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From Phyllida's Desk

What's It All About, Amalie?

I just spent a long weekend copy editing the second book in my ECLIPSIS series of Lady Amalie's memoirs, Choices. If anything could cure a person of wanting to be a writer, this would seem to be it.

But it occurred to me that the worst is yet to come: the synopsis. My stories are harder than most to summarize in the hope of making them irresistible to buyers, because they're not about the big issues. Like Jane Austen, working on her famous "little bit of ivory," detailing the ordinary lives of "three or four families in a country village," I don't have the ability or inclination to write what Sir Walter Scott called, speaking of his own work, the "big bow-wow strain" of historical adventure.

Today's big bow-wow stories are fantasy, and they've been having a golden age recently, with Harry Potter coming to an end and George R.R. Martin's enormous sagas starting to get the recognition they undoubtedly deserve. So it's unfortunate for me that Lady Amalie's stories, set in a sword-and-sorcery world, are also, by genre definitions, fantasy.

There are no ultimate showdowns between good and evil in Lady Amalie's memoirs, no hearty, larger than life heroes and villains, no epic quests or stirring battle scenes (although a later book in the series does have a rather bloody rescue from captivity by bandits), no convoluted plots of Machiavellian political intrigue and betrayal. Just a woman, a lot like me, who works through many of the problems that women of my generation dealt with in the late 20th century: finding love, keeping one's independence, and balancing work and family.

My hope for ECLIPSIS is that good storytelling and the slightly warped perspective of my fantasy world can turn these memoirs into a unique, entertaining work of women's fiction. And in order to give myself a kick-start for writing the next synopsis I'm posting here the "Editor's Introduction" to the series that I published in book one, Recognition.

It gives me great pleasure to introduce these memoirs from my old friend, Amalie, 'Gravina Aranyi ("Lady Amalie").

I knew Amalie as Amelia Herzog, back in the days before computers, when the typewriter was the writer's tool of choice—yes, we're that old. Like me, Amelia was a misfit, uncomfortable and out of place; but where I used writing to escape, Amelia simply disappeared, into one of those sword-and-sorcery worlds that were popular among fans of feminist science fiction. In the beginning I heard from her quite frequently, but over the years the correspondence tapered off, as it usually does. She would send a brief note at holidays (hers, not ours), to let me know she was still alive. The sad truth is, involved in my own career, I forgot all about her. Until now.

As it turns out, Amelia thrived in her new home. For her, the move to the world she calls Eclipsis was an act of liberation. Sword-and-sorcery (S&S) sounds dated now, perhaps even more than feminism, but the genre began as a way for women to find their voice in the male-dominated world of Sci Fi. The science fiction that survives today rarely resonates with readers because of its science, but more often because of its fiction. The once-futuristic ideas of robots and space aliens, time machines and travel to distant galaxies still work for readers, when they do, because of the radically different approaches they bring to answering the same old questions.

That favorite fictional device, the alternate universe, frees writer and readers to (re)examine the eternal, unresolvable problems of men and women, human nature, war and politics, without the constraints of realistic fiction. S&S was especially valuable for the way it allowed women readers and writers to explore issues of sex roles and gender norms—those "unimportant" social problems that were dismissed or obscured by the "big ideas" of conventional, masculine Sci Fi.

In becoming "Lady Amalie," Amelia found her true self, as she wrestled with one of the eternal "women's" problems: what happens when what you're supposed to want turns out to be what you really do want? Like Elizabeth Bennet of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Amelia discovered that wealth, status and power can be very conducive to love, especially when embodied in a handsome and intelligent human form. And like Elizabeth and all Cinderellas, Amelia won her place in life, not by being rescued, but because she, too, was gifted. She recognized her mate, her equal partner, and claimed him—and her home.

With the introspection and leisure of middle age, Lady Amalie had the desire to record her unique experiences, and began writing her memoirs. Now, with the publishing world undergoing a radical transformation, with e-books challenging the established print format and its gatekeepers, the mainstream publishers, Lady Amalie felt the time was finally right to share her story. She has entrusted her extensive body of work to me, along with permission to format and edit it, and make it available online.

Yes, obviously, Lady Amalie is a pseudonym. But it's simplistic, perhaps even incorrect, to say that we're the same person. The Ann Herendeen who wrote the first of these stories almost fifteen years ago is not the Ann Herendeen who is editing them now. Ann Herendeen went on to write and publish two novels: Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, and Pride/Prejudice. She is working on a third novel, called Last Dance. Her long-term goal is to be recognized as a writer, with no adjectives in front of that word.

Herendeen's and Lady Amalie's works do share some themes, most notably the adoption of the "third perspective," the point of view of the woman in a polyamorous marriage to a bisexual husband and his male companion. But there are other themes in Lady Amalie's writing that developed specifically from her time: the concerns of second-wave feminism and the beginning of the concept of female empowerment.

The woman who became Amalie, 'Gravina Aranyi, is the product of a very different road taken. Lady Amalie's memoirs tell the story of a woman with a "gift" that is also a curse: a talent or ability, along with a difference in appearance, that sets her apart from society. Today there are many works of popular fiction that portray telepathy and its inconveniences as a disability or a deformity. But younger readers may not realize that it was only a couple of decades ago that what we now celebrate as "difference" was a genuine "handicap," that outmoded word, especially for women who were judged on their appearance and who were not seen as, or allowed to be, sexual beings if they did not meet their culture's standard of beauty.

Even traditional ability came with a price. The popular fiction of the past is full of stories about talented women in all fields who had to choose between family life and using their gift, whatever it was.

Lady Amalie's extensive memoirs do not resolve this issue; they merely present one woman's unconventional solution in an imaginary world that feels both foreign and familiar. If some of Lady Amalie's revelations seem less groundbreaking now, it's because of the work that her spiritual sisters contributed. We should be thankful for it, while remembering where Lady Amalie belongs in the continuum.

I think Lady Amalie has something valuable to say. But what matters to readers is whether her story is entertaining and absorbing. I found it so, or I would not have accepted the task of editing. Although she did not write her memoirs in chronological order, I am presenting them that way, as it's easier to follow and makes a more straightforward narrative.

A note about the setting: the world here called "Eclipsis" is a Protected World, one of the few habitable planets in the mostly hostile and indifferent universe. Like Earth's Protected Areas, these are fragile ecosystems, at risk of degradation or extinction from the modernization and pollution that accompany their rediscovery, with the inevitable tourism it brings. The human ecology, the customs and social organization of the indigenous people, requires as much protection as the biological. Unceasing vigilance and vigorous enforcement of anti-contamination procedures are essential if it is to remain viable and intact. For this reason, Lady Amalie has used pseudonyms and generic terms in places to protect the identity of individuals and institutions that, if revealed, would expose her world to harmful scrutiny, however inadvertent or well-intentioned.

A note about time: Space travel is a mystery to most of us. The distances are so mind-bogglingly vast that time itself is warped. Amelia and I were almost exact contemporaries when our paths diverged. But a journey across several galaxies, hundreds of light-years away, and life on Eclipsis, with its twenty-six-hour days and eight-day weeks, has brought my friend to the furthest edge of old age, while I'm still in what I optimistically consider my productive years. I know how her story ends, even while I'm actively writing my own.
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