I’ve long been in debate with myself about the woman warrior. On one hand I can understand that it may be proper to present women in positions of strength and power—to give them a place in epic fantasy as otherwise none would be available amongst the male dominated battles and bloodshed. On the other hand, isn’t a woman wielding a sword and shield and leading armies just a man with breasts—cramming feminism into a masculine box? Aren’t there more effective ways of integrating the unique aspects of women into literature than violence and blood? Tobias Buckell’s 2011 novella The Executioness only furthers this debate in my mind.
The Executioness is the story of Tana, a middle aged woman living as a butcher in Khaim. Her father, the city’s executioner, is aged and lies sick abed. One day when the bell rings, calling him to a beheading, he is too weak to stand and forces Tana to don the mask and clothes to do his part. Trembling every step of the way, Tana completes her father’s assignment, collapsing afterwards in a heap of emotion but with a handful of coins to feed her father, husband, and children. The problem is, raiders invade the city before she has a chance to return home, kidnapping her sons for slave labor. Her home burned in the invasion, Tana’s desire to find her sons and bring them home becomes the goal of her life. Her life destroyed, she has no other choice.
If the above story introduction sounds tried and true, it’s because it is. Buckell telling a mini-sized epic fantasy, the blood and guts flow as Tana wends her way ever closer to revenge on her sons, nothing original. It’s been written before, and based on the evidence, it will be written again. Those looking for comfortable epic-ness, the novella will satisfy.
In the introduction to the audiobook version, Buckell discusses the impetus behind The Executioness. He states he wanted to examine the life of a middle aged woman—specifically not a man—who has her home and family taken away from her. He certainly accomplishes his goal. And yet, genderization seems wholly superficial. In fact, the story of a person who comes to learn the ways of war and battle—of which there is a preponderance of blood and graphic violence—the novella’s feminist aspirations seem suspect. Tana could easily have been a father seeking out his kidnapped children and nothing, absolutely nothing about the tale would change. Buckell seeming to mistake feminism for simply exchanging the word “man” for “woman”, I’m still struggling to come to terms with what made the story more feminine than masculine.
Style-wise, the writing of The Executioness is mediocre at best. A fair amount of scenes over-written, there is a dearth of violence—violence which is obviously intended as sensational rather than plot-informative. (The opening beheading scene as well as a couple of other scenes are particularly for effect rather than to serve any other purpose.) The pacing brisk, Tana’s development most often moves at cut-scene speed, indicating the author bit off more than he could chew from a quantity/space point of view. Moreover, Buckell pushes very simple buttons ethically, and renders a very simple story in the process.
In the end, The Executioness is average or less than average short fiction. A mini epic fantasy which loosely parallels Joan of Arc, Buckell writes a typical tale that was intended to be more than it is: the feminist themes suggested in the introduction exist only superficially in the story, nothing beyond the finding of kidnapped children and vengeance the subjects under consideration. Sorry, but a woman growling “I am the executioness!” and shaking blood drops from her axe seems more comic book male fantasy than any commentary on the current state of feminism. (See the cover for further evidence.) Though the exact opposite in length, I would suggest Mary Gentle's excellent Ash: A Secret History as text that succeeds at creating a woman warrior in a man's world.