Friday, December 13, 2013

Review of The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window by Rachel Swirsky

Contemporary science fiction is witness to more and more female authors rising to the top—short fiction in particular seeing a huge increase in the number recognized by awards.  Over the past few years, in fact, the number of women nominated for the major short fiction awards has either been greater than or equal to the number of male authors.  Elizabeth Hand, Nancy Kress, Kelly Link, Kij Johnson, and others have been nominated or won Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy awards.  Rachel Swirsky’s 2010 novella The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window among these works, reading the story it’s obvious why the movement is underfoot.

The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window does not belie the pretention of the title.  Defying the fairy tale hints, it is the story of Naeva, a sorceress in a world where women rule—women and other men.  Her allegiance and loyalty falling awry in the opening pages, Naeva finds her soul imprisoned in a stone, able to be made corporeal only by someone with arcane knowledge.  Pulled back into the real world at various moments in the years that pass, she learns the truth behind her death and does what she can from her prison of stone to enact revenge.  But that is only the first half of the story.  Pulled into reality on a later occasion, an entirely new scene awaits, one which she may not have the resources to fight against.  

Cathrynne M. Valente’s Silenty and Very Fast is a unique piece of speculative fiction in that it is a science fiction story told in the language of poetry and fantasy.  Likewise putting story type in a fresh light, Swirsky’s novella takes a fantasy setting and so subtly injects it with a science fiction motif many will be unaware she too is playing with genre.  Like Valente’s story, the effect is overwhelmingly positive, a unique tale emerging that has a fuzzy feel intelligently bridging both genres.

And the language, oh the language.  Not as lush as Valente’s novella but more literary in aim, Swirsky has total control of the words channeled through her fingertips, producing a story that is at all times incisive, rhythmic and smooth—half the fight won with only the words themselves.  Pacing perfect, Naeva’s twists and turns through the labyrinth of treachery, revenge, back biting, and coming to terms with what it all means in the larger context of gender reads evenly, and fully engages the reader one word at a time.  And the imprisoned soul is a brilliant plot device.  Allowing the narrative to shift abruptly yet plausibly, Swirsky wastes no time in the transitions, in turn underlining the steps she imagines the world to evolve through.  That the content at depth is so dependent on this contrast likewise proves the premise superb.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novella is that the opening scenes are set in a woman’s land where rarely a man is mentioned or found.  Everywhere the characters go women are encountered and men are stick figures in the background—quite literally.  Exactly as books of old but with women and female interests foregrounded, Swirsky again turns things on their head.  In the latter half of the novella, matters are once again subverted, the view expanded to one more universal, and dare I say, transcendent.  Though a bit forced, the message rings clear.

In the end, The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window is a fantastic story in both senses of the word.  Rich and pointed in thought and language, Naeva’s reappearances in time and her reactions through the lens of women’s magic provide a compelling story—particularly given Swirsky’s spinning of a few standard fantasy motifs to new use.  Enjoyable at several levels, a feminist reading seems strongest, and in particular a message aimed at other women.   Relevant and transcendent, the novella comes highly recommended to anyone interested in the vanguard of science fiction in short form in the 21 st century.

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