Tomoe Gozen by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Every blogger with even a smidgen of taste bashes generic fantasy. It’s one of those things that you can pretty much expect from nerds that are trying much too hard to pretend that they have taste. I don’t want to seem like another in the digital mob of self-consciously snarky voices that decry the same things, in the same manner, for the same reasons. It gets tiresome reading yet another essay about how Christopher Paolini sucks (he does) or how much Christian allegory kills otherwise enjoyable fantasy novels. (I’m not sold on that one)
But it is a shame that some people are in print when I have to hunt to find books written by more deserving authors, and I acknowledge that wholeheartedly. I learned about Jessica Amanda Salmonson from her web page of movie reviews, Weird Wild Realm, which I eventually stumbled upon while looking for information on the Japanese film, The Lefty Fencer, a female version of the venerable one-armed, one-eyed Tange Sazen character. Salmonson won a world fantasy award for a collection titled Amazons, and in her review of the Roger Corman produced sword and sorcery film of the same name, related some anecdotes about talking to Corman on the phone and her personal interaction with Charles Saunders, whose story, “Agwebe’s Sword,” was the basis for that terrible/entertaining movie. Sufficiently amused and intrigued by her web site, I felt certain that I wanted to read one of her novels.
Tomoe Gozen is the first in a trilogy that follows the journeys of Tomoe as she quests to regain her honor after the manipulations of an interloping sorcerer leave her a disfavored hero. This first book collects the story of Tomoe’s fall from favor and a couple tales of her wanderings across the land of Naipon, a fantasy of old Japan, where Japanese gods and monsters exist in an otherwise accurate recreation of feudal Nippon. While each part of the book could work well enough as a stand alone story, they were clearly written with a chronology in mind and there are overarching plot threads regarding Tomoe’s former comrades and the general state of Naipon and the intrigues of its upper castes of nobles and warrior elites.
I was not surprised that I ended up liking Tomoe Gozen, but the loveliness of Salmonson’s writing, which retains a consistently engaging style. With the recent popularity of Asian culture and martial arts, it really seems like these would be ripe for a reissue, or at least that they would have something of a following. Perhaps there’s a fantastic orientalist lesbian fiction book club where these books are highly regarded and discussed, but I haven’t seen any evidence of it. And that’s too bad, as Salmonson’s blend of a credible vision of historical Japan with bakemono, kappa, sea dragons, and magic wielding ninjas seems like the sort of milieu that would appeal to an audience that regularly consumes anime and movies that self-consciously imitate Asian action film techniques, like Kill Bill. Even the most generic fantasy novels have been more commercially successful lately than they probably deserve to be. Why wouldn’t Tomoe Gozen receive any new attention?
There are a few particular things that make Tome Gozen less than appealing to certain readers. Tomoe herself is of ambiguous sexuality, attracted to both men and women; her honor -- the social currency of warriors in a feudal society – motivates her in every situation and decision, rather than the innate moral code or romantic feelings that often drive the protagonists of some popular examples of heroic fantasy. From a prurient author, an honor bound warrior woman who loves women would equate to a formula for fetishistic writing that these days tends to get published on the internet rather than in magazines or story collections -- a blood bath interrupted by pornography. This isn’t that.
That the narrative contains numerous sequences of violent battles, ninja attacks and decapitations -- and that among the characters are at least a few lusty tribades -- is largely incidental. It’s the stylish, dreamy prose that stands out in Salmonson’s fantasy, perfectly capturing both the otherworldliness of the setting while describing some truly strange and bizarre sequences. (In a particularly trippy passage, Tomoe births herself out of her own head, more or less) The characterization is lovely, particularly in the second part, in which a clash between Buddhism and Shintoism perfectly captures the personality of their exponents, poking fun, in a sweet natured way, at the silliness of religious debates between people already convinced of their own beliefs.
All of that quality is precisely what makes Tomoe Gozen not commercial. It’s not prurient enough to capture the attention of thirteen year old boys and people who like awful stuff like Gor. Its sexual content makes it unsuitable as teenage girl empowerment. The lush prose would probably seem too demanding or too obtuse (the term "yoni-light," for example) to those whose only experience with fantastic fiction is video games, novels adapted from video games and R. A. Salvatore. The readers who will appreciate Jessica Salmonson’s writing are probably those most willing to seek it out, a fact comforts that part of me that finds it a great injustice that she doesn’t seem to receive the attention she deserves. This fantasy is unique, and therefore to be valued.