Posts Tagged ‘Story’

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.

Picture the scene: our competent, clever, kickass heroine has just undergone a significant emotional change. Maybe she knows who the killer is, or has suddenly learned that a friend is in danger. Perhaps she’s uncovered a crucial piece of evidence or identified a traitor. Or maybe it’s something more personal: the death of a loved one, a startling revelation, the prospect of an unpleasant choice, an unexpected setback, a heated argument with a sexy-yet-frustrating antagonist. Whatever the catalyst, our heroine is energised, angry, likely upset and probably needing to blow off steam. So what does she do?

She goes alone into a dangerous situation, bites off more than she can chew, and promptly finds herself so overwhelmed that the next thing you know, she’s captured, bleeding, unconscious, imperiled and generally up shit creek. While a male character in similarly dire straits will likely James Bond his way out of things via a sequence of improbable badassery – bullet-dodging, some deus ex machina assistance, a judicious application of poorly-constructed handcuffs and the inevitable revelation that being cornered was part of his plan all along – our heroine will, instead, be rescued by her handsome, protective male love interest, with whom she will then have some soulful eye contact and cuddling at the very least. And instead of feeling irked by this, the audience is meant to feel vindicated.

Why?

Because Prince Saves Damsel is one of the oldest tropes in the book, and not even the advent of Strong Female Characters (TM) has caused it to lose its power. Instead, we’ve simply warped it a little: the Damsel is now a Kickass Damsel, endowed with just enough agency, power and awesomeness to fool the casual observer into thinking that she, too, could potentially have her own James Bond moment. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, she won’t: the odds are stacked against her, not so she can show her strength by overcoming them solo, but as justification for her forthcoming rescue. Crucially, her decision to go alone into danger is always praised as bravery or self-sacrifice – a species of gendered martyrdom – or else couched in a language designed to give the impression that, however foolish her actions might seem in retrospect, they were wholly justified at the time: by anger, by urgency, by the unavailability or physical distance of allies. Ultimately, though, these excuses are all just component parts of a narrative sleight-of-hand trick constructed for a single purpose: to make us forget, or to disbelieve, that the heroine was ever really a Damsel.

Let me break down the narrative logic:

In order to have a charged, emotional moment with her love interest, the heroine – who, for a whole different set of sexist reasons, invariably struggles with intimacy – needs to be rendered vulnerable in his presence. Simply catching her at a moment of personal weakness won’t do the trick: her issues are so deep-seated that unless she was actively dealing with some new trauma, she’d clam right up again – but generally speaking, that’s the sort of major collision you save for later in the relationship, ideally as the catalyst for spending the night together (as per the classic hurt + comfort = sex/spooning equation). Right now, you’re just trying to show that the sexy antagonist cares for her – but because you want to draw out their relationship, you can’t have them kiss or screw right away; instead, they need to connect emotionally, but in a situation that realistically limits their ability to get it on. Solution: send the heroine into danger, watch her get wounded, and have the love interest show up to rescue her, not because she called him in as backup, but because he secretly cares so much for her wellbeing that he was heading to help out anyway. And voila! Not only is her vulnerability and physical weakness excused, but so is his protectiveness and greater competence – the classic Prince Rescues Damsel scenario reconstructed, but in such a way as to couch the Damsel’s endangerment as strength and the Prince’s heroism as sensitivity.

In other words, the Kickass Damsel requires rescue, not because she’s inherently weak, but because her strength and independence are only sufficient for getting her nobly into trouble, not awesomely out of it. At the same time, her love interest’s traditionally masculine protectiveness is justified both by her imperilment and his secret affections: he becomes the Badass Prince, whose aloof, macho and frequently antagonistic/sarcastic persona is ultimately constructed around a chivalrous, knightly core. Over and over again, we limit the competence of our female characters by placing them in perilous scenarios, not to test their skills, but to show how thoroughly they still need to be rescued; to make them vulnerable enough to fall in love, because if we wrote them as being emotionally well-adjusted and romantically inclined from the outset, they’d be deemed too feminine (whereas if we wrote them aromantically, they wouldn’t be seen as feminine enough). And the thing is, none of these tropes are inherently toxic; it’s just that, overwhelmingly, we don’t seem to realise that the Kickass Damsel is a loophole character, designed to blind us to her patriarchal base by disguising her as a feminist icon, and so we end up lauding her as though she were something else.

And I just… I would like to see more recognition of this fact, and more effort taken to write action heroes and heroines who don’t fit this mold so completely. Like triple-choc mudcake, some tropes are fine as a treat, but sickening if over-indulged – and in either case, you should never mistake them for broccoli.

Prompted by the current kerfuffle about book reviews on Goodreads, I’ve been thinking about what, for me, constitutes a good or useful review, and reached the conclusion that overall tone is vastly less important than the lucid contextualisation of arguments. By which I mean: when we react strongly to something – whether positively or negatively – that reaction is contextualised by our existing beliefs, morality, tastes and biases, none of which will necessarily be shared by anyone else, and without at least basic reference to which our reaction will not be useful or even comprehensible to others. For instance: say I have a strong aversion to sex scenes, a nonexistent interest in or knowledge of baseball, and a preference for stories which feature multiple points of view, and I unknowingly pick up a book where the characters have sex, talk constantly about their shared passion for baseball, and which has only one narrator. Clearly, the odds are stacked against my liking this book, and particularly if I’ve chosen it under the misapprehension that I’d enjoy it – say, for instance, because a well-meaning friend with an imperfect knowledge of my tastes recommended it to me – then chances are, I’m going to be disappointed. This does not, however, mean that the book itself is terrible (although it certainly might be) – just that I was entirely the wrong audience for it.

A good review, no matter how negative, will openly contextualise its biases for the reader: I don’t like sex, baseball or single narrators, and therefore disliked these aspects of this book. A mediocre review will hint at these issues, but fail to state them clearly, such that a reader could easily mistake the reviewer’s personal bugbears for objective criticism about structure and narrative flow: the sex scenes were unnecessary, all the baseball was boring and it would’ve benefited from multiple POVs. A bad review won’t make any attempt to explain itself whatsoever - instead, it will simply react: this book is terrible, and I hate everything about it. To be clear, that last remark could well appear in a good or mediocre review as part of an opening gambit or conclusion; but in those instances, the reviewer would have also tried to distinguish their own hangups from whatever else they thought was wrong with the book, so that someone who didn’t object to sex scenes or baseball and who enjoyed single narrator stories (for instance) would be able to make a reasoned judgement about whether or not to read it.

The same principle applies to positive reactions, too: a gushing review is useless if it fails to explain exactly what pleased the reviewer so much, or – just as importantly – if it doesn’t state the reviewer’s personal preferences. This is particularly relevant in instances where the presence of a beloved narrative element might cause the reviewer to ignore or overlook flaws which, were that element not present, might undermine their enjoyment. Personal taste is a balancing act, and one it pays to be aware of. For instance: I love trashy disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow, Twister and The Core, all of which are ludicrous to varying degrees, and all of which contain noticeable plotfail of the kind which, in a different context, would have me ranting and raving the whole way home. I give disaster movies a pass because I expect them to be illogical; but if a similar species of illogic ever crops up in a fantasy film, my husband can vouch for the fact that I’ll spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy dissecting it afterwards.

The point being, a good review doesn’t just tell us about the story: it also tells us a bit about the reviewer, which lets us judge whether our tastes are roughly aligned with theirs – at least in this instance. After all, people are complex, and it’s rare for any two people’s likes and dislikes to always be in perfect alignment. A good review should function a bit like a Venn diagram, showing you the circle of the reviewer’s relevant biases so you can put your own beside it and see how much – if at all – they overlap. Which isn’t to say that a total absence of agreement is useless; all you have to do is reverse the judgement, like making a mental note that if Friend X says a particular film is terrible, then it’s probably going to be awesome. (I mean, come on. We all have this friend.)

For me, a reviewer’s tone is only important insofar as it helps me to contextualise their tastes. I tend to enjoy reviewers with an evident sense of humour, because it suggests to me that they’re not above poking fun at the things they love; and as I don’t always take things seriously, that can be as a  refreshing change from earnest adoration. Which isn’t to say that I never enjoy serious reviews – certainly, I tend to write them myself – only that I hold them to a slightly higher standard: comedic reviews can make for enjoyable reading even if their usefulness is limited, whereas straight reviews have nothing to recommend them but their usefulness, and should that be lacking, there isn’t much point to them. That being said, I’ve little patience for comedic reviews that are more concerned with abstract jokes than actually making a point. Humour might help to emphasise a good argument, but it isn’t a substitute for one, and in the case of negative reviews, it can sometimes feel like it’s being deployed purely or primarily to conceal the reviewer’s lack of relevant insight. A good review isn’t simply about your gut reaction to a book: it’s also an explanation as to why that reaction should matter to other people.

Which brings me to the subject of negative reviews in particular, and my personal approach to them. While I completely understand that some authors choose to refrain from posting negative reviews of their peers’ work, this isn’t something I feel comfortable with. The reason I review at all is to engage in conversation about a particular work, and the idea of abstaining from that simply because I tell stories as well as read them isn’t one that appeals to me. It’s important to note, however, that I’m not a big name author – quite the opposite, in fact – which means that, in the vast majority of instances, my public dislike of a book will have little to no impact on its sales, its general perception and the self esteem of the author. Should that situation ever change, I might well rethink my policy, or at least be extremely judicious about which books I review, because as much as I enjoy writing about stories, popularity (I think) comes with an inherent responsibility to use it, well… responsibly. And the thing about speaking to the mob – or fans, or readers, or any other large group people inclined to pay attention to you – is that you can’t control its reactions, or account for the comprehension of its individual members. And while that doesn’t preclude you from having opinions, it should certainly behoove you to consider what the negative consequences of voicing them might be.

But, I digress: for now, I’m a little-known author more widely recognised for her blogging than her books, which gives me comparative leeway to talk about the things I dislike without worrying that I might accidentally break someone else’s career. (Even so, while I sometimes post positive reviews on my blog, I restrict any negative ones to Goodreads, which feels like the more appropriate place to put them. To me, this is a meaningful professional distinction: unless I actively want to cheerlead for a particular author – and sometimes I do – reviews, whether good or bad, belong on the review site. Simple as that.) And when I do write reviews, I always try to think about why I’m bothering. It’s not my policy to review every single book that I read, or even a majority of them: I only do so is if there’s something about a given story, be it good or bad, that seems to invite discussion. In instances where it’s a negative thing, I try to be very certain about what, specifically, I’m objecting to. Am I morally outraged by something in the text? Does a particular character rub me the wrong way? Does either the plot or the worldbuilding have a hole in it? Is the writing style jarring, or does the author have narrative tic I find irksome? Is it a combination of factors, or just one thing in particular? It’s important to stop and ask these questions, particularly if your emotional reaction is a strong one. Don’t let the popularity of a book overly influence your critical judgement of it, either: by all means, be angry and flabbergasted that something you didn’t enjoy is selling like hot cakes, but unless you’re making a specific argument about successful trends in fiction, keep it out of the review – after all, you’re trying to asses the book itself, not pass judgement on its readers. (And if your review is less about the strengths or failings of a work than it is about mocking its fans, then I’m going to count it unhelpful, and therefore bad.)  And even if you are discussing narrative trends, blind anger at their existence is ultimately less useful than a lucid deconstruction of what they represent and why you find it problematic.

Ultimately, I think, a useful review – even a negative one – should invite conversation. If I dislike a book, I’ll strive to say so in a way that opens the issue up for discussion; which isn’t to say that I’ll always succeed, only that I find the idea of actively trying to discourage discussion incredibly problematic. Making someone feel stupid for liking something – or not liking something – isn’t an outcome that appeals to me: I’d much rather invite people with different opinions to contribute to the conversation than surround myself exclusively with like-minded people, whose agreement – while certainly flattering – does’t teach me anything. Which is also why, on occasion, I’ll actively seek out negative reviews of books I like: to see if other readers might have picked up on something problematic or interesting that I missed. I’ve had some genuine epiphanies about writing, narrative, implicit bias and tropes by doing this, and if you can bear to see something you love being criticized without wading in to defend it, I highly recommend giving it a try. But of course, it only works if the reviews you encounter are useful. They might be cheeky, snarky, serious, lighthearted, deadpan or investigative in tone, but so long as they contextualise their arguments, you could well be pleasantly surprised.

 

I started watching Once Upon A Time a few days ago, intrigued by the idea of fairy tale characters with amnesia being slowly reawakened to themselves in the modern world. Despite my initial misgivings, I was interested enough to keep watching beyond the pilot, but having now started episode 9, I think I’ve reached my limit. Setting aside the frou-frou costuming and stilted dialogue that characterise the fairy tale sequences, the show definitely has its positives – excellent performances from Jennifer Morrison, Lana Parrilla and Robert Carlyle; a profusion of interesting female characters who talk to one another; an original premise; the involvement of Jane Espenson – but try though I might, there’s some major negatives I just can’t seem to get past.

Neither the least nor worst of these – but certainly the most omnipresent in terms of jerking me out of the narrative and invoking repeated moments of fridge logic – is the ageing problem. In a nutshell: all the fairy tale residents of Storybrook have been frozen in time for 28 years, which… I’m not sure what that means, exactly, given that they’ve all been awake and functioning while the Evil Queen/Mayor has been running the joint, but the practical upshot is that none of them have aged. Which means, for instance, that Cinderella/Ashley is implied to have been pregnant with the same child for nearly thirty years: this isn’t explicitly stated, but we never see the FT baby’s birth, the name she’d picked for her FT baby gets bestowed on the daughter she has IRL, and we’re also told that as Ashley, she has no other children. Similarly, Hansel and Grettel are still children, while 10-year-old Henry – who lives in Storybrook but isn’t a FT character – has been actively growing up. Which begs the question: if the curse only affects the actual FT characters and not their children – and bearing in mind, too, that none of the FT characters is able to leave the town – you’d think that, over a period of 28 years, at least some regular kids would’ve grown up, left home, and started to get suspicious about the fact that nobody else was aging, let alone able to come visit them. Plus and also, given that Henry is desperate to find evidence of the curse that Jiminy will believe, you’d think that a woman who’s been nineteen and pregnant for nearly thirty fucking years would leap to mind as a winner. In other words, it’s a worldbuilding/logic problem, and all the more irritating for being so vaguely dealt with.

But, OK, whatever – let’s handwave all the age-weirdness away and focus on the premise itself: that only Emma can break the curse and (presumably) send everyone back to FT-land, where all the proper Happily Ever Afters can come true again. Only, here’s the thing: despite the incredibly saccharine early scenes with Snow White and Prince Charming, the FT-land? Is not a very nice place. There’s terrible dark magic, parents getting turned into puppets, children being forcibly kidnapped to fight on the front lines of an ogre war, Rumplestiltskin screwing everyone up, down and sideways with evil bargains and Pyrrhic victories and a boatload of stolen babies, poverty and theft and patricide and monstrous dragons and evil King Midas threatening war, and it’s just… I cannot, I cannot get behind the idea that the FT-world is better, when in fact it’s demonstrably worse. At least in real life, Ashley gets to have her baby in a hospital, instead of screaming in medieval pain like Snow White in her palace. At least in real life, kids aren’t being stolen to go and fight wars. And look, maybe that’s going to be a long term plot point: that the characters will have to choose which world they prefer to live in, and that even with the Happily Ever After factor, real life will still win out for some. But in the interim, it feels like all the nostalgia for what’s been lost in the show is based on reconstructing an idealised and false version of the Middle Ages, one that’s completely whitewashed – the sole exceptions so far being the face in the Evil Queen’s magic mirror and a black fairy godmother who gets murdered quicksmart – and where  sexism is weirdly absent despite the number of women still getting shafted, and the monarchy rules all, and… you get the idea.

But OK, again, whatever: say that doesn’t bother you, either. And say also that, unlike me, you’re not getting wearied by the constant back-and-forth switching between the two timelines, worn out by the aforementioned naffness that characterises the FT-world and bored by the fact that, reimagined or not, we already know these characters, settings and stories, making them vastly less interesting than the story IRL. Say that you’re not immensely pissed off by the fact that after nearly nine hours of television, the one character who actually started to remember his other life and thereby move the plot forward was immediately killed off (and that’s before you take into account that this was one of the more interesting characters, possessed of on-screen chemistry and massive potential for original development). Say you’re unbothered by the heavy deployment of abandoned, adopted and stolen children as plot points intended to tug the heartstrings, particularly where Emma is concerned; and say you don’t care that, were you to make up a drinking game that involved taking a shot whenever Regina showed up and warned Emma to keep away from someone or something, you’d be utterly legless by midway through episode 2. Say all of that doesn’t phase you. What’s the problem?

Here’s the problem: the Evil Queen, aka Regina, aka Mayor of Storybrook, aka The Villain.

Or, more specifically, the fact that “Evil Witch-Queen” as a job description apparently translates handily to “career-driven, single mother”. This isn’t just an idle comparison: all the FT characters appear IRL in positions and circumstances that are deliberately reflective of their fantastic origins. Cinderella is a maid; Red Riding Hood and Granny run a bakery-slash-guesthouse; the Huntsman is a Sheriff who also works at an animal shelter; Jimminy Cricket is a child psychiatrist; Snow White teaches primary school;  Rumplestiltskin is a pawnbroker. All of those parallels very purposefully mean something: so when I see that the villainous, universally evil stepmother queen has turned into a career-driven single mother, it bothers me a lot – almost as much, in fact, as the way that every FT character except the queen has been made more complex and three-dimensional than in the original stories. By which I mean: dropping a few hints about how Snow White might actually have done something to make the Queen legitimately angry at her, no matter what this turns out to be, cannot possibly justify all the horrific abuse and murder she goes on to perpetrate against everyone else. Even Rumplestiltskin gets a sympathetic origin story: he’s tricked into becoming a vessel for dark powers that immediately consume him. But the Queen – as now, as ever – is simply greedy and callous and evil, manipulating everyone around her through murder, seduction, magic and double-dealing. We’re shown definitively in the pilot that she doesn’t love her son, making every subsequent moment where her expression might invite us to think otherwise a farce. She doesn’t show mercy; she doesn’t change or grow. She’s a one note character completely consumed by a disproportional revenge which, even if justified, would still fail to explain her random cruelty to others. The Evil Queen is, quite literally, the mother of sexist archetypes, and it physically pains me that a show which otherwise takes such care to develop its female characters is content to have Regina simply be evil.

Because, oh, the brilliant possibilities of what might be if she weren’t! If the Queen had somehow been trapped by her own curse and left unaware of her origins – if Storybrook actually represented a fresh start for her, a way to escape the loss and rage she felt in the fairy tale world – then so much would be different. If Henry didn’t think she was the Evil Queen – if he actually loved her as a mother and just felt conflicted by her approach to him – if she actually loved her adoptive son despite her mistakes, and felt genuinely threatened by his sudden rapport with Emma – if she was able to succeed in Storybrook on her own strengths and merits, and not because she was the only one with power and knowledge of what was going on – if she’d become the Mayor because she was skilled, and not through manipulation – if she was a complex woman struggling with herself, one who started to experience flashbacks to a more venomous past that deeply unsettled her sense of self – if, in other words, the curse had actually reinvented her in a positive way, rather than reinforcing sexist stereotypes for seemingly no reason – if that were the case, then I would still be watching the show; because you would, in fact, be hard-pressed to tear me away from it.

But instead, we have the Once Upon A Time that is: a land of overwhelmingly pretty white people, none of whom have ever aged, all of whose backstories are laid out and spoiled as soon as they’re introduced rather than being used to invoke suspense or mystery, where the worldbuilding logic doesn’t make sense and where, subsequently, I’m sorry to say, not even episode after episode of interesting women talking to one another can compensate for the fact that Regina is still unthinkingly the Evil Queen, rather than potentially the most fascinating and complex character of them all.

Plus, I have an overwhelming desire to punch Prince Charming right in the face. But on that point, as with so much else, your mileage may vary.

Guys, check out this gorgeous illustration by Amandine Thomas! It’s for my short story, Needs Must, which is set to appear in the forthcomingSincere Forms of Flattery anthology from O&S Publishing. You can also check out my author interview with them. Squee!