I always say that fantasy is a very broad category, and it’s wonderful that it exists and is popular because that means that really weird uncategorisable but wonderful things get published within it.
Geoff Ryman’s The Warrior Who Carried Life (1985) is a short novel that looks like a fantasy novel and has all the accidents of a fantasy novel while really being something off at an angle to what you’d expect. It’s not just a retelling of a myth, it is itself a myth. It’s a version of the story of Gilgamesh, a subverted version where Gilgamesh is a girl who has magically transformed herself into the body of a warrior for a year. It could be that and be a fantasy novel — and would be possible to describe everything about it as if it were a fantasy novel. It’s much more like magic realism than fantasy — but it’s not so much that it doesn’t fit within the category of “fantasy” as that it doesn’t fit within the category of “novel.” “Novel” is a mode that expects psychological realism even when fantastical events are commonplace. What Ryman gives us is mythic realism and mythic characterisation. It’s beautifully written, and beautifully described, but the experience of reading it is much more like reading a myth than reading a modern retelling of a myth.
The Warrior Who Carried Life is set in a world that’s vaguely Asian — rice is the staple food, the standard form of writing is in characters. The mythology it uses is Mesopotamian, the Gilgamesh story, the Adam and Eve story. It’s about the things mythology is about — love and death and gender roles, immortality and knowledge and monsters. The Galu are wonderful monsters, horrible. They go around the world committing atrocities because the way they reproduce is by being killed by people who hate them. This is the story of Cara, who transforms herself magically into a man to get revenge on the Galu, only to discover their nature and find herself on a much more complicated quest. It’s the story of Stefile, a slave who has always been mistreated and who comes to discover that she is a hero too.
One of the main themes of the book is the whole gender thing, the way it really sucks to be a woman in this kind of society at this kind of tech level. This is something fantasy often elides, but Ryman goes straight to the heart of it. Cara is supposed to use the spell to transform into a beast, but the beast she chooses is a man, a warrior. Yet the text never loses sight of her female nature — she is always “she” even when it’s saying “her penis.” Ryman won the Tiptree for Air, but this is the book where he seems to me to be saying something really interesting and significant about gender.
The way it’s like magic realism is that you can’t examine what happens too closely and expect it to make science fictional sense, the way it would in fantasy. Cara has magic armour that works the way it does because of course that’s the way it works, and you shouldn’t ask why it works one way in one chapter and a different way later. This disconcerted me the first time I read it until I relaxed and went with it — and it’s an easy book to relax and go with. It has myth logic, not either fantasy logic or the logic of psychological realism, and it works very well on its own level.
It’s very beautiful, very poetic, the writing itself justifies it. It’s full of vivid description and imagery:
Culmination came swiftly, in winter, through snow. Snow fell over the South, like the Food of the Gods, in flakes. The people of the South had never seen snow before. It came at night, in a high wind, and some of them thought the stars were falling. Overhead, the greatest of the stars seemed to be carried aloft, across the sky. Those who saw it felt their hearts leap up, unaccountably, and they saw, as if it were day, all the land around them, covered in white, sparkling where the light lit it. Had the world changed forever?
Culmination came where no human eyes could see it, save for those of the warriors who had remained to serve the Galu.
This was Ryman’s first novel, and he has written things since that are both more and less like what one expects of a novel. I picked it up originally for the Rowena cover and remembering vivid and powerful Ryman’s Interzone story “The Unconquered Country.” It wasn’t at all what I expected, but I keep coming back to it. I think of it as one of the things out there pinning down the boundaries of what it’s possible to do with fantasy, with myth, with story itself. I commend it to your attention.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.