Non-violent strength is one of my holy grails of specfic writing. Can a character be active, engaging, powerful and in control without being militant? Of course they can. It’s just a harder trick to pull off than letting your characters go off the rails and kick all their problems in the face.
In “Hold Back the Waters” by Virginia M. Mohlere (Mythic Delirium 1.1, July-Sept. 2014), we meet Annabeth, a young coffee barista who is also solely responsible for making sure Lake Michigan doesn’t rise up and wash away St. Bran’s, Chicago. Unassuming, down to earth, and competent, Annabeth has the quiet power of a goddess or a force of nature. From the solid base of her apartment, she fights an internal battle of wills with the lake in order to protect the city and its residents, just as her family has done for generations.
Unassuming, down to earth, and competent, Annabeth has the quiet power of a goddess or a force of nature.
Though Annabeth’s job is to hold back the water in a magical way – keeping, through force of will, an invisible barrier of some kind strong so that the lake doesn’t get uppity and storm all over Chicago – she has a day job too. She makes coffee and (delicious-sounding) sandwiches, flirts with her boss Jasper in a maybe-serious way, and has a huge number of quirky, loving family members just a phone call away to confide in and lean on when the other life, the one where she has to do battle with the lake, gets rough.
Annabeth’s “real” life is just so damn cozy that you want to live it, life-threatening struggles with 3,000 miles of water or not. Grounded and responsible, Annabeth’s St. Bran’s is a comfortable place for the reader to settle into and feel at home – and to feel vested in when Michigan threatens to overwhelm her and break free. Annabeth’s power to hold back the lake is drawn from her resolution, fed by her attachment to her life on land. Central to the story’s tension is her – and our – attachment to St. Bran’s. Annabeth feels the call of the lake and the temptation to give up fighting, especially when she is called by her “water family” – those members who have been taken by the lakes in the line of duty – but the cold, nostalgic attraction of that part of her identity doesn’t feel nearly as enticing as what she has in her eclectic neighbourhood.
The strength of this story is in the world building. St. Bran’s is Annabeth’s home, a place real enough that it might be right outside your door, but where everyday life is conducted with a little mystery – a little magic. “Hold Back the Waters” shares a setting with Mohlere’s excellent “Peregrine: A Review” (Lakeside Circus March 2014), though the otherworldly power that Annabeth wields is bigger than anything in that first piece. With a great mix of epic-scale powers and personal-scale relationships, Mohlere has created something in St. Bran’s that readers will want to keep track of and follow. I sincerely hope there is more to come from Mohlere!
The George Sand of Lara Elena Donnelly’s “Chopin’s Eyes” (Strange Horizons July 7th 2014) is a bang-on homage to the real thing – powerful, in-control, and capable of getting exactly what she wants. In this case, what she wants is the thing that lives inside Frédéric Chopin.
Of course, she gets him, just as she did in real life. Sand had a reputation as a mankiller, but her 10-year relationship with Chopin was something else; the longest sustained affair of her life. In Donnelly’s telling, what Sand wanted from Chopin was more than just another lover. She sees in him something otherworldly that emerges only when he plays piano. It is this spirit that she falls in love with.
In Donnelly’s telling, what Sand wanted from Chopin was more than just another lover. She sees in him something otherworldly that emerges only when he plays piano. It is this spirit that she falls in love with.
The passionate love affair between Sand and the essence of Chopin’s musical genius – Donnelly is coy about what, exactly, this spirit might be – is complicated by the sad fact of Chopin’s consumptive body. Sand knows right from the beginning that it is the thing inside that she loves, not the body that holds it. Her attitude towards the sick, weak Chopin who lingers when the virile spirit is dormant is nothing short of callous; an absolutely selfish position. The only use she has for Chopin’s flesh is as a receptacle for the spirit he is possessed by. She does not care for his health except in so far as she does not want to lose the best lover she has ever had.
Yet the thing Sand loves is also the genius that writes Chopin’s music. The invocation of this musical genius, which stunned the world then and continues to enchant us today, serves to excuse Sand’s attitude towards Chopin’s health. She does not want him to die, but she feels that if he is not playing and writing, he is not truly alive. As Chopin’s master and keeper, she decides for him that his health is less important than his music. Chopin’s spirit is something sublime, while his body is just flesh.
Donnelly pulls off the trick of attaching the reader to the demon Chopin rather than the real one, freeing Sand from our censure and allowing her to emerge as a hero (if somewhat tarnished and tragic) rather than an outright villain. History has not made up its mind yet on that point. “You nursed his genius through his darkest hours. You killed the age’s greatest man,” say the public of Donnelly’s story, mirroring the public sentiment of the time. The strength of Donnelly’s Sand, though, is in her conviction to carry on exploiting Chopin for his music and his spirit, despite what it was doing to his body. She is willing to make a difficult decision without regrets, one which might be unpopular with some readers. By eschewing societal pressure to be likable and nurturing, she serves instead as a muse to a musical genius. Even the story’s bumpkin doctors understood that.
“The Occluded” by Rhonda Eikamp (Journal of Unlikely Cartography) offers up a more problematic protagonist in Dr. Sonya Burmester. In the work’s first paragraph she tells the reader “it’s only through Connor Garland’s maps that I’ve come to realize I’m dead.” What follows is a tense and exciting paranormal murder mystery with a deliciously weird twist, entirely concerning her co-worker, Connor Garland, and his ability to see maps in a patient’s heart. Burmester seems to be little more than Garland’s witness until the story’s final paragraphs, in which the introduction’s nihilism comes home to roost. This is the story of how Burmester realizes she is indifferent to the world, and has been since the death of her daughter.
What follows is a tense and exciting paranormal murder mystery with a deliciously weird twist, entirely concerning her co-worker, Connor Garland, and his ability to see maps in a patient’s heart.
“The Occluded”‘ is an unquestionable page-turner. Garland discovers and assaults his daughter’s murderer on the first page, and is implicated in her murder not long after. Burmester is drawn in out of a sense of kinship with Garland: they have both, after all, lost children. Her involvement in Garland’s trouble remains passive throughout the story, but caught up, as we are, in the drama of his story, we assume she will, eventually, dive in and become an active ally in his struggle. The more she sees of Garland’s abilities and obsessions, the more she seems to be drawn to him. We know Garland is innocent of his daughter’s murder and Burmester knows too. It seems clearly set up that she will be the instrument by which he is vindicated and justice is served to the real murderer.
In hindsight, a pat resolution of this kind of too easy. We want the hero (Burmester) to save the day, but where would that leave the first paragraph? The story’s thesis is clearly laid out for us, but, swept up in the excitement, we forget what it was. Burmester is dead. Not, it turns out, literally, but unresponsive to the living nonetheless. She is not the hero Garland needs, but the story is not about him. Instead, he was her instrument, a tumble into the extreme end of the weird, the desperate and the virile – but none of it, not even an episode of very strange Shining-esque sex, manages to rouse her to care about the living. Garland was her last and best attempt to connect with and become engaged with another living person – and it failed.