This review first appeared a little over eight months ago in Strange Horizons.
Patience Gideon lives a quiet life with her foster daughter and familiar, until another witch comes to town and trouble follows soon after. Rescuing a local shape-shifter goes pear-shaped when gratitude doesn’t guarantee common sense, and Patience finds herself in the hands of the men whose preferred dealings with witches end in public burning…
There’s an author’s note at the back of the book that says Of Sorrow and Such takes place in a pre-established universe; one that Slatter’s written about before in her collections Sourdough and Other Stories and The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. Fair warning: I haven’t read either of these, and so my assessment of Sorrow is purely as a standalone novella.
The story takes place in your typical European mediaeval/early modern community, complete with overbearing religious orders and expected hidebound social relations (especially gender relations: more on that later). I wondered briefly if this was a secondary world, but there are enough references sprinkled through (most often religious, along the lines of not suffering witches to live) to set it firmly in this one. “Simply confess how you worship and obey Lucifer, the fallen one” (114) says one of the churchmen, removing all my doubt.
There’s no real indication of a specific time period, though. I was a little surprised to find a reference to skin cells – “I should have no more attachment to her than I do the skin cells that slough off daily” (124) says Patience of her dust-double – which did give the text a more modern feeling. (Robert Hooke coined the phrase “cells” in the latter half of the 17th century after looking at sections of cork under a microscope. Cell theory wasn’t really developed until the 19th though, and I’m wondering how common knowledge of cells was previously, even for closet intellectuals living in small communities such as Patience was and did.)
So, the story’s untethered in time. A fair enough choice, given the strictures of the novella form, and it doesn’t need to be pinned down to rely on expectation – for rely it does. Most readers will have an (already heavily underlined) perception of the times of witch-burning and religious oppression. They’ll have had Galileo and Miller’s The Crucible rammed down their throats in school, reinforcing the basic unfairness of intellectually corrupt power structures and the tendency towards mass paranoia and finger-pointing resorted to by at-risk populations. Take her not me; it’s her that’s the witch, and so on.
Readers only have to be marginally more aware to realise the gender politics at play in accusations of witch-women: the uncontrollable feminine and the moral disasters that follow (so sayeth Authority) when it breaks out of bounds, disobedient at heart and a danger to all around it. Worse when the women themselves believe it, subscribing to an ideology that hurts them when they follow and hurts them when they don’t. (Take her not me.) If Sorrow is untethered in time it may be because there’s just no room for any more tethering, for Slatter takes these common expectations of witch hunts and women and absolutely hammers them.
Let’s be clear: this is not a subtle book. (Subtlety’s not always the goal, of course, but when it’s so clearly eschewed it’s interesting to wonder why.) There’s no mention of Malleus Maleficarum but it hammers and hammers anyway, this story of a witch-hunt from the other side. And part of this hammering is really quite wonderful, but part of it is not.
Sorrow is very clearly a book of female experiences, of the lives and secrets of women. It’s the sort of story I’m predisposed to love. But the more I read, the more I began to wonder if the underlying world-building rests on anything but expectation.
This is complicated somewhat by the simple fact that there is validity in Slatter’s approach. Sexism was a powerful social force during the historical witch-hunts, and glossing that over would have had many readers rolling their eyes, I think. It’s perfectly reasonable, then, for Slatter to weave women’s experience of sexism so thoroughly into her story. It’s a realistic choice.
But. BUT. How far does realism go, I wonder? Sorrow’s genre is not historical fiction. It’s a fantasy story. And while I hesitate to bring up the trope, “Everything changes but the status of women”… if I’m honest, while I was reading there were times when I thought it.
Sexism develops from power structures. This isn’t news to anyone: when one gender holds the balance of power (physical, political, religious etc.) over another then an unhealthy relationship between the two develops. There are numerous examples of this in Sorrow: the murderous collaboration between the pastor and the doctor as they try to poison the pastor’s wife so she can be traded in for a younger model; the domestic violence in the Brautigan family; the burning and hanging of women who stray from prescribed behaviour.
If this were a historical novella, where Patience and the women like her were persecuted for herbal remedies and talking out of turn then the unrelenting focus on the power relationship that is sexism in those times would be absolutely appropriate.
The thing is, power relationships change when the balance of power changes, and that’s what Sorrow doesn’t address. (The other texts in the story’s wider universe may do so, but as I said, I haven’t read them.) Patience and Selke – and by inference all the other witches – don’t make their way through the world by having green thumbs and knowing what feverfew will do for a migraine. They have real, tangible power.
When Flora Brautigan has her hand chopped off, Selke makes her a new one. Admittedly the ingredients are a little creepy – living clay and grave dust, for instance – but once the magic’s over it’s a functional hand and essentially no-one can tell the difference.
In a pre-industrial, primarily agricultural peasant economy, how, how is this not a game-changer for the existing power structure? Imagine that you’re a peasant farmer, a tenant farmer with a family to feed, and you’re out doing your thing in the fields when you trip over your own scythe and lose a limb. There’s no social security, no national health. If you can’t work you don’t eat and your family starves. And yet Patience still has a pre-magic, historical-genre understanding of what this means for society.
Consider her (quite lengthy, given the total word count) musings on how male-dominated medicine will eventually push her own efforts out of local healthcare.
I’m the person Edda’s folk turn to for everyday remedies even when Doctor Herbeau is visiting. Yet I harbour no illusions: I am tolerated. If a physician ever deigns to make his home here, then I shall become something of an embarrassment, an object of superstition …. A medical man will spout fancy terms they do not understand, patronise them, and hand out tablets that give a little relief but no cure …. A doctor with his empty vows will steal their hearts and hollow heads from me, and they’ll dismiss the times I saved their children from fever, or given elderly parents a balm against lingering disease. (7-8)
The full argument, over two pages, is crucial because it comes so close to the beginning of the book (it starts on the third page of the story proper). I don’t believe Slatter has given it so much time and early space for no reason: it’s the gender-theme of the book in a nutshell. Patience is skilled and useful, but she is also perceived as inferior, and when a more socially acceptable (if less capable) Learned Man comes along, she’ll be pushed out. This, she opines, is typical behaviour: “It has happened before and I’ve no doubt it will happen again” (8).
In a magic-absent society – and I’m talking real, demonstrable magic here, not the accusations minus empirical evidence that passed for sorcerous inquiry in historical times / passes for it in historical genre – Patience would probably be right. An existing power structure that privileges men over women would very likely bulldoze her methods for his.
If you’re a peasant with a headache you’d probably go along with it. I mean, there’s the Learned Man come with his diploma from the outside, come with the backing of university and church and he uses a lot of impressive words and gives you pills and instruction. On the other hand there’s Patience, who likely gave you a whack on the arse as a kid and chatted with your old Mum about your toilet training. You see her rummaging in hedgerows sometimes, looking for bits of green.
You’ve got a headache. You take the pill and the headache goes away. I mean they do eventually, don’t they? It’s just a headache.
But if you’re a peasant who’s just had both arms lopped off at the wrist because your neighbour in the fields was careless with swinging his scythe, then I’m sorry but the doctor with his pills can fuck right off compared to a woman who can give you back your hands. Fear of hell is totally overthrown by the fear watching your family starve in a ditch after eviction because you couldn’t work enough to pay rent on the farm.
That’s what magic does. It changes the balance of power. A change in the balance of power changes the power structure.
But not here.
Magic in Sorrow is deeply, undeniably powerful. It can recreate lost limbs, restore perfect function. It can even recreate a whole person well enough to fool others (as when Patience’s dust-double mimics her practised slipping-under-radar, behaving as expected under the most trying of circumstances). Magic can bring the dead back even if only to half-life; it can change people into animals and back again. Against the scientific and industrial capacity of mediaeval or early modern times it’s the power equivalent of giving grenades and a machine gun to a Neanderthal while the rest of them are hitting each other with clubs, but none of that fucking matters because in fantasy everything changes but the status of women.
And it’s such a shame because there was a point in this highly-feminine text where it looked like Sorrow had a handle on how power could play with gender. Patience has a giant dog who’s actually the forced transfiguration of a man she loved, a man who discovered what she was and spurned her. Patience, however, wanted what she wanted, a loyal and loving companion, and used her magic to enforce her wants. It’s such an inversion of gender expectation – often in fantasy, it’s the woman compelled to stay, her body shape forcibly controlled (see, for example: selkie). But Patience has power, and that alters not only Gideon’s body and fate but his emotions as well. That’s as far as it goes, however, and the clear next step lies untaken by the narrative, which otherwise sticks against all odds to the solidly gender-expected.
I wrote earlier that Of Sorrow and Such was a story of female experience, of the lives and secrets of women. And it is – but I can’t help but think, if only those experiences had come out of choice rather than compulsion. Instead, it’s the outside male threat that causes women to band together – as if they wouldn’t do it out of liking and shared interest and common cause. That threat is everywhere, from the domestic (how many brothers here have sexual designs on their sisters?) to the wider world (the witch-hunting churchmen).
Those churchmen. You know what I’d do, if I were the church trying to neutralise the effect of real magic – demonstrable, useful, potentially highly popular magic – on my preferred power structure? I’d engulf it, like I did with pagan festivals and midwinter feasts. I’d make it mine.
You can replace a severed limb, and you can do it where everyone can see and have no doubt of what you can do? Congratulations, pious lady! You’re a miracle worker, touched by the saints. We’ve a comfortable little anchorage for you, free food, a couple of servants, religious services every day. Your skills can get us prestige and cash. Not that we’d have you turn away the poor, of course not. Donations of any kind can help support Mother Church. Wait. You don’t want to? So sad. Don’t you have a daughter? (A brother, a husband…) Surely you’d never let anything happen to them, would you?
Witch-hunts for burning become witch-hunts for haven. Still creepy, still with issues of consent and suitable, imposed behaviour. Still with lopsided gender relations, the sexism underlined and women pushed into little boxes – but boxes they can shape themselves, because the acknowledgement of tangible power only increases it. The story’s still the same, but also different. Nothing changes perfectly, but it does change.
Because that’s what changing power – real power – does to power structures. It pries them open in new ways. It never, ever, ever leaves them static.
There is a great deal to like about Sorrow, but it is static, and the world-building does seem politically, socially shallow. Something informed primarily by historical settings and historical genre, never-quite-believing that it’s fantasy enough to really push that fantasy as far as it can go.
There were times, reading this novella, that I was charmed. There were times I admired it (nearly all of which were related to the bloody-minded practicality of Patience, who I really do enjoy though she’s not all that nice and has spurts of actual evil). The characterisation is undeniably fantastic. I got a better sense of the characters in this novella than I have the characters in a lot of actual novels. But once you’ve made the link of woman-power-bad in the world of Edda’s Meadow – and it’s impossible to miss doing so – then the plot is fairly obvious and the world-building takes on more than a whiff of paint-by-numbers. Writing about gender is a laudable goal, but genre I think has the capability of illuminating that discussion more than it does here. In speculative fiction, one should be speculative.