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Today’s guest is fantasy author Alix E. Harrow! Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Apex Magazine, Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Shimmer Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and it includes “Do Not Look Back, My Lion” and the Hugo and Nebula Award–nominated story “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies.” The Ten Thousand Doors of January, her debut novel, will be released this fall—on September 10 in the US and September 12 in the UK!

The Ten Thousand Doors of January Cover

My Mother’s Sword
Alix E. Harrow

In Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, September is sent on a quest to find a magical casket and take up her mother’s sword. But when she opens the casket she doesn’t find a sword—she finds a wrench, because her mother is a mechanic. If it were me opening that casket in the Worsted Woods of Fairyland, I would find a library.

I would spiral down wooden steps into a vault containing all the books and stories that my mother gave me—the Gargoyles episodes and fairytale anthologies, the battered paperbacks and dusty Nintendo cartridges, the UK edition of The Prisoner of Azkaban she ordered me online because it came out two months earlier over there—perfectly preserved. If you stepped into that vault with me and ran your fingers along the book spines, you might notice: most of them were written by women.

You would find Pern and Earthsea, Tortall and Hogwarts; multiple editions of everything Robin McKinley or Lois McMaster Bujold ever wrote; Jane Yolen and Diane Duane and Diana Wynne Jones; Patricia-s Wrede, McKillip, and Briggs; Butler and Atwood; Ella Enchanted and Ammonite. The world my mom made me was one where women were knights and princesses were heroes, where witches were rarely burned and fairytales had teeth. It wasn’t a perfect world (it was very white and fairly straight and extremely western) but it was a place where women stood tall and told their own stories.

I remember being faintly surprised to learn that Link—who I knew as the pixelated, pink-haired hero of Mom’s favorite video game—was apparently a dude. In my experience, it was generally women who wielded the swords.

My mother’s library-world didn’t much resemble the actual world I lived in: rural Kentucky in the mid-1990s, right next door to nowhere. It was the kind of place where every woman was a hon or a doll from birth to burial; where my mom’s crew cut got triple-takes and frowns; where feminism wasn’t disparaged so much as ignored, the way you’d ignore someone shouting a foreign, faintly lewd word several miles away.

It was the kind of place where fantasy itself was suspect. Several of my friends were forbidden to watch Disney’s Hercules on the grounds that there was only one God and He disapproved of animated posers (whereas I was annoyed by its departure from Edith Hamilton, and spent a lot of time telling people Zeus and Hera were actually siblings, because that’s the kind of Hermione-Granger-ish little shit I was (and am)). I once helped a friend disguise her copy of The Chamber of Secrets with the cover from one of the Left Behind books.

My mother’s magic library didn’t erase the real world or remove me from it, but it gave me a persistent sense of my own worth. The suspicion that, locked behind the doughy confusion of my eighth-grade self, was a lady knight or a dragon rider, someone whose story was worth telling. I remember reading Kameron Hurley’s Hugo-winning essay “We Have Always Fought,” about the erasure of women from our collective storytelling, and thinking, with the casual shrug of the very lucky: of course we’ve always fought. And realizing in that moment the gift my mother had given me, the weight and heft of the sword she’d put in my hand.

But there are—as the last few years of pop culture and politics have reminded me regularly—many people who object to the very suggestion that women have fought or will fight or could fight. They wrote breathless screeds about Rey’s Jedi powers and mechanical know-how after The Force Awakens, and bombed Captain Marvel’s Rotten Tomatoes ratings before it even came out; they made snide comments about N.K. Jemisin’s historic third-Hugo-in-a-row and still DM me regularly to explain that, actually, The Last Jedi was garbage (it was not garbage). They remain invested in a fantasy world in which women—particularly women of color or queer women or trans women or fat women or poor women or disabled women—don’t fight, and certainly don’t tell their stories.

But women persist in doing both, so my mother’s library has grown over the years. There are shelves now for Leckie and Schwab and Jemisin, well-worn copies of Sorcerer to the Crown and All the Birds in the Sky. (My mom and I share an Amazon account and read books simultaneously on our Kindles. “a keeper,” she texted after Uprooted; “guess what i’m getting a moth tattoo,” I wrote after Strange the Dreamer).

Now—at twenty-nine, with two kids of my own—I get to add my own book to our library. I haven’t held the finished copy in my hand but I’ve held the galley and I have to say: it felt, just a little, like a sword.

Alix E. Harrow Photo
A former academic and adjunct, Alix E. Harrow is now a full-time writer living in Kentucky with her husband and their semi-feral children. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards, and her first novel—The Ten Thousand Doors of January—is out this September from Orbit. Find her at @AlixEHarrow on Twitter.