Today I’m reviewing Theodora Goss’s “Come See the Living Dryad” from Tor.com and Carrie Vaughn’s “I Have Been Drowned in Rain” from Beneath Ceaseless Skies–two stories that have more in common than you’d think.
Theodora Goss’s “Come See the Living Dryad” is an affecting and incisive story about the danger of making assumptions. It’s also about loss, exploitation, and connection.
It opens with a scene from a sideshow, the speaker is Daphne, the living dryad of the title. Rescued from poverty by her husband and manager, Lewison Merwin, she spends her evenings being spoken about as if she were an object instead of what she is: a human being.
One of the delights of this story is the shifting points of view between Daphne the dryad and her descendant, Daphne the academic. The contemporary Daphne is investigating her ancestor’s murder for a book she is writing about people who suffered from rare diseases and were exploited in sideshows; people like Julia Pastrana, Joseph Merrick, and Fedor Jeftichew.
As the contemporary Daphne learns more about her ancestor, so do we. We learn that she had a rare genetic disorder called Lewandowsky-Lutz dysplasia—which is a real disease—that involves an abnormal susceptibility to HPV which then causes scaly growths to appear on the hands and feet. We also learn that she has a child with Merwin and that her “prunes” her daily—but only so that the growths will appear more treelike, never enough so that she can take care of herself.
Daphne is in London to look at the evidence from the scene of her great-great-grandmother’s murder: statements from involved parties—which have scribbled upon them the officers’ conclusions about the individual, the nightgown she was wearing when she was killed, the knife, and some of her growths, supposedly broken off in the struggle. With the help of Dr. Patel, an archivist with the police department, Daphne figures out the truth behind her ancestor’s murder.
I really enjoyed this story with its complex layers and the slow and deliberate peeling back of assumptions to reveal the truth. Goss’s prose is precise, beautiful, and—above all—careful in its exploration of the complicated issues at the heart of this story: disability, poverty, murder and their echoes through time.
When this story starts, you think it’s going to be a fun romp through a bunch of tropes—a group of people who each have a class like an RPG, a perilous quest with glory and honor as the reward, a cruel tyrant, and stew.
What you get in Carrie Vaughn’s “I Have Been Drowned in Rain” is something else entirely. I mean, you still have the mage, the thief, the knight, and the princess and the stew, but you also have a mad woman and her sense of basic decency. (NB: I am using the word mad here because that’s the word used in the story.)
Kat was rescued by Jared and the rest of the party about a month before the beginning of the story—if they hadn’t come along when they did, she would have been brutally raped and probably murdered. They think she’s mad—she doesn’t make sense, muttering random words and singing random songs—but she’s also good at acquiring and cooking food, so there’s a benefit to keeping her around. They never ask her about herself, they just slot her into the “mad woman” section of their brains and keep going on the quest.
In the second half of the story when the party is betrayed and since no one thought Kat was important, she is unaffected and saves the rest of the party from certain doom. And she does it not because she is looking for honor or glory, but because she is decent. It’s only after this that Jared thinks to talk to her about her past and it’s only then that he finds out that she’s widowed and was left with no support when her brothers-in-law came to take the farm—and her. Her only protection was madness.
I liked this story for a lot of reasons: the use of adventure fantasy tropes and then their subversion, Jared’s realization that he’s been a bit of a jerk the whole time, and especially Kat: while she has a sad history, she doesn’t want anyone’s pity. She has agency and isn’t just a plot device the way the rest of the characters are here—she is the only one who is a fully fleshed out character and isn’t that the ultimate trope inversion?