|Art by Muna Abdirahman|
“Bearly a Lady” by Cassandra Khaw (novella)
So where to begin with this story? The characters, I think, because the story lives and dies on its characters and the complex web between them, the drama and desire, the damage and the dreams. Zelda is the main character, a were-bear with a full figure and a strong sense of what she wants...kind of. She’s powerful, and yet part of what might be frustrating to many reading the piece is that her power...doesn’t quite go as far as it could. She could bite the head off of anyone who messed with her, and yet she’s stuck in denial about a lot of what she wants not because she doesn’t know, but because it isn’t exactly safe, even for her. Perhaps especially for her. But more on that in a bit. Zora is her vampire roommate who is wise and patient with Zelda but not with Zelda’s bullshit. There’s Jake, the hot werewolf, who Zelda has been lusting after since high school but who might not be what she really wants. There’s Benedict, a fae with a serious attitude problem but a strong magical allure. And there’s Janine, Zelda’s coworker and sort-of-crush through most of the story.
The story, by the by, mostly involves Zelda’s attempts at dating while being ordered by her boss to watch over Benedict, who is family and visiting and Trouble. Zelda just wants to go out on a date with Jake but keeps actually finding herself drawn to Janine instead except, well, some of that denial that I mentioned before. Which is something that frustrated me while reading but the more I think about it the more true it feels. Because hey, as a bi person who has also struggled some with labels and with desires and with the knowledge that some relationships aren’t safe in ways that other ones are, I definitely feel Zelda’s hesitation to label what she feels for Janine, and certainly understand why she resists and hesitates. The story shows them being harassed, shows them struggling to figure out what they’re comfortable with, what they want, all the while being afraid that talking about it, that exploring it, will destroy something between them.
And really a lot of what frames my reading of this story is that it’s fun and at times silly and so there’s a part of me that wants it to then be...easier, I guess. I want Zelda to find her power and be able to wield it and strike down those arrayed against her in more ways than just censoring them a bit or getting them in trouble but basically they all get to continue on as normal. Because the setting is fun and the story is fun and the characters are fun and it’s all so much fun that it seems almost a shame that there’s this darker, more mundane, more difficult message underneath the surface. That for all Zelda’s power and assurance, things are not safe for her. That for all she could rip the head off a harasser, she isn’t allowed to. This is a story of powerful women being made to censor themselves in order to move through a world of toxic men. A story of how certain attitudes become internalized and it’s so hard to navigate this landscape where all the men in Zelda’s life are basically assholes. Even Jake. And yet there’s such the pressure to “pick which man” that Zelda almost misses that it isn’t a man she wants, really was never a man. And that’s sweet and powerful in its own way, though it’s a bit gutting that it’s all Zelda can accomplish here. The implication might be that change happens, and happens slow. That some men can be leashed, and their abuse slowly stopped. But that sometimes you have to see just delaying the abuse a victory.
So yeah, this is a very fun story full of banter and light but there’s something very dark about it as well. Something that sort of gnaws at me long after I put the book down. That speaks to some very shitty situations that fantasy often allows us to escape from but here does not. And it's an interesting choice and, ultimately I think, a very rewarding one, for all it makes the story deeper and more complex and more uncomfortable. It doesn't avoid the difficult realities of the situation, of culture, of the systems of abuse that are in place. Which might not be what all readers going into this story want, but I think makes for a richer, subtler experience. So yeah, definitely go check this one out because gah I apparently have found it way more emotionally challenging than I thought at first. A terrific read!