Posts Tagged ‘Narrative’

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.

 

 

Right now, I’m a third of the way through Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, a book whose paciness, premise and execution I’m thus far enjoying, but which is nonetheless conspiring to irk me on gender grounds. Our protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is a teenaged trainee magician, and for multiple reasons, I’m struggling to connect with him as a character. It’s not that he’s an implausible fiction, per se, but rather than he’s overwhelmingly cast in a mold I’m sick of seeing: that of the quiet, studious, socially awkward straight-white-male from a blandly privileged background with no particular personality beyond his penchant for lamenting his lack of same, and whose specialness is far more frequently told than shown. So far, for instance, we’ve been told of Quentin’s academic excellence in the mundane world without his smarts ever being visibly demonstrated, and then further told that he’s an exceptional young magician on the basis of no more evidence, given his own internal doubts, than a teacher’s say-so. He’s an overwhelmingly passive character: 130 pages in, we’re yet to see him make a proactive decision or do anything other than respond to external pressures, and while that’s not something I object to on principle, I tend to prefer such characters to compensate for their reactiveness in other ways – by possessing a sense of humour, say, or introspecting with insight. Quentin, though, demonstrates neither of these qualities, but rather presents as simultaneously amorphous and entitled; what I suspect is meant to read as a sort of youthful, talented-but-underappreciated everyman as per the standards of fiction, but which in reality describes exactly the sort of person who fades into the background precisely because they have little or nothing to offer socially and no sense of why this matters.

And this bothers me; partly because it seems like a waste, but mostly because this particular species of stock – and it is stock – young male characterisation, that of the generically disenfranchised and romantically unsuccessful loner whose chafing ego is vindicated by the narrative’s confirmation of his innate specialness, always seems to go hand in hand with a particular manifestation of the male gaze; one that’s always bothered me, but whose parameters I’ve only just managed to articulate. Now, to be clear: I have no problem with the male gaze as a concept. I might dislike its unthinking ubiquity at times – such as, for instance, in stories where straight male writers forget to differentiate their own sexual preferences from that of their straight female characters, leading to what Kate Elliot refers to as the omniscient breasts problem – but generally speaking, I’m on board with the idea that, while it might not always be to my taste, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with male characters noticing the physical attractiveness of nearby female characters. I do, however, take issue with expressions of the male gaze that, whether intentionally or not, effectively demean or diminish women in narrative, or which are heavily redolent of negative social attitudes and stereotypes. Thus: a story wherein the straight male hero observes the fierce beauty of a warrior queen is unlikely to rile me; but a story where every female character is gratuitously sexualised will.

The Magicians is very definitely written in the male gaze, and in a way which seems to tell us more about Grossman himself than Quentin as a protagonist – specifically, about the extent to which he seems to view female beauty as being incongruous with female competence. By way of demonstration, consider this early passage:

Three paramedics crouched around him, two men and a woman. The woman was disarmingly, almost inappropriately pretty – she looked out of place in that grim scene, miscast…

Quentin wished she weren’t so attractive. Unpretty women were so much easier to deal with in some ways – you didn’t have to face the pain of their probable unattainability. But she was not unpretty. She was pale and thin and unreasonably lovely, with a broad, ridiculously sexy mouth.

And then, consider these lines, which describe an entirely different character:

His tutor was Professor Sunderland, the pretty young woman who had asked him to draw maps during his Examination. She looked nothing like a magician was supposed to: she was blond and dimply and distractingly curvy.

Not long after this, we’re treated to Quentin’s longing for, and I quote, “the radiant upper slopes of her [Professor Sunderland’s] achingly full and gropable breasts,” a sentence which is only slightly less hilarious than it is a disturbing – and, one assumes, unintentional – example of crude lust battling with aesthetic appreciation. In both examples, however, Quentin – and, by extension, Grossman – has concluded that female beauty is incongruous with professionalism; these women are noteworthy, not just because Quentin finds them attractive, but because he doesn’t expect attractive women to be professionals. By direct implication, therefore, Quentin’s surprise at their prettiness undermines his respect for their competence in much the same way that his views on the gropability of Professor Sunderland’s breasts undermines his profession of their radiance. And what makes this an irritating example of the male gaze is the fact that we, the reader, are not meant to notice this dissonance, but are rather expected to sympathise with Quentin: to agree, however tacitly and subconsciously, that it is just a bit surprising and unusual to encounter pretty female professionals, because deep down, our expectation is that intelligence and beauty are mutually exclusive qualities, particularly in women, and that in any case, attractive ladies don’t really need to work at all on account of being attractive.

In this respect, then, The Magicians presents a negative example of the male gaze, in that sexist stereotypes are both present as a background detail and utterly unexamined, let alone acknowledged, by the narrative. But that’s not my main revelation. The other side of the coin is far more subtle: the fact that Quentin’s attraction to women only ever seems to be physical. By which I mean: while women to whom he feels no attraction are described objectively, without sexualisation, his attractions are only ever described in terms of his lust, disassociated from anything deeper or more human like shared interests, emotional connection or personality. And the thing is, if Quentin were meant to be a jaded, sexist, sexually confident character – one whose shallowness was noted in the text – that wouldn’t bother me so much, because it would at least indicate that Grossman and I were on the same page. But because Quentin is meant to be an everyman despite his specialness – because we, the audience, are meant to sympathise with his romantic shortcomings – I find myself repulsed by the unthinking assumption that his hypocrisy doesn’t exist; that it’s perfectly acceptable to lust after women purely because of their bodies with never a thought to liking them as people, all while lamenting their inability to like you for who you are. As though, in other words, their inability to appreciate Quentin as a person has nothing to do with his inability to appreciate them as people, and everything to do with the fact that they’re too beautiful or oblivious to notice him. And the thing is, even though I’m only a third of the way in, this doesn’t seem like a developmental stage he’s about to transcend, because once again, it’s a form of sexist cognitive dissonance that isn’t flagged in the text: we’re not meant to notice it, because in all probability, Grossman didn’t mean for it to be there – or rather, if he did, he didn’t mean for it to be read as negative.

Quentin’s whole character, in other words, is informed by unthinking adherence to male privilege. Despite being bright, having lifelong close friends and a stable homelife, he starts out the novel feeling discontent and disaffected, which unhappiness he contrives to blame equally on his parents and the mundane awkwardness of real life; it doesn’t occur to him to look inwards for the source of his problems, because his sense of entitlement seemingly prevents such critical introspection. Similarly, his unrequited feelings for Julia and the Professor are cast by Grossman as representative of a typical, relatable dynamic – that of the overlooked scholar thwarted by the disinterest of pretty ladies – without any self-awareness of the fact that Quentin isn’t magically entitled to female company; that actually, he’s done nothing to merit their attention, and is in fact being hypocritical in lamenting their lack of appreciation for his personality when his thoughts are only ever concerned with their bodies. Quentin, in other words, in addition to being a fairly unmemorable character, is starting to read like a Nice Guy, and while the rest of the book may hopefully prove me wrong on that point, right now, I’m struggling to cope with this negative variant of the male gaze that’s all the more insidious for being subtle: one where the reader is encouraged to take male privilege – and all the social consequences thereof – for granted, but where its presence is never directly acknowledged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victorian Women SmokingImage taken from tumblr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warning: spoilers for both books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

Let me break down the narrative logic:

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

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

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

Trigger warning: some talk of rape.

About a week ago, urban fantasy author Seanan McGuire wrote an excellent post in response to having been asked when, exactly, her heroines were going to be raped, because according to her interlocutor, not having that happen would be both unrealistic and disrespectful to her work. Her answer: never, for which she has rightly received an enormous amount of respect. Today, she’s followed her initial blog with a short post further clarifying her position, and which ends on the following note:

The other point I’d like to clarify is this: I’ve had a few people say that sexual violence should always be on the table simply because it’s so realistic for male villains to want to use that against female heroes. Well, in my two primary universes, I have feral pixies living in a San Francisco Safeway, and frogs with feathers. If a lack of “I will dominate you with my dick” is all that makes you think I’m being unrealistic, I want some of whatever you’re having. 

Now, I agree wholeheartedly with this argument – but it’s also worth unpacking, because there’s a lot to be said about suspension of disbelief, the fourth wall, fantasy and worldbuilding that’s massively relevant to understanding why, exactly, it holds true. On the surface, for instance, it could be read as a contradiction of one of the basic tenets of writing good SFF: that the unreal elements of a given narrative are anchored and made plausible by the presence of realistic characterisation, plotting and what we might otherwise term as real-world logic. Wizards who behave like real, complex people are infinitely more believable than wizards whose cardboard wizardliness is presented as the justification for their lack of regular human variety. With few exceptions, good characterisation matters more in SFF than any other genre, because the realism of the characters and their actions must necessarily support our belief not only in their fictional existences, but in the plausibility of other elements we know logically to be impossible.  Thus: if a given reader believes rape to be a realistic, logical inevitability under certain circumstances, then its absence from such a narrative will cause their suspension of disbelief to falter precisely because the presence of elves and unicorns isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to motive and characterisation. Even if they’re shapeshifters fighting dragon gods in space, the characters in an SFF narrative still have to read like real people.

Makes sense, right? But here’s the thing: neither human behaviour nor human culture are static, immovable constants, and that means our background understanding of human society – what the reader deems to be familiar, and therefore obviously real – is far from being an inviolate, perfect yardstick of human nature. And this is where a lot of readers are tripped up by their own biases and preconceptions about how the world works: they make the mistake of assuming that because (for instance) women in the medieval period held little or no political power, it’s therefore unrealistic to envisage a fictional medieval setting populated by female powerbrokers; as though their own understanding of human culture is identical to the limits of human culture. Never mind the fact that medieval female aristocrats most certainly played at politics, and that the widespread assumption of total female helplessness prior to the modern era is based primarily on an ignorant, simplistic, mythologised view of history: particularly when it comes to questions of gender, sexuality, race and power, many readers will simply assume that unfamiliar social paradigms are by definition unrealistic paradigms, and react to their inclusion with anything from bafflement to outright hostility.

I’ll say it again: your personal understanding of human culture is not synonymous with the limits of human culture; it is not even necessarily accurate, if certain widespread forms of ignorance are anything to go by. Yes, the writer still has to convince you that their version of reality is plausible, but that’s a near-impossible task if you, the audience, have got it into your head that certain familiar patterns, actions and stereotypes are fundamentally intrinsic to human reality rather than being the arbitrary consequences of a specific history, society or culture. A failure to appreciate this fact is why so many people freaked out about Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall; why half the internet is routinely baffled by the presence of a black Guinevere in Merlin; why the presence of female cavalry in an RPG setting is apparently enough for people to call bullshit on the whole endeavour; why you have people like R. Scott Bakker saying that writing strong female characters is a ‘bootstrapping illusion’ that’s inimical to reality; why, over and over and over again, we balk at accepting fictional realities that subvert our most deeply-held cultural biases, not because they’re poorly written or badly characterised, but because we can’t get past the idea that a world where the heroine doesn’t get raped is somehow fundamentally less plausible than a world full of faeries.

Because that’s what it ultimately boils down to: that all too often, we’re only willing to accept the existence of the impossible provided it doesn’t upset our assumptions about the primacy of the familiar. That’s why sexism, racism and homophobia so often end up as narrative defaults: because we forget to see them as mutable, rather than inevitable, even when they’re things we actively disdain. Yet even if you really do believe in the impossibility of functional, real-world cultures that reject racism, sexism, homophobia and the like, or which are otherwise alien to the familiar, the original question still stands: provided they’re well-written, why should their inclusion in a narrative be any less acceptable than the presence of other impossible things, like magic and dragons? We restrict our understanding of escapism at our peril. And who knows? Many inventions that were once thought impossible had their genesis in SFF,  so why not social mores, too? To borrow a quote from Carl Sandburg, nothing happens unless first a dream – and we who defy your concept of the familiar? We are dreaming, too.

Here’s a contentious statement: A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write. Stories reflect our culture even as they shape it, and as culture is an intrinsically political concept — in the sense of not only shaping and reflecting the politics of the people within it, but actively seeking to comment on how and why this happens — so too is storytelling. At base, fiction is an attempt to answer two different questions with a single answer: nobody can ask what if without first establishing what is. Assumption is as much a part of narrative as invention, and often betrays as much, if not more of the writer than anything they consciously create. Like it or not, our politics — by which I mean, our moral, social and spiritual beliefs about the world as refined through the lens of our individual biases, ignorance, privileges and experience — drive our assumptions; and in fiction, our conscious and unconscious beliefs about what is become the parts of the story we assume the reader already knows — the characters, tropes and logic we assume to be universal, or at least unimportant, and which therefore require neither examination by the audience nor explanation by us. They’re our personal default settings, where personal is the operative word: not everyone will share them, and we forget that at our peril.

For instance: as a teenager, I wrote a number of escapist stories that all began with a bored, frustrated girl of about my age being suddenly rescued from maths class by magic, aliens or something similarly fantastic. I’ll give you three guesses as to my least favourite subject — but while I was fully aware of replicating my own bias, I never saw the harm in doing so. And why would I have? It was my bias. The fact that it was fairly benign doesn’t change its status as an assumption, viz: an aspect of the story that I didn’t intend the prospective reader to question, and whose universality I therefore took for granted — not because I thought that everyone secretly hated maths, but because I wasn’t interested in the feelings and opinions of people who liked it. While the primary point of narrative is certainly to make the reader think, imagine and question beyond the norm, that can only happen if both reader and writer agree on what normal actually is; and if the reader’s own opinions and experiences aren’t encompassed by the writer’s take on what’s normative — if, in fact, they are absent altogether, or else marginalised, twisted and scoffed at — and the reader notices the dissonance, then the likelihood is that they’ll become hostile to the author, or at least to their assumptions, and conclude that the speculative, what if elements are fundamentally flawed by virtue of having been extrapolated from an inaccurate view of reality.

Here’s another, considerably less benign assumption my teenage self made: that white people live in cities and towns, while brown people live in tribal groups in the forest, desert or plains. Not that I’d have phrased it that way if you asked me outright — obviously, I knew people of all nationalities could live in all types of places! But subconsciously, from the culture in which I lived and the tropes I’d absorbed from exposure to other narratives, I’d nonetheless internalised the idea that the type of civilisation I found familiar must always be the work of white people. One brief flash of self-awareness at the age of 14 made me wonder if, just maybe, there was something offensive in my having a lone black character speak in broken English; the thought made me profoundly uncomfortable, and hopefully to my credit, I abandoned that version of the story not longer after. The one that ultimately replaced it, however, while certainly better in some respects — brown people building cities! egads! — was just as racially inept as its predecessors. This time, I wrote about a continent where the indigenous race was dark-skinned, long-lived, innately magical and not-quite-human, and where the human population was descended either from escaped slaves (black) or colonist farmers (white) — and despite having ostensibly created a setting where white-skinned humans were the minority and had arrived last of all, I still managed to have a light-skinned royal family and predominantly white protagonists.

The fact that I had good intentions doesn’t make those early stories any less problematic, and while it’s true that I wasn’t trying to write politically about race, that doesn’t change the fact that I’d internalised enough negative stereotypes that not only had I failed to recognise them as negative, I didn’t even understand they were stereotypes. I had simply assumed that the tropes I’d employed were acceptable, neutral defaults, as inoffensive and apolitical as the classic fantasy usage of elves and dwarves. But our choices always speak to our opinions, whether we mean them to or not. Familiarity is synonymous with neither inoffensiveness nor neutrality, and while the infinite variety of human taste and experience makes it impossible to please everybody, let alone equally, there’s a wealth of difference between causing offence by actively challenging the assumptions of others, and causing offence by failing to challenge your own.

And the thing is, even if you’re aiming for the former option, you won’t always succeed: partly because, as stated, it’s impossible to please everyone, but mostly because we all still need some basic assumptions to work from. A single piece of fiction cannot question the entirety of itself, because then you’d be questioning questions — an infinite recursion without answer or end. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to ever challenge assumptions, either; the point is to accept that, all too often, it’s the things we take for granted — the things we neither explain nor question — that say the most about us as writers, political beings, and as people. The argument that stories shouldn’t be judged for anything their authors think is irrelevant therefore strikes me as having fundamentally missed the point of criticism: Creators shouldn’t have a monopoly on interpreting what they’ve made, while the assumptions which underpin a work are just as important as the inventions which make it unique.

To take one example, I’ve written before, in detail, about my issues with default narrative sexism in SFF: instances where fictional worlds and cultures are anchored in sexist social logic for no better reason than that the authors have assumed its existence either to be so fundamental to sentience, or its use as a trope so unremarkable in narrative, that they never considered excluding it. Or, alternatively, their efforts to write an equal society might come burdened with a whole new set of sexist assumptions, the most common one being to masculinise women without feminising men — there’ll be plenty of empowered female soldiers, leaders and spies, but not so many male nurses, teachers and domestics. (A big part of real-world sexism is still to exalt traditionally male pursuits as being objectively desirable for everyone while discrediting female ones as being objectively undesirable for everyone, but particularly for men.)

And then there’s the current, depressing trend in YA discrimiflip novels: stories which all too often base their supposedly egalitarian messages on simplistic, binary notions of discrimination and privilege by taking a mainstream, powerful group (men, the cisgendered, straights, white people, the able-bodied) and turning them into the victims of those their privilege currently discriminates against (women, QUILTBAG people, POC, the differently abled). Ostensibly, this is meant to engender sympathy for the other side among members of privileged groups, but when poorly handled — as, with few notable exceptions, it overwhelmingly seems to be — the egalitarian intention is buried by the surrounding weight of negative assumptions, foremost of which is the idea that there’s anything simple or binary about discrimination to begin with. The most notable recent example of such a discrimiflip novel is arguably Victoria Foyt’s Revealing Eden, where white people are Pearls and black people are Coals, but there are others, too: Laura Preble’s forthcoming Out, where Perpendiculars (straights) are considered abnormal in a world run by Parallels (gays), and Claire Merle’s The Glimpse, which, while not a straight social flip, nonetheless pits Crazies (those with mental illnesses) against Pures (who don’t).

Which brings me, at long last, to the overwhelming number of YA-related arguments in the recent past over issues such as romance, racism, feminism, conduct and reviewing, and what strikes me as being the primary unifying factor in every instance: the presence of a dispute about interpretation versus intention — which is to say, a criticism of the author’s assumptions on the one hand, which cannot help but also be a partial critique of the author themselves, and the assertion that such criticism is unreasonable, irrelevant or unfair. Over and over again, in arguments about the portrayal of romance in YA novels (for instance), certain authors have been accused of presenting as healthy and desirable relationships which critics claim are literally abusive, toxic and dangerous, and regardless of where you might stand when it comes to individual novels, the fact remains that this debate has been stymied in large part by an overwhelming uncertainty as to whether such criticism is valid, and if so, to what extent.

The recent emergence of YA as a mainstream, successful genre and the overwhelming popularity of series like Twilight among both teenage and adult readers has fundamentally altered the concept of YA reviewing — which is to say, has ended its status as a separate kind of reviewing altogether. Prior to the advent of Harry Potter, it seems fair to say that YA novels were reviewed, not as books that anyone might like to read, but as books for children, the crucial difference being that, as children weren’t (and to a certain extent still aren’t) presumed to care about issues like politics, equality, feminism, bias and privilege, pretty much nobody was reviewing YA novels with those aspects in mind, let alone considering that their handling, presence or absence might be a relevant factor in judging the success of a given book. After all, we’ve traditionally maintained different critical standards for stories that are intended purely for entertainment value — action movies, for instance, are still graded wholly differently to serious drama — and prior to J. K. Rowling, what else was YA meant to be for but entertaining children? Certainly, there’s a long history of literary praise for youthfully-oriented issues-based novels, but that’s still a far cry from mainstream cultural analysis, and anything that smacked even slightly of magic or escapism was exempt from scrutiny (until or unless it was old and vaunted enough to be deemed a ‘classic’, of course, in which case scholars were right to treat it with reverence).

But now, in addition to the rise of digital reviewing – which, as I’ve said before, is particularly skewed towards genre novels – YA is being treated seriously. Not only did the success of Twilight prompt a flood of romantically similar titles, all of which have found themselves subject to the same scrutiny vis-a-vis the promotion of stalking and female passivity as the original, but it directly contributed to YA being critiqued for things like whitewashing, straightwashing, cultural appropriation, sexism, racism and homophobia, too — issues which had previously been the critical domain of mainstream literature, if and when they were discussed at all. Which, often enough, they weren’t, literary fiction being possessed of its own, separate-but-related battles with misogyny, classism, genre snobbishness and white male homogeneity. (Suggesting, perhaps, yet another reason why so much political literary criticism has fallen on YA of late: the old establishment still has its barriers up, so that those of us who wish to critique the negative assumptions of writers as manifested in fiction and deemed reflective of society have necessarily had to look elsewhere.) But still, the tension between those who view YA as pure escapism and those who hold it to a greater accountability remains, well, tense — because for every writer of YA who isn’t trying to be political, but whose assumptions about what is necessarily encode their opinions anyway, there’s a flock of readers ready and waiting to dissect their work as a manifestation of culture.

A writer’s personal politics cannot ever be wholly disentangled from what they write; nor should they be, regardless of the intended age of the audience. Though pop cultural analysis has been sneered at in some quarters as an attempt to give trash entertainment a significance far above its station, it can’t be denied that the mainstream is a powerful reflection of our collective cultural subconscious: the assumptions and stereotypes we all quietly learn from childhood, but which many of us never learn to recognise openly, let alone question. Every time we construct a story without any thought as to the assumptions we’ve made that underpin it — assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, ableness, privilege, ignorance, bias, identity — we run the risk of replicating the very problems we might otherwise condemn; or at the very least, of being lazy thinkers. The fact that it’s impossible to please everybody shouldn’t make us afraid to challenge ourselves or others; rather, we should try harder to ensure that we’re not alienating people through ignorance. But most importantly of all, we need to accept that no story is told in a vacuum: that the politics, beliefs and assumptions of authors are at least as important to the structure and creation of their narratives as those elements which are purely fictional — and that sometimes, there can be real and significant overlap between the two.

Trigger warning: predatory behaviour, creepiness, sexual assault.

Yesterday, I read this account of creepy stalking behaviour retold by a woman whose husband had witnessed it first-hand and subsequently described the incident to her in detail. During the course of her husband’s recitation, the woman asked him what she refers to as The Question, capitalised because, once asked, he stopped seeing the creeper as simply being awkward and inappropriate and started seeing him as frightening and potentially dangerous. And as I was reading, something clicked in my head regarding an incident which, approximately sixteen years ago, left me deeply unsettled, and which continues to unsettle me in memory. It’s not a story I’ve ever told more than once or twice, partly because even now, at the age of 26, I find it as difficult to articulate as I did at age 10, but mostly because, up until yesterday, I didn’t know how to convey the the thing that most bothered me about it, because when it happened, I was too young to ask The Question, and until yesterday, I hadn’t known I could ask it retrospectively. But now I can, and so I’m going to put it all on record.

I don’t remember my precise age, though ten seems the best guess: certainly, I was no older than eleven, and I doubt I was younger than eight. The occasion was a child’s birthday party – not one of my close friends, but a family friend, a son or daughter of someone from my mother’s extended social circle. The setting was a restaurant: all the adults were at a big table in the front room having a roaring party of their own, while the kids were in another out the back, with music and balloons and a trestle table against the far wall where the presents and party bags were. I remember that the kids’ room lead directly outside in two directions – one past the kitchen, one past the toilets and storage room – and that there was no direct line of sight, or indeed point of access, between the adults’ room and ours: you had to pass through a third dining room, occupied by other patrons, to get between them. I remember, too, that I was pretty much on my own: I knew the other kids, but I wasn’t great friends with any of them, and so was standing alone when one of the waiters approached me.

To my child’s perception, he was a youthful-looking adult; in memory, I’d say he was in his twenties. He was blonde and not bad-looking, but something about his eyes bothered me, and when he spoke, he addressed me by name.

“Hello, Philippa,” he said. “That’s a pretty name.”

I felt uneasy. “How do you know my name?”

I have never forgotten, nor will ever forget, the type of smile that accompanied his response. It was a wrong smile, a shark smile, a greasy smile that flicked his mouth up at the left corner and which didn’t match the intensity of his eyes, which were pale blue. His answer, too, I recall verbatim.

He said: “I read it on your lovely little lolly bag.”

And in that moment, I was frightened. I knew, with an absolute certainty, that the waiter shouldn’t have talked to me; that I needed to get as far away from him as possible. I don’t remember what I said to excuse myself, or if I even said anything at all: either way, I went straight to the room where the adults were, determined to tell someone what had happened, because over and over, when you were taught about stranger danger at school, you were told to tell an adult. I got right up next to my mother; I stood beside her chair and waited for a pause in the conversation. There must have been ten or more adults present, and all of them were laughing at something, presumably a joke. When my mother had finished laughing, she turned to me and asked me what I wanted. I opened my mouth, but all at once, my confidence failed. I didn’t know what to say; I didn’t know how to describe the fear I’d felt or the reason for it in a way that would make sense, or that would give the adults something to act on if I did. The waiter hadn’t done anything but talk to me. What if I was wrong? What if they laughed at me, too? What if I ruined their evening?

“Nothing,” I said. “It doesn’t matter.”

But it did matter, because I didn’t feel safe. So strong was my fear that I left the kids’ room and spent the rest of the evening sitting just outside the back entrance to the kitchen, where I was constantly in view of the adult staff. More than once, I was asked if I wanted to go back inside, and each time I said no, I was fine, thanks for asking, I just liked being out in the air. Eventually, one of the other girls at the party came out and sat with me. We talked for a while, and when she asked why I was sitting there, I whispered in her ear that the blonde waiter made me uncomfortable, and so I was keeping away from him – and in reply, she whispered back that she felt weird around him, too. From time to time, I saw him looking at me from inside the kids’ room; he had to walk past my seat to get to and from the kitchen, too, but he didn’t try to talk to me again, presumably because we were guaranteed an audience.

I sat outside for the rest of the night, until it was time to go home. I never told any adults, and in the years since, I’ve often wondered if that was ultimately a good thing or a bad thing. My fear was certainly real, and the phrase lovely little lolly bag still strikes me as being very creepily worded. But still, what does that prove? Nothing actually happened, and apart from my own deep sense of unease, I have no evidence that I was actually in danger. What if I’d raised suspicions about someone who, though seemingly creepy to me, was ultimately harmless? But then again, what if he really had posed a threat? What if the fact that I didn’t speak up meant that, somewhere down the line, he ultimately acted against someone else? In either case, I have no way of knowing. But yesterday, I finally thought to ask The Question, which went a long way towards explaining my unease. Viz:

If the waiter learned my name from my lolly bag, how did he match it to my face?

The only answer is: he was watching me. I wasn’t the only girl at the party; he would’ve had to tell me apart from the others. And he couldn’t have just eavesdropped it, either – then as now, both my actual family and all our family friends called me Foz, and while it’s conceivably possible that one of the adults might have used my full name at some point, it’s also very unlikely given that they spent the majority of the night in a different room. Certainly, the other kids would never have called me Philippa, and in any case, even before the waiter spoke to me, I’d mostly been standing alone. And then there’s the incongruity of him talking to me at all. I’ve worked as a waitress, and when you’ve got a big party taking up two whole rooms of the restaurant plus regular customers in the third, you don’t have time to stop and talk to children. But this man did, and even though it’s taken the power of hindsight for me to understand exactly how odd it all was, my instincts at the time still screamed at me that something was amiss.

There’s a poisonous double standard in our society which says that it’s reverse-sexist and wrong for women to feel threatened by creepy-awkward male behaviour because our fear implies that we hold the negative, stereotypical view that All Men Are Predators, but that if we’re raped or sexually assaulted by any man with whom we’ve had prior social interaction – and particularly if he’s expressed some sexual or romantic interest in us during that time – it’s reasonable for observers to ask what precautions we took to prevent the assault from happening, or to suggest that we maybe led the guy on by not stating our feelings plainly. The result is a situation where women are punished if we reject, avoid or identify creepy men, and then told it’s our fault if we’re assaulted by someone we plainly ought to have rejected, avoided, identified.

And sometimes, even our rejections are ignored. Here’s another story: when I was twelve or thirteen, a boy at my high school developed a crush on me. He asked me out; I said no. He asked me out again; I still said no. One would think that my feelings had been made abundantly clear by this point, but apparently not: his next step was to follow me around every lunch and recess for over a week declaring that he loved me. During this time, I told him repeatedly to fuck off, go away, I didn’t like him, he was making me uncomfortable; on multiple occasions when he came too close, I even resorted to physically shoving him back. When that still didn’t work, I started running away, literally running, right to the other side of the campus if need be; he wasn’t fast enough to follow in the moment, so he started sending messengers after me, other boys who, amused by the absurdity of the situation, thought it was great fun to track me down, wherever I was, and tell me that this boy loved me, and wouldn’t I come and speak to him, go out with him? So then I had to hide from them, too: the only place I was safe was the girl’s toilets, where they were forbidden to go. At one point, a pair of senior girls saw me loitering by the sink and asked what I was doing; I had to explain that I was being chased by boys, and this was the only place I could hide from them. The situation finally came to a head when some other boys were alerted to my harassment by my female friends, and joined our group one day as a sort of protection detail: when the boy who liked me showed up and started professing his love, two of them physically attacked him – a few hard shoves and punches – and warned him to stay away.

He listened to them.

I’ve written before about my brush with sexual assault at university; two incidents which, despite leaving me unscathed, nonetheless serve as reinforcement for the idea that persistence in matters of sex and romance, even once the girl has said no, are considered a male prerogative in our culture. Indeed, the idea of ‘winning the girl’ – of overcoming female objections or resistance through repeated and frequently escalating efforts – is central to most of our modern romantic narratives. (Female persistence, by contrast, is viewed as pathetic.) And the more I think about instances of creepiness, harassment and stalking that culminate in either the threat or actuality of sexual assault, the more I’m convinced that a massive part of the problem is this socially sanctioned idea that men are fundamentally entitled to persist. Because if men are meant to persist, then women who say no must only be rejecting the attempt, not the man himself, so that every separate attempt becomes one of a potentially infinite number of keys which might just fit the lock of the woman’s approval. She’s not the one who’s allowed to say no, not really; she should be silent and passive as a locked door, waiting patiently while the man runs through however many keys he can be bothered trying. And if he gets sick of this lengthy process and just breaks in? Well, frustration under those circumstances is only natural. Either the door shouldn’t have been there to impede him, or it shouldn’t have been locked.

We tell children – and particularly young girls – to beware of creepy adult behaviour; to identify, report and avoid it. But at some point during adolescence, the message becomes reversed: if you’re old enough to consent, the logic seems to go, then suddenly you’re old enough that being too scared to say no, or having your no ignored, is your fault rather than your assailant’s. When adults behave creepily towards children, our first priority is to ascertain whether a threat is posed, because we’d rather call them out for their inappropriateness than risk a genuine threat being written off as harmless, particularly in instances where the child is visibly upset. Certainly, if a child ever came to you and said they didn’t feel safe or comfortable around a particular adult, you’d treat it as a very serious matter. And yet we don’t extend the same logic to people who behave creepily towards other adults – partly and very reasonably, it must be said, because adults are better able to defend themselves than children, and because, on the sexual side of things, children literally cannot consent to anything, whereas one adult propositioning another is not morally repugnant in and of itself, regardless of how creepily they choose to go about it.

But surely the threat of sexual assault is still legitimate and grave enough that it’s better to call someone out for being inappropriate and creepy than to risk a genuine threat being written off as harmless, particularly when the subject of their behaviour is visibly upset? Surely if a friend or colleague comes to you and says they don’t feel safe or comfortable around a particular person, this too is a serious matter? Because even if that person has the best of intentions, poses no threat and doesn’t mean to be creepy, the fact remains that they are still making someone uncomfortable, and that’s definitely worth addressing. As the excellent John Scalzi points out, you don’t get to define someone else’s comfort level with you: sure, it might suck that someone thinks you’re being creepy, but your hurt feelings at that verdict are ultimately less important than whether or not the other person feels safe. If you persist in bothering someone after they’ve made it clear they don’t like you, or in treating them in a manner to which they object simply because you, personally, see nothing wrong with it, then you are being an asshat: you are saying that their actual fear and discomfort are less important that your right to behave in a way that makes them afraid and discomforted, and if that’s the case, then why the hell shouldn’t they call you out?

I’ll never know if the waiter represented a genuine threat to me, or if he was simply creepy and harmless. But my fear was real, and that alone is enough to convince me that his behaviour, whatever his intentions, was inappropriate. Because ultimately, good intentions aren’t a get-out-of-jail-free card; you can’t use them to debunk accusations of creepiness any more than writers can use them to handwave accusations of having created racist or misogynist stories. Intention is not the same as effect, and if someone asks a question – The Question – to which you have no reasonable answer, then prepare to admit that you might be in the wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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