Posts Tagged ‘Structure’

Prior to starting my watch-through of The X Files, my abiding assumption about Mulder and Scully’s relationship, given its status as the UST-OTP to end all UST-OTPs, was that their romance would be highlighted from minute one. I thought this because, by and large, it’s just what happens in procedural shows where the main character has a regular associate or partner of the opposite sex: sure, there are a handful of platonic exceptions, like Pete and Myka of Warehouse 13 and Lisbon and Jane of The Mentalist (for the first four seasons, anyway), but otherwise, the default setting is to comment, loudly and often, on the protagonists’ Secret Attraction. Whether it’s Booth and Brennan (Bones), Castle and Beckett (Castle), House and Cuddy (House), or Olivia and Peter (Fringe), the audience is never left in any doubt as to the presence of a love that dare not speak its name.

And so, not unreasonably, I’d assumed that at least part of the reason for this was the legacy of The X Files – and to a certain extent, that’s true: Mulder and Scully’s relationship casts such a long shadow that every subsequent TV partnership has been forced to address its specter. But the thing is, for the first four seasons, there’s not so much as a whisper of romance between them. Don’t get me wrong – their relationship is devoted, intense, exclusive and loyal, with neither one forming any other significant secondary attachments outside it, and you can certainly infer their attraction as subtext. But as I’ve said before, before S5, it’s only subtext: there are no lingering glances, meaningful conversations, awkward moments or obviously-engineered setups designed to force them together or highlight their romance, and nor do any other characters make a habit of commenting on their relationship. It’s all very refreshing, such that, somewhat ironically, it actually serves as a more genuine basis for their eventual romance than if the attraction had been earmarked the whole way through.

But in S5, Mulder starts to flirt with Scully – subtly, to be sure, but the change in his behaviour is nonetheless evident. He loves her, and yet makes no demands of her. Instead, he simply contents himself with indulging a slightly more intimate sense of humour than previously, and otherwise continues to treat her as normal. In S6, however, the writers have begun to shiptease in earnest, with other characters commenting on their attraction and mistaking them for a couple, and the advent of episodes whose premises force them together in quasi-romantic situations. The first movie, Fight the Future, bridges these two seasons admirably – not only because of the almost-kiss that (arguably) serves to intensify their relationship, but because it brings the primary alien plotline to a dramatic head.

But even once the shipteasing begins, there’s still a degree of subtlety to their relationship that’s unheard of in subsequent shows. Partly, this has to do with the quality of the acting – both Anderson and Duchovny turn in very wry, reserved performances – but mostly, it’s down to how understated the cinematography is. I’ve always known that the romances in other shows are heavily underlined and emphasised, but without being able to compare the default to a different approach, I hadn’t quite realised how pervasive the problem was, and how much it annoyed me: not just on the grounds of being narratively redundant, but because it treats the audience as inattentive and oblivious.

With regard to plot and execution, I’m still enjoying the show. S5 is an incredibly strong season, and S6, while slightly woolier on the main plot – understandable, given that Fight the Future had already provided something of a catharsis for the big themes – is still consistently strong when it comes individual episodes and characterisation. Which leads me to wonder if I’ll ever really tire of the show, even if the quality starts to drop (which experience would suggest it inevitably will). Because as far as I can tell, the three things that most bother me when applied to successive TV seasons – inconsistency, retconning and escalation – aren’t present in The X Files; or at least, aren’t present yet. By which I mean: the characterisation is still solid and internally consistent, there hasn’t been any obvious retconning of previously established information in order to allow for later plots (Chris Carter might be a pantser rather than a plotter, but he still respects his own established canon), and because the premise has always been one of world-altering conspiracies that extend to the highest levels of power, there’s no real scope for the plot to suddenly escalate beyond its original, local parameters (as has happened, for instance, with the death of Brennan’s mother in Bones, the death of Beckett’s mother in Castle, and the advent of the Potentials in Buffy).

All in all, then, The X Files is still proving to be one of the most consistently enjoyable TV shows I’ve ever seen. The steady development of Mulder and Scully’s relationship has been done respectfully over the course of many seasons, and yet has remained subtle rather than being constantly underlined and unnecessarily foregrounded. The monster-of-the-week episodes are still strong, and if the main alien plot is starting to run out of steam, that’s hardly surprising after six seasons and a movie. There’s even been a notable decrease in racefail episodes, which is definitely a plus. And frankly, even if things do start to go downhill from this point on, the show has won enough of my goodwill that I’ll be willing to tolerate a lot before losing patience with it. So: onward to S7!

Recently, I’ve started watching my way through The X Files, a show that was big enough to amorphously dominate my pop cultural recollections of tween- and teenhood, but which, with the exception of two lone episodes circa the sixth or seventh season, I’ve never actually watched before. For a show that first aired in 1993 – which is to say, a show whose first season is now twenty years old – the overall feel is surprisingly undated, partly because of the massive stylistic influence it had on later programming, but also because, right from the get-go, Scully and Mulder have access to both mobile phones and the internet. This might seem like a minor detail at first, especially given the hilariously dated brick-style phones and grey box laptops everyone is using, but it’s incredibly significant in terms of plot: as others have pointed out, many classic Seinfeld gags would be voided now by the presence of mobile phones, while their virtual absence from Buffy meant the main cast spent seven seasons getting in trouble in ways they couldn’t now. But because The X Files was about characters with access to what was then exclusive, expensive technology, there’s a structural modernity to even the earliest episodes that sets it apart from other 90s shows.

By the same token, however, it’s impossible to forget that these early seasons effectively codified the relevance of multiple tropes whose usage is now ubiquitous in both its SFnal and crime procedural heirs – most prominently, the protracted UST between Scully and Mulder, arguably the ur-example of a narrative device so commonplace now as to be practically requisite for crime-fighting partnerships. Having only just reached the end of season two, I can’t yet comment on how the portrayal changes throughout the series, but initially at least, it’s striking to note how the cinematography treats their relationship in comparison to the default practice of more modern shows. In programs like Bones, Castle and Fringe, for instance, moments of intense physical and emotional connection between the male and female leads are almost invariably shown in closeup, replete with soulful reaction shots to underline their significance and further highlighted by the addition of meaningful glances and strong musical cues. By contrast, and despite the undeniable intensity of their relationship as shown through their actions, interactions and dialogue, Scully and Mulder’s closest moments are overwhelmingly shot in wideview, so that the audience watches from a distance: there’s no lingering focus on where and when their hands touch, no sudden cutaway so we can see the one gazing hungrily at the other, and no special score to help us infer attraction, which means that the audience isn’t constantly being hit over the head with Proof That They Secretly Love Each Other. Instead, we can get on with seeing them as individuals whose relationship isn’t their most defining quality, and while they’re still rescuing each other from dire peril every other week (more of which shortly), the end result comes across as refreshingly objective.

It’s also noteworthy how unsexualised Scully is in terms of her clothes and appearance. So far, with the exception of a single scene in the pilot episode where she appears in her underwear,we’ve never seen her in anything more form-fitting than a full length, long-sleeved dress – and even in the pilot, it’s notable that instead of sexy lingerie, she’s wearing sensible, comfy-looking white underwear with an elastic waist. Most of the time, she cuts around wearing a massive, shapeless overcoat; even her hair is a practical length to be worn loose, and when tied back, it actually gets to look messy. Accordingly, the camerawork isn’t overly concerned with her body: we see detail on her face and hands often enough, because her expressions and actions matter, but in two  seasons, I’ve never noticed a ‘male gaze’ moment where the camera sweeps her from top to toe, or else follows the line of a male character’s vision to indicate that he likes what he sees. In fact, I can only think of a single male character who has overtly passed comment on her physical attractiveness, and that was done playfully, in a way that was neither demeaning nor predatory. Which isn’t to say that there’s something wrong with female characters being presented in ways that acknowledge their sexuality – Kate Beckett of Castle, for instance, is very purposefully a woman who enjoys and owns her body, and that’s done extremely well. It’s just that overt sexiness and all the secondary trappings thereof have long since become a default setting for TV heroines, as has male gaze camerawork: any visible underwear is always sexy lingerie and usually shown gratuitously; long hair is always impractically long and often worn loose to  emphasise feminine beauty even in situations where any practical woman would tie it back; work clothes are form-fitting, cleavage-revealing and invariably paired with high heels, even for women who spend all day walking and running; and cosmetic disarray only ever enters the picture as a sign of emotional distress. It’s so low level and constant that half the time I just tune it out, but even so, it’s rare I can get through an action movie these days without gritting my teeth over female soldiers and scientists with perfect flowing princess hair, and oh my god, can we please have a fucking heroine with a ponytail or – let’s go crazy – hair that comes to above her shoulders? But Scully, though well-groomed, smartly dressed and physically attractive, if unconventionally so by today’s exorbitant standards, is still allowed to be practical; to look comfortable, rather than like she’s constantly on display, such that you can go whole episodes without being forced to acknowledge her body at all.

And then there’s Mulder: the handsome young hotshot who’s difficult to work with, but whose crazy theories and mad, brilliant deductions inevitably turn out to be right. That’s a character we see a lot of, now – The Mentalist’s Patrick Jayne, Greg House of House - and while the archetype by no means began with Mulder, Sherlock Holmes being a far more established and obvious antecedent, he’s nonetheless an obvious forerunner to many of the leads we currently see on TV. However, I find it interesting to note that, whereas more recent iterations of this character-type tend to be abusive, inconsiderate, rude, arrogant or some admixture thereof – traits which serve to justify why others find them difficult to work with – Mulder’s outsider status stems not from any overtly obnoxious flaws, but simply because his convictions are so radical. Combined with his consideration of and empathy for others, this makes him much more reminiscent of Holmes than many other characters with an ostensibly closer connection to Doyle’s creation, at least in terms of personality. Despite the propensity of modern adaptations to render Holmes as an uncaring, selfish egotist whose bad manners are justified only by his genius, the original Sherlock, while certainly confident of his abilities and prone to a bluntness born of equal parts distraction and haste, was never deliberately cruel, nor did he disdain the feelings of others; and on occasions when he did cause hurt or offense, his habit was to apologise. In much the same way that Scully’s treatment contrasts with the current default sexualisation of  female leads, therefore, Mulder’s kindness and willingness to listen contrast with the overt displays of arrogance and insensitivity which are increasingly normalised as acceptable and even justifiable when delivered by a particular kind of (straight, white, male, maverick) hero.

In combination, the effect is to make a twenty-year old show feel markedly more progressive than many which postdate it, at least as far as the main characters are concerned. When it comes to issues of race, however, the picture is much more grim. Specifically: the show has made a habit of introducing POC characters whose ethnicity and/or religious beliefs are a source of dangerous supernatural powers, or else of intimating that the religious and cultural beliefs of various POC groups are inherently magic or suspect. Thus far, we’ve had a Native American werewolf, an African American whose zealous Christianity has lead him to track down and kill his former associates, a white soldier using Haitan voodoo to perpetrate atrocities, and a community of cannibalistic white people whose Eebil Cannibalism stems solely from the fact that one of them spent time with a tribe of Indians back in the day and picked up their Eebil Ways. By contrast, white religious beliefs are given positive associations: an alien species living in disguise as a white Christian community, for instance, is portrayed as using Christian beliefs – or at least, the semblance of them – to curb their more dangerous impulses, while white Romanian priests use ritual magic to drive out evil spirits. I’d like to believe that later episodes will improve on this point, but given the extent to which modern shows are still rampantly perpetuating these same stereotypes, I’m not holding out much hope.

What’s really struck me about The X Files, however, is how rich a narrative resource it is for conversations about damselling and gender. Almost every episode, either one or both of the protagonists is put in life-threatening danger, which means that, more often than not, they end up requiring rescue. In terms of who ends up rescuing who, the scores are pretty much equal: both Scully and Mulder regularly go to extraordinary lengths to save each other, whether it’s from exposure to a deadly virus or death at the hands of a killer. There’s no notable imbalance in the hurt/comfort ratio, and nor are such incidents used as gratuitous fodder for emotional confrontations built on romanticised damage, which is very much a positive. In episodes where both characters are imperiled at once, the threat usually comes from a neutral source, faceless government agents and unknown toxic/biological agents being favourite. But when only one is endangered, the type of peril faced is markedly gendered. While Mulder frequently ends up in trouble from what I’ll call an excess of initiative – being first through the door, going off alone, taking risks, pursuing dangerous people – Scully tends to be targeted by male villains for kidnap, experimentation and abuse. Thus, while Mulder tends to save Scully from the predations of specific villains, Scully tends to save Mulder from the consequences of his own actions – meaning, in essence, that whereas male characters are targeted a result of their boldness, female characters are targeted because they’re female, or because they’re perceived to be weak. It does help that Scully is seldom a passive victim, fighting back even while terrified and frequently helping to rescue herself before Mulder arrives on the scene, but even so, the difference is striking.

Overall, then, despite certain qualms, I’m enjoying The X Files, both as a series and as a narrative exercise. Given that the entire collection is nine seasons long, I can’t guarantee that I’ll make it the whole way through, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I plan to give it a try.

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.

 

 

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.

Warning: total spoilers.

There’s a lot I want to say about Brave - plot, execution, structure, controversy, characterisation – but before I start all that, there’s something else to be dealt with first: the fact that, with literally one exception, no Disney princess has actual female friends. Instead, they have animals or talking objects, all of whom are either male or androgynous. Snow White and Aurora have forest creatures; Cinderella has singing mice; Ariel has Flounder and Sebastian; Belle has Chip, Lumiere and Cogsworth; Jasmine has Rajah; Pocahontas has Flit and Meeko; Mulan has Khan, Mushu and a cricket; Rapunzel has a chameleon; and now Merida has Angus, her horse. The exception is Tiana, who has a devoted female friend, Charlotte: however, there are still two animal sidekicks (Ray and Louis – again, both male), Tiana herself spends most of the film as a frog, and given the risk Disney perceived themselves to be taking when it came to the inclusion of their first black princess, my inner cynic cannot help but wonder if the reason for Charlotte’s prominent inclusion had less to do with promoting sisterhood than a ploy, however subconscious, to offset possible negative reaction’ to Tiana’s race by putting her alongside a traditionally likeable, non-threatening, blonde girl, who – thanks to the titular frog transformation – actually gets more human, princessy screentime than Tiana does herself.  Even so, the two girls have a loving, important friendship; the only other princess who gets anything even close to that is Pocahontas, who’s shown to be best friends with a girl called Nakoma; but her animals still play a much bigger role in the movie, and after Nakoma effectively betrays Pocahontas – thus fulfilling her narrative purpose – we never see them reconcile, presumably because the relationship isn’t deemed important enough to bother. Even if you stretch really far into the Disney archive and rummage around for other prominent female characters who aren’t official princesses – Megara, Kida, Thumbelina, Eilonwy – the same pattern still holds: all of them have leading men, but even in the absence of animals or other such companions, none has female friends.

Why am I bringing this up now? Because until today – until I saw Brave - I’d never even noticed; but part of the reason I did notice is because, unlike every other Disney princess and Pixar film, Brave is actually meant to be about female relationships: specifically, the mother-daughter bond. And in that context, I suddenly found myself wondering – where are Merida’s friends and playmates? Where are Elinor’s peers? Merida is the first princess without a romantic storyline, and even with all the focus on her relationship with her mother, it still felt telling that both characters existed in a seemingly lady-free vacuum. By contrast, every male character had visible friendships with other men: Fergus with the clan leaders and the clan leaders with each other. It wouldn’t have been hard to have the clan leaders bring their wives, thus enabling Elinor to have a scene among equals and actually act like a person; and by the same token, Merida could quite easily have had a female friend among the servants. At just 100 minutes, Brave is a short film which, unlike Pixar’s other offerings, manages to feel short, in the sense of having skimped on the characterisation. And to me, that missing ten to twenty minutes – the longer Pixar films tend to come in at somewhere between 110-120 – was all the more noticeable for being exactly the length of time you’d need to give either woman some friends and have them talk without competing.

Which isn’t to say I hated Brave: the animation was breathtakingly beautiful, the pacing worked, the comedy had me laughing at all the right junctures, and as far as positive rolemodels go, Merida is lightyears ahead of every other Disney princess simply by virtue of being the first teenager not to end up married or in an official relationship*. It was a good, even solid movie. But here’s the thing: Pixar isn’t known for doing good and solid. They do breathtaking, original, moving, powerful, classic, brilliant, delightful stuff. The only blemish on their otherwise stellar record, Cars 2, can be directly attributed to the meddling, marketeering hand of Disney, to whom they now owe their allegiance and, presumably, their souls. But when it comes to original stories, Pixar is – was – unparalleled. And it angers me that Brave is the film to further break that pattern: not just because it should’ve been so much better, but because the mid-production firing of Brenda Chapman, the original writer/director, will forever leave open the question of whether the problems in Brave were there from the beginning; or whether the decision to give what should’ve been Pixar’s first female-scripted, female-directed, female-inspired movie over to a man who, apart from anything else, had never previously directed a full-length feature, caused the film to reach somewhat less than its full potential; or whether it was a mix of both, and if so, to what extent.

So here’s the plot in brief: Princess Merida, a headstrong young lassie and peerless archer, chafes under the expectations of her mother, Queen Elinor. When Elinor announces the time has come for Merida’s betrothal, her daughter reacts with disbelief and anger, despite the fact that, as a princess, she would presumably have known this was on the cards. However, on learning that her suitors, the eldest sons of the three clan leaders,  must compete for her in a contest of her choosing – a contest whose wording specifies the entrants must be the firstborn child of a clan, not the firstborn son – Merida chooses archery and, in open defiance of Elinor, enters and wins the right to her own hand. An argument ensues; Merida slashes a tapestry of her family, literally cutting her mother out of the picture; Elinor retaliates by throwing Merida’s bow on the fire; and Merida flees into the night, leaving Elinor to pull the (still intact) bow from the flames and clap her hands to her mouth. Lead through the forest by magic will’o the wisps, Merida stumbles on a witch’s cottage and ends up with a magic cake, the purpose of which, rather nebulously, is to ‘change her fate’ if she feeds it to her mother. What actually happens, once she returns to the castle, is that Elinor turns into a bear. Mayhem ensues as Merida first sneaks Elinor out of the castle, then goes in search of a cure, eventually finding out that unless she can ‘mend the bond torn by pride’ before the second sunrise, the spell’s effects will be permanent. Interpreting this to mean that the slashed tapestry needs to be stitched up, Merida and Elinor the Bear reenter the castle, only to find themselves stymied by the presence of the clansmen. Merida distracts them with an apology and, following Elinor’s pantomimed instructions, a solution that the old tradition of forced marriage be abandoned. This is greeted well; the men head to the cellars; and both Elinor and Merida get back to the tapestry. But, of course, things go wrong again: Elinor is spotted, a bearhunt ensues, and Merida is locked up. From here, you can probably guess the ending: Merida escapes, stitches up the tapestry and, after a climactic fight scene, manages to place the tapestry around Elinor’s shoulders before the sun comes up – but in the end, it’s not the stitches that break the curse, but Merida’s apology for her behaviour. Cue the human restoration of a less strict, more sympathetic Elinor, and that’s a wrap.

Well, almost: those who’ve actually seen the film will notice I’ve left out any reference to the monster bear, Mordu, whose origins and defeat ostensibly serve as a combination of backstory, motive and framing device. You’ll also notice, however, that the above synopsis makes sense without it – which is actually part of the problem with Brave, albeit a comparatively minor one: that it actually has two separate plots, which, while technically interrelated – Mordu turns out to be an ancient prince transformed by the same spell Merida uses on her mother – are nonetheless so distinct both thematically and in terms of execution that it’s possible to describe the film entirely through reference to one without mentioning the other. It’s slipshod scripting, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Mordu plot tacked on, it’s also extremely predictable, devoid of all Pixar’s usual unexpected yet sweetly cathartic gracenotes. There’s nothing at the end you couldn’t have picked at the beginning, and if you haven’t guessed the Big Reveal by about the halfway mark, either you’re not really paying attention or you’re probably not old enough to see the film unaccompanied. Again, this isn’t a cardinal sin – it’s just way below Pixar’s usual standard of excellence.

Part of the problem is their use of a traditional three-act structure, something their films have otherwise either actively subverted or avoided altogether – it’s an old-school Disney structure, in fact, and one that’s much less endearing than it is clunky when deployed sans the usual bridging musical numbers. Which isn’t  to say that Brave suffered on that count, but rather to point out that, as it’s the only non-musical Disney princess film, it’s conceivable that the imposition of a narrative structure that’s more usually fitted to Disney musicals – and I am going to say imposition, because I honestly can’t think of any other reason why Pixar would choose Brave, a film that already represented a departure from their norm, as the vehicle for a structure they’d previously eschewed, except that someone from Disney put their foot down – undermined a premise, to judge by what happened to Brenda Chapman, in which the studio already had less faith than usual.

More egregious in terms of error, however, is the fact that the main event – Elinor being turned into a bear – effectively hinges on an idiot plot. When Merida meets the witch, not only does she fail to explain the specific manner in which she wants her mother ‘changed’, she doesn’t stop to ask what the spell she’s been given will actually do. For a heroine who’s otherwise painted as intelligent, clever and resourceful, this is really a facepalm moment, and a massive oversight in terms of characterisation. It would be one thing if the witch were actively deceitful, lying either out of either malice or mischief; but instead, and seemingly for no better reason than to shoehorn in a few extra gags, she’s simply doddery, betraying zero awareness of the notion that her customers might not want to turn into bears. Never mind that her workshop is full of bear-themed carvings, which would seem to be something of a giveaway: it literally makes no sense that Merida would simply accept the magic cake on trust, without any attempt to properly uncover what its effects will be. The fact that, having established what the magic cake does, she not only leaves it in the kitchen but encourages her baby brothers to go inside and eat whatever they want only compounds the idiocy, cementing the fact that, in this instance at least, the desired plot outcome – more bears! – apparently trumped the need for consistent characterisation.

Which brings me to my single biggest problem with Brave: Elinor herself. Both early on and in flashbacks, we see her playing with the infant Merida – a loving, creative, supportive, attentive parent. Yet when we meet her during Merida’s adolescence, she presents as strict, staid, traditional; even nagging. We’re never given any insight into why she’s changed, nor given the impression that her stern facade is a mask she wears for Merida’s benefit. Like the bear spell, it’s seemingly more a function of necessity than of characterisation: Elinor needs to be antagonistic to Merida, and therefore she is, no matter how much dissonance that creates between her past and present selves. Crucially, we’re never encouraged to sympathise with Elinor in this state, and it’s noteworthy that even Merida, when thinking of Elinor’s good points, returns to memories of childhood rather than anything more recent. There are, however, plenty of gags at Elinor’s expense once she’s in her bear-form, and while I’ll admit to laughing at some of these, the bulk didn’t sit easily with me, particularly as so many seemed to be based on the absurdity of Elinor’s attempts to retain her human – but specifically dainty and feminine – mannerisms, despite Merida urging her to be more bear-like. In that context, it felt significant that Elinor’s real transformation – her sympathy for Merida – only happened once she started behaving like an animal and, as a consequence, having fun. Literally, that’s the comparison: the posh queen learns to empathise with her tomboy daughter, not by seeing things through her eyes, but by learning to disregard her own femininity in favour of behaving like a beast.

And that grated on me, not just because I resent the implication, however unintentional, that tomboyishness in girls can be reasonably compared to animalism, but because it made the reparation of Elinor and Merida’s relationship wholly one-sided. Elinor learns to respect Merida for who she is, but we never see the opposite happen: no sooner does Merida try and accept the betrothal than Elinor concedes her point and prompts her to speak against it, and while that’s certainly the right decision, we don’t see Merida adopting any of her mother’s positive beliefs and behaviours, either. The closing scenes are all of Elinor doing Merida-stuff – riding, adventuring, wearing her hair loose – but not of Merida studying to be more like Elinor, and the implication becomes, not just that femininity is inferior, but that Elinor was wholly in the wrong to begin with: the bear spell is Merida’s fault, yes, albeit by accident, but  everything up to that point is essentially put on Elinor. And for a film that’s meant to be about the mother-daughter bond, it bugged me that the ultimate conclusion was that feminine mothers ought to be more like their tomboyish daughters, with the latter being preferable to the former. Similarly, the fact that Elinor’s transformation from antagonist to ally happens at a point when she can’t talk means that we never hear her side of things, or understand what’s prompted her change of heart as she sees it: Merida gets to give a speech about everything she’s done wrong and how she’s misunderstood her mother (despite the general feeling that she’s been in the right all along), but we never hear Elinor give the rejoinder, either to make her own apology or to explain her new beliefs.

Brave, then, is not an aptly-named film in any sense of the word. The theme isn’t bravery – either martial or emotional – but empathy and love. Merida is definitely a compelling heroine, and as I’ve said, I enjoyed the film; but despite the animation, it’s ultimately more Disney than Pixar, with all the pitfalls that assessment entails.

 

*Technically, this is also true of Pocahontas and Mulan; however, both of them get properly paired up in sequel movies.