QSFer A.J. Fitzwater has a new queer (bi, gay, gender fluid, lesbian) fantasy book out: “No Man’s Land.”
No Man’s Land is a historical fantasy and a love story set in the golden plains of North Otago, in the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Dorothea ‘Tea’ Gray joins the Land Service and is sent to work on a remote farm, one of many young women left to fill the empty shoes left by fathers and brothers serving in the Second World War.
But Tea finds more than hard work and hot sun in the dusty North Otago nowhere—she finds a magic inside herself she never could have imagined, a way to save her brother in a distant land she never thought she could reach, and a love she never knew existed.
Inspired by feminist and LGBTQ+ history and family memories of North Otago in wartime, A.J Fitzwater has turned a piece of forgotten women’s history into a tapestry of furious pride and love that crosses cultures, countries and decades.
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A piece of night complete with tiny stars flashed amongst the sun-dappled trees. A dog, Tea decided. It must be a dog, that fast and low to the ground.
But this dog made a sound like it was chuckling and whistling at the same time.
The dog had been shadowing Tea for a good five minutes. She squinted into the roadside pines, ready to throw her heavy suitcase.
A wolfish yip. Tea froze.
No wolves in New Zealand, except the zoo, isn’t that right, Robbie? “Sure, no wolves, weird or otherwise, or bears or tigers out in the wop-wops.” He hadn’t sounded convincing as he’d kissed her on the cheek, boarding that train to catch the ship to sail to … where? Somewhere far north of the equator. Somewhere he would exchange shearing clippers for a gun.
This piece of furry night wasn’t a weird wolf, but the way the dog stalked her was not entirely canine. She knew this with the same certainty that used to rush through her blood in the moments before her twin brother came home from being in a fight, again, or in those quiet times when they sat on the shed roof throwing pebbles into the creek near their house on the hill in Dunedin.
Magic? Now that was silly. Besides, how could anyone believe magic existed with someone like Hitler in the world?
“You a good boy?” Tea called into the thick roadside greenery. Her voice squeaked. Annoyed, she wet her mouth. “Come on out, there’s a good boy.”
That’s what you say to farm dogs, right, Robbie?
Nothing. No panting. Not even that strange, jaunty whistle-huff.
The rushing pressure in her temples subsided and Tea sighed. Maybe she was too hot and tired. Her new floral dress pulled too tight under the arms. She dropped her suitcase. It was heavier than it had been that morning. Another sigh as she eased her left heel out of her new leather shoe which she’d had to stuff the toe of with newspaper. Blisters. Botheration. Well, at least they’d match the hardening calluses on her hands from the clippers Robbie had taught her to handle before he left.
Gritting her teeth, she put the shoes back on and resumed her trek down the gravel road. Not the Land Service uniform she was still waiting on, but still: new dress, new shoes. It had taken a lot of clothing rations, but Mum had insisted, as well as using some of what she’d put aside for Robbie’s wedding suit. To Tea, it was out of place. Even her twenty-first birthday dress had been a hand-me-down.
Her mother had insisted. “Who knows what handsome farmers you’ll meet! You’ll be home from that silly job and married in a jiffy!”
Robbie hadn’t called joining the Land Service silly. He’d been proud of his sister when she told him she had applied to be a land girl, alongside the other women’s war services.
“You’re doing your duty for King and country,” he’d said, supplying her with a hug that left her uncomfortable but comforted at the same time. Mum wasn’t big on hugs. “It’s tough work. Heavy work. But I know you can do it, what with all you did looking after Grandad. And I know he would have been proud too.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, and peach light softened her lids. Grandad. Taken by something wet and phlegmy, something that felt yellow. The Great War had eaten him from the inside out and she was worried that this war would eat Robbie, too, now she couldn’t take care of her ‘baby’ brother. At least when he had been out shearing, she knew he was only a day or two away. Now he was too far away for her to make a difference. He may as well have been on the moon.
She didn’t even have a photo of either of them, to remember. Mum didn’t like those ‘soul-stealing things’.
“Toughen up, girl.” Tea could hear her mother’s voice in her head.
Grandad hadn’t been tough in those last days. He’d lost the ability, or maybe the will, to talk, the only sound coming out of him that awful, rattling cough.
“I’ll punch Rommel for you,” was the last thing Robbie had said as he boarded the train, laughing at her downcast face. Mum had expressed her disapproval of punching and pouting; it was especially bad behaviour. Such an admonishment sounded ridiculous considering the arms Robbie would be taking up.
Stop. None of that. She wasn’t a child anymore. She had her war duty to do, like any good girl. All of her fantasies about the world holding a secret in store for her came from those silly books Grandad had shared with her. Elves, mermaids, dragons, monsters, fairies and queens. There were no such things. It was time to grow up. She had to know her place.
But with the men gone, the call for the women to do their part, her place had been turned topsy-turvey. Every step down this road was a step towards the unknown. Tea had a job to do, if she could only find the MacGregor property. And get away from the strange dog.
She blew her frizzed front curl out of her eyes. The latest fashion for painstakingly manicured rolls would never survive the North Otago heat. She giggled at the thought of Betty Grable wrangling sheep as she paused again and extricated from her purse the envelope embossed with the Women’s War Service Auxiliary seal.
The address in the letter gave her no clue as to how far she still had to go. If she weren’t careful, she might get completely lost, walk all the way up the Pigroot, and end up in the middle of Central Otago nowhere. The Palmerston concept of ‘road’ differed greatly from that of Dunedin. “Up thataway,” the station master had nodded when no-one had been at the train to meet her. “Five miles or so. Not far.”
Her blistered heels protested that ‘not far’. Now she wished she had stopped at the tea rooms for a cuppa.
AUTHORAJ Fitzwater lives between the cracks of Christchurch, New Zealand. Their work focuses on feminist and queer themes, and has appeared in venues of repute such as Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Giganotosaurus, GlitterShip, and in various anthologies. They are the author of rodent pirate escapades in The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper, and the WW2 land girls shape-shifter novella No Man’s Land. With a background in radio, AJ lends their voice to podcast narrations, including for the Escape Artists universe. They enjoy maintaining a collection of bow ties. A unicorn disguised in a snappy blazer, they tweet @AJFitzwaterBIO