There is magic in this book. You just have to crack it open.
In “Breaking the Frame,” the final story in her short story collection A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, Kat Howard offers a mission statement:
“Stories change. They become unexpected, and require a braver sort of belief. Not belief in what is, but belief in what could be.
The stories—13 in total—encompass this ambition to glorious result. Howard takes well-worn material like fairy tale, myth, Arthurian legend and the ghost story and finds the new in the cracks and crevices but, most consistently, by shifting perspective from a male to female point-of-view. The effect is spellbinding and establishes a masterwork in its totality akin to Harlan Ellison’s Deathbird Stories. In that bygone collection, Ellison told stories of new gods for a modern age that he saw growing indifferent to its cruelty. Howard’s project is more to preserve the old by loosening its strictures, which typically tend toward male protagonists and damsels in distress, restraints that will asphyxiate any narrative looking to survive a diversifying reality. While their intentions differed, both authors were working with the same timeless material; no inventing or reimaging of myth can exist without a retelling of Eden.
Despite the occasional witch or wife of an immortal forest elemental, most of Howard’s protagonists are ordinary people who get touched by the supernatural or extraordinary. She creates a meta-commentary on the nature of story itself by making her characters aware that they are part of a continuum that has established rules for something like a spectral visitation as in “Dreaming Like a Ghost” or a unicorn sighting on a city street as occurs in “Maiden, Hunter, Beast.” In the former, she works to highlight the tropes she is about to defy. In the latter, she comments on how legends tend to become self-perpetuating, reshaping continuously in defiance of a final ending.
The collection opens with “A Life in Fictions,” the story of a woman who serves as the muse to a writer from his obscurity until his work becomes acclaimed. He takes her life, walling her in stories for the duration of a project. Between projects, she returns to the world and finds chunks of time have vanished. Her existence becomes secondary to his, and he continues to write her into story after story. It is a tale about abuse and the ultimate dysfunctional relationship, one between writer and inspiration that suggests how much a man has to take to write a believable female character. Again, it is a story very much aware of what it is saying about story and very much in conversation with its bookend, the aforementioned “Breaking the Frame.”
That title in itself screams symbolism, the frame being the structure of myth and story. Its main character, Francesca Ward, is a photographer’s model. Her lover photographs her in recreations of scenes from classic stories and myths, but the pictures they produce differ from the ones they took. Her opinions about the stories are affecting the images and offers a kind of insight into Howard. No one has ever asked if Eurydice if she loved Orpheus and wanted to return with him from Hades. We just make assumptions because that’s what we’ve been told.
But, the driving force of the collection and the strongest example of Howard’s meta-commentary is the novella, “Once, Future.” Here Howard retells the Arthurian legend by setting her story in a grad school literature class devoted to studying the many tellings of that very same legend. As a classroom experiment, the professor assigns each of the students a character from the story to see how or if the story reshapes itself in their lives. The students just have to keep a journal to note any Camelot-ish changes in their lives until the end of the semester. It seems like an easy “A” until Morgan, the main character, discovers that she can light candles with the incantation fiat lux, “Let there be light,” and a sword in a stone appears outside the door of Sabra, the woman given the role of Arthur. It is a story about a story that has to die so that others might live and its climax could bring a tear to even the most cynical reader.
The novella could launch a few academic papers on its own with topics ranging from the communication between past and present in epic storytelling to the importance of recoding Arthur as a lesbian college student. That choice seems to speak to the reluctance of male fantasy fans to embrace non-White and non-heteronormative possibilities in the retelling of their favorite myths. This is an incredibly destructive tendency that even decent, noble Arthur understands when he appears in the story to discover the damage centuries of unchanging have caused. Stories have always changed no matter how much those who see themselves most often represented would believe otherwise.
Fantasy and science fiction—two genres always lumped as one—have seen their share of revolutionary moments. There was the pulp era that helped popularize the genres in the ‘50s, the New Wave in ‘60s and cyberpunk in the ‘80s, and each time the genres became more expansive and interesting. This is another revolutionary point in the history of the genres, one in which more diverse voices are entering the authorial ranks. There is so much talent showing us the perspectives we’ve been missing that it is at once disheartening that it has taken so long to achieve this moment and infuriating that this moment isn’t happening fast enough. But, there has never been a better time to seek out fantasy and science fiction as engines for empathy and wonder. The required reading list is always changing. Currently Kat Howard and A Cathedral of Myth and Bone sit atop it. There is magic in this book. You just have to crack it open.