Young People Read Old SFF

Seasons of Glass and Iron

Amal El-Mohtar

The third piece in Old People Read New SFF is Amal El-Mohtar’s 2016 Seasons of Glass and Iron. To paraphrase Wikipedia:

Seasons won the 2016 Nebula Award for Best Short Story, the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, and the 2017 Locus Award for Best Short Story. It was also shortlisted for the 2017 World Fantasy Award—Short Fiction, the 2017 Aurora Award for Best Short Fiction, and the 2017 Theodore Sturgeon Award.

A fairy tale—two fairy tales—retold to modern sensibility, it scratched the same itch for me Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood did decades ago. It was therefore almost certain that I would enjoy it. The laundry list of awards suggested that I was not alone in this. If there is one thing I’ve learned from this ongoing project, it’s that reality and expectations often diverge. What did my Old People actually think of this story?

Writing reviews is harder than it looks. I read a story early, to give it time to cook in my brain, but it dries out and I can't find anything to say about it. I leave reading the next one until beyond the last minute, and it's too raw, I don't know what to say about it. Except, I liked it.

The fables seem half-familiar: iron shoes and a glass mountain sound like stories I might have read a few decades ago in a distant childhood, but if so, I think they ended where this story began. What happens after the curse or magical protection? The antagonists just go on suffering the magic as they deserve to, I guess, until the magic kills them. Or perhaps not.

—Nel C

I grew up on fairy tales. Multiple cultures of them and reading Seasons of Glass and Iron, I had that bittersweet memory of the stories of women who were left to manage terrible situations because of magic or kings or husbands. I remember thinking as a child that it was profoundly unfair that there were no stories in which the woman is anything but a prize or a victim or occasionally the wife or the witch.

I love this story. Not only do they continue the tropes of my childhood but they also change them. They are the princess or the maiden who’s cursed, but they are also the witch who cursed them and the hero who rescues them. It feels like a fairy tale from my childhood only wrapped around a fundamentally feminist theme. That it takes both of them together choosing to move beyond the magic that traps them is amazing. Each can see the torment and pain the other is put through but can’t look close enough at their own. They need each other to be able to break free.

I hate the father/king. But I recognize him around me. I am angry at the bear man, but I know lots more where he came from. I recognize the self-imposed burden to make the lives of the men easier. I respect their desire to find a way out on their own terms.

Bring on September.

—Anita

An elegant mashup of two classic fairy tales tales as seen through the lens of domestic abuse. I believe the idea that the glass hill was to protect all the men from themselves is from the original story, which makes it especially creepy. I love stories where the characters make their own agency, as this one does.

—Beth

I very much enjoyed reading this reimagining of two traditional fairy stories. I always have enjoyed this genre, which I think may be perennial. Certainly Eleanor Farjeon was reimagining fairy tales to offer hope for young women in the first half of the twentieth century, sometimes in short stories such as those collected in the Martin Pippin books, sometimes at book length as in The Silver Curlew's cheerful redemption of Rumpelstiltskin. The names of Tanith Lee, Margo Lanagan and more recently T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon) also come readily to mind.

Three things leap out at me here. One is how explicitly the story makes it clear to its readers in the conversations between Tabitha and Amira what it is about, as they explain to each other how they were silenced before they come ultimately into their power. The second is that the two women are able to allow themselves to rescue each other, and in doing so rescue themselves; and this without any reference to men at all, so that the men are as completely erased and caricatured here as women are in tradition. The third is the open ending, where the status of the women with respect to men and the world remains uncertain after they have redeemed themselves.

This is beautifully written and I enjoyed it a lot. I think it would be nice if the women of the patriarchy always had power to rescue each other, but perhaps it would also be nice if they didn't need rescuing in the first place. When we can have fairy tales that work in that space we really will have arrived somewhere.

—Caroline

A new fairy-tale set specifically against traditional fairy tales?

The old story of the princess on the glass hill, I know; the one about the bear’s wife I not only don’t, but a quick Google search helps me naught.

Anyway: the two stories interact with each other brilliantly, commenting on each other’s dilemma, and noting that the fate of women in fairy tales almost always depends on The Man, whether it be Prince Charming or Rumplestiltskin. The idea that women (other than witches and evil fairies) might have have influence over their own fates almost never occurs to the Grimms, Andersen, le Fontaine. That society’s rules and self-perceptions denied women agency to the extent practical explains, but does not excuse, this.

The alternating third-person points of view, gradually becoming an omniscient third-person provide a real sense of the two women growing together, making this a more-than-interesting love story.

—Dan'l

Superb story, lovely writing; El-Mohtar mixes registers, from fable to the demotic perfectly, her control is pitch perfect.

Domestic violence and women talking; the slow quiet growth of affection and love

As near a perfect example of the retold fairy tale as is possible - lyrical but grounded in the particular.

As an old person - relief and gratification that feminism is so strong.

As an old person reading -- the questions it asks, or answers, are more than a little familiar. We have all read thousands and thousands of variants, beginning --- perhaps --- with Saint Angela Carter, whose dense and complex prose this story pays homage to.

A perfect example of a genre piece, but not more than that. No stretching of the form, no new ways of seeing, no new wry insight.

(I have the same problem with 'Cat Person' - Roupenian didn't invent writing about bad sex; that's the brief of so many of her predecessors.)

Still, the short story is excellent, the writer fantastically talented, and if the concerns are not new to this old person - tough.

Domestic violence and women talking and loving are not new either, And these last two years have shaken all of our convictions of progress, underlined the fragility of the world. We need such writing.

I do look forward to reading El-Mohtar when she writes something ambitious -- she is a serious talent.


—Ian

I don’t want to describe this story. Not even a hint of a spoiler. I want people to discover its joy for themselves. From the first sentence I wanted to know everything about the characters and where the story was going to take them.

As for the “old people” part of this review – in the past, this story would have been securely in the Fantasy genre, a place I haven’t been since high school. I find myself wondering whether its this author I want to read more of, or if its time to try “Fantasy” again to see what it has become.

—Katharine

I know about glass hills. I stand on them all the time. It's not always safe to let people know that I'm female. To be found out as female is to be made an object, a recipient of male attention, a wet socket. If I'm female, some people assume, I need a man to complete me. I couldn't possibly be there for myself. Thus I erase my gender whenever possible. If I don't tell people which gender I am, they assume male and leave me alone.

Women who are new don't know this trick. The bears get them.

I'm also a chronic pain patient. "How is your pain today?" asks the nurse at every visit. On a good day I tell them "three." Some days I tell them "It's up to eleven."

I dissolved into Lara West's story. It has the rhythm of a fable or a Hans Christian Andersen tale jarred occasionally by words like "infection," which make distance impossible to maintain.

The story's ending was an almost geometrical perfection. There were no holes to be filled. Just two women.

—Lauren

What a beautiful, beautiful story. I like fairy tale retellings, since they take the evocative imagery of a fairy tale, and give it shape and meaning that I don't find in the original tales. Old ballads and tales are, to me, all plot but no story. This story catches the mystery and magic of old tales, but uses the view point of people who are usually presented without agency. The characters discovering their agency within the framework of a fairy tale is provocative and powerful. The language is beautiful, “I will see a river raise its skirt of geese, and listen to them make a sound like thunder.” I cried at the ending, for sheer joy of it all. The story is jewel-perfect, cool water in the desert, bright apples in the sun.

—Lydy

Young People Read Old SF featured younger people looking at old stories as flies in amber, representatives of their time. New SF, like all literature, is a conversation between writers, and this conversation includes hearing the tales of older writers, taking it in, and remixing it to produce new works.

And that’s where I become unhappy with this story. The writer, on her blog, states, "[A girl] asked me to tell her a fairy tale. I made one up, liberally mashing “The Black Bull of Norroway” with “The Glass Mountain” in order to tell her a story about girls rescuing each other and going off to have adventures together. [...] “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is the result […]” This seems a reasonable motivation, but to me the story comes across as a polemic, unsubtly forcing stories into “wokeness” by adding a long section of consciousness-raising that, to this reader at least, is just as uninteresting as watching any other two strangers undergo therapy. There’s a general air of “old people in the old days were wrong about women” which appears to assume a writer and to assume the stories concern women as people.

I don’t think either thing is true. Fairy stories did not have a writer who can be in conversation with us. Fairy stories are vignettes from our unconsciousness, that bubble up and speak to us, like the advice in a Magic 8 Ball. They’re not three-act dramas with rising and falling action and character development, as modern “short stories” are. It’s been argued by many that the “women” – the princesses, maids, scullery girls – are archetypes which are used (as are the male equivalents) by the growing psyche as it attempts to integrate various parts and become a fully-formed personality. Freud and Jung thought so, in different ways. Joseph Campbell believed that fairy tales are symbolic, in another way. Philip Pullman wrote that “there is no psychology in a fairy tale”, meaning that the figures/symbols are not actually conscious. Modern feminism is that rare system of fairy tale interpretation that suggests we should take them literally, and perhaps this is why its attempts to make them woke seem so materialist to me.

In the Black Bull of Norroway, there’s no domestic violence. It’s a version of Beauty and the Beast, and the beast is not beastly. Some psychological unreadiness keeps the girl from her desires, but once her journey is complete, the beast’s ‘curse’ is broken.

In the Princess and the Glass Hill, the king has a daughter placed on top of a glass hill with golden apples in her lap, and a shy, reviled, farmer’s son climbs the hill to win her apples and her hand. The princess is not described. She is not escaping ‘gallant’ suitors. She might as well have been a vending machine with feeder trays full of Maltese Falcons. It’s not about her, but the active person’s journey.

Jack Zipes, the folklorist, blames Disney for the idea that fairy tales are about women who are powerless and require the true love of princes to win. Disney films also abolished the personalization that a storyteller used to use during the story, tailoring it to the listener.

One can at least argue El-Mohtar has brought back that personalization element.

—Lyle

This is a polished fable of expectations and constraints in love, courtship, and marriage, explored through two women bound (in part, self-bound) to fairytale tasks. One must wear out iron shoes in atonement, one must await suitors to climb an unclimbable glass mountain. It uses our expectations of fairytale conventions and archaisms cleverly, with a few bracing jabs of modernity (“Why are you even up here?” the walker asks the waiting princess).

It invites and rewards a feminist reading, as well as a dialogue with Donald Barthelme’s “The Glass Mountain,” which may well have been among its inspirations.

—Monte

This is a solid piece of work. The prose, characters, imaginative details, vividness, and play with fairy tales are all excellent. The pieces are fitted together cleverly. The difficulties of even realizing one is being abused are well portrayed.

Unfortunately, this story presents men in general as only worthy of hatred, and the best life is to have nothing to do with them. If representation matters, this is a bad thing to imply about half the human race.

—Nancy

This story is unabashedly a Fairy Tale, a sub-genre that I’ve never been particularly fond of, as the framing is often (of necessity) thoroughly irrational, constructed to deliver the story’s conclusion, even if that means tapping the reader over the head with the moral a bit too firmly.

And so it is here. Amira’s father is a king with an eligible daughter and a tricky political situation, and although numerous kings throughout history have successfully dealt with such a dilemma even without the ability to perform powerful magic, the only solution that he can come up with is to put her on top of an unscalable glass hill. Tabitha suffers terribly for the sake of her cruel, brutal husband, instead of tossing all the iron shoes into the nearest lake and forgetting him. Neither woman can comprehend the unfairness of their completely undeserved punishment until the other points it out to them. (And of course, I understand the point. See paragraph one.) The ending is both perfect and completely unsurprising.

Like everything by El-Mohtar that I have read, the story is beautifully written.

—PhilRM

Two old folk tales meet, mingle and, with the story-telling skill of Amal El-Mohtar, produce a fable whose moral seems to be that young women can do quite a bit better with each other without the trappings of patriarchy.

I fear I dimly recall the original tales as recounted here. But as in many old tales, the young women had a hard life, one beset by husband, the other by a marrying-off father. They meet, combine forces and prevail.

It is a well-told fairy tale with a contemporary cultural outlook.

—Richard

This story was… sweet, I guess is the best way to put it. It wasn’t subtle — it was clear by the time we hit the second protagonist what was going on and where the story was going to end up — but it was very well written and the two women coming to know each other worked very nicely. I was *slightly* disappointed when I hit that second section and realized what was going on, but that was more because I tend to think of stories as novels, not shorts, so I was starting to manufacture theories about what kind of setup would require people to wear out shoes (product testing? enough running to keep the world spinning?) rather than realizing that this wasn’t going to fit in the likely space.

The parallels with real-world issues (abusive husbands, harassment, etc) were obvious, but not intrusive as they worked with the story nicely. It was a good story, though I didn’t feel it had as much substance as the prior ones in this

series.

—Ryk

Our protagonists Amira and Tabitha meet, exchange stories, open each other’s eyes and and solve each other’s problems in this pair of fables woven together into a third, with a common thread of poorly behaving men enabled by patriarchal systems.

The author hits the right notes of traditional fable telling, with simple physical circumstance serving as allegory for the situations each character inhabits. As we grow to understand the true nature of each story as it unfolds, the choices made by the characters seem sensible at the time, but on their later clear reflection reveal the lies and false assumptions that entrapped each of them. The resolution satisfies, too, though isn’t a solution to everyone’s problems, just their own.

I felt a little bit like the situations as described were perhaps more obtuse than necessary; the story-within-a-story explanations seemed a little forced, but not dismayingly so. The language was clear and easy to read if not particularly eloquent. The author does have excellent observational skills, though, with descriptions of natural events ringing true to my ear.

I wonder if the author’s rich storytelling skills — there’s a lot of meat in this small sandwich — translate well into longer form fiction. I reckon givensignificantly more words to work with, she would be able to weave an even richer tapestry.

—Sean

Amal El-Mohtar writes so beautifully about how terrible it is to be a character in a fairy tale. The iron shoes, the glass hill; in the original fairy tales they're really just symbols, but El-Mohtar's telling makes them vivid, lively, lived. What would it feel like to have to walk in iron shoes until you wore them out? If you wore them out, what would it feel like to take the next pair out of your backpack and put them on? How could you live, sitting on top of an unclimbable glass hill until someone climbed it? And if you could live, what would you think about?

El-Mohtar is interested in how these characters got into their situations, and how they get out. What choices did they have? What choices did they make? And can they still choose something different?a

—Susan

Seasons of Glass and Iron, by Amal El–Mohtar, is a graceful, allegorical tale told in poetic language and with vivid imagery.

It is an obvious riff off of several classical Fairy Tales, and at its heart it is a well-engineered collision of two of them.

I am reluctant to say more, dear reader, lest I ruin your discovery of a clever and complex interweaving of (story) past and (story) present, ineffable magic and cold reality, aetherial fancy and profound insight.

I will tell you that it is a lesbian love story.

But mostly I want to tell you that Amal El–Mohtar is a brilliant stylist, fully in command of the exigencies and opportunities of prose poetry (or, poetic prose), and that even if you dislike allegory, and Fairy Tales annoy you, and whatnot: you really should read this story anyway, simply to see an example of Style at its most excellent.

Needless to say, I enjoyed reading this story.

—Tim

I've got mixed feelings.

I feel its message is too foregrounded. Don't get me wrong here: I'm fully in sympathy *with* that message. But it's not really news these days that

traditional European culture in general – and fairy tales in particular – are full of misogyny and problematic gender relations. That's just not enough of an idea to carry a story, at least not for me.

In all other ways, this story is finely done. The writing is beautiful at the sentence and paragraph level. The characters are deftly drawn and sympathetic, and I felt their burdens and dilemmas. Their eventual romance is genuinely sweet. I just wish there were a bit more meat to their story.

I'd like to read a novel with them as protagonists, with all the happenings here as implied backstory

—David G

What a beautiful story! As an Old Person I am perhaps better able than younger folk to empathize with the struggle of Tabitha, who wears iron shoes and lives in constant pain when she walks in them. Author Amal el-Mohtar uses the opportunity to provoke some interesting thoughts about shoes in our world – how men’s shoes often exist to help them move faster or stand stronger, while women’s are intended to weaken our stances and prevent us from moving.

El-Mohtar plays with fairytale themes – the princess kept by magic from her suitors, the golden apple, the inaccessible glass prison – and while her characters’ decision is not a surprise, it is all told with kindness and sensitivity, qualities that are all too rare in this troubled world. I will gladly read more of this author’s work.

—Patricia

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