Book Review: “Dangerous Women”

Dangerous Women is an anthology of 21 short stories from genres like science fiction, fantasy, historical, horror, and so on. The collection is edited and piled up by the duo of George R.R. Martin and Gardener Dozois.

It aims to shatter an omnipresent stereotype in fiction. As we all know, the most female characters in literature are depicted as blushing women who are too weak to fight and need men to defend themselves against monsters.

Here, women are capable of fending off the monsters. Here, women are the monsters.

I was waiting for it quite enthusiastically since the moment I heard about it in Martin’s blog post. Primarily because of the promised short story authored by Martin himself and set in Westeros (for the most part). Our first taste of A Song of Ice and Fire since A Dance with Dragons! It already seems like ages since you read that book, doesn’t it?

But when it became available, hesitation began to dominate my thoughts. I mean, why should I buy a book of short stories just because I could read one of them (as it turned out, The Princess and the Queen was a full-length novella)? Especially something this expensive? You see, it costs $19.50. To give you an idea how steep that is, you can buy the whole A Song of Ice and Fire series for about $6 on the Kindle Store. Oddly enough, the Kindle edition of Dangerous Women costs even more than the hardcover: $21.16 (Rs. 1299.59).

Then, a friend – whose opinion I value and who had read the book even before me (imagine my outrage!) – told me that most of the stories in the book are fun, and she went on to utter other positive things about the book. Probably. Of course, I wasn’t listening anymore. I was rushing off to my laptop to order the book. Well, duh.

I rarely buy hardcover books. In addition to being more expensive, they are of little use to me. As a frequent traveller, I do most of my reading on Kindle while travelling or late at night when normal people sleep. Kindle’s portability and petite profile does come handy.

However, I am fond of hardcovers. They last longer. They look great. They feel great. And I like that solid sensation you get when a hardback book is lying on your lap, while you leisurely leaf around the pages with your right hand, sitting languidly on a high-backed chair with a cup of coffee in your left hand.

Uh oh. I admit, I went a bit too far in my fantasy. Apologies.

So… I ordered the book, received it, unravelled the package, saw the contents page and immediately skipped to the last story. Why, you ask? Read on.

“The Princess and the Queen” by George R.R. Martin

All right, the first story I read in the anthology was The Princess and the Queen (obviously). The story (or should we say novella) is actually located at the end of the book. A friend of mine was bemused to see me starting the book from the end. Well, I told him, I am not the most predictable of sorts anyway.

The Princess and the Queen recounts a terrible war (aren’t they all?) called Dance of the Dragons, which occurred 200 years ago before the events of A Song of Ice and Fire.

It is easily the longest story in the book and the most satisfying. It is narrated differently from Ice and Fire novels. We are told the story from a historian’s point-of-view (third-person, if you will). Hence, it reads like a history chapter, but one which is full of court-intrigue, conspiracies, betrayals and to top it all… dragon-battles.

Yes! You read that right! You finally see full-fledged confrontations of those gigantic reptiles in Westeros. Westeros of the era when dragons were paramount in determining the fate of every battle. Dragons are aplenty in the novella, and even the dragon of one of Aegon the Conqueror’s sisters makes an appearance. More than an appearance, really.

And blimey, aren’t those enfilades spectacular. Indeed, the titanic battles in The Princess and the Queen rival with that of scintillating sorcerous engagements I have come to love in Malazan Book of the Fallen books by Steven Erikson in terms of scale.

I can now safely say that Martin handles dragons very well. Let us hope to see similar epic stuff when Dany finally brings her dragons to Westeros. She will, won’t she?

As I said earlier, the story of novella is set 200 years ago before the events of A Song of Ice and Fire – so don’t expect Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister to suddenly pop-in. But Martin has done the characterisation bit in quite an adroit manner without being unnecessarily verbose. So, you won’t be complaining. Much. And once again, he makes it real hard to choose sides, as both sides in the war have their own justifications for their bad, very bad, terrible and downright evil acts.

Conflict arise when princess Rhaenyra is denied her rightful Iron Throne by her stepmother Queen Alicent, who places the crown on her eldest son’s head instead. As per her argument, a woman has no right to the throne, though she is aware that Rhaenyra had been declared the heir to the throne by Alicent’s husband and Rhaenyra’s father – Viserys I Targaryen – before his death.

And the war ensues. The war, called Dance of the Dragons for the apparent reason, is very much like War of the Five Kings. Except for the fact that it has dragons, of course.

All in all, The Princess and the Queen is a terrific read irrespective of whether you have or haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire. Irrespective even of your opinion of Martin’s magnum opus. Despite being set in the same universe, The Princess and the Queen is a very different story yet has all the goodness you would expect in a story penned by Martin’s pudgy hands. A truly absorbing experience which makes the entire anthology worth your money on its own. Well, almost.

“Some Desperado” by Joe Abercrombie

Ah, Joe, so meet again. You know, I love your books but, here, I expected something… more. Some Desperado by Joe Abercrombie is a short (read too short) story which takes place before the events of his latest book – Red Country. If you are familiar with the tome, you will perhaps remember that Shy South – the protagonist – had a bit of crime history and some experience of outlawry; it was alluded to quite a couple of times in the novel. But we were never explicitly told what exactly had happened.

Well, in Some Desperado, Joe tries to tell you just that. It is written well, no doubt. But the narration is tedious. Hardly anything happens throughout the story. Most of the plot consists of Shy reminiscing her miserable life, the current predicament, how she ended up where she has, and how to extricate herself from this mess. And so on.

She is being chased by three scoundrels. After arriving at an abandoned ramshackle town on a horse which is a shove away from death, she finally stops and decides to make a stand at the town and awaits her foes for the final battle.

The fight sequences which happen afterwards are fairly enjoyable. Not enough to be a saving grace, though. I personally think that if you haven’t read Abercrombie’s other books, you would like it more. I’m, I think, a little too accustomed to Abercrombie’s amazingly fast-paced storytelling.

“Nora’s Song” by Cecelia Holland

My favourite story in the collection after The Princess and the Queen. A heartbreakingly charming tale, Nora’s Song is set in the England as you know from the history books. The lords and ladies and all, you know. Our protagonist, Eleanor (nicknamed Nora), is the youngest daughter of the royal couple – the king and queen of England. Nora is reminiscent of Arya Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire – same badass nihilistic attitude, indignation at the fact that she can’t be a knight and disregard for personal hygiene.

The story is narrated from Nora’s eyes. Because of that, we don’t understand much of the important stuff, as it is too subtle for a child’s mind to discern. Some intrigues seem to take place between the king and the queen – the pair seem to despise each other for some unknown reason. That reason is never explained, though. But probably, that is exactly what Cecelia intended.

Nora feels helpless because of the restraints put on her by her parents. She wants to break free. Most of all, she wants to know what is happening between her parents.

A very sad and beautiful story. I have solemnly vowed to myself that I will look up Cecelia Holland’s books very soon. If Nora’s Song is any indication, she is surely the kind of author I am going to love.

Okay… Dangerous Women is a huge collection and I can’t review all of the stories here. But I can frankly say this: even though the stories are from disparate genres, and have little in common, almost all of them are worth your time and money. GRRM fans will buy this anyway to get their hands on an another fantastic addition to A Song of Ice and Fire saga.

Rating: 4.5/5

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