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Steerswomen and Social Contracts

Way back in 2016, I read The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein. I’d heard about it through word of mouth from a friend, and had no idea when I started that it was the first in a series of books. I also had no idea, musing over those first pages, that it would swiftly become one of the books I recommend most to my friends, along with The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.

In my initial review, I was struck most by the book’s casual, unforced feminism, as well as its exploration of the value of knowledge:

Some books pay lip service to the Bechdel Test. The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein takes that well-worn idea, expands it, and tailors it into a compelling mix of fantasy and sci-fi that feels intelligent, sharp, and yet as comfortable as an old leather coat.

Bel and Rowan are fascinating, complex characters with an easy inteprlay, and the central question that The Steerswoman engages with is surprisingly multifaceted: who is allowed to control knowledge? How is it categorized, and how does control over it benefit or hinder society?

I have since read all the available sequels, and earlier this month finished the most recent one, The Language of Power, which came out in 2004. What’s interesting is that the books continually analyze this question from several perspectives. We see multiple cultures, we learn about them and how they interact, and we see how they value knowledge equally but share it in different ways.

For instance, the order of steerswomen fastidiously document everything. While they share knowledge across communities as best they can, they still have centralized archives where every steerswoman’s recordings are transcribed.

The Outskirters are secretive about their culture to Inner Lands inhabitants, but they value bravery and fighting prowess. Most importantly, while some Outskirters like Bel are literate, their knowledge is heavily based on oral traditions. They recite the names of their forebears when inducting new members into a tribe, and when Bel realizes that she needs to unite the Outskirters against an external threat, she composes an epic poem. She travels from tribe to tribe to recite the poem and gain their support for the potential battles that are to come. In the process, she becomes the closest thing to a single unifying leader that the Outskirters have ever had.

These two cultures lie in contrast to the wizards. Wizards, in this world, hoard knowledge. They have magic, but they don’t share it with anyone, and even people who manage to enter their ranks by showing promise are treated as outsiders — it appears that you really have to be born into the wizarding community to be taken seriously, even if you have innate talent.

However, the other way that wizards set themselves apart in this world is their lack of regard for the social contract. The series’ chief antagonist, Slado, is implied to be a sociopath. Almost every other wizard we encounter throughout the series shows either disdain for the common folk around them or a casual, unthinking willingness to inflict harm on others.

This is made even more more remarkable when you remember the social contract built around steerswomen. They travel the land and research both everything and everyone. There are only two iron rules: if you ask a steerswoman a question, she must answer your question truthfully, and if she asks you, you must also be truthful. If you deny information or tell lies, then you’ll be put under a ban, under which no steerswoman will ever answer your questions again in the future.

This is a rule that everyone upholds without question. People contemplate the prospect of being denied a steerswoman’s knowledge with dread. But consider: this is a world without mass automated knowledge or travel. Everything — trade goods, information and people alike — moves at the speed of horses, ships, carts, or feet.

So theoretically, it’s entirely possible for someone to invoke the ban, and then travel far enough to a new place where no one knows the ban is in effect. Steerswomen are few, and itinerant. It’s possible that not even every member of the order knows who is under a ban and who is not. However, no one in their culture takes advantage of this fact! No one even considers the difficulty of sharing knowledge as a potential loophole for getting around the social contract that the steerswomen have put in place.

And this is the thing I have found so astounding after reading The Language of Power. Despite all the wonderful praise this series gets for its understanding of the scientific method, and even for its implicit commentary on violence in fantasy narratives, what strikes me right now, so fresh upon reading it earlier this month, is that the characters we care about succeed because they live in a world with a strong social contract. And the wizards, in their hubris, have no idea that their continual use of rule through fear is starting to backfire on them.

Or, in one of the most famous quotes from Discworld, courtesy of Granny Weatherwax:

“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things . . . ”

Terry Pratchet, Carpe Jugulum

In The Language of Power, Rowan travels to the city of Donner to find out what happened when a previous wizard there died over 40 years before. She goes there on the slimmest of possible leads, but she thinks that the facts surrounding this wizard’s death could lead her to Slado, and thus potentially to the truth surrounding his plans to destroy the Outskirters.

At first, when she approaches the townsfolk of Donner, they’re hesitant, and she gets only cursory answers. But as she keeps tugging on different strings and taking part in town life, people open up to her. The more they open up to her, the more pieces she fits together, and with her uncanny powers of recall, she’s able to remember names and streets and events in a way that grudgingly gains the townpeople’s respect. But in between, she’s not too proud to shovel manure in an orchard, or sing a ballad in an inn, or express delight in a potter’s drawings and delicate teapots.

It is this simple pleasure that Rowan takes in the presence and skills of other people that saves her, time and time again. When the current wizard confronts the people of Donner at a local inn about the rumours that there’s been a steerswoman sticking her nose into his business, they keep her identity secret from him, even though both she and the wizard are in the same room while it’s happening.

In the end, when Rowan and her allies learn more about wizardly machinations (in both the metaphorical and engineering sense), the town decides to help her out even further by engaging in a collective mission to make the next local wizard’s life a living hell. Even after losing friends, even after knowing what a threat Rowan is to their town, they decide to help her.

That’s the power of a social contract when everyone respects each other and values each other. And I really want to see more fantasy books that display that sort of communal thinking.

The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg

The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg

Title: The Four Profound Weaves
Author: R.B. Lemberg
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: I pre-ordered it from Kobo before its launch on Sept 1, 2020

I was first introduced to R.B. Lemberg’s Birdverse stories when their novelette “Geometries of Belonging” was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. The prose is striking: delicate and measured, yet somehow pulsing with pain underneath, as we learn more about the main character’s past and how they try to heal both themselves and others from trauma.

Next, I read “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar“, a story with a much more hopeful outlook. However, it deals with similar themes of loneliness and people aching desperately for connection. It ends with the two title characters finding each other and travelling together.

Lemberg’s Birdverse stories have always been imbued with a strong sense of compassion: they deal with questions of how to heal from war, how societies that accept trans-ness do so in different ways, and how to build connections between people. Birdverse is constantly interrogating issues surrounding bodily agency and consent, and how abilities that aren’t traditionally considered “strong” are still vitally important to the shape of the world.

The Four Profound Weaves, Lemberg’s debut novella set in the same world, continues that tradition. However, The Four Profound Weaves also foregrounds two other emotions: sorrow, and righteous anger.

Sorrow: the two main characters, Uiziya and nen-sasair, journey through the desert to find Benesret, the master weaver who can weave from death. Uiziya looks for her because Benesret is her aunt, and was promised forty years ago that she would learn her aunt’s secrets; she’s waited for Benesret’s return to no avail, and is tired of feeling incomplete without this knowledge.

Nen-sasair’s sorrow springs from having to hide his trans nature for a similar length of time. Forty years ago, Benesret helped him by spinning a weave of fabric that would allow him to change his body (female-presenting) to match his self-identity (male). But his lover, Bashri, refused to let him transform as he wished. Now that she’s dead, and he’s used the cloth that was denied to him since his youth, he hopes that Benesret can do him one last benediction and also bestow him with a new name.

Benesret’s sorrow is that she can’t do either of the things that Uiziya and nen-sasair wish: she can’t teach the art of death-weaving, and she can’t bestow a new name. And that’s because her greatest weave was not one made of death, but made of hope.

Righteous anger: Benesret made the hope-cloth at nen-sasair’s request so that he could take it the King of Iyar. The King, a famed collector of art, insisted that this was the only payment he would accept in exchange for releasing nen-sasair and Bashri’s other lover. But he killed her before they could return with the weave, and took it from them anyway.

That hope-weave has been sitting in the king’s vault to this day, its glories hidden from the world. And now nen-sasair and Uiziya have been tasked with retrieving it so that Benesret can regain the hope she lost, pass on the art of death-weaving, and help nen-sasair find a fitting name.

When they return to Iyar, they discover that treasure is not the only thing hidden in the king’s vaults. And when they both realize the true horrors that the king is responsible for, they seek to undo his horrible acts.

Ultimately, despite the sadness, despite the anger, this is a story of hope. Some wrongs can’t be undone. Sometimes, you just need to wait for the person holding you back to die before you can become who you were always meant to be. But change can’t be denied, no matter how long and how hard people fight to restrain it. And I think that core of hope is something central to Lemberg’s work. I look forward to reading more Birdverse stories as they are published.

A promotional image for Augur Magazine, showing a young person with bird wings walking on water.

Augur Magazine Kickstarter, Years 3-4

A promotional image for Augur Magazine, showing a young person with bird wings walking on water.
A promotional still for Augur Magazine’s Kickstarter campaign for years 3 and 4.

If you’ve paid attention to the Hugo and Nebula awards in the past, you’ve probably noticed people talking about whether a science fiction magazine is a “pro-paying” market. If you stay in the spec-fic community long enough, you learn that this refers to whether a magazine pays what are considered “pro rates” by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

And what’s that all-important pro rate? Eight cents per word.

You want to know something else? Until December 2019 — only 2 months ago! — not a single Canadian literary magazine qualified as a SFWA pro-paying market. Sure, there are plenty of Can-Lit mags, but none of them both paid that market rate and focused on spec-fic.

Until Augur Magazine showed up.

Augur started a few years ago with a mandate to publish spec-fic, slipstream, and magical realist fiction by Canadian and indigenous authors, as well as poetry and art. It’s done that in spades over 6 issues. What’s more, it’s steadily increased its rates – starting from 2 cents a word to reaching that all-important SFWA pro-rate threshold last year.

It did this with the help and support of awesome spec-fic readers who like dreamy, hard-to-categorize fiction. And that’s where YOU come in. Because Augur just launched its newest Kickstarter campaign to fund 2 more years’ worth of magazines, and it needs your help to reach its goal of going beyond the SFWA pro rates and paying 11 cents per word.

It’s already halfway there only 3 days in, which is amazing, and proof that its founder and managing editors clearly have their fingers on the pulse of Canadian spec-fic. So why not take a look and support a group of people who are pretty cool? The closer we all get to meeting their fundraising target, the closer we get to their stretch goals, which sound pretty sweet:

  • Publishing more poetry every year
  • Paying more to graphic artist contributors
  • Creating a print edition of the first 2 years of the magazine
  • Publishing reprints
  • Opening up THEIR OWN SMALL PRESS

I’m going to support their Kickstarter now that I have the chance. So I just wanted to signal-boost for a worthy cause. The Augur Magazine Kickstarter ends at the end of February, so let’s make the most of it while we can.

The cover of "The Winged Histories", showing a dark-skinned woman riding a large bird.

The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

The cover of "The Winged Histories", showing a dark-skinned woman riding a large bird.Title: The Winged Histories
Author: Sofia Samatar
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 5 out of 5 total
How I got this book: eBook purchased from Weightless Books

What does history mean? Whose stories get written down and treated as the truth? Most importantly, how do we know what the truth actually is? Is a usurper to the throne doing so out of a desire for power, or to topple a corrupt regime? And what if the reason for waging a war is neither of those things?

Questions about power and the purpose of stories were central to Sofia Samatar’s debut novel A Stranger in Olondria, which won the World Fantasy Award. I read it way back in 2014 and swooned over it. Almost everything about Olondria displayed deliberation and care — the prose, the worldbuilding, the themes, and the characterization.

I was expecting something similar in The Winged Histories, Samatar’s follow-up novel set in the same world. It shares certain elements with its predecessor, like its gorgeous, crystalline prose, as well as its focus on the power of narrative as a political force. However, it blindsided me with this particular truth: The Winged Histories is not a story about war and the crumbling of empire — it’s a story about love. And this truth is fully revealed only during the precisely-calibrated pages of the final few chapters.

But let me back up. Enough with this talk of love and empire and truth. What this book actually about?

The Winged Histories is split into four sections, each with a different first-person narrator telling the reader their perspective on the collapse of the Olondrian empire due to war, colonial expansion, and religious upheaval.

Tavis is a soldier, the niece of the current king of Olondria, and the granddaughter of a traitor. Hoping to restore independence to her ancestral homeland of Kestenya and atone for her grandfather’s sins, she and her cousin Andasya, the heir to the throne, instigate a war for Kestenya’s independence. In her attempts to do so, she travels to Kestenya to spend time with the nomadic herders there, and falls in love with Seren, a gifted singer.

Tialon is the daughter of the Priest of the Stone, and now the high priestess after her father Ivrom’s death. Ivrom was an ambitious man who managed to make great strides in supplanting Olondria’s ancient fertility-based religion with a new, austere one heavily influenced by his own thinking. His growing power over the king spurred Prince Andasya to free Kestenya from his influence and to usurp the throne. Tialon is held captive in the palace during the aftermath of Andasya’s successful coup, and reckons with how her father forced her to live a small, caged, miserable life.

Seren is a poet and nomad who reflects on the role her lover, Tavis, played in Kestenya’s war for independence. She thinks about the ironies of gendered roles within Kestenyi culture. Women like her are singers, but their songs focus on the vendettas and deaths of Kestenyi men.

Finally, there is Siski. Initially introduced as Tavis’s docile sister who pretends to be a social butterfly at court, she uses a veneer of innocence and superficiality to conceal the truth: Andasya didn’t wage war and overthrow his father to gain power or restore a faltering religion. He did it for reasons that are best left to the reader to discover.

When Siski learns the terrible secret that Andasya carries, she runs from him in fear, oblivious that doing so makes the rest of her family — and onlookers like the Priest of the Stone — assume an entirely different (and more salacious) reason for her actions. And this wrong interpretation is one that the reader is encouraged to believe until nearly the end of the book, until Siski’s perspective shows the secret history the rest of the world doesn’t see.

This lesson about mistaken assumptions is one that is core to the ethos of The Winged Histories. Like its predecessor, this book is tricky and evaded my expectations. In Olondria, I was expecting fantasy battles and political intrigue, but instead got a moving story about the power of words and what it means to create a legacy. In Histories, I was expecting similar deconstruction of the value of literature, but instead I got a series of tightly-controlled memoirs where war happens just beyond the scope of the text.  At the heart of it all, I found an achingly beautiful and sad story about young lovers and the slow, tortured crumbling of an ambitious family.

Samatar’s prose is spare and elegant, and one that rewards reading between the lines. It often forsakes being prose entirely and instead turns to poetry, such as when Seren sings the songs of her homeland. At other times, the reader is exposed to excerpts from historical works written about Olondria, or to letters written by secondary characters.

The ultimate effect is that the reader knows more about the fall of Olondria, and about how Andasya’s actions ruin his family, than the family members do themselves. And thus, the reader is in on the most important secrets of this world in a way that the characters aren’t.

A Walk Through the World of Graveyard Mind with Chadwick Ginther

The cover of Graveyard Mind, by Chadwick Ginther, shows a graveyard and tombstones silhouetted by a cloudy horizon.Chadwick Ginther is the Prix-Aurora-Award-nominated author of the Thunder Road Trilogy and has just released Graveyard Mind, his first book with noted Canadian spec-fic publisher ChiZine Publications. His short fiction has appeared recently in Tesseracts, Those Who Make Us and Grimdark Magazine. With Samantha Beiko he is the co-creator and writer of the comic series, Mythfits. He lives and writes in Winnipeg, Canada, spinning sagas set in the wild spaces of Canada’s western wilderness where surely monsters must exist.

Chadwick was kind enough to answer questions I had about Graveyard Mind earlier this summer while he was on the road promoting it. Talk about dedication and stamina! I hope you like this brief glimpse into a new and eerie fictional world.


 

For the uninitiated, what is Graveyard Mind about? Not just from a plot perspective, but what themes were you aiming to work into your story?

Graveyard Mind is an urban fantasy novel featuring Winter Murray, a necromancer of the Compact. Winter’s job is to keep Winnipeg’s dead in their tombs no matter what laws of gods and men she must break to do so. She’s been doing the work solo since her mentor’s death  when a past she thought buried comes back to haunt her when a death cult moves on her turf.

As for themes, redemption was definitely one I wanted to explore. Winter is hunting for a redemption she doesn’t believe she really deserves—being a necromancer isn’t a job that lends itself to above the board actions, and she’s done a lot of dirty deeds in her time. Another theme was family. I didn’t think about this one so much during the writing, but I realized it was important to me when I decided upon the dedication; the person this book is dedicated to isn’t here to read it. The found family theme tends to turn up a lot in my writing; Ted accretes a new family during his adventures—Winter struggles to maintain hers. I also enjoy writing about people who think they are monsters and people who definitely are.

Your book contains many elements found in urban fantasy books, but your choice of setting, Winnipeg, is pretty unusual. Aside from it being your hometown, what drew you towards setting Graveyard Mind here? What possibilities do you see in Winnipeg as a setting that other places lack?

I don’t see it as Winnipeg as a setting having something that other cities lack, really, other than exposure. But since my Toronto or New York will never be as evocative as one written by someone who lives there, why not capitalize on the hometown advantage and give readers not familiar with my home something they haven’t seen before?

Mostly, though, I love writing about Winnipeg and Manitoba. While it’s not a location that’s usually thought of when one thinks of fantasy, I see endless story potential here. While a small city, Winnipeg is a multicultural one, and with the surrounding farmland and nearby lakes and wild spaces, there are lots of places for monsters to hide.

Winnipeg’s reputed hauntings definitely played a role in choosing to set Graveyard Mind here. I have a travel guide to supernatural Winnipeg, and like to give out of town friends my own custom haunted tour of the city. But everyone who lives in Winnipeg can list a few of these supposedly haunted landmarks.

In your Thunder Road books, your protagonists have to deal with the mundane reality of their world being stripped away to reveal the supernatural, and they balance walking that line throughout. Graveyard Mind‘s protagonist, Winter Murray, has to deal with the same thing – trying, and failing, to present a facade to the normal world. Is this a common thread throughout your work? What about this idea is so attractive to you?

One of the things that drew me to urban fantasy as a genre was that intersection of the supernatural and the mundane. Writing Thunder Road was transformative in that regard, as until I drafted that book, most of my early writing was second world sword and sorcery. I still write some secondary world fiction, but the majority of my published work has taken place in a fantastically skewed version of our world.

Stories are how we deal with things we don’t understand, or want to understand better. Using a lens of the fantastic to examine issues from our world is something I find very rewarding. I also really enjoy wrecking up my favourite landmarks.

Your main character, Winter Murray, has unusual abilities because she’s actually a chimera – she absorbed her unborn twin sister in the womb.  What was the inspiration for this?

An episode of CSI and reading Stephen King’s The Dark Half were probably my introduction to the idea of a human chimera. Dungeons and Dragons is where I honed my love of undead as monsters and antagonists. It just felt natural that someone with a bit of dead tissue in them would be a necromantic natural. That idea was one of the first things that got me excited to start writing Graveyard Mind.

What is your favourite moment in the book, or what scene/element/quote is your favourite?

My favourite extended sequence is the first introduction of the Kingdom—the Land of the Dead—leading up to Winter’s duel with her old mentor. But any time Frank was on the page was a lot of fun, as was writing Winter’s friendship with Lyssa.

You’ve put a lot of work into imagining a wider world in Graveyard Mind, from the Compact, to various types of death-magic, to how various mythologies got things about the afterlife right or wrong. Will there be a sequel, or related short stories? It feels like there’s a lot left to explore.

I’d love for the world of Graveyard Mind to take off and become a more open ended series. Works like Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid and October Daye series, Patricia Briggs’ Mercedes Thompson books, Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld, and Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville novels are the reasons I love urban fantasy.

I am working on a sequel now, and am roughly half way through my discovery draft. The second book seems to be featuring more of the inner workings of the Compact, but that’s all I can say of it for sure right now. I’ve published two short stories set loosely in the world of Graveyard Mind. Both of those stories star a costumed adventurer in the mold of the Shadow and Batman, named Midnight Man who hunts necromancers because of what they did to his family. There are definitely more stories set in the world of Graveyard Mind on deck. Whether those stories will feature Midnight Man, Winter and Frank in haunted Winnipeg, or bits of Winter’s world outside of Manitoba that were only briefly mentioned in the novel, I can’t say yet.


And that’s that! You can buy Graveyard Mind online or in major bookstores.

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