Clavis Aurea #25: Brooke Bolander, K.J. Kabza, Curtis C. Chen5 min read


While I understand that a “strong female character” is a fraught idea and that we need to look beyond angry, ass-kicking women with tragic pasts when defining strength, I’m not going to lie – I really like angry, ass-kicking women, though I can take or leave the tragic pasts.

The key attraction of the trope is that these women get what they want. Real life is all about compromises, with women often having to compromise more than their share. The greatest fantasy fiction can offer us is that with the right mix of skills and personality, we can take what we want compromise-free. Sure, it’s wish fulfillment, but what’s wrong with that?

And You Shall Know Her By The Trail Of Dead by Brooke Bolander

“And You Shall Know Her By The Trail Of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed #57) is pretty much exactly what most people expect when they hear “strong female character.” Rhye is an ex-military synthetic humanoid with a shitty life of hard living and deathmatches behind her, “good with linguistics and better at killing.” She has one eye, two guns, and a vocabulary made up almost entirely of profanity. These days she partners with Rack, a white-collar cybergenius, except he gets his head blown off in the first paragraph.

Rack’s not exactly lost, though. He was plugged into a network at the time of his execution and his personality lives on in the computer. After a little therapeutic bloodletting, Rhye goes in to retrieve Rack, finish the job and save the day.

Rhye is great. She’s good at killing, but her real superpower is that she won’t let herself be beat. She gets back up after even the worst beating, spits blood and lights a smoke. Defeat isn’t measured in injuries or even deaths, but in broken spirits. Even after her partner has been killed, Rhye’s taking revenge, not breaking down.

Much of the story is spent in flashbacks recounting Rhye’s relationship with Rack, though Rack himself is an elusive character. Why he hooks up with Rhye and what binds them together is a bit vague. This could be a symptom of Rhye’s solipsism – she doesn’t have any more idea why he sticks with her than we do. Like so many princesses, Rack seems to exist to motivate Rhye.

Given what we know of Rhye, she doesn’t need the added motivation of a dependent to keep her from going down without a fight – that’s just in her nature. But he acts as a kind of counterbalance to her nihilism: gives her a reason to care, though the reader might not care quite as much as she does. Despite a lot of talk about partnerships, this isn’t a Rhye and Rack story – it’s just a Rhye story. I liked Rhye, so that’s good enough for me.

Steady on Her Feet by K.J. Kabza

The protagonist of “Steady On Her Feet” by K.J. Kabza (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #168) – Holliday – is only 13 years old and has not yet kicked any asses, but she has her share of anger. A mudlark from a pseudo-Victorian underclass, Holliday discovers after an inspection by two doctors that she has an impeccable character. The doctors give her a job and she is able to help provide for her much more vulnerable younger sister, Molly.

The “inspection of the character” is a very literal thing that Drs. Mortleaus and Svartlebarrt are able to do. By waving their hands about a person, they can divine their character and then make modifications to it with “surgical augmentation” by inserting a little marble of clockwork and humours. Holliday is more clever and pragmatic than her employers suspect her to be, for despite having inspected her character, they can’t quite get past her poverty and birth. She learns the ins and outs of character augmentation on the sly while hiding her money.

But class and birth are quite separate from character. Holliday still has to hide from her jealous mother on one hand and the not-entirely-clear motivations of the doctors on the other. Being smart and resourceful can’t help her here, not that much. She’s still only 13 in a world that dislikes her for her birth, not her person. What she does have in excess of a perfect character is her anger.

Holliday’s anger makes the story. Kabza shows her awful situation with hearwrenching perfection, but despite her trap, Holliday’s not a victim. She has fought to learn to read, to get her character examined, to get her job, to save her sister, and she will keep fighting despite the doctors’ increasingly dark designs. She has the tools and the gumption to use them, resulting in an ending with just the right tone – if it is a little confusing in its technicalities.

It’s Machine Code by Curtis C. Chen

Curtis C. Chen‘s “It’s Machine Code” (Journal of Unlikely Cryptography) is a light-hearted piece without much literal ass-kicking nor anger, but Julie Nickerson is great fun anyway. She’s a bored techie, a new Portland Deputy Police Officer (this issue of Unlikely Journal contains a disproportionate number of police procedurals) and small-time criminal who, in the course of a simple data-mining investigation, stumbles upon the machinations of a much more ambitious criminal.

Julie starts out as a bit a shlubb, the sort of civil servant who is made lazy by her intelligence and has very little interest in her job or her coworkers. She has an antagonistic relationship with her friend Victor that provides some funny lines and good banter, but there’s no real loyalty or affection between the two. Julie solves the story’s original case incidentally, off-page between scenes, while focusing her real energy on a very interesting data packet she found in the course of the investigation.

Julie’s not interested in catching any criminals: she’s much more interested in the crime. She’s casually competent, having “learned how to use military-grade encryption before learning how to ride a bicycle,” but stuck in the comfortable rut that casually competent people often get stuck in. In trying to solve the mystery of her data packet, she stumbles across a much more interesting character and some inspiration to become more interesting herself.

It wouldn’t be any fun to give away the mystery’s solution, but suffice to say this is a story that gets best right at the end. Julie, Victor, and their rather hapless department are fun in a bumbling kind of way, but they aren’t particularly motivated people. It takes a criminal mastermind to show how much fun it can be to go off script and just flip off the system. This story’s real star is the criminal.

Yah, you could be a comfortable civil servant. Or you could kick ass. “A clean desktop, a blank slate, a new life.”

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Charlotte Ashley

Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor, and independent bookseller from Toronto, Canada. She reads slush at Lakeside Circus, has reviewed short stories for and The Quill and Quire, and writes short fiction. She keeps a bookish blog at https://www.once–and–

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