.” (10-11). Gun That Sings doesn’t want to marry this white man, but after a few not-so-subtle threats about the safety of her people, she relents. When she gets pregnant, Mr. H makes a wish:

let this child have hair like hot coal, and lips as bright and dark as blood, but oh Lord, if you’re listening, skin as white as mine. (15)

It doesn’t come true. Gun That Sings dies in childbirth, leaving behind a beautiful but clearly half-breed child. She lives in luxury in Mr. H’s beautiful castle by the sea, with a little zoo and her own dime museum. Mr. H gives her a silver gun with red pearls in the handle; she calls it Rose Red. But because of the colour of her skin her existence is kept secret.

Mr. H gets married again, to a woman so beautiful it hurts to look at her. When she sees the child she calls her Snow White as a mockery of the pale skin she will never have. Mrs. H proceeds to abuse Snow White for years, beating her and forcing her to do all the housework in their massive home.

In pre-Grimm versions of the fairytale, it was Snow White’s own mother rather than her stepmother who torments her. Valente conflates the two versions. Mrs. H is Snow White’s stepmother, but she’s the only mother the girl has ever known and she wants very desperately for Mrs. H to accept her. The very first thing Mrs. H says to her is “You are not entirely ugly, but no one would mistake you for a human being. That skin will never come clean” (37). She considers Snow White to be non-human because she’s not white, so the only way for Snow White to be accepted is to become white, or at least to become as much like Mrs. H as possible.

For a long time Snow White accepts Mrs. H’s violent abuse, believing that this is love and it’ll “fix” her.

Love was a magic fairy spell. Didn’t the girls in my books hunt after love like it was a deer with a white tail? Didn’t love wake the dead? Didn’t that lady love the beast so hard he turned into a good-looking white fellow? That was what love did. It turned you into something else.

For this reason I forgave Mrs. H. I tried to be near her all the time. She only meant to scrub me up and fix me. At any moment she might take me in her arms and kiss me and like that beast with a buffalo’s body I would fill up with light and be healed. Love would do what it did best. Love would turn me into a white girl. If I did everything right, one day I would wake up and be wise and strong, sure of everything, with skin like snow and eyes as blue as hers. It would happen like a birthday party. One day the girl in the mirror would not look like me at all, but like my stepmother, and nothing would hurt anymore forever. (44)

Under Mrs. H’s cruel ‘guidance’, Snow White bleeds and starves. She is scrubbed in baths of milk and ice. She is trussed up in corsets that suffocate and combs that hurt her. As a result, she gets some very twisted ideas of what it is to love, to be human, and to be a woman.

For myself I thought: this is how you make a human being. A human being is beautiful and sick. A human being glitters and starves. (43)

It’s a much more interesting dynamic than the petty beauty contest of the usual tale, with its stereotypes about female vanity. The mirror plays an important role in this story, but not because Mrs. H admires her face in it (it doesn’t actually show reflections at all). The question of beauty becomes a racial issue instead. Mrs. H is literally ‘fairer’ than Snow White, and since this makes her forever superior in racial terms, she never seems to see herself as being in competition with her stepdaughter. Other people talk about who is prettier, but Snow White is quick to dismiss the issue:

 I heard a lot of talk speculating on whether myself of Mrs. H was the more handsome. It’s plain foolishness.

Everybody knows no half-breed cowgirl can be as beautiful as a rich white lady. Where’s your head at? (65)

Later, Valente uses the fairytale’s iconic line as a dig at Snow White’s half-breed rootlessness. She won’t find a home in her mother’s Crow Nation because she’d “be the fairest of them all” (145) – just white enough that her presence would make trouble for them.

Unlike the fairytale though, there’s more to Mrs. H than simple evil. In the terrifying, ancient mirror that Mrs. H keeps in Snow White’s dime museum, Snow sees a young Mrs. H being abused in a similar way, and told that to be a woman means to “Work until you die” (50), to “Obey until a man give you permission to die,” (50) to “Make your black deals in the black wood and decide what you’ll trade for power” (51). It doesn’t all apply to this story; it’s more like Mrs. H come from a legacy of women who have suffered and found a way out of that suffering through cruelty and magic. Mrs. H tells Snow White that “Magic is just a word for what’s left to the powerless once everyone has eaten their fill” (63), and for a moment, I felt sorry for her.

In that scene, Valente also shows sudden similarities between Mrs. H and Snow White, suggesting that Snow White could take the same path. It’ll inevitably be a trap, a bad bargain, (“I am freedom and I will eat your heart” (51)), but perhaps Snow White could get what she wants.

She runs away instead. She steals a fantastic Appaloosa named Charming and heads out into the WIld West, turning into a character very different from the delicate girl of the fairytale. This Snow White is the fastest gunslinger in the West. She cheats at cards. She “Could teach the Scottish laird who dreamed up whiskey in his sheep pen to bolt it down and never flinch” (150). She gets work in one of her father’s mines, doing filthy, exhausting work in the darkness. The question of her prettiness was dismissed before, but now it becomes irrelevant as her trials turn her hard and vicious. Not that she cares – as far as she’s concerned her body has brought her nothing but trouble so who cares if it’s beaten and scarred? She’s used to that.

A bounty hunter comes looking for her heart, but not because her stepmother wants to eat it. There’s no beauty contest here, so the heart has a more practical but no less macabre function. And then rather than stumble across seven dwarves, Snow White ends up in the town of Oh-Be-Joyful, run by seven female fugitives who understand Snow White’s need to escape from her life.

But even in the form of this hardened gunslinger, Snow White is plagued by her fundamental childhood longings – she “wants a mother so bad it’s like a torn up body wanting blood” (144), even though, for her, “[a] mother’s like a poison made for only one soul” (149). It’s a horrible paradox, but it’s also why this story has such a strong impact.

At this point in the the standard fairytale, Snow White is unbelievably stupid or (more generously) unbelievably naive. Her stepmother tries to kill her three times with the same trick, and Snow White falls for it each time. I won’t tell you how Valente reewrites this part of the story, but I will say that it’s much more intellectually and emotionally involved, as well as being one of the hardest hitting aspects of the book.

The only difficulty I have is the ending. I just don’t know what to make of it. This is a very strange and emotionally complex book, so I read it twice (it’s short) but I still can’t figure that ending out. It even stranger than the rest of the book, and it changes the feel of the story from fantasy to something more like sci fi.

But other than that – wow. I’m so glad I got the signed limited-edition copy of this. And not just for the incredible reinvention of Snow White. As usual, Valente’s writing alone makes this book worth reading, as you may have guessed from the abundance of quotes I couldn’t resist using. I realise that fairytale retellings are getting a bit old now, but a book like this still stands out.

Six-Gun Snow White: limited edition pictures

I’m a big fan of Catherynne M. Valente, and when Six-Gun Snow White came out – her rather brutal, Old-West retelling of Snow White – I was able to snag one of the gorgeous limited-edition signed hardcovers from Subterranean Press (via Book Depository). Check it out:

Six-Gun Snow White

Six-Gun Snow White signature

 

Six-Gun Snow White has been nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo awards for Best Novella. I’m still working on my review, and in the meantime I couldn’t resist showing off one of the coolest books on my shelf 🙂 If you don’t know what the story is about, here’s the blurb:

From New York Times bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente comes a brilliant reinvention of one the best known fairy tales of all time. In the novella Six-Gun Snow White, Valente transports the title’s heroine to a masterfully evoked Old West where Coyote is just as likely to be found as the seven dwarves.

A plain-spoken, appealing narrator relates the history of her parents—a Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. With her mother’s death in childbirth, so begins a heroine’s tale equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, readers will be enchanted by this story at once familiar and entirely new.