This week I’m recommending a ground-breaking book which deserves to be better known. `The Warrior Who Carried Life’ (1985) was the first published novel of Canadian-born SF and Fantasy author Geoff Ryman. It was out of print for many years but having read this book came to be one of the signs by which dedicated Fantasy fans recognized each other. `The Warrior Who Carried Life’ was finally reprinted by ChiZine in 2013 and is also available on Kindle. So now everyone can enjoy this bizarre and beautiful story with its unique heroine/hero, Cara.
Cal Cara is the treasured `Dear Daughter’ of the leading family of the Village by Long Water. Cara’s mother suffers a horrible death after foretelling a time of destruction linked to her daughter. Soon a new ruling family, the semi-human Galu, take over the nearby City from the Better Times and begin to punish those who resist their tyranny. A group of warriors led by Galo gro Galu attack Cara’s village. She, her father and her brothers are all cruelly mutilated. Cara becomes known as the Destroyed Woman and grows up longing for revenge on the Galu.
As soon as she is old enough, Cara joins the cult of the Secret Rose run by the village women, even though she despises their feeble magic. She learns three major spells and for the final part of her initiation is supposed to turn herself into an animal for a year. Cara does something that no follower of the Secret Rose has ever done before – she transforms into a man, a strong warrior with magical armour and weapons. She sets out for the City to take her revenge but soon gets into trouble because she has no experience of fighting. Cara is helped to escape by a bondgirl (serf) called Stefile, who falls in love with the handsome warrior.
Cara and Stefile reach the City and join one of the Schools of fighters who serve the Galu. Cara takes her first chance to attack Galo gro Galu but the result is not what she expected. Realizing that violence may not be the way to save humanity from the growing evil of the Galu, Cara seeks answers from the sorceress known as the Great Mother. Inspired by the legends recorded in the One Book, Cara’s journey takes her into the Land of the Dead to find the Fruit of Knowledge and the Flower of Life. Can she use them wisely to save her world?
Short, stand-alone novels, such as `The Warrior Who Carried Life’, have become a rarity in modern Fantasy. Publishers are mainly interested in multi-volume epics or long-running character-based series. This is fine if authors have ideas big enough to fill a huge number of pages without waffle or repetition but so many don’t. `The Warrior Who Carried Life’ does contain some big ideas and the story is exactly the right length to work them out in a way that leaves plenty of scope for a different interpretation by every reader. It has the wild intensity of young man’s novel, which could easily tip over into the ludicrous but never quite does because of the sharpness of the writing. Ryman is a master of compressed story-telling. He grips you with the first sentence – `Cal Cara Kerig was five years old when she saw her mother killed’ – and never lets go. Events unfold swiftly and surprisingly and nearly everyone in the story goes through extraordinary changes. I promise that the last sentence of the book is as memorable as the first.
In the style of a fairy tale, Ryman lets labels such as `The Important House’ or `The Other Country’ do much of the world-building work. The sinister names of the various Fighting Schools, such as `The Men Who Advance Like Spiders’, `The Men Who have been Baked’ and `The Men Who Cut Horses’ are so evocative that he hardly needs to describe them. I’ve tagged this book as Dark Fantasy because the world of the story seems a cruel and hostile one. Be warned that the sufferings inflicted on Cara’s family are truly horrific. In this story, men think it is unlucky to kill women and so have them torn to pieces by dogs; desperate pilgrims trample and stone each other and an entire city is destroyed by fire because even the fabled Better Times `were built on murder, or the threat of it.’ Set against all this darkness is the unexpected kindness of a few strangers, the awesome beauty of the griffin, Asu Kweetar – `The Beast Who Talks to God’, and glimmers of hope that the Flower of Life might transform the world back into what it was meant to be.
Like my previous choice ( `The Silver Bough’, October 1st), `The Warrior Who Carried Life’ plays with Biblical story of Adam and Eve and the Serpent and gives it new meaning. Cara has to learn the true identity of the Serpent and answer the Riddle of Hawwah (Eve). She discovers that once a human has eaten the Apple of Knowledge, all humans become responsible for their moral choices in a way that beasts are not. Ryman makes use of another archetype from myth and folklore – the person who can succeed at an impossible task because they do not fit into any normal category. Tradition insists that no man or woman can take the Apple from the serpent but Cara can because she is `both man and woman’. She gets called an `abomination’ because of this but bravely goes on crossing boundaries. Cara experiments with sex as a man and learns to fight and kill like a male warrior but essentially she remains a woman in a man’s body.
If `The Warrior Who Carried Life’ had been written by a woman rather than a man, I think it would be remembered as a pioneering work of Feminist Fantasy. The story starts with a woman, Cara’s mother, being punished for breaking society’s rules by daring to have a vision, while in this mythology Eve has been falsely blamed for the Fall of Humankind. When Cara first turns herself into a man she dedicates herself to bloody revenge and tries to behave like a typical warrior in Heroic Fantasy, but `The Warrior Who Carried Life’ turns out to be an Anti-Heroic novel. Cara breaks out of the warrior mind-set and learns to renounce hatred and use her strength to absorb blows rather than give them. With Stephile she creates the family she thought she could never have because of the mutilations inflicted on her by brutal men. The elegaic final chapter `After Magic’ is dominated by Cara’s fear that at the end of her year of enchantment she will lose everything that she has gained. To find out whether she does, you will have to read `The Warrior Who Carried Life’. Until two weeks time….