Review: Amazons!

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Amazons!
edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

★★★½☆

1979 • 206 pages • DAW Books

Reading editor Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s introduction to Amazons!, the first major fantasy anthology featuring female protagonists, is a strange experience for the modern feminist-minded geek. On the one hand, I find few things as heartening (or heartwinning, as Salmonson puts it in the introduction to T. J. Morgan’s “Woman of the White Waste”) as discovering new-to-me texts that prove speculative fiction has not always been the (white, straight, cis) boys’ club people inside the genre and out often assume it is. On the other hand, it’s less heartening to realize that we’ve been having largely the same conversations about diversity and representation for decades. I’m no less motivated to fight the good fight, of course, but it makes for some bittersweet reading.

Emphasis on the sweet, though. I mean, it’s an entire anthology of lady-centric fantasy from the dying days of disco, topped off by a list of nonfiction and fiction books deemed relevant for people interested in that subject matter. And if you’re not interested—well, I think you’re on quite the wrong blog, friend.

Salmonson’s introduction includes the aforementioned and usual arguments for representation in fiction, especially speculative fiction, but it also includes a nicely diverse list of warrior women throughout history. (Not everything is perfect, of course: for instance, her use of the word Oriental makes me want to rend garments.) And Salmonson’s editorial voice stays with the collection, as she introduces each and every piece. Even when seeking out the distaff counterparts to Conan and other fantasy literature stalwarts, Salmonson wanted real women. At a certain point, she rolls her eyes at the number of submissions she got featuring Strong Female Characters.

Unfortunately, only a few of the stories collected actually live up to Salmonson’s lofty goals. Some are forgettable; one is not satisfying in the fragments it’s survived in (Joanna Russ reconstructs Emily Brontë’s “The Death of Augusta”; and one romanticizes a sexual encounter of very dubious consent (Janet Fox’s “Morrien’s Bitch”). I wonder how much of this is simply the generational gap—that the constant info dumping crammed into some of these short stories was more accepted at the time, despite how much they frustrate me. And some of them take place in very generic fantasy settings, without anything to make them especially memorable. It was a much different market back then, even—and perhaps especially—when you were trying to do something new by making the content more representative.

Being a product largely, given the makeup of the authors, second-wave feminism, I had been anticipating some exclusion. But, while not perfect, Amazons! does feature one story about a queer protagonist (Elizabeth A. Lynn’s “The Woman Who Loved the Moon”) and one story set in a fantasy Dahomey (Charles R. Saunder’s “Agbewe’s Sword”), as well as a brief, affirmative mention of trans men. While introducing a short story featuring a heroine who passes as male for safety reasons, Salmonson breezily characterizes trans men in history: “Some may have believed themselves truly men and, thereby, became so” (31).

Unsurprisingly, those ended up being some of my favorite stories in the collection. “The Woman Who Loved the Moon” draws its inspiration from Vietnamese history, giving it a weight some of the other stories lack, despite it being more a fairy tale. It’s also the rare story in this collection that highlights loving bonds between women. The only other story to really do so is Michele Belling’s “The Rape Patrol,” wherein a group of women murder a rapist. It’s a fascinating revenge fantasy, so I suppose it qualifies, but it’s not especially fascinating fantasy. And “Agbewe’s Sword,” with its thoughtful worldbuilding, is a fantastic reminder that all fantasy doesn’t have to be based on medieval England.

But my favorite story in the collection is Tanith Lee’s “Northern Chess.” Like “The Woman Who Loved the Moon” and “Agbewe’s Sword,” Lee uses more specific inspirations to make her worldbuilding pop. She also manages to make Jaisel, who has plenty of qualifications to be a Strange Female Character, appealing without downplaying some of her scummier personality traits (like her inability to stop ragging on the soldier she goes to save during the course of the story). This was my first introduction to Lee as a writer, and certainly won’t be my last.

All in all, Amazons! is a fun read, for the aforementioned short stories and the sheer nostalgia of it all. There’s a list of resources at the back of the book, which confused me until I realized that this was probably the only list like it some readers had access to. Time marches on, of course, and I’m very pleased that I’m on this side of the Internet.

I bought this book from a used book store.

2 thoughts on “Review: Amazons!

  1. Tanith Lee is a really interesting writer, and her female protagonists are always realistic and memorable. She did a great trilogy (I think) of Unicorn books which have at their core the relationship between two sisters. Now I’ve mentioned them I want to go back and read them again!

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