“Seasons of Glass and Iron,” by Amal El-Mohtar

“Seasons of Glass and Iron,” by Amal El-Mohtar.
Short story. Published in The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales , and reprinted in Uncanny Magazine, November/December 2016.

This was a #ShortFictionSunday recommendation that caught my eye:

Rocket Stack Rank sums the story up well:

Tabitha is an irresistible force who meets an immovable object, Amira. They cease to be who they were and become a couple–something entirely new.

Speculating Canada says:
“Seasons of Glass and Iron” is a tale exploring the way that men attempt to control women through stories, rhetoric, and actions and the way that women can liberate themselves through collective action, and by creating their own narratives.
Frequently women in fairy tales do magical things, but are not considered magical in comparison to other characters. El-Mohtar centralizes women’s magic.

At Barnes and Noble, Ardi Alspach’s review singles “Seasons of Iron and Glass” as a favorite in the anthology, calling it “a beautiful, poetic celebration of self-sacrifice and friendship between women.Cannonball Read says the piece “takes two fairy tales and combines them into an amazing feminist story about love and how women rescue women.

What do you think? Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments!

8 thoughts on ““Seasons of Glass and Iron,” by Amal El-Mohtar”

  1. I am going to grump a little bit. I think this is beautiful (I tend to expect that from Amal’s stories, and I think this isn’t quite as beautiful as some of the other things I’ve read of hers, but at the level of language, of images such as the rating of pain, the mystery of walking on a lake, and the marvels of the golden apples, I think it’s beautiful and engages me by giving me details to hang onto while forcing me to fill in the rest). I think that women rescuing each other is good, that retelling fairy tales is interesting (though I’m not sure I can describe why, and I wouldn’t use this as an example of why), and that women rejecting the lies of a patriarchal society that says they’re responsible for the bad behavior of men is a good thing to write about.

    And I don’t think there’s a single thing in this story that’s surprising. I didn’t gasp with delight, or nod expectantly, or rush to see what would come next or why those particular images were used because they so illuminated what was to come. I met two women. I read two fairy tales I’ve known before. The women were in love with each other at the end because they changed their stories. And that was disappointing. So, um, that was my reaction.

    (And yes, I’m a guy saying a feminist retelling of a fairy story isn’t particularly interesting because that’s *all* it is, and that’s definitely gendered, so I’d be interested to hear more from someone who liked this story better than I. I’m really not sure how much my “I don’t get this” is that there’s not much there, and how much is that I’m blind to how much is there because I’m a dude)

  2. Again, I largely agree with Jonah Sutton-Morse above: it’s a very nicely done story, but crashingly obvious about what it’s doing. And that generally sits very badly with me even when I agree that the goal is an admirable one.

    This is part of why I read very little short fiction, I think– there’s a very narrow zone in which stories are clear enough to be satisfying but not so obvious that I get turned off. It’s hard to thread that needle at short-story length. Novels have a little more room to slowly develop what’s going on, and can hide what they’re doing long enough for other stuff to pay off.

  3. I enjoyed the beginning of this very much; but felt the end was something of a letdown.

    I’m not familiar with either of the stories being used here (Greg Hullender of RSR pegged them as “The Enchanted Pig” and “The Princess on the Glass Mountain”). So the precise fairy-tale elements were new to me. Which, now that I think about it, I really like; I usually don’t find it very interesting to have a variation on the classic, ubiquitous fairy-tales (if only because I’ve seen so many). I think this would have felt fresh to me even if I had known the stories. But coming to it new, wearing down iron shoes and living on glass mountains were new and interesting to me — and such perfect examples of fairy-tale imagery and logic.

    But the core of the story isn’t novelty; it’s juxtaposition. In one sense, Tabitha and Amira are diametric opposites — one always moving, trudging forward, seeing the world step by bloody step; the other, forever still, trapped in one place, isolated utterly. But, of course, the two characters are also very much the same. And in many ways, each simply found her own recourse from situations that were very much alike. They are both of them dealing with the same old crap.

    And I really enjoyed that. The feeling that these two characters *should* meet, was fantastic for me.

    The problem is, once they do meet, the story goes… wobbly, I guess. The tension goes out of it. As soon as they meet, both women find a sort of respite. And then, for more than half of the story… it’s not exactly that nothing happens. It’s good, healthy stuff happening – the two characters unburdening themselves, supporting each other, striking out on a new path.

    It just… doesn’t strike me as much of a story.

    There’s nothing I’m really waiting for or anticipating, once we’ve met. The dynamic between them is nice, but it doesn’t seem to be aiming at any twists or turns. There’s a fair amount of them each sharing the specific circumstances of her predicament — when surely the whole reason the story is interesting is because this is universal, because the specifics of each woman’s circumstances are practically irrelevant.

    So… they talk, and they give each other pep-talks, and they realize that they can’t continue as they’ve been going. In other words, they behave like adult, sensible people, coming to good, healthy conclusions. Which is great and all, but… just doesn’t work at all for me as a story.

    I can see people loving this for being reaffirming, or for presenting a mature, responsible, healthy response to abuse. For me, it mostly demonstrates why having characters act maturely and responsibly in fiction is just really hard to do.

    1. Another thing that strikes me, is: until they meet, Tabitha and Amira are great characters.

      They’re defined by their affliction, of course. But those are vivid, touching portrayals.

      Once they meet and are talking… the story loses that. The characters both move into recapping the past, and neither one stands out as a character or has much in the way of voice. This could just be a different way of looking at the same thing — if nothing’s happening and they don’t have much to react to, then it’s harder to bring out character — but it feels very notable to me, particularly because that’s a lot of the strength that drew me in to begin with.

  4. I, too, liked the story, but was a bit disappointed by the end.
    I was expecting to know the fairy tails, because I read the description (retelling of two stories…), and I didn’t know the tales, which is good. The one with the bear rang a very faint bell.
    There was great strength in their meeting, and I was especially moved when they told each other, “it’s not your fault”.
    But then they.. they fell in love? They married each other? that seemed wrong. Like there was no other way out for them, but to fall in love with each other. Like friendship and sisterhood wasn’t enough, they had to marry.

    1. Interesting. I kind of glossed over the “marriage” element, because honestly, I’m not reading them as intending a real marriage.

      I’m reading Amira as fairly explicitly gay — it’s not just the King’s horrendous mistreatment of her; she’s described as “the king’s daughter, who did not want a husband.” And she’s the one pressing — the one who says “I love you,” to Tabitha, not the other way around; the one who toys with “Do you want to marry me after all?” and is shocked, not amused, when she says yes. So I’m reading *romantic* attraction as being one-sided and unreciprocated.

      Because Tabitha clarifies what she means by marrying – “Not as a husband would.” What she means is “to take you away from here.” To leave together, escape together, travel together – the sisterhood and companionship that you see. I’m not seeing that as code for a romantic or sexual marriage — quite the opposite, I feel like she’s specifically saying it’s *not* that. (Which undoubtedly leaves Amira in a happier situation, but still a difficult one…)

  5. Last week’s episode of Storyological tackled this story and talked about it quite a bit. Both hosts liked it a lot – but it seems to me that, like most of us here, what they loved was the set-up more than the payoff. It was primarily about how powerful the use of fairy-tales are in illustrating oppression and sexism, and the great contrast, and… — and very very little about the chemistry, the resolution, the statement being made.

    (Kammerud made the interesting observation that the characters unite over their shared pain, but that’s no guarantee that they’ll have a happily-ever-after themselves. That doesn’t seem to me what the story’s angling at, which just makes it a more intriguing observation…)

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