A Slender Tether – Jess Wells (Fireship Press)

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I love the immersion necessary for historical and speculative fiction. Nothing quite allows me to sink into the narrative as deeply as these two fields because they offer me worlds that are not, distractingly, just outside my window. And Jess Wells (The Mandrake Broom) has mastered the art of the immersive historical, exemplified by her latest release from Fireship Press, A Slender Tether.

A Slender Tether consists of three linked (some by a rather slender tether) novellas, all of which take place in France during the reign of the mad king, Charles VI. The first and longest, “The Raptor Among Bluebirds,” details the struggles of Christine de Pizan, the first female author in France, as she begins her career against many odds. De Pizan, a real historical figure, is a powerful character, as aimless at first as she is driven. Despite the attitudes and prejudices of both her family and society, she reads and writes. At first, she helps out her husband, Etienne, by scribing for him on the sly ,but her ambition soon leads her to original projects.

When Etienne dies, Christine finds herself the sole support of her family, including her previously wary mother-in-law Tessa. The conflict between these two is brilliant, and Wells wrings every bit of drama as well as pathos from their arguments and the sad situation they ultimately find themselves in. Wells’s command of detail and nuance is so expert, and the world she creates so wholly credible that the reader easily shares Christine’s sense of frustration as well as her elation at her ultimate success.

“The Gong Farmer’s Tale” is the shortest of the lot and concerns a failed physician who punishes himself for his hubris by becoming a collector and farmer of human excrement for fertilizer. Parable-like in tone, this story has a twisty ending that forbids much exposition about it. He has a brief encounter with the de Pizan family, providing the slender tether connecting it to the previous story.

“The Vat-Man’s Promise” also features a strong female character, Monique, who chafes against the usual options available to women of that era—marriage or the cloister. Monique, however, doesn’t see the clear path to that freedom that Christine does. Hers is accidental as she attempts to buy paper from a mill whose owner has suddenly gone blind. Due to a contractual oversight, the mill falls to her and she becomes an apprentice in her own business. The slender tether here is that this mill makes the paper used by Etienne de Pizan and his father-in-law Tomasso in Charles’ court library.

As in the first story, all are brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed. Is this a queer book? No, not specifically. However, these strong women POV characters as well as their outsider status drive the very queer themes of rejection by family and society for a desire to live one’s life the way one sees fit. These women are rebels, fighting against an oppressively patriarchal system and succeeding just fine, thank you very much.

A Slender Tether is an engaging, rewarding read. Highly recommended.

©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler

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