I’ve enjoyed reading Heartfield’s short story in Monstrous Little Voices a few years ago. It was the highlight of that anthology (it was a bit of a letdown, as a whole, but it looks like the authors weren’t aware of the others’ work although it was all linked together somehow… which led to some unfortunate things. But that’s a story for another day. Point is, Heartfield’s story was brilliant). Looked up what else she was up to, and at the time, Armed in her Fashion wasn’t out yet.
I promptly got it at Dublin Worldcon 2 years ago, got it signed… and then kept putting it off because the concept was so wild and amazing I was afraid to be disappointed.
In 1328, Bruges is under siege by the Chatelaine of Hell and her army of chimeras — humans mixed with animals or armour, forged in the deep fires of the Hellbeast. At night, revenants crawl over the walls and bring plague and grief to this city of widows.
Margriet de Vos learns she’s a widow herself when her good-for-nothing husband comes home dead from the war. He didn’t come back for her. The revenant who was her husband pulls a secret treasure of coins and weapons from under his floorboards and goes back through the mouth of the beast called Hell.
Margriet killed her first soldier when she was 11. She’s buried six of her seven children. She’ll do anything for her daughter, even if it means raiding Hell itself to get her inheritance back.
Margriet’s daughter is haunted by a dead husband of her own, and blessed, or cursed, with an enchanted distaff that allows her to control the revenants and see the future. Together with a transgender man-at-arms who has unfinished business with the Chatelaine, a traumatized widow with a giant waterpowered forgehammer at her disposal, and a wealthy alderman’s wife who escapes Bruges with her children, Margriet and Beatrix forge a raiding party like Hell has never seen.
Trigger warnings: period-accurate sexism and transphobia, misgendering, violence, murder, body horror.
I think I described the book on twitter as “the Wife of Bath meets a Bosch painting, and also says ‘trans rights!'” and that is basically it. It’s a sff and medieval nerd’s dream come true. We follow Margriet, who’s not necessarily a nice character but is very much like the wife of Bath – she knows what she wants, she hates her husband, and she takes no shit. She and her little band navigate a world full of demons and half human monsters that I’d swear were lifted right off a Bosch paining, and for a story set in Bruges it makes a lot of sense!
The story itself is about claiming what’s yours, as a widow, and for your daughter, from a dead husband who was a liar and a thief but is still technically bound to you because medieval laws tend to say “fuck women”. So while I didn’t like Margriet, I could certainly see her point of view and why she was doing all of that.
The “side” characters, who did have their own point of view chapters, were almost more interesting to me, from Beatrix who is developing some interesting magical abilities and tries to get her own way in a shitty world despite her stubborn mother, to Claude, the trans man-at-arm who’s given shit by everyone around him for who he is but has a job to do and damned if he’s not gonna do it!
I especially liked Claude because I was not expecting a trans character (I don’t fully read the summary sometimes, and I’ve had this book for ages) and I thought it was done well. Just be aware, the other characters misgender him continuously in their POV chapters. I’d have really liked if by the end, a few of them “got it” and gendered him correctly, but I was happy enough with the ending he got, considering the period setting.
I also enjoyed that it pitted one woman – Margriet – against another – the Chatelaine – but they were all in a way fighting the same patriarchal bullshit. Now, the Chatelaine may be truly evil, but she’s taken over Hell from her own good-for-nothing husband, and she’s fighting for the King of France to give her what he promised – her own lands to govern – despite Salic laws and all that other shit. It was clearly not all black and white, and I like that in a villain too!
It’s a bit of a medievalist daydream and I highly recommend it!
Sadly it seems to be out of stock in most places, due to uh, issues with the publisher. I can’t even find an ebook link 🙁 but here’s hoping the author finds a new home for it! I’ll update and link back if I find a place that has them.