Writer AJ Fitzwater tells us about ten of her favourite speculative fiction reads.
Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings is a masterwork of a ghost story, taking what is unique about New Zealand speculative fiction and combining it with a superb realist examination of Māori and Moriori sociological structures. The narrator ghost isn't just a spirit haunting the women of the story, but also the broken spirit of the people searching for reconciliation. An intimate probe into the effects of colonisation, the silence between generations, women's internalized silence over their perceived power and sexuality, a clash of cultures, the ignored history which allows violence to flourish, and the dislocation from community which disabuses women of historical knowledge of their power and relevance.
I'm not usually into retellings of fairy tale princesses, but Hines' YA Princess series (also includes "The Mermaid's Madness", "Red Hood's Revenge", and "The Snow Queen's Shadow") utterly charmed me. There's a lot to love – Danielle kicking ass and doing all she can to save her prince, Talia who loves her weapons but fails at social niceties, Snow who has powerful magic and sexy charm and is utterly ruthless, and all of them learning to navigate court politics with the burden of their pasts forever at their heels. Hines isn't just playing up the Strong Female Character trope. As the story progresses it goes quite deep and dark, dealing deftly with topics such as relationships of equality, young motherhood, lesbian relationships, PTSD, intergenerational respect, sexual assault, emotional abuse, and found families.
I'm a huge fan of all Jemisin's work. I also had the extra special privilege of learning from her at Clarion in 2014. The first book in The Broken Earth series is a powerhouse of fantasy, examining women at all stages of their lives, power, and cultural influence. Set in a world where tectonic cataclysm happens every few centuries and magic wielders called orogenes are simultaneously revered and reviled for the power they hold over the earth, the story follow's three unique women's voices as they struggle through their training and dislocation from society, a young woman coming to the height of her powers, and a woman surviving the death of a child and escaping through cataclysm. Jemisin is a master of intricate world-building and dedicated to moving the fantasy genre into a new, inclusive, and exciting age.
Valente does beautiful things with language through all her work – I especially adore her short fiction – and her Fairyland books are no exception. Fairyland works on multiple levels for different readers. As middle grade fiction, the coming of age story examines the effect of war, isolation, and solo parenting in difficult times on children, set against September discovering her strength, trust, and friendship with an unlikely band of travellers including the Wyvery A-Through-L, The Green Wind, and Saturday the Marid. Adults will find poetic licence in the delicious Alician prose and morphing magical landscapes. The entire series of five books follows September and friends through her teens, examining women in many roles at differing times and stressors of their lives.
With an academic background in and a superb eye for QUILTBAG (queer, questioning, undecided, intersex, lesbian, trans, bisexual, asexual, gay, genderqueer) speculative fiction, Brit Mandelo is becoming a go-to editor and author. The former Strange Horizons editor and Tor.com columnist (Brit's work on Joanna Russ is excellent reading) has put together a stellar collection of reprints covering almost a decade and a half of QUILTBAG short science fiction and fantasy. A special favourite of mine is Kelley Eskridge's "Eye of the Storm", a masterclass of a story with a non-gendered protagonist. There's also Catherynne M. Valente's "Palimpsest", the pre-cursor short which grew into the novel of the same name. There are stories of erotica, sexual discovery, different relationship structures, and plenty of positive narratives. From androids to quantum mechanical weirdness, there's no queer tragedy here.
Okorafor is a Nigerian-American author whose work gleefully defies labels. She's written children's books, Young Adult fantasy, and award winning science fiction, much of which with an eye to her Nigerian heritage. "Who Fears Death" is a far-future science fantasy which engages in difficult subjects such as weaponized rape in war and female genital mutilation. The protagonist Onyesonwu struggles to come into her magic after her cutting, undertaking a great quest and meeting prejudice, tradition, revenge, spirituality, and her destiny full on. A prequel "The Book of Phoenix" examines the world of genetic engineering and climate change that brings about the war and magic found in "Who Fears Death".
When We Wake by Karen Healey, 2013
There's a growing community of YA science fiction and fantasy authors dedicated to inclusivity and disseminating feminism for a new generation, and I'm glad one of our own is Karen Healey. "When We Wake" is set in a futuristic Australia that's very familiar. Strict border controls and vicious climate change has turned the country insular. Healey's view of the tenacity of teenagers to make great change shines through. Despite the insularity of this Australia, and possibly in spite of it, the cast of teenagers reflects inclusivity, and touches on the hard questions today's teenagers need to grapple with for their world of tomorrow. Healey's protagonist Tegan is a young woman going through monumental change personally and politically, and as with all teenagers she triumphs and stumbles, questions her world and motivations, works through her sexuality and power. Teenagers deserve interrogations of feminist and political issues, and Healey is one such writer to deliver. Followed by a sequel "While We Run".
Non-Compliant! Kelly Sue DeConnick is the writer behind the fantastic 2012 Captain Marvel reboot, another feministy comic I highly recommend. "Bitch Planet" is a vicious satire of current anti-choice and anti-women politics, a cutting interrogation of women in prison, especially women of colour, and a gleeful flip of the prison exploitation trope. The imprisonment of women within societal expectations and off-planet prisons is insidious and invisible, layered with the intersections of race, class, sexuality, body politics, and so much more. Take a look at what's happening in the background of each frame – there's more to the story in the colours, angles, and shadows. If you invest in the single issues run rather than the trade collection there are essays on feminism included.
In one year, "Ancillary Justice" took out the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award, The Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Locus Award. And quite rightly so. It's a game changer. The story is a military space opera at heart, following the sole surviving piece of a ship consciousness, an ancillary, as she tracks down and enacts revenge against the splintered pieces of the Lord of the Radch, the leader of the empire. A worthy successor to Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness", "Ancillary Justice" does exciting things with gender, where the Radchaai people do not distinguish by gender and use female pronouns by default. This function of the story causes the reader to interrogate their assumptions about socialized expectations and reading of gender in text. A surprising, sometimes difficult, but very rewarding experience. The Imperial Radch trilogy is rounded out with "Ancillary Sword" and "Ancillary Mercy".
All speculative fiction is message fiction. "Octavia's Brood" is explicit in its message of envisioning a radical future. This is a collection of important, passionate, sometimes experimental fiction and essays, steeped in modern activist movements, challenging the narrative that science fiction and fantasy has "always" been the domain of white men and their rocket ships. The book is not predicated on big name authors (you will find a story from LeVar Burton here though), it's about smashing down the borders of an inclusive future. Some of the stories are from first time authors, but all of them come with lots of heart and are absolutely essential to honouring Octavia E. Butler's contribution to the oeuvre and carrying forward the revolution.
AJ Fitzwater is a human meat-suit wearing dragon from Christchurch, New Zealand. She attended the six week Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Workshop in San Diego in 2014, and won New Zealand's Sir Julius Vogel Award 2015 for Best New Talent. Her work can be found in venues such as Shimmer Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and At The Edge, an anthology of New Zealand and Australian speculative fiction from Paper Road Press. Blog: pickledthink.blogspot.com Twitter: @AJFitzwater