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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.

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‘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

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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.

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

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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I kept flipping incredulously back to the publication details when I was reading The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. I couldn’t believe it was published in 1995. It was so perceptive, so prophetic in what it was saying, that I was shocked that it had been written in a pre-9/11 world. I guess it confirms what we’ve known all along: that there is nothing new in history, and that people have been fighting and losing the same battles over and over again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failed analogies, weak narrative, wasted opportunities: Season 1 of The Legend of Korra June 21, 2012

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, meta, reviews.
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[Note: this review is sprinkled with spoilers for both The Legend of Korra and Avatar: The Last Airbender.]

When I think of all the good things The Legend of Korra had going for it (a pre-existing world with lots of potential for further storytelling, a creative team who’d achieved something miraculous with their previous work, an active, engaged, enthusiastic and appreciative fandom) and how it failed to make use of those things in any substantial way, I feel a profound sense of disappointment. In some ways, perhaps, the success of Avatar: The Last Airbender (hereafter ATLA) could have been more of a hindrance than a help to the team behind Korra, since they apparently went out of their way to avoid everything that was characteristic of ATLA in the spin-off series. There are many grounds for criticising Korra; I’ve seen some excellent posts taking the show to task for sexism, for Mako’s characterisation, for the reduction of Lin Beifong to Tenzin’s ex-girlfriend. It would be worth poking around on the ‘korra’ tag on Tumblr as there’s a lot of excellent meta along those lines there. What I want to focus on here, however, is what I see as a broader failure on the part of the writers to create a rich, engaging or meaningful narrative. The characterisation issues I mentioned can be included under this larger umbrella problem of narrative failure.

I really didn’t want to be that fan. You know, the one taking creators of a spin-off to task because the spin-off is nothing like its parent text. But the problem is not so much that Korra isn’t ATLA but rather that Korra lacks the ingredients that made ATLA so successful. As I see it, ATLA’s quality rested on the interplay of four elements (see what I did there?). These were:
1. A cast of rounded, complex, human characters whose actions made sense in relation to their characterisation, who changed over the course of the series and who drew us into their world;
2. A completely three-dimensional, endlessly fascinating setting that reflected the diversity of backgrounds and experiences of the people who lived in it;
3. An engaging narrative which kept you watching and kept surprising you; and
4. Themes and real-world analogies that resonated but could be interpreted in multiple ways and on multiple levels.

Korra lacks all of these things.

Let’s start with characterisation. One of the things that drew me into ATLA was its fascinating array of diverse, fully-rounded characters who each had their own struggles, desires and arcs that were resolved over the course of the series. Thus, Aang, struggling to balance his playful and compassionate personality with his duty as Avatar and his responsibility towards the entire planet. Katara, filled with rage at her mother’s death, a burning desire to succeed as a waterbender and a tendency to mother everyone around her. Sokka, a skeptic in a world of mystics, labouring under a false belief in a certain kind of masculinity and desperate to prove himself to his absent father. Toph, filled with confidence but treated like an invalid. Zuko, unable to live up to his father’s expectations. Azula, the product of a terrible upbringing. Ty Lee, always overlooked. Mai, forced by her parents to repress all emotions. Even secondary characters like Suki and Jet, or those who appear in only several episodes, have comprehensible motivations, distinct personalities and complete character arcs. And the major characters learn from their experiences and change, but they don’t have personality transplants. The beauty of ATLA was that characters grew by recognising the essential aspects of their personalities and channeling them in a productive way. (Hence, Katara’s motherliness becomes a source of strength as she’s able to support Zuko in his fight with Azula and know when to step in and save the day, Aang faces his fears and confronts Ozai, but without neglecting his cherished beliefs, and my beloved Sokka realises that there are many different ways to perform masculinity, and the way where you share your strengths with awesome women and let them make up for your weaknesses is the best. And so on.) And the narrative gave them time to transform. Season One Zuko is very different to Season Two Zuko, who is different again from mid-Season Three Zuko, for example.

But in Korra, the characters start out fairly roughly drawn, and then don’t change. Korra is still headstrong and unfocused. Asami is still a characterless cipher. Lin gains no depth upon the discover that she and Tenzin used to be a couple. Mako seems simply a prize to be fought over by Korra and Asami, while Bolin has no discernible personality beyond being funny and friendly. What is frustrating is that each character had potential. There was a story in how Mako felt responsible for his brother Bolin and how he learnt to recognise Bolin’s competence. There should have been a story about the deaths of Bolin and Mako’s parents. The fact that one was a firebender and one was an earthbender in a world still reeling from Fire Nation aggression should have been brought to the fore. But instead they’re merely killed by Republic City criminals in order to get them out of the way so that Mako and Bolin can be standard fantasy adventure story orphans. There was a story in Asami’s relationship with her father. And above all, there should have been a story in Korra’s journey towards becoming the kind of Avatar her era needed. But none of this has happened. All we’re left with is a series of events in which one character or another does something awesome and brave. That’s all very well, but when the end result is merely that every character can be described as ‘badass’, we have a problem.

And that problem lies in the narrative. Quite simply, not enough happens. In a twenty-two-episode show, slow pacing is understandable. In a shorter season, it’s unforgivable. Way too much time was wasted on the pro-bending. It should have been a small background detail, but instead it tied up the narrative for the first half of the series. More emphasis should have been given to the fact that Korra – like every Avatar before her, it seems – is stuck dealing with problems caused by the previous Avatar. Above all, the narrative should give her reasons to grow and change. The problem is, the writers were backed into a corner by the fact that Korra (along with all the other characters) lacked much of a personality to begin with. And if you’re going to set your entire series in one location, you’d better make sure that this is supplemented with bucketloads of character growth.

This brings me to my third point. One of the best things about ATLA was the mobility of the central characters. They were constantly travelling, and this meant that the viewers managed to see and experience the myriad cultures that made up this richly-imagined world. We saw how the whole world fit together, how different places affected each other, and how the characters were transformed by the places they visited. Who can forget Sokka donning Kyoshi warrior makeup and learning not to be such a sexist idiot? Or Zuko going on a date in Ba Sing Se and realising that the Fire Nation was just one part of a rich and wonderful world? Or Mai in the Boiling Rock, discovering the strength within herself to stand up to Azula?

The problem with setting an entire show in Republic City is not the static location per se, but rather the fact that the writers aren’t doing enough to make the city interesting. They seem more concerned with saturating us with what they think is cool about the world 70 years post-ATLA (metalbending police force! pro bending! predatory criminal gangs! technology!) rather than showing how all those things evolved out ATLA society and fit together, and how these things shape the characters.

Which brings me to my next point: the massive analogy fail which is the Equalists. Like many things in Korra, the idea behind the Equalists is interesting and good, but poorly executed. It makes sense that people without bending power would be resentful of those who had – we saw it with Sokka, after all. Except ATLA was full of examples of people who had worked out ways to get the best of those with bending abilities. Suki and the other Kyoshi warriors, Ty Lee, Mai, Jet and his rebels, the Machinist and even Sokka himself by the end of the series are more than a match for even the most talented of benders. Even the Fire Nation colonial forces were an example of benders and non-benders working together towards a common goal. Yes, Amon is annoyed at benders on a personal level because they took his bending away, and people are resentful because benders have formed criminal gangs, but it’s never portrayed as being reasonable anger.

This is where the analogy failure comes in. It’s pretty clear that Republic City is meant to be an analogue to a cosmopolitan Chinese city in the ’20s – Shanghai, probably. Which gives the Equalists the unfortunate implication of being an analogue to the Chinese communist movement. Which, well, no. Leaving aside the later horrors committed by the Communist regime when it was in power, the movement – like most left-wing movements of the time – arose out of a genuine sense of anger at the inequalities and injustices of society at the time. Right-wing critics of Evil Socialism™ always portray it as a movement of bitter people who resent the abilities and possessions of others and want to take those abilities and possessions away in order to reduce everyone to the same level. As a social democrat, I say ‘huh’? What most people to the left of the political spectrum want is to create a system where everyone starts on an equal footing. Not by taking things away from those with power, but by enabling those without power to have those things too. The Equalist analogy doesn’t work. (For it to work, they’d have to be giving bending to everyone, not taking it away.)

From this rather ranty post, you’d think I hate Korra. If I hated it, I would have stopped watching. What I feel, overwhelmingly, is disappointment. ATLA was so good, so rich and rewarding. I fell in love with its world and its characters, I cried at their pain and rejoiced in their hard-earned victories. I feel completely detached from the characters of Korra. I think the Airbabies are adorable, and I find the fight scenes breathtaking and the artwork pretty. But I don’t appreciate anything on a deeper level. My overall impression of Korra that it is a rushed, circumscribed and superficial series. I wouldn’t mind so much, but compared to ATLA, which was well-paced, boundless and full of depth, it feels like such a waste.

It’s about power March 2, 2012

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
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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.