Reading the Hugos: Seasons of Glass and Iron, by Amal El-Mohtar

Seasons of Glass and Iron, first published on Uncanny Magazine (coincidentally, in the same issue that published Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies) by Amal El–Mohtar, is a Hugo finalist for the Best Short Story category (2017)

This short story shares similar themes and features with the other Hugo finalists already reviewed. The plot is an amalgam of two fairy tales, The Enchanted Pig and The Princess on the Glass Hill, adapted and reinterpreted through a feminist lens. And by feminist, I mean that there isn’t a single worthy man in the whole story and every evil thing mentioned there has been brought about by manly males doing man-things. Sure, there may exist good men —somewhere— perhaps in a distant and even more magical land, and the story explicitly mentions “bad men” so one can infer there may be good ones somewhere, but they are nowhere to be seen.

The story is predictable, and if I told you that the two protagonists meet, share their stories of oppression, realize they don’t have to follow male expectations, and then they ride into the sunset (or was it dawn?) would you be surprised?

The title of the story is a reference to the painful iron shoes one of the protagonists (Tabitha) has to wear, as a curse/penance if she wants to change the nature of her abusive husband (a shapeshifting bear who was very nice to her first but then started beating her) and to the glass mountain (a kind of gilded cage) where Amira, a princess, lives.

Concerning its message, subtlety is not the story’s main quality:

“She [Tabitha] recalls shoes her brothers have worn: a pair of seven–league boots, tooled in soft leather; winged sandals; satin slippers that turned one invisible. How strange, she thinks, that her brothers had shoes that lightened their steps and tightened the world, made it small and easy to explore, discover.

Perhaps, she thinks, it isn’t strange at all: why shouldn’t shoes help their wearers travel? Perhaps, she thinks, what’s strange is the shoes women are made to wear: shoes of glass; shoes of paper; shoes of iron heated red–hot; shoes to dance to death in.

How strange, she thinks, and walks.”

subtle austin powers.jpg

All these sociological musings contradict later explanations because Tabitha knows perfectly well why she is wearing those iron shoes (in fact, she blames herself, as victims of abuse usually do,) and it makes no sense to compare her plight with her brother’s (whose existence is only mentioned there) footwear. It’s evident that the author was so committed to scoring an ideological point while subverting fairytale tropes that she forgot her own story.

Amira’s (the princess) background story isn’t much better:

“Once upon a time there was a rich king who had no sons, and whose only daughter was too beautiful. She was so beautiful that men could not stop themselves from reaching out to touch her in corridors or following her to her rooms, so beautiful that words of desire tumbled from men’s lips like diamonds and toads, irresistible and unstoppable. The king took pity on these men and drew his daughter aside, saying, Daughter, only a husband can break the spell over these men; only a husband can prevent them from behaving so gallantly toward you.”

“Like diamond and toads.” I don’t even know what’s that supposed to mean.

Then, after winning The Father of the Year Award, her father, the King, advised by her daughter (who doesn’t want to marry any man and it’s hinted she may be a lesbian,) builds for her a magical glass mountain, one that suitors would try to climb but always fail. And then they would call her a whore, of course, because that’s what we men do:

“As they slide down the hill, their horses foaming, legs twisted or shattered, they scream curses at her: the cunt, the witch, can’t she see what she’s doing to them, glass whore on a glass hill, they’ll get her tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.”

Now that the story has shown that all men are psychopathic pigs, and the good ones are a hypothetical construct, like “a good journalist” is the logical —but still hypothetical— complementary of “bad journalists,” the two protagonists can get to the point of the story, which is to point out to each other the absurdities of their respective circumstances and to free themselves from the shackles of false consciousness.

Thanks to Tabitha, Amira learns that it’s not her fault that men are pigs. After all, rape and harassment are about power, not looks (protip: it’s the Patriarchy’s fault, *wink* *wink*) :

“How could it be your fault that men are loutish and ill mannered? Amira, I promise you, if your hair were straw and your face dull as dishwater, men—bad men—would still behave this way. Do you think the suitors around the hill can see what you look like, all the way up here?”

Well, they know she is a princess, and half a kingdom in marriage would be an interesting reward even is she looked like a turd, right? Besides, they probably still remember her from all those times they sexually harassed her. We men always remember our victims with cold, machine-like precision.

From Amira, Tabitha learns that her husband isn’t under a curse (he’s just a brute) and that she isn’t responsible for the harm he caused her and she doesn’t have to change him:

“Do you truly believe,” she says, […] “that I had nothing to do with those men’s attentions? That they would have behaved that way no matter what I looked like?”

“Yes,” says Tabitha firmly.

“Then is it not possible”—hesitant, now, to even speak the thought—“that your husband’s cruelty had nothing to do with you? That it had nothing to do with a curse? You said he hurt you in both his shapes.”

Then, after achieving peak wokeness, and doing something with some golden apples, and then a few more dialogue scenes that I have already forgotten, the pyramid of glass flattens thanks to the Sisterhood’s power and they realize they are now free.

“Where should we go?” whispers one to the other.

“Away,” she replies, and holding on to each other, they stumble into the spring, the wide world rising to meet them with the dawn.

In conclusion, on a scale of 0 to Andrea Dworkin, I give this short story a 6 because it’s good feminism but it still implies #notallmen are the problem, that oppression may be self-imposed, or that change can come through introspection and self-awareness instead of public and collective activism.

As a side note, a few days ago I beta-read (actually, alpha-read) a short story also written like a fable, and its main theme is also about women going their own way. Unlike this one, that story is actually well written and the fable style is consistent through the whole text, without slipping into contemporary parlance from time to time. Also, everybody dies and the woman gets eaten by wolves. topkek

7 thoughts on “Reading the Hugos: Seasons of Glass and Iron, by Amal El-Mohtar

  1. WriterGuy

    The ‘diamonds and toads’ thing refers to another fairy tale. A woman has two daughters, an elder brat and a younger nice one. The younger daughter helps a fairy in disguise and is blessed with dropping gems from her mouth when she speaks; the older daughter is rude to the fairy and is cursed to drop toads or snakes when she speaks. The younger daughter then marries a prince and so on.

    (In more recent feminist retellings, there is then an insect plague and it turns out the kingdom needs someone who can summon toads and other insect-eaters by speaking, but that’s not in the original story).

    Liked by 2 people

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