Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review: Dangerous Women


by Wench Kathi and Wench Donna


Several Wenches greatly anticipated the December release of the Dangerous Women anthology, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, for quite some time and for several reasons.

  • For starters, it tantalized us with the promise of new stories by an array of authors whom we already loved, had been meaning to read, or had never heard of and were suddenly curious about.
  • These authors ranged across many genres: science-fiction, western, historical, crime noir, fantasy, urban fantasy.
  • One theme tied them all together: Strong Female Characters. Otherwise known as Dangerous Women!

This sounded custom made for the Wenches!! Was it worth the wait? Find out what Wench Donna and I thought after the jump!






Deliciously dangerous women


Given that our love for strong female characters brought the Wenches together in the first place, this is the perfect anthology for us! Dangerous women are our favorite type! And this book is a veritable buffet that lets us sample a single-serving size of these genres, authors, and worlds without committing to the entire 7-course (or however-many-books-are-in-a-series) dinner, so to speak. There’s just enough to determine whether each is worth further investigation—or even the ultimate commitment: time on our TBR lists in our hot little hands.

Source

As a whole, I thought these stories were strong and well written. They featured characters I could easily relate to or become emotionally invested in, with a nice mix of action, world building, character development, and conflict resolution. Some pulled me in right away—the first story, Joe Abercrombie’s Some Desperado, was a humdinger that rocketed out of the starting gate at full gallop and never let up! (Which I enjoyed immensely, even though I was not familiar with the character or the book series in which she originated. I hope to read more about her!) Some were more subtly crafted and required a bit more patience to fully realize the message, like Sam Sykes’s Name the Beast. (He is Diana Gabaldon’s son, by the way!) Some were deeply disturbing and packed a real gut punch, like Lawrence Block's I Know How to Pick ’Em. Some revealed vivid and unusual worlds that I long to read more about, like Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell. As varied as they were, by the end of every story, I was a fan.

My only complaint was that a couple of stories didn’t stand alone well—they seemed to have been lifted from a longer story without a clear beginning and end, without enough of a result accomplished, and thus felt like incomplete scenes from a book. However, I did not regret reading any of these stories. For example, Nora's Song by Cecelia Holland was most guilty of appearing to be lifted from a longer work, I thought, but was redeemed by providing a little peek into historical events and people I enjoy reading about. All in all, I was thrilled to get the chance to audition such a variety of authors for a spot on my TBR list. I was pleasantly surprised to love some genres I had not expected to! And I definitely found some authors I plan to visit again real soon.

Some readers have commented on sites like Goodreads that it would be easier to read stories selected to represent a genre instead of a theme. They had a hard time resetting their expectations for the kind of world they were entering with each new story. But the theme worked most excellently for me, so if you’re a fan of dangerous women and aren’t put off by the multiple genres, you might share my enthusiasm!


What makes a woman dangerous?


Lagertha the Shield Maiden
from Vikings
As Saucy Wenches and Readers, I am guessing that many of us expect to see some kickass-ness in our dangerous fictional female characters. And I was expecting that to be in the form of direct physical confrontation, perhaps with cool weaponry, for the most part. Also a certain amount of cerebral creativity (aka scheming), definitely, because I don’t want to read about the kind of “dangerous” that stems from stupidity. But over the past few years of reading with the Wenches, I’ve become accustomed to women who are fairly direct about confronting and overcoming obstacles of every species and temperament: Fever’s Makayla Lane and Dani O’Malley, Night Huntress’s Cat Russell, Chicagoland Vampires’s Merit, and A Song of Ice and Fire’s Daenerys Targaryen, to name a few. Though special powers or dragons aren’t required—Outlander’s Claire Fraser copes beautifully with nothing but her (well educated, formidable) merely human brains, cleverness, adaptability, perseverance, and compassion. And if the direct approach isn’t working, these women have no qualms about switching their tactics to wily and calculating, right along with the men—like House of Cards’s Claire Underwood, whose no-holds-barred, ruthlessly skewed moral compass mows down even the most powerful foes.


Marlene Dietrich from
The Devil is a Woman
I didn’t get too far into this book before I realized there’s another type of dangerous woman represented, and she is the scheming type: the femme fatale who tricks men via sexual intrigue. Or as Cher once phrased it, a V-A-M-P, VAMP. I grew up in an earlier decade or two than many of the other Wenches, and this was by far the most popular definition of dangerous women, which I saw repeatedly depicted on large and small screens. Women other than Wonder Woman weren’t particularly believable as “dangerous” in any other way. I assume this was due to our painfully slow emergence from Dark Times in the Past, when women were often not allowed to be educated, own property, live independently—or trained with martial arts and weapons—and therefore had to resort to the means at hand to get what they wanted. I had no trouble at all adjusting my idea of “dangerous” to fit these stories, but I have chatted with readers who were surprised at this unexpected intrusion by the seductress. Interestingly, these were all female readers. Here’s what one of our Goodreads group members had to say during our December group read:
When I think of a dangerous woman, I think of someone strong and aggressive with a great weapon (or training to be a weapon). When some men think of a dangerous woman, they think of someone hot who may use attraction to trick them or ridicule them. I found that funny once I noticed. I liked the Jim Butcher story where Molly from The Dresden Files used both types of dangerous. ~ Feral

Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo
from HBO’s Game of Thrones
So for me, one of the interesting effects of reading this book was a re-examination of exactly how we, as a society and as readers, define the archetype of the dangerous woman, and how that has and has not changed. But I was most pleasantly surprised to realize that I had forgotten about the stereotype until the stories reminded me!! I do believe that my forays into urban fantasy have reshaped my default views of strong women!!


Wench Kathi’s dangerous reading experience


Wench Donna is going to share her thoughts about each story individually, but first I wanted to say a little about the way I read the book. I bought Dangerous Women primarily for a couple of stories by authors in whom I was already heavily emotionally invested, and based on their strength decided to start at the beginning and read sequentially through the book until I lost interest. Which I am delighted to say never happened! These are highly entertaining stories.

Young Jamie Fraser contemplates love’s great mysteries
on Starz Network’s Outlander
Being an absolutely fanatical Outlander fan, I am not going to pretend I didn’t go straight to Diana Gabaldon’s story Virgins, about very young, pre-Claire versions of Jamie Fraser and Ian Murray. It was set in France, where Jamie hid out for a while immediately after being flogged to within an inch of his life. I loved that this story provided more insight into Jamie’s opinions and insecurities about women and sex in the years before he met Claire. And just how very emotionally (and physically!) ready he was for her by the time she laid her healing hands upon his collarbone and got him to pondering “what it might feel like lower down...”).

Then I moved on to George R.R. Martin’s story, The Princess and the Queen. It is a prequel to A Game of Thrones, so there’s no need to worry about spoilers if you haven’t read the books or caught up on the tv series. But be warned: it is brutal. Horrifyingly. BRUTAL. It tells about the battle for the Iron Throne that occurred between half-siblings Rhaenyra and Aegon Targaryen, children of King Viserys I, which became known as “The Dance of the Dragons”. Though as the story explains, “The Dying of the Dragons” would be more accurate. And for me, it served up a stark (no pun intended...no Starks in this story!) metaphor for willful, rampant destruction of natural wonders that made me uncomfortable on many levels...which I am not saying is a bad thing.


Once I recovered from that bloodbath—oh my, I do hope it isn’t a spoiler that G.R.R. Martin’s story involves a bloodbath, ha ha—I decided to start at the beginning of the book to see whether all the stories were so captivating. And the short answer is, YES!! They were also perfect for reading during holiday travels, when frequent interruptions and less reading time made it harder for me to keep track of long stories.

This Wench rates Dangerous Women...


Now let’s see what Donna has to say about Dangerous Women!

Wench Donna breaks down the stories


When I started reading Dangerous Women, I was planning on reading all the stories, and in the order in which they were presented. So, how did I do? I read most of the stories, and I did stick to the order they appeared in the book. I think Dangerous Women would be an excellent book to take on vacation. Short stories are a good choice when you have an hour here or there to read. I hope to finish a couple of the novellas next time I have some time off. Sun, beach, mojitos—here I come!

Like many of you, this book appeared on my radar thanks to a few authors I was familiar with—such as Diana Gabaldon and George R.R. Martin, who edited the collection. I was interested in exploring some different genres and some new (to me) authors. Here is my impression of these stories, along with my 1–5 lip rating for each.

Another of Joe Abercrombie’s
dangerous women
Some Desperado, by Joe Abercrombie (4 lips)
The “desperate woman” is Shy South, who is fleeing on horseback from a nasty group of outlaws. Joe Abercrombie is one of the authors Wench Angela recently recommended to me, so I was interested in reading this short story. The protagonist was fully fleshed out, warts and all. Although the western genre is not something I usually read, I liked this novella. Fans of Joe Abercrombie have already met Shy in Red Country, one of his earlier novels.

My Heart Is Either Broken, by Megan Abbott (2 lips)
This story really reminded me of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, because it is told from the husband’s point of view. As in that story, the wife is mysterious and troubled. This was not my cup of tea because a missing child is at the center of the mystery. It was well written, but afterwards the story stayed with me, and not in a good way.

Nora's Song, by Cecelia Holland (3 lips)
Princess Nora, daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane, is the narrator of this story. She is unable to grasp all the ramifications of what is happening around her, but it is interesting seeing things from her point of view. I wouldn’t characterize Queen Eleanor as desperate, however she is shrewd and unfashionably clever. It reminded me a little of What Maisie Knew by Henry James. Both stories feature an unhappy marriage through the eyes of a little girl.

The Hands That Are Not There, by Melinda Snodgrass (5 lips)
I think this is one of my favorite novellas in the anthology. A down-on-his-luck barfly tells an incredible story to a young military man. We never find out if it’s true, or if he was just trying to get free drinks. This story features a super sexy alien stripper—how could you not want to read it after that?

Molly's Mirror
Bombshells, by Jim Butcher (5 lips)
I’ve read a few of the Harry Dresden novels, but he is not a main character here. This story is told from the point of view of Molly Carpenter, his mage apprentice. Molly is missing her mentor and has to solve a missing persons case without him. Since I have read only the first few books in the series, I’ve never met her before. I like her! I like Molly!

Raisa Stepanova, by Carrie Vaughn
A Soviet fighter pilot in 1943 wants more than anything to become the first female fighter ace in the world. I’m saving this one for vacation.

Wrestling Jesus, by Joe R. Lansdale (5 lips)
This story has really stuck in my mind in the few weeks since I read it. A young man who is bullied at school finds a protector in an old man with some mad fighting skills. After he leaves home he finds refuge with the old man, who mentors him and teaches him how to fight and become strong enough to defend himself against the bullies. That’s only one part of the story. The old man has an epic battle every five years with his nemesis, with the understanding that the winner will “win” the affections of a magnetic, dangerous beauty...until the next duel. Loved it!

Neighbors, by Megan Lindholm (5 lips)
Sarah, an elderly widow, lives alone in the dilapidated house she’s lived in for many years. She resents her children and their efforts to move her into a seniors’ home. One night, her “crazy” neighbor tries to get her to come with her on an adventure, but Sarah declines. The neighbor is then reported missing. A mysterious supernatural mist appears in the neighborhood, and it gives Sarah a new lease on life. This is a good one!

I Know How to Pick ‘Em, by Lawrence Block (1 lip)
A man meets a woman in a bar, pick-up ensues. Someone dies. Sorry, wasn’t a fan of this one.

The Shade Forest
Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell, by Brandon Sanderson (5 lips)
“Don’t kindle flame, don’t shed the blood of another, don’t run at night.” If you do any of these things, the Shades will come for you. You don’t want that to happen. Silence Malone, the owner of an inn in the middle of the forest, has to procure enough silver to keep the Shades at bay. This one’s a winner!

A Queen in Exile, by Sharon Kay Penman (3 lips)
When a king dies, all the relatives fight each other in their efforts to claim his throne. Think, think, think...I know I’ve read this somewhere before. This story is about Queen Constance and King Heinrich—and there’s not a dragon in sight!

The Girl in the Mirror, by Lev Grossman (3 lips)
At Brakebills, a boarding school for the magically gifted, a precocious teenager named Plum plots a fitting prank to play on the boy who is shortchanging them on their serving of wine with dinner. Unfortunately, Plum gets caught up in something unexpected. Grossman also wrote bestselling novels The Magicians and The Magician King, which are set in the world of Brakebills. Harry Potter fans might want to give this series a try.

Second Arabesque, Very Slowly, by Nancy Kress (3 lips)
I admit I’m not a fan of the premise of this short story. In a post-apocalyptic world, where women are mostly infertile, once a girl reaches maturity (read: has her first period) all the men in her group get to have sex with her to try and knock her up. WTF! The story is told from the point of view of Nurse, an elderly woman, who is “respected” and excused from sex because of her role in keeping the group members healthy. Actually, she will be shown respect for only as long as she is useful. Since she is old and unable to bear children, she would be killed or abandoned if she were not useful to the group. One young girl doesn’t want the “honor” of being deflowered by all the men in her group, and escapes into ballet after finding an old videotape in an abandoned theatre. In spite of the many things I hated, I did like the feel of this story, which reminded me a little of The Walking Dead.

City Lazarus, by Diana Rowland (2 lips)
This story is set in a post-apocalyptic New Orleans, after the Mississippi river changes course and is no longer the city’s lifeblood. A lowlife is found dead, and the NOLA detective assigned to the case doesn’t really give a damn. The detective is so flawed, it’s impossible to root for him in any way. He falls hard for a femme fatale, and takes on a rich and powerful businessman to protect her. Both men are scumbags, whatever.

Young Jamie Fraser and Black Jack Randall
from Starz Network’s Outlander
Virgins, by Diana Gabaldon (5 lips)
Do you know how hard it was for me not to jump ahead to this story? Well, it was very hard. Jamie Fraser and Ian Murray are 19 and 20 years old, respectively, and have joined a band of mercenaries in 18th-century France. I’m not going to even pretend you don’t know anything about the Outlander series, so spoiler prudes beware! Virgins begins just after Jamie has been released from prison after being flogged to within an inch of his life by Black Jack Randall. Witnessing the flogging has caused his father to suffer a stroke and die. Jamie is in a tremendous amount of pain, both from his bloody and torn-up back, and in mourning for his father. His godfather Murtagh has brought him to France, to his best friend, Ian. Jamie and Ian are given the task of escorting a young Jewish girl to the home of her betrothed, along with a priceless artifact as part of her dowry. Mayhem ensues.

Hell Hath No Fury, by Sherrilyn Kenyon (1 lip)
Two young men and two young women are camping/treasure seeking. One of the girls has Indian blood and some psychic ability. The treasure they are seeking has been cursed, and it’s up to her to end the curse and calm the angry ghost. I didn’t care much for this one.

Pronouncing Doom, by S.M. Stirling (3 lips)
Juniper Mackenzie is the leader of her tribe. A young woman has been viciously assaulted, and it’s up to Juniper to ensure justice is served upon the perpetrator. Juniper’s wisdom and leadership ability are apparent and demonstrate why she is the clan chief.

Name the Beast, by Sam Sykes (3 lips)
This is a cool story. There are multiple points of view. I admit I didn’t really know what was going on much of the time, because there is a deliberate vagueness to it. As I was reading it, I was wondering if some of these POVs were flashbacks. I think I need to read it again.

Caretakers, by Pat Cadigan (4 lips)
One sister is an accountant, steady and reliable. Her younger sister Valerie, who has trouble holding down a job and is kind of flaky, comes to live with her. Gradually, the roles are reversed as Valerie becomes a valued, competent volunteer at the nursing home where their mother resides. When Valerie suspects something sinister is happening at the nursing home, the two sisters unite to protect their mother and the other patients.

Lies My Mother Told Me, by Caroline Spector
Sorry, I haven’t read this one yet, but I think there are zombies in it.

The Princess and the Queen, by George R.R. Martin (5 lips)
This should be called “Dance with Dragons”—but GRRM has already used that name in another story. Viserys I dies, and the Iron Throne is up for grabs. What is it about Westeros? Brothers and sisters always want to either marry or kill each other? Basically, this is a bloodbath. Half brother and sister both want to rule, and many, many people die. We also get lots of dragons.


So there you have it...two Wenches weigh in on Dangerous Women and give it their stamp of approval! If you’re a fan of kickass and crafty leading ladies, itching to try new authors and genres, packing for travel or holidays, or just generally have a novella-length-or-less attention span, we both recommend this book for varied and entertaining reading.

If you’ve read any of these stories, what did you think of them? If not, do any look intriguing to you? Are you familiar with other works by these authors? Are any of your favorites included here?

4 comments:

  1. Sorry, I didn't finish my thought. I'll try again. Since Donna is saving a couple of stories for the next time we are being envious that she is sitting on a beach, I thought I'd give a brief description. Raisa Stepanova was not a genre I typically read, but she was one of the most vividly memorable characters in the book for me (along with Shy South in Some Desperado). I instantly picture her and remember her story when I read the title. In Lies My Mother Told Me, survivors must deal with the aftermath of a biological weapon attack in the form of a virus that causes some people to develop special powers (such as the power to raise the dead, which explains the zombies) and others to morph into hideous freaks. Then someone comes along who is able to steal these powers and use them for nefarious purposes. Interesting premise, but there were some things that creeped me out here—don’t want to spoil anything. I hope others who decide to give this book a look will enjoy it as much as we did!

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  2. Loved your review of the anthology. I've read some of the stories so far and have been waylaid by new releases. I absolutely adored the GRRM story, for the background it provided on Westeros and Joe Abercrombie was equal top for me. I still have to read Virgins, but have started reading the book in order. Also loved Sharon Kay Penman's story - but part of this is because I had already come across Constance in the book Lionheart, so it was great for me to read Constance's point of view.

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    1. I hope you enjoy the rest of the stories, Angela! I've been wanting to read something by Sharon Kay Penman ever since you reviewed Lionheart, so I was glad she was represented in this anthology. Looking forward to reading more by her one of these days....

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