On the YA fantasy front, author Rosamund Hodge has been making quite a splash with her moody, dark, intensely atmospheric reworkings of myths and fairy tales. So when I had the chance to review this collection, Desires and Dreams and Powers, I pounced.
As in her novels, Rosamund Hodge takes images and ideas from the classics and fairy tales as well as more modern works and refashions them into multifaceted stories short on wordcount but long on punch. You know, with titles like “And Her Eyes Sewn Shut With Unicorn Hair” that these stories are not going be fantasy fluff. As for the neutral-sounding “Situation Normal,” I do not recommend reading this sfnal fantasy before bedtime.
One recurring element that grabbed my attention is sisters. There is a wide variety of sisterly relationships in these stories, some of which go very dark indeed. As for actual darkness, the Persephone myth shows up more than once, most directly in the lead story, “Desires and Dreams and Powers.” But there are echoes in others, as these complex, intense stories examine recurring themes from several angles.
A few of these stories, like “Textual Variants”, are so tight they could easily have expanded into novels—that one, with its abrupt narration and many breaks, feels like a longer work distilled to its core elements. But my favorite story, “More Full of Weeping Than You Can Understand,” is exactly right for its length. In truth, I loved the story so much I would have happily sank into it at novel length, and ordinarily I can take or leave faerie.
It has everything—mothers and daughters, sisters, culture clashes, the deep delight of scholarship. Men and women, war. All woven together in shimmering prose:
“Cold fingers brushed her back, and her shoulders loosened. She knew that her wings were blossoming; she could feel their colours in her throat. When she opened her eyes, the world was different: shadows were longer but filled with hidden glimmers, and the house was hazed with mist but she could see leaves on a tree half a mile away.
“Come across the water,” said her faery mother.
“Perfect World’ addresses the highly contrived moral dilemma of Ursula K. Le Guin’s much-anthologized “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” That story has sparked many essays and reviews, pro and con, since it first appeared. Here, Hodge engages in literary conversation with it, offering a slant that could spark an interesting discussion all on its own.
As mentioned above, some of the stories are very dark. Others offer hope, or consolation. “Apotheosis,” in which a group of people decide they need to purchase a god, lights up with sly humor before the whirlwind climax. None of these stories was the least predictable, except in the expectation of an emotional rollercoaster as well as a visual feast.
Though many of them spark off a wide range of original sources, there are enough recurring themes to inspire me to raise some questions with the author, who generously gave of her time in the following exchange.
SS : It appears to me you are using mythology and fairy tales as springboards for these tales, all of which feature swords and fairly bloody interactions. How you are engaging with the myths and old tales?
RH:I must admit that I feel a little ambivalent when I hear people talk about “engaging with” old tales. When I was coming of age as a writer, it felt like I kept finding stories that retold myths and fairy tales with the sole theme of “actually, all the happy endings are really not, because life sucks and men are pigs.” That’s not just depressing; it’s boring. What’s the point of “engaging with” old tales only to dismiss and disenchant them? So I fumed, and set those stories aside.
But perhaps I was unfair. I don’t think any authors write from the sincere conviction that their subject is banal and meaningless. *Something* drew those authors to the old tales, even when they wanted to fight them. And that’s why *I* keep going back to myths and fairy tales: because I can’t stop. Because I want to know why I can’t stop. What are they, these stories that we turn to even when we hate them? That we rewrite, even when we’re trying to be completely original? Because these ancient, half-buried stories seem to have a strange life of their own, an independent, subterranean existence that slowly moves and shifts beneath the landscape of our culture, so that a retelling is as much discovery as it is creation.
Maybe if I write enough of them, I’ll know.
SS: ‘Engaging with’ is one of those handy umbrella terms that can be a little too wide an umbrella. So too can ‘in conversation with’ though I have come to believe that literature is constantly in conversation with itself, mirroring (and distorting) that produces it. It’s interesting, I find, to tease out which story forms keep showing up over centuries–and across cultures. Like you, I want to discover why, and I’m still not sure of the answer.
RH: I’m not sure there is a single ultimate answer, beyond the fact that we’re all human. We love, we hate, we need, we fear. We live, and then we die. Since we all have the same circuitry in our brains, of course the same story can speak to us, of course the ghost of the same story can haunt us, even across wildly different cultures.
The story that most haunts this collection is not a myth or fairy tale, though. It’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. LeGuin. I read it as a teenager, not too long before (or maybe after?) I watched the movie Judgement at Nuremburg, which reduced me to a sobbing mess because even at age seventeen, I was quite aware of how many skeletons my world was built upon. It’s a question that’s haunted me ever since: how do you live, when the whole fabric of your life is fueled by someone else’s suffering? LeGuin offers the answer of walking away, but she’s writing an extremely abstract fable; it’s a lot less easy to figure out what walking away would mean in concrete terms, in this world or any other. In Desires and Dreams and Powers, the stories “Apotheosis,” “Of the Death of Kings,” and “Perfect World” are all different attempts to wrestle with this issue.
SS: Though many fairy tales and myths begin with some version of ‘long ago’ there are as many that do not—that were contemporary. So . . . why swords instead of guns?
RH: Because swords are cool! But as much as some part of me wants to believe that swords are Just Better, truthfully I have to acknowledge that the reason swords are cool—to me, anyway—is that I am modern.
If you look at Medieval art, you’ll notice that they paint everyone—from Cain and Abel to Hector and Achilles to the current king and bishop—in what was, for them, “modern” clothing. The idea that a tale from long ago should be painted or told in “long ago” terms was just . . . not there.
It is for us. And, frankly, I don’t have the cultural/aesthetic theory to explain why; the Medievals, with their ceaseless hearkening back to Troy and Rome and Arthur, certainly understood the concept of a vanished age. But however much I love the Medieval Ages, I am a child of modernity in this: I want my heroes to carry swords.
SS: Good point about the emerging sense of a long ago time. Like you, I prefer swords in the hands of my heroes. It takes skill to learn to use a sword, and it also can allow for time to reflect. Guns can be shot by anyone, any time, devastation after a moment of careless irritation. It happens, but I don’t want to write about it—or read about it for entertainment. I guess I’m drawn to that tension between life as it is and life as I wish it was. Throw in the attraction of competence, and an undiminished-over-the-decades enjoyment of the swash of silk and the drift of long hair, and there’s the hero with the sword, rather than the cameo-clad, buzz-cut brute with the gun.
There are a lot of stories here about sisters. I realize that many fairy tales are about sisters (and brothers) but I wondered what draws you toward using sisters?
RH: Sibling relationships fascinate me. Actually, all family relationships fascinate me, because they’re the people you love but don’t *choose* to love—and people coping with the loves and the bonds they don’t choose will always be one of my favorite things to explore. But siblings are special. They’re the first “us” you experience against the first “them”: your fellow children against your parents. They’re the first mirrors you recognize yourself in, and the first people you need to protect.
And they’re the first people you have to betray, if you want to become somebody new.
But why sisters? Especially when I have only brothers?
Partly it’s just that I like writing about girls more than boys. But also, I write about sisters because it’s a shortcut to writing about the love between women. My own life has been utterly transformed by female friendship. I know what that passionate sweetness feels like and how powerful it can be. But I know that to a lot of people, the only “true love” is romantic. Even those people, however, will usually accept that sisters do love each other quite a lot. If I write about sisters, I can write those feelings I know without having to spend two hundred pages justifying it.
SS: Talk some more about those two hundred pages justifying female friendship. Some will read that as an argument for f/f (female-female romance), which is a subgenre following in the shadow of the far more popular BL (boy love)—but then you did say that for a lot of people the only “true love” is romantic. Stories showing the full range of love—storge, as Lewis says, the empathy-love, or philia, the friend-love, and also agape, the ultimate selfless love, I think it interesting. Even vital. Rather than limiting oneself to eros. Though eros sells books!
RH: Well, I have written those two hundred pages (and more!) in my Bright Smoke, Cold Fire duology. That was, I suppose, my most “subversive” engagement with an old story, because in those books I rewrote the story of Romeo and Juliet to have friendships that were just as important as the romance (and narratively, perhaps more important—because the relationship suspense came from the friendships, not the romance).
In this book, as you noticed, there are a lot more sisters than friends. But I did sometimes write pure friendship. Often that was for thematic reasons: “The Lamps Thereof Are Fire and Flames,” despite its title drawn from the highly-erotic Song of Songs, is an explicitly anti-romantic story—or at least anti the idea that romance is the only (to quote the story) “love without which all the world was dust.” I used a friendship, not sisterhood, as the central relationship in that story because it made a better foil. Like romance, friendship is love for a stranger, freely chosen for no reason but that stranger’s beauty in the friend’s eyes. (And yes, I realize that last sentence made friendship sound romantic. That’s my whole point. We don’t really have words to express what it’s like to adore and treasure the beauty in a person you don’t want to have sex with.)
Of course, I’m not a 100% intentional writer. In “Three Girls Who Met a Forestborn,” one of the three central relationships is a friendship. I could get all cute and English-major-y and pretend there was a planned contrast in how each of the sections focused on a different type of relationship: siblings, then romance, then friends. But really, the first section centers on siblings because it’s a foil to the story of Tyr and Zisa in Crimson Bound. The second centers on romance because I went “Medieval France = courtly love!!” and also I wanted to write a story vaguely referencing “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight.” And the third part is centered on friendship because . . . that’s what I felt like writing.