Although I’d read some works by Gwendolyn Kiste before 2020, this was the year I really discovered Kiste in long form. And the hardest thing about writing this entry to the year’s advent calendar is deciding which work I liked more: The Rust Maidens or Boneset & Feathers.
You can’t go wrong with either. Hell, you can’t go wrong with anything Kiste writes. But for me, there’s something particularly special about these two works.
In The Rust Maidens, Phoebe has returned to the home she left decades before, and hasn’t been back to since the end of high school. Her return is prompted by unwelcome change. Her father is in a care facility, unable to recognize the people standing in front of him, occasionally reminiscing about things from decades ago but out of touch with the current moment, unable to connect with the ones he loves in the here and now.
In a way, his condition mirrors Phoebe’s. Her departure from her home all those years ago was spawned by a desire to forget; her father’s departure is because (in part) he can’t remember. Although her father isn’t choosing to withhold love and engagement with his family, Phoebe has distanced herself for decades because of the pain.
The Rust Maidens follows Phoebe’s life in the present and the past. The timelines are woven together to reveal the dramatic events that made Phoebe try to run from her past. Phoebe herself is engaging from the very start. She wasn’t an easy teenager. She had a rebellious streak and didn’t conform to the expectations of the community she grew up in. It was easy for people to dislike her, and perhaps if she’d been one of the rust maidens, fewer people would have cared. Instead, the girls who transformed that summer after her high school graduation included girls who were easy to love, leaving grieving parents to lash out with blame.
This story still haunts me. I don’t want to say too much more, because it’s beautiful and painful and hopeful, and the story is something you should experience for yourself. The Rust Maidens won the 2018 Bram Stoker Award, and with good reason. When people reduce horror to slasher flicks and blood and gore, put this book in their hands. The horror here is the fear of the unknown, the inability to face our own shortcomings, the pain of loss.
I’m not ashamed to say I had tears in my eyes by the end of this breathtaking book, and it has been sitting at the top of my best reads of the year list for many months, with a few other books I’ve either covered or will cover in other Advent entries coming close, but never dislodging this book from the center of my heart.
The only book that ultimately threatened The Rust Maidens for top spot was Boneset & Feathers. Now, it might surprise you that from the start, I expected to like Boneset less for a super silly reason: I’m scared of birds. Pop feathers in the title and I’m ready to hyperventilate, and I know in my head that’s silly, but I’m still scared of birds.
However, it was a new Gwendolyn Kiste book, so I ordered my copy and dove in.
And oh, wow.
Odette’s story is, in many respects, one we’re familiar with. She’s the shunned witch who lives outside the village and tries to limit her visits because she isn’t welcome there. If the witchfinders return, she’ll be hunted and burned at the stake.
When strange things start to happen, Odette is forced to use her spells, which she’d avoided for so long because she blamed herself for what happened to her family. She has to come to terms with her grief and guilt while fighting to save all the villagers.
This story is peppered with Odette’s perspective, and her insights about the witchfinders and their mission. They’re left unchecked to terminate anyone they suspect of being a witch, leaving women throughout the entire land vulnerable. There’s so much laced throughout this story about how women have been reviled, mistreated, and abused throughout the centuries. In the same way that Phoebe broke my heart in The Rust Maidens, Odette broke my heart in Boneset & Feathers… and I was also left with resolve. To not stand idly by when governments vilify people based on religion, race, gender. If anything, it was sad to read this and think about how much outdated biases and ignorance continue to create problems in our society.
Kiste is an exceptional writer who always crafts a strong story with a compelling plot and richly developed characters. Whether she’s writing about Cleveland, Ohio, or a village that has shunned magic because of its fear of the witchfinders, Kiste creates worlds you feel you live and breathe in.
And what knocks these books out of the park, for me, is that Kiste always has something to say that’s infused within the story. I found myself thinking about the pain of love and loss in both of these works. I found myself thinking about the damage that prejudice does — whether it’s the prejudice of a grieving aunt or a fearful village or evil witchfinders. These stories stay with me because they say so much about humanity. And in classic Kiste fashion, they find a way to give us hope that we can, perhaps, rise above our weaknesses, learn and grow, and build a better world tomorrow. Or at the very least, become the best version of ourselves.