Women’s History Month – guest, Mary Victoria

Women’s History Month was rudely interrupted by Passover, so I had to take a break. When we finish for the year, I’ll do you a nice list of all the posts so that you can find everything. Until then, enjoy!

Right now, enjoy Mary Victoria talking about a writer who I also love.

The wonder of this year’s topic has been finding out what good writers think of other good writers. These are the writers we think should be remembered, or should remain in the sunlight and be read. While you read, I’ll sit back and remember a conversation I had with Helen had about where some of my ancestors would fit in her invented world Mary’s own writing always evokes memory for me, and this piece is no exception.

She writes with aplomb; with heart; with grace. She is a New Zealander, a Christchurch earthquake veteran and a lover of trees. To those of you in the know, these few words will immediately evoke the name ‘Helen Lowe’. But perhaps there aren’t as many of you in the know as I should like, so I will introduce my chosen writer for Women’s History Month with a quote from one of her books. This is how she begins the tale of Lady Mouse, or Myr, one of the main protagonists of Daughter of Blood and easily my favourite Lowe character to date:

“Outside, the latest Wall storm had blown itself into a brief respite of calm weather, but inside the Red Keep the storm that had been raging between the ruling kin for weeks continued to generate acrimony and raised voices. Although, Myr thought, wrapping her arms around her drawn-up knees, ‘raised voices’ was only her former governess Ise’s way of being polite. Anyone else would say shouting, usually over the top of whoever else was yelling at the same time.”

Immediately, we are there. In one brief line, the excerpt conjures up the sound of winds blowing on a fantastical world – on Haarth, with its mysterious Wall – but more particularly of voices arguing, an all-too-familiar and very human sound. The family argument overheard by the young daughter of the House of Blood, Myr, could have taken place anywhere, from ancient Babylon to modern Brooklyn. The dispute, we intuit, is probably some petty power play between the members of a rich and influential family. With a few strokes of her pen, Lowe does something rather marvellous: she puts us elsewhere, on a strange new world, while keeping us firmly anchored to the here and now. Who hasn’t heard that family argument?

There aren’t that many writers of fantasy who are able to seamlessly blend the familiar with the strange. Often, a novel will pile strangeness upon strangeness in an attempt to shock or entertain. Characters sweep onto the scene with mind-boggling superpowers, or act with a level of amorality and brutality that would have any normal human being vomiting in the gutter, suffering from severe PTSD. It’s all done in the name of fun and games but it doesn’t necessarily convince. Lowe, on the other hand, while she doesn’t shy away from calling on strange powers and superhuman characters, also knows how to do the opposite. She knows how to draw a character whose potency and strength lies in just how recognisably human, flawed and weak she is. Myr has no special powers, nor does she need them to fully inhabit her role and win our hearts.

I was lucky enough to meet Helen some years ago, and indeed stayed for over a decade in her native New Zealand (a place I miss greatly.) She first made contact with me, in her wonderful open-hearted way, in 2010, to interview me for a podcast about a publication. And so I found myself chatting to a delightful, intelligent person about our shared love of Ursula K. Le Guin, trees, and any number of other subjects dear to both of us, a conversation that has continued in one form or another ever since. Along the way, there have been life-changing events. In February 2011, Helen’s home town of Christchurch was battered by a devastating earthquake that damaged a good portion of the city, including its historic centre, leaving nothing but rubble for blocks. People lost their homes or were left without power or plumbing, their livelihoods destroyed. Many left the city at that time. While Helen’s house still stood, it was like a great number of others undermined and affected, subject to ongoing repairs. Insurance payouts were slow, while the city merely struggled to survive. Throughout these trials, however, Helen decided to stay in Christchurch. She didn’t abandon her home, but continued to live, and write, in the city she called home.

Several instalments of the Wall series later, she is still there. I left New Zealand in the meantime, but continued to follow her exploits with interest on her blog after returning to the UK. I have discovered along the way that she is an accomplished poet as well as a novelist, and – most recently – that she is something of a star in the world of tree conservation. You won’t catch her blowing her own trumpet, though: she simply does what she does in that typically understated, Kiwi way, and manages to be a force to be reckoned with. Needless to say, I am full of admiration for her both as a writer and an activist. She doesn’t just survive: she conquers.

In sum, if you haven’t yet had the chance to discover Helen Lowe’s writing, do yourself a favour and pick up the Wall of Night series, or read Thornspell. She will not disappoint. Meanwhile, remember New Zealand, that deliciously green island of dreamers and tale-weavers in the South Pacific, and explore its worlds a little. It will show you wonders to behold, including a fine tradition of writers of fantasy. You can’t go wrong where the clouds are long, and the wind sings haere mai.

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