Commissioned by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, these tales of dangerous women by the most stellar names in fiction are available for the first time in three-volume paperback.
This first volume features an original 35,000 word novella by George R.R. Martin.‘The Princess and the Queen’ reveals the origins of the civil war in Westeros (before the events in A Game of Thrones), which is known as the Dance of the Dragons, pitting Targaryen against Targaryen and dragon against dragon.
Other authors in this volume of warriors, bad girls and dragonriders include worldwide bestselling authors Brandon Sanderson, Lawrence Block and Nancy Kress.
Gardner Dozois’s introduction
George R. R. Martin, ‘The Princess and the Queen’
Carrie Vaughn, ‘Raisa Stepanova’
Nancy Kress, ’Second Arabesque, Very Slowly’
Lawrence Block, ‘I Know How to Pick ‘Em’
Megan Abbott, ‘My Heart Is Either Broken’
Joe R. Lansdale, ‘Wrestling Jesus’
Brandon Sanderson, ‘Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell’
PRIOR WARNING I have a lot of thoughts about some of these stories so there will be spoilers. Only read on if this is not a problem for you.
Now with that out of the way – I had high hopes for this collection despite the dull blurb we are offered on the book’s back cover. I have forgotten why I had high hopes when I added it to my wish list (it was so long ago) but high hopes were had.
I’ve been in the mood to read about fierce and wonderful and dangerous women, and thought the time was right considering the Women’s Marches going on around the world. I was ready to read about women, women who would empower me, women who would terrify me, women who were strong.
The introduction promised me things, several things and I couldn’t help but go back and hiss liiiiies at it every so often while I read. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the collection overall and will still be reading parts two and three but my hopes are considerably lower. This book did not do what it said on the tin. (George R.R. Martin, I am looking at you in particular.)
As it’s a collection of short stories by different authors, I want to focus on each separately. Buckle up, kids. This is going to be a long one.
The Princess and the Queen by George R.R. Martin
‘The Princess and the Queen’ is a sort of prelude to the Song of Ice and Fire books written in the incredibly dry style of a historian. The book’s cover features a quote from Entertainment Weekly which reads ‘Martin’s story reads like an outline for a Game of Thrones prequel that never was’. I don’t think this is the compliment they hope it to be. It’s accurate but it’s not a compliment.
This story had so much potential for bad-assery and all around powerful and compelling female characters. It is incredibly disappointing to see this come to almost nothing.
The story starts with Queen Alicent plotting to have her son on the throne when her husband dies instead of his named heir and first-born daughter Princess Rhaenyra. She seems at first to be a fierce Queen and an interesting character to follow but Martin seems to all but forget about her through the course of the story. She gets less and less prominent, so much so that I wasn’t even sure where she was or whether she was still alive by the end of the novella. She could have been plotting all the way through, she could have been orchestrating schemes while trapped in the Red Keep but alas, she was let down number one.
Our next titular character, Princess (then Queen) Rhaenyra also had a promising start. After birthing a malformed stillborn daughter, she rages about making her step mother and half siblings pay, blaming them for the death of her child. Knowing she was a dragonrider and loving a good revenge plot this excited me. But alas, again. Rhaenrya was a Queen of inaction, letting her consort and her sons and her relations do everything for her. Again and again, people she loved died and people she thought were loyal betrayed her. At every death and every betrayal, I was hoping for her to mount her dragon and rain fire and terror and ruin and blood down upon those who had wronged her. But it just didn’t happen. Instead, when faced with rebellion and betrayal and rejection by the iron throne, she ran away. Even her death was a let down. She was a warrior, a dragonrider, a Targaryen and definitely possessed of some skill in combat. Did she do anything with it? No. She was eaten by a near-dead dragon, which she could probably have done some damage to if only she tried.
When I finally thought I was being given a female character who would, and did, do something in Rhaenys Targaryen (known as the Queen Who Never Was) she was dead four paragraphs later. Four paragraphs. That was all she was given. Some of those were about her dragon rather than her. True, her dragon was female and there were a number of female dragons in the novella (the most dangerous women included, if female dragons count as women) but they didn’t particularly have their own agency so I argue that they don’t count towards the so far redundant theme of the collection.
Shortly after, we were given another character who I got excited about, who I thought could take the place of Rhaenys Targaryen. Nettle. She was compelling, she had intrigue about her. She appeared from nowhere, earning the trust of a dragon who had never taken a rider. Ever. Nettle was but sixteen and managed to become the rider of a dragon which had previously bitten chunks out of men who had tried to claim it. I was so eager to learn more about her and see where she was headed. But again, alas. She was part of a great battle but it was her dragon’s feats that were described, not hers. Then, and this is the greatest injustice of the novella because she was just such an intriguing concept for a character, she was reduced to nothing but the prince consort’s lover. Rhaenyra orders her killed out of jealousy and fear of betrayal and the prince consort saves her, she then flies away never to be seen again. Why? What happened to her? I would much rather learn about what happened after she flew off than anything that happens next but alas, I will probably never know. #justice4nettle
Another female character is made to choose a child of hers to die, and instead of fighting to save her children, she chooses. They kill the one she didn’t choose and she goes mad and ends up jumping out of a window. Another takes flight on a small dragon and ends up being captured imprisoned within about three paragraphs. I despair. I understand that not every woman would be the fierce and powerful woman I hoped to read about in this story but I hoped one of them would be.
The men in this novella are given so much time that it is easy to forget about the women it is supposed to be about. It’s such a disappointment and I am so annoyed about it. It could have been epic. But no. I will be irritated by this story for a while to come. Possibly forever. It had so. much. potential.
Raisa Stepanova by Carrie Vaughn
The second story in the collection follows Russian fighter pilot Raisa Stepanova on her quest to become the first female ace. I am really enjoying Russian/Slavic stories at the moment so this one excited me.
Raisa herself was a bit annoying. She was dangerous, there can be no denying that what with her skill in the air and her rising kill count, but I found her to be quite petty and juvenile. I enjoyed not liking her though so I am counting it as a win. I had hoped the story would have a bit more action than it did but it was still a good little plot, despite being one of the more forgettable stories in the collection. This is not through any fault of its own, some of the others just stuck in my mind that little bit more.
It did, however, get me googling one of the characters (Liliia Litviak) and I was delighted to find that she was a real person. We never actually meet Liliia in the story but I wish we did.
All in all, it was a good little story, not the most compelling but good – definitely a tonic after the disaster that had come before it.
Second Arabesque, Very Slowly by Nancy Kress
Dystopia! I enjoy dystopian fiction (still), especially when it is done well and I think this was. ‘Second Arabesque[…]’ is set in a future America where an infertility plague has spread among women and, as is common in dystopias, the population has shrunk. To survive as a woman, you either need to be fertile or useful. Susan is the latter, she is sixty (refreshing) and a nurse – well, what this world calls a nurse. It is her job to look after the girls until they Begin (a fancy term for getting their first period) after which they are given to the men in the hopes that they will be fertile. (Eeeek.)
Unlike most of the people in her pack, she is literate, she enjoys reading and she has at least some awareness of what the world had been like before. She tells us stories told to her by her grandmother, mostly about the theatre. Are we sensing why I liked this story yet?
It focuses a lot on beauty and what counts once the world has ended – is it okay or right to just survive and see no beauty in the world? – and addresses this through the medium of ballet. Well, as good a ballet as can be learnt by scrawny post-apocalypsers from aged ballet videos. To explore this, we are given not one but three strong female characters: Kate, the now-dancer, doesn’t want to be fertile, but more importantly she doesn’t want to find out whether she’s fertile; Bonnie who, when Susan falls and injures her knee, drugs Susan so that she can help Kate and Guy (a young male character) dance, and later poisons the pack so that they can escape; and finally, Susan, our narrator, who at the story’s end is sat waiting to either kill others or kill herself, whichever is necessary to ensure the freedom of Kate, Guy and Bonnie.
They are each strong and surprising in their own ways and I love it. This is one of my favourite of the stories in the collection. The world building is great for such a short piece and we’re given a number of characters who are each complete and some of whom are annoying (Pretty, ugh, Pretty). Good job.
I Know How to Pick ‘Em by Lawrence Block
Ugh. I didn’t like this story and it didn’t fit in this collection.
To sum up: a man is in a bar, where he is approached by a married woman (he can tell by the dent and lack of tan on her ring finger). Our narrator can read her like a book and they retreat back to her motel room to have sex. A fair amount of sex. He, in his great and powerful man-ness, knows that she wants him to kill her husband, that she is manipulating him only she’s actually not because he is one step ahead of her. He explains all of this, while his inner voice tells us, the reader, about his perverse history with his mother, to her while having sex with and killing her simultaneously.
I do not know why this story is included in this anthology. The woman has no depth and the story itself is really about a man. No dangerous women here. You could argue that his mother is the dangerous woman here but I really do not what to think about that. That is very much not what I am here for.
I repeat: ugh.
My Heart is Either Broken by Megan Abbott
What this story does better than the last is have a male narrator. Bear with me, the narrator is not the be all and end all of the story, he is so preoccupied with his wife that his own self kind of falls into the background – I’m not against a male narrator by any means but I feel like the dangerous women should feature more heavily as this is an anthology about dangerous women. What the last story lacks in dangerous women, this story has in spades. Lorie is a dangerous woman. Lorie is scary, not the kind of scary I thought she was originally but still…
Lorie and Tom’s baby daughter, Shelby, is missing. All signs point to Lorie having done something to her. She’s clearly unstable and clearly enjoying herself a bit too much for someone whose daughter was stolen away from her only weeks before. She dances on tables, she gets a tattoo (it says ‘watch me burn’ in Spanish, I do believe), she buys new clothes, she loves the attention. I was completely convinced that she’d done something to her. Completely. This story made me nervous, I could feel my heart pounding a little.
Nothing made me as nervous as the last couple of paragraphs, when everything was supposed to be happy and joyful and wonderful. Those last few paragraphs will stick with me, I was sure I knew what had happened but I didn’t. Oh, it was a stressful story. Stressful and great, not my favourite but I got incredibly invested.
Wrestling Jesus by Joe R. Lansdale
I am not enthused by this story. It’s just very ‘meh’. I was promised ‘the best bad girl ever’ among other things and I just wasn’t given it. The ‘best bad girl ever’ was forgettable, and barely in the story. If not for that promise and the fact that this story was in Dangerous Women, I probably would have enjoyed it but instead it felt like false advertising. It’s another story that doesn’t fit. It’s a shame, I enjoyed the writing but I just didn’t feel anything for the story. I felt so little that I barely have anything to say about it. This is about it. It sums up my feelings perfectly.
I don’t think the little descriptions of the stories that are included in the author bios are a credit to the collection – this one in particular just led to disappointment.
Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell by Brandon Sanderson
I am so pleased that this was the last story in the book, if the stories had been in a different order, I might have ended up throwing the book but luckily, Brandon Sanderson was waiting for me.
Shockingly, I have never read the whole of one of Brandon Sanderson’s books. I borrowed one from a friend for a time but I was just so preoccupied with other things (read: university) that I never finished it. I do intend to read his work (I may even own some – I must remember to check, my TBR pile is spread across a house, a bungalow and my flat, and is very extensive). I enjoyed what I’d read and I was glad his story in Dangerous Women did not disappoint.
Firstly, the main character is called Silence. Secondly, she’s secretly a very talented and very feared bounty hunter. Thirdly, she is not afraid of the forest or the shades within – well, she has her moments. I love her. She gets things done and she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty. I want more.
We’re also given William Ann, Silence’s daughter, she’s young, inexperienced and determined to get her own way, determined to help, and determined to save her mother. I love her too.
The whole thing is atmospheric and wonderful and it makes me want to read. It gave me back the joy of reading which had been stolen from me during the previous short. If nothing else, reading this was a pleasure and a privilege.
I just love this story and everything about it. I will give GRRM and Dozois their due, they knew exactly how to end this part of the collection. This is by far the best story and it made me actually want to read the other two books instead of leaving them to languish on a desk which I am currently using as if it’s a bookshelf. I won’t read them straight away, having still not forgiven GRRM but I will read them when I want something short.
TL;DR: It’s worth a read for half of the stories, and as a whole it is enjoyable but don’t get your hopes up because it’s not exactly as advertised. Let’s hope the next one is a bit better! (I bet no one will beat Sanderson though.)