July 2010 archive

Fantasy Novels (and Fantasy Novel Covers)

Silver Phoenix by Cindy PonThis entry has a theme! And that theme is, “Sometimes, I still read a lot of fantasy.” You may have noticed from the title. But before getting into the recent reading list — remember when this blog used to have entries about other things?1 — I want to give something a bit of a signal boost.

Last year, I reviewed Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix at Active Voice. The cover is the image to the right over there. And among other things, I said:

I picked this book up because I’m making an effort to delve into sf/f novels not set in Ye Olde Fake Europe, since so much of fantasy centers around Western-style (and very white-washed) worlds and myths. But I probably would have picked it up anyway, since it’s a story about a teenage girl discovering a super power and saving the day. That certainly falls into the category of “things I love.” …

The world of Silver Phoenix is great; it’s a high-fantasy take on ancient China. I’m not familiar enough with actual Chinese culture to know how accurate it is, but it’s certainly rich enough that I’m not concerned. Everything from the bizarre creatures Ai Ling runs into to the noodle shops she eats at make it distinct and genuine. It is very refreshing to read a book where the well-worn fantasy tropes are reimagined — and while they presumably aren’t new to readers who grew up with Chinese mythology, I (like, I would guess, most American readers) was raised pretty strictly on high fantasy and Western traditions, so this is all new and fresh to me.

Why do I point this out? Because (sigh) this is the book’s new cover for its paperback run, and this is the newly-revealed cover of the sequel. Now, look. I’m not a very visual person; I don’t really do a lot of book cover critique because that’s just not my area of expertise.2 But Silver Phoenix had one of my favorite covers ever: I loved that it was brightly colored (in a sea of dark, Twilight-esque covers, no less); I loved that there was a girl front and center, obviously being active and powerful (and omg, her hair is so pretty); and I loved she was clearly Asian. It spells out just what you’ll get if you read the book, and looks lovely doing so.

So yeah. I’m disappointed that the girl on re-imagined covers is, at best, ethnically ambiguous (and honestly, if I didn’t know the books are about a Chinese girl, I would have assumed she was Caucasian and not seen her as ambiguous at all).3 And I’m disappointed that she’s not active — we don’t even see her whole face. I mean, yes, I think the Fury cover is pretty enough, and would be a great cover… for a book about the girl pictured on it. That girl is not Ai Ling.

Two links for this. First, author Cindy Pon talks about it (in the cover’s official unveiling) with a mostly-positive frame:

fury of the phoenix cover revealed!
Silver Phoenix may be a little different than what’s offered in young adult right now, but at the heart of ai ling’s story is friendship, family, discovering oneself, growing and falling in love. (oh, and food. =) i don’t think my debut is for every reader. of course not. but do i think that it has fully reached its potential reading audience? unfortunately, no.

i’m very well aware of recent discussions about whitewashing young adult covers as well as #racefail debates, especially within the speculative fiction genres. most of you know by now that the author gets very little say in cover design. i was fortunate enough to be consulted on many aspects for the original cover. my debut cover couldn’t have been more fierce or asian! and i’m so grateful to greenwillow books for spending the time, money and effort to repackage my books. with the hopes that it will be carried more widely and perhaps draw a new audience that my original cover didn’t.

Second, Inkstone explains exactly why these covers are so problematic, regardless:

I guess I still have a post in me
I guess we should glad they didn’t slap a blue-eyed, blond-haired white girl on the covers, huh?

But make no mistake; this is insulting. At least with a symbolic motif cover (a la the Twilight covers), you can pretend race is not a factor. Instead, here, we’re given a girl whose face is obscured by shadow. That way, the publisher can say, But she could be Asian. It’s ambiguous!

Except it’s not ambiguous. We know what they’re doing. It’s a flimsy attempt to put a person on the cover while also masking any identifying features that could “scare” away potential buyers. Do you know what message that sends? Not only are we taught that our stories aren’t worth telling, not only are we taught never to expect to see our faces represented, we’re now being told that if we are represented, we should be ashamed of our features. That our eyes, our cheekbones, most of our faces scare away potential readers. That to reach a different and wider audience, we must be sacrificed because no one would want to read one of our stories if they knew ahead of time what they were getting.

Oh, wait, hang on. One more thing. Cindy Pon is being awesome and giving away a set of books featuring protagonists of color. And I’m not just linking it because I want to win. Really.

OKAY! So that’s the fantasy novel cover aspect. Now for the fantasy novels I’ve been reading!

Daggerspell by Katharine Kerr#23: Daggerspell by Katharine Kerr. I first read this in middle school. At that point, I assumed I didn’t get or was misreading a major plot point — turns out, I wasn’t. There’s a section of the book about incest, and as a kid I wasn’t quite able to put together that as something a narrative could use (for the record, it’s sort of The Point Where Everything Went Wrong, not, like, romantic). That said, I hadn’t thought of this series in years when I saw it in a bookstore and picked it up on a whim, and yet I remembered most of it almost perfect: just about all of the characters, most of the plot twists, etc.

It’s also interesting because this is pretty standard Epic High Fanatsy, what with the elfin archers and the dwarves and the epic battles, and at one point there’s a bard, etc. As an adult, I enjoyed it, but as a kid, I remember being blown away. I didn’t know those things were tropes yet. (At one point, there’s a villain who, thanks to a prophecy, can only be killed in battle, but no man will ever kill him. At 12, I was so worried! I didn’t know what was going to happen!4

So overall, this was an enjoyable stroll down memory lane and certainly a reminder of why I love some of those tropes. It wasn’t as spellbinding as when I read it in middle school, and I don’t have a desperate need to read the rest of the series right now, but I do want to pick it up at some point. A solid fantasy novel.

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray#24: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray. My BFF Jess reviewed this series at AV last year and loved them, so it was no surprise that I really enjoyed this. It’s plot-light but worldbuilding-heavy. And thematically, the story really really worked for me. It’s about the relationships between girls, and female power — the ways that power is rare, is important, and is often considered terrifying. (Basically, what Jess said, especially about the relationships between the girls.) I’ll definitely come back and finish this series. Probably by the end of the year, so you know, you all have that to look forward to…

The Last Hunt by Bruce Coville#25: The Last Hunt by Bruce Coville. YOU GUYS, I have been waiting for this book for SIXTEEN YEARS. Coville is, you know, one of my all-time favorite writers, so even though this wasn’t my favorite series of his, I bought it the day I realized it was out (I missed its debut day by about a week somehow) and I read it in 24 hours flat. I had many thoughts about it! And it is a MG/YA-ish fantasy novel! And I have a whole other blog for those! So you can read my full review here, if you are so inclined. But in summary: I liked it! I know that is an enormous surprise.

  1. By which I mean, remember when this blog never got updated, ever?
  2. So I leave it to hilarious other people. My dad owned a lot of those books when I was a kid…
  3. Which of course shows my bias and privilege as a reader — but then again, isn’t that exactly what the images are supposed to do? They’re assuming people who might pass by an obviously Asian-inspired book wouldn’t think to question the Caucasian-ness of the protagonist, because hey, just about every other book has white people on the cover, so why give it a deeper look?
  4. Hint: one of the main characters is a teenage girl with a sword.