Grimdark Antidotes: Castle Waiting

Dear reader, it occurs to me that I’ve been focusing a lot on grimdark lately. This blog has become a depressing parade of misunderstood powerful loners raping and killing everything they meet because, duh, they have to because it’s a nasty world out there!* However, I haven’t spent much time writing about fantasy works that don’t involve eleven-foot long bloodrogue swords and multiple orifice violation for funsies.

Let’s fix that.

I’ve just finished reading both collected editions of Linda Medley’s lovely graphic novel series, Castle Waiting. Castle Waiting’s world seems similar to the comic series Fables (which I haven’t read) in concept,  if not in tone—a world of fairy tale creatures interacting outside the context of their original stories. The titular castle is the remains of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, which becomes a haven for wayward folk after Beauty wakes up and runs off with her prince. The main storyline follows Lady Jain, a pregnant woman who flees her abusive husband for the safety of the castle. The residents of the castle, all of whom have sought sanctuary there for their own reasons, help Jain settle in and tend to her baby, while keeping up the castle and telling her their own stories of adventure and derring-do.

One of the best aspects of Castle Waiting is Medley’s treatment of women wanderers. Jain’s flight to Castle Waiting isn’t a scary chase, with wolves and rapists and wolfrapists constantly at her heels. Jain meets with both good and bad during her journey to the castle; she enjoys the good (a sweet encounter with the Bremen Town musicians) and overcomes the bad (an encounter with thieving hobbits—guess they fell on hard times in the Shire). It’s the opposite of the grimdark plot, in which a woman alone without a heavy array of weaponry is a walking target and not much else. If the woman lives through her inevitable brutalization and doesn’t become fodder for a son/husband/boyfriend/random male bystander’s manpain, she might get some sweet revenge at some point in the story. However, that’s pretty much the best outcome available. But Medley depicts a woman actually enjoying her existence in the world, still able to express a full range of human emotions and reactions, even after something terrible happened to her.

Jain isn’t an exceptional woman, either. Sister Peace, one of the castle’s inhabitants, is a nun, part of an order of bearded women. Peace’s beard, far from being a curse that has made her miserable because she never can catch the all-important man, has allowed her to see the world (as a young girl, she runs off to join the circus, but alas, her beard isn’t luxuriant enough to make her the star attraction).** Peace’s travels have been longer than Jain’s—she travels specifically because she wants experience, both good and bad. Her need to roam isn’t treated like an aberration or as a reaction to some sort of disappointment. She just is who she is, and she’s allowed to follow her desires and experience the consequences of doing so without ending up showily dead in a ditch.

There’s also plague, booby traps, warfare, and madness, if you really have to have that sort of thing (and, okay, okay, I like those plots too) and some dodgy treatment of gypsies which kind of makes me go huh and also dwarves, which are not treated in a dodgy way at all but as an actual culture***. But most of it centers on the enjoyment of the everyday, especially the everyday that we associate with women–cooking, washing, dying one’s hair. It’s really a haven of a series in the best sort of way.

Note to prospective readers: the second book is available in two versions–get the definitive edition, published in 2013. The earlier version doesn’t contain the complete story.

* Yes, including the Downton Abbey post, although maybe that’s more grimdull than grimdark.

** The star of the first book’s romance is the bearded lady in Peace’s circus, a woman with truly majestic facial hair.

*** Complete with explanation of how dwarf childcare works. Addendum: Although, come to think of it, gypsies are an actual culture and dwarves are not real. No shit, me.

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