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Black Wine, Candas Jane Dorsey, TOR, 1997, 285 pp.

Dizzying, intricate, ornately-written, and often dryly humorous, Black Wine puts its trust in the power of the reader to puzzle out meanings and relations, narrative and character. For the full effect of the novel, it really needs to be read twice, as the story coils in on itself in ways that are surprising yet forecast plainly from the beginning. The non-sequential structure also allows for epiphanies that other novels simply could not supply, or even contain. And then there is the question of genre, as the novel doesn’t sit comfortably in science fiction or fantasy, yet the feel of the book is quite different than the works produced by “mainstream” writers who occasionally use the genre for their own purposes. Black Wine has won awards as a fantasy novel, and the blurb on the back cover from Locus calls it “one of the most sophisticated literary SF novels of the year.” If it is to be considered as fantasy, then it destroys most of the conventions that come with the territory. This is definitely not the story of an adolescent coming through a rite of passage, at which point the story grinds to a halt -- several adolescents in the book grow up, but they also become adults, and they also comprehend things about themselves and grow past the epiphanies. This is most noticeable in the way Dorsey handles the sexuality of the characters. The field of science fiction and fantasy is often mired in hazy, adolescent, even moronic views of sex and gender, and as such, we often only get half the story. Humans do crazy and irrational things when it comes to sexuality -- and use “vulgar” terms to describe their actions -- but there’s more to the matter than such a reductivist view, and Dorsey explores this constantly and coherently in this book. We are all embodied, and the body matters in a way that often gets ignored in our gleaming techno-futures and our recidivist medieval fantasies.

The storyline of Black Wine is difficult to describe properly, so I will have to differentiate between the chronological story and the way that Dorsey presents it to us. Black Wine is about 5 generations of women in a royal family, although it deals mainly with the grand-daughter, Ea, and the great-grand-daughter, Essa. Ea runs aways, along with her lover, Annalise, to get away from her evil, controlling grandmother. She lives in the Remarkable Mountains for a while, has a daughter by one of the mountain men. Ea then continues running, disappearing from view. Later, her daughter Essa goes in search of Ea, only to run into her own difficulties. Essa eventually returns to the land of her royal family and eventually meets her mother once she leaves there again. I’ve left out a great deal of detail in order to preserve some of the aforementioned epiphanies, because Dorsey has structured the book with much care to achieve that effect. Suffice it to say that I had to take some notes to get the chronology straight, and as I did so, I was only more impressed that Dorsey could create such a beautiful tapestry. For the record, the order in which I put the chapters goes like this (and please ignore this if you haven’t yet read Black Wine, as the extra work of putting this together for yourself is well worth the effort): 3, 6, 8, 10, 15, 2, 4, 7, 9, 1, 5, 11-14, 16-21. The book seems to settle down near the end, but the strict chronological order is disrupted by yet another technique. It seems as if Essa has solved all of her problems and there is still another 50 pages to go. These concluding passages are actually some of the most interesting material in the book, as a conventional climax is reached and then revealed to be worthless. Dorsey is well aware of the typical ways that narratives are structured, and some of the sly humour of the book comes from the main characters thinking about this. For example, here is a passage from the last third of the book:

Essa has noticed that in the stories about quests against fate, towns are always lousy with guards looking for the fugitives, inns fraught with people who recognize them, and roads mined with experiences which add up to the answer to all their problems. Whereas, Essa, walking south, taking the occasional job to earn food and shelter, is invisible, or might as well be. (214)

Later, Essa has a funny exchange with a baker, who jokes with her about how much she looks like that royal daughter.

The bulk of the book deals with Essa, the lonely woman in search of her mother. Ea tried to shield Essa from the brutalities of her past and from the reach of the murderous grandmother. But this uprooting of the past backfires completely, and there is long sequence when the mother and daughter finally meet where they exchange recriminations. Ea no longer seems to have all of her faculties about her, which is where the argument ends:

“I love you, Mother,” she said.

“And I love you, my Essa,” said her mother. “I’m sorry I’m crazy. I really can’t help it.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Essa. “I think we’ll manage to work around it.” (226)

These two women have caused enormous amounts of grief to those around them, and there’s joy too, but it’s bittersweet. The wine of the title is Dorsey’s way of describing this relationship -- it’s intoxicating, but there’s an undertow to its appeal. It’s very telling that Elta, the fifth generation in the family who only shows up in the second last chapter of the book, prefers beer over black wine. As much as the melodrama and discord make for good reading, Dorsey is smart enough to let the characters realize that it is healthy to move on.

Black Wine is an excellent novel. I can only hope that Dorsey continues to write novels, although I suspect that this book was a painstaking labour of love. There are many parallels between Dorsey’s career and that of Phyllis Gotlieb -- both women began by writing poetry, and have gained great respect in the field of science fiction, despite being less prolific than other writers. As with Gotlieb, I am keenly anticipating whatever work of art Dorsey chooses to grace us with next.

Last modified: April 8, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (

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