by Gael Baudino
1990 • 351 pages • Roc
Gossamer Axe found its way onto my reading list after several commenters recommended it on a lesbian-focused installment of Tor.com’s column Sleeps with Monsters, but, like a lot of older and more obscure speculative fiction on my list, it happens to be out of print. I despaired of getting my hands on a library copy. (In retrospect, I probably could have picked a copy online for quite cheap, but I have this allergy to paying for shipping.) But my despair was short-lived, because the universe immediately realized that a queer pagan feminist rock and roll fantasy novel from the eighties was practically my birthright. One of my friends found a copy at Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party in Atlanta (which I’ve still never been to!) and I immediately roared dibs.
And then it took me a little over a year to actually read it. You might think that I would read it while living in Denver, in which the bulk of the action of Gossamer Axe is set. I did not. But there was something right about it being one of the first books I read in Brooklyn. It was sort of like meeting the best version of the past—both my own and speculative fiction’s.
Centuries ago, the harper Chairiste Ni Cummen finally escaped from the changeless Sidh who captured her for her foolish notion that she outplay their bard—but she could not rescue her lover Siudb. With the help of the fairy harp that keeps her young, Chairiste (now going by Christa) has tried time and again to rescue her lover, but to no avail. Now, in Denver in the late eighties, Christa discovers a new sound that could finally bring the Sidh bard Orfide to his knees and free Siudb—rock and roll. With the world of the Sidh receding, Christa throws her all into mastering the guitar, rock and roll, and the music industry in order to form an all-female heavy metal band to battle the Sidh.
Based on that description, I have to admit—I was expecting something slightly camp, and I don’t just mean how the eighties tend to date. (Which is to say, wonderfully and a thousand times up my alley.) But among Gossamer Axe’s greatest strengths are a clear-eyed earnestness and almost maniacal attention to musical detail. (Which makes sense, given that Gael Baudino herself is a harper.) I’m often wary of urban fantasy, as it can get too gritty for my blood from time to time, but Gossamer Axe has no interest in noir. Instead, it marries together a bright, slightly sanitized late eighties rock and roll scene with an unchanging fairy world slowly unraveling, taking its own sweet time (despite the time table) so it can comment on the AIDS crisis, families, and, of course, feminism.
Gossamer Axe is, obviously, a woman-centered novel; I’ve seen several reviews comment that men would probably not enjoy this novel, since they’re almost uniformly depicted as rampantly sexist and exploitative. But I’m not so sure. Firstly, the most important male character, Christa’s guitar teacher and friend Kevin, gets a subplot all his own, about confronting his racist, homophobic family and reconnecting with a dying brother. (The brother could have been introduced more subtly—he’s cut to several times, presumably in an attempt for Baudino to highlight a decent for 1990 queer spectrum.) But a large part of the novel is dedicated to Christa and her bandmates overcoming sexism in the industry and the men who have oppressed them—abusive fathers, violent lovers, and careless bandmates. It is, however, important to note that Christa, who encouraged Siudb give up her singing in order to study harping with her, sees a direct correlation between herself and her vocalist Monica’s abusive boyfriend, who did a similar thing. It’s not a simple case of women being perfect and men being awful; rather, it’s very cognizant of the various power dynamics that exist in all kinds of relationships.
A large part of how Christa helps her bandmates is by sharing her pagan faith. Not all of them take to Goddess worship—Lisa, the drummer, doesn’t truck in it, and Devi, their damaged keyboardist, really only wants “what the magic was grounded upon: a sense of purpose, a knowledge of intrinsic power, a claim to one’s own life” (167). Christa is much more interested in giving them back a sense of agency instead of conversion. There’s something a little too perfect about Christa: how beautiful she is, how calm she is, how good at music she is, how casually and generously she owns her sexuality, how she empowers everyone around her,
And that’s wonderful, because this is the first time I’ve ever seen, in fantasy, the queer distaff counterpart to what I like to think as the Batman archetype: a character so attractive that they come off as wish fulfillment. Christa is not exactly that; this is tempered by her ability to get ahead of herself and the sheer amount of work that she puts in before evening getting the band together. To see all of that in a novel from 1990 published by a mainstream publisher is astonishing. I wish I this caliber of thoughtful representation where queerness is front and center without being treated as anything other than normal was the norm today.
Of course, for all its virtues, Gossamer Axe isn’t perfect. It vaguely nods to the black origins of rock and roll, as Kevin fondly recalls his black mentor Frankie and Christa remembers first hearing rock in black-only clubs she never ventured into, but otherwise doesn’t particular deal with race. The only nonwhite band member is Monica, whose ethnicity is only brought up to highlight how she looks. Good representation in one area doesn’t make up for poor representation in another. But Gossamer Axe is still well worth checking out—even if it doesn’t appeal directly to every fiber of your being, like it did me.
This book was a gift from a friend.