Monday, March 10, 2014

Queens of the Bronze Age

Anne Fortier, The Lost Sisterhood: A Novel

Sophomore novelist Anne Fortier does something fiction writers seldom do: she states her thesis boldly near the beginning. Her mouthpiece character, Oxford philologist Diana Morgan, gives a speech about the mythic Amazons, which we jump into for her final summation. She spares us the academic details, gifting us with this straightforward closing nugget:
“[T]he knowledge that these bloodthirsty female warriors were pure fiction did not stop our writers from using them in cautionary tales about the dangers of unbridled female liberty.”
Except Diana knows the truth. The Amazons weren’t fiction. She comes descended from a line of warrior women, who’ve somehow kept their secrets unchanged from time immemorial. When a mysterious benefactor gives Diana the opportunity to prove what she secretly already knows, everything changes around her.

Anne Fortier might’ve crafted an interesting woman-driven historical fantasy if she’d recognized her limits. Sadly, she apparently takes her mythological conceits seriously, and wants to strike a blow for sisterhood and freedom. Even then, she might’ve accomplished a merely windy didactic novel for fellow concerned eggheads. Instead, she requires us to disregard everything we know about archaeology, mythology, human societies, and academia.

Fortier’s present-day frame story salvages images from various movies to add action to an essentially talky exposition. Diana’s Oxford uncannily resembles Hogwarts, while her excavations of bronze-age monuments channel Indiana Jones. Come on, Oxford philologists write Hobbit novels; they don’t rappel into archeological sites under cover of moonlight!

Meanwhile, Diana gets ghosted by an enigmatic stranger, Rick BarrĂ¡n, whom she claims to despise, though she describes him in wholly sensual terms. Rick so completely resembles Clive Cussler’s famed adventurer, Dirk Pitt, that I envision him played by Matthew McConaughey. Perhaps Fortier, a sometime film professional, should shut off the DVD player occasionally.

But Fortier’s parallel narrative has the real human elements her frame story lacks. When ancient huntress Myrina finds herself exiled from her Bronze Age village, the priestesses of the Moon Goddess recognize her martial prowess and welcome her (mostly) warmly. But Greeks sack the temple, slaughter the priestesses, and enslave the survivors. Myrina refuses to die, and her pursuit turns the sisterhood into a legendary Tribe of Women.

It feels like Fortier wrote two different novels, using two different templates. Her contemporary novel recycles traditional “literary romance” components. Diana emphasizes early her own physical beauty, but bad luck with men. She then evaluates other characters by their appearance, and we understand how virtuous each person is by how appealing Diana finds them. This slows the story way down.

And what a story. Though a philologist, Diana never does anything philological. When confronted with a lost ancient language, she simply consults Granny’s old handwritten glossary. Then she enters archeological digs via subterfuge, ducks conspiracies masterminded by international billionaire anarchists, and escapes ancient sites one step ahead of very modern explosions.

One scene was so blatant, I couldn’t help recalling the poster art from Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone.

Fortier’s other novel features a heroine, Myrina, whose entire milieu appears designed to break her will. But Myrina chooses her friends wisely, accepts fights but doesn’t go looking for them, and refuses to defer to the Patriarchy. When men try to break her sisterhood, and enslave her actual sister, she steals a leaky boat, raises an army of women, and crosses the ancient Mediterranean in pursuit of justice.

I wanted to read more of this other novel. In Myrina, Fortier has created a character of strength and determination, a character who will not break just because patriarchal Greeks want to break her. Myrina is a much more interesting character than Diana Morgan, who spends so much time expounding her theories that one suspects she’s basically Fortier’s authorial sock puppet.

In Diana, Fortier has committed the Isaac Asimov Error: she’s created a character not to do something, not to face challenges and undertake a personal journey, but to expound the author’s point. Though Diana crisscrosses the ancient world, making connections and rebuilding a history lost beneath time and chauvinism, by the end, she’s essentially changed very little. Her entire story serves to vindicate the point she makes, literally, on page two.

Well, Dr. Asimov wasn’t always constrained by his Error. He created Bayta Darell, one of sci-fi’s most compelling female characters. And Fortier has created Myrina, easily Bayta’s equal. If only she hadn’t also created an intrusive, pseudoscientific goulash that keeps interrupting the real story, she might’ve created a great novel. Sadly, Fortier, like Dr. Asimov, keeps standing in her own authorial way.

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