Why hello, there. So there was a storm in the city this week. I don’t think I can say much about it that hasn’t been said.1 So instead, here’s what I was doing in the hours before Sandy hit: I was at Books of Wonder, getting a chance to tell Bruce Coville that his books shaped my childhood, changed my life, and meant the world to me.
Many years ago I wrote an overview review of some of his books that meant the most to me as a kid. Shortly after I wrote that blog entry, I went about tracking down some of the ones that I’d lost over the years — specifically the AI Gang trilogy, and upon rereading them, I remembered exactly how much I loved them and how viscerally I identified with Wendy as a kid. (Short! Smart! Loud! Messy! Oversized sweatshirts! Not a morning person!), which was why, out of the 32 Coville novels still on my shelf, I brought those to the signing.
Anyway. There are two points to this blog entry:
1) The AI Gang trilogy has been out of print for decades, but Mr. Coville let me know he’s just released them as ebooks. They’re pretty cheap and definitely worth a read, if you enjoy stories about how a gang of smart kids saves the world. If you read this blog, that’s very likely up your alley. JUST SAYIN’.
2) Getting to meet a writer whose books I have been reading and loving literally since I learned to read was an amazing, overwhelming experience (he was super, super nice, btw, of course), and one I probably would not have had if not for Books of Wonder, an awesome store that is currently seeking some financial help. For more on how great the store is, here’s Jess’s blog entry. I hope you’ll consider donating.
So if there’s one thing I’ve focused on a lot in my six years of occasionally blogging, it’s female characters. Because aside from my own writing, I’m a huge consumer of media, I’m a feminist, and I care a lot about the way women are represented across media. So: female characters. I think about them a lot. And thus, non-shockingly, of the roughly seven billionty blogs that I read regularly, a fair amount discuss female characters.
This makes me happy: a lot of other people care, too! And it’s interesting. Reading other people’s thoughts have helped me sharpen and figure out my own, become a more active watcher/reader, and has given me recommendations that have led me to new shows/movies/books that I’ve loved. I’ve also had some interesting discussions when I’ve disagreed, but generally, I come away with a lot to think about. My opinion is: analyzing female characters = super cool.
Except for this one thing that I keep seeing with depressing frequency: explaining why one female character is awesome by talking about the flaws in another lady from the same genre. Or in other words, writing as if two female characters (often both generally pretty good characters, who are flawed in different ways) are in a competition to prove one of them is more awesome than the other.
Why? Why must we do that?
(Note: I’m not linking to specific posts from here because I’m talking about trends I’ve seen, not trying to call out anyone in particular.)
The first time I started to write this blog post (it’s gone through four drafts now) it was in response to a whole rash of articles I’d run into about how great Parks & Recreation is (and it is!). And specifically how great Leslie Knope is (omg SHE IS). And how that’s great, because Liz Lemon over on 30 Rock is a mess. Wait, what?
They’re both the central characters of NBC, Thursday-night comedies. And Tina Fey and Amy Poehler both were on SNL, and are friends in real life. People are used to talking about them as a unit. But unless you’re comparing specific facets of the two shows, why frame it as one character being better than the other? For that matter, if you aren’t talking about both shows to begin with, why detour into it just for that purpose?
I’ve also seen Community’s Britta Perry thrown into this mix occasionally. And here’s the thing: one of my closest friends really identifies with Britta. Another of my closest friends really identifies with Leslie.1 But I actually think it’s super awesome that there are two very different female characters, both hilarious, so that two very different (but both hilarious) friends of mine have characters they can identify with.2
And just to drive home the point, here’s a video of Amy Poehler being awesome and refusing to fall into the sexist trap of pitting characters, shows, or her actual person against Tina Fey, because they are friends and they are both funny:
[Description: a video in which Amy Poehler calls an interviewer out for referring to her and Tina Fey both being in an Emmy race as a catfight, repeatedly asks him to stop trying to get her to say mean things about her friend, and generally refuses to play his sexist reindeer games. Did I mention she is great?]
This is not an isolated issue of 30 Rock vs. Parks and Rec issue, though. I ranted about it on twitter a couple of months ago, when I ran into a cool blog post about how great Jane Foster of Thor is. And while Thor didn’t do much for me as a movie, I do like that Jane was a scientist devoted to her research above all. What distressed me was that someone immediately commented to argue that actually, no, the better female character from a superhero last summer was Peggy Carter of Captain America. Which again, why? Because they’re both women in superhero flicks? The characters have even less to do with each other than Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope, but the comment was definitely a case of “this character is better than that character.”
And then, more recently, I ran into the same thing again, in an article about how great Ellen Ripley is. And you know what? Ellen Ripley is pretty great! The Alien franchise is pretty great! But the article took a long detour through explaining how much Sarah Connor sucks. But, um. Sarah Connor doesn’t suck. And even if you think she does, her sucking doesn’t make Ripley a better character. The fact that they are both women from lady-led genre franchises does not mean that if you like one, you can’t like the other.3
Look, I am down with criticizing the Terminator franchise. And superhero movies. And 30 Rock, which I generally enjoy, but which also sometimes makes me go, “Yiiiiiikes,” and wince. I think critique is generally a good and important thing, yes, even when it’s critiquing a thing I enjoy. But critique can also fall into nasty narratives of its own: in this case, acting as if women have to be in competition.
They aren’t. They don’t have to be. Instead of talking about which awesome action heroine, or which hilarious sitcom lady, or which superhero’s ladyfriend is greatest… well, why not enjoy how many of those characters there are? Instead of fighting over who gets one slice of pie, let’s enjoy the fact that the pie is getting bigger. Pieces may have slightly different flavors, and some may still be undercooked or not to your taste, but the pie as a whole can still be delicious and filling. And wow that metaphor got overextended.
The point is: this isn’t Highlander. There can be more than one awesome female character at a time.4 Not all of them are to everyone’s taste, and denigrating one does not make another seem more awesome. But it does fall into the sexist tropes of thinking of all women as being in competition, and that one representation of women is enough. Neither of those things is true. Let’s please not write as if they are.
- It would be nice at this point if I could say I identify as Liz to make this triad complete, but I don’t. Actually, I don’t identify with any of the above. Hmm. ↩
- I can only imagine and empathize with how frustrating it must be for non-white, non-straight, non-cis folks to find characters to identify with that strongly. The increasing representation of women is good. But there are a lot of ways it hasn’t even begun to expand yet. ↩
- Completely unrelated detour: my sister and I refer to this as “Birds vs. Monkey,” a line gleefully shouted in the midst of the movie Rio. It’s a useful phrase for when fans of Media Property X seem to be locked in a battle to the death with fans of Media Property Y, as if it’s physically impossible to like both X and Y. You see this a lot among boyband fans. ↩
- And it would be great if there were more than one awesome female characters per franchise… well, we’re getting there. ↩
So here’s a fun thing about me. Recording all of the books I’ve read this year has led to me, I think, reading a bit more, which is great! Hooray! Except I’m pretty bad at writing timely reviews, which means that now that we’re getting close to the end of the year that means I have a whole glut of books to tell you about. So instead of my usual, kind of lengthy review, here’s a list with some super short reactions (though some of these will get reviewed properly at Active Voice in the next few weeks).
#41: Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld — this is YA steampunk, so I’m saving it for AV.
I loved this! I think by this point it’s pretty clear that I rarely read anything that isn’t either YA/MG or SF/F, so this was a bit of a departure for me. My sister handed it to me as highly recommended, somewhere between historical and literary fiction. It’s (sort of, roughly) about Carter the Great, a Vaudeville magician accused of conspiracy to murder President Harding.
The structure nerd in me loved this. It went back and forth through Carter’s life a lot, in lengthy chunks that painted pictures of his rise to fame and everything leading up to the show before Harding’s death, and then its aftermath. It’s incredibly rich, long enough to sink your teeth into, but with very little drag. I will say that the Mysterioso sub-sub-sub plot felt a little tacked on, but the climax was pretty great. I also wish there had been more women, as only two played major roles in the book (and the first was there for only about a third, and the second for only about half), but those are fairly minor quibbles. Overall, it’s probably one of my favorite reads of the year.
#43: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi — it’s post-apocalyptic YA, so I’m saving this one for AV.
#44: Blue Fire by Janice Hardy — MG fantasy, so I’m saving this one for AV.
#45: Ash by Malinda Lo — YA fantasy, so I’m saving this one for AV. (I’m really, really behind on reviews over there…)
Another of my favorites from the year, and another historical novel, although this one is YA. It follows Ida Mae Jones, a young, black girl during WWII. Ida is a pilot who hears about the WASP — Women Airforce Service Pilots — and because she’s fairly light skinned, she decides to try to pass as white so she can fly for the army.
This one is really, really good. The voice is really strong, and the way it deals with race is really well done. (For example, a heart wrenching scene where her mother has to come visit to deliver bad news, and she has to pretend her mother is her maid; or her general anxiety when a white man asks her to dance. She wants to, but she knows that she can’t have any kind of relationship with him in the future.)
The book is actually pretty light on plot, but I would happily read hundreds more pages about Ida’s missions during the war and what happened after.
I’ve written pretty extensively about my love of Bruce Coville before. A few weeks ago I found myself in the mood for something spooky (no idea what brought that on) so I grabbed this off my shelf. It is, like all Coville books, pretty much delightful.
I definitely didn’t get the “My name is Ishmael, but don’t call me that,” joke as a kid. (I’d go so far as to say it doesn’t actually fit with the tone very well, even.) And while I love the worldbuilding, there was quite a bit that goes unexplained — not in a plot-not-wrapped-up way, but it feels like part of a much larger folklore. I’d love to read more about Granny Pinchbottom and Igor, and even where William came from, and lots and lots about Fauna — her life before meeting William, what she does after, and so on. (She’s so intriguing, but there’s so little about her!)
As a whole, everything about this is weird and funny and kind of spooky, but still infused with Coville’s usual humor. It practically begs to be read aloud and reread on Halloween.
The Brooklyn Book Festival was a couple of months ago. I’ve meant to go every year since I moved to New York, but Brooklyn is far away and things come up and blaahhhh. Anyway, this year I finally did! And, as one does at such things, I bought a lot of books. The first one I tackled was Meet the Annas: A Musical Novel by Robert Dunn.
The book basically plays what-if with a fictional 1960s girl group, the Annas. It’s told from the POV of Dink Stephenson, one of their song writers, looking back at what happened years later. He was in love with the band’s front woman, Anna Dubower, and eventually proposed to her as the girl group era passed and they were desperately trying to manufacture a hit to bring them back. Anna didn’t give him an answer, and weeks later, was mysteriously dead. Now there’s a rights dispute over that last song, Dink has to go to court over it, and running into people from that old life stirs up old memories. At last, he’s determined to figure out what happened to Anna.
I was pretty ambivalent when I first finished this book. In the months since (I am waaaay behind on my reviews) the ending has festered, and now I find it enraging. I’m going to cut here because the book is sort of a mystery. I found it super obvious, but your mileage may vary. Read this article »
Last week, mlawski at Overthinking It posted a graphic titled The Female Character Flow Chart. I saw it, thought, “Huh, interesting,” and that was that. Then a couple of days later one of my friends posted me towards some criticism of it, leading to discussion and more thinking on my part.
I was surprised to see so much commentary on it because it never occurred to me that the chart was aimed at someone like me, who already spends time thinking about the representation of women in the media. I don’t think good intentions (which I assume mlawski had) or intended audience arguments excuse all flaws (more on those in a second), but I definitely read the chart as intended for readers who hadn’t already thought about women in the media. I could certainly see someone running across this who hadn’t noticed those problematic tropes, the lack of dynamic female characters, or that many, many female characters are defined solely by their relationships to men and children could have an eye-opening, “aha!” moment.
Regardless of who it’s aimed at, I don’t think anyone’s wrong for reading it critically. There are two different braches of criticism that I’ve seen (though I haven’t looked around extensively; I haven’t even read the comments on the original post, since I looked at the post when it first went up, ages before the comment count rose). One is about the privilege and lack of nuance in the chart; the other is about the chart as reductionist when it comes to the characters in question.
The first, I can’t put any better than this post from homasse at deadbrowalking:
A wee bit down on this mess of a flowchart, you will find “Useless Girl” with the example being Uhura from Star Trek.
And why is this fail? Because, once again, feminism shows a woeful lack of awareness of race and the impact race plays.
Uhura was “useless” not because of her gender, but because of race–this chart ignores the political and social situation of when the show was made and the decisions made in regards to her character because she was Black: They couldn’t ever put her in charge of the bridge because people in the south specifically would have flipped out at a black woman being in charge (this was why Ensign Chekov was given the bridge and she never was even though she outranked him).
I’d also like to point out bossymarmalade’s post about Yoko Ono, someone who I consider awesome. It sucks to see people buy into the cultural storyline that she broke up the Beatles, when that is just false, and further, when she’s great.1
So yes, I think there are some problems with the chart in that regard, and I’m glad people pointed them out. But I don’t entirely agree with the argument about the chart being reductionist, and diminishing the characters who are on it. Or rather — I do, kind of. The best way to put it was something said by my friend Jess: “Basically, if that one box ending in ‘strong female character’ wasn’t there, I’d like the chart a lot better.”
For me, that sums it up. I think the chart actually branches out into a lot more specifics than I’d use if I made something like it — like, there are multiple slots for women whose motivations come entirely from their kids — but the main problem I have is that any one of these slots/archetypes/clichés/whatever you want to call them can indeed be written well. They can be thorough, three dimensional, story-carrying, awesome characters.
My go-to example is Sarah Connor. Sarah is listed the character representing “Mama Bear.” And when I saw that, I went “a-yup.” TV Tropes has her listed as both a Mama Bear and Action Mom. The first Terminator movie is based on this premise: Sarah Connor must live, because her son saves the world. Not “Sarah Connor must live because she saves the world.” While she’s the awesome character, the series is always about her (at that point unborn) son. When we next see her in T2, she’s had John, and devoted herself to preparing him for his fate — and keeping him safe. When he rescues her, an act that explicitly saves her life, she scolds him for putting himself in danger. She’ll do anything, up to and including sacrificing herself, if it saves John. While Sarah is the protagonist of the first two movies, her motivation — the entire premise of the series — is based on protecting John.
The thing is, though, that Sarah is awesome. In the first movie, she grows from damsel-in-need-of-rescue to bandaging injuries and learning to make bombs. She’s the one who finally destroys the Terminator. She has help along the way, but she’s still a character who learns skills and saves herself. In T2, she’s even more complex. She’s in an institution because people believe she’s insane, but we as viewers know she’s right. But being right doesn’t make her entirely mentally able, though — it’s clear she’s got PTSD or something akin to it (and understandably). She’s amazingly kick-ass (her escape is my favorite sequence in the movie) and morally complex. We know she’d kill someone to save John, but she isn’t able to kill Miles Dyson, though she thinks doing so will keep Skynet from existing — and though she expects herself to be able to do it. And that’s without even getting into the sadly too-short lived TV show.2
Sarah Connor is a great character. She’s three dimensional and dynamic. She’s capable of carrying a story. But as much as I’d be all over a the story about how Sarah Connor must live so she can lead humanity in the battle against Skynet, I don’t know that it would necessarily be a better story than Sarah trying to save her son. Different, yes; certainly unusual. But Sarah Connor is both an Action Mama Bear and a great character. (And further, just because Sarah Connor is great doesn’t mean there aren’t other characters who fall into that slot who aren’t poorly written, or that the Mama Bear archetype is never problematic.)
The way I see it, while there are indeed plenty of archetypes and tropes out there that are problematic simply for existing — racist and sexist stereotypes, for example, which come up all too frequently — once you’re beyond those,3 just because a character (female or otherwise) hits an archetype doesn’t mean the character is poorly drawn.
- That said, I do understand why there are some actual, not-at-all fictional people on this chart, Yoko among them. This culture often treats celebrities as characters, and though she in no way deserves to, the Yoko character is indeed an archetypal example of “woman who breaks up the boys’ fun,” and/or “woman who ruins the man’s genius.” Because you know, she totally ruined John Lennon by being awesome and, by doing so, making him happy. HOW DARE SHE. That said, I don’t know enough about Michelle Rodriguez to have any idea what she’s mean to represent. ↩
- I need to re-watch that, but the scene that stands out to me is when she sees Cameron, the teenage girl terminator, about to kill a cop who’s questioning her for being somewhere suspicious, and Sarah interjects, pretending to be a pissed-off mother looking for her out-breaking-curfew daughter and gets everyone out of the situation alive. She isn’t just able to blow things up. She’s smart on her feet. My kinda heroine. ↩
- Of course, everyone’s mileage will vary when it comes to what those are and what’s beyond them. ↩
Normally this would be a Lazy Sunday post, but as I actually did a book review yesterday, and today is a holiday, we’ll fudge it just a little. Here’s some miscellanea:
#32: Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey
This is a really good book. It’s YA fantasy that takes place in New Zealand and centers around New Zealand’s native mythology. Healely went out of her way to make the cast diverse and inclusive — including characters of color and characters with non-hetero sexualities — and she also went out of her way to be respectful of the mythology she used. (Well, okay, that shouldn’t be going out of her way, that should just be How Things Are Done, but sadly, that often isn’t true. Either way, she wrote a really interesting blog post about working with cultural consultants.)
Since this is YA fantasy, of course, you may be expecting a link to a full review over at Active Voice… and there is one, but I didn’t write it. It just seemed silly for me to write a whole review of a book when I could basically sum it up as, what Jess said.
I’ve had some of these links saved for ages, so… uh, apologies for the out of date conversations? All still interesting, though!
And realizing that Yoko wasn’t to blame for the Beatles breakup makes you ask a question. Why does the myth persist?
I had come to believe that most Beatles historians and true, educated fans had wised up enough to see the Yoko charade for what it is. So imagine my disappointment when proven wrong. Earlier this year, I finished Bob Spitz’s biography The Beatles, which is arguably the most comprehensive Beatles biography in existence. The book starts out amazingly, but about halfway through inexplicably begins to decline rapidly in the number of details provided once the Beatles become famous. That was annoying. But far more so was the unabashed, unapologetic and shameful smearing of Yoko Ono — made even worse by its presentation as fact when so clearly Spitz’s personal opinion. And this opinion is indicative, I think, of the opinion of most Yoko haters ….
So who is the main purveyor of the Yoko myths? Can we pin it on historians like Bob Spitz? Certainly, they hold part of the blame and need to be called out on it. But no, I blame someone else entirely for the bulk of the treatment and misogynistic cultural perceptions of Yoko Ono, as did John. In the first/next part of this series, they are the people who I’m going to discuss. And their names are Paul, George and Ringo.
Indeed. It was heartbreaking for me to realize, as I went through my Beatles Phase, that they were actually kind of dicks, and definitely abusers. Trying to reconcile that with my emotional investment in them, and their historical significance… well, I still struggle with that. It sucks to realize that people you idolize aren’t perfect, and can be outright nasty.
Anyway, all the Yoko hate out there started to bother me a few years ago, and it took awhile for me to twig to why. This pretty much sums it up — plus the cultural narrative that women ruin and destroy (see also: Eve, Pandora). Definitely worth a read.
Talk about out of date. Apparently last October, some jackass wrote an essay about how scifi is being feminized and that’s ruining the genre and also the world! Because science! You see, if girl cooties get into genre fiction, no boys will want to be scientists, and then there will be no scientists. If only the BSG remake hasn’t made Starbuck a woman!
Need I say that the Smart Bitches takedown is great?
The thing is, I can’t get past the feeling that focusing on the love triangle somehow dismisses the central point of the series. Sure, it’s a very commercial, mainstream series that is clearly meant to be a page-turning, engrossing experience. But it’s also about war, violence, mortality, and inequality. I’m a fan of The Hunger Games because of the way the books deal with these issues in such a readable yet thought-provoking (and gut-wrenching) way.
I’ve been trying for ages to put my finger on why “team” terminology bothers me when it comes to YA fiction. I don’t care, like, at all about Twilight, but that actually is a romance, but for series like Hunger Games and or Scott Westerfeld’s Pretties, both series in which I’ve seen this (and I’m sure there are more), it’s really bothered me. I know romances are compelling and even necessary for some readers (I enjoy them but don’t find them necessary to enjoy a story, personally) but to me that feels reductive. These stories aren’t about which guy the heroine ends up with. In life-or-death adventures, it really bothers me that the narrative around girls is romance, no matter how much ass they kick.
Basically, Malinda Lo says that. But way more eloquently. Totally worth a read.
Contest! That I’m entering!
The last time I entered a contest by linking from here, I won! So what the heck, I’ll try it again for the giveaway of an ARC I really want to get my hands on:
Part fugitive, part hero, fifteen-year-old Nya is barely staying ahead of the Duke of Baseer’s trackers. Wanted for a crime she didn’t mean to commit, she risks capture to protect every Taker she can find, determined to prevent the Duke from using them in his fiendish experiments. But resolve isn’t enough to protect any of them, and Nya soon realizes that the only way to keep them all out of the Duke’s clutches is to flee Geveg. Unfortunately, the Duke’s best tracker has other ideas.
Nya finds herself trapped in the last place she ever wanted to be, forced to trust the last people she ever thought she could. More is at stake than just the people of Geveg, and the closer she gets to uncovering the Duke’s plan, the more she discovers how critical she is to his victory. To save Geveg, she just might have to save Baseer — if she doesn’t destroy it first.
(In case you are wondering, I loved the first book and highly recommend it.)
Okay, y’all. That’s all I’ve got. Happy Labor Day.
This 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!
#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.
#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…
#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.
- By which I mean, remember when this blog never got updated, ever? ↩
- So I leave it to hilarious other people. My dad owned a lot of those books when I was a kid… ↩
- 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? ↩
- Hint: one of the main characters is a teenage girl with a sword. ↩
#20: The Maze Runner by James Dashner: it’s YA scifi, so my review is over at AV. But even that’s pretty short, because I just didn’t have much to say about this one. Which I know is odd, because I’m generally supremely long-winded.
The Five Fists of Science by Matt Fraction and Steven Sanders. A rather steampunky graphic novel in which Mark Twain, Nikola Tesla and others team up to use science! to fight Thomas Edison and some demons. I really love the concept of this, and wish I had any clue what happened in the last third. Someday I could write a very long post about how the comic/graphic novel format doesn’t really work for me as a reader, through no fault or weakness of its own. But that was in full force here: when 95% of the cast is middle-aged white guys in tweed suits, I can’t tell who’s who. The climax was done in very dark, low-contrast colors and I couldn’t figure out what was happening. But with that said, I was entertained. I’ve always been a Tesla fan, and loved seeing his quirks, and basically all of Twain’s dialogue made me laugh.
Jurassic Park by Michael Chrichton. Maybe I’m skewed because I knew this is a movie long before picking up the book (though not a movie I know well, I’ve only seen it once, many years ago), but this read to me like a book written specifically to be adapted into a movie. Which is fine! It was incredibly readable and I mostly enjoyed it, with the note that, while it seems kind of silly to complain about gender roles in a book that’s more than 20 years old now, there were only two female characters who appeared in more than one scene. One was the botanist, who seemed to know her stuff, but who didn’t do anything for the plot except look sexy and act as the make-shift nurse because… I guess none of the guys could do that? The other was Lex, the little girl, who was horrible. The boy was smart and inquisitive, loved dinosaurs, and was able to get them all out of trouble, or at least hold things steady, when necessary; Lex was obnoxious, threw tantrums, got them further into trouble, and even after seeing people get mauled and killed and having been almost killed herself she never seemed to realize that maybe being quiet was important. Aside from hating her as a character, I was pretty annoyed by the gender roles, and put off by the overwrought, “Look what your science has wrought!” moral. But on the plus side: dinosaurs, yay!
So Nickelodeon’s trying to mimic Disney; the network partnered with Sony to put out albums for some of its up-and-coming stars, using wacky TV shows as launching pads. (Or so Wikipedia tells me.) The first was Miranda Cosgrove of iCarly, a pretty decent tween show; the second was the boy band Big Time Rush of Big Time Rush, who I immediately loved; and the third… the third is Victoria Justice of the brand-new-last-week show Victorious.
The show was incredibly, offensively bad. Sidekicks who make sexual assault jokes, a protagonist with no personality, an antagonist who only cares about the boy in her life, on top of generic, mediocre writing. Wow, I really, really did not like it at all.
I don’t remember when I first heard about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (henceforth 100K), but it was a few months ago — long enough ago that the book wasn’t out yet the first time I looked for it in a store. It definitely has a buzz online; a bunch of review blogs I lurk at had praised it. And I eventually put together that Jemisin is one of the contributers to Alas, A Blog (linked in the sidebar) which I’ve been reading for years; and I began lurking around her site for very smart commentary on race in writing and sf/f. So pretty much the day it came out, I grabbed a copy and stuck it in my TBR pile. And finally got around to reading it, huzzah!
100k is epic fantasy — ish. It is certainly epic in scope, and hits plenty of traditional epic fantasy tropes. The protagonist, Yeine, is a reluctant chosen one. The plot has two major pieces to it; one is a war between the gods, which obviously has spanned eons and is now coming to a head; the other is her own family history, which, in some ways, is how the gods are acting out their war. So it’s a story that’s got generations of backstory going in, and its outcome affects the whole world. Pretty freaking epic.
But it’s also missing a lot of tropes: there isn’t really a quest, or a lot of walking around. There’s no Scooby gang assembled, though it also isn’t exactly Yeine Vs. Everyone, either. So: it’s definitely fantasy, it’s definitely epic. But is it epic fantasy?
Another point worth discussing: one of the ways this didn’t feel like traditional epic fantasy to me is that Yeine is female, and the romance in the book is a huge part of the plot. I feel like a lot of epics tend to have romances, but they don’t get a lot of focus. But then again, I also feel like a lot of traditional epic fantasies have female characters, but they don’t get a lot of focus, and since Yeine — the first-person narrator — is female, that isn’t the case here either. This was a book where the writing felt very woman-centric to me. Actually, it brought me back to something I’d vaguely pondered a few years ago:
With that said, as I read the book I kind of felt like it was written by a woman. I think that’s because I’ve spent a lot of time in fandom, a largely female-dominated space, and there are a few things fandoms tend to latch on to … This book has all of those in spades. It didn’t read like something that came out of fandom, but because of those associations, despite being a series that’s heavily weighted towards male characters, it read to me as though it had been written by a woman.
… I kind of feel like fandom/the internet (the combined force) is creating new tropes for genre fiction, based more heavily on female desire and female readership. For me, the disconnect between a guy writing the sort of stuff I associate with female readers was pretty big.
Obviously, not all of that is accurate to 100k (a very female character-centric story) but it had that same sort of feel. I think this is a great example of what I described as “broadening the genre.”1 So my vote is yes, it’s epic fantasy; but it’s a broader take on the genre.
(Incidentally, that question first occurred to me because Jemisin herself raised it. Interesting stuff.)
Okay, so beyond that, I really loved this book. If completely blew my “would I rather read this or play Bejeweled on the subway?” litmus test away — I read it on the way to and from work, during my lunch break, and in the evening sitting on my couch. I loved the not-quite-linear, non-traditional narrative style. I loved the scope, and the world building, and all the backstory. While the romance in and of itself didn’t do it for me (broody badboy isn’t my preferred romantic archetype) it was a strong plot and piece of the story.
I had one… hm, qualm isn’t the right word, and neither is disappointment, but I had one sort of note about the ending, which I wanted to talk about enough that I installed a spoiler-tag plug-in just for this. (Unless you’re reading via RSS, in which case I don’t think it’ll work). Basically…:
And after all of that, I’m really curious to know what the next book in the series will be about, and whose POV it will be from. (Okay, there are hints in the “extras” section of the book, but I want mooooore. Basically, I want the sequel. Rightnowplease.) This is an instant favorite for me, and one I know I’ll reread, and I’ll be waiting for other novels from Jemisin, too.
(HEY! Did you notice I skipped a number in my book reading list? That’s because it turns out I had two #5s! Whoops.)
- Wow, I’m pretentious sometimes. Hey, how about I quote myself some more? It’s awesome when I do that. ↩