Here’s what I wrote about the first book in the Atlan series, The Serpent, a few years ago.
In the 1970s, I began to read SF/fantasy. Although I did not care excessively if an SF classic was written by a man or a woman, I wondered, Where are the women? There was Ursula K. Le Guin, and I enjoyed the dragons of Anne McCaffrey, but who else? Surely there were others.
And then a writer at Ms. magazine praised Jane Gaskell’s The Serpent, published in 1963 in the UK and in 1977 in the U.S. And this strange little feminist fantasy, the first in Gaskell’s Atlan series, changed my idea of the genre’s limits.
“But men are extinct! Do you mean that there is one alive–a real man–an atavistic throwback or something?” Was wildly, wildly excited. Have also always wanted to see a brontosaurus, which Snedde told me are nearly as extinct as men.
“Darling,” said the Dictatress gravely, “for reasons of our own your nurses and I, purely in your own interests of course, have misled you as to the facts in the world outside your tower…. As many men exist as women.”
Does the plot sound too complex? You just ride with it.
Cija’s diary is sprinkled with comical reflections and lush lyricism, and it also has feminist subtexts (nothing too obvious).
As for the seduction of Zerd, that does not go very well. Women find Zerd attractive, but she doesn’t get it. As she says, he is not “pretty.”
And then one day she sees him half undressed and understands.
His chest was bare–and, oh, my unknown Cousin, my own God, the sun struck sparks also from the scales of his chest and arms. Except in strong light one can mistake him for a man, but now he stood, clearly seen, a monster–and, my God he was beautiful!
Cija makes friends (and lovers) with various soldiers, cross-dresses to save her life, rides a large, violent bird (seemingly something prehistoric) and her best friend is Lel, a transgender boy. She has an on-again, off-again sexual relationship with a character named Smahil. She wants to prevent Zerd from invading Atlan, a kind of ideal Atlantis-like country.
Who knew I’d find the concept of a blue scaly man so sexy? Oddly, monsters are often sympathetic. In a later book in the series, Cija has an idyllic relationship with a sentient ape, and it is the most real love she has ever has. There are other monsters in women’s literature: in one of my favorite books, Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs. Caliban, a housewife falls in love with a monster who has escaped and taken refuge in her house. And in Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape, a woman falls in love with an ape she decides to save from her behavioral scientist husband’s experiments.
They are brilliant books, despite the covers!