Julie Thompson reviews The Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief by Diane Jean

the warrior the healer and the thief

The Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief (WHT) by Diane Jean is a bite-sized, action-packed adventure across the rugged terrain of the Western United States.  WHT is incredibly fun and entertaining.  It re-imagines the Oregon Trail within the lens of magical realism.  Chase, Mara, and Ari, three women with different motives, join forces against demonic energies and black magic as they head west.  Jean avoids story-stopping exposition, relying instead on character revelation through events and flashbacks.  The pacing is quick and lively, but doesn’t run roughshod over the plot.  At the outset, Chase embodies the warrior, tough on the outside and a bit brisk; Mara, as the sensitive healer; and Ari as the thief, slipping in and out of sight.  However, the women aren’t limited to any one job, emotion, or social category.

Magic, for the most part, possesses a practical nature in this world.  People with any degree of magical ability are referred to as “users”.  Many families have only enough power to aid in simple tasks, such as starting a campfire.  Other people use their magic to attain political power, while others pursue more insidious occupations.  Magic does not prevent drowning or dysentery or any other common ailment on the road.

The mythical creatures that populate this world integrate seamlessly into the rugged terrain of the Oregon Trail, a place that seems almost mystical and unreal to people on the East Coast.  These creatures transform into flesh and blood, beak and claw, among the mountains, sagebrush, and canyons.  They mingle with more familiar animals, such as bison.  Thunderbirds terrorize from the skies; wild hodags threaten from the ground; and herds of bison plow through the fields.  Cue our early season wagon party, featuring the Warrior, the Healer, and the Thief.

Chase Templeton (never, ever call her Chastity) descends from a prestigious line of Old World dragon slayers. Although this is all ancient history by the time Chase was born, this badass shortie still finds uses for her family’s extensive weapons training and magical beast lore.  Early on, Chase recoils from the idea of living a conventional, stay-at-home-and-get-married kind of life.  She loves the rugged terrain and the colorful people who call west of the Mississippi their home.  For her, wilderness and civilization are a state-of-mind, an opinion she shares with her companions.  Every wagon train she guides west is full of people she believes are escaping past lives, their hopes pinned on the shimmering horizon.  Chase’s personal conflicts with the expectations laid out for her by her family and her own beliefs, play out along the trail.

After years of fruitless supplication to the Goddess, Mara (née Aurora Nacht) flees Princeton Seminary and her illustrious family, and hits the open road heading west.  West is the land with all the answers, at least that’s what she wants to believe.  When she signs up for a wagon party leaving Independence, Missouri, she strives to keep a low profile.  Her education and upbringing allow her to pose as a missionary out to spread the word of the Goddess.  She values her faith, but doesn’t push it onto others.  As her fellow travelers risk injury and death, Mara’s resolve to stay silent on her identity and personal mission, weakens.  Mara is a character that, written another way, could have ended up mousy and dry.  Instead, she channels newfound strength, while retaining her empathic qualities.

Enter the third member of this dynamic trio: Ari.  Ari’s jocularity, wide open heart, and special ability, help her survive and thrive.  She wants snuggles, bright lights, company, and sexy good times, not pity and loneliness. Ari doesn’t define herself by the obstacles and sinister forces that seek her soul.  Her journey reflects her struggle to keep dark elements at bay.  Racism and slavery still exist in this alternate Oregon Trail universe. The amorphous evil that follows first Ari’s mother, and then Ari herself, originates on the plantation from which her mother escaped before Ari was born.  After performing a few favors for the New Orleans’ elite, Ari learns from Io, an elderly witch, how slaves were used against each other to enact punitive measures.  Ari’s mother and Io the witch gift her with tools that enable and drive her forward.  The story doesn’t linger on slavery, but it does give you some idea of how it affects the Ari and her mother.

As the narratives of these women unfold, their lives become increasingly intertwined.  The romantic relationships I’ve read about usually involve two people and perhaps a few others known in the novel as speed bumps on the way to some kind of bliss beyond the final page.  Third or fourth persons are regarded as complications, with love as a contest between opposing parties.  Their burgeoning friendship and romance stutter steps over some petty jealousies, but most of those incidents arise from Chase’s initial mistrust of Ari.  I think it’s pretty understandable to reserve trust from a person who pops out from under your wagon.  The women don’t agonize over whether what they feel is “right” or “wrong”.  Instead of stalling the story with introspection, the romance is one of many elements that move the story forward.  The trio becomes closer over the course of events despite differences in their backgrounds and personalities.  All of the elements of a meaningful relationship are present, but the women, apart from Ari, have no frame of reference for emotional and sexual unions among three persons, so they don’t fully recognize the possibility at first.  They help each other grow into the best possible version of themselves.  Nothing about their relationship feels forced or tacked on.  It develops as organically as the rest of the story.

The tale is complete as a stand-alone volume, but has enough leeway for a sequel.  I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel or maybe some prequels!  If you love adventure, the extraordinary mixed with the pedestrian, and history seasoned with magic, then what are you still doing reading this review?  Hitch up your internet oxen and get your copy today!  And then go play Oregon Trail.

Available from Less Than Three Press’s website as an e-book, as well as from Barnes & Noble and Amazon (e-book and paperback formats).

Oregon Trail → Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990

Danika reviews Orlando by Virginia Woolf

orlando

Orlando is the book that I’ve been most ashamed of never having read. It’s a queer classic! So when I was picking out which book should be my first read of 2016, it seemed the obvious choice. The funny thing about reading the classics is that I always go in thinking that I have a general idea what this book is about and what’s going to happen, and they always surprise me. The societal interpretation of the classics is never the same as the actual text. Which is all to say that I was pretty surprised when the book started with Orlando as a kid batting at a shriveled head strung up from his ceiling. Apparently, his ancestors had a habit of decapitating “savages” and keeping the heads as trophies. That’s the sort of bizarre and racist content that people usually don’t mention when discussing it.

This was my first Virginia Woolf book, and I spent most of the novel not sure whether I liked her writing style or not. It can be ornate, even long-winded or overwrought, but it’s also so clever and sometimes hilarious. The whole book is also framed as a biography, and the biographer narrating often interjects to talk about the difficulties of writing biographies, including one section where they explain that Orlando is not doing anything interesting right now, so they narrate what’s happening outside the window with the birds, instead. It’s her writing that takes central stage in the reading experience.

Orlando has some magical realism elements, including the sex/gender (conflated) change in the middle of the book, but also that Orlando lives for several centuries. This huge time range is accompanied with some odd pacing: often a moment will be described for several pages, even just to detail how little is happening, while decades pass within a paragraph. Enough happens in the first 50 pages that it could easily have been an entire novel to itself, but other points the action slows to a crawl. The machinations of the plot are fairly irrelevant, though: the focus is much more on Orlando’s internal life.

The unexpected highlight of reading this classic was the humor. I love Virginia Woolf’s winks throughout the novel, often feminist ones. One of my favourite things is when she pokes fun at her own writing, like writing–in the middle of a sentence that runs almost an entire page- “… nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldly length of this sentence”. She also has an expert way of describing the ridiculous ways people behave, like Orlando’s housekeeper, after Orlando comes home a woman overnight, conspiratorially telling the other servants over tea that she always had her suspicions. But the character I had the most fun reading about was Orlando themselves, especially as a young person, because he is incredibly melodramatic. At some point he just lays facedown on the ice, contemplating death. Later, he gets a bad review of his poetry, and after burning all of his work, he bids his servants to go get two more dogs (with haste!) that he can sulk with in his study because he is “done with men”.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Orlando is worth the read as a classic novel and as a feminist one–but is it queer? I’ll wave away the magical sex/gender change, because the conflation of the two doesn’t seem to anything for trans representation, but is there queer content? Orlando is famously a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, but that aside, there are still some nods to Orlando as a queer character. She does get romantically involved with men as a woman, but there are two instances that suggest that she is still attracted to women:

And as all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she was herself a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.

Later, when Orlando mentions girls in her poetry, a “power” stops her, saying that the poetry about flowers is all well and good, “but–girls? Are girls necessary? You have a husband at the Cape, you say? Ah, well, that’ll do. / And so the spirit passed on.” but Orlando is extremely doubtful whether “if the spirit had examined the contents of her mind carefully, it would not have found something highly contraband”. Orlando feels that by marrying a man, she has escaped from being judged too harshly for her unorthodox inner life. The only disappointment I had with the book was the ending, which focuses on her husband in a way that doesn’t seem to reflect the rest of the novel. The romance and marriage between them didn’t really interest me, though it didn’t seem out of character, and having the story end with the spotlight on him seemed insincere.

I’m glad that I finally picked this one up, and I look forward to reading more Virginia Woolf (especially her diaries and letters). I wish this was one I had studied in school, because I’m sure I would get more out of it by digging a little deeper. I may have to have my own little study session around it! If you, too, have been putting off reading Orlando, consider this your signal to give it a try!

Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the color fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our feet. By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life–(and so on for six pages if you will, but the style is tedious and may well be dropped.)

Danika reviews Falling In Love With Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson

FallingInLoveWithHomonids

 

First things first: this is a short story collection with only one story that has queer women content. (Though it is the longest story, for what it’s worth.) Usually, I probably wouldn’t include a book with that little queer women content at the Lesbrary, or at least I would only review that particular story, but here’s the thing: I loved this book. This was a book that I tried to draw out the experience of reading because I didn’t want it to end. It had me hooked from the introduction. Actually, the first sentence had me sitting down and paying attention: I didn’t used to like people much.

Besides, there is additional queer content beyond “Ours Is the Prettiest”. One of my favourite stories was a cozy narrative about a gay couple (who are in a BDSM relationship) that have a missing chicken. The stories vary throughout in tone and genre, some feeling light and airy, and some veering into horror. What holds the collection together is Nalo Hopkinson’s effortless blending of the fantastic and the mundane. They are usually rooted in reality, but they have elements that transcend it.

“Ours Is the Prettiest” is a Borderlands series, which is a series of books and stories where authors share the same characters and settings. I haven’t read any of the other Borderlands books (though I was intrigued enough by this story that I certainly will now), but I thought this worked really well as a stand-alone. I can’t say how well it fits into the established world–in the introduction Hopkinson mentions getting complaints that her more diverse take was criticized by some readers–but I am definitely inclined to side with this story, which felt like it had more world-building informing it than even made it into the text.

After I finished this book, I just wanted to hug it to my chest and sigh contentedly. Hopkinson introduces each of her stories and gives a little explanation, and those not only add to the experience of those stories, they also show her personality so much that she’s been added to my list of dream authors to have at a dinner party. This is the third book that I’ve read by her, and though frankly I was bewildered by The Chaos, reading this book in addition to The Salt Roads has made me determined to read her entire back list. If you have any interest at all in fantastical or magical realist short stories, if you like sharp humor or flawed and compelling characters, definitely pick this one up. It’s one of my favourite reads this year.