This week I want to review a story published here at Tor.com, because in addition to being elegantly written and intensely engaging it taught me something about the way I read short fiction.
Full Disclosure: I am writing this review of a Tor.com story on Tor.com! Circles are closing! Streams are crossing! But far more perniciously than that, Max Gladstone and I have dirt on each other. We share a Dark and Terrible Secret. It’s entirely possible that if we were to become enemies instead of friendly acquaintances we could mutually assure each other’s destruction.
Thank goodness I loved this story.
“A Kiss With Teeth” is a tense, tautly written piece about an old vampire, Vlad, who’s settled into married life with Sarah, the woman who hunted and tried to kill him. They’ve been married for ten years, have a seven-year-old son, Paul, and for their son’s sake are pretending to be a normal couple. But Vlad develops a dangerous passion for his son’s school teacher, and finds his carefully cultivated control of his supernatural strength and hunger slipping.
While a first reading might give the impression that this story’s prose is “transparent,” a second and third reading qualify it: it’s transparent the way ice is, with thickness and colour and a bending of the light that melts it. The prose, like Vlad, is restrained and self-reflexive, a slow stalking of histories and memories and developing plot, with periodic slicing glints of sudden effect:
Sometimes Vlad remembers his youth, sprinting ahead of a cavalry charge to break like lightning on a stand of pikers. Blood, he remembers, oceans of it. Screams of the impaled. There is a sound men’s breaking sterna make when you grab their ribs and pull them out and in, a bassy nightmare transposition of a wishbone’s snap.
Paul’s pencil breaks, and he sharpens it in the translucent bright red plastic toy his mother bought him, with pleasant curves to hide the tiny blade inside.
The voice of Vlad’s perception is brilliantly done, removed as well as restrained, and in stark contrast to the character voices around him. But the thing that struck me most about the story was how, in the moment I found myself gritting my teeth against a narrative I was convinced I would hate, I paused, and decided to trust Max Gladstone.
It was profoundly strange. I can honestly say I’ve never had quite this experience before. There are dozens of writers whose work I love even though it hurts me, writers who I trust to hurt me in ways that share a painful truth about the world and better equip me to deal with it, or grant me catharsis, or make me, somehow, a better person. But to trust that a writer wouldn’t betray or disappoint me—that was strange. That was new territory. I am not used to thinking in these (rather unfair) terms.
But having read Three Parts Dead, and having read “Late Nights at the Cape and Cane,” and finding myself halfway through Two Serpents Rise, I found that while Gladstone repeatedly stacks the deck against women in almost impossible ways, they still win. Against gods, against institutions, against supervillains, against the
slimy disgusting vile horrible absolutely despicable academic supervisors who literally devour their souls to further their own work—women win.
So even though I was reading about a man struggling to resist the urges a woman was provoking by merely existing; even though I was reading about a man stalking a woman, following her to her home, watching her get ready for bed, preparing to kill her—I found myself thinking, very clearly, “this is not what Max Gladstone does. This is not what he’s interested in. This is not going to end the way every other story ends.”
And it didn’t. It did something fierce and beautiful and kind instead, and when I got to the end of the story and read the comments I found, to my delight and astonishment, another woman saying precisely what I had been thinking throughout:
I was tense, apprehensive, as we reached the climax—but I didn’t believe Max would betray my trust, and he didn’t. That’s a wonderful thing in a writer. Through three books and as many short stories, he’s scared me and delighted me and puzzled me and impressed me, but he’s never once let me down.
I don’t say this to put Gladstone on a pedestal. I say this because I am taken aback by the enormity of what I have come to accept as business-as-usual in the literature I read. I have come to accept that women will be stalked, violated, killed, used to further a plot, be prizes for male heroes, cause male heroes consternation and suffer for those heroes’ development. I have come to accept that women will be treated with contempt or elevated to the point of being worthy of rescue by men.
When I read Gladstone’s fiction I feel that I’m seeing the work of someone who was also taken aback by these things, and has made the conscious decision to try and change them. I feel that I’m reading the work of someone who sees that the deck is already stacked against women all the time, in hundreds of ways, and is trying to create a space—a fictional space—in which they can triumph.
I could be wrong. But I remain grateful.
Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of stories and poems written to the taste of 28 different kinds of honey. She has twice received the Rhysling award for best short poem, and her short story “The Green Book” was nominated for a Nebula award. Her work has most recently appeared in Uncanny; in Lightspeed magazine’s special “Women Destroy Science Fiction” issue; and in Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy. She also edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry. Follow her on Twitter.