Review: Cranky Ladies of History edited by Tansy Rayner Roberts & Tehani Wessely

CrankyLadiesPublished by: FableCroft Publishing
ISBN 13: 9780992553456
Published: March 2015
Pages: 320
Format reviewed: Proof from Publisher
Publisher Site: Publisher Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five

This anthology is full of our brilliant cranky ladies of history – a book of short historical fiction pieces that snapshot excellent ladies of the past, so we learn a bit of history while reading an excellent piece of writing at the same time.

I have to admit, my knowledge of history in general it pretty woeful, so mostly I had little to know clue about many of these women – because after all, if you hear about anyone at all from history they’re usually men, so chances I’d come across anything more than a brief mention were woefully short. This anthology was an excellent gateway into who they were, and why I should know so much more of them. From here on I’ll certainly be looking into them further.

“Queenside” by Liz Barr

In this nifty little tale to start us off, showing verbal sparring between Anne Boleyn and Lady Mary, as they discuss their King (King Henry VIII) and Jane Seymour, who would become his third wife. Lady Mary has sharp wit, yet a kind heart despite the life she has had, and in this piece we see Anne ask for Lady Mary’s kindness to watch over her half sister, the Princess Elizabeth as she knows her time as consort is soon up.

This piece was sharply written – simple in parts, and successful at easing you into the anthology.

“The Company Of Women” by Garth Nix

Godiva! We all know how she conquers something whilst naked, and this gives narrative to this – what I love is how it’s pointed out that she and other women conquer without wearing armour and without violence (though, well, in this it is a tad ferocious and the death in it isn’t exactly kind, but spoilers aside…)

‘This host needed no armour, no weapons, no boasts and shorting. But if she were the enemy, she would be greatly afraid.’

Brilliant. But it’s Garth Nix, so of course it is! I would say that this is one of the stronger pieces, but in all honesty I’m sure that is to continue. As soon as you start reading it, you can tell that this is a strong anthology, one that only makes me wish I were still in school for the chance to study it with others.

“Mary, Mary” by Kirstyn McDermott

Here we have Mary Wollstonecroft an advocate of women’s rights among other things.

It’s always heartbreaking to see young children die hours or days old, even if in certain times it’s been perfectly normal to have fourteen or more kids and barely half of them make it past their 10th birthday. It’s also heartbreaking, but less seen, of the parents and family members this leaves behind.

The way this one ends in such hope is so excellent to see. It’s a strong ending that can’t help but leave you smiling.

“A Song For Sacagawea” by Jane Yolen

Which is about Sacagawea, one of the few in this anthology who I’ve heard of before, a woman who helped Lewis and Clark on their expedition through part of the United States, acting as guide and interpreter.

Told in verse, this is a short piece of two pages that ends simply yet profoundly – it was enough. I’m not one for poetry so I can’t speak with any experience of how effective it is compared to others, but all I can say is that it deserves to be read aloud, and is quite deliberate in its pace and proud language.

“Look How Cold My Hands Are” by Deborah Biancotti

As hoped, things are only getting better and better. In this piece we see the awful crimes of Countess Bathory, who was countess from the renowned Báthory family of nobility in the Kingdom of Hungary. She has been labelled the most prolific female serial killer in history, seemingly insane and probably suffering from a number of mental illnesses as she seems to honestly see nothing wrong with cruel torture and abuse of women of all ages. When she’s called to account for her crimes, she seriously believes such things are below a woman of her station, and that she was well within her rights to act as such.

So here we see that not all great women of history were good – great is used in the sense of women of great power or ability, and that’s showcased here perfectly. Biancotti’s writing is strong and perfect at catching such horrific events and making them seem plausible, rather than over embellished or ‘pure evil’ without reason.

“Bright Moon” by Foz Meadows

Everyone always loves a tale of a woman fighter in a time or setting where women were only expected to clean and have babies. Here we have Khutulun who from a young age would wrestle and dismiss thoughts from her older sister that she wasn’t acting proper. Their father Kaidu became the most powerful ruler of Central Asia, reigning in the realms from western Mongolia to Oxus, and from the Central Siberian Plateau to India, and it was through these regions that they went to war, and Khutulun managed to sway her father’s opinion that her great ability shouldn’t go to waste. Here she doesn’t simply use her strength, either, she uses her intelligence and quick thinking to make proper decisions in warfare, which is even more satisfying. Khutulun sees the chance to act in a way that would certainly bring her more bravo, yet she takes place in where she can instead have the most impact and through this, notices something else that benefits them all so much more.

Foz Meadows writing is, as always, engaging and easy to read, the pages flicking by so quickly you’re dismayed that there’s not a whole novella or even novel dedicated to her piece on Khutulun.

“Charmed Life” by Joyce Chng

Leizu grew up helping in her father’s workshop, working with metal to create swords or ornaments. It is here that she catches the eyes of the Emperor, and soon finds herself an Empress, moves into the palace and leaves that life behind her; trading a life of freedom for one of rules and regulations.

Here we have a beautifully crafted piece that suits Chinese literature, with descriptions that paint a picture so well its like you’re there with Leizu. It’s also interesting to see how she goes on the hunt for a nicer rich fabric to wear, and how she goes about it. Soon, she discovers silk and how to dye it, and then her anger as her husband takes all the credit. This is a soft yet strong tale, and one of my favourites in the anthology.

“A Beautiful Stream” by Nisi Shawl

This piece eases us back into the more historical-fiction sense the rest of the anthology has taken, bringing us to France, and Gabrielle and her lover Missy, and Gabrielle’s daughter Gazouette. The author of the well-known Gigi, we see her here trying to do the best for her family – whether it’s enticing money from her backers, or balancing her husband’s needs and that of her lovers. Beyond this she accomplishes so much more as her world becomes even more difficult, until we’re left with her life at 81 as she lays dying, awaiting a visit from her estranged daughter.

This piece was one of the more beautiful, taking two reads in order to appreciate it fully. Shawl has a deft hand, and the piece comes to life as it unfolds around the reader, with more and more to notice in it each time you read it again.

“Neter Nefer” by Amanda Pillar

Now we have Hatshepsut, an Egyptian ruler – generally regarded by Egyptologists as one of the most successful pharaohs, reigning longer than any other woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty. This tale is told by her daughter Neferure who wasn’t blinded by friendship and was able to properly see what her father’s consort was up to – trying to poison Hetshepsut and Neferure. What I find amazing in this time is how short their lives were, but how much they accomplished in this time regardless.

Neferure’s tomb was one of those discovered by Howard Carter, and Hatshepsut’s was that of some issue and academic feuds as they fought over what the succession truly was. This piece by Pillar is excellent at showing the different ties everyone had – how siblings were to marry and so forth, or, in Neferure’s case, to refuse utterly.

“Due Care And Attention” by Sylvia Kelso

We jump straight from a calm discussion into action, as we read a piece set in Brisbane, Australia when motor cars are just becoming popular. We have two ladies – Lilian Cooper, a British-born Australian doctor and her companion Josephine (and we see this piece through her eyes). These two are utterly frustrated by the speed limits which keep them from their patients. That is, until, they assist a policeman who used to dog their every step with fines, and help him catch a thief.

I know this whole anthology is about women so I should be used to it by now, but OH, isn’t it good to see women so useful and needed! It just makes you realise how little you see it generally in novels.

It’s also interesting to see a time when 16 miles an hour is noteworthy. Ah, history.

I must admit, this one took me a second attempt at getting into, though I think now that I was simply in the wrong mood for it at the start. The way their dialogue was written and the introduction to the story in general kept striking me odd, but as whole it works dang well and you get such a sense of the characters through it.

“The Dragon, The Terror, The Sea” by Stephanie Lai

Cheng Shih is a Chinese pirate who travels with women and children, and is just and fair, utterly fierce, and despairs at getting older. It’s interesting to see this happen, see how she gets slower and faces more injuries, and it’s also interesting to see how she deals with her closest members of her force of pirates – no matter who they are, if they do wrong, they’re swiftly dealt with.

This is beautifully written, always showing foremost, her love for the sea.

“Theodora” by Barbara Robson

Theodora, wife of the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian the first who starts her life as a child on the streets, and rises to be a stage performer. She dreams of high places and is firmly told that she has a place, and that’s not it. Though, she manages to almost succeed in one avenue – tied to a lofty Senator-turned-Governor – this soon falls away and she finds herself back on the streets. However, Theodora is made of sterner stuff and soon finds herself in even better shape – wife to Justinian, who then becomes emperor, and it’s only thanks to her that they manage to get through the riots and upheaval in general. With her level head and fierce nature, they see through the revolution.

Throughout this piece, you get such a feel for the times and what was expected of everyone who had their part to play in this world of politics – mostly how cruel it all is, especially in Rome. Theodora is just excellent!

“For So Great A Misdeed” by Lisa L. Hannett

Hallgerðr Höskuldsdóttir is an Icelandic woman who is told from a young age that it’s not bad to want. Throughout we get to see how people differ on this advice, saying that no it isn’t bad to want, or it is bad because of the things that come with that.

Hallgerðr seems to suffer from terrible luck, losing three husbands. We see her from when she’s young until the end, when she’s somewhat manic and utterly at her wits end from what she’s been through and how she’s treated for it. She’s a malicious, greedy character, firmly trapped in what she sees as unfair – what’s so wrong from constantly having feasts, even if you have to take from your neighbours in order to lay the table?

Again, we’re going from strength to strength here, seeing what Hallgerðr thinks and her actions, understanding why she does what she does even if we don’t agree. She’s a formidable woman – a Viking, after all.

“The Pasha, The Girl And The Dagger” by Havva Murat

Ahh, another female becoming a warrior story, with bonus ‘dress as a boy’ plot. Here we have Nora of Kelmendi, an Albanian warrior known as Kreshnik when she’s a boy. Born to a man with too many daughters already, she’s almost cast out into the snow as what he really needs is a son. She’s first given to the church, but then rescued by her aunt who raises her as her own, but then dressed as a boy when her father turns up in a surprise visit.

He instantly takes her under his wing (as he thinks she’s his nephew) and trains her up, but then must fight as champion… she’s small, but the match won’t be all that easy for the Pasha’s champion, as we soon see…

This is another fun piece – I don’t think I can ever get tired of this type of plot. More, I say!

“Granuaile” by Dirk Flinthart

Another pirate, almost! Grace O’Malley – chieftain of the Ó Máille clan and sometimes known as “The Sea Queen of Connacht”, we see her matching wits with Philip Sidney, a knight of Queen Elizabeth as they have a run in with the fey, Poseidon/Neptune himself.

This one is interesting for a line from Philip, who doesn’t believe he’s witnessed a God. Rather, he states: ”Tis true this Mack Leer has much power, but what of it? have we not powers the ancients would have marvelled at? The compass? he telescope? Our clocks? Our cannons and guns?’ (…) ‘We have wise men and astrologers, alchemists and mathematical philosophers. What this Mack Leer knows, we can learn. In time we will deal with him and his people as quals.’

I’m not sure I agree with the ending of this one, but I worry about such things. Reading Juliet Marillier’s work makes me a tad worried about doing such a thing (no spoilers here!)

“Little Battles” by L.M. Myles

And now we’re back in the realm of older, excellent women. Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in western Europe during the High Middle Ages and a member of the Ramnulfid dynasty of rulers in southwestern France. She became Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right while she was still a child, then later Queen consort of France (1137–1152) and of England (1154–1189) and in this tale, we see her escorting one of her granddaughters, Blanche, when they come into trouble.

War must be a terrible time for a woman leader, mother and carer but on one side, kept back from the blood and cruelty, and on other other plunged into it. She gives this wisdom to her granddaughter, saying ‘Don’t be afraid to look at them, the bodies. The men will not want you to, but being a woman will not protect you from violence or death. You will be a queen. You will have castles and armies and you must not flinch from doing what you must to protect your husband, or your children. Look. See what death is.’

“Another Week In The Future, An Excerpt” by Kaaron Warren

Catherine Helen Spence was a Scottish-born Australian author who published a science fiction novel in 1888, about what it would be like to live in 1988. The very fantastic Kaaron Warren takes this a step forward by writing in her style, as to what it would be like in 2088. Through her eyes we see just how much the world has changed even from her time to ours (just imagine, women dressed as men!) and from there, we see what Australia (and the world) could someday become.

As ever, Warren’s writing is a light touch yet with a depth of thought behind it. This piece is certainly one to look out for at the next round of Ditmars for sure.

“The Lioness” by Laura Lam

Ahh, Lam, one of my favourite writers! If I weren’t a fan of FableCroft Publications, she would be one of the main reasons I’d pick this anthology up in the first place! She brings us pirates, showing us why this piece follows Shawl’s as it’s set in France also, introducing us to fierce female pirate Jeanne de Clisson, also known as the Lioness of Brittany. Daughter of a nobleman and soon married to a nobleman, they are soon barons until her husband dies young, leaving her with their two children.

If you haven’t before come into contact with Laura Lam’s writing, I highly recommend you change this immediately and seek her work out. Lam has a way with words and characters that are a joy to read and lodge firmly in your mind, so even when you do somehow manage to put the book down (for say, eating or sleeping) they stay in your mind regardless. It’s no different here; Jeanne is a heartfelt character and Elyas is no different, both demanding a novella or novel to themselves – as long as Lam is writing it!

Warren’s piece got us into the speculative rounds again, and this piece continues in that stream, and is all the more fun for it.

“Cora Crane And The Trouble With Me” by Sandra McDonald

Cora Crane – American businesswoman, nightclub and bordello owner, writer and journalist. Though this clever piece of work, we see bits and pieces of her life and what could have been, and get a well-worked idea of what her life was like – regrets, hopes and dreams and everything in between. This keeps Cora utterly human throughout – we see her bad decisions and what leads her there, and understand why it all happens.

I like that this one comes so close after Warren’s slightly more spec-fic take on Catherine Helen Spence. The way this one uses ‘what could have been’ is almost on the same speculative stream, and that speculative elements were included in this anthology at all. It makes a nice mix!

“Vintana” by Thoraiya Dyer

The Great Wife, soon to be known as Queen Ranavalona I of Madagascar, watches in shame as her husband is cursed by breaking tradition time and time again. Once Queen, she states that fish shall never cross her table.

This tale is also of the Royal Cook, who has to go out to get fish for the King (when he should be eating meat) and along the way, falls ill from a mosquito and from there, refuses to enter the kitchen as to leave the slaves quarters would mean they expect her to die and don’t wish to have to burn down the huts as they’d otherwise have to. They’d never burn down the palace.

This is one of those pieces which is rich in culture and a joy to read because of it and the pieces of verse are a pleasant addition.

“Hallowed Ground” by Juliet Marillier

Hildegard was committed as a child to a monastery – later she would become a writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath – but for now she was a child who would have fits, and in these, see God’s visions. These she leant to keep to herself as they weren’t always well received.

Through this piece we see her both as a child and in her eighties, where she is now known as Sister Hildegard and has a life of wisdom she’s running out of time to share – she wishes to write an extension of her Natural History however also thinks she may live only a year or two more.

This is a gentle and beautiful piece of writing, as Marillier always accomplishes in her work. If Laura Lam wasn’t in this anthology, I still would have bought it for Marillier’s piece in an instant!

“Glorious” by Faith Mudge

Ending on a strong note, we are left with Elizabeth I, the Queen of England. Jailed and desperate, this one explores her life as a child throughout. We see the injustice of what it must be like for a girl when a son is born afterwards and the rejoicing show just how much more worthy a male child was to a family in those times.

This one includes one of my favourite lines: ‘Never have I written with more care and made less sense.’ Is there anyone out there who can’t identify with such a truthful sentence, when upset or at wits end?

It’s also incredibly clever to start and end with Anne Boleyn, hats off to the editors for that one!


I can think of no better way to have spent my Australia Day reading this anthology and learning more about Australians from our past, as well as others from all over the world. This is a strong anthology, easily readable and not ‘boring’ as historical things can sometimes be, or at least are known to be.

This anthology is highly recommended, for children still in school as well as adults and everyone in between. I can’t wait to see how this is used in schools!


2 thoughts on “Review: Cranky Ladies of History edited by Tansy Rayner Roberts & Tehani Wessely

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