Literary science fiction and fantasy. Look at those labels. Why does “literary” need to be tacked onto science fiction and fantasy at all? Why isn’t it redundant to place those words next to each other? Sure, there is sci fi and there is fantasy that is garbage: poorly written, poorly constructed, maybe good for a chuckle or too, but otherwise expendable. There are books in every genre—including that allowed to wear the golden crown of Literature—that are equally meh. But people have spent a long of time putting sci fi and fantasy in a corner. Yeah well NOBODY PUTS MY BABY IN A CORNER. (If you got that reference, congratulations, you were probably born in the 80s.) But seriously. Fuck that. Those people need to get out more, find out about all the sci fi and fantasy books out there that could kill an English professor on sight.
Black Wine (1997) by Candas Jane Dorsey is an example of fantasy that makes the label “literary fantasy” sound redundant. The structure, the sentence-level writing, the characters, and the storytelling are the tracks left by a skilled hand. It is the kind of book that belongs on a shelf next to masters like Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood and Nicola Griffith.
Black Wine is a book about mothers and daughters, about how our families and history can affect our fate, about how we cannot protect our children. It is heartbreakingly sad, and it is uplifting, and it is deep, full of intelligent (but not so obvious as to feel didactic) observations about life. It is about revolution. And death. It is the kind of book you could write a Master’s thesis about. It is impressive. I was impressed.
Big picture: We follow Ea and Essa on their separate travels, one trying to get away from the past, the other trying to find it. The narrative skips between the two women and between a handful of settings that feel incredibly present despite the fact that, when I rake my memory, I can remember few if any descriptions of. There are mad kings and lost princesses. There is travel, there is murder, there is revolt, and there is love (and not of an exclusively hetero or even monogamous kind). Violence is not romanticized in any way. Massive trigger warning to potential readers, though, regarding rape.
The movement of the story never becomes wooden, never falls into the patterns that make up other stories about mad kings, lost princesses, and queens in hiding, tropes every one. In fact, much to my utter joy, Dorsey addresses the ways in which these stories fail real life again and again. The lives of the characters in Black Wine are nothing like the lives of the characters in the books they have read:
“There is no harmonious moment. Essa knows this and yet she waits for one. The moment when she could turn and what she wants would be there, and she would recognize it. But there is never a moment like that, like there is in the romance novels, when everyone takes a break in their adventure and the protagonists come suddenly face-to-face, with no distractions, and really see each other for the first time…
“And there is never, Essa thinks, the clarity of feeling those stories have, those stories where there are never any loose ends. There is never a past which still ties up heroes…in a cloud of guilt… Never, in real life, the freedom and warm weather which allow them, in the books, to move together to the bank, never the smooth sward beside the river on which the heroes lie down, slowly, to explore each other with awe and without thistles or mosquitoes.”
Not only is this a tale about stories and their incongruity with reality, it is about language. The two main narrators speak eight or nine languages, and the subject of how language molds us even as we mold it comes up again and again. Because we travel between many regions we are exposed to many languages, and through them Dorsey is able to show us intricate cultural differences. In one language there are no names—everyone is called Minh—but there is a different word for an onion whole, a chopped onion, a cooked onion, and an onion eaten raw. In another violence is so prevalent that one narrator finds it difficult to describe her life to her new partner, a man who comes from a very peaceful culture in another part of the world, because there are no words for what has happened to her in his native tongue. Slaves in yet another part of the world have developed their own secret sign language in order to talk without being understood by their masters and to get around the fact that many of them have had their tongues cut out. Perhaps this is how, without describing the cities themselves, Dorsey manages to bring the reader so fully into this world. The houses are built of words, the walls of sentences. And it is words and sentences that can tear them down.
Which brings us to the revolution, almost an after thought as far as the plot goes, and one that comes about through the printed word and two books. Dorsey’s representation of revolution is as nuanced as her characters and their stories—we see an evil dictator fall to The People and The People very quickly become as corrupt as the evil dictator. It is a story we’ve all heard before, but one that Dorsey does a particularly good job with. The fact that this turn in the story is almost irrelevant is testament to her skill as a writer.
Now, the details: Or one, specifically, which caught my attention again and again. Though this is written in a way that led my brain to assume it was set in the usual somewhat-medieval-fictional past, that isn’t when it takes place at all. Dorsey never once says anything to point to such a past, and yet she also does very little to point to our present. It is a slight of hand that makes the story feel timeless. My brain, lazy as it will be when left to its own devices, made assumptions and was startled each time a small detail would point to the story’s real setting: right now, in the future or maybe all at once and always. It is no wonder that Black Wine won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, Crawford Award, and Prix Aurora Awards.
Where I got it: Birthday gift from my mom