Since publishing her debut novel Ammonite in 1993, Nicola Griffith has won the Otherwise Award (formally the James Tiptree, Jr Award), the World Fantasy Award, the Nebula Award, the Washington State Book Award, and no less than six Lambda Literary Awards, as well as being shortlisted for the BSFA Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Locus Award. The Bending The Landscape anthologies she edited with Stephen Pagel were landmark works of LGBTQ+ speculative fiction. Griffith’s work spans genres, from near-future speculative fiction to historical fiction and fantasy, from noir-esque detective fiction to space opera. She’s even written the award-winning nonfiction memoir And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner Notes to a Writer’s Early Life (2017).
Griffith’s refusal to stay still is part of what makes her such a compelling writer, yet it can make it difficult to know which one of her books is the best place for a new reader to start.
Missing out on Griffith’s work would be a mistake, however—while varied, her novels all focus on the experience of queer women, using what Griffith herself calls a “focalised heterotopia” to normalise the queer experience. The queer characters in Griffith’s fiction do not suffer because of their queerness. They experience a world in which their queerness is accepted, in which queer embodiment is celebrated, in which their queer bodies are a source of joy rather than a source of fear or anxiety. It is this radical affirmation of queerness which is the most striking aspect of Griffith’s writing, but this is far from the only reason to read Griffith. She is a master of worldbuilding, whether evoking an alien planet or the streets of Atlanta. Ammonite’s richly imagined alien culture is as vivid and as well-conceived as any of Ursula Le Guin’s, whilst Griffith’s seventh-century England in Hild feels so real you could almost walk into it.
With her new novella, the magical fantasy Spear, due from Tordotcom in April 2022, now is an excellent time to get into Griffith’s writing. This guide should help the reader figure out what will be the best entry point into this remarkable author’s works.
If you’re interested in space opera, read Ammonite
“And these places you go, the people you find, do you come to care for them? Or do you only study them, like strange shells you might find on the beach?”
Griffith’s debut novel immediately established her as an important new voice in genre fiction, and it’s easy to see why. Ammonite is a key work of feminist SF, the missing link between Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion. The novel is an epic adventure set on an alien planet, with enough cool worldbuilding and biological speculation to appeal to any space opera fan. Ammonite tells the story of Marghe, a xenobiologist and linguist sent to study the planet of Jeep by the Company.
The Company would very much like to annex Jeep, except the planet is now in quarantine because a virus has wiped out the entire male population. This has not stopped the surviving female population from thriving and procreating. Marghe’s job is to test a new vaccine for the virus and establish a dialogue with the indigenous population. The Company stands ready to sterilise the planet should she fail, and Uaithne, a warrior woman from the Echraidhe tribe in the north, is leading a deadly vendetta across the plains.
Whilst the plot contains all the excitement of nefarious military corporations and rebel warriors fighting for control of the planet, the heart of the novel lies in the relationship between Marghe and Thenike, a travelling storyteller and healer who nurses Marghe back to health following her capture and escape from a group of malevolent warriors. The planet’s all-woman population creates a situation in which queerness is the society’s norm. Thenike makes Marghe question the nature of her mission, and Marghe must make a conscious choice to follow through with it or to stay and become part of Thenike’s family. Griffith’s heartfelt and well-observed portrayal of two women coming to know each other—and in doing so, coming to know themselves—is one of the genre’s most moving and convincing romances.
If you’re interested in cyberpunk, read Slow River
“She has read many fairy tales and understands instinctively that those who are dragged places unwillingly must find their own way back.”
Whilst Slow River lacks the stereotypical surface aesthetics that cyberpunk is so well known for, the novel is a fascinating and timely exploration of the intersection between technology and identity, and a damning indictment of corporate ethics. Griffith’s near-future speculative fiction masterpiece is much more of a thoughtful character piece than many cyberpunk thrillers, but Slow River’s deft exploration of the genre’s key themes make this a compelling parallel text to the more familiar works of William Gibson or Bruce Sterling. Unlike much male-dominated cyberpunk, Slow River is squarely focused on the agency of its female characters. Griffith populates her novel with a wide array of women—some heroic, some anti-heroic, some downright villainous—all of whom occupy distinct narrative roles and have compelling character arcs.
Slow River is the story of Lore van der Oest, the daughter of a powerful family who head a global corporation. She is kidnapped just before her eighteenth birthday, and wakes up naked on the streets of a city, injured and with her Personal Identity, DNA, and Account insert removed, her identity effectively stolen. She is rescued by a mysterious woman named Spanner, a thief and con-artist who introduces Lore to the world of crime. Lore has to come to terms with the two very different legacies of damage—one caused by her family’s corporation and the other caused by Spanner’s pornographic schemes—as she fights to regain her sense of self and forge her own path in the world. The novel follows Lore’s compelling journey as we see how her innocence is corrupted but also how she tries to reclaim her agency and become a better person.
If you’re interested in detective stories, read The Blue Place
“Ah, but we never really know even our best friends. Even the spouse who snores next to us every night. We can never see behind those glistening eyes, never get beneath the skin, venture inside that shining ivory bowl to the dark dreams and slippery lusts that slide through the crocodile brain without regard for civilization or religion or ethics.”
The Aud Torvingen books, starting with The Blue Place and continuing with Stay and Always, are Griffith’s foray into crime fiction. In the character of Aud, Griffith creates the queer, female, badass, supercool crime fighter that the genre had always deserved. Aud is the perfect antidote to the self-absorbed, miserable man-on-the-edge character we’ve met in so many other works of noir fiction, and provides a much-needed change from the roles of victims or revenge-driven survivors that female characters are frequently saddled with in the genre. Aud is a Norwegian-born ex-police lieutenant living in Atlanta, Georgia, who makes her living teaching martial arts and, when the price is right, as a private eye. She is deadly in a fight, and her sharp intelligence and easy charisma make her an excellent detective.
The Blue Place starts when Aud bumps into a woman running away from a house that goes up in flames, killing the art professor who lives there and destroying a supposedly priceless painting. The woman, Julia Lyons-Bennett, hires Aud to solve the case of who is responsible for the fire, and Aud finds herself falling for her new client. The two are soon plunged into a world of art forgery, money laundering, and worse, in which Aud has to fight to save the woman she loves.
Griffith imbues Aud with depth and complexity. For all that she’s the tough, sexy detective who’s full of confidence, that doesn’t mean that she is free from the consequences of her actions. Stay, the second Aud book, is mostly concerned with the emotional and psychological aftermath of The Blue Place’s devastating conclusion, as Aud is pulled back into the life of crime-solving that she thought she had left behind, and the third book Always sees her confronting the unresolved issues in her past. Griffith lets her protagonist breathe, develop, and grow as a person with each new case and the complications they bring. While all three succeed as detective novels and crime thrillers, what makes the Aud books so extraordinary is that Griffith also makes them work as character pieces.
If you’re interested in epic fantasy and historical fiction, read Hild
“You’re like a sharp bright piece broken from a star. Too sharp, too bright, sometimes, for your own good.”
Hild is a historical fantasy based on the life of St Hilda of Whitby in Britain of the seventh century, and Griffith’s most epic and expansive work to date. The novel is part of a projected series of four, with Hild starting when the eponymous character is three years old and finishing when she’s 18. Hild is the niece of Edwin, King of Northumbria, and her perspicacity and observational skills have led to her being called a prophet and a seer. Against a background of changing allegiances and small kingdoms rising and falling, Hild must navigate the world of politics if she is to protect her friends, family, and the increasing number of people who look to her for leadership.
Hild immerses the reader in Griffith’s vividly imagined seventh-century Britain, made viscerally real through Griffith’s meticulous worldbuilding. Hild is filled with a wealth of research on a period that remains wrapped in obscurity for most non-historians. From the languages to the customs of day-to-day life, the novel evokes the Early Middle Ages in granular detail, so that the reader is almost able to smell and taste it. In doing so, Griffith is able to subvert the reader’s preconceived notions about this historical era, especially with regards to female and queer characters. Hild is a bisexual woman, one who has a powerful position in Edwin’s court and who is revered for her precocious, even uncanny abilities. Thus with Hild, the novel and the character, Griffith challenges our ideas about the erasure of queer people from history and the way historical novels (and the types of characters historical novels are about) can contribute to this phenomenon.
If you’re interested in disability fiction, read So Lucky
“I am not invincible. But I am not Less. I refuse that story. I’ll fight it; I’ll teach others to fight it.”
So Lucky is inspired by Griffith’s own experiences of living with multiple sclerosis, as well as her frustration at the lack of satisfying representations of disabled characters in fiction. The novella tells the story of Mara Tagarelli, a queer woman whose life falls apart when she is diagnosed with MS. But the novel is not about Mara as a victim; it is about how Mara overcomes her years of learned ableism and reclaims agency for herself as a disabled woman. Drawing from Griffith’s lived experience, the book explores the sense of vulnerability that can come with such a diagnosis, as Mara, the successful head of an AIDS foundation with a passion for martial arts, comes to terms with the changes happening to her body. Griffith has pointed out that So Lucky differs from her other novels, where characters are never discriminated against because of their queerness, in that it explores Mara’s struggles against institutionalised ableism and prejudices. As such it has quite a different feel from her other novels, but is a powerful and moving exploration of the experience of coming to identify as disabled and reclaiming narrative spaces for disabled characters.
Depending on the reader’s taste, any one of these starting places makes an excellent entry point into Griffith’s oeuvre—and once you have entered, you will want to follow this author wherever she goes across genres. There is a whole world of wonderful prose, unforgettable characters, and vividly realised settings awaiting the new reader—enjoy.
Jonathan Thornton has written for the websites The Fantasy Hive, Fantasy Faction, and Gingernuts Of Horror. He works with mosquitoes and is working on a PhD on the portrayal of insects in speculative fiction.