Archive for November, 2012

In 1929, Edward Bernays persuaded a group of women to break the taboo on female smoking by arranging for them all to light up during that year’s Easter Parade in New York City. Though cynically motivated – Bernays was acting on behalf of the American Tobacco Association – this capitalistic appropriation of the suffragette movement was wildly successful: rebranded as “torches of freedom,” cigarettes became both a touchstone for gender equality and a visible accessory of female defiance. The fact that smoking is an addictive, unhealthy and potentially lethal habit doesn’t change the fact that women were being denied access to it purely on the grounds of gender, and yet most people, on learning this particular historical tidbit, will probably feel uncomfortable – not just because Bernays was effectively manipulating the women’s rights movement in order to sell more cigarettes, but because he still had a valid point. No matter the many adverse effects of tobacco – none of which were known at the time – freedom of choice is a basic human right, and denying it to women on the grounds that smoking was a masculine pastime is fundamentally sexist, regardless of our views on cigarettes as a concept.

Similarly, I always feel uneasy whenever I see news outlets fretting about the apparent increase in violent crimes committed by women, and particularly young women. While social commentators are quick to blame the phenomenon on any number of causes – binge drinking, mimicry of “kickass” role models, a seemingly historical predisposition towards initiating domestic confrontations, family breakdown and ladette culture, a change in the definition of assault – their unifying fascination with the issues seems to hinge on the idea of women being corrupted by men; as though female violence is somehow the dark side of feminism. Well, yes, in the sense that violent crime is deplorable regardless of who’s committing it; but that’s a far cry from the view – seldom stated outright, but overwhelmingly implied – that such offences are somehow fundamentally worse when committed by women, not only in a moral sense, but as a perceived symptom of social malaise; as though violent crime as a whole must therefore have reached such epic proportions that even pure, sweet, innocent ladies are being infected by it.

Underneath such scaremongering lies a toxic view of gender essentialism: that because men tend to be physically stronger than women, violence – whether criminal or constructive – must therefore be an innately male characteristic; or at the very least, something which should be viewed with greater acceptance and sympathy when expressed by men. The idea that a certain amount of physical strength is a necessary prerequisite to possession of violent urges, or that maleness somehow excuses poor emotional control, is part of a sexist social logic that serves to validate male expressions of  anger and aggression as being both natural and powerful while demonising women who behave likewise as unnatural and weak. On some level, the cultural derision of female anger as hysteria seemingly stems from a belief in female physical impotence: if verbal disagreements are seen as either analogues for or precursors to physical altercations, then our tacit assumption of female weakness serves to characterise female anger as being somehow disembodied; as though our implied inability to (if necessary) take things outside means that our anger can never be physically felt, and is therefore  inadequate when contrasted with proper, red-blooded, bodily male anger.

Hence my suspicion that at least part of the disgust and confusion leveled at aggressive women stems from the fear that this logic no longer applies: that where before we could trust in angry women to neither hit first nor hit back and therefore discount them appropriately, now we might actually have to treat them with the same deference – or at least, the same concern – as angry men.

To be clear: violent crime is not synonymous with anger; nor is anger only, or even most commonly, expressed through physical acts of aggression. And I’m hardly coming out in support of female violent crime as some bizarre species of empowerment. What I am saying, though, is that our culture has spent so many years defending, downplaying or otherwise handwaving aggression, vice and violence as being integral to proper masculinity – or at least, the inevitable side-effects of same – that we’re now extremely uncomfortable with the idea of women entering those arenas, too. In the case of physically confrontational sports, for instance, like boxing and martial arts, one of the oldest and most universal defenses of their social utility has been as necessary outlets for male (and particularly young male) aggression. But let women into the ring – demonstrate that they can be just as skilled, combative, determined, aggressive – and suddenly that assumption comes under all sorts of scrutiny; because if the desire to punch someone can’t be solely attributed to possession of a Y-chromosome, then maybe – just maybe – all our boys-will-be-boys excuses have been less a rational defense of biology and more an irrational defense of culture. And that’s a truly frightening thought for many, because all of a sudden, centuries of excuses about why men can’t be expected to exhibit self control in any number of situations – why it’s always women who have to dress modestly, avoid conflict and not start fights; why territorial violence, or violence as response to supposed disrespect, is overwhelmingly justified – start to look like… well, excuses.

In a recent article, writer Jen Dziura contended that, contrary to the logic of gender stereotyping, men are just as emotional as women; it’s just that specific types of emotion more commonly associated with men – such as shouting, aggression and violence – are culturally viewed as positive attributes (or at least excusable ones) , whereas emotional displays that are viewed as feminine, like crying and getting upset, are interpreted as weakness.  To quote:

I wish to dispel the notion that women are “more emotional.” I don’t think we are. I think that the emotions women stereotypically express are what men call “emotions,” and the emotions that men typically express are somehow considered by men to be something else.

This is incorrect. Anger? EMOTION. Hate? EMOTION. Resorting to violence? EMOTIONAL OUTBURST. An irrational need to be correct when all the evidence is against you? Pretty sure that’s an emotion. Resorting to shouting really loudly when you don’t like the other person’s point of view? That’s called “being too emotional to engage in a rational discussion.”

Not only do I think men are at least as emotional as women, I think that these stereotypically male emotions are more damaging to rational dialogue than are stereotypically female emotions. A hurt, crying person can still listen, think, and speak. A shouting, angry person? That person is crapping all over meaningful discourse.

Note, please, that Dziura describes these particular emotions, not as being intrinsically male or female, but only stereotypically so. This is a crucial distinction to make, because without it, we miss the existence of yet another double standard: the fact that, on those rare occasions when women do manage to overcome their own socialisation and publicly express anger, rage or violence, they are still derided for being emotional. Once again, the creeping toxicity of our assumptions about who is entitled to anger – viz: anyone we think is capable of supporting their verbal aggression physically – causes us to conclude that, as women lack this ability – and particularly when ranged against male opponents – their anger must therefore be disembodied and hysterical rather than bodily and genuine. An angry man is a growling Alsatian: we listen because his bite could well be worse than his bark. But an angry woman is a yapping chihuahua: visible rage only serves to magnify her physical inability to express it seriously, and in the meantime, we laugh at how cute she looks when she’s pissed.

And then, of course, the issue is further compounded by both conscious and subconscious racism: white male anger, for instance, is viewed as restrained, civilised and righteous, whereas black male anger is viewed as savage, bestial, wild. In this metaphor, the violence of white men as expressed through verbal aggression is viewed as a holstered gun: we’re obscenely comforted to know that, if the argument came to blows, they’d be capable of defending themselves, but otherwise, we don’t worry that violent words are likely to translate to violent actions. The violence of black men, however, is taken to be overt, like a constantly brandished sword – even when their words are milder, we’re conditioned to worry that at any moment, they’ll forgo dialogue in favour of physical action, and to fear and mistrust them appropriately. That’s just one example; the stereotyping is endless. But for any intersectional group and their associated stereotypes, you can be sure that society has an opinion on how entitled they are to anger and violence, how frequently (or not) it’s perceived to be expressed by that group, how threatening this behaviour is to the privileged, and whether such expressions should be generally met with condescension, fear or outright hostility.

As a culture, we need to get past the idea that anger is sole and rightful purview of those with both the potential for physical violence and enough social privilege that their usage of it is always assumed to be justified; that aggression is distinct from emotion, and therefore a legitimate species of argument when employed by men; and that the aggression of anyone who lacks the protections of privilege or the semblance of physical strength mustn’t be legitimate anger, but either thoughtless thuggery or baseless hysteria instead. Like it or not, the right to anger is a cultural resource, and one the most privileged have been keen to reserve for themselves. Not only must we reclaim it, but – as Dziura says – we must also stop mistaking it for the only valid form of discourse; or rather, stop fooling ourselves that we haven’t embedded an unhealthy tolerance for aggression, and specifically white male aggression, in the heart of our definition of reasoned, rational debate. Anger in discourse can be justified, but we should always recognise it for what it is – an emotion – instead of only classing it as one when someone of lesser privilege is using it. That way, we can start to build a system where everyone is heard, and where legitimate expressions of outrage aren’t buried beneath a sneering weight of gendered, racist contempt.

In a nutshell: Tony Harris is a comics artist who recently went on an ill-advised rant declaring that the majority of female cosplayers are fake geeks with an exhibitionist, man-taunting agenda that all right-thinking persons should loathe – and more, elected to do so in a week when multiple stories of female cosplayer harassment had already been in prominent circulation. Responding to the fiery backlash provoked by his poorly written, atrociously punctuated and at times borderline incomprehensible post, Harris doubled down, refusing to budge from his original position while vehemently denying that either he or his views were in any way sexist.

 

Here’s what Harris said in his own defense:

My candor and my delivery of most things can be and usually is quite blunt. Can’t help who I am, but what I’m not, and never have been is a misogynist or sexist or any number of things I was called. I have the utmost respect for all the women in my life from my mother, my sister, motherinlaw, my wife and wonderful 2 daughters…

So I am a Misogynist? Why? Because I frown upon Posers who are sad, needy fakers who use up all my air at Cons? Sorry, while you Cos”Play” Im actually at work. Thats my office. F–k you. I actually dont hate women, I dont fear them either. Nor do I mistrust them. I do not portray or Objectify half naked women in my work. I never have. I have always been VERY vocal about my dislike of that practice, and that my view is and has been that T&A in comics is a Pox. If you wanna come at me with accusations of Misogyny and sexism, youll be wrong. I think there are several Hundred “PRos” I could rattle off that are doing a fine job of perpetuating that crap without ANY help from me. Its not helping to further our industry. Hey haters, Im not sad, lonely, stupid, uneducated, gay, nor do I wear Assess for a Hat. Im not a Sexist, and have been very vocal about the fact that its a GOOD thing to see so many female fans at shows, and I treat them with the same kindness and respect as I do ANY male fan I meet. I guess the one mistake I made in my original post was that I excluded Men.

And here, by way of contrast, is the full text of his original statement:

I cant remember if Ive said this before, but Im gonna say it anyway. I dont give a crap.I appreciate a pretty Gal as much as the next Hetero Male. Sometimes I even go in for some racy type stuff ( keeping the comments PG for my Ladies sake) but dammit, dammit, dammit I am so sick and tired of the whole COSPLAY-Chiks. I know a few who are actually pretty cool-and BIG Shocker, love and read Comics.So as in all things, they are the exception to the rule. Heres the statement I wanna make, based on THE RULE: “Hey! Quasi-Pretty-NOT-Hot-Girl, you are more pathetic than the REAL Nerds, who YOU secretly think are REALLY PATHETIC. But we are onto you. Some of us are aware that you are ever so average on an everyday basis. But you have a couple of things going your way. You are willing to become almost completely Naked in public, and yer either skinny( Well, some or most of you, THINK you are ) or you have Big Boobies. Notice I didnt say GREAT Boobies? You are what I refer to as “CON-HOT”. Well not by my estimation, but according to a LOT of average Comic Book Fans who either RARELY speak to, or NEVER speak to girls. Some Virgins, ALL unconfident when it comes to girls, and the ONE thing they all have in common? The are being preyed on by YOU. You have this really awful need for attention, for people to tell you your pretty, or Hot, and the thought of guys pleasuring themselves to the memory of you hanging on them with your glossy open lips, promising them the Moon and the Stars of pleasure, just makes your head vibrate. After many years of watching this shit go down every 3 seconds around or in front of my booth or table at ANY given Con in the country, I put this together. Well not just me. We are LEGION. And here it is, THE REASON WHY ALL THAT, sickens us: BECAUSE YOU DONT KNOW SH-T ABOUT COMICS, BEYOND WHATEVER GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH YOU DID TO GET REF ON THE MOST MAINSTREAM CHARACTER WITH THE MOST REVEALING COSTUME EVER. And also, if ANY of these guys that you hang on tried to talk to you out of that Con? You wouldnt give them the f–king time of day. Shut up you damned liar, no you would not. Lying, Liar Face. Yer not Comics. Your just the thing that all the Comic Book, AND mainstream press flock to at Cons. And the real reason for the Con, and the damned costumes yer parading around in? That would be Comic Book Artists, and Comic Book Writers who make all that sh-t up.

I’d initially planned to bold all the gender-specific fuckery in that post, but I ended up with only about two unbolded sentences. Instead, here’s a breakdown of Harris’s rant, sans the mysteriously German captialisation of random nouns and (one hopes) a better grasp of syntax:

  • As a straight man, Harris appreciates nice-looking women and even likes some racey stuff, but is sick of female cosplayers.
  • In his opinion, women who “are actually pretty cool and – big shocker – love and read comics” are, “as in all things, the exception to the rule”.
  • Such women, according to Harris, might think themselves pretty, but are actually physically average, boasting little more than a trim waist or maybe some decent boobs. At best, they’re “con-hot”, and the only guys stupid enough to genuinely find them attractive are, in Harris’s estimation, virginal men whose contact with real live women is limited, and who, by inference, have no real expertise or taste in female beauty.
  • Female cosplayers like to prey on the sexual naivety of poor, inexperienced men they secretly think are pathetic; and yet the thought of becoming masturbatory fodder for such awkward virgins literally makes their heads vibrate with pleasure, even though they’d otherwise never give them the time of day.
  • Not only don’t these women really know about comics – they’re deliberately choosing the skimpiest outfits just to attract attention! Outfits that only exist because comic book artists and writers made them up, and for which they should show more gratitude.

And I just… there’s something I’d like to say about all that. Several somethings, actually.

Thing the First: Decrying Sexism Doesn’t Magically Stop You From Being Sexist, Even If You Really Mean It

And especially not when you clearly have no idea of what actually constitutes sexism. Because I mean: unless Harris is seriously contending that everything in his original screed could be equally said of men – which would itself be massively self-contradictory, given his stated belief that women who love and read comics are the exception to the rule, thus implying that any scantily-clad, faux-geek, manipulative male cosplayers would be hard pressed to find a similarly naive, virginal bunch of ladynerds to abuse – then his claim that ” the one mistake I made in my original post was that I excluded Men” makes no sense whatsoever. Because contrary to what his later defense attempts to assert, he was never talking about ignorant cosplayers as a universal problem for which he just so happened to pick a gendered example: his gripe was – quite specifically and explicitly – with how female cosplayers unfairly manipulate men by dint of being… well, women in sexy costumes.

Dear Mr Harris, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this: the fact that you respect the women in your life doesn’t mean you necessarily respect all women equally – the former does not innately imply the latter. Quite clearly, in fact, your respect for women is highly conditional; otherwise, you’re wholly content to bodyshame them (“Quasi-Pretty-NOT-Hot-Girl”), shutshame them (“You are willing to become almost completely Naked in public”), casually objectify them (“con-hot”), morally police their clothing choices (“THE MOST REVEALING COSTUME EVER”) and generally sexualise them (“yer either skinny…or you have Big Boobies”) as a way of demeaning their character, personhood and motives – and that, Mr Harris? That is the textbook definition of sexism. Not – and I want to make this absolutely clear – NOT because you dared to express your heterosexual awareness of what women look like, but because you did so purely to belittle in a context that not only described their crime as being irrevocably gendered, but as one which you claim is committed by the majority of female cosplayers simply because they’re women.  I don’t care what you meant to say, what you thought you said or what you’ve attempted to say subsequently: you have literally, actually said these things and refused to either acknowledge their offensiveness or apologise for it. Respect your female family members all you want; that doesn’t make what you’ve said about female cosplayers any less thoroughly rooted in a deeply stereotypical misogyny.

Which leads me to:

Thing the Second: The Existence Of Female Family Members Does Not Automatically Stop You From Being Sexist 

Invoking the existence of your daughters/female relatives as a way of proving your feminism (or at least, your status as a non-sexist, non-misogynist) is, uh… really, really, really flawed as a tactic. Let me phrase it delicately: this is not a unique fucking quality, and it certainly isn’t specific to non-sexists, as though the presence of misogyny in the bloodstream can somehow magically repress the production of female sperm in men (to say nothing of causing all wives, aunts, sisters, mothers and female cousins to spontaneously combust). Every man has a mother, and every woman a father. That doesn’t automatically prevent any of them from being monstrous, or abusive, or sexist, or a rapist, or the kind of supposedly well-meaning jerk who treats his wife like a princess but makes ugly comments about which of his female coworkers he’d bang provided she lost some weight. OK? Your self-reported benevolence as a husband and father has sweet fuck all to do with your treatment of strangers, even the ones who identify as women. Todd Akin is married with six children, for Pete’s sake, but that didn’t prevent him from claiming that women can’t get pregnant through rape.

And, finally:

Thing the Third: You Don’t Get To Slutshame Women For Wearing Costumes Designed By Men

I’ve already made this point in the comments over at John Scalzi’s blog, but I think it bears repeating. Specifically:

Can we just take a moment to appreciate the fact that a straight white male comics artist – that is, a professional member of a fraternity whose members frequently get froth-mouthed with rage at the VERY SUGGESTION that maybe, just MAYBE, consistently drawing female heroes in skintight, skimpy clothes, viscerally sexualised poses and impossible bodily contortions MIGHT JUST BE a little bit sexist and demeaning – is now saying women who dress as those selfsame characters are slutty? Like, do we not see the contradiction, here? How is it fine to rabidly defend the hypersexualised portrayal of comic book heroines as being no big deal, aesthetically justified, representative of their characters, traditional and all that jazz, but then start body- and slut-shaming actual, real live women who choose to cosplay those outfits? If the costumes themselves had no overt sexual component, or if such a component was present, but ultimately benign – as most comics apologists tend to argue – then the idea that actual women could dress that way specifically to prey on the sexual sensibilities of men who like those characters should be fundamentally ludicrous, regardless of the depth and breadth of their personal comics knowledge.

Seriously, angry comic guys: you cannot have it both ways. You cannot say that female comic heroines aren’t hypersexualised, and then claim that, merely by donning their costumes, real live women are sexualising themselves, and that their primary motive for doing so must therefore be to mess with you. No. THEY’RE DRESSING THE WAY YOU INSIST ON WOMEN DRESSING, AND THEN YOU’RE SHAMING THEM FOR IT.

What’s that, Mr Harris? You say you’ve always been “VERY vocal” about your dislike of women being drawn sexually? You don’t “objectify half-naked women” in your work, and you think that “T&A in comics is a pox”? I agree wholeheartedly! But that doesn’t mean you get to disparage female cosplayers for wearing outfits which, thanks to the sexism of other comics writers and artists, are almost universally revealing, tight-fitting, low-cut, cleavage-enhancing or otherwise sexually loaded. In fact, if such skimpy outfits are the result of objectification, then aren’t those poor, naive men you’re defending similarly objectifying the women who wear them? Unless, of course, you’re excusing their lust on the grounds that any woman who wears a revealing cosplay outfit is necessarily objectifying herself, and therefore deserves it – but as we’ve already established, non-sexualised female characters in mainstream comics – and especially superhero comics – are few and far between. Which means that, by your way of thinking, female cosplayers can either restrict themselves to portaying a vanishingly small number of ‘acceptable’ characters, or not bother at all – because as your original rant makes clear, any woman who opts for a skimpier costume must always be morally suspect.

And that, frankly, is bullshit. The problem with the hypersexualisation of women in comics isn’t that women’s bodies are inherently shameful and ought to be hidden accordingly – it’s that showing heroines in relentlessly sexual attitudes, costumes and postures for the benefit of the (predominantly straight, male) audience regardless of plot relevance and the limits of human anatomy is demeaning to both the characters themselves and women generally. It implies that women must always strive to be attractive; that failing to highlight our physical assets at all times is effectively a misdeed, or at best, a missed opportunity. But if and when we freely choose to exhibit our sexuality – if we, as autonomous individuals, elect to wear bustiers and thigh-high boots in public as part of a cosplay, or just for the hell of it, or because it makes us feel beautiful? Then that is our fucking prerogative, and it doesn’t change our basic humanity or dignity a jot. More importantly still, it doesn’t mean we’re there for your ogling pleasure. By assuming we’re only in it for the thrill of being objectified and drooling at or disparaging us accordingly (which, let me tell you, is much less a thrill than it is a threat), you deny our humanity, our dignity: you insist that our personhood is a one-dimensional, sexual thing, and you forget the myriad complex reasons that necessarily comprise our decision to go out in public or to participate in subculture. You forget that we can take pleasure in dressing up, in pushing our usual boundaries to honour a favourite character, or even – brace for the heresy! – to portray a character we’ve only just discovered, but whom we happen to think looks cool. You forget that our clothes or bodies aren’t inherently shameful, that the problem is with your insistence on defining us by our flesh alone; you forget that objectification is the villain, and not the mechanisms through which we elect to love ourselves.

In short, Mr Harris: you are a sexist ass. And now that the internet’s dropped on your head, you have no one to blame but yourself.

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.