Posts Tagged ‘Fantasy’

Three days ago, Kameron Hurley wrote an amazing piece on the erasure of women’s stories in particular, but especially their contribution to combat, in the course of which she linked to something I wrote last year about default narrative settings. The response to her article – and, by way of the domino effect, to mine – has been overwhelmingly positive, which is both encouraging and wonderful. This being the internet, however, there’s also been some reactive dissent, some of it outrageously trollish (as per one Redditor’s complaint that “not every book has to appeal to females and you have the entire romance genre if you want to read from a females point of view,” which, AUGH), but also a special type of defensive hostility that manages to completely miss the point – in this case, for instance, by asserting that, as the majority of soldiers are still male, it’s a fantasy to pretend that the female ones matter. And as this is an argument whose variants I’ve encountered a lot – not only in response to my PSA post, but generally elsewhere – it’s one I’d like to properly address.

So: Yes. The majority of soldiers in history have been male – that fact is not in contention. Nor am I arguing that women in history never experienced sexism, or that discrimination on the basis of race, class or sexual orientation never kept anyone down. What I am saying, though, is twofold: firstly, that our popular notions of how historical prejudice worked are not always accurate (or are, at the very least, prone to oversimplification), and that this is worth examining, especially in instances where most of what we think we know about history comes from fictional extrapolations of it which are themselves inspired by earlier fiction; and secondly, that acknowledging the reality of historical prejudice is neither the same thing as saying that nobody ever overcame it, nor as believing that such prejudice is inherent to every possible permutation of sentient society. By which I mean: whatever you believe about history, unless you think that human beings are predestined to perpetrate specific injustices regardless of the setting in which they find themselves (which is incredibly depressing, and also intellectually suspect, when you consider the extent to which culture is shaped by context), then admitting the existence of historical prejudices doesn’t obligate you to incorporate them in your fictional worlds.

But, says my hypothetical interlocutor, what about realism? Aren’t all these examples you’re giving me about lady soldiers and crossdressing spies ultimately just outliers and exceptions to the norm? 

To which I say: if your definition of realism hinges on idea that foregrounding a perceived minority is inherently unrealistic, then firstly, I’m going to question whether you’ve ever actually read a fantasy novel, and secondly, fuck you.

No, seriously: have you ever fucking read a fantasy novel? All the oldest, most beloved tropes of epic fantasy are predicated on the idea of taking some impossible scenario, unusual person and/or mythical creature, and then writing an entire fucking story about them – preferably all at once! You think real history was littered with bastard princes raised in secret by wise monks or noble farmers and then sent off on quests to obtain the Magic Sword of Destiny? You think sexy assassins are ten a penny? Do you even know how many fantasy stories explicitly establish the incredibly rarity of dragons, and then spend the rest of the fucking novel trekking to meet them? Are you even reading the same genre as me?

Fantasy is all about foregrounding outliers – quite often, in fact, it does little else. So when you sit there, straight-faced, and tell me you couldn’t get into Novel X because the main character was a black female pirate and that’s so unrealistic, what you’re actually saying is, the only exceptional people I want to fantasise about are the ones who look like me. Because the thing is,  if you’re making this argument in the first place? Then the chances are astronomically good that you’re either a straight white cisgendered male or someone who checks at least one of those boxes – which is to say, someone who sees themselves so well represented in narrative that it’s downright unusual to encounter the alternative. And thanks to the prevalence of those sorts of stories, it’s easy to slip into justifying their monopoly by assuming that any departure from the norm would be, on some fundamental level, unrealistic. I mean, why else call it normal if it’s not the base state of being, right?

Except, no, it’s not. On a global scale, white people are an ethnic minority. Women make up half the population of Earth. Straight away, that’s two of your apparently immutable majority axes defeated by basic math – and as for the rest? Let me put it this way: of all the people on this planet, two percent are naturally blonde, while one percent are natural redheads (and before you ask, no: that doesn’t correlate directly with having light skin – genetically, you can have pretty much any combination on offer). That might sound like a comparatively small number – and yet, if I were to do a random tally of the number of blonde and redhaired protagonists in SFF novels, I’ll bet you I could hit over a hundred just from the books in my house. Given that there are at least as many QUILTBAG persons as redheads worldwide – if not more than all the blondes and auburns put together, the data being understandably hard to measure – then statistically, they ought to have equal representation in the foreground of SFF novels. That would, after all, be only realistic. And yet, if I were to do a similar sweep of the books in my house, I doubt I’d find even a quarter as many such protagonists. We foreground what seems realistic to us, is what I’m saying – but that doesn’t mean our perception of reality is either all-encompassing or accurate.

 

So, yes. Sometimes, when we’re talking about amazing women or queer individuals in history, we’re talking about anomalies. Sometimes – but not nearly as often as you’ve been trained to think. And even if they are outliers, who the fuck cares? Stories about determined underdogs overcoming adversity to do awesome things and make their mark on history are some of the best ones out there. But you know what? That doesn’t make them the only stories you can realistically tell about members of perceived or actual minority groups. The fact that there were incredible women in history who took up swords and played at politics doesn’t diminish the narrative potential of those women who managed their families and held the fort instead – in fact, those two groups aren’t even mutually exclusive. Human beings are versatile creatures, and as rich a source of inspiration as history is for SFF stories, it’s not the be-all, end-all of what’s possible. The only limit is your imagination – or rather, the biases with which you’re content to constrain it.

 

Regardless of what historical epoch their populations and culture are either based on or situated in, epic fantasy landscapes tend to be populated by a very specific subset of animals: big cats, horses, wolves, bears, deer, birds of prey, European livestock (cattle, sheep, chickens), domestic pets, rabbits, and dragons. Though you might occasionally find some ferrets, snakes or crocodiles to spice things up, generally speaking, there’s a profound Eurocentrism to the kind of animals you’ll encounter in fantasy novels, partly because the default fantasy environment is itself Eurocentric; and partly because, once you’re using less common animals, there’s the joint question of how to describe and reference them if their English names are either very clearly colonial or derive their meaning from a clearly real-world scientific canon (Thompson’s gazelle, the red panda, the Pallas cat, for instance); but mostly, I suspect, because we view such creatures as being universally generic, and therefore able to transcend affiliation to any particular country or region. By way of comparison, I can’t think of a single fantasy novel where kangaroos make an appearance: though fascinating creatures, both physically and aesthetically, their inclusion would inevitably make the reader think of Australia regardless of whether such an association would benefit the story, and so we tend not to take the risk. The exception to this rule, of course, is when writers are deliberately trying to evoke a particular sense of place: under those circumstances, the inclusion of certain animals becomes a type of narrative signposting, so that giraffes mean Africa, pandas mean China, yak mean Tibet, pet monkeys mean the Middle East, and so on.

Otherwise, though you don’t get much variety – and under some circumstances, that’s fine. But when we start treating animals as generic, there’s a very real loss of ecosystem: though perhaps unremarkable to the sensibilities and assumptions of urban readers, all those quest-inducing  forests, swamps and mountains tend to be either totally devoid of animal life (except for a plethora of conveniently edible rabbits), or else serve as the backdrop for a single, climactic animal attack (usually from a bear or wolves). And with that loss of ecosystem comes a lack of appreciation for animal behaviour: we start to think of animals as creatures whose only meaningful relationships are with humans. That being done, we lose all sense of subtlety  unless they occupy a background role, like pack-mules and hunting dogs, our fantasy animals are overwhelmingly portrayed in a way that skews heavily towards one of two wildly differing extremes. Either we romanticise and anthropomorphise to an alarming degree (faithful, loyal and freakishly sentient dogs or horses, near-magical wolves, noble and mystical stags), or else we demonise, with the creation of wild animals who exist only to menace humans (like ravenous wolves, child-eating lions, and monstrous bears).

So with all this baggage surrounding the presence and portrayal of animals in epic fantasy, what happens when we start building animalistic shapeshifter societies in urban fantasy?

Nothing good, is the short answer. More specifically, we get the Alpha Problem: endless tracts of sexism, misogyny, female exceptionalism, rigid social hierarchies maintained through a combination of violence and biological determinism, inescapable mating bonds, and a carte blanche excuse for male characters to behave like cavemen (and for female characters to accept it) on the slender justification that, as alphas, it’s both in their nature and what’s expected of them. And the thing is, I love urban fantasy, and I also really love shapeshifters. But it’s not often these days that I get to love the two things in combination, because apart from not being able to deal with the sheer profligacy of the aforementioned problems, I also can’t get past the fact that the logic on which they’re predicated – the logic of wolves – is overwhelmingly inaccurate.

For ages now, werewolves have maintained their status as not only the most widely-known, but easily most popular shapeshifters: as far as the Western mythological and folkloric (and thus Western SFFnal) canon is concerned, our concept of werewolves has set the standard for all subsequent depictions of shapeshifters generally – and, not unsurprisingly, our concept of werewolves has been historically influenced by our view of actual wolves. Though traditionally portrayed as sly, ravening monsters who hunt to kill, as enshrined in endless European stories from Little Red Riding Hood to Peter and the Wolf, our perception of wolves – and consequently, of werewolves – has changed drastically in the past few decades, undergoing something of a 360 degree reversal. Thanks in no small part to the superficial affectations of New Age spiritualism and its cherrypicking appropriation of various Native American cultures, such as the concept of spirit animals, our fantastic depictions of wolves began to change. Instead of being described as slavering, child-stealing beasts, they were instead ascribed a spiritual, near-magical status as guardians, wise warriors and compassionate, social predators, which in turn had an impact on werewolf stories. Instead of being little more than monsters in human skin, more nuanced portrayals of werewolves emerged; first in narratives which contrasted their sympathetic humanity with their unsympathetic and uncontrolled bestial natures, and then, finally, in stories where their animal side was shown as a to be a spiritual, even desirable attribute.

Thus: once our general image of wolves had been rehabilitated to the point where we could have positive, social werewolf stories rather than deploying them purely as horror elements, it was only logical that writers look to actual wolf behaviour for inspiration in writing werewolf culture. And what they found was terminology that could easily have been tailor-made for fantasists, with its Greek words and implications of feudal hierarchy: the language of alpha, beta, gamma and omega. The idea of an alpha mating pair lent itself handily to romance, while the idea of wolves battling for supremacy within rigidly defined family structures was practically a ready-made caste system. Writers took to it with a vengeance – and as a consequence, we now find ourselves in a situation where not only werewolves and other shapeshifters, but purely human romantic pairings both within and outside of fiction, are all discussed in the language of alpha and beta. Under this system, alphas are hypermasculine, aggressive, protective leaders, while betas are their more subdued, less assertive underlings. The terminology has becomes so widespread, even beyond fantasy contexts, that most people have probably heard of it; but in urban fantasy in particular, the logic of wolves has long since become a tailor-made justification for the inclusion and defense of alpha male characters. These alphas, who frequently double as love interests, display violent, controlling behaviour that would otherwise read as naked patriarchal wish-fulfillment: instead, their animal aspect is meant to excuse and normalise their aggression, on the grounds – often tacit, but always implied – that real wolves act that way. 

Except that, no: wolves don’t act that way – and what’s more, we’ve known they haven’t for over a decade;  even the alpha-beta terminology of wolf relationships is falling out of scientific parlance due to its inaccuracy. Which means that all the supposedly biologically-inspired logic underpinning those endless alphahole characters and male-only werewolf clans? That logic is bullshit, and has been practically since it was written. So how, then, did it all get started in the first place? The answer is surprisingly simple. Back in 1947, when wolf behaviour was very poorly understood, a man called Rudolph Schenkel published a monorgaph on wolf interactions based on his observations of what happened when totally unrelated wolves from different zoos were all brought together in the same closed environment – which is, of course, something that would never happen in the wild, and which therefore produced aberrant behaviour. This paper was subsequently cited heavily by wolf researcher L. David Mech in his book The Wolf: Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species, which was first published in the 1970s. This being the first such book of its kind to be released for thirty-odd years, The Wolf became a massive success, was reprinted several times over the next two decades, and subsequently became a primary reference for many other researchers. But in the late 1990s, after studying wolves in the wild firsthand, Mech came to realise that the alpha-beta system was inaccurate; instead, wolves simply lived in family groups that formed in much the same way human families do. He published his new results in two papers in 1999 and 2000, and has been working since then to correct the misinformation his first book helped to spread. But of course, the trickle-down process is slow; though the new knowledge is accepted as accurate, the old terminology is still sometimes used by researchers who aren’t up to date.

So: given how long it’s taken the scientific community, Mech included, to cotton on to the truth of wolves, I’m not about to blame fantasy writers for having failed to know better, sooner. I will, however, fault them for using the alpha-beta system as an excuse to craft shapeshifter societies where female shifters are rare and special for no good reason; where women are expected to both love and excuse the aggressive behaviour of men; where punitive hierarchies are aggressively enforced; and where controlling, coercive, stalkerish actions are pardoned because It’s What Women Really Want. The decision to focus on masculine power and to make such societies male-dominated as a matter of biology was a conscious one, and while I’ve still enjoyed some stories whose shapeshifters operate under such parameters, I’ve always resented the parameters themselves. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least five urban fantasy series where female shifters are rare and male aggression rules their communities, but not a single one where the reverse is true, let alone one that’s simply female-dominated. And in a genre that’s renowned for its female protagonists and ostensible female agenda, I dislike the extent to which many of those women are made exceptional, not only by their lack of female associates, friends and family members, but their success within traditionally masculine environments as lone, acceptable women.

Though the truth of wolves wasn’t widely known when many such series were first begun, it’s certainly known now. While there’s certainly still room for a new interpretation of the alpha-beta system for shapeshifters in a purely fictional sense – perhaps one with an actual gender balance, or even (let’s go crazy) female dominance – I’m going to tear my hair out if I see any more new stories where alpha males are allowed to behave like terrible asshat jocks and never have their idiocy questioned Because Magic Biology. Wolves and werewolves will always have a special place in fantasy literature, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question our portrayals of their sentience – or that we can’t reimagine their societies.

 

 

 

 

Warning: all the rant.

As someone who talks a lot about sexism in general, but particularly with reference to SFF and fandom, I’m often frustrated by the fact that many people either don’t understand what sexism is, or actively disagree that it still goes on: not just because their lack of understanding makes it harder to explain why Hollywood’s predisposition towards failing the Bechdel test is symptomatic of wider social problems (for instance), but because it means that, more often than not, before I can discuss the issue at hand – be it the treatment of women in gaming or the insertion of unnecessary sex scenes into HBO’s adaptation of Game of ThronesI’m forced to run through the conversational equivalent of Sexism 101 in order to get my interlocutor onside. Now, being as how much of modern sexism is insidious and subtle, up to a point, I’m fairly sympathetic to being unaware of it: after all, I was in that position once, too, and no matter how repetitive it gets, you still need people who are willing to explain the basics. There are occasions, however, when my sympathy runs right the hell out, as does my patience – usually because someone has said something so fundamentally wrongheaded, point-missing and downright useless that there aren’t enough tableflipping GIFs in the world to adequately sum up my emotional response.

This is one of those times.

Behold, then, this hot mess of a post on sexism – or rather, on the author’s complete and utter misapprehension of sexism – by someone called Sarah of Bookworm Blues guest-posting at Fantasy Book Cafe. Straight away, the piece sets alarm bells ringing, beginning with the suggestion that:

While I’m sure sexism does exist in literature, I don’t actually think much of what people consider to be sexist is actually sexist.

Frankly, this is a big claim to be making, especially when prefaced by the admission that “sexism in fantasy… [is] not something I’ve really thought about before”. As this recent reprint of a 1982 article by science fiction writer Susan Shwartz can attest, sexism in SFF is something we’ve been talking about for decades now, and while that certainly doesn’t preclude a newcomer from having valid opinions on the subject, if you start out by saying that most of the existing dialogue is wrong, then you’d damn well better be able to show your working.

Alas, not only doesn’t Sarah understand what’s meant by sexism in SFF, her interpretation of the concept is so confused that it’s actually quite difficult to formulate an intelligent response. For instance: throughout the article, she continually reiterates the threefold idea that, according to some people, men and women write differently; that authors can’t write characters of the opposite gender with any degree of skill; and that women are more emotional writers, while men are more action-oriented – all of which she apparently disagrees with (and rightly so). The problem, however – and I’m struggling to even articulate this, because it makes so little sense – is that Sarah seems to think that this opinion is held by people who say there’s sexism in SFF; which is to say, the exact group of people who think these ideas are bullshit. This isn’t a case of me misunderstanding her argument: it’s literally what she appears to be saying. To quote:

After I had the discussion about sexism in SFF with that author, I became a lot more aware of people accusing authors of being sexist, or saying an author couldn’t write some character properly because the author was of the opposite gender. It actually shocked me how much of that sort of dialogue is floating around that I’ve never really been aware of before… 

I think people are a little mixed up. That’s the crux of it. It seems to be a common belief that women are more emotional and character driven than men and men are more obsessed with action and adventure. Then there is a common belief that because an author is male/female they can’t properly write a character of the opposite gender because they aren’t of that gender and thus, just don’t get it.

Almost – almost! – I can parse the logicfail here. Sarah has, I suspect, seen male authors criticised for sexist representations of female characters, possibly with involvement of the phrase ‘male gaze’, and taken this to mean that, in the eyes of the person doing the criticising, men are inherently bad at writing women Because Gender. This isn’t even an oversimplification of the actual issue, which is the poor depiction of female characters by authors whose exposure to a culture that traditionally relegates women to either secondary or highly stereotyped roles in narrative has resulted in their automatic usage of sexist tropes; rather, it’s a catastrophic conflation of the critic’s position with the position they’ve set out to criticise. Thus: while some people certainly do believe that women can’t properly write men, and vice verse, this is itself a sexist belief, not the default assertion of those who call out sexism. Her misunderstanding is so total, it’s like she’s come across a group of soccer fans complaining about people who hate soccer, and come to the conclusion that they must hate it, too.

Underscoring Sarah’s confusion is her repeat assertion that an author’s gender doesn’t matter, and that focusing on it is therefore meaningless. To quote again:

“I have never sat back and thought, “Well, since she’s a woman, her writing is different than a man’s because (insert reasons here).”…  I don’t think of authors as male and female in more than an observational way. The gender of an author doesn’t matter to me in the least. It has zero impact on the quality of their writing. Monet was a man who painted more water lilies than any other human being who has ever lived. Being a man had absolutely no impact on his ability to paint them.

I agree, Sarah! An author’s gender doesn’t impact the quality of their writing in any way whatsoever. But it can certainly impact on how their writing is treated by others – which is why, to take just one example, many female SF writers are still encouraged to take male pseudonyms, the better to counteract the sexism of readers who, whether consciously or unconsciously, assume that men are naturally better at SF. To borrow your example, Monet didn’t paint great lillies because he was male, but his gender certainly afforded him the opportunity to paint in a way that was denied to women. Similarly, when it comes to the impact of authorial gender on content, it’s not a question of whether our sexual biology or gender identity has some inherent, magical quality that necessarily infiltrates our writing and betrays who we are: instead, it’s a question of privilege, and the extent to which it influences our perception of other people. Like it or not, the vast bulk of Western society is geared so heavily towards the promotion and support of straight white men that, somewhat unsurprisingly, its associated narratives – whether movies, TV shows or novels – are rife with limiting, negative and prejudicial portrayals of women, POC and QUILTBAG persons. Thus: when a male writer perpetuates said stereotypes – perhaps via the inclusion of female characters who exist only to sleep with the hero – his gender becomes a relevant consideration in why he thought this would be an acceptable story to tell, because socially sanctioned sexism has told him, over and over again, that it is.

I wish that was all the article got wrong; instead, it gets worse. To quote again:

If an author portrays a female character as physically weaker than their male counterpart, they aren’t being sexist; they are probably being realistic. I will use myself as an example. I can’t lift more than twenty pounds on a good day. That doesn’t make me weak, nor does it mean that I’m weak because I’m a woman… I’m physically weak but I’m strong in many other ways and the fact that I’m a woman has nothing to do with it. There are plenty of men out there with the same disorder I have, and they are just as physically limited as I am. Portraying a character with certain limitations and other strengths doesn’t make an author sexist, as so many are fond of exclaiming. It makes them realistic.

Christ on a bicycle. This has got to be the worst and most fatally literal interpretation of the phrase ‘strong female characters’ I’ve ever seen. Listen: setting aside the fact that it’s entirely possible for women to be stronger than men, when critics talk about ‘weak’ female characters, we’re not talking about physical strength, but about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the characterisation, and the extent to which it adheres to prejudicial gender stereotyping. If the female characters have agency and read like actual people, I don’t give a shit how much they can lift, because it doesn’t matter – but if the author has (for instance) written a swooning, helpless princess whose emotional weaknesses are metaphorically emphasised in a scene where she tries and fails to lift the hero’s sword, then yeah: I’m going to call shenanigans.

What bothers me about these conversations is that they seem to divide people more than unite them. When we focus on how genders affect an author’s ability to write, we highlight differences more than similarities, and we help cement old, often unnoticed habits of categorizing authors based on the kind of underwear they wear…

Sexism? Yeah, it exists, but I think the way to truly overcome any gender bias is to get rid of these gender-focused discussions. We need to focus on quality, rather than plumbing.

Let me get this straight: the way to get rid of sexism is to stop talking about gender? That’s like saying that the way to prevent STDs is to stop talking about sex: in both instances, the latter concept is integral to any meaningful discussion of the former problem, such that omitting it would render the entire exercise moot. And don’t even get me started on the pervasive cissexism of constantly defining gender in terms of plumbing and underwear: the issue at hand concerns brains, not bodies, and trying to boil it all down to descriptions of bits is both childish and incredibly problematic.

There’s more I could say about the article, but ultimately, it all amounts to the same thing: that the writer has committed an act of misunderstanding so profound that I’m tempted to call it willful, and in so doing further muddied the waters about what sexism is, and why discussing it matters. Instead, I’m just exhausted – angry, bored and exhausted – with the terrible, sickening ignorance of it all. Calling out sexism isn’t about cementing old habits or promoting gender warfare; it’s about, you know. Calling out sexism, on account of the fact that sexism is fucking awful. The point being, if you honestly can’t distinguish between “some people think men and women write differently” and “the idea that men and women write differently is sexist”, then I really don’t know what to do with you – and so, for the moment, I’ll leave it at that.

Last week, Joe Abercrombie wrote a lengthy post in defence of grimdark fantasy, a stance which should come as no shock whatsoever to anyone familiar with his books. (Which, for the record, I’ve read and enjoyed, albeit with reservations.) The pro/con debate over gritty SFF is comparatively new, in the sense that its status as a distinct subgenre is comparatively new, but not so lacking in history that we haven’t already built up a fairly substantial archive of dissenting opinions. What struck me forcefully about Abercrombie’s essay, however, was his failure to acknowledge, let alone address, a key aspect of the debate, viz: the ways in which grittiness is racially, sexually and culturally political, and whether or not those elements can ever be usefully disentangled from anything else the concept has to offer.

“Portraying your fantasy world in a way that’s like our world?” Abercrombie asks. “That’s only honesty.” And that’s often a fair point to make, when it comes to fantasy. But I find it extremely telling that while he goes on to apply this rule to the presence of death, drugs, sex, swearing, bad behaviour and excrement, he stops short of parsing its relevance to the default inclusion of sexism, racism and other such problematic behaviours in grimdark, crapsack worlds. Or, to put it another way: if your goal in writing gritty SFF is to create what you perceive to be an honest, albeit fantastic version of reality – and more, one where acknowledging the darker aspects of human nature takes precedence – then the likelihood is that you’ll end up writing victimised and/or damaged women, sexist and homophobic social structures, racist characters and, as a likely corollary, racist stereotypes as automatic defaults; which means, in turn, that you run an extremely high risk of excluding even the possibility of undamaged, powerful women, LGBTQ and/or POC characters from the outset, because you’ve already decided that such people are fundamentally unrealistic.    

Not unsurprisingly, therefore, many SFF readers – especially those who are female, POC and/or LGBTQ – are going to object to your definition of reality, not just as you’ve elected to apply it in an SFFnal context, but as an effective commentary on them, personally: because when you contend that realistic worldbuilding requires the inclusion of certain specific inequalities in order to count as realistic, you’re simultaneously asserting that such inequalities are inherent to reality – that a story cannot be honest, or your characters believably human, if there aren’t mechanisms in place to keep women oppressed, POC othered and LGBTQ persons invisible.

But the thing is, because such mechanisms are already so entrenched as narrative defaults when it comes to SFF worldbuilding, it’s easy to give them a pass – or at least, to deny their increased relevance – in the case of grimdark stories. Because if, as Abercrombie’s post implies, the grim in grimdark comes only from the presence of graphic violence, full-on sex, drugs, swearing, disease and character death, then it should still be possible to write grimdark stories that lack rape, domestic violence, racism and homophobia, and which feature protagonists who are neither straight, predominently white men nor the ultimate victims of same. And yet, overwhelmingly, that is what grimdark consists of: because somewhere along the line, the majority of its authors have assumed that “grittiness” as a concept is necessarily synonymous with the reinforcement of familiar inequalities.

Please note my use of that word, familiar, as it’s the lynchpin of my argument: that by assuming current and historical expressions of bigotry, bias and social inequality to be universal and exclusive expressions of bigotry, bias and social inequality, grimdark stories are, more often than not, reinforcing specific inequalities as inevitable and thereby serving to perpetuate them further. Which is why, in grimdark, it’s not just graphic sex, but the graphic rape or assault of women by men, or sex which objectifies women; it’s not just swearing, but swearing which derives its offensiveness from treating women’s bodies, habits and gender as undesirable, or which reinforces racism and homophobia; it’s not just violence, but violence against the othered. 

Writing recently about Lincoln, Aaron Bady had this to say on the subject of gritty cinema (my emphasis):

First and foremost, it uses a realist aesthetic to make it seem like a compromising cynicism is realistic. Form becomes content: it shows us the world as it “really” is by adding in the grit and grain and grime that demonstrate that the image has not being airbrushed, cleaned up, or glossed over, and this artificial lack of artifice signifies as reality… They don’t mean “accuracy,” because that’s not something most people could judge; they mean un-glamorized, un-romanticized, dark… Our field of view is claustrophobic and drab; we are shown a political arena without sentiment or nostalgic glow. That’s how we know we’re seeing the “real” thing.

 

But, of course, we’re not. We’re just seeing a movie whose claim to objective accuracy is no less artificial than the filters by which an instagram takes on the nostalgic glow of a past that was never as overexposed and warm as it has become in retrospect. And when we take “gritty” for “realism,” another kind of “realism” gets quietly implied and imposed: the capitalist realism by which ideals become impossible and the only way things can get done is through compromise and strategic surrender. Anti-romanticism is all the more ideological because it pretends to have no ideology, to be the “plain truth” that demonstrates the falsity of romantic visions. 

 

Which is where grimdark tends to fall down for me, and why eliding the genre’s political dimensions is especially problematic: grittiness is only a selective view of reality, not the whole picture. Yes, there’s pain and despair and suffering, but not exclusively, and when you make grit a synonym for realism – when you make an active, narrative decision to privilege specific, familiar types of grimness as universals – then you’re not just denying the fullness of reality; you’re promoting a version of it that’s inherently hostile to the personhood and interests of the majority of people on the planet. (And in that sense, it doesn’t seem irrelevant that the bulk of gritty, grimdark writers, especially those who self-identify as such, are straight, white men.)

Human beings are flawed, and frequently terrible. We are capable of horrific acts; of racism, sexism, homophobia, and countless acts of violence, discrimination and ignorance. But there are still degrees of flawedness, such that a story which fails to acknowledge our worst aspects is no less “realistic” than one which portrays them as the be-all, end-all of our existence. There’s nothing wrong with wanting realism in your fantasy – most readers demand it to some extent – but that doesn’t mean we’ve all agreed on what realism in fantasy is. It’s a mistake to assume that your preferred flavour of honesty is the only legitimate one; or, just as importantly, the most legitimate one.   

To summarise the problem of committing to this familiar idea of grittiness, then:

If your idea of ‘grittiness’ includes misogyny (for instance), it’s more or less inevitable that your female characters will not only encounter systematic sexism, but necessarily be scarred by it, because if it were possible for them to remain unscathed by such an integral aspect of your preordained notion of grittiness, then by the rubric of gritty = honest, they would be unrealistic characters. Which means that, with the best will in the world, you’ve committed from the outset to writing women whose lives and selves are damaged by men – and while, as a female reader, I don’t object to encountering such characters, I do object to the assumption that these are the only female characters you can realistically write

Grittiness has its place in fiction; as do representations of existing inequalities. But when we forget to examine why we think certain abuses are inevitable, or assume their universality – when we write about a particular prejudice, not to question, subvert or redefine it, but to confirm it as an inevitable, even integral aspect of human nature – then we’re not being realistic, but selective in our portrayal and understanding of reality.  

After encountering a slow but steady stream of positive reviews for Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, I decided to give it a read; and when I saw that the wonderful AnimeJune of review blog Gossamer Obsessions had the same idea, it only made sense to put our heads together and write a joint review. The result was a back and forth about the novel’s themes and merits, of which there are many – and here it is.

The Synopsis:
 

AnimeJune: The story takes place in the nation of Goredd – a place (modelled on medieval Europe), in which humans and dragons coexist. Thanks to a treaty drafted forty years ago by the human Queen Lavonda and the dragon leader Ardmagar Comonot, this coexistence has been peaceful, but only barely. Most humans continue to hate and fear dragons, thanks in large part to the dominant religion that depicts them as soulless animals at best, and an unholy scourge on the earth at worst.

Meanwhile, most dragons, despite their ability to take human form and study among humankind, remain baffled by human sentiment and interaction. Inherently logical and mathematical, dragons rigidly police their own emotions, and so often come across as tactless and awkward in their dealings with humans.

Into this conflicted world comes Seraphina. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, Seraphina is a child of both worlds, born of a human father and a dragon mother. However, her father raised her to despise and hide her true parentage since both sides consider half-breeds to be anathema – or they would, if they weren’t convinced human-dragon interbreeding was impossible. Despite Seraphina’s fierce desire to avoid attention and fly under the radar, she has an equally fierce passion for music and, against her father’s wishes, she takes a position as assistant to Viridius, official musician to the Goreddi royal family.

When the Goreddi crown prince is murdered in a visibly draconian way two weeks before the Ardmagar is set to visit, Seraphina finds her anonymity threatened by bumbling dragons, bigoted humans, sinister politics, a disturbingly astute and investigative Prince, and her own uncanny talents.

Foz: Forty years ago, the human Queen Lavonda of Goredd forged a peace treaty with the dragon leader Ardmagar Comonot, effectively ending a war between the two races. Trust, however, has proved much harder to come by, thanks to both the Goreddi religion of Allsaints, which demonises dragons, and the mixture of contempt and confusion with which dragons, a highly logical species, view human emotions. Further complicating this state of affairs is the fact that dragons possess the ability to shapeshift into human form, in which guise – called a saarantras – they’re distinguishable by little more than their alien mannerisms, silver blood and, in the majority of cases, the enforced wearing of distinctive bells. This leads not only to human fears of dragon infiltration (to say nothing of prompting endless, lascivious jokes about the highly taboo prospect of cross-species sex), but to dragon fears of human contamination. The latter charge is a serious one: all saarantrai are monitored by the Censors – a powerful dragon agency with the power to physically excise the brains of emotionally compromised dragons – and must learn to partition their thoughts accordingly.

The story is told from the point of view of Seraphina, a teenage girl with a dangerous secret: her mother, Linn, was a saarantras, a fact she concealed from her human husband and which was only revealed with her death in childbirth. As a result of her mixed heritage, Seraphina not only possesses extraordinary musical talent, but has scales on her arm and stomach and unusual mental powers. Working to control her unique magic with the help of her dragon-uncle, Orma – a music scholar who doesn’t wear a bell, and is therefore widely assumed to be human – Seraphina wants only to excel in her new position as assistant music mistress at the Goreddi court. But when the crown prince Rufus is killed in the lead-up to the treaty celebrations – and worse, killed in a manner suggestive of a dragon attack – Seraphina finds herself drawn into the heart of human-dragon politics. Working with the bastard prince Lucian Kiggs to discover the truth behind his uncle’s death, Seraphina must confront not only her mother’s buried memories, but also the implications of her own abilities – and all while keeping her bloodline secret from those who would deem her a monster.

 

The Main Character
 

AnimeJune: When it comes to the heroine, Seraphina, I stand here overjoyed and relieved because she could have been exactly the type of YA heroine I dislike the most – the Mopey Sadsack who doesn’t understand how good she has it until someone else (usually a guy) convinces her how awesome she is. Instead, she’s a multifaceted, determined, and fiercely intelligent character.

She does harbour a fair amount of self-loathing – after all, both dragons and humans would consider her a monster if they knew what she was, and the dragon scales on her left arm and around her waist never let her forget. She’s also visited by visions of the dragon memories her mother bequeathed to her during childbirth, as well as visions of bizarre, often-deformed people with whom she shares a strange connection.

However, what I immediately like about Seraphina is that she could have hidden herself away as a recluse in her father’s house, but she didn’t. With all her freakish flaws, Seraphina also possesses a wondrous gift for music and she follows that passion to find a position in the royal court, very much in defiance of her father’s wishes. Seraphina still avoids social contact, thinks of herself as a freak, and assiduously guards her secret beneath layers of lies and ill-fitting clothing – but she still pursues the passion that makes her happy. She still believes herself worthy of independence, even though it comes at the high cost of loneliness. To me, that says so much about her. She’s not a cursed damsel waiting to be rescued or a martyr who believes herself unworthy of joy. She’s a little too aware of what makes her strange and frightening, but she’s also aware of what gives her power, and I loved that about her.

Foz: I very much agree with AnimeJune’s assessment. Though Seraphina does struggle with self-loathing, she’s also quick-witted, compassionate, practical and possessed of a sharp, sometimes mischievous sense of humour – and better still, she isn’t afraid to laugh at herself. Far too often, SFF stories narrated by troubled heroines with mysterious pasts and outcast baggage default to use of the Broken Bird trope, with only a smattering of black humour to leaven the pervasive mood of hardboiled despair and repression. By contrast, Seraphina is not only inquisitive and cheerful, but determined to succeed on her own merits – not ashamed of her heritage, but rather fearful of its implications.

This means that, despite her (very reasonable) worries about her own monstrousness, Seraphina reads as exquisitely human. As a heroine, she fully inhabits her actions: we always understand exactly why she’s said or done a particular thing, because her motives are always in keeping with her personality, rather than being impinged on by the needs of the plot, and in a novel as rich and satisfying as this, that’s no mean feat.

 

The Supporting Cast
 
Foz: When it comes to characterisation, Hartman is an incredibly skilled practitioner. In the hands of a lesser writer, certain of the recognisable archetypes underpinning her secondary characters would be cartoonish and stereotypical, or else inverted so clumsily as to achieve much the same effect. Instead, her touch is both deft and subtle, leaving us with a gorgeously varied and believable supporting cast. Her employer, the gouty music master Viridius, is a case in point: though pompous and demanding at times, he’s also possessed of unexpected depths, guiding Seraphina both politically and musically through her time at the Goreddi court. Princess Glisselda, too, is a lovely surprise: beautiful, blonde and Seraphina’s romantic rival, it would’ve been the work of a moment to render her antagonistic, stupid or both, instead of which her high spirits, flashes of arrogance and occasional naivety are counterbalanced by genuine intelligence, a desire to learn, the ability to listen, and a shrewd (if fledgling) political eye.
Far and away, though, my favourite secondary character was Orma, Seraphina’s dragon uncle. Though ostensibly cold, detached and logical, both his dry humour and respect for Seraphina completely won me over, and his development as the novel goes on is an absolute pleasure to watch. Though technically inhuman, he nonetheless felt completely believable – not just as a dragon, but as a scholar, uncle and friend.


AnimeJune: Yes! I loved Orma! The worldbuilding depicts dragons as a lot like Vulcans – while capable of emotion, they repress and police it extremely fiercely (especially when they’re more vulnerable to it in human form) because they cannot explain it in a logical, scientific manner. Orma demonstrates, in his own subtle, unconventional way, how much he cares for his niece, Seraphina, even as he risks having his mind excised of his memories of her by the dragon Censors. His character is all the more fascinating as he displays his emotions in an extremely atypical way that is, frankly, adorable.

I also quite enjoyed the minor character of the Ardmagar Comonot – the strict dragon leader who takes human form for the first time in forty years to celebrate the treaty and finds human emotion a little more than he can deal with.

That being said, my favourite supporting character is Lars – a foreign visitor invited to the Goreddi court by Viridius because of his ground-breaking (and ear-drum-breaking) musical invention, the megaharmonium (think of a giant organ). As musicians, it’s only natural that Lars and Seraphina should meet, and even more natural that they should both discover they share a secret connection. Lars’ reaction to this is one of my favourite scenes in the novel because despite the secrets he’s forced to keep (such as his heavily-implied homosexuality), he’s such an emotionally open, cheerful, friendly person. This takes Seraphina by surprise, since she’s spent her life convincing herself that closing herself off from other people is the only way to survive.

The Romance and Romantic Interest
 

AnimeJune: But enough about that! Let’s talk about the love interest. I’ll be honest, I’ve gotten a little tired of romance in YA lately. I’ve read too many YA stories in which the main plot is an action-adventure, or a science fiction parable – and this completely unnecessary romance is shoehorned in, greased with Insta-Love to make it fit without stretching the page count with, you know, actual romantic development between the characters.

So I’ve started seeing the YA Romantic Subplot as that annoying little sister the Real Plot has to babysit, something to tolerate and ignore while I hang out with the cool, funny Real Plot.

That was so not the case with Seraphina. First of all, there is no Insta-Love between Seraphina and Prince Lucian Kiggs, the head of the guard charged with keeping the peace until the Ardmagar arrives. There’s no Insta-Hate, either – that tiresome rigamarole where the protagonists automatically hate and snipe at each other until they discover it’s Been True Love All Along.

Instead, they start out respecting each other. What a novel concept! Lucian is an extremely intelligent and scrupulously honest investigator who takes notice of Seraphina’s sharp observational skills and surprising knowledge of dragon culture and seeks out her assistance in finding out who murdered the crown prince. At first, Seraphina is terrified that it’ll only be a matter of time before Lucian puzzles out her own secrets, but as they spend more time together, they discover they share more in common than they thought.

Their relationship builds realistically – with increased proximity and intelligent interaction. Lucian’s attraction to Seraphina builds on his admiration of her talents (intellectual and musical) and her bravery.
Despite their relationship not being very physical (and it really can’t be – Seraphina has too much to hide and Lucian’s engaged to another), it’s extremely moving and powerful to read because it fits so completely with the development of their characters.

Foz: Once again, I’m in total agreement with Elizabeth. I cannot even begin to express how refreshing it is to read a first-person YA romance that is neither saccharine nor abusive, and which features more instances of emotional and intellectual compatibility than it does descriptions of the hero’s arms and eye colour. The attraction between Seraphina and Lucian is all the sweeter (and, at times, all the sexier) for dispensing with the traditional, cartoonish binaries of Fated Love and Impossible Obstacles, and instead focusing on how and why two such different-yet-similar characters come to love each other. Lucian treats Seraphina with kindness and respect, and she in turn esteems his skill and intelligence long before she ever admits her feelings for him.

It helps enormously that, in developing their relationship, Hartman avoids the cliched pitfalls of what I tend to think of as Sitcom Logic – that is, entendre-laden mishaps, implausibly elaborate lies, wacky coincidences and Idiot Plot devices – which so frequently seem to crop up in YA romance. Instead, their relationship develops organically: both characters are lonely, intelligent and, despite loving their respective careers, prevented from truly fulfilling them by the restrictions of duty (Lucian) and the necessity of secrets (Seraphina). Though their relationship is certainly not without mishaps, its development makes perfect sense: they really do fit together, and I can’t wait to see where Hartman leads them in the next volume.

 

Style and Worldbuilding


Foz: On a technical level, Seraphina is an exquisitely written novel. Hartman’s prose style is lyric and flowing without being purple, and though there’s no infodumping that I noticed, she nonetheless manages to convey the many complexities of an original world without either skimping on detail or bogging down the narrative. Which isn’t to say the worldbuilding is perfect; the fact that the dragons have electricity and advanced technology, for instance, while intriguing, didn’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the setting,  while I was never quite clear on how the Goreddi social mores could allow for a bastard prince like Lucian Kiggs to hold such a prominent court position without any apparent pushback or consequence from the other nobles. But the story is so compelling, the politics otherwise so thoughtful and the premise such a pleasing mix of the familiar and the unexpected that, by and large, I really wasn’t bothered by such minor slips or omissions: I just wanted to keep on reading.

For me, the only sour note in the whole book was Seraphina’s – and, by extension, Hartman’s – tendency to repeatedly iterate the skin-colour of POC characters, as though she were worried the audience might forget that Goreddis are white and Porphyrians brown. It really stood out to me as an instance of White Is The Default writing, as no other race or subset of characters received the same treatment; I also flinched at the inclusion of exotic Porphyrian dancing (disparagingly called bum-waggling by at least one character) as a plot point, especially as it coincides with the appearance of a Porphyrian man who, to all intents and purposes, speaks in broken English. Given the sophistication of the rest of the novel, I was disappointed to find such stereotypes included in the story; and though it certainly helps that otherwise, the POC characters were treated respectfully, it’s the one aspect where I feel Hartman could stand to improve.
On a more positive note, I absolutely loved the the inclusion of Seraphina’s mother’s memories. Each one was perfectly timed in terms of narrative placement, helping to enrich our understanding of dragon culture while simultaneously comprising some of the most beautifully written sections in the whole novel. In a story where both the heroine’s and the hero’s lives are significantly informed by the actions of their disobedient, unconventional – and, as a consequence, dead – mothers (a dual fridging conceit that could have gone badly wrong, and yet somehow works), it goes a long way towards ameliorating the Absent Female Parent factor that Linn, by dint of her first-person memories, ends up feeling much more like a living character in her own right than a distant specter. I’d very much like to see more of her, and am confident that, come Book 2, we will.

AnimeJune: I’ll have to disagree on the depiction of the Porphyrians. I see where you’re getting at now that you point it out, but as I was reading Seraphina, I thought the racist and ignorant thoughts directed towards them were intended as a parallel to the bigotry the dragons endured. Many of the Goreddi feel their bigotry towards dragons is justified because dragons are simply “soulless animals,” and they believe the Queen should put human concerns first and foremost – but then these same Goreddi turn around and make fun of the Porphyrians. To me, it underscores how their bigotry will simply target anything that is significantly different from them – regardless of species.

What nettled me about the worldbuilding with Seraphina was how, forty years after the truce, the human population was still almost entirely opposed to dragons. If all but a very, very few humans are still violently opposed to dragons, how come the Queen’s dragon treaty managed to last four decades without any major incidents? How come there were no uprisings or revolutions until now? It didn’t seem realistic that a whole generation of humans would just sit on their hands for this long if their hate was that powerful.

Moreover, human lives and memories are significantly shorter than those of dragons. While there are dozens of dragons depicted as willing to overlook the atrocities the humans committed against their kind (atrocities these dragons still remember thanks to their ability to pass memories down generations), there are almost no human characters willing to see dragons in a positive light. Don’t get me wrong – the rampant bigotry is a realistic and understandable obstacle in the novel, but I did expect there to be more humans (at least those of the younger generation born after the treaty) willing to work with dragons.

For me, however, that was a minor quibble. I agree wholeheartedly with Foz – the general worldbuilding strikes the perfect balance in terms of detail – not enough to be a slog, but not so little of it that it feels like a wallpaper fantasy.

All in all, I just plain enjoyed this book. It was a meaty, emotional story with sympathetic and well-drawn characters, a truly swoon-worthy romance, and some fantastic magic and worldbuilding to explore.

Foz: Agreed. Seraphina is a truly excellent novel, and I can’t wait to see how the rest of the story unfolds.

AnimeJune: Thank you so much, Foz, for having such a great discussion with me about such a great book!

Foz: My pleasure!

Warning: All The Spoilers, much rant.

Far back in the mists of time – which is to say, in April 2011 – I reviewed Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, a deeply problematic film which, despite its apparently noble intentions, succeeded only in replicating and reinforcing the selfsame sexist, exploitative tropes it ostensibly meant to subvert. Similarly, in August last year, I weighed in on the controversy surrounding Victoria Foyt’s Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden, a self-published YA novel whose deeply problematic use of racist language and imagery overwhelmingly outweighed its stated goal of “turn[ing] racism on its head”, a dissonance which was further compounded by Foyt’s equally problematic responses to her critics. And now, by way of kicking off 2013, I’m going to review Lev Grossman’s The Magicians,  a novel which, while certainly not as egregious in its awfulness as either Foyt or Snyder’s work, fails in a conspicuously similar manner, viz: by unconsciously perpetuating exactly the sort of objectionable bullshit it was (one assumes) intended to critique.

In a nutshell, then: The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, a privileged, clever yet disaffected youth with a deep-seated sense of entitlement and a private longing for the magical, fictional world of Fillory, a wholly unsubtle Narnia substitute. Aged seventeen, Quentin is diverted away from Princeton and selected instead to learn real magic at the exclusive Brakebills College, aka Hogwarts For Assholes, where he spends five years being oblivious and dissolute while becoming progressively more awful, and very occasionally encountering things that are relevant at the finale. After graduating, he and his equally unlikable friends live a pointless, overindulgent life in Manhattan  until a former classmate shows up with the news that Fillory is real; on travelling there, the young magicians  encounter a terrible enemy whose defeat is only achieved at the expense of one of their lives. Horribly wounded, Quentin is left to recuperate in Fillory while his remaining friends bugger off home; eventually, he returns to Earth, abandons magic and gets a desk job – right up until his friends return and convince him to come back to Fillory as a co-regent king, at which point he flies out a window to join them. The End.

Despite being well-written, from a purely technical standpoint, The Magicians is a structural mess, being simultaneously too rushed and too flabby: there’s simply too much happening that doesn’t actually matter, like welters games and the South Pole trip, and while Grossman does his best to skip us swiftly through Quentin’s five years at Brakebills, the fact is that, in a novel which boasts no meaningful secondary plots, it’s not until page 348 of 488 that the characters actually enter Fillory – meaning, by implication if not intent, that the first three quarters of the novel function as little more than an increasingly tedious prologue. As a narrative gambit, this could still have worked if Grossman had used those early sections to focus on solid characterisation, or if anything Quentin learned at school proved relevant in the final, climactic battle. Instead, the secondary characters – yearmate and eventual girlfriend Alice, punk rival Penny, and senior libertines Eliot, Janet and Josh – are barely fleshed out beyond a bare minimum of backstory and a few offhand eccentricities, while in the end, it’s Penny who finds the way into Fillory and Alice who dies to defeat the villain. Quentin, by contrast, winds up a passenger in his own story, contributing nothing meaningful (or at least, nothing useful) despite his apparent specialness and remaining, from go to woe, a thoroughly passive character. Which begs the question: why did Grossman feel the need to show Quentin’s entire tertiary education before letting him go to Fillory? Why, when so little time is spent on characterisation or building a sensible magic system – the latter’s fundamentals are purposefully vague and glossed-over, so that despite the amount of time Quentin spends in classrooms, it’s never really apparent what he’s actually learning, while two new characters, Anais and Richard, are introduced well after the halfway mark for no readily apparent reason – was it necessary to prolong the trip between worlds?

The answer, I suspect, has to do with the story’s moral; or at least, with what one might reasonably construe to be the moral, or the point, or whatever you’d like to call it. As a character, Quentin’s developmental trajectory is that of a disaffected, selfish, horny teenager transitioning into a disaffected, selfish, sexist adult, and while the ending eventually reveals these characteristics to have been deliberate authorial choices, early on, it’s harder to tell whether Grossman realises just how unsympathetic his protagonist really is. Once Quentin graduates from Brakebills, in fact, it’s like a switch has been flipped: whereas before it was possible to attribute most of his failings to youthful, privileged obliviousness, once freed from the confines of college, his bad behaviour escalates dramatically, leaving little doubt that we, the audience, are meant to identify it as such. For all his dissatisfaction with various aspects of his life,  it never occurs to Quentin that he might be the cause of it; always, he assumes his own unhappiness to be either the result of some fundamental flaw in how the world works, or else the fault of some specific person. This lack of self-awareness is key to his passivity: instead of trying to change things, he waits for the problem, whatever it is, to fix itself, and then feels misunderstood and thwarted when his misery remains. Only his affection for Fillory remains constant – Fillory, the perfect other world into which, despite all the magic of his everyday existence, he still secretly yearns to escape. But even once he arrives there, Quentin is still unhappy, prompting a furious Alice to utter what is arguably the novel’s Big Reveal:

“‘I will stop being a mouse, Quentin. I will take some chances. If you will, for just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.’

‘You can’t just decide to be happy.’

‘No, you can’t. But you can sure as hell decide to be miserable. Is that what you want? Do you want to be the asshole who went to Fillory and was miserable there? Even in Fillory? Because that’s who you are right now.'”

Quentin struggles to understand this point, but later, once he’s returned to Earth after Alice’s death, the lesson hits home:

“In different ways they had both discovered the same truth: that to live out childhood fantasies as a grown-up was to court and wed and bed disaster.”

And thus, the moral: that wherever you go, you take yourself with you, such that trying to cure your unhappiness by forever yearning after idealised childhood fantasies is doomed to terrible failure. Having vanished into Fillory, the novel’s villain, Martin Chatwin – formerly thought by Quentin to be a fictional character – became the only one of his siblings to stay there forever, an escape which Quentin had always privately envied. But Martin has become a monster, making terrible pacts for power and peace, and all for want of the necessary strength to live in the real world. For an SFF novel, then, this seems to be a particularly cutting message: by first making Quentin an identifiable character for exactly the sort of passive loner stereotypically associated with fandom, and then morphing him into a bitter, unhappy, sexist whose problems stem almost entirely from his lack of self-awareness and his uncritical love of Fillory/Narnia, Grossman is arguably passing negative judgement on a large portion of his own readership, rebuking their drive for escapism as little more than a sign of selfish immaturity. Or at least, if that’s not the intended moral – which is still possible, given that the story ends with Quentin’s return to Fillory – then it certainly ups the ante for the rest of the novel’s problems.

Because however actively or subtly Grossman is trying to critique the sense of entitlement felt by a particular subset of sexist male fans, The Magicians is still saturated with such a high level of background offensiveness that, more often than not, it serves to reinforce exactly the sort of problematic behaviour that it ostensibly means to debunk. Most obviously – and most prominently, as a female reader – is the overwhelmingly negative treatment of women. As I had early cause to observe, most every female character Quentin encounters is unnecessarily sexualised, and often in such a way as to diminish their competence. This isn’t just a consequence of being in Quentin’s point of view; as an attitude, it seeps into the background narration, such that his observations become indistinguishable from Grossman’s. At the most basic level, this resolves itself into a fixation with breasts in particular; we hear about them with just enough regularity to become complacently problematic, so that by the end of the novel, we’ve dealt with the following descriptions:

“…the radiant upper slopes of her achingly full and gropable breasts…” - page 77.

“… he was suddenly aware of her full breasts inside her thin, high-necked blouse.” - page 117.

“At one point one of her slight breasts wandered out of her misbuttoned cardigan that she wore with nothing under it; she tucked it back in without the slightest trace of embarrassment.” – page 252.

“She was whole, thank God, and naked – her body was slim, her breasts slight and girlish. Her nails and nipples were pale purple.” – page 355.

“As he watched she bent over the map, deliberately smooshing her tit into Dint’s shoulder as she did so.” – 405

“The back of her blouse gaped palely open… he could see her black bra strap, which had somehow survived the operation.” – page 409.

“She wore a tight black leather bustier that she was in imminent danger of falling out of.” – page 486.

And that, of course, is just the breasts; there’s plenty of sexualised but largely unnecessary references to other female body parts, too. Add it all together – and compare the prevalence of same to the absence of comparable male descriptions, with the possible exception of a giant’s penis – and you have a story that’s irrevocably written in the male gaze, not just as a consequence of having a straight male protagonist, but because this is what Grossman has chosen to highlight. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the male gaze as a literary device, but in a book which is attempting, at least in part, to critique sexism, deploying a variant of the male gaze that focuses wholly on female bodies in a context utterly disconnected from their value as people – and which is never actively acknowledged, let alone flagged as negative – cannot help but be problematic. And then there’s the use of pejorative, sexualised language and gendered insults to contend with, as per the following examples:

“Merits are for pussies,’ he said.” - page 52.

“…Janet got shriller and pushier about the game, and her shrill pushiness became less endearing. She couldn’t help it, it was just her neurotic need to control everything…” - page 152.

“‘Emma wasn’t a cow,’ Josh said. ‘Or if she was, she was a hot cow. She’s like one of those wagyu cows.'” – page 228.

“‘That’s what she wants everybody to think! So you won’t realise what a howling cunt she is!'” - page 237.

“‘If that bothers you, Georgia,’ Fogg said curtly, ‘then you should have gone to beauty school.'” - page 269.

“‘Quentin,’ she said, ‘you have always been the most unbelievable pussy.'” - page 306.

“‘Don’t you fucking speak to me!’ She slapped wildly at his head and shoulders with both hands so that he ducked and put up his arms. ‘Don’t you even dare talk to me, you whore! You fucking whore!'” - page 309.

“She was right, a thousand times right, but if he could just make her see what he saw – if she could only put things in proper perspective. Fucking women.”  – page 311.

“‘Oh, come on Quentina. We’re not looking for trouble.'” - page 333.

“Asshole. That slutty nymph was right. This is not your war.” - page 409.

“‘That bloody cunt of a Watcherwoman is still at it, with her damned clock-trees.'” - page 434.

Subtler and more pervasive than all of this, though, is the extent to which Quentin passes negative judgement on the sexuality of the women around him – which is to say, more or less constantly. That might be written off as part of his obnoxious personality, but as with so much else, Grossman seems unable to keep from speculating beyond those bounds. Janet’s sexual choices are frequently scrutinised; within moments of meeting a female Fillory resident, Quentin judges her to be a lesbian on no greater basis than her hair and clothes; it’s even suggested that Anais has somehow managed to sleep with a male stranger while the group is busy exploring a tomb. And then there’s Quentin’s habit of blaming the women around him for his own choices. Unhappy with Alice, he blames her for his bad decisions; having cheated on Alice with Janet, he blames Janet for tempting him; for all the choices he makes in Fillory, he blames Jane for letting him go there. Surely, this just another consequence of his flawed personality; and yet he never seems to blame any men for the things that go wrong in his life. For Quentin, women are always the ones at fault, and it’s this fact, rather than his penchant for blaming others, which reads as unconscious bias.

The sex, too, is deeply problematic, not least because Quentin’s first time with Alice takes place when both of them have, along with all their classmates, been transformed into arctic foxes – something their (male) instructor has cooked up as a way for the group of horny teenagers to let off steam while studying at the bleak South Pole. But what’s never discussed is the issue of consent this raises; or rather, the lack thereof. “He caught a glimpse of Alice’s dark fox eyes rolling with terror and then half shutting with pleasure,” we’re told of their union on page 191 – and somehow, miraculously, despite having betrayed no obvious interest in Quentin before – nor he in her, apart from the single requisite instance of noticing her breasts – they end up in a relationship not long afterwards. There’s never any talk about whether this encounter constitutes rape, or whether it did for any of the other students while turned into foxes; instead, and somewhat disturbingly, the incident leads Quentin to nickname Alice ‘Vix’, as in Vixen, though the sobriquet is only ever used once. Similarly, when we’re told on pages 193-194 that this same isolated class has started to indulge in orgies – “… they would gather in apparently arbitrary combinations, in an empty classroom or in somebody’s bedroom, in semi-anonymous chains, their white uniforms half or all the way off, their eyes glassy and bored as they pulled and stroked and pumped…”  – it feels like nothing so much as an unnecessary male fantasy, not least because, under the circumstances, nobody can possibly have any access to birth control. Doubtless, Grossman intended it as a throwaway line, but all it does it contribute to the subconscious sexism of the story: without wanting to divide his readership too sharply along gender lines, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine that more female readers than male were perturbed by the potential for unwanted pregnancies in this section.

Against this worrying backdrop, Quentin’s abysmal treatment of Alice is almost par for the course: clearly, his decision to sleep with Janet is a bad one preceded by plenty of warning signs, not least of all his own admission engaging in “manic flirting and pawing” (page 279) while out at parties. That he then blames Janet for his bad choices – “She’d sabotaged him and Alice, and she was loving it” (page 327) – is one thing, as is his earlier complaint that “if Alice had any blood in her veins she would have joined them” (page 291). This is clearly vile behaviour, and not even Quentin’s obliviousness to that fact is sufficient to conceal it from the reader. But once again, their relationship issues are grounded in a more subtle form of sexism, such as the fact that, even though Alice’s plans to study in Glasgow are effectively vetoed for Quentin’s sake – “the idea of being separated didn’t particularly appeal to either of them, nor did the idea of Quentin’s aimlessly tagging along with her to Scotland” (page 359) – there’s no awareness of the fact that she, in turn, has “put off the kind of civil-service appointment or research apprenticeship that usually ensnared  serious-minded Brakebills students so she could stay in New York with Quentin” (page 77): her sacrifice is simply taken for granted and never mentioned again, even when Quentin’s behaviour worsens.

Alice’s whole character, in fact, is a major strike against The Magicians: not just because she ends up stuffed in the fridge, which is a gross offence in and of itself, but because her relationship with Quentin is utterly unfathomable. In a series of implausible leaps, he goes from noticing her breasts, to thinking she smells “unbe-fucking-lievable” as a fox (and then mounting her), to wondering if he might love her, to their suddenly being together, after which he proceeds to treat her, on balance, very poorly indeed. Alice, though, is the stronger magician by far; what she sees in Quentin is a mystery, and even after he’s cheated on her, she ends up apologising to him for daring to sleep with Penny by way of revenge, saying, “I don’t think I understood how much it would hurt you” (page 404). And Quentin’s response? “‘Maybe you’ll do something one of these days instead of being such a pathetic little mouse all the time'” (page 405). Never mind that, of the two of them, Alice is the proactive one; she agrees with him about her mousiness, because that’s her role in the story: Grossman has written her in as Quentin’s love interest, and so she puts up with his crap above and beyond what her personality indicates she otherwise would or should. Quentin might not be a hero, but he’s still the protagonist, and in such a profoundly male gaze narrative, that means he gets the girl he wants for no better reason than that he wants her; that she dies saving his life from an enemy he summoned through sheer idiocy is hardly fair compensation.

There’s more I’d planned to say about the problems in The Magicians – about Grossman’s uncritical use of the words gimp, cripple and retarded; about the offhand and inappropriate treatment of Eliot’s sexual preferences;  about the weird, peculiar arrogance of alluding to Narnia and Hogwarts so crassly and overtly, as though the best way to deconstruct the complex issues surrounding either world is simply to populate them with scheming, selfish assholes; about every other instance of objectionable sexism that leapt out at me while reading, and which I dully noted down; about the incredibly lazy worldbuilding, handwaved early on in the piece as ultimately unimportant, yet still full of holes and fridge logic – but then I’d be here forever.  Clearly, I didn’t enjoy the book: though pacey and intriguing at the outset, the further I progressed with the narrative, the more I became fractious, bored and angry at the whole thing, as though I were being forced along on a lengthy, pointless car trip with unpleasant company on a hot day. I finished largely out of stubbornness, and to an extent, I’m glad I did, if only for the catharsis: various plot points left open in the early stages were closed out at the end, and at least now I can say I’ve read it. But even though Grossman’s actual writing style is clear and concise, his storytelling is not. The Magicians could easily have been a good 200 pages shorter without losing anything important, while the core conceit – that of sending a grown, troubled Fillory/Narnia fan into their beloved childhood world in order to force a confrontation with their own inadequacies – might well have made better fodder for a short story or novella than a novel.

And underpinning every other objection was the sexism; the pervasive sense that not only was Quentin mistreating, demeaning or otherwise objectifying every woman he encountered, but that Grossman’s own subconscious bias and investment in the male gaze was helping to normalise this bad behaviour rather than, as was hopefully his intention, critique it. Even once the full extent of Quentin’s flaws were revealed, I couldn’t help feeling that story was more concerned with perpetuating sexism at a background level than deconstructing it on a conscious one, and when combined with the other structural and narrative issues pervading the text, the overall reading experience was one of exasperation. As much praise as it’s received, therefore, and as much as I embarked on reading it in a spirit of hopeful optimism, The Magicians was a profound disappointment; I won’t be reading the sequel, and whatever else Grossman writes afterwards, I’ll be predisposed to view it with trepidation.

 

 

It’s strange how the simplest chain of events can lead to an epiphany.

For instance: while reading this post over at gaming webcomic The Trenches yesterday evening, I clicked on a link to an eight-year-old blog post written by someone using the handle EA_Spouse. Finding the post to be extremely well-written and curious about the woman behind it, I did a quick Google search and learned that her real name was Erin Hoffman, that she was a game developer and – as of  2011 – a published fantasy author. Naturally, I looked up her work on Goodreads, where the synopsis of her first novel, Sword of Fire and Sea, piqued my interest enough that I headed straight over to Amazon and downloaded a sample chapter. Though it didn’t take long to read, I found myself so caught up in the story that, rather than relegate the book to my Wish List,  I bought the whole thing on Kindle outright. It was already late, but even so, I kept right on reading until 3am – which is when the epiphany struck.

Because as much as I was enjoying the book, a part of me was confused by my enthusiasm for it. Of all possible stories, why did this one appeal so strongly? To contextualise the personal significance of that question, it’s perhaps necessary to explain that I am, at present, nearly eight months pregnant with my first child, which state has played merry hob with my attention span and energy levels ever since the first trimester. Writing – and particularly creative writing, as opposed to blogging and essays – has proven increasingly difficult, but so too has reading: despite my best intentions, I keep drifting away from stories, unable to achieve my usual, crucial state of early immersion. Most likely, there’s a biological reason for this, or a combination of them – altered hormones, increased exhaustion, all the usual culprits – but it also seems to be an issue of increased sensitivity. By which I mean: while pregnancy hasn’t magically changed my personality, it’s definitely sparked a loss of patience, resulting in what I’ve taken to referring to as a drastically decreased tolerance for bullshit. Things that would irk me ordinarily are amplified in their irksomeness, and being aware of the dissonance hasn’t stopped it from influencing my decisions.

All of which is a way of saying that, when it comes to bugbears and errors in narrative, I’m currently much less inclined than usual to forgive, ignore or otherwise exempt them. Instead, they achieve a new emphasis which, when combined with my decreased attention span, leaves me much more likely than usual to abandon the book altogether. Or maybe being pregnant has nothing to do with it; maybe I’m just evolving as a reader, and this particular evolution has simply manifested at a time when the particular vulnerabilities and stereotypes of pregnancy have left me open to endlessly second-guessing myself, as though my thoughts and opinions have necessarily become suspect by virtue of being generated in proximity to a fetus. I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see, though even if my current impatience does wear off, that shouldn’t render all decisions touched by it invalid. The point being: why, when I’ve spent months giving up on novel after novel, should Sword of Fire and Sea prove so dramatically exceptional? At the risk of damning with faint praise (which I don’t want to do, as I’m genuinely enjoying the book), it’s not a breathtaking, original masterpiece. Though fluidly written, neatly characterised and solidly worldbuilt, both setting and plot are nonetheless comprised of familiar, if not borderline generic fantasy elements – not an inherently negative quality, but one still relevant to analysis. On the technical side of things, the characters smile too often, the romantic acceleration feels both overly rapid and oversimplified, and at times, the prose verges on purple, as per Hoffman’s unique habit of describing the sound and timbre of voices using food and nature-heavy metaphors. At base, though, Sword is a solid, well-paced adventure with strong RPG-esque roots (unsurprising, given the author’s professional background) – not gamechanging, but respectable and, for my money, quite good fun. (I especially like the gryphons.)

And so the niggling question remained: if I really am hypersensitive to narrative flaws, then what makes Sword exempt? And that’s when I realised: I haven’t been taking issue with all flaws, universally, but rather with a particular subset of flaws whose presence in SFF narratives is so ubiquitous that, up until last night, I hadn’t rightly distinguished them as belonging to a separate category. Further complicating matters, my decreased attention span has been skewing the data: some books I’ve been setting aside, not because I dislike them, but because their complexity and depth requires more cognitive energy than I can currently muster.  But once I removed them from the equation and focused solely on books which, regardless of whether I’d finished them or not, had all bothered me in similar ways – novels which, overwhelmingly, could be fairly categorised as light or easy reading – the similarity of their flaws was obvious: All were stories whose treatment of gender, race and/or sexual orientation had rubbed me the wrong way, most usually through the use of unhelpful stereotypes and problematic language, but occasionally exacerbated by poor or inconsistent worldbuilding. And once I made that connection, I realised my current tendency towards sharper criticism and decreased patience was part of a trend whose origins demonstrably predated my pregnancy; and yet being pregnant was still a relevant factor, in that my lack of energy had prompted me to look for more lighter, easier books than normal – exactly the sort of material that was proving so problematic. Which meant that Sword stood out to me, not because it’s thematically original, but because it’s a fun, straightforward adventure fantasy that doesn’t demean its female characters.

Which isn’t to say there’s a dearth of amazing, thought-provoking, gender-positive (or race-positive, or sex-positive) fantasy available for consumption. Certainly, there’s less of it than the alternative, if only by dint of historical volume; but even so, there’s definitely been a recent surge of awesome into the market. But simply by virtue of being in a minority, such works are overwhelmingly (and rightly) conscious of their status as counteragents. As many recent arguments have shown, there’s a demonstrable schism in SFF between those who view the racial, social and sexual homogeneity of the classics as being integral to the genre, and those who argue actively for the importance of diversity and the respectful representation of a wider range of cultures, characters and settings; and though the latter argument has considerable traction, the former still tends to represent the base fantastic default. As a result, while both positions are fundamentally representative of different political stances, members of the former camp tend to think this is only true of their opponents: by their definition, the traditional position must also be an inherently neutral one. According to this logic, then, politics cannot be subconsciously enforced through narrative: if no political judgement was intended, then none can be rightly taken. By contrast, actively seeking to incorporate one’s politics into one’s writing is unambiguously a political act – and therefore the antithesis of neutrality. And as the default is deemed to be neutral rather than equally political, then consciously political writers aren’t seen to be redressing a narrative imbalance, but rather needlessly seeking to create one.

That being so, the concept of light or easy reading is suddenly cast in a whole new perspective. If, not unreasonably, we classify such light novels as being stories which exist primarily to entertain, and whose base construction and principles are deemed to be uncontroversial when measured against the genre’s traditional values – stories which, by implication and intention, should be fun and easy to read – then what we’re also saying is that, in an overwhelming number of instances, such light stories are also traditional stories. Because if we accept that political SFF novels are written, not just to entertain, but to subvert both our real world expectations and the traditions of genre, then to a certain extent – or at least, to a certain readership – they cannot possibly qualify as light, because the act of being consciously political disqualifies them. By dint of striving to change or challenge our assumptions, such stories actively encourage introspection in ways that, quite arguably, light books don’t. Which isn’t to say that traditional novels can’t be complex or introspective – clearly, many of them are. But the whole point of default narrative settings – of elements which, by virtue of their traditional weight, can exist in a story unchallenged – is that the audience isn’t meant to question them. Instead, we’re simply meant to be carried along by the novel, engaging in a purely escapist or entertaining narrative – and as a process, that state of passive, unintrospective enjoyment is exactly what light stories are  meant to invoke.

This, then, is my epiphany: that all too often, describing an SFF novel as easy reading is functionally synonymous with describing it as traditional, in the very specific sense that, by definition, easy novels are neither subversive nor politically difficult. Which is why my current search for easy reading has resulted in so many failures and a significant loss of tolerance: because invariably, the light books I’ve picked up have been written in the belief that certain of their default settings, which I find to be both irksome and problematic, are inherently and inoffensively neutral. And because I disagree, it’s impossible to be passively carried along by the story: instead, I wind up reading actively, angrily, in a way that the author doubtless never intended. Under those circumstances, trying to find a light novel to read has proved virtually impossible. By definition, stories which don’t employ the traditional defaults tend overwhelmingly to be challenging and complex, while novels which do are either intentionally cerebral or unintentionally aggravating.

And that, to cut a long story short, is why Sword of Fire and Sea so particularly caught my interest: because it manages to be that rare creature, an SFF read that neither exemplifies the traditional defaults nor strives for political significance beyond the simple fact of this divergence. It is, quite simply (and yet not so simply at all) an adventure story that neither demeans its female characters nor makes a narrative point about not having done so – a light, easy read that nonetheless isn’t traditional. And right now, that feels like the most refreshing thing in the world.

Victorian Women SmokingImage taken from tumblr.

Recently, SFF author Tansy Rayner Roberts wrote an excellent post debunking the idea that women did nothing interesting or useful throughout history, and that trying to write fictional stories based on this premise of feminine insignificance is therefore both inaccurate and offensive. To quote:

“History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.

History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.

But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and other writers of what we now consider “primary sources” simply didn’t think about women and their contribution to society. They took it for granted, except when that contribution or its lack directly affected men.

This does not in any way mean that the female contribution to society was in fact less interesting or important, or complicated, simply that history—the process of writing down and preserving of the facts, not the facts/events themselves—was looking the other way.”

The relevance of this statement to the creation of SFF stories cannot be understated. Time and again, we see fans and creators alike defending the primacy of homogeneous – which is to say, overwhelmingly white, straight and male – stories on the grounds that anything else would be intrinsically unrealistic. Contrary to how it might seem at first blush, this is not a wholly ironic complaint: as I’ve recently had cause to explain elsewhere, the plausibility of SFF stories is derived in large part from their ability to make the impossible feel realistic. A fictional city might be powered by magic and the dreams of dead gods, but it still has to read like a viable human space and be populated by viable human characters. In that sense, it’s arguable that SFF stories actually place a greater primacy on realism than straight fiction, because they have to work harder to compensate for the inclusion of obvious falsehoods. Which is why there’s such an integral relationship between history and fantasy: our knowledge of the former frequently underpins our acceptance of the latter. Once upon a time, we know, there really were knights and castles and quests, and maps whose blank spaces warned of dragons and magic. That being so, a medieval fantasy novel only needs to convince us that the old myths were true; that wizards and witches existed, and that monsters really did populate the wilds. Everything else that’s dissonant with modern reality – the clothes, the customs, the social structure – must therefore constitute a species of historical accuracy, albeit one that’s liberally seasoned with poetic license, because that vague, historical blueprint is what we already have in our heads.

But what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?

The answer tends to be as ugly as it is revealing: that it’s impossible for black, female pirates to exist anywhere, that pixies and shapeshifters are inherently more plausible as a concept than female action heroes who don’t get raped, and that fairy tale characters as diverse as Mulan, Snow White and Captain Hook can all live together in the modern world regardless of history and canon, but a black Lancelot in the same setting is grossly unrealistic. On such occasions, the recent observation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz that “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3rd elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they (white people) think we’re taking over” is bitingly, lamentably accurate. And it’s all thanks to a potent blend of prejudice and ignorance: prejudice here meaning the conviction that deliberately including POC, female and/or LGBTQ characters can only ever be a political action (and therefore an inherently suspicious one), and ignorance here meaning the conviction that the historical pervasiveness of sexism, racism and homophobia must necessarily mean that any character shown to surpass these limitations is inherently unrealistic.

Let’s start with the latter claim, shall we?

Because as Roberts rightly points out, there’s a significant difference between history as written and history as happened, with a further dissonance between both those states and history as it’s popularly perceived. For instance: female pirates – and, indeed, female pirates of colour – are very much an historical reality. The formidable Ching Shih, a former prostitute, commanded more than 1800 ships and 80,000 pirates, took on the British empire and was successful enough to eventually retire. There were female Muslim pirates and female Irish pirates – female pirates, in fact, from any number of places, times and backgrounds. But because their existence isn’t routinely taught or acknowledged, we assume them to be impossible. The history of women in the sciences is plagued by similar misconceptions, their vital contributions belittled, forgotten and otherwise elided for so many years that even now, the majority of them continue to be overlooked. Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie are far from being exceptions to the rule: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Leise Meitner and Emmy Noether all contributed greatly to our understanding of science, as did countless others. And in the modern day, young female scientists abound despite the ongoing belief in their rarity: nineteen-year-old Aisha Mustafa has patented a new propulsion system for spacecraft, while a young group of Nigerian schoolgirls recently invented a urine-powered generator. Even the world’s first chemist was a woman.

And nor is female achievement restricted to the sciences. Heloise d’Argenteuil was accounted one of the brightest intellectuals of her day; Bessie Coleman was both the first black female flyer and the first African American to hold an international pilot’s licence; Nellie Bly was a famed investigative journalist, not only travelling around the world solo in record time (in which adventure she raced against and beat another female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland), but uncovering the deplorable treatment of inmates at Blackwell Asylum by going undercover as a patient. Sarah Josephine Baker was a famous physician known for tracking down Typhoid Mary, tirelessly fighting poverty and, as a consequence, drastically improving newborn care. And in the modern day, there’s no shortage of female icons out fighting racism, sexism, homophobia and injustice despite the limitations society wants to impose on them: journalist Marie Colvin, who died this year reporting on the Syrian uprising; Burmese politician and activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent some 15 years as a political prisoner; fifteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban for her advocacy of female education; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman, who jointly won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize for their work in support of women’s rights.

But what about historical women in positions of leadership – warriors, politicians, powerbrokers? Where do they fit in?  The ancient world provides any number of well-known examples – Agrippina the Younger, Cleopatra, Boudica, Queen Bilquis of Sheba, Nefertiti – but they, too, are far from being unusual: alongside the myriad female soldiers throughout history who disguised themselves as men stand the Dahomey Amazons, the Soviet Night Witches, the female cowboys of the American west and the modern Asgarda of Ukraine; the Empress Dowager Cixi, Queen Elizabeth I and Ka’iulani all ruled despite opposition, while a wealth of African queens, female rulers and rebels have had their histories virtually expunged from common knowledge. At just twenty years old, Juana Galan successfully lead the women of her village against Napoleon’s troops, an action which ultimately caused the French to abandon her home province of La Mancha. Women played a major part in the Mexican revolution, too, much like modern women across Africa and the Middle East, while the Irish revolutionary, suffragette and politician Constance Markievicz, when asked to provide other women with fashion advice, famously replied that they should “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver.” More recently still, in WWII, New Zealander Nancy Wake served as a leading French resistance fighter: known to the Gestapo as the White Mouse, she once killed an SS sentry with her bare hands and took command of a maquis unit when their male commander died in battle. Elsewhere during the same conflict, Irena Sendler survived both torture and a Nazi death sentence to smuggle some 2,500 Jewish children safely out of the Warsaw ghetto, for which she was nominated for a Nobel peace prize in 2007.

And what of gender roles and sexual orientation – the various social, romantic and matrimonial mores we so frequently assume to be static, innate and immutable despite the wealth of information across biology and history telling us the opposite? Consider the modern matrilineal society of Meghalaya, where power and property descend through matrilineal lines and men are the suffragettes. Consider the longstanding Afghan practice of Bacha Posh, where girl children are raised as boys, or the sworn virgins of Albania – women who live as and are legally considered to be men, provided they remain chaste. Consider the honoured status of Winkte and two-spirit persons in various First Nations cultures, and the historical acceptance of both the Fa’afafine of Samoa and the Hijra of India and South-East Asia. Consider the Biblical relationship described in the Book of Samuel between David and Jonathan of Israel, the inferred romance between Alexander the Great and Hephaestion, and the openly gay emperors of the Han Dynasty – including Emperor Ai of Han, whose relationship with Dong Xian gave rise to the phrase ‘the passion of the cut sleeve’. Consider the poetry of Sappho, the relationship between Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, the tradition of normative, female-female relationships in Basotho, and the role of the Magnonmaka in Mali – nuptial advisers whose teach women how to embrace and enjoy their sexuality in marriage.

And then there’s the twin, misguided beliefs that Europe was both wholly white and just as racially prejudiced as modern society from antiquity through to the Middle Ages – practically right up until the present day. Never mind that no less than three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table – Sir Palamedes, Sir Safir and Sir Segwarides – are canonically stated to be Middle Eastern, or the fact that people of African descent have been present in Europe since classical times; and not just as slaves or soldiers, but as aristocrats. The network of trade routes known collectively as the Silk Road that linked Europe with parts Africa, the Middle East, India and Asia were established as early as 100 BC; later, black Africans had a visible, significant, complex presence in Europe during the Renaissance, while much classic Greek and Roman literature was only preserved thanks to the dedication of Arabic scholars during the Abbasid Caliphate, also known as the Islamic Golden Age, whose intellectuals were also responsible for many advances in medicine, science and mathematics subsequently appropriated and claimed as Western innovations. Even in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds, it’s possible to find examples of prominent POC in Europe: Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was of Creole descent, as was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the famous British composer, while Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole was honoured alongside Florence Nightingale for her work during the Crimean War.

I could go on. As exhaustive as this information might seem, it barely scratches the surface. But as limited an overview as these paragraphs present, they should still be sufficient to make one very simple point: that even in highly prejudicial settings supposedly based on real human societies, trying to to argue that women, POC and/or LGBTQ persons can’t so much as wield even small amounts of power in the narrative, let alone exist as autonomous individuals without straining credulity to the breaking point, is the exact polar opposite of historically accurate writing.

Which leads me back to the issue of prejudice: specifically, to the claim that including such characters in SFF stories, by dint of contradicting the model of straight, white, male homogeneity laid down by Tolkien and taken as gospel ever since, is an inherently political – and therefore suspect – act. To which I say: what on Earth makes you think that the classic SWM default is apolitical? If it can reasonably argued that a character’s gender, race and sexual orientation have political implications, then why should that verdict only apply to characters who differ from both yourself and your expectations? Isn’t the assertion that straight white men are narratively neutral itself a political statement, one which seeks to marginalise as exceptional or abnormal the experiences of every other possible type of person on the planet despite the fact that straight white men are themselves a global minority? And even if a particular character was deliberately written to make a political point, why should that threaten you? Why should it matter that people with different beliefs and backgrounds are using fiction to write inspirational wish-fulfillment characters for themselves, but from whose struggle and empowerment you feel personally estranged? That’s not bad writing, and as we’ve established by now, it’s certainly not bad history – and particularly not when you remember (as so many people seem to forget) that fictional cultures are under no obligation whatsoever to conform to historical mores. It just means that someone has managed to write a successful story that doesn’t consider you to be its primary audience – and if the prospect of not being wholly, overwhelmingly catered to is something you find disturbing, threatening, wrong? Then yeah: I’m going to call you a bigot, and I probably won’t be wrong.

Point being, I’m sick to death of historical accuracy being trotted out as the excuse du jour whenever someone freaks out about the inclusion of a particular type of character in SFF, because the ultimate insincerity behind the claim is so palpable it’s practically a food group. I’m yet to see someone who objects to the supposed historic inaccuracy of, for instance, female cavalry regiments (which – surprise! - is totally a thing) raise similarly vehement objections to any other aspect of historically suspicious worldbuilding, like longbows in the wrong period or medical knowledge being too far advanced for the setting. The reason for this is, I suspect, simple: that most people with sufficient historical knowledge to pick up on issues like nonsensical farming techniques, the anachronistic presence of magnets in ancient settings and corsetry in the wrong era also know about historical diversity, and therefore don’t find its inclusion confronting. Almost uniformly, in fact, it seems as though such complaints of racial and sexual inaccuracy have nothing whatsoever to do with history and everything to do with a foggy, bastardised and ultimately inaccurate species of faux-knowledge gleaned primarily – if not exclusively – from homogeneous SFF, RPG settings, TV shows and Hollywood. And if that’s so, then no historic sensibilities are actually being affronted, because none genuinely exist: instead, it’s just a reflexive way of expressing either conscious or subconscious outrage that someone who isn’t white, straight and/or male is being given the spotlight.

Because ultimately, these are SFF stories: narratives set in realms that don’t and can’t exist. And if you still want to police the prospects of their inhabitants in line with a single, misguided view of both human history and human possibility, then congratulations: you have officially missed the point of inventing new worlds to begin with.

Warning: spoilers for both books.

Without question, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is one of the best books I’ve ever read in any genre, not just because it’s heart-stoppingly original, exquisitely written, gorgeously characterised, perfectly structured and amazingly worldbuilt, but because it defies easy categorisation – at least on the surface. On first perusal, it reads as YA urban fantasy right up until you realise it’s somehow transmuted into adult epic fantasy, and when the hell did that happen? Which is less confusing than it is brilliant, Taylor’s skill at successive big reveals being consummate; the point being, though, that it’s really both and neither. What Daughter is – what the series is, as Days of Blood and Starlight makes clear – is an epic portal fantasy, and once you come to that realisation, the whole starts to become… well, not clear, because the story was never unclear, but better contextualised.

Because whether we mean to or not, we all as readers – as audiences – rely on narrative signposting to tell us what kind of story we’re in. If we misread those signs, then it’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking that the story itself is somehow at fault for failing to meet our expectations, when more often than not, the fault is ours for assuming they were valid to begin with. And I say this now because, in reading other reviews of Starlight – many of which are mixed – the single common thread seems to be a species of bewilderment, or complaint, or uncertainty, or surprise at the very least, that the book wasn’t what the reviewer thought it should be. And prior to having read it, that worried me a little, because Daughter was so incredible that obviously – obviously! – it was always going to be a difficult act to follow, which is so often true of impressive first installments. But now, it seems that, at least in some cases, the problem isn’t with the book, but with the expectations of the audience: or, more specifically, the expectation that a story which has as its starting point the genocide of the heroine’s people by her former lover would be anything other than a war story.

Days of Blood and Starlight is a dark, heartbreaking exploration of the consequences of terrorism, empire, slavery, dehumanisation, power and sacrifice, and the myriad ugly ways in which violence and retribution are self-perpetuating. It is also – quite naturally, given the scope of the worldbuilding, but perhaps jarringly to anyone who took the urban fantasy elements at the start of Daughter to be thematically integral to the series rather than a skillfully executed smokescreen – epic. Literally: the bulk of the story takes place in the world of Eretz, which is at war, and so employs multiple POV characters – many new, and some of them one-shots – to give us an all-over view of the conflict. As any habitual, critical reader of epic works will tell you, this is an easy gambit to get wrong: too many new characters can bog the narrative, drive it off track, or otherwise detract from the central, pivotal struggle. But in the case of Starlight, Taylor has managed this potentially hazardous structure with a rare graceful economy – in large part, I suspect, because her native writing style is so uniquely beautiful. In all respects, Taylor’s prose is like the musculature of a hunting cat: glossy, gorgeous, evocative and a form of poetry in its own right, but perfectly balanced, powerful and with not an ounce of flesh wasted. All of which – Taylor’s literary skill and Starlight’s martial themes both – can be summed up in a single, encompassing sentence:

“What can a soldier do when mercy is treason, and he is alone in it?”

This question, ultimately, cuts to the heart of the novel. Akiva’s actions in bringing about the fall of Loramendi – and, as a direct consequence, the effective genocide and enslavement of the chimaera – are unforgivable. Akiva knows this, Karou knows this, the narrative knows this; and yet, because this is a hard, dark story, both the reader and Akiva are still forced to confront the reality of what comes next – or rather, the fact that something does come next. The world doesn’t stop nor the clock turn back: Akiva isn’t trying for redemption, but still he has to move forwards, all the while dragging the weight of what he’s done, because there isn’t any alternative. A new world still needs to be fought for, even by people like him. But Akiva isn’t alone in having blood on his hands: as Thiago’s new resurrectionist, Karou effectively enables his campaign of terrorism – the slaughter of innocent civilians, mothers and children – by building him a new and brutal army. Akiva’s betrayal has broken her; she is grieving, pained both physically and mentally by the strains of her task, and tortured by shame and guilt at the thought of her role in what happened at Loramendi. And yet, this doesn’t excuse her ignorance, the length of time it takes her to understand the use to which her gifts are being put – the bleak and utter darkness of Thiago’s revenge. Just as Akiva is culpable for the massacre of chimaera, so is Karou made culpable for the slaughter of angels.

Blinded by rage and pain and grief, both characters have lent themselves to the execution of terrible deeds and the support of monsters. Akiva’s might be the greater crime, but in either case, there’s no coming back from what they’ve done. What happens next isn’t a question of balancing the scales – there can be no balance – but finding a way to live in what remains of their world, and somehow, maybe, to remake it. And as both find themselves serving under commanders without mercy – Joram and Jael for Akiva, with their dreams of conquest; Thiago for Karou, with his bloody revenge against innocents – both, as Starlight progresses, find the strength for mercy where mercy means treason, building their rebellious hopes in secret. And there is hope: in Sveva, the Dama girl freed from captivity by the rebels; in the true love shared by Zuzana and Mik. Though seemingly incongruous at times, the latter’s inclusion is vital: a bodily reminder – to Karou, to the reader, to the chimaera – of what, in all this blood and catastrophe, the fighting is actually *for*. A simple thing, perhaps; but without the presence of Mik and Zuzana to counterbalance the horror and remind Karou of her human self, Starlight would be an altogether bleaker, more desolate novel.

Even so, the finale is harrowing. This being a war story, Taylor hasn’t spared us the threat of sexual violence against women; or rather, has acknowledged its existence in Liraz’s fears, not of the enemy, but the appetites of her own commander, and her fury at the whole awful system of soldier-bastards fathered on unwilling concubines that underpins Joram’s reign. “These are our mothers,” she fumes at one point – and just like that, we realise her loyalty to the empire is broken (if, indeed, it ever really existed). But at the end, it’s Karou who finds herself facing Thiago’s appetites – the same angry, violent, possessive lust which, when thwarted originally, lead him to torture Akiva and behead Madrigal. Starlight is not an easy read, but in a book brimming with ugliness and torture, the final few chapters are the hardest to read of all.

And yet somehow, despite all the horror, Taylor still manages to end on a note of courage, with just enough stray threads left purposefully dangling to ensure that, whatever the next book brings, it’s bound to be nuanced and complex. Days of Blood and Starlight is a powerful, purposeful novel that subverts our expectations even as it builds them, forcing its characters through darkness only so that they might relearn hope. A truly worthy successor to Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Responding to my post on default narrative sexism, commenter Kevin Veale reported the following incident:

It also reminds me, sadly, of a thread yesterday where an RPG author posted a question about how to shift cultural dynamics about gender in an RPG setting. The thread then proceeded to implode with a bunch of bullshit where people were citing other examples where authors had tried that as “bullshit” because “They’re doing unrealistic stuff purely to create a bizarro world where it’d be cool if women were cavalry,” rather than the listed intent of said author to create a different gender dynamic.

Being both a geek and a ladyperson, this phenomenon is one I’ve encountered many times before, and always felt frustrated by – so much so that I’ve decided to upgrade my response from comment to post.

The sort of incident mentioned above is sadly common in geek culture – a blind and subtle species of sexism-as-normative wherein any attempt to reverse established gender dynamics is written off as a nothing more than cheap attempt at novelty by virtue of the fact that the audience either didn’t expect it or doesn’t see the utility of it. Back when I first started playing D&D in highschool, I remember the pleasant feeling of shock and surprise when, on opening the handbook, I found that all the pronouns used to describe the hypothetical players and characters were female ones. When, seconds later, I remarked on this fact out loud, my then-boyfriend instantly expressed his irritation at it, saying something along the lines of, ‘They’re only doing it to seem cool and politically correct.’ And being sixteen, I instantly found myself agreeing with him: partly because he was my boyfriend (alas!) but mostly because it genuinely did look weird – by which I mean, of course, that I’d never seen it done before. And because I had no grounding in feminism at that point, and even though it had made me feel validated and welcomed as a girl geek just moments earlier, I took up his stance both then and for quite a while afterwards: that switching up the gender pronouns was just an arbitrary, pointless thing people sometimes did to look hip. Whereas, of course, the point was right there in my initial reaction: to make girls like me feel happier playing D&D, and – though it failed with my group of friends – perhaps to make male players more thoughtful and less judgmental when it came to women in general.

As far as I can tell, straight male geeks in particular tend to adopt this position – that is, Random Girls = Bad – for any of three main reasons:

1. Geek culture is so overwhelmingly dominated by images of hyper-sexualised women (anime, maquettes, comics, video games) that even though female characters are frequently shown to excel in traditionally masculine roles across all such media – as mechanics, hackers, warriors, engineers, gunsmiths, leaders and pilots, for instance – their visual, physical sexiness (and, frequently, costuming) is designed to signal that these attributes, rather than being markers of competence and equality, are instead intended as, essentially, masturbatory aids on par with their physical assets: the fantasy of hot women made even hotter by their (to the audience) unrealistic-yet-droolworthy possession of masculine skills. This is why fanservice, unrealistic bodies, ridiculous costuming and wildly impossible poses are so very, very frustrating to female geeks and feminists: because ninety-nine times out of a hundred, their sole utility and relevance is on the level of sexual exploitation. And though most straight male fans are self-aware enough to realise such bodies are meant as unrealistic fantasies, many still have a disturbing tendency to take the logic further, concluding that if women with ridiculous bodies and costumes are unrealistic – and if, given this fact, it’s similarly improbable that women who look, dress and act like that would actually go about their jobs that way in the real world – then logically, real women must not belong in those professions, because the idea that they might do is itself part of the fantasy.

2. Having realised that the depiction of women in games, comics, collectibles and anime is meant as part of a tailor-made fantasy, many straight male geeks, somewhat unsurprisingly, have become aware of something else: that as said fantasy has been explicitly created for and subsequently targeted, marketed and sold to them, there must be someone out there whose goal is to exploit – and subsequently profit from – their sexual desires. Rather than undertake an intellectual exploration of the relationship between sex, gender and advertising in a capitalist system, however, a disappointing number of these geeks make a different and altogether more prejudicial leap: that the presence of women in an otherwise male-dominated environment can be directly correlated with the efforts of corporations to take their money. Their willingness to pay for the product in this equation, whether pre-existing or not, is immaterial: women, and particularly sexy women, have become a red-flag event. Any attempt to insert women into a setting previously devoid of them must therefore come under immediate suspicion. Women are a cash-gathering exercise, the go-to weapon in some cynical marketeer’s arsenal to help Company A more readily collect the hard-earned monies of geeks everywhere; booth babes being a case in point. After all, straight male geeks are very aware of their own negative sexual stereotyping: the fact that they may conform to it at times doesn’t make it any less offensive when it’s being used to exploit them – and the fact that it is used exploitatively is why the sexy female character problem exists to begin with.

But that doesn’t excuse their knee-jerk reaction to and blaming of women themselves: sexism and the system are at fault, not women as entities. And yet, the niggling suspicion of straight male geeks that girls are just there to take their money ends up tarnishing not only legitimate, unsexualised instances of female characterisation, but the efforts of actual geek girls to be taken seriously. All girl gamer group? Yeah, they’re just a novelty act – we’re only meant to like them ‘coz they’re pretty. Girls reading comics or playing video games? Hot, but they’re probably just doing it so boys will like them. Girl geeks in costumes? Total attention whores – they just want men to throw money at them. The same thing happens in music circles, too, among other places. All girl rock band? Fuckable pop-moppet posers – they only got signed ‘coz they look good on a poster. And on, and on, and on.

3. Genuine incomprehension. This is the kindest blindness – a benevolent sexism found in straight male geeks who have nothing against women, per se; it’s just that, all unaware of their own privilege, they’ve never had to think about sexism or exploitation or anything like that, so if the issue comes up offhand, they’re unlikely to see the utility in trying to make women more visible, or to change the way they’re depicted – and if there’s no utility, why do it? After all, women have the vote now, right? And equal opportunities and laws and stuff? And it’s not like anyone’s forcing them to play video games or read comics or watch anime or whatever, so why is it our problem if they don’t like how it works?

Depending on the personality of the geek in question, any conversation after this point can go one of several ways. The most positive, assuming both that you have the time and inclination to explain sexism in geek culture from first principles and that your interlocutor is willing to listen, is that they realise the problem exists and see the utility of female inclusion. The most negative will devolve into angry defenses of the status quo along the lines of the points raised above, with (if you’re very unlucky) a side-order of genuine misogyny thrown in. I mention this because, while the first two points follow fairly specific trains of thought, the reasons for ignorance are wide-ranging; as are potential reactions to the prospect of enlightenment.  Nobody likes to be told they’ve been complicit in something they might otherwise hold in contempt, and particularly not when you tie that complicity to the things they love most, no matter how significant the connection is.

And this, really, is the crux of the problem. Thanks to several decades’ worth of abuse and mockery from the mainstream, geeks as a culture are used to seeing themselves – ourselves – as underdogs. This creates a false sense of certainty that, being outcasts together, we can’t possibly be discounting, belittling or abusing anyone, let alone other outcasts, in the way that we ourselves have been discounted, belittled, abused. Which premise rests squarely on the demonstrably false assurance that people never become what is done to them; that no victims ever become perpetrators. And as I have said again and again, intentionality only takes you so far, and it isn’t very. Intend all you want to be a responsible driver – but if you run someone over by accident, they’ll still be just as dead.