Hereabouts on Rich and Strange, I like to keep things from getting same-y—odd streak of tiger/beast-lover stories notwithstanding—since part of my project with this column is to broaden my own reading as well as comment on the stuff I like. So I’m delighted to add a no-holds-barred pulp action cuss-fest to the roster with Brooke Bolander’s amazing “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead,” from this month’s issue of Lightspeed.
Full Disclosure: I’m a columnist for Lightspeed; my first column there will appear next week. Brooke Bolander and I follow each other on Twitter and share a passion for cucumbers so intense that it may well lead to some sort of unexamined bias in her favour.
In the far-future there are fully synthetic humans grown for grunt-work and war: “The children of wires and circuits aren’t worth a tinker’s fuck compared to the children of real flesh and bone, so far as the world’s concerned,” observes Rhye, our foul-mouthed, gun-slinging protagonist. Seriously injured after a prize fight, she’s taken in by Rack, who helps her up and offers her a place to stay.
Rack and Rhye make a great team: he’s cool, quiet, a brilliant security specialist, while she’s fierce, blazing, loud, angry. Mostly Rack looks after Rhye, cleaning her wounds and not judging her life choices—but when a mob deal goes sour, it’s up to Rhye to save both their lives by diving through circuitry and bodiless space to find Rack and the third party he was hired to extract.
This story was the kind to grab me by the head and drag me inside it: its grip is relentless, the ride intense. Rhye’s voice is fantastic, the word “fuck” its mode of composition, the brilliance of it that it never feels forced, but rather like a necessary burst of adrenaline to fuel the combustion of Rhye’s perspective. Fuck is the vehicle for Rhye’s pain, anger, wit, gumption, and she drives it like a goddamn drag-racer.
The inventiveness of the language, of Rhye’s spite-laced metaphors, is as beautiful as it is ugly and shocking. I loved it completely:
Up and at ’em, knocking the bins over clitter-clatter like a fuckball of feral cats, and sure enough there’s her shadow racing to greet her, four years younger, one eye richer, and meaner than a limp-dicked drill sergeant. No time to fire off a good shot; she says fuck it and goes ahead and launches herself straight into the other woman’s knees and down the two of them tumble in a muddy heap of fists and flailing motorcycle boots like a pair of overturned shot glasses, the world reduced to rubber soles squeegeeing shins and knuckles glancing off gritty wet concrete.
I mean look at it. I can hear the clatter, feel the cats’ claws, hear the peculiar thick-glass clunk of shot glasses overturning, feel the scrape skin on concrete. It’s incredible, the pace and speed and twist of this prose that wants to hurt you to make you understand how it hurts.
And then it changes! Fluidly and brilliantly, as the free indirect discourse shifts from Rhye’s perspective to Rack’s, we lose the fucks, the rage, and get, at most, SHITS and goddamns, which frankly read as mannered restraint in the wake of Rhye’s voice. It’s as if Rhye’s been a spinning top, narration-wise, for the whole of the story, and to hear Rack’s voice is to feel a finger descend to freeze its whirling in place.
I could, admittedly, have done without the heavily accented Russian mobsters. I’m almost as tired of that representation as I am of scary brown Arabs, and I could see no reason for them besides a sop to pulp conventions of ethnicised villains. This is a far-future story where consciousnesses can be up and downloaded from various bodies; I think there was room to signpost villainy rather differently.
But that aside, I loved the ride of this, and adored reading the following in Bolander’s Author Spotlight:
I think people are going to be a little surprised by this one, for better or worse. Most of my other stories so far have come from a particular region of my brain—the bit made of bones and fur and feathers and Neko Case and Nick Cave, ankle-deep in ivy and rotting horse apples. Rhye’s tale is composed in the main of the other stuff I love—Tarantino movies and Queen, Blade Runner and punk rock recorded in damp basements, Ghost in the Shell and Scorsese and cheap bourbon and piercings and watching Drive with the surround sound cranked.
This is the first piece of Bolander’s work that I’ve read, so I look forward to being surrounded by the bones and fur and feathers—maybe this column will go back to sweet beast lovin’ after all—but in the meantime, in the wake of this story?
I feel I need a drink.
Amal El-Mohtar feels strongly about accents. She is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of stories and poems written to the taste of 28 different kinds of honey, and has thrice received the Rhysling award for best short poem. 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.