Poetry, myth, darkness and humour: the worlds of Roz Kaveney
Roz Kaveney is a wonderfully talented writer, poet and critic and a tireless campaigner. She has written insightful critical works on a wide range of popular cultures, buffy the vampire slayer at Pinch/Tuck. She has written reviews and reviews for The Guardian and The Independent newspapers. Her first collection of poetry dialectic of the flesh (2012) was shortlisted for the Lambda Award. She has a new book of poetry, The big good time. She has published her translations of Catullus’ poetry, which boldly capture the romanticism, wit and sexual explicitness of the originals. Along with Neil Gaiman, Alex Stewart and Mary Gentle, she was a core member of the Midnight Rose Collective, which released a series of shared global anthologies published by Penguin.
Kaveney has been a vocal figure in British feminist, trans and queer activism since the 1970s. She is a founding member of Feminists Against Censorship, which was set up to voice feminist arguments against censorship, particularly of sexual material, and to defend individual sexual expression. She is the former vice-chair of the UK advocacy group Liberty (formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties), which protects civil rights and freedoms in the UK. She was also the deputy editor of the magazine METAwhich promoted trans and genderqueer voices.
Somehow, through it all, Kaveney finds time to write novels. His fantasy series blood rhapsody—Rituals (2012), reflections (2013), Resurrection (2014) and Realities (2018), plus a concluding volume Revelations which will hopefully be released next year, deserves much wider reading and is, in this reviewer’s opinion, one of the key works of fantasy of the past decade. Kaveney also wrote Tiny pieces of skull or a lesson in manners (2015), which won the Lambda Award in 2016. Tiny pieces of skull is a fictional account of Kaveney’s experience as a trans woman in London and Chicago in the late 1970s, written in the 1980s but unpublished until 27 years later. Although not a work of genre fiction, it presents itself as a pioneering exploration of trans identity, and with its warmth and wit tied to unflinching honesty, it is essential Kaveney .
What unites all of Kaveney’s work, through his criticism, poetry and prose, is his formidable intelligence and sharp wit. These qualities make his writing both extremely insightful and enjoyable to read. As a result, she is able to explore dark and disturbing themes without overwhelming the reader or undermining their scope. Tiny pieces of skull is unwavering in its depiction of transphobia and the dangers faced by trans women living in poverty, surviving on the streets and engaging in sex work. the blood rhapsody the novels explore the abuses of power inherent in colonialism, empire, and tyranny throughout human history. Yet his novels are imbued with a warmth and wit, an understanding of the importance of countering darkness with humor and celebrating moments of joy, that make his explorations of these dark themes all the more more poignant and effective.
“‘Mythology,’ I corrected him, ‘is a word clever men use to describe the wisdom they have forgotten.'” [Reflections 35]
In the heart of Kaveney blood rhapsody series are two remarkable women bound together by fate. Mara the Huntress is the sworn defender of the weak against the strong, an immortal who has spent millennia hunting down those who would use blood rituals to become a god by slaying innocents. Emma Jones is studying at Oxford when she is violently drawn into the world of gods and mythical beings. She and her ghost girlfriend Caroline start working for a mysterious employer, who sends them on a mission to protect the innocent and thwart the plans of the forces of evil.
Rituals opens with Mara stalking Aleister Crowley in Sicily in 1926. Mara suspects that Crowley might be interested in using blood rituals to achieve godhood, and so sits him down and tells him the story of his long battle against those who would use rituals. Alongside is the story of how Emma and Caroline became involved in the world of magic, starting in Oxford in 1985. Rituals and its sequels follow the stories of Mara and Emma as they cross paths with gods and spirits, come into conflict with God and Lucifer, vampires and elves, and protect people from deities, monsters and mages, following the fate that will eventually draw the two of them together.
With its mix of anthropomorphic figures from various mythologies and pantheons, blood rhapsody can be read as Kaveney’s answer to Gaiman’s Sand seller comics, and with its focus on intelligent, witty women thrown into a world of supernatural peril, it shares elements with buffy the vampire slayer. Yet Kaveney’s creation is entirely his own. blood rhapsody stands out for both Kaveney’s quick wit and his incredible knowledge of history and mythology. The series is both fun and incredibly inventive in the way history and mythology feed into its narrative. Kaveney’s main characters are likeable and fun. Mara is a fighter, gifted with strength, speed, and skill, driven by her single-minded commitment to her goal. Yet she still possesses a dry sense of humor and has absolutely no time for the bombast and smugness of the various gods, monsters, and people she battles. Emma, unlike Mara, is not a fighter at all; on the contrary, his strength lies in solving problems and putting people down. Emma tackles conflict and complications using her intelligence, charm and empathy. She and Caroline are able to navigate the strange and magical world they find themselves entangled in because of these very human traits, and humor plays a major role in this. As Emma says,
“’Talking to supernatural beings is usually what works.’ Emma looked to Caroline for backup, and Caroline nodded. “That, and just listening to them, makes your average sea demon or monster feel very lonely, and one of the best things you can do is just listen.” [Rituals 92]
Much of Emma and Caroline’s quiet heroism comes from listening, being pompous and self-important, and thinking around the issue while others make noise.
The scope of blood rhapsody is expansive, drawing on stories and mythologies often overlooked by genre fiction. Mara’s quests to stop blood rituals and punish those who use them take her from the fall of Tenochtitlan in Cortés to the reign of terror of the French Revolution; to Atlantis and Alexandria; to Victorian London and the deserts of Africa. Mara and Emma come into conflict with Jehovah and his angels and Lucifer and his demons – neither are the supreme power they claim to be, and secretly on the same side. Mara battles giant prehistoric monster-god-birds, and Emma must negotiate a marriage that will bind rival vampires and elves together. Along the way, they are aided by historical figures such as Voltaire and HG Wells, mythological creatures as varied as fauns and Sobekh, the Egyptian crocodile god, and larger-than-life figures like Polly Wild, spymaster cockney and secret power behind the British Empire. . Kaveney draws mythological and real historical places with rigorous research and sheer intensity of imagination, and his historical, mythological and entirely invented characters all have such depth and humanity that one begins to lose sight of those who are real, mythological or original.
The series is difficult to categorize due to the games Kaveney plays with the genre. It easily switches between humorous Pratchett absurdity, epic fantasy action and gruesome body horror worthy of Clive Barker. Considering the amount of stuff in these books, what’s remarkable is that Kaveney makes them feel like a cohesive whole rather than a series of interesting but loosely connected pieces. Horror and wonder end up complementing humor and vice versa, with mythological themes complementing historical sections. At the heart of these books is the concept of blood rituals, which allows Kaveney to explore the darker parts of human history – the bloodshed in the name of religious wars, in the process of colonization and maintenance of the empire, in tyranny. , oppression and persecution. Mara and Emma are committed to the ongoing fight against these evils, which have shaped all of human history and continue to shape the world around us. blood rhapsody needs the horror elements to highlight the very real atrocities committed by humanity at its worst. And he needs his warmth, his charm, his wit and his intelligence to remind us how we fight these horrors.
Tiny pieces of skull
“’Well, Ariane, said Annabelle, I suppose so. But I had thought that part of the appeal of feminism is that there are no secondary characters. 
As mentioned above, Kaveney’s Tiny pieces of skull is a fictional account of her experiences as a trans woman in the 1970s. The novel tells the story of Annabelle Jones, a charming and intelligent trans woman who is persuaded to leave her safe and comfortable life in London and move to Chicago by the beautiful but self-absorbed Natasha, only to have to find her feet in a new land with no connection. The novel explores how recently-transitioned Annabelle learns about the ups and downs of life in the trans community, both from women who transitioned earlier and through her own experiences and adventures. Annabelle encounters many of the dangers inherent in living in poverty in a transphobic society, particularly those encountered (then and now) by sex workers, and the novel features some particularly heartbreaking scenes.
Corn Tiny pieces of skull is not a miserable book. Annabelle is able to mend her relationship with Natasha and becomes part of a larger queer and trans community. In many ways, Tiny pieces of skull is a celebration of the queer and trans communities that exist despite entrenched transphobia and the fact that in a society that does not accept them, these women are able to carve out a place for themselves. The novel is shot through with Kaveney’s quick wit, filled with plenty of amusing exchanges and hilarious ideas, and Annabelle and Natasha’s banter could give Emma and Caroline a hard time. Annabelle’s observation that, according to a feminist worldview, there are no minor characters, is demonstrated through the novel, in which each person Annabelle interacts with is treated as having their own story, someone one with his own life whose worldview we are granted a brief glimpse of. This principle is at the heart of blood rhapsody also: The idea that people are worthy of themselves, and it’s when people assume that others aren’t that they become monsters. As such, he remains a prime example of the humanism that drives Kaveney’s prose, poetry and activism on all levels.
Jonathan Thornton has written for The Fantasy Hive, Fantasy Faction and Gingernuts Of Horror websites. He works with mosquitoes and is preparing a doctorate on the representation of insects in speculative fiction.