When I initially read the subtitle to Lynne Murray’s short s-f novel, Grativas: Valkyrie in the Forbidden Zone, the first thing to pop into my head was the memory of a campy underground flick from the 1980’s that featured an early appearance of the band Oingo Boingo. But Murray’s tale isn’t the stuff of would-be midnight movies, more a smart piece of cultural commentary in the body of a science-fantasy tale.
The title heroine, more properly known as Val-Sybilla (a.k.a. Sybil) is from a matriarchal culture far from Earth; she and an unruly alien named Gelbrave inadvertently wind up in the Forbidden Zone, when the latter rushes in on Val’s communing with a trio of other-dimensional demons. A Sworn Protector of the Mother Clan, Sybil had been guarding a delegate to a conference located “at the leaping off point into the folded space nearest Earth, a vector for several other worlds” when her unexpected crash through an uncharted gateway sends her into the Zone.
It is our planet that has been dubbed the Forbidden Zone after centuries of intergalactic visitors had wreaked havoc with the gullible Earthlings. “The need to see godhood in the face of more advanced technology and different physical features seemed to be a genetic human weakness,” our Valkyrian heroine explains, which resulted in the planet being declared off limits to otherworldly tourists.
Which doesn’t mean there aren’t humanoid visitors hanging about the place, of course. Though the portals to the Forbidden Zone are supposedly locked, other travelers have found their way to the planet – including a romantic figure from Sybil’s past named Josu – which leads her and the chauvinistic Gelbrave to seek other outsiders to find a way back home. (Amusingly, many of them appear to have gravitated to San Francisco.) Complicating matters, Sybil has embedded Ritual Jewelry filled with flasks of Gravitas, an extremely potent substance that’s like a mystically enhanced pheromone. If our heroine doesn’t return to her world and get the Gravitas extracted from her body, the results could be catastrophic.
I first grew acquainted with writer Lynne Murray through her Josephine Fuller books, a series of engaging mysteries centered around a plus-sized lady detective, so it should probably come as no surprise to regular readers of the writer’s work to learn that the narrator of Gravitas is a full-figured warrior. On Sybil’s home world, large womanhood (think Venus of Willendorf) is considered the norm of beauty, which definitely puts her at odds with current Earth culture. Murray doesn’t belabor the point, but it provides a strong subtext in her short novel.
In fact, if I have any complaint about this quick read, it’s that I wish there were more of it. Narrator Sybil proves an astute observer of both alien and Earth cultures, while her interactions with representatives of each – including a double-dealing shopkeeper and the violent warrior women running a series of Super Fit Mommy Classes – are entertaining. At times, the short chapters documenting each confrontation seemed a little too short, a sign that Murray had me caught up in her characters.
A fun read for lovers of size-positive fiction or those who take pleasure in a good stranger in a strange land yarn.