A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab


As soon as I stopped looking for female-authored SF to review I read a cracking fantasy novel which would have counted. Not that I knew the author was a woman until I looked online to see if this was part of a series, and saw her referred to as Victoria. The same article also informed me that she’s American, which explains the sudden mention of ‘tight pants’ which jarred me out of the story for a moment…

This is the story of not just one London but four, one of them being our own eighteenth century version, which is a bit quiet on the magic front compared with the others. Kell is unusual in that he can travel in a carefully controlled way between three of the different Londons, as a kind of diplomatic courier. He’s from Red London, the one with the most fairytale kingdom feeling to it, but there’s also White London which is downright bloodthirsty and dangerous. Hang on – didn’t we say four Londons? As is the way of these things, there’s a London we don’t talk about, a London that collapsed under its own excesses so long ago it’s become a myth. Black London is real though, and it might not be as firmly sealed in the past as was generally believed.

It’s hard to say more without giving too much away, but there is a strong female character, nicely complex, and a pretty-boy prince who I found kind of irritating but since I find plenty of real people irritating that didn’t disturb me too much. There’s tension, excitement, natty dressing, magic, and I didn’t once contemplate throwing the book across the room for crimes of mushiness or sentimentality.

Although this is the first in a series, it didn’t feel incomplete as some fantasy series novels do, rather it felt that there was scope for further adventures if we cared to know about them. I liked the world and the main characters so I think I’ll be going back for more via A Gathering of Shadows.

Week 19: Women and words

This was the week of International Women’s Day so unsurprisingly most of my writing activity has been focused around that. Bradford Libraries had asked for poems on the theme of being bold, and though I don’t often write poetry these days I was inspired (not least by the idea of having a poem on display in Bradford library) and you can read the resulting poem on Bradford Libraries Facebook page.

I had an invite to Edinburgh for International Women’s Day, to celebrate a year of the Dangerous Women Project, which if you recall I had an essay in last August. Sadly I couldn’t go, but that’s because I was in a pub in York with my storytelling-partner Alice Courvoisier and friends, regaling a packed room with tales true and mythical about women through the ages. You can read about what a fabulous time we all had, in a post I put up a few days ago. In the meantime, amuse yourself with this photo from the event:


As if all that wasn’t enough, it’s the final pre-festival meeting at Chapel FM tonight, for last-minute preparations for the Writing on Air Festival which Andrea, Roz and I will be doing in a couple of weeks. Among the music I’ve chosen this year is The Electric Prunes – I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night). You can read the schedule for what looks like a well-stocked festival here: Writing on Air schedule pdf

York. Women. Stories. Songs.

What a brilliant night we all had at the Black Swan in York yesterday. In a wood-panelled room with a massive fireplace and uneven floor I joined Alice Courvoisier, Cath Heinemeyer and friends to tell stories new and old, interspersed with a capella songs from the Barbarellas. It was properly packed, barely a spare seat, so I’d like to thank all those brave strangers who laid out their four quid with no real idea what they’d be getting. I hope we gave you an entertaining couple of hours (with a bit of sneaky education in the middle).


Could I look more pompous?

OneMonkey, official documenter of these things, took a few photos but it was dimly lit and the lampshades made the light a weird orange-pink so they work better in black and white – I could just have said he was being artistic, I guess. One thing the dim lighting taught me is that I need to print my stories in a bigger font. Nobody needed that bit at the beginning where I shuffled around under the light fitting till I could see my page properly, apologising for being middle-aged.

Alice of course circumvents these problems by memorising her myths and folktales (likewise Cath) so she can pace and pause and gesture, and generally create a suitable atmosphere.


Alice kicking the whole thing off with a myth

We had folk songs, pop songs, tales from Russia, Japan, Egypt and West Yorkshire, and I even slipped in a bit of non-fiction, with a slightly (only slightly) more audience-friendly version of my Dangerous Women essay.

The black and white photos don’t allow you to appreciate the book of stories I resurrected from a couple of years ago (new stories, blu-tacked over the old ones which I’d glued to the boards. Little glimpse behind the curtain for you there), so I’ll leave you with a picture of that and the marvellous flyers Alice had printed, artwork courtesy of Jess Wallace.


It’s not my gender that’s the problem

It’s not like I never get involved in women-only publications or events. I reviewed female-author books for women-only SF purveyors Luna Station Quarterly for a while, and I’m taking part in the York International Women’s Festival in March. However, I do that in the spirit that I would enter a competition open only to residents of the UK, or a scheme for Bradford council-tax-payers: I fit the criteria, criteria are sometimes arbitrary. I don’t do it because I think women are somehow special or a homogenous mass. ‘Women’ is too big a group for lumping together: the larger the group the greater the diversity within it, and the less use it is for any practical purpose.


Class (social background, social capital, and contacts) and/or wealth are much more important as enablers or hindrances to getting on than gender is, particularly in writing. Let’s talk about competition entries first.

While it’s true that there are many free to enter writing competitions out there, pretty much all of the big prestigious ones (and many of the smaller ones too) cost money. Before I continue, I should point out that I expect first-readers, judges, administrators and all the rest to be paid properly for their time, and I understand that there are overheads to be covered, as well as the prize money. It doesn’t change the fact that it costs, for example, between £8 (flash fiction) and £10 (short story) to enter the Bridport Prize, £8 for the Bristol Short Story Prize, £10-£12 to enter the various Cinnamon Press competitions, £17.50 for the most recent Manchester Fiction Prize, or £25 for the Bath Novel Award.

In terms of special concessions to female authors, confidence is often cited. Women are not as likely to submit manuscripts to agents or publishers as men. Women are not as convinced of their greatness as men. I’ve met some pretty arrogant and overbearing women for whom this will not be a problem, and I also know plenty of shy, self-deprecating men. Social background comes into the confidence issue in a big way: if you’ve ever felt the slightest hint of ‘not for the likes of us’ you will feel it in the face of publishers and agents. Think your vocabulary might not be as vast as it ‘should’ be? Have an idea that everyone in publishing is a posh woman called Pippa who’s never caught a bus in her life? Now bear that in mind as you prepare to fork out most of this month’s disposable income in writing competition fees…

I was shocked recently to read a £3 reading fee described as less than the price of a coffee or sandwich. Now £3 is not a vast amount to me for a fee like this, though even the small amounts add up – it was the comparison I didn’t like, as though it was perfectly trivial for everyone. I would not pay £3 for a sandwich or a cup of coffee (I have paid £3 for a really fancy hot chocolate, and felt guilty about it later). When OneMonkey and I go out for a meal it costs us £20-£25 in total, probably because we don’t buy alcohol or a starter and are both vegetarian, but still that’s the sort of thing you’re up against. Do we pay for a treat we can both enjoy, or the entry fee to a writing competition I have little chance of winning? You’d have to be massively confident (or single-minded) to enter the writing competition if you didn’t have much spare cash.

Then there are writing retreats, editorial and critiquing services, workshops and conferences, writing groups. Not all of these will charge a fee (and some have low income concessionary rates) but even travel costs to events can be prohibitive. I saw a 3-day conference advertised recently, the price seemed high but considering you were getting 3 days probably not too bad, it was just over an hour away by public transport (we don’t have a car) but adding in the 3 days of travel costs nearly doubled the total price of attendance so I decided against it. Again, if you’re lacking confidence, and perhaps don’t know anyone else who writes or thinks writing is a worthwhile thing to do, you’ll think twice about spending the money.

Books cost money (though the Guardian still thinks describing books around the £10 mark as stocking fillers is reasonable), libraries are closing down and don’t always have the books that you need. Research resources that are a matter of paying to use the online database from the comfort of your own study for the better off, might be a stumbling block for others. Even carving out writing time is harder if you can’t afford a babysitter or an after school club, or haven’t got a spare room to shut yourself in with a notepad and pen.

I once went to a writing workshop where the tutor began by saying writing was (financially) accessible to everyone because all you needed was paper and a pen. Rubbish, I thought. As a hobby, maybe, but not if you want to be a writer. If you want to be a writer, you need to type up your work on a computer and in some cases still print it out and post it off as a hard copy. Unless you’re exceptionally talented you need guidance and tuition (in person or via books) and preferably someone to read through your final drafts to give you an opinion, which might have to be an editorial service if you don’t hang around with other writers much. You need the money to enter competitions or pay the increasingly common ‘reading fees’ for magazines (or buy a book from the indie publisher before you can submit your own manuscript – I get why they want to do that, but I’m not buying a book I’ve already read from the library just so I can send them my work and then probably not even be one of the ten people they publish next year). You need the confidence that you’re not just throwing all this money away. This is not a women-only problem.


Women of words

Flicking through an old copy of Mslexia and wondering if I should submit to their One I Love feature (short piece about a book that’s important to you), it occurred to me that they only cover books by women. Before I go on, I should say I always have my misgivings about magazines that only allow women to write for them, apart from anything else I think most women associated with such a thing would fume at any men-only equivalent, but a (male) writer friend of mine once cautioned me (in this context) about cutting off my nose to spite my face (which I am prone to) so I tell myself that it’s no different from a magazine for Scottish writers or Northumbrian writers or whatever, and get on with it.

Off the top of my head I couldn’t think of any personally important books I’d read by women, so out came the trusty notebook where I’ve logged my reading for nearly 20 years. Since the start of 2001 (roughly 10 years so that’ll do as a sample) I’ve read 353 books, of which 52 (less than 15%) were written by women – that’s 30 novels (including 5 Tracy Chevalier, 5 AS Byatt, a 4-volume fantasy series by Maggie Furey, 3 detective novels chosen at random in the library and 2 Margaret Atwoods given to me by a friend), a graphic novel, a short story collection, 9 books for children (basically Harry Potter, plus the ones I passed the time with when I worked in a charity shop and ‘junior fiction’ was next to the till), 7 history books and 4 other assorted non-fiction. Back in 1994 I didn’t read a single book by a female author, and in 1995 and 1996, no female-authored fiction. Surprising, interesting, but does it matter?

I noticed that (since I’m yet to start on the pile of second-hand CJ Cherryh novels I picked up recently) none of those 30 novels in the last 10 years were science fiction; 8 were fantasy, but the rest were mainly ‘literary’ (AS Byatt, Margaret Atwood – though she does write sci-fi as well, I believe) or historical (even all but one of the detective novels were historical). I suppose the traditional male-domination of science still largely applies (and unfortunately I’ve met a few academics who would prefer to keep it that way) so it seems logical that the science fiction audience could be mainly male and hence the subset of that audience that becomes the next generation of authors will be mainly male. The last thing I would want is a patronising leg-up for female sci-fi writers, as the editors and publishers try to shift the balance.

It did make me wonder about unconscious bias, though. CJ Cherryh – initials, hence gender neutral and I don’t think I realised until after I’d bought the pile of books that this was a female author. I do like to use my initials generally (Big Brother’s fault, he’s always called me JY) but when I started submitting sci-fi stories I made a deliberate decision not to use my full name. It wasn’t to hoodwink editors (I sort of assume, though I may be wrong, that these days there’s no conscious gender bias on their part, unless they’re running a gender-specific magazine) but to stop readers from passing my story over, or pre-judging it. I like to think I don’t notice the gender of authors when I pick up their books or flick through a magazine but I’m realising with some shame that I see a woman’s name and assume fantasy rather than sci-fi, and I’d probably guessed others would do the same, hence my use of initials. Of course some female authors go the whole hog and use a male pseudonym to circumvent this, so maybe I’ve read and enjoyed sci-fi short stories written by women, without realising it. I’m not about to deliberately seek out sci-fi by women (just as bad as deliberately reading sci-fi by men), but I’ll try harder to give it an equal chance. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Erudite women in a less tolerant time

This month I read The Weaker Vessel, Antonia Fraser’s hefty tome describing the role of women in 17th century England. Fascinating throughout, and amusing and horrifying by turns, it’s a readable history and doesn’t seem to be pushing a feminist agenda as books on women in history often seem to do. Much as I hated school, reading this book made me thankful for it, and thankful also for the opportunity to write openly as I do, both creating fiction and airing opinions in my blog.

The thought of being barred from an education because of my gender (or indeed for any other reason) fills me with horror. If the attitudes of 17th century England still prevailed in the late 20th I would have been warned that no-one would marry me if I showed signs of learning (not so much of a threat now, but quite dire back then), I would have been ridiculed and told that reading was bad for my health, and if my father as a well-educated man had decided to encourage me (as some did), his friends would very likely have tried to dissuade him. I can only imagine the frustration of being restricted to the ladylike lessons in needlework, dancing and singing for a (relatively wealthy) 17th century woman as knowledge-hungry and book-loving as I am. Of course some of that will be a product of my time – if I was surrounded by uneducated women, with no expectations of being taught anything which might stretch my mind, who knows if I’d still yearn for history and maths. Nevertheless there were a few brave women who struggled against their imposed role and not only obtained a Classical education themselves but endeavoured (without a great deal of success, unfortunately) to pass it on to the next generation.

Female authors did exist (Aphra Behn for instance was a notable playwright) but often faced ridicule or hostility, or it was assumed that the work was not entirely their own. They could keep their work secret or publish anonymously, but it took some guts to stand up and show their work to the world, and unfortunately courage was seen as a masculine trait and therefore unwelcome in a modest and virtuous (i.e. socially acceptable) woman. Interestingly, female painters were perfectly acceptable, but then painting doesn’t require book-learning so isn’t as threatening.

However much I might complain sometimes about pollution or the fragmentation of society, the proliferation of annoying gadgets and the globalisation and associated homogenisation of culture, I’m still glad I’m here now and not in the past. Anytime I find myself wondering, I should just think of an age in which I wouldn’t even be allowed (or able, since histories would have been in Latin) to read a history book like The Weaker Vessel, let alone write an article about it.