Today’s guest is UK writer Liz Williams, writing about the work of Mary Gentle. Those few words hide so very much interesting stuff. I was going to write a lengthy introduction but I lost all the time to exploring her fascinating web presence. Liz needs her own essay. If someone reading this writes it, I’m happy to host it. She’s one of many women fantasy writers who have received recognition (shortlisted for many awards) and are still less visible than they ought be. Her writing and her web presence displays how very wrong we are to let this happen. Where does one start? With her novels, and with some of her other articles.
The first time I picked up a book by Mary Gentle it was, as was usual for me, the title which attracted me. It was Rats and Gargyoles, and for a reader who loved the Gothic, this seemed tailormade. I couldn’t put it down and I searched – in the days before the internet – for anything else by Gentle written in that world. I found it, in The Architecture of Desire and Left to his Own Devices, and I couldn’t believe, and still can’t believe, how many risks she took with this short series. (“I can’t believe she – ” will be a mantra running through this little article, by the way, so get used to it). The same characters, but different universes: radically different. One a kind of urByzantium (the city at the heart of the world in Rats and Gargoyles); an alternative Carolingian London (alternative because both Charles and Cromwell are women); and a version of our world in the yuppy 1980s. Couldn’t believe she’d done it; couldn’t believe she got away with it. I don’t think you could publish this kind of daring now, and with a female protagonist who was so many things: a lover, a fighter, a schemer, somewhat of a crook, and a rapist. Valentine, the White Crow, is not the stereotype feisty-yet-beleaguered heroine of so much urban fantasy. She sexually assaults another woman. She’s manipulative and unkind. And yet she is vibrant and comes to life in a way that many cardboard cut-out fantasy heroines simply fail to do. So does her lover Casaubon: huge, crafty, charming. No-one whom Gentle writes is off the shelf. Her characters are difficult and complex, often unsympathetic, sometimes downright unlikeable. Much like her worlds, in fact.
The City at the Heart of the world remains one of the great pieces of fantasy worldbuilding: fuelled by a magic taken mainly from the Renaissance Hermeticism. At its heart lies the knot of rats who, mysteriously, are human sized. They are like Narnia’s Reepicheep, gallant and flamboyant, but often less kind. There are sphinxes, the great Decans of the hours, and women with cow’s tails. The world of the City is fluid, with shifts between sexuality and species. You’re never quite certain what’s going on. I don’t know if anyone has yet done a study of the use of Hermetic magic and alchemy in the works of Mary Gentle, but they really should.
Orthe, the world in Golden Witchbreed and its sequel Ancient Light, is as strange, SF rather than Fantasy. Christie and Ruric Ohrlandis are another great partnership: Ruric, again, is very real, understandable even when we learn what she’s done. Ancient Light, in particular, demonstrates Gentle’s enormous capacity to take risks as a writer and makes huge demands on the reader. At the end of the book, I couldn’t believe what she’d done. It upset me for days. I still can’t quite get my head around it.
And then there’s Grunts! – a satiric fantasy whose heroes are those traditional villains, the Orcs. Again, this is Gentle refusing to play safe, and she carries this to an extraordinary degree with another, unrelated novel: Ash: a Secret History. Gentle normalizes women as fighters, women as mercenaries (she is herself a sword-fighter). Ash reads like a fantasy novel but it isn’t: it’s science fiction. It stands in my mind along with John Crowley’s Aegypt (which also draws on Hermetics) as one of the great novels of alternate worlds.
I caused a bit of a flap in the 1990s by taking issue with the description of China Mieville’s work and that of M John Harrison as the ‘New Weird.’ To me, China’s writing – which I think is superb, by the way – had the ground prepared for it by Gentle, and it annoyed me that she was left out of this new, hip category (not, I should add, necessarily by the two men mentioned, but by the wider genre as a whole). This is partly because critics have a tendency to run after the new shiny, like ferrets, but also because, sigh, Gentle is a woman. I’d love to know that she’s got her place in the genre canon: I think a lot of people find her work too strange, too imaginative, too – something. And yet I’ve never met anyone who didn’t at least profess to respect it. I’m still thinking about her work, years after I’ve read it and she has definitely been an influence on me in that she taught me through her work that you don’t have to stick to one thing, that you must constantly try to stretch the envelope, constantly try new things. And make your work as strange as you can. She’s one of those writers with whom you can’t wait to see what she does next, although I fear that the publishing industry does not quite ‘get’ her, and may never do so. If they do not, it will be our loss. I hope she continues to take those risks, and exhibits that daring, for many years to come.