Thursday, July 19, 2012

Amazons! - ed. Jessica Amanda Salmonson

"they came astride gray horses dappled with sun
and their hair flew behind them"
  from "Amazons" by Melanie Kaye

   In 1979, during the heady days of second-wave feminism, Jessica Amanda Salmonson created "Amazons!", a collection of original (with one important exception) heroic fantasy stories staring women warriors.  It's clearly one of the first works like it in the genre and over thirty years on it holds up very well.  It's a mix of well established authors, up and coming ones and ones who never wrote again, some were young and some were much older.  That variety helped create a book with very distinct voices with each author having clear things they wanted to say in response to Salmonson's story call.
   Salmonson opens the book with a lengthy foreword reviewing the real and mythological history of the amazon.  She describes numerous historical fighting women, from ancient legends to Vietnam's Trung sisters to disguised women in Napoleon's and American Civil War armies to WW II Soviet pilot Maj. Tamara Aleksandrovna.  While recognizing the danger of interpreting myth as fact, she does believe the wealth of such stories and the vast diversity of societies and cultures over the ages implies at least  the possibility of more matriarchal ones having existed.
   All that being said, she makes it clear the primary purpose of "Amazons!" is entertainment.  However, she writes, "...if we are the product of our myths, the ways we change our myths today will change the kinds of people we become tomorrow".   I don't know how much I believe that to be true but I don't disagree with the sentiment.  S&S, she believed, to date had suffered from offensive to non-existent portrayals of women.  By "taking up sword and shield" in male ruled worlds the heroes of "Amazons!" can been seen as revolutionary.  It's a bold statement for an editor to make for her own collection but as it's a strong and successful anthology I won't argue too much.
   Salmonson specifically set out to curate and anthology of women warrior tales and that's pretty much what you get.  Of the thirteen stories, ten are straight up fantasy.  Among them are some fairly important works, introducing several series characters with one winning awards.  Not that it needs repeating (but of course  I'll do it because I'm a blabbermouth), the seventies really were the heyday of the field.  
   Salmonson's foreword is actually preceded by the full poem I've quoted at the beginning.  By poet Melanie Kaye, it describes the call to action and adventure being raised to women open to hear it by one who's heard it.  Most of the "Amazons!" authors must have heard that same call in their lives deep in their hearts because most wrote not just straight fantasy stories but outright S&S. 
   "Amazons!" begins with "The Dreamstone" by C. J. Cherryh.  It's the first story in her Ealdwood series.  I've read tons of Cherryh's distinctive science fiction but this story of a fairy woman's dark confrontation with the iron armed world of man was my first taste of her fantasy work.  There's a strong Celtic flavor to the story.  Like her science fiction it has has sharp edges and doesn't shy away from pain and loss.   Present also is Cherryh's incredible talent at creating distinctly non-human characters.
   "The Wolves of Nakesht" by Janrae Frank.  Her first published story, it introduces the long running character, Chimquar the Lionhawk.  Chimquar is an amazon traveling as a man in land where women warriors are unknown and forbidden.  Self-exiled from her homeland she is traveling with two young youths and seeking her sister and a way home.   Frank's story moves along swiftly and violently and provides a clear picture of Chimquar's and her world's history.  Frank has more stories of Chimquar in collection and I'm tempted to find a copy of it at some point.
  T. J. Morgan's "Woman of the Waste" can be classified as a rape-revenge story.  Shunned by her people before and raped by invaders after the attack on and conquest of her town, Ellide escapes to the snow covered plains.  There she encounters the largely abandoned goddess of her people and is empowered to return to home.  Even reduced to a literary device rape is a potent subject to work a story around.  Here, presented in thin memories it seems robbed of its strength.  As such the story feels weak and not as substantial as it might have been.
   The only not-quite-original story in the book is "The Death of Augusta" is by Emily Bronte and edited together by the late Joanna Russ.  It's an excerpt from the poetic tales of imaginary kingdoms and their rulers created by the Bronte siblings.   "The Death of Augusta" is a story of revenge by a woman exiled in her youth against the cruel Queen who sent her away and whom she once loved.  It suffers from being only fragments of something that was once whole and complete. 
   Next is "Morrien's Bitch" by Janet Fox.   It's a fun story of a hardship toughened thief manipulating an army and its commanders to get the rewards and vengeance she wants.  In some ways the slightest story in the collection but it's thoroughly enjoyable.
   One of the book's highlights is "Agbewe's Sword", Charles R. Saunders' first Dossouye story.  As presented here, Dossouye's adventure takes place in the Nyumbai setting of Imaro, something Saunders would change later when he re-released the story as the first part of the "Dossouye" fix-up.  Dossouye's a member of a the corps of women warriors of the kingdom of Abomey.  Her homeland beset by soldiers and strong magic from the kingdom of Ashanti, Dossouye is sent by her king to retrieve the weapon of the title.
   "Agbewe's Sword" presents an almost innocent character who comes to realize she is caught up in unexpected questions of politics and beliefs.  Forced to confront these Dossouye ends her introductory story on the road to a different life.   
   Of note is Salmonson's introduction to the story.  She writes she never planned "Amazons!" to be a women-only collections by many of the stories by male writers featured amazons killing men and babies and seeming to hold their swords outwards from their crotches.  If not they too often contained comical, ineffectual or bumbling  protagonists.  Saunders alone proved able to do that.
   There are several non-traditional heroic fantasy stories in "Amazons!" and, unfortunately, I found none of them very successful.  Salmonson, in her introduction, makes a good argument for expanding the range of heroic fiction and its need to grow as science fiction outgrew the Doc Smith for exampled.  "Jane Saint's Travails (Part One)" written by Josephine Saxton is about a woman condemned to death by drowning for some sort of treason.  During her execution she is translated to a fantastic world wherein she hopes to find and rescue her daughters.
   Saxton appears to be making some wider statement about the suppression of women and their ways - "(the Bible) a book biased to half the world must be about half rubbish".  It's just never clear enough or presented in such a way that I didn't think I might not have been better off reading a non-fiction essay on the subject.  In the end she's returned to the waking-world, stripped of disabling romantic notions and "understanding a great deal less than...before, but with great futures stirring within".  I suspect there's something to calling the character Jane Saint and her having the same initials as her creator but I think I must have missed some greater meaning intended by Saxton.
   Margaret St. Clair's  legend of desire and regret, "The Sorrow of Witches" is the first story to present a woman's sexual desire in the anthology.  For all the Brundage covers and comments about wenching, mature sexuality and love has taken a backseat to manly action for much of the genre's history even when appropriate.  Couched in a removed style as if recounting a well known legend of the necromancer queen Morganor and her lust for a soldier named Llwdres.  His indifference to Morganor, a powerful woman always accustomed to being given what she desires, leads her to commit horrible acts.  Those acts in turn cause her to use her dark magics to bring about a reunion with Llwdres finally bringing about his reciprocated desire and even love until politics intrude.  In the end Morganor is forced to make terrible decisions.
   The story is gloomy and there is something spiritually disfiguring about the actions Morganor takes.  St. Clair started publishing in the forties and though written many years later, and perhaps because of that, this story  captures the darkness I attach to much of the S&S from the first bloom of the genre.
   "Falcon Blood" by Andre Norton is a part of the vast tapestry of stories and novels making up Witch World.  Tanree, a member of the sexually equal, ship-sailing Sulcarfolk is forced into an alliance with an unnamed Falconer following the wreck of the Kast-Boar.  I have only dipped a toe (a very happy toe) into the vast waters of Witch World.  The Falconers are a strange, off-putting patriarchal legion of mercenaries bonded to great falcons.  They live apart from their women, only coming out of their mountain keeps to their purdah-villages once a year for procreation.  They are one of several, iconic residents of Norton's world.   In "Falcon Blood" the ancient cultural barriers imposed on themselves by the Falconers are explained and thinned.  It might have been the second or third Witch World story I read and I loved it then and still do.   
   "The Rape Patrol" by Michele Belling is another of the "experimental" stories seeking to expand the boundaries of the genre.  Unfortunately it is so outside them it fails in that respect.  Another failure, and this is not intrinsic to the story but to our changed times, is its subject, rape, and how it is approached.
  Salmonson writes that the story was recommended to her by Joanna Russ but she warned her it was "too unsettling to the the status quo to find an easy market".  As it concerns a squadron of modern-day hunters of rapists and their decidedly violent choices I guess that might be possible but it seems hard to imagine.  I admit that might be a limitation of my own age and perceptions.  Maybe it was outrageous three decades ago.  That aside, I didn't dislike the story, in fact there's something viscerally attractive about the characters and their deeds.  However, even with one explicitly fantastic element, it feels incredibly out of place in the context of a book with a cover caption reading "High adventure in heroic fiction".
   "Bones for Dulath" is Megan Lindholm's first published fantasy story and the first Ki and Vandien story.  I've been meaning to read the Ki and Vandien novels for some time (okay, I've been meaning to read LOTS of books for sometimes) and this story has reinvigorated that desire.  It's not an especially exciting story but Ki's voice and the easy camaraderie between the two feels real and comfortable.  Ki and Vandien find themselves face to face with a strange, dangerous mountain creature and a town of people who've come to see it as a god.  I've read a few of Lindholm's novels under the Robin Hobb name and enjoyed them but they're more mainline fantasy than this good slice of S&S.
   Second to last is the inestimable Tanith Lee's "Northern Chess".  It's a short bit of adventure about how the woman warrior Jasiel came upon an army besieging a dead alchemist's last remaining stronghold.  By dint of some unknown and baleful magic the fortress has remained inviolate and has killed most of the knights and soldiers who have tried to overwhelm it.  Jasiel, following confrontations, generated by chauvinism, with the commanders of the army, is forced by her own feelings of personal honor to try her hand at defeating the castle and its defenses.  At the end "Northern Chess" is a funny, very feminist joke that sticks a splendid little barb in the edifice housing too much S&S.  
   The closing story of "Amazons!" is " The Woman Who Loved the Moon" by Elizabeth A. Lynn which tied for the World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1980.  It is presented as a legend long told and being retold again to the reader.  Three powerful warrior sisters are confronted by an even more powerful woman warrior.  For claims about the sisters' beauty in comparison to the Moon she brings death and anguish to them over two consecutive years.  The third of the sisters finally undertakes an arduous journey of vengeance and encounters love instead.  Only the second story to make romantic or sexual feelings a part of its plot, it is also the only one with a gay character.  Like the rest of the book it doesn't feel particularly groundbreaking today, but it must have been like a loud kick at the door of a genre that does have a history of at least a noticeable reactionary component.  The gay aspect (I can't think of a nimbler way to put that) 
isn't a gratuitous bit of soap box preaching but an important and integral story/character element.  I don't love the story, but more than "The Rape Patrol" or "Jane Saint's Travails (Part One)", this is a boundary shoving story that still remains true to the precepts of S&S.
   It really is hard for me to say how important this book was at the time and to the ongoing development of S&S.  By which I mean I just don't know.  I would suspect in field that was, and still is clearly, dominated by male writers it was an exciting development for women who loved S&S but rarely saw themselves on its pages. For writers clearly bursting with ideas and characters it offered a market and a book published by the stalwart DAW Books, which meant it would be widely distributed.  
   For any fan of S&S I suspect they would have been at least curious.  Were they expecting female versions of the worst tropes of male genre characters?  Were they worried about it being nothing but a bunch of lesbian castrators?  If so I hope they were happily surprised by the absence of anyone like that and instead an array of amazons from protectors to mercenaries to revenge seekers but none who were just men with breasts.  I would love to hear from women writing today about whether they're familiar with the book and if they drew anything from it, particularly if they read it when it first came out.


  1. I've been eyeing these for a while, wondering if they were worth obtaining. Your review has convinced me that they are.

    Speaking of reviews (and in reference to your recent post about other bloggers calling into question the work of many book reviews/reviewers around the web), I do appreciate what you're doing here and encourage you to continue. The number of sites that catalog and analyze sword and sorcery fiction are far too few for my tastes. Keep up the good work!

  2. First, thank you for the compliment. Your's is one of the sites that encourage me to step out there and try my hand and something I'd only been toying with before.

    As to "Amazons!", I was surprised with how much I liked it. I was worried too much that it would only be an artifact of its times and its editor. It probably is but in the coolest possible way.

  3. Once again, great stuff. I don't own a copy of Amazons!, or Amazons II, but I do have "The Swordswoman" by Salmonson. I am not sure if I will like it or not, but it is an important piece of S&S history, and I look forward to reading it.
    Keep up the stellar work!

  4. I'll keep trying. I plan to read/review the first volume of Marion Zimmer Bradley's "Swords& Sorceresses" soonish for a contrasting approach to the subject. In her foreword she's very down on the whole idea of amazons in general (though she included the second of Saunder's Dossouye stories)