No-nonsense feminist fantasy


by Liz Williams


Every writer of feminist speculative fiction owes a debt to Ursula le Guin, whose 1974 The Dispossessed neatly turned conventional notions of gender, power and property rights upside down. That debt is explicitly acknowledged by Liz Williams — even if the first fantastic novels she remembers reading were by Jack Vance.

”I love Ursula le Guin … I am definitely a feminist author. I’ll stop being one when the glass ceiling shatters, we get equal pay and women everywhere stop being oppressed. In other words, I’ll probably never stop being one.”

Williams is a prolific writer whose work has engaged with colonialism and class (Empire of Bones), Chinese mythology (the Inspector Chen series), alchemy (The Poison Master) and the collapse of communism (Nine Layers of Sky). Bloodmind is her eighth book, and the second in the Darkland series, which sets a hard sci-fi superstructure of space policing, diplomacy and skop, skiet en donner over solid foundations that interrogate gender and social roles.

Heroine Vali Hallsdottir, scarred by abuse, serves as the agent of a women’s order. In the previous book, Darkland, she undertook a mission against a world that had reduced its women to less than Stepford wives. In Bloodmind, through the search for a serial killer, the causes and consequences of that earlier action unfold; they are part of a far bigger war of worlds where the genetic manipulation of sentience is key and living creatures the objects of monstrous experiments.

Williams writes exceedingly well: her prose is clean, taut and sinewy and carries action in a helter-skelter rush of adrenalin. The no-nonsense style also serves as an effective vehicle for intelligent introspection that never descends into navel-gazing. Using the voices of Vali and three other narrators, we are drawn into compelling debates about what makes us female, what makes us human and who has the right to liberate whom.

Some feminist fantasy builds the silly myth that women are inherently nicer than men and will rule more benignly. Williams has no such illusions: class, power and nurture shape the actions of her often ruthless protagonists, leavened by the saving graces of respect and self-respect. And in that her work is far closer to the spirit of The Dispossessed than much of the resolutely apolitical sentimentalism that has come in between.

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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