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We are not things November 17, 2018

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, meta, reviews.
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Ever since I first read the Iliad as a teenager, so long ago the exact translation into English escapes me, I was struck by the secondary story that seemed submerged beneath the war, honour, and claims to immortality through militaristic deeds of heroism: the story of the women. I never had much interest in the long recitations of characters’ ancestry, names of warriors killed on the battlefield, wooden horses or lucky arrows shot through vulnerable heels. Instead, I focused on the story that whispered in the margins: the calamity of war to the women and children it made most vulnerable, the ways such women coped with the ever-present threat of male violence, and the simmering presence of this violence even in ostensible peacetime, in spaces where women were surrounded by their own families. I sought out retellings of the Iliad that brought this story to the fore, finding hints of it in medieval and early modern versions of the story of Troilus and Cressida, an unsubtle and clumsy rendering of it in The Firebrand, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s story of Cassandra, and, later, Euripides’ The Trojan Women, a powerful tragedy which gives the Iliad‘s victims their voice. With the notable exception of Adèle Geras’ Troy (which is constrained by its young adult status, meaning it needs to steer clear of a lot of the darker pathways an examination of the effect of the siege of Troy on Trojan teenage girls should take), most modern female character-centric Iliad retellings have been a monumental disappointment. My suspicion is that the authors of these retellings often want to tell some kind of love story — and to make any love story palatable to a modern readership, they need to make what are pretty contemptible male characters palatable to that readership, resulting in pulled punches and attempts to redeem the actions of violent, destructive men who see nothing wrong with parcelling out women as spoils of war. At worst, you get attempts to turn the relationship of Achilles and Briseis into a love story (see: the ghastly film Troy), or to make the whole war a kind of backdrop for Achilles and Patroclus’ epic romance (see: Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which renders the captive Briseis as a sort of chaste cheerleader for the Achilles/Patroclus relationship). As someone who is really interested in stories that take Briseis out of the margins and into the centre of the page, I find this incredibly frustrating — but it doesn’t stop me from reading every Briseis-centric Iliad retelling, searching for that elusive story that truly lets her speak.

It was through this roundabout, decades-long search, that I arrived at Pat Barker’s incredible, astonishing The Silence of the Girls. The title is a deliberate misnomer: hers is a book where Briseis — so silent for most of the Iliad — truly speaks, giving voice to the horrors she endures as a captive of first Achilles and then Agamenmon and bringing the experiences of the Trojan captives in the Greek camp vividly to life. Barker’s book sticks close to the plot of the Iliad proper, and plays straight the supernatural elements of Homer’s epic: the gods appear, Achilles is the semi-divine son of a sea nymph, and so on. Where she diverges is in the weight given to the perspectives of those dispossessed or unnoticed in Homer’s original narrative: women, both free and captive, children, and the unnamed hordes of mercenary soldiers brought over to Troy on the promise of fame and plunder.

Cover - The Silence of the Girls

There are so many moments of devastating power in Barker’s brilliant story that it’s hard to select just a few to give an impression of the narrative. There’s the point, early on in the book, where Briseis (at this point the young wife of a petty king of a city allied to Troy) is trapped, waiting a battle’s outcome with the other women of the palace, knowing that defeat in the battle will mean rape and enslavement, and she realises that all the slave women hiding with her have already experienced this at the hands of her husband and male relatives. There’s her constant focus, once captured, on Achilles’ moods and hands and body; like all women trapped in a situation of domestic violence, she has to maintain a state of constant vigilence to minimise the harm done to her and ensure her reactions to volatile male tempers don’t spark life-threatening brutality. There’s the scene where Priam — having slipped into the Greek camp to plead with Achilles for his son Hector’s body, and kissed Achilles’ hands in an attempt to persuade him — carries on as if this act of kissing were the greatest sacrifice and humiliation imaginable (something ‘no man has ever done before’), and Briseis reflects scathingly on the ubiquity of what she, and all women affected by war, have been forced to endure. It’s so ubiquitous that it goes entirely unremarked and unnoticed, like something of the fabric of the world.

At the same time, Barker focuses relentlessly on the resilient, fractious, messy community of captive women that has sprung up in the Greek camp over the ten years of the Trojan War. The war itself is essentially a half-seen backdrop: the real action takes place in the laundry tents, weaving huts, and at the edges of racous warriors’ feasts, where women circulate, pouring wine. All find different ways to cope with their situation: some force themselves to fall in love with their captors, or try to persuade one captor to fall in love with them, because one rapist is easier to endure than a whole camp of them. Others take refuge in maintaining a pretence of respectability, remaining secluded, weaving cloth, and only venturing outside when wearing veils, as if behaving like proper married matrons will convince the world that nothing has changed in their status. Briseis’ technique is to remain hypervigilent, not just to the mood in her own tent, but within the camp as a whole — and in this she is aided by the network of captive women, who move about unnoticed, slipping into spaces where they can pick up news with ease, and spreading it rapidly around to their fellow captives. Briseis is well aware that her only power is to be prepared: to know what is being done to her before it happens. She cannot avoid the blows, but she can brace herself for when they fall.

Barker is an author whose works frequently focus on the horrors war visits on ordinary people, and so the experience of women, swept up in the brutal violence of the Trojan War is a story she’s well suited to tell. She does so with honesty, clarity, and illumination of the small acts of resistance that go unnoticed when women are perceived to lack agency.

I wish I could say the same of Emily Hauser’s For the Most Beautiful, a story recommended to me as one that did justice to Briseis. Instead, what I got was a syrupy YA romance between captive and captor. I’m not averse to this kind of story (see, for example, my recent review of Aliette de Bodard’s Beauty and the Beast retelling, In the Vanishers’ Palace), but it needs to either embrace the darkness, or work harder to convince me that the captor is as trapped by their circumstances as the captive. When the captor is Achilles, a violent, volatile warrior whose talent, identity and sense of honour and prestige is entirely bound up in his ability to kill and wage war, the author is going to have work pretty hard. Hauser’s attempts remain, to me, unconvincing. It was a moment of almost comedic horror when I realised her Briseis was going to forgive and sleep with Achilles on the instant she realised he had just returned from killing her brothers on the battlefield. The justification for this forgiveness — if her brothers’ and her captor’s positions had been reversed, she would have felt his actions entirely reasonable, and that, as a mercenary leader his job is to wage war wherever he’s hired, so he’s as trapped in his role as scourge of Troy as she is in hers as a slave whose body is not her own — is outrageous. In the hands of a stronger writer, For the Most Beautiful could perhaps have served as the story of the pretty lies a captive tells herself to endure an intolerable situation, and the portrait of a fragmented and fraying mind, but Hauser seems to want us to see a love story. For the Most Beautiful certainly suffers in comparison with The Silence of the Girls, not least because it lacks the latter’s sense of a community of enslaved women, finding strength in each other, and navigating their circumstances with ingenuity, giving voice to those treated as nameless things in the original Iliad narrative.

Cover - For the Most Beautiful

It was interesting to read both these retellings in parallel with Emiy Wilson’s intelligent, perceptive, and remarkable translation of the Odyssey. While obviously needing to stick to the story that is actually there on the page, Wilson, like Barker, shines a light in areas that previous translations of the story chose not to emphasise. Where previous translators used the word ‘handmaid’ or ‘servant’, Wilson uses ‘slave’, ensuring readers will not look away from these slaves’ eventual slaughter. There is equal weight given to women’s work at the loom and the conversations that take place in women’s spaces, and Odysseus’s travails on his long journey home. Even Wilson’s choice of book cover is deliberate, featuring a trio of women, rather than the more normal ships on unquiet seas. As she has noted on several occasions, just as much of the Odyssey‘s plot takes place around the looms, laundries, bedrooms and kitchens of women as on Odysseus’ convoluted ocean voyages, so a book cover that highlights the latter is making a deliberate choice about what — and whose — stories are worthy of attention.

Cover - Emily Wilson Odyssey

While it is rare for most authors to get as much input into cover design as Wilson clearly did, it is worth noting that For the Most Beautiful has the sadly typical stock image of a headless woman, while The Silence of the Girls shows not only women and children in full, fleeing in terror, it also does not shy away from depicting what they’re fleeing from: the male warriors who have burnt their city. (There are, of course, other editions of these books with different covers.) When modern authors tackle the Iliad and the Odyssey — two epics which have occupied prime position in the Western literary canon for millennia — they are faced with many choices. What they choose to emphasise, whose story they choose to tell, and who they choose to forgive and redeem have a powerful effect. At brilliant best, like Barker, their choices bring justice and give voice to women silenced both the original narrative and myriad retellings. At worst, like Hauser, the choices of an author will take that voice away.

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Winterheart October 5, 2018

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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When you clear away the whimsy and Disneyfication, fairytales are pretty terrifying. They are concerned, above all, with survival, and all the tricks their resourceful characters employ to navigate the web of threats and danger they face in a terrifying, incomprehensible, and unyielding world. Contemporary reworkings of these fairytales that grasp this dark heart that lurks at the centre of enchanted forests are an absolute joy to read. Naomi Novik has done just that with Spinning Silver, her second novel that draws on fairytales for inspiration. In it, she takes familiar fairytale tropes: an unbreakable bargain with an unknowable, capricious otherworldly being, a brave woman forced to reckon with marriage to a monster, and poor children, starving in a frozen, famished landscape, given sustenance as a reward for their innate goodness, and gives them depth and complexity. Whether you like her take on these tales is going to depend a lot on how much you enjoyed her previous fairytale-inspired fantasy, Uprooted, as both involve very similar character dynamics and resolutions to their stories’ conflicts. Luckily for me, I adored Uprooted — and found Spinning Silver, if anything, even more to my taste.

Cover - Spinning Silver

In this new work, Novik weaves the stories of three brave, resourceful women, living in the harsh landscapes of pre-modern Lithuania. There is Irina, a noblewomen dealing with forced marriage to the Tsar, whose cruel behaviour hides an even darker secret. Wanda, a peasant girl, is struggling to keep herself and her younger brothers fed after the death of their mother and in the face of their father’s alcoholism and abuse. And, at the heart of the story is Miryem, the daughter of an unsuccessful moneylender who is struggling to keep her family afloat amidst poverty and antisemitism. The three women’s stories interweave, and in different ways all three become embroiled in the supernatural, which sits uneasily beside the human world, always threatening to intrude, with destructive consequences.

Novik has chosen Rumplestiltskin as the frame on which to hang her own broader story, and she gets right to the dark heart of this fairytale (which, like all fairytales, has incredibly disturbing undertones when you read it closely), bringing its themes of unequal bargains and exchange to the fore. In her own tale of Jewish moneylenders and superstitious villagers, mercantile ability and honest bargains are made heroic and magical, with Miryem’s skills that she developed as a moneylender (in marked contrast to her father’s lack of success in this area) saving both the human and supernatural worlds from myriad dangers. Miryem’s mercantile work sits beside the novel’s more general emphasis on the day-to-day work of everyday people, particularly women, with this work constantly reiterated as heroic and life-saving. Irina, who, as the wife of a tsar can hardly be said to be an everyday person, is nevertheless saved countless times by skills built up in women’s spaces, such as castle fireplaces where groups of women congregate to embroider and sew clothes. Meanwhile, Wanda’s hard labour with outdoor farmwork and indoor housework is equally valorised, and the novel also emphasises that the steps she takes to appease and placate her violent father and deflect his anger and abuse are a kind of labour of their own, one which takes its toll. And, in the novel’s exploration of another kind of marginalisation, Spinning Silver makes the point that living with the horrifying threat of anti-Semitism, the ever present fear that their peaceful neighbours will at any moment turn on them as a howling, violent mob, is an experience that, sadly, will aid its Jewish characters in dealing with other, more supernatural dangers.

There were so many fabulous little details that gave the world of Spinning Silver a truly lived-in feeling, but what I most appreciated were those which emphasised Miryem’s identity as an observant Jewish woman. Rather than fearing that eating otherworldly food will bar her way to the human world forever, she worries if the food is kosher (it turns out to be uncooked fruit, and thus safe). Her fears at being unable to measure the passage of time in the otherworld are less because she fears returning to the human world hundreds of years later, but rather because she needs to know when to observe Shabbat. Rather than being viewed as a barrier to Miryem’s participation in magical, supernatural adventures, her Jewish identity is a source of strength. Similarly, in a genre rife with dead mothers (and, to be fair, Spinning Silver does have its share of these), it was refreshing to observe the warm, supportive relationship between Miryem and her very much alive mother, as well as that of Irina and her former nurse, who was something of a maternal stand-in.

This is a world in which women save themselves — and each other — using the tools at hand. It is a world in which the work of a market stall seller, or a noblewoman presiding over a rowdy feasting hall, or a girl feeding chickens is given equal weight to magical powers. Indeed, it’s a world in which supernatural beings view prosaic, human skills as having a kind of magic of their own. In other words, in Spinning Silver Novik has married two of my favourite tropes: ordinary ‘women’s work’ made heroic, and supernatural beings viewing ordinary human skills as magical and powerful. It’s an absolute joy to read, and I very much hope Spinning Silver is not her last foray into fairytale-inspired fantasy fiction.

‘That love of maidens for monsters’ September 15, 2018

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Every so often, a work of fiction, whether series or standalone, will creep up on me like a welcome surprise, seemingly crafted to appeal to my exact tastes, its combination of elements so perfectly designed to fill a void in my reading I didn’t even know existed. Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy, of which two books are currently published — The Bear and the Nightingale, and The Girl in the Tower; the third, The Winter of the Witch, will be published in January, 2019 — is one such series of books. Arden’s series is a work of historical fantasy, set in a slightly tweaked version of fourteenth-century Russia (or rather, to be more precise, the region we now know as Russia) in which the supernatural hovers just out of sight, where elemental gods and magical horses roam the snow-filled forests, and where most people’s beliefs comfortably accommodate both the icons and pageantry of Orthodox Christianity and the more earthy household gods of kitchen and stable.

Cover - The Bear and the Nightingale

Through this intriguing landscape strides Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna, the daughter of an aristocrat whose lands are in the frozen north, in a liminal encompassing both farm and dense forest, and a mysterious witch who died giving birth to Vasya, her fifth child. In The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya grows up wild in her father’s lands, equally at home on the capacious stove in the kitchen, listening to her nurse’s stories, and roaming from river to stables to forest, chattering with the supernatural, otherworldly beings that only she can see. Arden’s is a world where gods require belief and offerings in order to survive, and Vasya provides these happily, while attracting the particular attention of Morozko, the old god of winter, frost, and death. This fragile peace is shattered by the arrival first of a new stepmother, a princess who would have preferred to remain unmarried and in a convent, and later of a zealous, charismatic priest sent north by the secular rulers concerned that his popularity could make him a rival to their own power. Both find Vasya’s unconventional nature disturbing and threatening, and, as she grows from a girl to a teenager, they seek to contain and constrain her, and attempt to stamp out the lingering pagan beliefs still held by the people of the household. Their zeal, however, has unintented, far-reaching consequences, inadvertently unleashing a horrific supernatural threat that will require all of Vasya’s skill, courage, and ingenuity to overcome.

The Girl in the Tower paints on a wider canvas, as Vasya leaves her familiar northern home, travelling to Moscow on Solovey, the magical horse given to her by Morozko, disguised as a boy, seeking her older sister Olga. However, her plans are thwarted by broader politics both earthly and otherworldly, as mysterious raiders ransack villages, stealing children, and the Grand Prince of Moscow weighs up whether to challenge the Mongol khans whose power wavers but who still extract tribute from their vassals in Russia. At the same time, a new supernatural threat emerges, a shadowy being who needs Vasya for purposes of his own. Vasya does her best to navigate these treacherous waters, but is challenged at every turn by the constraints placed on women in her society, yearning to ride free and unencumbered on Solovey in a world that would see her confined in either married women’s quarters or convent — or else as a threat that must be destroyed.

Cover - The Girl in the Tower

For all the latter book’s emphasis on the grand sweep of medieval Russian politics, the scope and focus of the series is pleasingly domestic — whether the kitchen stove of Vasya’s family home, or the private suites of rooms that comprise the women’s quarters of Olga’s marital palace. Arden makes much of the everyday labour of women: preparing food, sweeping hearths, embroidering elaborate headdresses, assisting in the birth of children. The lives of these women may be circumscribed, lived within a narrow space, travelling between hearth, bathhouse, and church, but they are not inconsequential. This is a series in which the labour of a mother giving birth to a child is of greater supernatural significance than the outcome of a battle, where a girl slipping bread crusts to household gods does more to forge alliances than the political machinations of men in Moscow palaces. I have praised this kind of emphasis in fiction before, and I’m very pleased to see it’s becoming more prevalent.

This is a series that revels in its darkness. There is no attempt to soften or humanise Morozko (although Arden does make use of one of my favourite tropes: the monster who loves a human for her humanity, and the human who loves a monster for his monstrosity, who are able to reach an uneasy accommodation of humanity and monstrosity together), and the cruel harshness of the landscape and the capricious beings that inhabit it is constantly reiterated. But these are the indifferent cruelties of nature, which is indiscriminate in the hurt it causes. True viciousness in Arden’s works is reserved for human beings, who make their own choice to be violent or hurtful. And then, fairytale-like in its contrast is the shining, luminous goodness of those like Vasya, whose integrity and moral courage light the way through fear, and danger, and darkness.

Pressing on boundaries June 2, 2018

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I normally avoid reading historical fiction (whether told straight, or with fantasy elements added) set in early medieval Britain or Ireland. It’s too hard to switch off my medievalist brain and nitpick every inaccuracy or tired cliché. Although there are some works set in this time I enjoy, it’s generally a time period and genre I approach with caution. This may explain why it took me so long to get to Hild, Nicola Griffith’s astonishing, complex, and beautifully crafted novel about Hild, a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon princess who became the founding abbess of Whitby and was later made a saint (if a school, college, or church in the UK is named St Hilda’s, it’s likely named after her). As with many figures living in this time of history, contemporary written records about Hild are lacking, but Griffith has done a wonderful job of filling in the blanks in a way that is both plausible and engaging.

The Britain of Griffith’s novel is a tumultuous place of shifting allegiances, diplomatic marriages of convenience, fluid boundaries, and fast-paced political, religious and cultural change that is leaving its inhabitants disoriented and uncertain. Amidst all this turmoil is Hild — a child at the novel’s beginning, an older teenager by its close — whose early life is spent in exile, followed by a period with her mother and sister at her uncle’s court. Her mother’s ambition is to be a powerbroker behind the throne, and she uses all the tools at her disposal, including roping her daughters into her schemes, teaching them to see the connections, tensions and patterns between the powerful people around them, and to subtly influence the political direction of their kingdom without the men in power perceiving it. Hild finds this at once a talent that comes naturally to her, and a frightening, sometimes crushing burden. Without being able to command and control people directly, she is essentially unable to put a halt to actions and choices she feels will cause harm and destruction, while at the same time she feels responsible for decisions she has influenced indirectly. Ever since her birth, Hild’s mother has encouraged an air of supernatural power around her daughter, creating a legend that turns Hild into a seer who can predict the future, and it’s this visionary role that allows her to speak freely in contexts where women’s voices would normally be unwelcome, hiding her political manoeuvring in a cloud of prophetic symbolism. The problem with being a prophet is that people expect your predictions to come true, which is an additional weight on Hild’s shoulders.

Cover - Hild

Where Griffith really succeeds is in her depiction of women’s lives — particularly the parts of those lives that happen out of the view of men. Hild abounds with such scenes: women discussing pregnancy, abortion and childbirth in whispers in a bedroom, women spinning and weaving in a corner of the hall, women out herding animals, women subtly directing the political events of their day. It’s a particular breath of fresh air to see the smaller, quieter moments treated with as much seriousness and granted as much importance as the sorts of things that are normally perceived to have had real historical impact. Thus, a small girl wearing heavy, ornate jewellery and carrying a cup of mead around the hall is shown to have as much, if not more, political significance as a battle, and is carried out with a similar level of tactical planning.

The world of Hild is visceral, and Griffith revels in the muck and dirt of it, bringing readers with her into muddy fields, smelly cowsheds, rooms where women’s hands are soft with lanolin as they spin wool, and halls sharp with the tang of strong mead. One of the most striking and memorable scenes to me involves a group of farm workers constructing a hedgerow, piling mounds of earth between stones, and weaving bushes fragrant with the scent of hawthorn into the hedge, so that the whole construction is a living, breathing thing. The sheer effort involved, the cooperative labour, and the sense of work well done are all conveyed with clarity and strength. It’s just one of many such moments in the book — bringing things back down to earth, and imbuing the ordinary work of everyday life with a luminous sense of mystery and power. This quality reminded me of other books that have been formative and important to me — Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy novels, the work of Monica Furlong (set in a very similar time period, and with a similar focus on ‘women’s work’), and, more recently, the epic fantasy of Kate Elliott. It’s something I’m always glad to see in fiction, and I can only hope that Griffith’s follow up to Hild continues to retain this same element.

A long way down November 13, 2014

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, reviews, television.
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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.
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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.

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.

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

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, meta, reviews.
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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

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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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.