Skin Deep Magic Story Notes on “Coalrose,” the Dark Muse


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Nina Simone (who I’ve written about before) was probably the inspiration behind the eponymous character, Coalrose, the final novelette in my collection Skin Deep Magic.  The story is in the form of a chorus of vignettes—all recounting their encounters with Zoe Coalrose, who is a kind of dark muse/patron saint for outcasts. The cast includes: a lesbian junkie, a casting director for the Negro Follies, a tattoo artist, and gay widower.  The piece is influenced by Geoff Ryman’s novel, Was, his fugue-like narrative that uses The Wizard of Oz as a touchstone.  Ryman was an instructor during my time at the Clarion West Workshop in 1996, and he read and critiqued the first draft. Coalrose was immensely cathartic to write.  I don’t know how to classify it—magical realism? paranormal? historical fantasy? Though it has darkness, I view it as a hopeful piece. It’s a homage to survival.

BOOK REVIEW: The Warrior Who Carried Life by Geoff Ryman. A classic of genderqueer speculative fiction.

The Warrior Who Carried LifeThe Warrior Who Carried Life by Geoff Ryman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Cara’s mother had always said something very strange about dust: that it was the remains of the dead, and should be respected. “The air is full of other people,” she had told Cara. The dust in the sunlight looked like stars.”

The Warrior Who Carried Life is Geoff Ryman’s first novel, which has been reprinted by the Canadian Press Chizine. It’s a darkly mythic novel that combines the Epic of Gilgamesh with dashes of Celtic and Indian mythology.

A young woman whose family has been dishonored by invaders undertakes a vengeance-based quest to oust the evil from her land. To do so, she magically transforms herself into a male warrior who is nearly invincible. Along the way, she discovers the true nature of the invaders and her quest eventually leads her to the land of death. The novel is drenched in magic, not unlike Tanith Lee’s Tales From the Flat Earth series—there are fabulous beasts, wise women, immortality, and miracles. TWWCL engages and subverts mythic tropes left and right, recalling Samuel R. Delany’s classic novel The Einstein Intersection. Despite the magical overlay, this is a brutal story, full of shocking violence.

Many of the tropes and themes that ballast Ryman’s oeuvre are here. The violence and war of the imaginary land shares a tenuous connection with other Ryman works that chronicle and examine the horrors faced by Kampuchea (Cambodia)—e.g., The Unconquered Country & The King’s Last Song. It is also a deeply feminist and genderqueer novel, with a transcendent lesbian love story at its spiritual center.

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