Poetry, Myth, Darkness, and Humour: The Worlds of Roz Kaveney

Roz Kaveney is a wonderfully talented writer, poet, and critic, and a tireless activist. She has written insightful critical works on a wide range of popular culture, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Nip/Tuck. She has written reviews and criticism for The Guardian and The Independent newspapers. Her debut poetry collection Dialectic of the Flesh (2012) was shortlisted for the Lambda Award. She has a new poetry collection, The Great Good Time. She has published her translations of Catullus’ poetry, which boldly capture the originals’ romanticism, wit, and sexual explicitness. Along with Neil Gaiman, Alex Stewart, and Mary Gentle, she was a core member of the Midnight Rose Collective, which released a series of shared world anthologies published by Penguin.

Kaveney has been a vocal figure in British feminist, trans, and queer activism since the 1970s. She is a founding member of Feminists Against Censorship, which was set up to give voice to feminist arguments against the censorship particularly of sexual materials and to defend individual sexual expression. She is the former deputy chair of UK advocacy group Liberty (formally the National Council for Civil Liberties), which protects civil rights and liberties in the UK. She was also the deputy editor of the magazine META, which promoted trans and genderqueer voices.

Somehow amongst all this Kaveney finds the time to write novels. Her fantasy series Rhapsody of BloodRituals (2012), Reflections (2013), Resurrection (2014) and Realities (2018), plus a concluding volume Revelations which will hopefully be out by next year—deserves to be far more widely read and is, in this reviewer’s opinion, one of the key works of the fantastic of the last decade. Kaveney has also written Tiny Pieces of Skull, or, a Lesson in Manners (2015), which won the Lambda Award in 2016. Tiny Pieces of Skull is a fictionalised account of Kaveney’s experience as a trans woman in London and Chicago in the late 1970s, written in the 1980s but unpublished until some 27 years later. Although not a work of genre fiction, it stands as a pioneering exploration of trans identity, and with its warmth and wit tied to unflinching honesty, it is essential Kaveney.

What unites all of Kaveney’s work, across her criticism, poetry, and prose, is her formidable intelligence and her razor-sharp wit. These qualities make her writing both immensely insightful and a joy to read. As a result, she is able to explore dark and disturbing themes without overwhelming the reader or minimising their import. Tiny Pieces of Skull is unflinching in its portrayal of transphobia and the dangers facing trans women living in poverty, surviving on the street and engaging in sex work. The Rhapsody of Blood novels explore abuses of power inherent in colonialism, empire, and tyranny across human history. Yet her novels are imbued with a warmth and wit, an understanding of the importance of countering the darkness with humour and celebrating moments of joy, that make her explorations of these dark themes all the more poignant and effective.


Rhapsody of Blood

“’Mythology,’ I corrected him, ‘is a word clever men use to describe wisdom that they have forgotten.’” [Reflections 35]

At the heart of Kaveney’s Rhapsody of Blood series are two remarkable women linked by destiny. Mara the Huntress is the sworn defender of the weak against the strong, an immortal who has spent millennia hunting those who would use the Rituals of Blood to become a god through the murder of innocents. Emma Jones is studying at Oxford when she is violently dragged into the world of gods and mythical beings. She and her ghost girlfriend Caroline begin working for a mysterious employer, who sends them on missions to protect the innocent and thwart the plans of the forces of evil.

Rituals opens with Mara tracking down Aleister Crowley in Sicily in 1926. Mara suspects that Crowley may be interested in using the Rituals of Blood to achieve godhood, and so sits him down and tells him the story of her eons-long battle against those who would use the Rituals. Running parallel is the story of how Emma and Caroline become involved in the world of magic, starting in Oxford in 1985. Rituals and its sequels follow the stories of Mara and Emma as they cross paths with gods and spirits, come into conflict with God and Lucifer and vampires and elves, and protect people from deities, monsters, and magi, following the destiny that will ultimately draw the two of them together.

With its mixture of anthropomorphic figures from various mythologies and pantheons, Rhapsody of Blood can be read as Kaveney’s response to Gaiman’s Sandman comics, and with its focus on smart, witty women being thrown into a world of supernatural peril, it shares elements with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yet Kaveney’s creation is entirely her own. Rhapsody of Blood is set apart both by Kaveney’s signature sharp wit and her incredible knowledge of history and mythology. The series is both laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly inventive in how both history and mythology feed into its narrative. Kaveney’s lead characters are likeable and amusing. Mara is a fighter, gifted with strength, speed, and skill, driven by her single-minded commitment to her purpose. Yet she is still possessed of a dry sense of humour, and has absolutely no time for the pomposity and self-importance of the various gods, monsters, and people she fights. Emma, unlike Mara, is not a fighter at all; rather, her strength lies in problem-solving and in talking people down. Emma tackles conflicts and complications using her wits, her charm, and her empathy. She and Caroline are able to navigate the strange and magical world in which they find themselves entangled because of these very human traits, and humour plays a major part in this. As Emma says,

“’Talking to supernatural beings is usually what works.’ Emma looked at Caroline for reinforcement, and Caroline nodded. ‘That, and just listening to them rattle on—your average demon or sea monster gets very lonely, and one of the best things you can do is just listen.’” [Rituals 92]

Much of Emma and Caroline’s quiet heroism comes from listening, from puncturing pomposity and self-importance, and from thinking around the problem whilst others are making noise.

The scope of Rhapsody of Blood is vast, drawing on histories and mythologies frequently overlooked by genre fiction. Mara’s quests to stop the Rituals of Blood and punish those who use it take her from the fall of Tenochtitlan to Cortés to the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution; to Atlantis and Alexandria; to Victorian London and the deserts of Africa. Mara and Emma come into conflict with Jehovah and his angels and Lucifer and his demons—neither are the supreme power they claim to be, and secretly on the same side. Mara fights prehistoric giant bird-god-monsters, and Emma must negotiate a wedding that will link the rival vampires and elves. Along the way they are aided by historical figures such as Voltaire and H. G. Wells, mythological creatures as varied as fauns and Sobekh, the Egyptian crocodile god, and larger-than-life characters like Polly Wild, cockney spymaster and secret power behind the British Empire. Kaveney draws mythological and real historical venues with rigorous research and sheer intensity of imagination, and her historical, mythological, and wholly invented characters all have such depth and humanity that one begins to lose track of which are real, mythological, or original.

The series is difficult to categorise because of the games Kaveney plays with genre. She switches with ease between humorous Pratchett-esque absurdity, epic fantasy action, and gruesome body horror worthy of Clive Barker. Given the sheer amount of stuff packed into these books, what’s remarkable is that Kaveney keeps them feeling like a coherent whole rather than a series of interesting but barely related pieces. The horror and the wonder wind up complementing the humour and vice versa, the mythological themes complementing the historical sections. At the heart of these books is the concept of the Rituals of Blood, which allows Kaveney to explore the darkest parts of human history—the blood shed in the name of religious wars, in the process of colonisation and the maintenance of empire, in tyranny, oppression and persecution. Mara and Emma are engaged in the ongoing fight against these evils, which have shaped all of human history and continue to shape the world around us. Rhapsody of Blood needs the horror elements to highlight the very real atrocities committed by humanity at its worst. And it needs its warmth, charm, wit, and intelligence to remind us how we combat those horrors.


Tiny Pieces of Skull

“‘Well, Ariadne,’ said Annabelle, ‘I suppose so. But I had thought that part of the point of feminism is that there are no minor characters.’” [179]

As mentioned above, Kaveney’s Tiny Pieces of Skull is a fictionalised account of her experiences as a trans woman in the 1970s. The novel tells the story of Annabelle Jones, a charming and intelligent trans woman who is persuaded to leave her safe, comfortable life in London and move to Chicago by the beautiful but self-absorbed Natasha, only to have to find her feet in a new country with no connections. The novel explores how Annabelle, who has recently transitioned, learns about the ups and downs of living in the trans community, both from women who had transitioned earlier and through her own experiences and adventures. Annabelle encounters many of the dangers inherent in living in poverty in a transphobic society, particularly those encountered (then and now) by sex workers, and the novel features some particularly harrowing scenes.

But Tiny Pieces of Skull is not a miserable book. Annabelle is able to mend her relationship with Natasha, and becomes part of a larger queer and trans community. In many ways, Tiny Pieces of Skull is a celebration of the queer and trans communities that exist in spite of entrenched transphobia, and the fact that in an unaccepting society, these women are able to carve a niche for themselves. The novel is shot through with Kaveney’s sharp wit, filled with many amusing exchanges and hilarious insights, and Annabelle and Natasha’s banter could give Emma and Caroline a run for their money. Annabelle’s observation that, according to a feminist worldview, there are no minor characters, is demonstrated through the novel, in which every person Annabelle interacts with is treated as having their own story, someone with their own life whose worldview we are granted a brief glimpse. This tenet can be found at the core of Rhapsody of Blood as well: The idea that people are worthy in and of themselves, and it is when people assume that other people are not that they become monsters. As such, it remains a perfect example of the humanism that drives Kaveney’s prose, poetry, and activism on every level.


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.


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