Note: this is review number four of the nominees for the Nebula Award for short fiction this year. You can see all the nominees listed here.
Amal El-Mohtar is no stranger to accolades for her writing. She’s been a Nebula finalist before and won the Locus Award as well as several Rhysling Awards for poetry. I, however, have not been particularly thrilled with some of her more recent stories. So when I saw that she was nominated for the Nebula again this year, I worried that I would be handing out another tough review of an author whose work I want to like.
I am happy to report that my worries were misplaced. This is the story I’ve been waiting for from El-Mohtar. It’s both simpler in form and far, far, better in execution than earlier ones recently nominated for awards.
“Seasons of Glass and Iron”, published in Uncanny Magazine, is a sweet fantasy told from the perspectives of two characters who have painful lives involving curses and shame. One of the main characters is Tabitha who is crossing the world wearing iron shoes that must be worn out before they can be removed. And she is on the fourth of seven pairs. Despite her mangled feet and the pain, she sees beauty in the world all around her. Still, she cannot stop to make a new home. The other character, Amira, sits atop a glass mountain where she feels safe on her glass throne as long as she doesn’t move. Amira appreciates the peace that comes from keeping the world at bay far below her perch, yet she is lonely.
So you see, they must meet each other. It’s only after Tabitha takes up residence on the glass mountain that we learn their back stories and see what kind of circumstances can lead to young women walking the world in iron shoes or sitting watch for eternity on the top of a mountain. Love has doomed and punished them.
This is the kind of story that could have so easily melted down into pap. The characters’ voices could have been too stylized. The politics could have overwhelmed their world. The resolution, for all that the reader does clearly know what’s coming, could have been too smug. The story is terribly sweet, but it’s worthwhile reading for one overarching reason–El-Mohtar is a gifted writer. She saves this story through sheer intelligence about the ways of people, their mannerisms and their senses. Somehow she knows how to write that all down. Miraculous, I say.
Here’s a snippet where Tabitha is explaining how she climbed the glass mountain to find Amira:
“. . . it seemed like just the thing. I didn’t know there was anyone at the top, though; I waited until the men at the bottom had left, as they seemed a nasty lot—”
It isn’t that Amira shivers, but that the quality of her stillness grows denser. Tabitha feels something like alarm beginning a dull ring in her belly.
“They leave as the nights turn colder. You’re more than welcome to stay,” says Amira, in tones of deepest courtesy, “and scrape your shoes against the glass.”
Tabitha nods, and stays, because somewhere within the measured music of Amira’s words she hears please.”
The other saving grace in this story is the innocence of the characters. False loyalties maneuvered them into their tortured existences, but they do not become cynical. Their love for each other allows them to discard the horrible narratives constructed by the men they loved before.
All El-Mohtar’s stories have elements of fancy, and sometimes magic, but this is the first story of hers that I’ve read that is in the style of a fairytale. It could have become a dark parody so easily, but she chose to follow a sunlit road instead and it paid off. For someone writes a lot about grief, loneliness and the fraught path to self discovery, I’m glad this story ends so happily, and no one is left deformed or frozen in the end.
Thumbs up and 4.6 stars out of 5.