Gossamer Axe, by Gael Baudino

After having recently mentioned Gael Baudino's feminist musical fantasy novel Gossamer Axe on another web page and on a mailing list, I decided to put up a page about it. Here's what I have here so far:

A review of Gossamer Axe that I wrote back in 1990

(I originally wrote this review as a posting for both my BBS (Pyrzqxgl -- source of the "Message 64007" header below) and the venerable Bisexu-L mailing list.)

Message 64007
From Tachyon, 10-19-90, 21:48

"Gossamer Axe" by Gael Baudino

This new book is becoming something of a cult item, and you'll understand why: sword and sorcery in the guise of an all-female heavy-metal band.

Christa, harper-cum-Celtic priestess/goddess/etc. from the sixth century, attends a Yngwie Malmsteen concert and realizes that heavy-metal music is the only weapon powerful enough to rescue her lover Judith, who has been held captive in the Realm of the Sidh all these years. (Christa had also been a captive, but escaped with a stolen Sidh harp which enables her to stay young, among other things.) She takes up electric guitar, assembles her band (Gossamer Axe is the name of the band), solves band members' personal problems, and wows rock audiences like they've never been wowed before, while preparing songs and tightening up the band to battle the immortal bard of the Sidh.

What saves this from being as hokey as that description probably makes it sound is:

  1. Christa comes across as a genuinely good and worthy individual who is certainly capable of doing all the author has her doing. Unfortunately, sometimes it's a little confusing as to exactly what she can and cannot do -- for example, why can't she cure Kevin's (another lover) brother of AIDS when she is able to do things (with music, natch) like heal wounds, cause a heart attack, and turn heroin and cocaine into "a few simple sugars and trace elements"? Also unfortunately, her beloved Judith isn't around enough that you get to know her well enough to have any reason to root for her rescue other than to see Christa succeed/be happy/the band kick ass.
  2. The author has this stuff down. Anything to do with music and instruments is described in loving detail. Rather than having the effect, though, of one of those hard-sf books where the action keeps getting interrupted by long technical lectures, it just makes things more down to earth. It's a kick to read about battles being fought in music-theory terminology (!) and heavy-metal songs rather than the usual "and then this happened, and then that happened" descriptions of people slamming away at each other with weapons the author probably doesn't know anything about anyway.

The book suffers from being a bit too contrived and melodramatic at times, but in general it's well done and (gasp) even imparts redeeming social value to heavy-metal music! There's probably too much Christianity/Catholicism-badmouthing for some people's tastes. What sex there is (not much) is mostly touched on in terms of its redemptive/sacramental/generally positive effects on the participants afterwards, not in any kind of (heh) blow by blow description of what actually goes on.

One thing of some interest to me is that most of the action takes place in Denver (familiar street names abound), and the author is a harper in Denver. She probably knows, then, my brother Anders' Denver harper girlfriend, as well as an old friend of mine who is a classical guitarist who plays with harpers.

Well, I should wind this up ... it's starting to wander all over the place! I guess I'll mention that the book is generally upbeat, with many examples of Christa getting people to take charge of their messed-up lives and do things they can be proud of. And that I wouldn't be surprised if a lot more female heavy-metal musicians started turning up. The above-mentioned classical guitarist was a serious devotee of the Anne McCaffrey books about Menolly ... if she was in junior high today, I wonder if it would be Christa of Gossamer Axe instead?

Some Gossamer Axe links and further info

Scott Allen Martin's Gossamer Axe page talks about how the book changed his life, his research on its source material and historical inaccuracies, and also provides a selection of suggested links.

Gossamer Axe won the 1990 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Science Fiction & Fantasy. It was also chosen as one of the "top 5 gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender genre works of all time" by panelists and audience members at Gaylaxicon 2000's "The List" panel.

The Locus Magazine (where I first heard of Gossamer Axe, back when I was a subscriber and they reviewed it) web site has comprehensive bibliography listings of Gael Baudino's books and short stories.

Under her pen name (or would it be more along the lines of a "string name" :-)) of Gael Kathryns, Gael Baudino is also a performing, teaching, workshopping, composing, arranging, etc. harper who regularly writes for the Folk Harp Journal (click and then scroll down for a list of her many articles and other pieces) and has written some primers for the lap harp and wire-strung harp.

See the Wikipedia entry on Gael Baudino.

There's a "Fans of Gael Baudino" Facebook group.

UK rock/filk band "Phoenix" deserves a section of their own here:

The Gossamer Axe cover illustration seen all over this page :-) was done by Chesley Award-winning artist Dawn Wilson.

Check out these many enthusiastic reader reviews of Gossamer Axe on Amazon.com's site (regardless of whether your feelings toward Amazon.com run towards love or boycott, it's still a good place to check out what people have to say about a book).

Chuq Von Rospach's Electronic OtherRealms #28 includes Laurie Sefton's short Gossamer Axe review.

Science fiction and fantasy author Lyn McConchie reviews Gossamer Axe.

There are some member reviews of Gossamer Axe on the LibraryThing web site and the Goodreads web site.

GLBT Fantasy Fiction Resources web site creator Mel/Finder reviews Gossamer Axe.

Gossamer Axe has its own TV Tropes page.

Although Gossamer Axe is out of print, there are enough used copies out there that you can usually pick one up pretty cheaply. Click the following links to search for copies at these sites: Amazon.com, eBay, Better World Books, half.com, Powell's Books.

Some similarities and differences between Gossamer Axe and Emma Bull's book The War for the Oaks

Here's a paragraph that used to be in the links section above:

I've heard that Gossamer Axe has a lot in common with Emma Bull's three-years-earlier (1987) book The War for the Oaks", but in looking for a copy of the latter I found that it was (1) out of print, (2) not at my local library system, (3) scarce and well-loved enough to be going for big, big bucks at used bookstores, and (4) coming back into print this summer. So I guess I'll wait until this summer to get a copy and see what I think.

But now, through the magic of inter-library loan (hey, you've got to find your magic where you can get it, or is that get it where you can find it :-)) I have obtained a copy, so here goes:

"Strange but true!"

My childhood coin collection included one of those "Strange but true!" cards featuring a Lincoln cent and Kennedy half dollar facing off above a long list of similarities such as "both were succeeded by Southern Democrats named Johnson." Well, while reading The War for the Oaks I definitely found enough points of similarity between it and Gossamer Axe to rate their own "Strange but true!" card, despite the books when taken as a whole being very different. These points of similarity range from basic framework elements like "the female guitarist main character forms a five-piece rock band with one female friend she's been previously musically involved with and three other musicians she hasn't played with before" to all sorts of other things I shouldn't mention because it would give away too much of the plots.

So what does it mean? The way I had found out about The War for the Oaks in the first place was when I was searching for some Gossamer Axe links to add to this page, and came across various remarks along the lines of "Gossamer Axe ripped off The War for the Oaks" or "Gael Baudino did it much better in Gossamer Axe", and again, there are so many points of similarity between the two books that it's easy for me to picture Ms. Baudino having read The War for the Oaks and thinking "let me show you how I would have done it", but I have no idea whether anyone ever went so far as to directly ask her about it, and if so, what answer she gave.

"Strange but different!"

IMHO The War for the Oaks' strongest point is its very well-thought out, fully realized and beautifully described faerie characters and faerie world -- Emma Bull really did a wonderful job of bringing them to life and making it all make sense. In contrast, that Gossamer Axe's faerie characters/world lack three-dimensionality is part of the point of the book.

The War for the Oaks takes place in Emma Bull's then-home of Minneapolis, which is also so fully realized and lovingly described/catalogued that after a while I was getting the idea that the author must love every garbage can on every street. (It was a shock to find out that she has since moved to California.) Much of the time this is pretty sweet and lyrical, and it makes sense that a book about rival faerie realms battling over control of Minneapolis would want to make sure that readers would see Minneapolis as worth fighting for and almost a character in its own right, but there are also times when she rattles off the names of so many stores as to verge on some kind of product-placement parody. Gossamer Axe's Denver, on the other hand, takes a more conventional role as a setting.

Each book features its main character's band battling some of the forces of faerie in an attempt to rescue someone, but while in Gossamer Axe this provides the book's plot, The War for the Oaks on the other hand is about a full-out faerie war, with this incident being only one part of one battle.

Each book's main character can to some degree work magic with music, but while in The War for the Oaks this is partly because all true artists have some magic and partly due to faerie magic, in Gossamer Axe it's partly because music can be used to work magic if the musician has sufficient skill and understanding, and partly that instruments themselves have spirits.

While the bands in both books perform a mix of some cover tunes and some originals written by the main character, The War for the Oaks' band is an '80's modern rock band whereas Gossamer Axe is heavy metal. One of the things people like best about The War for the Oaks is the supposed authenticity of the band scenes, that Emma Bull being a guitarist/singer/songwriter herself knows exactly how a band can work and is a gifted enough writer to explain it all in a meaningful and poetic way. You get to see both the characters and the author really enjoying themselves, whereas Gossamer Axe's band scenes are usually there more as the next part of the plot than to be little musical numbers/showcases in their own right.

Two weak spots in The War for the Oaks were (1) there were so many things I could see coming a million miles away, and (2) the ending seemed too abrupt and confusing compared to all the rich description of the rest of the book.

I should expand on all this some more later (this is my cue to say "oh I'm so tired right now" just like on a bunch of my other web pages :-/), but in the meantime if you want to see a nice, thorough and enthusiastic The War for the Oaks review, check out Michael M. Jones's one in the Green Man Review.

"Strange but ... yuck!"

The one thing that really bugged me about The War for the Oaks -- especially in comparison with Gossamer Axe -- is the way the former's main character Eddi is mistreated and manipulated in her romantic relationships. Yet another of the many points of similarity between the two books is that each book's main character has three lovers throughout the course of her book, but while Christa of Gossamer Axe's relationships (and the book itself) are exuberantly and refreshingly loving, generous, pro-woman, pro-polyamory, pro-bisexuality, etc., Eddi's lovers pull all kinds of godawful stereotypically sexist crap on her.

Very early in The War for the Oaks lover #1 hits Eddi in the face hard enough to knock her down, and Eddi responds to this by running after him so she can offer an apology that that wasn't the way she had wanted their relationship to end. Grrrrrr!!! What I found shocking about this was what a small deal the author seemed to treat it as -- it gave me a sour taste that remained and continued to be reinforced throughout the book. Eddi's lover #2 manipulates her, and lover #3 does a lot of scaring her, threatening her, and treating her like property and/or a toy before reforming enough (though still continuing to manipulate her) to provide more romantic interest. As a bandleader Eddi is a powerful woman able to get all her bandmembers to do their best, to treat each other with respect and work together as a team, but in her romantic relationships she might as well be walking around wearing a "men are jerks and my author makes me put up with it" t-shirt. Again, it's definitely easy for me to imagine a scenario of Gael Baudino having read the book and thinking "great story but fucked-up sexual politics -- now you watch me and I'll show you how I would have done it!".

I ought to say more about this later, but for that and a few other reasons I find Gossamer Axe to be the much more satisfying of the two books.

Related links

On the Green Man Review site, Cat Eldridge's Gossamer Axe review also contrasts it with The War for the Oaks.

Click here to see a long, detailed soc.women.lesbian-and-bi newsgroup discussion comparing the two books.

Gossamer Axe and The War for the Oaks both get mentions in the "The Power of Rock" TV Tropes page.

Blogger Suzanne Lazear considers both Gossamer Axe and The War for the Oaks to be "Elfpunk" rather than "Urban Fantasy".

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Last updated August 11, 2013
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