Critically, each of these stories also has a lot of female agency. I don’t say strong female characters, because some of them are not – some are broken, in one way or another, some are afraid, some confused – but all of them take their own actions, make their own choices, and feel alive, in a way that the more stereotypical weeping maiden, waiting for a prince to carry her off on a white horse, never really does. These are women-as-people, and each and every one of these stories approaches that topic. Not stridently, not unpleasantly, but in a refreshingly matter of fact way. There are a few butt-kicking protagonists – the tribal warrioress of The Gates of Joriun, for example – but at the same times there’s the gentle pair of political pragmatists in The Queen’s Garden, or the girl growing toward independence in Sunseeker. And each of those characters make choices, and whilst those choices may be right or wrong, they’re not presented as being any less valid than another.
With that in mind, twenty years on, I don’t know if the idea of protagonists who a re also women has quite the shock value it has had over the last two decades. Fortunately, the stories stand up on their own as well. I won’t get into spoilers here, but will say that there’s a nice variety of narratives on show. There’s a nice bit of thoroughly alien sci-fi, wrapped in a production of Macbeth in My Voice is my Sword. There’s the aforementioned discussion and plottery in The Queen’s Garden. A solid bit of fantasy, ending with the acceptance of consequences in On the Dying Winds of the Old Year and the Birthing Winds of the New. A story of change, the moving into adulthood, in Making the World Live Again. There’s the odd demon, some swordfights, and some witty dialogue – but mostly, there’s a lot of very well drawn characters, their personalities and lives drawn out from dialogue, from the reactions of those around them, from the setting, from the things they say and do. Basically, Elliot can write a good character, wrap them in a tightly drawn setting in a broader implied world, and the result will knock your socks off. Come for the interesting stories, stay for the characters.
There’s also four essays in here, largely dealing with the state of the SF&F literary field. These feel more like they have an overt agenda than the narratives that precede them. But they do make interesting reading. For example, there’s discussion of the role of the male gaze in fiction, of the way in which this gives the cloak of normality to certain genre and general narrative conventions, and how this can be explored and avoided as a reader and an author. There’s also a piece on what is and is not explored when building worlds in genre fiction – that what is not explicitly written may be taken to fit within the reader’s own existing framework is an interesting idea, and one that invites a closer critical view from, again, both author and reader.
Overall then, this is an excellent collection of short stories; they serve to showcase Elliot as a real talent, and one whose work is deserving of both attention and praise. If you have an interest in well drawn characters sat in interesting worlds, with narratives that have a real eye for emotional truth, then this collection is definitely worth your time.