Monday, September 12, 2011

Shadows of Aggar by Chris Anne Wolfe


Shining A Spotlight On Amazing Books From The Last Few Years

With Special Guest Reviewer, CATHERINE M. WILSON, author of the WHEN WOMEN WERE WARRIORS trilogy

Book:  Shadows of Aggar
Author:  Chris Anne Wolfe
Publisher:  Orchard House Press

It is a gift when we see our own emotional lives illuminated — revealed and made understandable — by the simple device of setting us down in an unfamiliar place and time.

Shadows of Aggar is set on a pre-technological planet, the Aggar of the title, in a time when the Terran Empire is a powerful but somewhat distant presence. Charged with managing Aggar’s precarious relationship with the Empire, Aggar’s Council is faced with a situation that could result in war between the Empire and its enemy, the Alliance, a war that would be disastrous for anyone in the border zone between them, including Aggar.

A Terran pilot, fleeing from pursuing ships of the Alliance, has crashed on Aggar, in an area where the Council has little influence. The pilot has information that could prevent a war, so he must be rescued and returned to the Terran base. Instead of allowing the Terrans to search their territory, the Council decides to send a covert mission to find and rescue him.

Attached to the Terran base on Aggar are two Amazons, one of whom, Diana, is chosen for the mission. The Amazons were women from Earth who had colonized another planet and established their own society there. They too have managed to keep their independence from the Empire, and the Council considers an Amazon more trustworthy than one of the Terrans.

While most of the women of Aggar live in a society reminiscent of our pre-feminist past, Elana is different. Gifted with the ability to perceive a person’s amarin (aura) using her Blue Sight, she has been raised by the Council and trained to become a Shadow, someone who is destined to be partnered with another person in order to accomplish a vital mission. She is chosen to go with Diana.

I must admit I was impatient trying to follow all of this before I started to care about the characters, and I had to go back and reread much of the first few chapters to make sense of the story. There are also several intricate political plots and subplots, but I didn’t find them particularly interesting. What I found interesting is the relationship between Elana and Diana.

Diana sees Elana as a tool of the Council, meekly doing the bidding of those in authority. Elana sees herself as having freely chosen her role, considered by her culture to be an honorable one. Diana’s misinterpretation of Elana’s situation causes her to keep an emotional distance.

An added complication is that on Aggar sexual relationships between people of the same sex are not just disapproved of, but also feared, and Diana once employed a servant to whom she became attracted. As Diana’s servant, the woman had no option but to submit to whatever Diana asked of her. Because of Aggar’s patriarchal culture, the Amazons passed as men there, and it would have been perfectly acceptable for a man to sleep with his female servant. Diana’s servant knew that Diana was really a woman, and Diana was very much aware of her “silent terror” of what Diana might demand of her.

As an Amazon, Diana feels a sense of shame that she put another woman in that position, and therefore she resists her attraction to Elana. But Elana is not like the other women of Aggar. She feels the same attraction to Diana and can’t understand Diana’s reluctance to act upon what Elana, with the aid of her Blue Sight, knows Diana is feeling.

Most relationships begin with a misunderstanding, at least in fiction. Not realizing that Elana’s position as Shadow makes her different from the other women of Aggar, Diana assumes that she will not only fear an intimate relationship with another woman but that she has no will of her own and only does what the Council requires of her.

Although the place and time are unfamiliar to us, the stereotypes that have plagued women of our own time are clearly recognizable. Diana looks down on the “chattel-like women of this planet who exhausted so much energy in hiding their physical prowess.” Elana’s job as Shadow is to accommodate herself to her partner, to do whatever is needed to accomplish their mission, but Diana misinterprets this as mindless subservience. Suddenly we’re back in a dynamic we understand — the dominant man and his subservient woman — something that Diana, as an Amazon, rejects in principle.

What Diana fails to see is that being a Shadow is Elana’s vocation, something she was born to but that she also freely chose for herself. It’s the choice that makes the difference, and it takes Elana a long time to convince Diana that she is what she is and does what she does because it’s what she, Elana, wants — that it is, in fact, what gives her life meaning.

Shadows of Aggar was published in 1991, when the days of virulent lesbian/feminist separatism were not long behind us. The concept of woman as handmaiden had been discredited as a role imposed by patriarchal culture, leaving many women wondering why they felt as if something precious had been taken from them. In attempting to correct the oppressions of patriarchy, radical feminism tossed out a role that many women found both appropriate and empowering, and shades of that controversy emerge throughout Shadows of Aggar in conversations about consent, autonomy, and respect for the choices of others.

The ongoing dialog between the two women is the best part of Shadows of Aggar. Because of her Blue Sight, Elana has keen insight into what Diana is feeling, but often fails to understand the reasons why. Because the women come from two very different cultures, they must communicate on a basic level. Assumptions must be tested. Feelings and reactions must be made understandable within each woman’s cultural context. In a contemporary setting, this kind of analysis would feel like overkill, a caricature of the processing women tend to do in the context of an intimate relationship. In an alien setting, these conversations are both necessary and fascinating, and they reveal a great deal about the emotional life of women.

I give it a solid 5.0 out of 6 on Salem's Rainbow Scale.

A quick note from Salem:

“Shadows of Aggar” was nominated for a Lambda Literary award in 1991, but did not win.  Ms. Wolfe had a clear vision for the Aggar Series, and staunchly resisted any changes that would alter her intent to cast a different light on age-old plots and archetypal characters.  Her unique vision focused a fresh, bright light on the strength, beauty, desire, and joy of women in love.  When her original publisher no longer wanted to reprint the Aggar books, Ms. Wolfe signed with Orchard House Press, who released author-approved editions.   Not long after this book was published, Ms. Wolfe was diagnosed with cancer.  The Aggar series was meant to be a trilogy, however only “Shadows of Aggar” and the follow up, “Fires of Aggar” were ever published.  Orchard House Press will continue to donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of all Chris Anne Wolfe books to cancer research.  The Orchard House Press website, is still under construction, but these books can be purchased through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and a handful of other distributors.


  1. This piece offered an abundance of riches, my thanks to the incomparable Catherine M. Wilson, Chris Anne Wolfe, and Salem West. In addition to an interesting review, we were gifted with a Women's studies sampler.
    The Rainbow Reader is much more than a book review.

  2. Chris Anne also wrote a lesbian retelling of Beauty in the Beast, called "Roses and Thorns" that is one of my favorites. There was a time travel one that I read called "Annabelle and I". "Shadows of Aggar" is my favorite and will, imo, always remain a classic. "Fires of Aggar" takes place thousands of years in the future when the different planets are cut off from communication due to a war. You do get a glimpse of what happened to Elana and Diana after they settled on Diana's home world. We lost a jewel when Chris Anne died. I often wonder what stories we would have seen from her pen if she were still with us today.

  3. Cygirl1, thanks for giving the readers a quick overview on the other works by Ms. Wolfe. I often wonder where she would have taken us if she were still here, but for now our hope is that new readers will find her and be inspired lift the torch she so ably lit all those years ago.