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Books for joy September 18, 2016

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews, Uncategorized.
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My recent reading has made me so happy that I’ve decided to try out something new with my reviews: a semi-regular category, books that make me joyful and that I want to praise to the skies. This first post of this kind covers three books which really spoke to me, and that I cannot recommend enough.

The Olive Conspiracy is the fourth novel in Shira Glassman’s wonderful Mangoverse series (there are also two short story collections set in the same universe), which follows the adventures of Queen Shulamit, her partner Aviva, and their ever-expanding found family of kind-hearted misfits, as they undertake the business of ruling Shulamit’s tropical kingdom of Perach. This fourth book sees Shulamit and co dealing with an international conspiracy to hamper the agriculture (and thus economy) of Perach, bringing Shulamit back in contact with her first love, Crown Princess Carolina of the neighbouring kingdom of Imbrio.

There’s so much to love about this book, and the series as a whole. Perach is a fantasy Jewish kingdom coexisting in a magical, medieval inflected world with other, non-Jewish nations (such as Imbrio). Almost all of the major characters are gay, lesbian or bisexual, in loving relationships supported by their friends, families and community, and there are also several transgender secondary or tertiary characters, and although their stories are not without conflict, there is never any threat of a tragic or unhappy ending. But what really makes these books great for me is their emphasis on kindness, cooperation, and non-violent solutions to thorny problems. The Mangoverse books are proof that in the hands of the right author, a compelling story about fundamentally decent people is possible. That they’re also filled with loving, detailed descriptions of mouthwatering food is just an added bonus!

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers shares a few similarities to Glassman’s work. It, too, is the story of a found family of oddballs, who are for the most part kind and good people seeking to avoid conflict and bloodshed, and food also features heavily. However, it’s set in the distant future, on a spaceship which is home to a multispecies crew whose job it is to create the hyperspace tunnels that make fast, convenient space travel possible for their fellow inhabitants of the skies. If you liked Firefly, but found yourself frustrated with the limitations of the future it imagined (a Chinese-inflected future with no visible Chinese characters; misogyny and other contemporary problems still present centuries into the future, and so on), this may be the book for you.

Chambers has imagined a future that is truly welcoming to all, in which human beings are just one species among many other sentient cultures of the universe, all of whom have organised themselves into a vast, intergalactic United Nations of sorts. The humans are very much the junior partners in this enterprise – late arrivals who were only taken in out of pity after half the inhabitants of Earth fled to Mars (the wealthy, who could afford to get out) and the other half took to the skies in a suicidal act of desperation as the planet became utterly uninhabitable. While it should be sobering to read of an all-too-plausible future in which we have rendered Earth utterly inhospitable to life, it’s oddly comforting to imagine a time when humans are only a tiny, insignificant fraction of the crowded skies of a vast, inhabitable universe. It’s as if the insignificance and miraculous survival of the human beings of Chambers’ novel caused them to grow out of the horrors that currently plague us: selfishness, lack of forward thinking, and rapacious, destructive greed. Humans in this book are more humble, and, like all the sentient beings in their universe, more open and understanding of difference. It’s more a character-driven story: don’t read it for the plot, which is as meandering and episodic as the journey of the spaceship its characters call home, but it’s as comforting and welcoming as a warm blanket, drawing you in to a hopeful and reassuring future.

The final book reviewed here, Kate Elliott’s Poisoned Blade, is less cozy and consoling than the first two — Elliott certainly knows how to put her characters through the emotional wringer — but it too brought me great joy. It’s the follow-up to Court of Fives, Elliott’s first foray into young-adult literature, which I reviewed here. Poisoned Blade sees Jessamy and her sisters following dangerous and different roads to ensure their family’s survival. Their individual stories and struggles intertwine with the revolution that is simmering below the surface of their profoundly unequal society, as well as with the broader political conflicts threatening their country.

Kate Elliott is one of my favourite writers of stories of girls and women, because she always depicts many different types of female characters, with nary a stock trope in sight. Poisoned Blade is no different: we’ve got Jessamy, who is a competitive and talented sports player, confident in her physical abilities but out of her depth in challenges that require subterfuge, subtlety or verbal persuasion. Her sister Amaya and her friend (and lover) Denya are much better at handling the delicate dangers that take place in the homes of the wealthy and privileged, and while they — like all women in their society, particularly the lower class (like Denya) and the Efean Commoners (those who, like Amaya, Jessamy and their mother and sisters, descend from the original inhabitants of their land who were conquered by the Patrons who rule them) — lack overt and political power, they are adept at exercising power indirectly and carving out a place of relative safety for themselves. There are so many other types of women in this book, but I’d like to draw particular attention to Amaya, Jessamy and their siblings’ wonderful mother, who is a character after my own heart: the sort of woman whose strength lies in her ability to empathise with and care for others, and who quietly does the vitally important work of forging alliances, building connections, and sustaining others. The world of Poisoned Blade is deeply hostile to women, and Elliott doesn’t shy away from that, but she also emphasises the many important relationships women and girls form in spite of that, and the strength that they draw from these connections. There are also giant, robot spiders, a growing revolution led by the dispossessed, and intense competitions in a sport that involves racing through a massive, terrifying obstacle course. What more could you want?

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Divided cities April 28, 2016

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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The three YA novels I review here are all set in cities which are, in one way or another, divided, featuring state-sanctioned inequality so extreme that revolution needs only a tiny spark to set it off. Characters in all three books reach out across the divide, fighting in their own ways for justice, equality, or just the chance to carve out a tiny space of safety for themselves.

Sarah Rees Brennan is nothing if not ambitious. Her latest work, Tell the Wind and Fire reimagines Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as an urban fantasy romance involving doppelgängers, a complicated magical system, and, of course, revolution. Instead of the ‘two cities’ of Dickens’ story, Tell the Wind and Fire is set in a New York divided into ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’ cities, which exist in parallel, mirror images of glittering privilege and violently enforced dispossession. Rees Brennan’s Lucie Manette is a teenage magic wielder who grew up in the Dark cities, but was brought to the Light, where she is treated as something of a symbol and a trophy, the girlfriend of the cherished son of the Light city’s ruling family. This ruling dynasty’s ruthless maintenance of its own power is matched only by its complicated, hypocritical secrets. Rees Brennan is great at showing the cruelty and injustice that keeps her imagined New York divided, and doesn’t shy away from placing the blame entirely at the feet of its glittering Light elite, who care little that their enormous wealth is built on suffering. As revolution smoulders, Lucie attempts to navigate the treacherous political waters, torn between individual loyalty to those she loves – in both Light and Dark New York – and her moral outrage at the injustice of her society. Lucie is well aware of her power as a symbol – a borrowed power that is dependent on her never, ever speaking for herself – and has a realistic sense of this power’s limits. Lucie’s sharp sense of self-preservation, honed through years living in the downtrodden Dark city and among the capricious powerbrokers of the Light, is one of the strongest elements of this book, and she is a character with whom I very much enjoyed spending time.

Rather less satisfying for me were the wider character dynamics of Tell the Wind and Fire. In previous works, characterisation has been Sarah Rees Brennan’s strong point, and I’ve come to look forward to her books for their fantastic found families – collections of odd, misfit characters thrown together by circumstance, who’ll protect each other fiercely against the cruelties and dangers of the world. Perhaps because it was a standalone book rather than a trilogy, with less time to develop secondary characters, I found this element somewhat lacking in Tell the Wind and Fire, and missed it. Other than that, however, the book was an enjoyable read, although the twists of the plot will be unsurprising to those already familiar with A Tale of Two Cities.

Sabaa Tahir’s debut novel An Ember in the Ashes is a claustrophobic fantasy romance set in a city under occupation. The Martial Empire enforces its rule with military might and legalised discrimination; the Scholars, formerly the elite, are forbidden to learn to read, and are either enslaved or forced to live in precarious poverty. The novel is told from alternate viewpoints – that of Laia, a young Scholar girl who accepts a dangerous spying mission at the heart of the Martial administration as a slave to its ruthless military leader, and Elias, a Martial boy training to be the empire’s most lethal warrior (more weapon than human being), but secretly attempting to escape his abusive training. Tahir does an excellent job of making all parts of her stratified city – from the brutal Blackcliff Academy where Elias trains and Laia spies, to the twisting alleyways where Scholars make their homes and the resistance plots the Martial Empire’s demise – come alive, always emphasising the rampant inequality and the violence with which it is maintained. While I slightly preferred Laia as a viewpoint character, both protagonists are carefully drawn, and their respective fears, hopes and motivations are well balanced. I particularly like it when characters in this kind of set up have an internal struggle between genuine and well-justified terror at the life-threatening situations in which they find themselves, and their desire to transform their society into a more just and equal place. I like it when it forces them to make compromises, bargains, and small, short-term sacrifices of principle, and I very much appreciated that this was the case with Laia. An Ember in the Ashes ends on quite the cliffhanger, so I’m relieved to see that the sequel will be published in August.

Court of Fives, the first in a YA series by Kate Elliott, is much subtler than the previous two books reviewed here in its exploration of power, privilege, and their corrosive effect on societies and individuals. Its setting is inspired by Ptolemaic Egypt, with divisions between the ruling Patrons and ruled Commoners more fluid than the letter of the law would suggest. Patrons cannot marry Commoners – but they can form relationships, as is the case in the family of protagonist Jessamy, whose father is a Patron and mother is a Commoner. Similarly, certain routes to advancement are barred to Commoners – but they can gain prestige and acclaim as talented players of Fives, the popular sport beloved by Patrons and Commoners alike, and played by both. But – as is the case with all unequal societies – there are hidden complications and unwritten rules that slowly become part of the social structure, understood by all, but difficult to live with. Jessamy and her sisters occupy an uneasy space between Patron and Commoner worlds, both exoticised and scorned. They are all painfully aware that their fate – and fate of their family – is dependent on their making good marriages with Patron men. Their mother is a hindrance to their father’s career, and, after a series misfortunes, it becomes clear that their parents’ apparent love match is a more fragile thing, vulnerable to the demands of politics and social mobility. Playing Fives – formerly an escape for Jessamy – becomes a deadly necessity, as the fate of her entire family depends on her success on the court.

There are echoes in Court of Fives of Little Women, but Elliott’s refusal to let the father character off the hook is a breath of fresh air to me, as someone who always found Alcott’s depiction of Mr March too close to hagiography. Here, there is an acknowledgement that the actions of men in patriarchal societies can have appalling consequences for the women around them, that such men are very often ignorant of, and unmoved by, the effects their actions have on the women in their lives, and, most importantly, that even in patriarchal societies, women and girls have lives and relationships and stories independent of the husbands and fathers whose actions circumscribe their existence. Throw in a brilliantly depicted set of sisters – each with her own personality and dreams – and you have everything I could possibly want in a Kate Elliott book.

Linkpost lifts us up where we belong February 27, 2015

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This week’s linkpost is up a bit early, and contains many fabulous things.

I’m a huge fan of Sophia McDougall’s review of Birdman: over at Strange Horizons. In it, she compares the film to Boris Johnson. It’s an apt comparison.

Here’s a great interview with Samantha Shannon. ‘Cities are made of narrative’ indeed.

Aliette de Bodard’s description of her subconscious as a library is a fabulous metaphor, and one that I might steal myself!

There’s a great set of guest posts over at Ladybusiness on ‘What books are on your auto-recommend list?’ (For the record, mine are the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, the Pagan Chronicles series by Catherine Jinks, Space Demons, Skymaze, Shinkei and Galax Arena by Gillian Rubinstein, Parkland, Earthsong, Fire Dancer and The Beast of Heaven by Victor Kelleher, the Romanitas trilogy by Sophia McDougall and the Crossroads trilogy by Kate Elliott.)

Episode 4 of Fangirl Happy Hour is up. This week Ana and Renay are talking Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear, Jupiter Ascending and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. I’m not quite as critical of S.H.I.E.L.D. as they are, while I think there’s room for difference of opinion about the feminism of Jupiter Ascending, but as always, I appreciate their thoughts.

The first few guest posts about representation and diversity are up on Jim C. Hines’ blog.

Shannon Hale talks about gender segregation at readings she’s done at schools. It’s heartbreaking.

I thoroughly enjoyed this article by Robert Macfarlane about language and landscape. Beautiful stuff.

I really liked the recent BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. This interview by Julia Raeside of Claire Foy, who played Anne Boleyn, goes a long way towards explaining why.

For reasons that will soon become apparent, although I can’t provide a link to it, the #readingAuthorName hashtag on Twitter has been a powerful and positive movement. It works like this: think of an author whose works moved you and shaped you into the person you are. Tweet about it. Add the hashtag #readingAuthorName (obviously replacing AuthorName for the author’s actual name). Feel happy.

On wish-fulfillment fantasies January 15, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, childhood, reviews.
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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.
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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.
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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

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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

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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.

It’s about power March 2, 2012

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[Spoilers for Kate Elliott’s Crossroads series, in particular the third book, Traitors’ Gate.]

My heart broke twice while reading Traitors’ Gate, the third book in Kate Elliott’s Crossroads series. The first time was when Captain Anji finds out his wife Mai is dead, and he collapses and has to be held up by his men. The second time was when Mai returned to Anji seven months later, only to discover that he has remarried and that her son doesn’t recognise her, and calls Anji’s new wife ‘Mama’. The ending of this book (and of the series’ first trilogy*) is absolutely brutal.

It’s also one of the cleverest examinations of the nature of power I’ve read for quite a while. That theme is like catnip to me. I love books which look at who has power, why, and what that means, especially if they throw in a bonus exploration of different kinds of power, how they are valued relative to one another, and what that says about a particular society. That, in its essence, is what Crossroads is about, although that makes it sound very dry indeed. And the series would be dry, if not for its vibrant worldbuilding and engaging cast of characters.

When we left our characters at the end of the second book, our heroes were facing existential peril. The mercenary leader Captain Anji and his wife Mai had settled in the Hundred and had won the trust of the people among whom they lived mainly due to Mai’s talents as a merchant, diplomat and generally adaptable and accommodating person. Mai had given birth to a son, Atani, and the pair looked set to be building a new life in the Hundred, once they’d dealt with the pesky problem of an army led by tyrants slaughtering its way through the land, and the ever-menacing threat of the Sirniakan Empire hovering just off-screen. (Anji was a son of the former Sirniakan ruler, and it is a land where one claims the throne by murdering all rival claimants. Anji had been in exile since he was a child, but the threat remains.) But how wrong I was!

Well, up to a point. Our heroes do deal with these threats, and once they’re done, the Hundred is arguably a safer and more stable land. But as the book progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that not all of them are as heroic as previously imagined. I’m talking, of course, about Anji, and I’m kicking myself for not realising that there were little hints thrown in here and there in the previous books to show us that his intentions were not as pure as they seem, as seen through Mai’s adoring eyes.

What Mai – and the reader – thinks she and Anji are doing is settling down in a new homeland, adapting themselves to the customs and culture of that land, and giving back to that society according to their means and ability. As such, she puts down roots, forging connections through a combination of trade, friendship and the exchange of ideas, as well as doing her part to tie Anji’s Qin mercenaries more firmly to the land through marriages with local women. She is the consummate diplomat, able to keep her own feelings at some remove, a hard bargainer with a canny understanding of human nature who is able to persuade people to her cause without making them feel like they’ve been exploited (as, indeed, they have not).

Anji makes use of this, as his skills are more useful on the battlefield than in the marketplace. Theirs was an arranged marriage, and yet it appeared to be a happy one. Anji respected Mai’s mercantile abilities, and while the circumstances of their union were inherently a power imbalance (Anji and his mercenaries were in control of the trading town in which Mai lived, and when he asked to marry her, there was no way she could’ve refused), they were comfortable with each other and indeed felt something which I read as love.

This is what makes Anji’s actions such an utter betrayal, and Mai’s reactions so painful to read. It is not that he pretended to love her, and yet used her, but that he genuinely loved her and used her all the same.

For in fact what is really going on is that Anji, far from integrating and adapting into life in the Hundred, in fact views it as a land ripe for his rule. Exiled from his paternal inheritance of Sirniaka, and his maternal Qin relatives (and perhaps because of the fact that he cannot find power and acceptance among his kin), he sets about conquering another kingdom for himself. And he uses Mai – and her talents – to shield people from realising what is really going on. They see a saviour with a beautiful and charming wife and cute son, when what he actually is is an inflexible, jealous**, covetous ruler, better only in degree and not in kind from the tyrants he overthrows.

What Elliott is actually doing in this series is interrogating the hackneyed old epic fantasy plot of ‘dispossessed man saves world and is thus its rightful ruler’. In giving readers access to the lives of characters not often shown in this type of fantasy (farmers, artisans, merchants) she shows us why people would accept the rule of a leader like Anji (give up freedom, gain stability, crudely speaking). At the same time, through Mai, she tells us the stories that people tell themselves to avoid seeing the truth of the powers that control their lives. The myth of the chosen, rightful, just ruler is one such story with which people deceive themselves, and Elliott dismantles it with dexterity, pathos and emotional honesty.

____________________________
* There will be a stand-alone book featuring the characters from the first trilogy, and then another trilogy set some time after the events of the first, with (presumably) a new set of focal characters.
** The instant he slapped Mai’s face in anger at her going to the temple of Ushara (a place where people worship by sleeping with the temple acolytes – which Mai did not do, as she was only accompanying a friend), I knew that Anji was irredeemable. Yes, he loved Mai, but he loved her in a jealous, possessive ‘don’t touch my things’ kind of way.

It don’t matter if you’re black or white… November 29, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, reviews.
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…but if you’re grey, forget about it!

Reading books in a series which you loved as a child or teenager is on occasion an unsettling experience. Some childhood favourites stand the test of time, remaining as true in adulthood as they were in youth. The works of Gillian Rubinstein, Adele Geras, Catherine Jinks and Philip Pullman remain thus for me. Those of Victor Kelleher I get even more out of than I did as an adolescent. Some of the things he says are hidden until you’ve lived long enough, I think. If any of these authors were to write another book in the series I enjoyed, I would be delighted.

But sometimes, looking at the books of your childhood with an adult eye is a confronting and disappointing experience. Something about them doesn’t stand up. Themes which previously seemed intensely relevant to your life appear less significant, or at least less well-expressed. The truth which you previously drew from such books is less true, less significant, less burning.

I’m sad to say that, upon reading The Sending, the latest in Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles, I realised this series was of the second type. Spoilers follow.

Carmody is, above all things, possessed of a unique ability to understand and convey the mindset, hopes, fears and dreams of a particular type of teenager. This teenager is one who is shy, artistic and bookish, hyper-empathetic and self-aware, and just realising what a cruel place the world can be. There are some adults like this, but not so many. I was one such teenager. Her books, with their message that if we all were more empathetic and compassionate, the world would be a much better place, resonated deeply with me.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think empathy and compassion are wonderful, admirable qualities, and that we should strive towards them at all times. But I can no longer look past Carmody’s converse argument, which is that lack of empathy and compassion is a sort of sickness or disease. (This is something she argues pretty much across the board in her books: in the Obernewtyn books and in Alyzon Whitestarr, characters can perceive a mental sickness in the antagonistic, non-empathetic characters, while in the Legendsong books, multiple worlds are literally dying because people in them can no longer hear the ‘song’ which is the metaphor for the harmony of creation.)

Such an explanation seems to me to remove responsibility from such characters for their actions, and it removes responsibility from the heroic, empathetic characters to help the former. But, more unforgiveably, it removes ambiguity and nuance. I find this problem most pronounced in the Obernewtyn books. The heroes are all noble-minded, compassionate and pacifist, the villains are all mindlessly violent, bigoted and acquisitive. The heroes have tragic pasts that they rise above. The villains have no backstory.

Just about the only character with any hint of moral ambiguity was Domick, a Misfit (ie one of the good guys) sent to infiltrate the Council (the baddies) and send back information. The horrors he sees cause him to sever ties with Obernewtyn and renounce non-violence. This is an entirely explicable and justifiable character arc. When you’re fighting evil, you can’t help but become a little bit morally grey.

But of course there’s no place for nuance in the world of Obernewtyn. Someone like Domick can’t exist. So he’s killed off in The Stone Key, the fifth book in the series.

I realise I’m taking Carmody to task for not writing the kind of book I want to read. She’s free to write whatever she wants, and I’m free to stop reading, but I honestly feel her arguments would be stronger if things weren’t always so morally clear-cut. Why, in a six-book series with a cast of characters that takes up five pages of the book, does only one person display an ounce of moral ambiguity? Why do all the other characters who suffer abuse, discrimination or horrors of some kind go mad, become consumed by grief or fear, but never, ever get angry or reevaluate their beliefs? And why does Carmody think that ‘he just loves to hurt those weaker than himself/is power-hungry’ is a catch-all explanation for cruelty and injustice?

I will keep reading, because I’ve been doing so for nearly 15 years, but I fear a terrible fate has befallen me. I’ve grown up too much to get any life-defining, resonant truth out of the Obernewtyn books, and am continuing to read out of a mixture of nostalgia and a desire to find out how it all ends.

NB: I should add that in spite of this problem, I do find Carmody a very fine storyteller. There was not one point at which I wanted to close the book, and I gulped the whole thing down in just over a day. I have no issues with the overall story or themes. I just think they are weakened by problematic characterisation.