Monday, August 13, 2012

Book Review: Gossamer Axe by Gael Baudino

Gossamer Axe by Gael Baudino is an urban fantasy, featuring a Celtic harper centuries out of her own time, who gets caught up in the world of 1980s heavy metal in a quest to rescue her lover from the Sidh.

It actually felt like it could have been part of any of Mercedes Lackey's urban fantasy books (specifically the Bedlam's Bard novels with Rosemary Edghill), in style and readability, intertwining of music and magic, themes of good and evil, and the duality of the Sidh and the modern day. Some of the themes, such as the Sidh being unable to create, were common themes, although explored in different directions. But actually, the Sidh in Gossamer Axe could have easily been a small enclave cut off from the rest of Sidhe society in one of Mercedes Lackey's books.

Gossamer Axe took a slightly darker, less idealistically polished, spin, was a little harder to read and felt a bit more real and worthwhile. Flawed characters, truly flawed characters, are much more fascinating than tragically 'ganged up on by fate' characters.


Chairiste (Christa) is a harper from 6th Century Ireland who summoned up the Sidh bard Orfide with her lover in a rash attempt to learn harping from him. The two young women were stolen away and kept in the dead and unchanging realm of the Sidh. Christa manages to steal Orfide's most powerful harp, a magical and sentient being called Ceis, and summons a gate back to the mortal realm. She lands in the 18th century and uses the power of her music and magic to keep herself from turning to dust, or aging more than necessary. Her beloved Siudb remains trapped in the starless realm, an object of fascination and desire to the King, a prisoner, miserable - and the only mortal thing in that frozen place.

She follows the dying gates to America, and we meet her in Denver, teaching harp. She's quiet and self contained and conservative, and growing increasingly desperate. One of her friends and students takes her to a heavy metal concert, and she's blown away by the raw power generated. Realising that this much power, with a band behind her, would actually stand a chance of taking on the supremely skilled Orfide, she throws herself into heavy metal. Luckily her centuries of harping enable her to pick it up very quickly. From there, she struggles through the music scene, putting together a band of women and then holding it together until it's time to challenge Orfide.

The story spans about a year's worth of time, ending in 1987.


Christa starts out as a very self contained, conservative, disengaged character. Extremely memorable with her waist length red hair, she controls her age with the assistance of her harp and has to strictly monitor her friendships. Over the course of the book she starts to wake up, becoming a fiercer, fiery and stubborn Celt. She's kind and very proud and extremely compassionate, and madly in love with her dearest Sidb. She's also extremely protective of her 'family' and willing to kill to protect or in the name of vengeance. Of all the characters, she's the one whose appearance is constantly commented on, with her hair making her instantly recognisable to the reader, regardless of whose head we are in.

Siudb (Judith) is an interesting character. She's very much the helpless maiden who needs rescuing throughout the book, the target of the entire adventure, but she's not passive - she simply lacks the skill to take on Orfide (as does Christa, without her band). When she gets a chance to act, she always takes it. She gave up her true passion and talent, singing, and her neglect of this for a weaker talent has consequences throughout the story. Because she lacks Christa's skill with the harp, even when she succeeds in harping up a gate, she doesn't have the ability to strip herself of the accumulated centuries and step through. She never doubts that Christa will return for her, never stops loving her. It's not clear if she's particularly beautiful; we only get one description of her at the end, describing her a girl with brown hair.

Her very presence in the Sidh realm has a powerful, insidious effect. In a place where nothing changes, the only way to cope is not to notice or care. Increasingly, though, the Sidh start to feel her creeping mortality and become restless and miserable.

Kevin is a disenchanted, dispirited guitarist who ran away from his ultra conservative Irish Catholic family when young and hasn't spoken to them in twenty years. Increasingly depressed, his life is changed when he becomes Christa's guitar teacher, and then friend, lover (briefly) and finally, student of her religion and way of lige. His younger brother Danny features briefly, gay and dying of AIDs, and thrown out by their family.

Ceis is an immortal spirit that inhabits Christa's harp. Essentially neutral, she stole it from Orfide, and over time, it came to love her.

The rest of the band is made up of Monica, Melinda, Lisa (Boo-boo) and Devi. Melinda is the first, Christa's friend and student. A bass player, she has a weakness for drugs and tries to sleep her way to the top. She's instrumental in forming the band, knew everyone and everything around Denver that Christa needed to know, and is almost the one who destroys them.

Monica was the girlfriend of a man whose band Christa tries to join. She becomes the singer in the band. After a rocky start due to jealousy, she comes to strongly admire Christa for her self confidence and pride, finally leaving her boyfriend. Ron turns abusive and is a menacing complication throughout the rest of the story, forcing Monica to move into Christa's home, where she grows as a person, eventually becoming Christa's lover.

Lisa (her friends call her Boo-boo) is a semi-professional drum player who gives up in disgust after a particularly bad tour, but gets lured back into the scene by Christa and Melinda, who she is staying with. We never really get to know that much about her - she's the most stable and cynical of the group, and one of the most reliable.

Devi is the keyboard player (think complicated electronics). She's a smart, spiky sort of girl. Sexually abused as a child, she is also emotionally traumatised and fragile, with it controlling most of her life. Unable to cope well with being touched, or the presence of men, she finds Christa's self confidence even more captivating than Monica does.

Themes and Story

The main themes are Ireland, heavy metal and feminism. Christa obviously places a lot of importance on her 'home', still subscribes to her old beliefs and attitudes and shares them with her new family as they grow closer together. By the end of the book, her two dearest new friends have essentially converted to paganism and the old Gaelic approach to life and the others are looking like they are headed that way. Both Christa and Kevin are Irish expatriates, albeit very contrasting ones, and this colours their worldviews strongly. Her harping is very Irish and she brings a great deal of her Irish training and influences to her heavy metal. She also constantly drops old Gaelic words and anecdotes and memories from her past. The Irish aspects tied into religion as well; from the Irish Catholicism that generally was portrayed as sexist and restrictive and overly conservative, to the pagan beliefs that Christa lived by.

Feminism, women's rights, and personal pride and freedom is intertwined strongly with Christa's Irish roots. She doesn't 'get' the idea of slut shaming, lack of sexual freedom, that women are somehow inferior. The best example was when she physically attacked Monica's abusive ex-boyfriend, without any consideration that she might lose or that it was something 'girls don't do'. This contrasts hugely with the attitudes and personalities and beliefs of those around her; especially damaged Devi and insecure Monica. She becomes an ideal, a strong and guiding light to the other women. The band almost naturally formed itself solely out of female members, initially by chance and later it perhaps due to some subconscious resistance by the women. This meant they they were seen as a 'titty band' and had to prove that they could actually play.

Heavy metal, playing music and the music industry was a huge part of the book. Most of the story followed Christa moving from harp to guitar, finding a band to play with, and keeping the band running. The heavy metal culture in 1980s Denver was very strong, and there were very specific ideas of how one fitted in; from wearing chains and spiked hair to the desperate urge to make it big. And wherever music went, magic followed. Christa was a very powerful harper and spends a lot of time perfecting the songs and spells to use against Orfide. A lot of musicans' names get thrown out throughout the book, so music ans may find a lot to recognise.

There are actually quite a lot of characters and they all get personality and history and depth, though sometimes only enough to give us a glimpse into who they are. The story cuts away apparently at random in the beginning to introduce us to angry, sad, frustrated, bored people. Their storylines gradually weave together, but we don't get to see all the connections until well into the story.

Bisexuality, Polyamory, Violence, Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll.

This isn't initially an 'in your face' lesbian book. We don't get it confirmed that the two women are lovers for a fair few pages and then it is so matter of fact that it's easy to miss. Christa is an intensely private person and doesn't share that she's from the 6th century and has a beloved trapped in fairy land for obvious reasons - and isn't looking for a partner. Later, she increasingly labels herself as gay by modern society's standards ("I love a woman, I guess that makes me gay") as she shares more of herself and her past with her new friends. The whole book is about her love for Siusb, but as they spend most of it apart, we focus on other people's physical relationships in more detail.

 Both our lovers appear to be bisexual, or more accurately, to love according to the person and not the gender. They come from a time and culture when falling in love with another woman was unusual but not unnatural. While we don't see enough of Siudb (Judith) to tell if she felt simple affection or actual attraction (with the understanding that Christa was her true beloved) to her Sidh friend, Christa leaves us in no doubt. She doesn't have major hang ups around sex, seeing it as an enjoyable activity between people who love each other, even if they aren't each other's true loves. She remembers sleepign with fellow male students while training to be a harper, spends a night with Kevin and later becomes Monica's lover. At no point is it presented as cheating, and her lovers clearly understand that Judith is Christa's everything. Sadly, or fortunately, neither remains around to be an issue or force any kind of confrontation after Judith's rescue.

It is not in the least explicit while still dealing with some very serious topics. The book itself does have some darker moments from the underbelly of wannabe music. Drugs, childhood sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, abusive ex boyfriends, casual or explicit sexism, depression, AIDS, loneliness, insecurity, murder; all of these troop across the stage or drive our characters through their motions. Most of the characters are actually miserable a lot of the time, and Christa helps heal them and make them stronger, despite her own tragedy. It's actually quite a dark story overall, which makes the joys and the friendship and the triumphs all the more glorious and touching. The utter misery and trapped deadness of the Sidh realm was rather awful, and the final scene was one of the most uplifting and touching in the entire book, through the sheer force of contrast.

It is made quite clear that drugs are a normal part of the heavy metal culture, and it does affect the band directly, with an unscrupulous and rather nasty character getting Melissa hooked. The women later raise eyebrows by not specifying that 'recreational substances' be part of their contract.

I think the most horrible situation wasn't any of the very human violence and abuse, awful as some of it was, but the clinical decision by the Sidh that Judith didn't need her personality, her self, her will and independence, and that they would have simply taken it from her and left her an empty doll rather than give up a toy.

Love and sacrifice are major themes from the very beginning. Siudb gives up her singing to follow Chairiste into harping, the band pulls together to help each other and becomes a family, and they all lose someone or something along the way. They're ultimately willing to risk sacrificing themselves to save Judith, because Christa loves her and they love Christa. Both the lovers even have to sacrifice their first made harps in attempts to get back together. Love and pride are two of the major driving forces in Christa's life.

Editing, Publishing, Proofreading Nitpicks

This is one of those books that gets mentioned a lot, but is tragically out of print. It is readily available second hand - my copy was battered but perfectly readable. The cover, interestingly, had a raised embossed illustration. Unfortunately this makes it a little more susceptible to dents. You can see the raised part of the cover in the photo below:

There were a few minor proofreading issues; about a handful. More than a published book should have, but few enough to forgive easily.

My biggest gripe was the lack of a pronunciation guide; written Irish isn't that intuitive to start with, no matter how pretty it looks, and once old Gaelic started being thrown around then I was hopelessly lost. The modernised names, deliberately chosen in order to fit in while still sounding close to their true names, worked very well. They are used interchangeably, mostly depending on context but not always.

Buying the book
Alas, it is out of print. Luckily there are almost always a few paperback copies available secondhand on Amazon.

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1 comment:

  1. I loved this book when I read it sometime around 1990! It's nice to see it getting recognition, despite being out of print for a long time. I keep hoping that the queer book fairy will wave her wand and magically make it available as an ebook. I think that would help introduce it to a lot of new readers, and make my Kindle happy too!