Recently, Sonya Taaffe chanced to mention Phyllis Ann Karr in one of her blog posts. Karr has never been a prolific author of science fiction and fantasy, and she remains best-known for her Arthurian murder-mystery The Idylls of the Queen and for the pair of fantasy novels, first published in the 1980s, which I’m going to talk about here: Frostflower and Thorn (1980) and Frostflower and Windbourne (1982).
I can’t speak about the SFFnal literary scene of the 1980s from the point of firsthand knowledge, but from wide and indiscriminate reading, I formed the impression that it was something of a heyday for Sword and Sorcery, and especially for Sword and Sorcery stories that put female characters in major roles. That decade, alas, also seems to have revelled in the rape-and-revenge story, and a large amount of casual explicit violence, sexual and otherwise, in the middle of otherwise not-very-grim-at-all stories.
The Frostflower and Thorn books, Frostflower and Thorn and Frostflower and Windbourne, aren’t exactly classic Sword and Sorcery stories, but they come pretty close. At their heart is an unexpected and unconventional friendship between the vulgar, violent swordswoman Thorn, and the abstinent, gentle, peace-loving sorceress Frostflower.
In the Tanglelands, the sorceri are generally despised and feared—they’re tolerated as they travel only because rumour credits them with terrible powers and a willingness to use them. But any magic-user, man or woman, can be stripped of their powers through rape, as their virginity is (so it is generally understood) part of what allows them to use their powers. Most of the sorceri take revenge for this by “withering” whoever rapes them, in the last act of their powers. What the general populace doesn’t know is that doing harm to any living creature also strips a magic-user of their powers, so that any of the sorceri wandering the Tanglelands are not the terrifying vicious figures of rumour. Really, they’re kind of helpless. In their turn, the sorceri fear the secretive farmer-priests who rule most of the Tanglelands, and who deal in matters of law and punishment. And despite the fact that, in the Tanglelands, all warriors are women, farmer-priest society is pretty aggressively patriarchal.
Frostflower and Thorn opens with Thorn in search of an abortionist, to rid herself of a pregnancy that she doesn’t want. But she’s too broke to pay for a safe abortion. When she encounters Frostflower, Frostflower offers to help her with her problem—speeding Thorn’s pregnancy to completion in the space of an afternoon in return for a) the child, and b) Thorn’s escort to the nearest enclave of sorceri. Thorn doesn’t like sorceri, and doesn’t think Frostflower is much worth her time—but a deal’s a deal. Unfortunately for Frostflower, a sorceress with a baby is assumed to have stolen said baby from its real parents. When Frostflower is taken up by farmer-priests and threatened with death, no one would blame Thorn for prioritising keeping her own skin intact.
But somewhat to her own surprise, Thorn can’t leave Frostflower behind. A daring rescue solidifies their friendship, and between them Thorn and Frostflower do eventually manage to lay to rest many of the misunderstandings that resulted in Frostflower’s arrest.
In Frostflower and Windbourne, Thorn again gets herself involved in the affairs of sorceri, when she rescues a young man accused of sorcerously causing the death of a farmer-priest, and brings him to Frostflower in the hopes of finding a solution. Frostflower and Thorn have a murder to solve, and a young man to try to convince to be less of a complete and utter prat.
The depth of the relationship between Thorn and Frostflower is surprising and unexpected, but it forms the heart of these novels. They’re both unconventional heroines, each in their own way: Both Frostflower’s style of power-through-pacifism and Thorn’s particularly unmaternal attitude are seldom seem in female characters, much less in ones who’ve had a rocky road to a firm friendship.
These are interesting books, and I enjoy them a lot. I’m still a bit regretful that the rest of Karr’s books aren’t all that easy to come by in paper form.
What are you guys reading lately?
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.