Once there was a little girl, born at midnight during the Feast of the Sacrifice, in a certain city of Arabia. The baby’s mother, sighing, named her Dunya. Dunya means “the world,” but what her mother meant by that, no one ever knew…
So begins Catherine F. King’s “The Ninety-Ninth Bride,” the last and longest of the stories from Book Smugglers Publishing last year, and a transformation of the frame story in One Thousand and One Nights. There are several changes from the original tale: historical details and fantastical and mythic elements are added; the primary characters’ roles are shifted, slightly at first and gradually more as the narrative progresses; and most notably, the protagonist is not Shahrazad — more familiar to Western readers as Scheherazade, and named Zhara in this retelling — but Dunyazad. Dunyazad, the younger sister present in some versions in which she hides in the marriage chamber and asks for a story — the ancillary, clandestine character who begs for a tale to be told to spare Shahrazad from the bloodthirsty Sultan, one night at a time.
This is the story not of the woman who tells the tales, but the one who asks that they be told. She is the one who hears, and listens, and remembers. This story calls to my mind Sofia Samatar’s essay “The Frog Sister” in Women Destroy Fantasy!:
The younger sister is not a hero: her voice is a whisper, her space is as confined and domestic as possible. Yet Shahrazad couldn’t speak without her… I’ve always found it moving that the name Shahrazad, according to one interpretation, means “The One Who Frees the City,” while Dunyazad means “The One Who Frees the World.”
This is probably the last story that I’ll be recommending for award consideration (novelette) for 2014. The first for 2015, which also features a female lead who is an underdog yet strong as hell, is “The Half-Dark Promise” by Malon Edwards from Shimmer, Issue #23.
Kaëlle is a Haitian-American girl who turns her disability into her armor, and she’s accompanied by one badass sword called Tonton Macoute. This dark fantasy with steampunk elements has an eminently relatable protagonist, and with this sentence from the opening paragraphs I knew that the prose was going to have a great rhythm to it: But all I hear is my steam-clock heart going tanmiga tanmiga tanmiga in my chest. It’s a story that begs to be read aloud or listened to, and I don’t ever listen to podcasts but I would listen to this one:
I reach behind my head and slide Tonton Macoute out of the sheath in my backpack. Nan yon klendèy, just three quick Rising Butterfly strikes, and the tentacles fall to the smooth floor of my chrysalis, coiling and flopping like snakes with their heads cut off. The Pogo howls in surprise. Not a howl like a lougawou throws at the full moon. But a howl that says, You done just pissed me off.
Tonton Macoute does that sometimes.
How much did I love this story? Enough so I (1) read it at my computer screen which I do but rarely, and (2) continued to read it in spite of learning of its steampunk elements early on. (I have what could be described euphemistically as “uncharitable” feelings about steampunk. But if you’ve heard a rumor that I’ve said, “I wish that subgenre would anthropomorphize so I could drop-kick it into a volcano,” that’s a filthy lie, she says, shifty-eyed.) Anyway, this story is haunting and emotionally resonant and you should basically just go read it right now.