jump to navigation

A long way down November 13, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, reviews, television.
Tags: , , ,
2 comments

This post will contain spoilers for Season 1 of The Fall. It will also involve discussion of misogyny, rape culture, sexualised violence and murder.

The first episode of Season 2 of The Fall will air tonight. The release of the new season has prompted a flurry of discussion of the same elements certain critics disliked in the first season: the show’s perceived sexism and voyeuristic attitude to gendered violence. While I understand where such criticism is coming from, I think it is misguided.

The Fall is the story of the hunt for a serial killer in Belfast who targets victims of one demographic: attractive, young, single professional women. It’s an unusual show in that we know who the killer is from the first episode, following him as he goes about his daily life as husband, father and grievance counsellor, and as he goes about his hidden life as a misogynistic, unspeakably cruel killer. As such, the focus and point of view of the show is split evenly between that of Paul, the killer, and Stella, the police officer leading the investigation into his crimes. It is this focus on Paul and insight into his mind that has led, in part, to condemnations of the show for misogyny. The other problem is that in making Paul a viewpoint character, his murders are shot through his eyes, and so the audience sees the women he kills as he sees them: helpless dolls whose murdered bodies are his to handle (the way he bathes and lays out his victims’ bodies in their own beds — in which he has killed them — is one of the most horrifying aspects of the show).

That being said, I think it’s very clear that the show is condemning such actions. We are not voyeurs gazing on the dead women: we are voyeurs gazing in horror at the workings of Paul’s mind.

The show’s broader context supports such a reading. This is due in great part to the character of Stella, who repeatedly condemns Paul’s actions as the work of a misogynist, who is herself a sexually independent woman, and who calls out the wider culture as supporting the extremes of Paul’s actions in refusing to condemn smaller, more everyday forms of misogyny. The writer has also stated in interviews his insistence on portraying Paul’s victims before he murders them, so that the viewers can see them as human beings with jobs, friendships and familial and other connections. This acts as a sort of direct refutation of Paul’s perception of them.

Most importantly, it’s one of the few shows to receive mainstream acclaim I’ve seen to include an explicit discussion of rape culture and the ways it enables murders like those of Paul’s victims to take place. Stella has several conversations with her (female) colleague Reed about the ways women and girls warn each other about male violence, and about the way that they must be constantly guarded against a culture that will try to blame them for their own abuse. Stella also shuts down a male colleague describing one of Paul’s victims as ‘innocent’. What if his next victim is a sex worker? she asks. She refuses to let any discussion of innocence or blame enter the narrative of the case.

There is one final, and most horrifying, example of the show’s condemnation of society misogyny. Paul’s pattern in his murders is to build up to them by initially sneaking into his victims’ empty houses and moving their belongings around in subtle ways in order to assert his control and unsettle them. His second victim notices that her belongings have been moved and calls the police. Rather than believing her, they try to deny her own experience and knowledge of her own space. There’s no sign of a break-in, they say. Could her things have been moved by her cat? She is sure that this is not the case, but their words put doubt in her mind, so that when they ask her if she could stay with her sister, she feels as if her fears were unfounded and decides to stay put. Of course, after the police leave, Paul sneaks back in and murders her in a way designed to cause maximum, drawn-out terror and trauma. In this way, although Paul is the one to actually kill the women, The Fall shows how damaging, misogynistic societal attitudes (particularly the refusal to believe women when they say they feel unsafe) contribute to and enable his murders.

In this way, The Fall, while heartbreaking, terrifying and harrowing to watch, is much less harmful than, say, the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, which purports to be a series condemning violence against women, but which actually engages in a great deal of victim blaming. While it is not enjoyable to watch women killed in situations of extreme psychological torment, it is satisfying for once to see the blame for their deaths put where it truly lies.

‘They’re bad men, but they’re OUR bad men’ May 10, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in meta, reviews, television.
Tags: ,
2 comments

One of my maternal great-grandfathers was what people today would call a ‘colourful racing identity’. It sounds a lot more glamorous than it actually was. Although my grandmother has some interesting stories about family friends known only as ‘Slippers’ and ‘The Colonel’, and her father waking everyone up whenever he’d won big and flinging all the money on the bed, the reality was much more sordid and terrifying than those stories would suggest. In actual fact, my great-grandfather’s gambling habit meant that my grandmother had essentially left school at the age of eight. She was constantly sent to the door to tell bailiffs attempting to evict the family that her parents weren’t at home. One absolutely heartbreaking story she told me involved her mother giving away her new (and much-needed) coat to another child because that child didn’t have a mother and my great-grandmother felt sorry for her. Most chilling of all, the only reason my grandmother grew up in Sydney was because one night her father came home in an absolute panic, and they had to pack up the entire house and flee from Melbourne in order to escape some kind of gang-related threat to his life due to debts. My point is that the charming image conjured up by the words ‘colourful racing identity’ covers a multitude of horrors.

That is what makes Peaky Blinders, a miniseries set in the underworld of Birmingham in 1919, so refreshing. It provides a fictional account of the eponymous gang with their fingers in just about every criminal pie: race-fixing, protection money, gun-running, gambling. The Peaky Blinders (so named because they hide razor blades in their flat caps with which to slash and blind their victims) are mainly drawn from the Shelby family, a multi-generational gang whose stranglehold on the streets is due to a combination of competence, compromise and the ability to incite terror. The local police are corrupt, and prefer to let the Shelby family run things if it means stability and order. For the most part, the poor and dispossessed of Birmingham accept the devil’s bargain they have made with the Peaky Blinders, feeling that paying protection money and turning a blind eye to the gang’s criminal activities is an acceptable price to pay if it provides them with a degree of wealth and security.

That’s not to say there aren’t tensions. The young Shelby men have returned, traumatized, from the battlefields of World War I, only to find that the women – shrewd, tough-as-nails Aunt Polly, and angry, romantic Ada – have been running things just fine, if not better, on their own. Tommy Shelby, who views himself as the gang’s de facto leader, has to reconcile his own grand vision for the Peaky Blinders with the more limited, but safer, scope planned by his aunt.

At the same time, the gang relies on its ability to control the shifting network of alliances of the streets, contending with IRA cells, communist agitators attempting to unionize the factory workers, Traveller families who control the racetrack, Chinese textile workers who moonlight as opium den operators, and, one of my favourite characters, an itinerant fire-and-brimstone street-preacher played by Benjamin Zephaniah. It’s a complicated balancing act of carrot and stick, and when it works, it works because the various players have understood correctly the psychology, needs and fears of their opposite numbers. All sorts of connections and obligations come into play: most of the men were soldiers together, the Shelby family has blood ties to some of the Traveller families, as well as an Irish background that complicates their interactions with the IRA members, and Ada Shelby is secretly in love with the leading communist organizer.

What works so well in Peaky Blinders is that the writers manage the tricky balancing act of showing the true horror of what the Shelby family (and their allies) do to maintain control, as well as the fact that they probably are the best option for the dispossessed people they terrorize. There is no glamour in what they do: Tommy Shelby can move from charming to chilling in an instant, and he is in no way a safe person to be around. There is a violence and brutality involved in people’s everyday lives, and survival requires that they walk past such violence with their eyes averted. Most people in the show lead such precarious existences that their every decision is based on a pragmatic sense of cost, benefit, compromise and danger. The streets of Birmingham may be controlled by bad men, but they are bad men from those very streets, and the choice to give them control is made by the very people who live beside them.

‘Mars is there, waiting to be reached’ March 28, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
Tags: , , , , , ,
add a comment

‘It’s like Pacific Rim, only with the characters as twelve-year-old girls,’ said my partner, who had snatched up Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees and read it before I had a chance. Coming from him, this was high praise, and I opened the book expecting great things. Be warned, this review contains some minor spoilers.

I wasn’t disappointed. Mars Evacuees is McDougall’s first children’s book, and it is set in a dystopian future in which Earth has been partly colonised by the Morror, an alien people who have transformed the climate to such an extent that it is becoming too cold to support human life. As an endless war rages on, groups of children are being evacuated off-planet to Mars, which has been partially terraformed into a climate that can sustain a human population. Their rescue comes at a price: all evacuees will be trained, and then conscripted into the military and expected to join the fight against the Morror. The narrator, Alice Dare, is the daughter of Stephanie Dare, a famous war hero. Although she struggles with the weight of expectation that this troublesome heritage causes, Alice is an essentially pragmatic child, and she spends most of the story putting any angsty feelings aside to be dealt with at a later, more convenient time. This is because she is preoccupied for most of Mars Evacuees with staying alive.

Although the colony on Mars seems at first to be a utopian safe haven, in which children from every corner of the world are given a multilingual education in everything from algebra to flying spaceships, its peace is shattered when all the adults disappear. At this point, schoolyard politics come into play: the strongest, meanest bullies take control, claiming most of the food supplies and the best quarters, terrorising the other children into submission. Alice and her friends – quirky, introverted Josephine, outgoing Carl and his younger brother Noel, along with one of the robots from the Martian colony – set out to find help. What they discover on their journey allows them to save not only the Martian colony, but also Earth itself.

Much of the charm of Mars Evacuees lies in its little details – Carl, like any sensible Australian, insists on taking a final swim in the ocean on Earth before the flight to Mars, and invents a game of ‘Getting Around As Much Spaceship As Possible Without Touching the Floor’, an unnamed tabloid newspaper lurches between praising the ‘plucky children of Mars’ and whipping up hysteria about social issues, a teddy-bear-shaped robot designed to teach the younger children is unintentionally terrifying. All these struck me as being very much the sorts of things that would be noticed by, and would matter to, a twelve-year-old child. Another brilliant touch is the moment when Alice, incensed at the bullying that Josephine is facing from some of the other children, explodes in anger. ‘It is not because of what you’re like, it’s because of what they’re like,’ she shouts. This needs to be printed on every classroom wall. The book does not delve too deeply into the interior lives of its characters, and so it is in these little details that we come to know their personalities.

At many times in the novel, I found myself tearing up. Not because it’s a sad story – rather, my tears were caused by the overwhelming sense of inclusiveness and hope Mars Evacuees inspires.* The main quartet of children is truly representative – Carl and Noel are Filipino-Australian, Josephine is African-Caribbean-British, and Alice is white British – and the broader group of evacuees comes from every corner of the globe. Their education is in the four most widely-spoken languages – English, Hindi, Mandarin and Spanish – and every child who already speaks one of those as a first language is required to be taught through the medium of another. Mars Evacuees is science fiction at its best: looking to the stars and imagining a better future. Like Pacific Rim (and unlike most recent dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction), the stakes feel truly global, and the effort to save the world is undertaken by people from every nation on the planet. The apocalypse is averted not by violent, selfish individualism, but by compromise, communication and empathy. Mars Evacuees tells us, again and again, that if we share, rather than take, pool our respective strengths rather than devalue some qualities as weaknesses, and, above all, if we listen rather than reach for weapons, the future of the world will be bright.

_________________________
*I must admit that one such moment was when Carl described Sydney. It’s so rare to read a (non-Australian) children’s book that mentions Sydney’s beaches, walking through Chinatown, and Darling Harbour and its amazing fountain (although I must say that most residents of Sydney would probably avoid such a touristy area). But it’s nice to see yourself represented, you know?

Oh, the humanity! February 2, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, fangirl.
Tags: , , , , , ,
5 comments

This blog seems to go through phases in terms of content, and its current incarnation appears to be Narrative Tropes That I Like (and Why Most Authors Do Them Wrong). This post is an attempt to unpack one such narrative trope, and to explain why, when done right, I love it so much. And that theme is non-human beings and the humans who love them (and why and how they love humans). I’ll accept pretty much any twist on this formula. Gods and humans? Vampires and humans? Angels and humans? Demons and humans? Fairies and humans? Sentient robots (or cyborgs, or androids or whatever you want to call them) and humans? Pencil me in! I love them all. The basic requirement is that at least one character is an entirely mortal human being (although they may have supernatural abilities of one kind or another) and at least one other is completely, utterly inhuman.

I like this particular (rather broadly-defined) theme because it has the potential to go almost anywhere, but, when done right, gives yet another answer to that all-important question: What does it truly mean to be human? And, in answering this conundrum with this particular set of tools, storytellers open up a whole new range of questions: If humanity equals consciousness plus emotions plus social cooperation plus empathy, what does that make a conscious, cooperative, empathetic robot? If vampires can feel love, what does that make them? Is human morality based entirely on human mortality, and, if so, what is the morality of immortals, and can it ever be reconciled with that of human beings?

And that’s before you’ve even got on to the fun bits of human-inhuman character interaction. One of the most pleasing things about shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that the forced proximity and shifting alliances of the human characters and supernatural beings causes a sort of blurring of the lines between humanity and inhumanity. The vampires become a bit more human, and Buffy herself becomes a bit monstrous, but this all happens so gradually that it appears entirely natural and understandable. The same goes for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles – Sarah’s very success in her life on the run from murderous cyborgs necessitates thinking like them, feeling like them, and so the woman becomes a little bit like a machine. The Terminator Cameron Phillips is a foil to Sarah – a machine who discovers her own humanity.

But as much as I love Buffy and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, neither goes quite far enough in this direction (although the cancellation of T: TSCC means that we’ll never know if this was a deliberate narrative decision or not). I want women who walk with monsters and become monstrous but always remain human, and monsters who love humanity but remain monstrous. I want machines who gain consciousness and emotions out of love for human beings but remain strictly machines, and I want humans whose love for machines forces them to question their beliefs on personhood but never cease to be human themselves. I want humans who tremble at the reality of what their demon lovers are, but walk into their arms with their eyes wide open. I want demons who find humanity terrifying and humbling and disarming, and can do nothing but love before its power. In short, I want stories about human and inhuman characters who know exactly what each other are, and love each other for it.*

What I don’t want, however, is Twilight. You may think this is kind of a low blow – picking on a story that is almost universally loathed and considered to be of very poor quality, but I actually have a lot of time for wish-fulfilling paranormal romance stories aimed at teenage girls. I think they do a good job of exploring the way love feels at that age – overwhelming, all-consuming and full of terrifying transformative potential. I am probably odd in that it wasn’t the cliché-ridden prose, nor was it the glamorizing of abusive relationships (although I did hurl New Moon at the wall when it was blank for a few pages to indicate Bella’s catatonic state at being left by Edward) that made me give up on the story. No, I gave up on it when I realised that Meyer was going to turn Bella into a vampire so that she could live together, forever, with Edward. The most interesting thing about fictional relationships between mortals and immortals is that one will eventually die, and one will live on forever! (The other imbalances of power in the relationship are interesting too, because in the hands of a competent author, it’s possible to present the ostensible weaknesses of humanity as a kind of power too.) I need my mortals and immortals to be secure enough in their identities to allow themselves to change one another – but only up to a point. In other words, if such characters are a metaphor for anything, they should be a metaphor for the way the most important real-world relationships change people, but also make them more secure in their identities. True love – familial, romantic or platonic – gives people the space to grow and to be themselves more completely.

This particular metaphor, however, should only ever whisper in the margins. The worst thing a writer can do is saddle the relationship between humans and supernatural (or robotic) characters with too much real-world metaphorical baggage. A particular gripe of mine is the tendency to use the struggles of paranormal beings as an analogue for real-world civil rights movements. (Southern Vampire Mysteries/True Blood, I’m looking at you! Harry Potter is a culprit of this too.) So, your vampires have just come ‘out of the coffin’ and want to be accepted by human society? Don’t layer on the similarities with the LGBT rights struggle! Vampires – even if, as in the case of True Blood, they eventually are able to replace human blood with a synthetic alternative – kill people. At the very least, they hurt and exploit them. The analogy with LGBT people (or any other group that experiences real-world discrimination) is offensive.**

I’m for the gods, monsters and machines, the humans they love and who love them back. I’m for misfits of all types, who feel uncomfortable in their own skin (or metal, or whatever material angels are supposed to be made out of), and who cling to other misfits in the face of everything. I’m for the human and inhuman coming together and making each other whole.

_________________________________
*I am not talking only about romantic love, although it’s true that in a lot of these stories, that it is the kind of love being explored.
**One of the many things I love about Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon trilogy is her acknowledgement and aversion of this analogy. One character is gay. He also happens to have magical powers. Magicians in the world of this series enhance their power by feeding people to demons. The character (who at that point has done no such thing) hid his magical abilities from his sister. When she angrily confronts him and says, ‘but you told me straight away when you realised you were gay’, he replies that his being gay doesn’t hurt anyone, but that being a magician is a potentially harmful thing.

On wish-fulfillment fantasies January 15, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, childhood, reviews.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
4 comments

When I was in the early years of secondary school, I invented a character called Amber. She was short, slender and pale, with a cloud of dark hair and one bright blue and one bright green eye (in other words, what I considered the epitome of beauty at the time). She lived in twelfth-century Ireland. Her father was the illegitimate son of an Irish ruler, and her mother was the daughter of a Japanese nobleman. Her Irish grandfather had five children by his first wife, seven by his second, and six illegitimate children, and the entire family had basically carved up the entire west coast of Ireland among themselves through a combination of ruthless diplomacy and strategically tactical marriages. Amber was married to Pagan Kidrouk (that is, she was married to the fictional character on whom I had a massive crush), and they had an ever-increasing brood of perfect children. Pagan had hitched his star to Amber’s family’s cause, and the two of them spent their time riding from relative to relative, keeping the whole family’s quest for political power afloat, forging alliances and seeing off competition. Amber’s younger sisters were in her social circle and they all treated one another with complete respect and love at all times. Even the backstory of how Amber’s parents got together was over-the-top: her father, despairing of ever finding his One True Love™, had mournfully cast a multilingual message in a bottle into the sea in the hope that whoever found it would seek him out and agree to marry him. The bottle wound up in Japan, and Amber’s mother’s decision to marry her Irish father essentially saved her from the events of the Genpei War. The entire story was completely ludicrous.

In other words, she was my teenage wish-fulfillment fantasy. Amber joined an existing and ever-expanding cast of alter egos whose stories I recorded in diaries over a series of years beginning in early childhood and continuing for the duration of my time in secondary school. Sometimes I didn’t commit their stories to paper, but rather narrated them to myself in my head as I went about my daily life. They all existed in a range of time periods – some belonged to families of witches in pre-Christian Ireland, others had been captured by Vikings and lived in exile, while others were my contemporaries in late-’90s Australia. These alter-egos shared certain key characteristics and experiences: they were the best at everything they did, they (mostly) had perfect husbands or boyfriends who fell in instant love with them and whose identities were entirely subsumed by the causes that were important to the characters and their families (in other words, they were love interests who required no sacrifices or effort because they existed only to support the characters’ lives), they shared a social circle with their siblings (who were usually younger sisters whose interests aligned perfectly with those of my characters), and they were valued and rewarded for their competence and hard work with acclaim and adoration.

A lot of people treat the wish-fulfillment fantasies of teenage girls as something inherently damaging, ridiculous and embarrassing. I cannot bring myself to participate in such blanket condemnation. I’m much more interested in working out why particular fantasies (especially published fantasies such as the Twilight or Hunger Games series) gain such traction in particular instances. My own (unpublished) fantasies are pretty explicable: I wanted to be loved but feared having to change anything about myself in order to attain it, wanted to be admired and rewarded for what I perceived as my talents, and wanted the kind of relationship with my sister that I saw happening among siblings in my favourite stories. To put it more bluntly, I felt uncomfortable and powerless in my own skin and set about creating stories in which I had power and control. I cannot regret or feel embarrassed about doing so. My alter egos made my teenage years infinitely easier. Whenever I felt frightened or sad, I was usually able to lift my spirits by imagining a better world, and I was able to motivate myself to work or continue at things I found boring by telling myself that my idealised characters wouldn’t give up in the face of boredom or difficulty.

This is not to say that wish-fulfillment fantasies aimed teenage girls should be above scrutiny. Although I believe that they are treated with scorn to a much greater degree than the fantasies aimed at teenage boys or adult men (I don’t see, for example, Batman or James Bond receiving the amount of contemptuous vitriol aimed at Bella Swan or her fellow YA paranormal romance heroines), nothing is above criticism, and reviewers and bloggers should be honest in pointing out things that bother them in media that they encounter. It is with this in mind that I turn to a book that has been receiving a lot of internet buzz among YA reviewers and commentators, Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

The main character in this work, Karou, lives a carefree existence as an art student in Prague, flitting from cafe to cafe and hanging out in an interestingly bohemian circle of friends. She has a secret existence as a messenger for the shadowy, supernatural figure Brimstone (who raised her), which enables her to travel instantaneously anywhere in the world. Her position as Brimstone’s protege grants her certain privileges – as long as she has enough currency, she can wish for whatever she wants, even the impossible (such as dyeing her hair permanently blue). In other words, Karou can do what she wants, go wherever she wants, and has a real-world existence that is already pretty cool. However, secrets from her unremembered past slowly begin to catch up with her, and as she is drawn more and more into Brimstone’s world, she realises she is in deadly danger, and that her identity as seventeen-year-old, human Karou is a lie.

So far, so harmless wish-fulfillment. The world Taylor has created is quirky and engaging, and great fun to hang around in. However, there is one element of Daughter and Smoke and Bone that bothered me so intensely that I had to devote the remainder of this blog post to it. Karou has no female friends.

This is not entirely correct. Karou has one female friend, Zuzana, who is a fellow student at the art school. However, Zuzana is marked from the start as being no equal to Karou: she is an ordinary human girl and knows nothing about Karou’s supernatural adventures. And, most importantly, she is already safely paired up with a boyfriend.

Literally every other young female character is portrayed as competition for Karou. Her human ex-boyfriend Kaz (whom Karou doesn’t even much like) acquires a new girlfriend whose sole characteristic seems to be jealousy of Karou. Even Zuzana admits to finding Kaz attractive and castigates Karou for giving him up. And a major plot point hinges on another female character being jealous of Karou’s appearance and envying her the (unwanted) attention she receives from another male character. In this way, Karou is marked as being both more desirable than all other female characters (because multiple male characters pursue her, and her alone) and more discerning (because she rejects the affections of those would-be love interests due to character flaws which are portrayed as being obvious only to her). So not only are the other female characters in competition with Karou, Taylor gives us the impression that they are stupid for doing so, because they appear blind to the flaws in the male characters which only Karou perceives. This is a sadly familiar pattern in wish-fulfillment fantasies aimed at women: we find it in Twilight and its imitations, as well as in a lot of paranormal romance aimed at adult women (such as The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series).

As someone who wrote a story about her book boyfriend being in love with her idealised character, I have a lot of sympathy for teenage (and not-so-teenage) wish-fulfillment fantasies depicting their protagonists being pursued by a multitude of love interests. It’s a powerful trope for girls who may be feeling unlovable or simply baffled at how to have romantic relationships. However, this desire to be desired should not be portrayed at the expense of functional friendships among teenage girls. Portraying all female relationships as inherently competitive and antagonistic creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in the real world whereby girls and women view all other girls and women with suspicion, undermining one another instead of supporting each other. I can say from personal experience that it has been extremely rare, from adolescence onward, that my close female friends and I were in competition for the same things (apart from, on occasion, the best grades in class).

I am not saying that there is a moral imperative for YA authors to write every relationship between female characters as being devoid of competition or even hostility. However, when every single such relationship fits this paradigm, I fear we have a problem. It’s the main reason that I will be much more cautious in seeking out works by Laini Taylor in the future. Daughter of Smoke and Bone was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. It has the dubious honour of being the narrative which caused me to evaluate every text (particularly those aimed at teenage girls) against whether or not its protagonist has (non-antagonistic) female friends. This has become my version of the Bechdel Test. It’s not a perfect gauge of a story’s quality, but it goes a long way towards creating a favourable impression.

Dreamtrails paved with bones November 15, 2013

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
Tags: , , , , ,
2 comments

I write fairly frequently about the fact that reading habits change over time, and that I feel things differently as an adult (by which I mean from about the age of 25 onwards) to how I did as a child. I seem to keep coming back to this issue again and again in my writing, worrying away at it. Because when I say I feel things differently, I suspect I mean that I feel things less. It’s as if every book, every show, every song is an attempt to regain a sort of childlike or adolescent intensity. And when I feel it, I am loquaciously grateful.

I sit here, having just finished Samantha Shannon’s debut novel The Bone Season and I am quite literally exhausted with feeling. My mouth is dry, my breathing is shallow and my heart hurts with how much I loved the book. I am astonished by it. It is as if Shannon made a list of everything I personally want in a story and then went away and wrote it for me. As you can imagine, therefore, this review will not even attempt to be objective. I will, however, attempt to explain why The Bone Season hit me in the id quite so hard.

It’s getting to the point where I should have a tag or list named ‘the rubbish I will put up with in order to get stories about humans interacting with angels, demons, or other terrifying supernatural beings’. It will be a long list. I should have a second list, named ‘Things I wish authors of stories about angels, demons and other terrifying supernatural beings would include in their stories’. It would include: a realistic dystopian setting, an extensive criminal underclass which resists passively, a heroine who hates The Oppressive System but also possesses a healthy degree of fear for it that prevents her from fighting it directly, a heroine who has a support network and preferably other female friends, and a recognition that rebellions are likely to be messy and will involve moral greyness.

In other words, the second list would describe The Bone Season. From here on, assume spoilers.

The book is the story of nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney, who lives in an alternate version of our own world in which humans possess a variety of paranormal abilities, all of which have been outlawed by an oppressive totalitarian government. The only legal way to exist as a ‘voyant’ (short for ‘clairvoyant’) is to do the government’s dirty work and hunt other voyants, a deal which provides security at the expense of longevity. However, as would be realistic in such a setting, an extensive underground network of criminal voyant gangs has sprung up, each operating in its own patch and forming a dual function as a grey market in less than ethical commerce and a community in which fugitive voyants can attain a sense of family and acceptance. Unbeknownst to her father, who works for the government as a scientist, Paige leads a double life in one of the gangs, based in Seven Dials in London. (And can I just go off on a slightly gushing tangent and say that another reason why I adore this book so much is that all the cool people hang out in my favourite parts of London, namely Soho and Covent Garden?)

The inevitable eventually happens, and Paige is captured. Rather than being executed, as she feared, she’s brought to Sheol I, a vast, secret penal community built over the ruins of Oxford. There, Paige learns the truth about her powers and her world. She and the other voyants captured are assigned to Rephaim, extraordinarily powerful supernatural beings who reveal that the totalitarian government under which the voyants have been suffering is the puppet of the Rephaim, and that the voyants have been recruited as foot soldiers in a terrible, otherworldly battle. In Sheol I, voyants are safe to reveal their identities and hone their clairvoyant powers under the tutelage of their assigned Rephaite guard. The only catch? The voyants are prisoners, and completely at the mercy of their Rephaim captors in a profoundly unbalanced arrangement. They are expected to become ruthless soldiers, betraying their fellow voyants if necessary, and treated with utter contempt by the Rephaim, even though the latter rely on them for their existence (the Rephaim feed of the auras of voyant humans). Paige is assigned to a captor called Arcturus, whom she addresses as ‘Warden’ (as this is his position in the Rephaim hierarchy), and who begins to train her in using her abilities. He is a confusing and enigmatic force in her life, both terrifying her and on occasion betraying extraordinary vulnerability and secrets in her presence.

One thing that I really appreciate about The Bone Season is the fact that Paige is understandably wary about her safety, both in London and in Sheol I. She is not reckless, but instead makes all sorts of compromises and sacrifices in order to carve out a space for herself in two extremely dangerous situations. Far too often in stories of this kind, the heroine is overly principled and uncompromising. Paige remains an appealing, but realistically terrified individual. She is very slow to trust Warden, and makes him earn her empathy through openness, genuine and concrete support and the recognition that she possesses power and agency in her own right.

By the same token, I really dislike dystopian novels in which the heroine is completely without a support network and all other characters (especially other female characters) are indistinguishable minor jealous antagonists. Shannon avoids this pitfall admirably in The Bone Season. Paige already has her friends in the criminal voyant underworld, who, while looking out for their own interest, seem to genuinely like her and care about her and provide a space where she is accepted and valued for her abilities. Once she gets to Sheol I, she finds friends and allies among its human and Rephaite inhabitants, all of whom are three-dimensional characters in their own right. And there is no love triangle!

But the best thing about The Bone Season? It’s the first of a seven-book series.

Stepping into the same river twice June 16, 2013

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, films, memories, meta, television.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
12 comments

I am 28 years old. I have spent most of my adult life as a student. I only moved out of home five years ago, and I only moved out of sharehouses and student accommodation nine months ago. I have a long-term partner, but no children. All this is relevant.

I was thinking about stories, and how important age and circumstances are in determining meaning and how you react to them. There are some stories I can come back to time and time again, and get different things out of them every time. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is like that for me. I’ve been watching and rewatching it since I was twelve years old, and it means something different every single time. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is another story like that for me. Each time I rewatch it, I feel I’ve barely scratched its surface. It reveals its secrets so slowly. I’m somewhat afraid to reread His Dark Materials in case it stops being this kind of story to me. It meant so much to me, it gave so much to me that for it to stop meaning and giving would be unbearable.

There are other stories which I think gain something from being reread with adult eyes. The young-adult literature of Victor Kelleher falls into this category. I first read his work as an eleven-year-old, and continued revisiting it throughout my teenage years, but the true horror and weight of what he was saying doesn’t really hit home until you’ve reached adulthood and had some of your illusions shattered. There are other stories which mattered as much to me as Kelleher’s when I was a child and a teenager – the works of Gillian Rubinstein, Catherine Jinks’ Pagan Chronicles and John Marsden’s Tomorrow series – but for which rereading provokes only nostalgia and the restored memory of what it felt like to be fifteen, and burning with outrage, passionately emoting and dreaming fervently. The stories remain wonderful, but they offer me no new truths in adulthood, only a window into the child I used to be. This is of value, of course, but it’s not the same thing. The vast majority of works aimed at children and teenagers that I’ve enjoyed and read or watched in adulthood evoke much the same feelings.

I grew up watching the films of the Marx Brothers (I first watched Duck Soup in a cinema when I was three years old), and I always found them hilarious. What I didn’t notice until I was well into adulthood was the deep undercurrent of sadness and alienation running through them, and the tendency for Groucho, Chico and Harpo to make self-deprecating jokes, to make themselves figures of fun, to paint themselves as mercenary, petty criminals in order to get in first before someone else said the same things. There’s a defensiveness to all their quips, a brittle, knowing edge to all their humour that you only see when you’re older, and when you know more about the history of immigration to the US.

And then there are the texts for which meaning and enjoyment is, I think, contextual. I read Wuthering Heights as a fourteen-year-old and thought it was a tragic love story. I read it again at twenty-two, and thought it was a horror story, a Greek myth about gods and mortals. At eighteen, when I went through a phase of reading Russian literature in translation, Tolstoy moved me to rapturous tears, while Dostoevsky appalled and repelled me. Isobelle Carmody’s works can only truly be appreciated by teenagers. To an adult, they are dangerously naïve and lack any kind of nuance. At 28, my favourite book of Jane Austen’s is Persuasion, while at sixteen I would have said Pride and Prejudice. When I was fourteen, people told me I would cry my eyes out over the ending of Casablanca, but I was unmoved. My reaction? I hated Rick, swooned over Victor Laszlo (I was going through a bit of a thing for revolutionaries and resistance fighters) and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. If I am earnest now, I was a million times worse then. But I suspect, were I to watch the film again, my reaction might be very different. At fourteen, I read The Mill on the Floss and felt nothing. At twenty, I read Daniel Deronda and felt profoundly moved.

I remember my mother telling me, when I was a passionate armchair revolutionary in high school, that as an adult I would find repellent the Holocaust stories, tales about the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Middle East conflict that I pored over as a teenager. I didn’t believe her, but she was right. I don’t want to look any more. I used to love uncompromising rebels, and now I prefer diplomats and passive resistance.

I don’t think all of this is down to age, in and of itself. Taste plays a role, as does environment, and the ethos of the age in which you grew up and which informed your tastes. My mother, for example, loves Charles Dickens and finds Zadie Smith contrived and emotionless. I find Dickens cloyingly sentimental, emotionally manipulative and hypocritical, while Zadie Smith evokes feelings of awe and floods of tears in me. I don’t think baby boomers will uniformly share her views, no more than I think Gen Y people will uniformly share mine, but I suspect our respective generations may have affected our tastes to some extent. (That said, my father loves Zadie Smith and was, indeed, the one to introduce me to her work.)

For as long as I can remember, my favourite Shakespeare play has been The Tempest. I suspect I see it with different eyes than the first time I encountered it as a twelve-year-old watching the Bell Shakespeare Company’s production. And I suspect it will mean something very different when I am an old woman. My point in all of this is that although it is possible to step in the same river twice, it is not possible to do so for every river. Some stories are static, and can mean only one thing at one particular age in one particular place. And some others are always changing, and go on and on forever.

Making revolution is not a garden party, part 1 April 27, 2013

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, meta, reviews.
Tags: , , ,
2 comments

My modern history teacher in the final year of high school had a habit of repeating the same anecdotes and little spiels over and over again. He said them so many times that I can remember them word for word. One of his favourites, repeated often in the two courses we did on twentieth-century Asia and decolonisation, went like this:

‘How do you make REVOLUTION? It’s not an easy thing to do. Do you just walk down the street shouting “CITIZENS OF MANUKA, LEAVE YOUR LATTES AND JOIN THE REVOLUTION!”? Of course not. Making revolution is difficult. As Mao once said, “a revolution is not a garden party”.’

I was reminded of this tedious little spiel recently, because I’ve been reading a lot of epic fantasy novels set in times of social upheaval and change. This in itself is unsurprising. Epic fantasy tends to deal with power struggles, changes in political leadership and dynastic politics, and the effects these things have on society at large. But these big subjects are often difficult to write well, and so I thought it would be interesting to look at a couple of series I’ve been reading through this particular lens. This post is the first in what I intend to be a two-part series; the second should be ready in the next few days.

Juliet E. McKenna’s Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution was one of those series that I’d been meaning to read for years. I trust epic fantasy in the hands of women much more readily than I do that written by men (if only for the fact that female authors will actually include women as point-of-view characters as a matter of course), and I liked that the premise of the series was not to unite an anarchic, fragmented and violent society under the rule of the One True King, but rather to do away with rule by the nobility altogether. I liked the idea of a revolution started by exiled scholars, merchants and artisans, since I find epic fantasy’s general aversion to the urban middle class profoundly irritating. I found the general premise of Lescar – a country of antagonistic, exploitative dukedoms overrun with mercenary bands only nominally under the control of different dukes – to be believable and interesting.

And then I actually read the first couple of books, and the whole thing fell apart.

I’m sad to say that the series just doesn’t work, or at least it doesn’t work for me. The problem is partly one of characterisation (I find all the characters clichéd collections of tropes rather than engaging human beings), but really one of believability. The problem is that the whole revolution is too easy.

Firstly, look. If the problem in your country is that it’s overrun by mercenary warbands bleeding the people dry while the nobility turns a blind eye and pays the mercenaries to plunder neighbouring territories, those warbands are not going to simply turn around and start following the orders of an impoverished gang of exiles simply because that’s the morally right thing to do. Even with the incentive of prospective plunder to be gained if the dukes are deposed, why would the mercenaries dismantle a system that has served them well in the past?

Secondly, why are all the nobles so stupid? None of them believe the rumours that a bunch of exiles are about to invade at the head of a coalition of mercenaries, and even after one territory is overrun and its duke killed, they still think they have nothing to worry about. This means that at the end of the second book, more than half of the dukes and their families have been killed or driven out of their homelands and the rebels control most of the country.

Thirdly, why have none of the principle characters from the rebel party died over the course of the revolution? None of them are ordinary foot soldiers – they’re all key figures in the conspiracy with vital frontline roles to play. Realistically, some of them should have died by this point.

Finally, magic in this world is a clumsy deus ex machina, and I actually see no need for it. The whole culture would work just as well without it. At present it seems to serve two purposes: it allows the conspirators to communicate across vast distances instantaneously (which, if this ability was missing, would actually make for some interesting tension and real hardship during their revolutionary struggle), and it gives the revolutionaries the edge in battles where they are outnumbered. Both of these strike me as quite lazy. One of my favourite series of books in the world, Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy, is also set in a world where the entire political and social order is being overturned. At the heart of the novel are two siblings who are escaped slaves. They each have supernatural abilities. None of their primary antagonists do. It works there, because the siblings are utterly without power. The entire world is hostile to them, they are being hunted by an extremely technologically advanced empire, and they are viewed as non-people by the legal system. Without their powers, it would be an extremely one-sided and short-lived fight. But magic in McKenna’s world does not restore some semblance of balance. Instead, it tips the scales too far in the rebels’ favour. When your enemies are vastly outnumbered by superior fighters, when they’re stupid and unable to adapt, when you’re virtually impossible to kill, you don’t actually need magic on your side.

So, overall, I’ve found the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution to be a massive disappointment. Of course, I should reiterate that I’ve only read the first two books, and things might pick up as the series continue, but at this point, I can’t cheer for the revolutionaries because they have it way too easy.

My next review will be of revolution done right in epic fantasy.

Review of The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature January 13, 2013

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: , , , , , ,
add a comment

Every year, the Cambridge University Press has a book sale of ‘damaged’ books (in actual fact, most are not damaged at all beyond having a stamp inside saying ‘damaged’). My boyfriend is a CUP sale veteran, and prides himself on coming away with daily hauls of books not only for himself, but for many of his friends. This year, he bought me The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. I devoured it in two sittings.

I’ve found most academic writing on fantasy to be deeply disappointing, partly because it tends to spend too much time arguing that Tolkienesque heroic/epic fantasy is not all the genre has to offer, and partly because the examples tend to be drawn from books that are not to my taste or bear no relation to where the fantasy field is today. But the Cambridge Companion suffered from none of those problems.

It’s divided into three sections. The first looks back at fantasy’s origins in various 19th-century writings (such as Gothic, adventure stories and children’s fiction). The second outlines various critical approaches (Structuralism, Freudian readings, postmodernism, thematic criticism and so on) that can be used to interpret fantasy literature. The third picks up where the first section left off, and outlines later developments within the various fantasy subgenres. I was particularly impressed at the inclusion of urban fantasy, magical realism and paranormal romance, as the latter in particular is often scorned as a slightly embarrassing relative that it’s best not to mention. I also applaud the inclusion of a chapter by Nnedi Okorafor on fantasy literature by writers of colour, although it saddened me that very few of the works she discussed were mentioned in the other articles (N K Jemisin’s work is important as the work of a writer of colour, but it is also in keeping with certain trends in fantasy literature as a whole and could have been included in chapters on, say, urban fantasy or fantasy grappling with issues of religion and psychology, for example). Chapters on, say, issues of gender and sexuality could have also been interesting to read and it’s a shame none were included.

One of the problems with reviewing a book of this nature is the patchy quality of the chapters as a whole (inevitable when they are written by many different authors). Thus, the chapter on recent developments in children’s fantasy by Catherine Butler was sharp, well-researched and made some excellent points (her observation that one of the major changes in children’s fantasy over the past forty years has been the shift in attitudes towards parental – and other forms of – authority is one I’ve noted myself and really must follow up on in the future), while W. A. Senior’s chapter on quest fantasy is extremely disappointing, doing little more than summarising a few examples of works in this subgenre. As such, the book will be of only mixed use to the students who are its intended audience: while some chapters offer rich, meaty analyses of trends in, and critical approaches toward, fantasy literature, others do little more than point the reader in the direction of particular books or series without explaining why such texts are worthy of discussion in the first place. Veronica Schanoes’ chapter on historical fantasy was also a disappointment, due mainly to the inaccuracy of its title. Rather than being about the subgenre of historical fantasy (books which are set in the past and add fantasy elements to our own world), it was about books with scholarly protagonists and where scholarship and study were the subject. This was very interesting, but it was not about historical fantasy, which was not covered – an odd omission in an otherwise comprehensive survey.

The book’s true value to students of literature lies, I feel, in its extensive bibliography of both key fantasy texts from the past two centuries and critical scholarship on these works. As an introduction, it is weakened by the weaknesses of several of its contributors. However, its intention (and bibliography), if not its execution, do a good job of outlining the wide variety of writing under the fantasy umbrella, as well as its value as a subject of academic research.

The heart is hard to translate; it has a language of its own December 9, 2012

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

I kept flipping incredulously back to the publication details when I was reading The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. I couldn’t believe it was published in 1995. It was so perceptive, so prophetic in what it was saying, that I was shocked that it had been written in a pre-9/11 world. I guess it confirms what we’ve known all along: that there is nothing new in history, and that people have been fighting and losing the same battles over and over again.

Kay’s books tend to be set at turning-points, at times and in places where a small event sets off a chain reaction and leaves the world an entirely different place. Thus we have The Sarantine Mosaic, set in an imaginary Byzantium around the time of the sixth century AD, and The Last Light of the Sun, set in an imaginary Britain during the time of the Viking invasions. The Lions of Al-Rassan takes place in a part of this imaginary world modelled on Moorish Spain in its dying days.

Just as in our world, Al-Rassan, and the neighbouring kingdoms of Esperaña, are inhabited by people of three different religious faiths – the Asharites (standing in for Muslims), the Jaddites (Christians) and the Kindath (Jews). And just as in our world, people of all three faiths exist along a spectrum of tolerance and extremism (although with the Jewish analogue group, as in Moorish Spain, enjoying a much more precarious existence than their Muslim and Christian counterparts). When life is comfortable, tolerance holds sway, but as soon as things start to get difficult, the extremists find their voice. And things are taking a turn for the worse in Al-Rassan.

We are guided through this this world by representatives of all three faiths: Jehane, a Kindath doctor, Rodrigo, a Jaddite soldier, and Ammar, an Asharite poet, courtier and assassin. For various reasons, all three find themselves exiled to the Al-Rassan kingdom of Ragosa at the same time, and their lives – and the lives of the peoples and kingdoms for whom they are representatives – intertwine in various ways. All three exemplify what is best about their respective peoples, as well as demonstrating the value of the world they inhabit. And all three are powerless to stop this world ending, becoming swept up in the collapse of Al-Rassan and the Esperañan reconquest.

All this makes The Lions of Al-Rassan sound very cold-blooded and distant, and yet reading it is an intensely emotional experience. This is, in part, due to the quality of the characters, who are vividly alive and accessible. But it’s also due to the conflict Kay sets up, and how invested the reader becomes in it. This is not a conflict between Al-Rassan and Esperaña or between Asharites and Jaddites, although some characters think or pretend that it is. Rather, it is a conflict between two world views, which are represented on both sides of the Asharite-Jaddite divide.

‘What is worse than ugliness?’
‘You do not really mean that,’ Rodrigo said. ‘I have part of an answer, though. Worse, is when what little space there is for men to move back and forth between worlds disappears because the worlds are lost to hatred.’

On the one hand we have the historical Al-Rassan, a beacon of science, literature, art, culture and education, and people – both in Al-Rassan and Esperaña – who see these things as valuable. On the other, we have intolerance, greed, anti-intellectualism, and people who hate and fear plurality and empathy. The main characters know that this struggle is at their doorsteps, but they are like driftwood caught up in a flood that they cannot control.

Even if you do not know the history of Moorish Spain, it is inevitable from the beginning of the book how things are going to end. In spite of this, The Lions of Al-Rassan is incredibly tense reading. And while the ending is bittersweet rather than depressing, there is something incredibly hurtful about watching people desperately try to save all the things you hold dear from utter destruction at the hands of people who cannot see their value.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29 other followers