Posts Tagged ‘Urban Fantasy’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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2011 involved unprecedented levels of book-related awesome. That’s a big call to make, because as you may have noticed by now, I read voraciously, constantly, and have done my whole life.  Undeniably, one of the things that made 2011 so special was my discovery of Amazon – or, more specifically, the belated realisation that I am a grown woman with my own income and can, as such, buy books on the internet whenever I want. I can’t rightly explain why it’s taken me so long to realise this without delving into the twisted warren of personal psychology, but the practical upshot is that for the past few years, every time I’ve heard about an interesting book or author whose work I can’t find that the local bookshop – which, frankly, is most of the time – I’ve been tagging it on my Goodreads shelf and then sighing over its inaccessibility. Internets, I don’t know what to tell you: I am a complete moron, basically, but all of a sudden, it suddenly occurred to me that I could buy these books online. Hallelujah!  Huzzah! And so I did, and it was awesome.

It is worth pointing out that my husband is suddenly very, very keen on the idea of me getting a Kindle. Every time a new book finds its way into the house, he twitches. There are two good reasons for this, namely:

1. We are rapidly running out of shelving space; and

2. The next time we move, he’ll be the one hauling all my boxes of books down four flights of stairs.

The point being, it’s not just my consumption of books that went up in 2011, but the purchase of them, too. Not only was I trying new things, but suddenly I had a back catalogue of literally hundreds of books I’d been wanted to read for ages, plus the means and opportunity to buy them. And I am here to say, they did not disappoint. Of the 156 titles I read in 2011, only a very few rubbed me the wrong way, and even those still tended to be worth reading. The rest were, by and large, brilliant, which perhaps explains why I chewed through so many so fast. And here is where we come to the reason why 2011 was such a staggeringly awesome year, bookwise: because not only did I read many an awe-inspiring book, but in the process, I became infatuated with many an awe-inspiring author. Not since I was a teenager discovering SFF through the greedy acquisition of second-hand paperbacks has there been a time when so many new writers have instantly made the transition from ‘person whose books I enjoy’ to ‘canonical favourite author’, the latter state being distinguished by the fact that I must have their books, all of them, NOW.

There’s something very special about being made to feel that way again – as though a genre you’d thought you’d known had suddenly opened back up again, richer and even more awesome than ever. And thus I give you, in order of their discovery, my:

Top Ten Authors of 2011

1. China Mieville

A few years ago, I bought a beautiful but unwieldy copy of Perdido Street Station. Perhaps I was just too young for the book, or my expectations of it were such that I couldn’t get into the rhythm of it – either way, I ended up putting it aside. Not long after that, I tried again with Un Lun Dun, but despite enjoying the story, I was so distracted by its similarities to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere that, three quarters of the way through, I put it down and never remembered to pick it up again. And then, in 2010, I bought a copy of the newly-released Kraken – third time’s the charm, I thought – and decided to save it for just the right occasion. And then came Worldcon, during which time I actually ended up meeting China Mieville. Very kindly, he signed my copy of Kraken – and then I heard him read a chapter of it aloud. All of a sudden, it was like a key had turned in my head: everything about his writing that had puzzled me locked into place, and though I was too overwhelmed and exhausted to tackle such a big book at the time, when I finally picked it up in January 2011, I devoured it in something close to a day. Mieville is powerfully, sometimes exhaustingly awesome: his intertwined language and concepts appeal to something deep in the brain, and once you’re inside his stories, it’s impossible to let go. Even better, he’s become an author whose work I can share with my husband: we both loved The City & The City, and were subsequently blown away by Embassytown. Since then, I’ve also finished Perdido Street Station and have a copy of its first sequel, The Scar, ready to go.

2. N. K. Jemisin

Back before its release, I read a free sample chapter of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms somewhere online. I don’t remember who, if anyone, directed me towards it, but the story stuck with me, and when the novel hit shelves, I wasn’t surprised to see it getting great reviews. Not being able to find a copy locally, this was one I had to wait to get, during which time friends kept recommending it, amazing reviews kept cropping up, and I kept getting impatient. And then I finally bought a copy, and it was brilliant, and shortly devoured both sequel volumes, The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods, which were equally as good. Jemisin’s worldbuilding is exquisite, her style both poetic and gripping, but it’s her psychology that really sells me: ambition, need and culture all shape her characters as well as their innate, sometimes difficult personalities, and their interactions are a pleasure to read. She also writes an entirely awesome blog about entirely awesome things, thanks to which I’ve come to think about a lot of important issues I might not otherwise have considered. Her next novel, The Killing Moon, is out this year, and I absolutely cannot wait to lay hands on it.

3. Cory Doctorow 

Technically, this is a cheat, because I first read and loved Little Brother way back in 2009. But for whatever reason, I didn’t follow through with more of his work until last year, when I ended up reading For the Win and Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Doctorow’s strong technology themes – and the ease with which he makes them not only interesting, but significant, to relative laypersons like me – are a large part of what makes his work so compelling; but it’s the social justice elements that get me in the chest. The rest of his books are now in my scopes, and hopefully I’ll get to one or more of them at some point in 2012.

4. Octavia E. Butler

I’d heard of her. I wanted to read her books. But I had no idea where to start, and I was tentative in the way I always am when it comes to science fiction greats, because so often I go in optimistic and then find out that really, these stories aren’t for me. But when I came across an omnibus edition of Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy in the local second-hand bookshop – Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago in a single volume – I decided to plunge ahead. And oh, man. Look, internets: you don’t need me to tell you how amazing, how absolutely jaw-dropping Butler is, because you already knew before me. I was literally broken apart by these books, and though they’re still the only ones of hers I’ve read – stories that powerful need to be rationed, like absinthe or Belgian chocolate – they nonetheless burned themselves into me forever.

5. Paolo Bacigalupi

This is something of an odd one. I made sure to read The Wind-Up Girl after it won the Hugo, and when I did, my reaction was… mixed. (For the curious, my review is here.) There were parts of the story I loved, and others I hated; I came away with a lot of thoughts, but despite the more negative aspects I perceived in the book, I also couldn’t get it out of my head. It’s difficult to articulate why, but sometimes I can have a very Slap Slap Kiss relationship with certain stories: for all my criticisms, I’ll end up loving them more than other works with which I found no fault, because they challenge me. Uncharitably, this is just because I’m a deeply contrary person, but I also suspect it’s because when you see things you absolutely love laid alongside things that make you bristle, you’re forced to rip apart various narrative seams – both in the book and in your head – to find out why you’re reacting that way. This process cannot help but be informative, if not transformative, and the upshot of all my angsting was that the very next month, I ended up buying Ship Breaker. Which, flat out, I absolutely loved. Could not put it down. So not only is Bacigalupi an awesome author, he’s one who makes me think, too – and that is always good.

6. Catherynne M. Valente

The book I started with here was Palimpsest, and – as with The City & The City and The Wind-Up Girl – part of the reason I read it was the Hugo nomination. As is often the case with me, I was nervous: I’d picked up a copy in a bookshop once before, but due to whatever quirk of mood or temper that particular day, I’d decided against buying it. But during a trip to London that happened to coincide with my birthday, I’d decided to give Valente a try, and so set out to acquire a copy of In the Night Garden, which a friend had recommended. Alas, London did not yield me that particular book – but I did find Palimpsest, and so decided, on the basis of the Hugo nomination, that my younger self had no idea what she was talking about. Thus, I bought it, and read the whole thing in a single sitting, curled up in bed in an excruciatingly cheap hotel in the middle of the day. Valente is a poet, and the way she braids this skill with mythology and imagery and longing absolutely kills me. Later in the year, I won an ARC of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making in a Twitter contest. It quite literally moved me to tears, and my review of it is here. After that came Deathless, which was unbelievably good; and in my pile of books-to-be read for 2012 are copies of In the Night Garden and Myths of Origin, which I’m really looking forward to. And, like Jemisin, Valente also writes a kickass blog.

7. Carrie Vaughn

I briefly met Carrie Vaughn at Worldcon in 2010. She was a really lovely person, and on the strength of that I decided to check out her work. This started with Kitty and the Midnight Hour, the first of her best-selling urban fantasy series: there was a lot to like in terms of writing and characterisation, but what really hooked me was Kitty’s job as a radio DJ. So often in UF, the heroines are kickass women doing kickass jobs from the get-go, and while that’s also a type of story I also adore, there was something really special about Kitty being (so to speak) an everywolf – a kind, competent woman doing something she loved, then rolling with the punches when things went sideways. Even so, I was intrigued by the variety of what Vaughn was writing, and so my next port of call were her stand-alone novels: Discord’s Apple, After the Golden Age, Voices of Dragons and Steel. Of these four, my far-and-away favourite was After the Golden Age, which is about a forensic accountant whose parents are both superheroes. What continually impressed me was Vaughn’s versatility: her willingness to play with different ideas to see what happened, and the fact that her heroines – much like Kitty – always feel like very real, relatable women, rather than untouchable action heroes.

8. Lois McMaster Bujold

Early in the year – on the same London trip where I bought Palimpsest, in fact – a writer friend strongly recommended I read some Lois McMaster Bujold. I stored his advice away, and then, during a particularly fulsome Amazon binge, ordered Shards of Honour, the first novel in the Vorkosigan saga. You may judge my reaction to this book by the fact that its heroine, Cordelia Naismith, is now one of my fictional rolemodels for 2012. I cannot even begin to describe how much I love these books. The politics are vicious, intricate and utterly believeable, the action is breathtaking, and the characterisation is pitch-perfect. In addition to Shards of Honour, I managed to get through Barrayar, The Warrior’s Apprentice, The Vor Game, Cetaganda, Ethan of Athos and Brothers in Arms before the end of December; Mirror Dance and Memory are sitting in my to-be-read pile, and as of this afternoon, so are all three volumes of her Chailon series, fortuitously acquired at the second-hand shop. If I could marry her brain, I would. In a nutshell: squee!

9. Laini Taylor

I picked up a copy of Daughter of Smoke and Bone at the local Waterstones. I’d been seeing it reviewed online, but for whatever reason, it hadn’t really registered. The fact that it was shelved with fantasy rather than YA is what made me notice it, because it’s not so often that you see a book that transitions like that; and besides which, it was a signed special edition. So I decided to give it a try, which  turns out to have been one of the best decisions I made all year. As well as being an author, Taylor is also an artist, and her visual imagination comes across beautifully in her worldbuilding. And just, you guys: THE WORLDBUILDING. And the plot. And the characters. And the everything. Without wanting to give too much away – which is actually sort of impossible, so spoiler alert – this book is now my benchmark for any and all stories featuring:

1. Angels and demons;

2. Impossible romance; and

3. Reincarnation plotlines,

because Daughter of Smoke and Bone manages all three like a boss. (End spoilers.) So then I looked up her other works, and was kicking myself when I realised I’d actually seen her Dreamdark books when they first came out, and hadn’t picked them up! Truly, Past Foz is an idiot. But this has now been rectified: both Blackbringer and Silksinger were marvelous, and I cannot wait to see what she writes next.

10. Nnedi Okorafor

I can’t remember whether I first heard of Nnedi Okorafor because of Who Fears Death or because I’d been seeing reviews of Akata Witch cropping up around the place, but either way, I wound up following her on Twitter. The more I heard about her  talk about the themes in her books, the more I knew these were definitely stories I wanted to read, and so without having read anything more than a short story of hers, I ordered Who Fears Death, Akata Witch and Zahrah the Windseeker online. I read Akata Witch first, by way of easing myself in: at least one person had warned me that I might find Who Fears Death harrowing, and in case that were so, I wanted to have read some of her other work beforehand. As things turned out, though, I loved all three books. Okorafor’s constant themes are Africa, culture, feminism, and the power of the outcast, and all her books are breathtaking. Right now, there’s a copy of The Shadow Speaker sitting in my to-be-read pile, and I know that it won’t disappoint.

So, there you have it! Ten awesome authors, all discovered in the space of a year. Seriously though, this whole list should be subtitled How Foz Was Late To The Party, because these are all writers whose excellence has been well-known to other people for years. Only the stubborn idiocy of my younger self is to blame for not having discovered many of them earlier. Damn you, Past Foz! But then, if Past Foz hadn’t been an idiot, I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of finding them all in one go, and 2011 wouldn’t have been nearly so amazing. Nonetheless! To compensate for the fact that everyone on Earth was quicker off the mark than me, here is a secondary list of excellent books to see you on your way. In no particular order:

Five Awesome Books from 2011

1. Water to Burn, by Katharine Kerr

The second book in Kerr’s new urban fantasy series about the exploits of psychic agent Nola O’Grady, following on from by License to Ensorcell, with the third book, Apocalypse to Go, which I was lucky enough to read in draft, about to be released. Rather than rhapsodize anew about why these books are amazing, I’ll direct you instead to my previous review, but in case you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing, just trust me: they are.

2. Delirium, by Lauren Oliver

This book is easily my favourite YA dystopia. The worldbuilding is brilliantly in-depth without being overbearing, the writing is excellent and the characterisation solid, but the sheer power of it is what works: a broken world disillusioned by the problems of 21st century romance, twisted into a passionless society from which only the young or mad can escape.

3. The Shattering, by Karen Healey

Three friends. Three dead brothers. A perfect town. A secret. Read this book; it’s amazing. My review is here.

4. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

An incredible circus. A contest between magicians. Forbidden love. Beauty! Magic! Adventure! What more do you want? Exquisitely written and characterised, The Night Circus took my breath away.

5. The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells

Shapeshifter Moon doesn’t know who his family were; he doesn’t even know what race he is. Finding out takes him on a journey across an amazing, vivid fantasy world, full of a gorgeous variety of cultures, peoples and magic. This is the sort of book you didn’t know you’d been yearning for until you picked it up – so trust me, and do.

So that’s it, folks – my year in books for 2011! What was your year like?

The castle of Starveldt is waiting. Having escaped once from Sanguisidera, Solace and her friends are in desperate need of guidance. Seeking to unravel a cryptic prophecy, they travel to the Rookery, an otherworldly place governed by the enigmatic Liluye. Magical and wild, the Rookery tests them all in preparation for the crossing to Starveldt. But the group is starting to fracture. The threat of Lord Grief continues to grow; old betrayals, lies and secrets boil to the surface – with startling consequences. As danger closes in, can they make their peace before everything falls apart? Or will the Bloodkin triumph?

Last Saturday on October 1, The Key to Starveldt hit shelves, officially confirming it as my second published novel. The largest part of my brain still cannot process the idea that this is A Thing That Has Happened, as opposed to A Thing I Have Daydreamed About And Which Would Never Happen, Ever, which is possibly why it’s taken me so long to blog my celebration. But! That time has now come, and so I say unto the world at large, SQUEE! The Key to Starveldt is out! Reviewer Jenny Mounfield says:

“With its shades of Alice in Wonderland, Misfits, Supernatural—and others—this series will delight the Twilight generation. Meadows has handled her large cast of characters with ease; each is as multi-layered and complex as the plot—which really is a slippery thing: easy enough to grasp, but not so easy to hold onto. It twists, squirms and folds back on itself, all the while keeping readers guessing.

The Rare isn’t just a story of good and evil, it’s about friendship, loyalty, belonging and dealing with difference. As Solace tries to resist the lust for human blood encoded in her genes—traits her dark brother has embraced—questions of nature versus nurture, not to mention our ability to choose our own fate, are brought to the fore.

I was bowled over by Meadows’ story-telling skill in book one, and book two has not disappointed.”

Which, frankly, fills me with glee. But in case you need a little more inducement, I offer you this reading from Chapter 3: The Rookery.

Expect more Cool Things to come, but for the moment: whee!

Scrolling through my Google Reader just now, I came across a post at the Book Pushers website, stating their must-have titles for July.  In order of appearance and category, the books listed are:

Urban Fantasy

Night Veil, by Yasmine Galenorn

Naked City, an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow

Hammered, by Kevin Hearne

Ghost Soldiers, by Keith Melton

Spell Bound, by Kelley Armstrong

Ghost Story, by Jim Butcher

Bloodlands, by Christine Cody

.

Paranormal Romance

Skin Dive, by Ava Gray

Dead Alert, by Bianca D’Arc

.

Steampunk

Dead Iron, by Devon Monk

.

Young Adult

Touch of Frost, by Jennifer Estep

.

Historical Romance

Heartbreak Creek, by Kaki Warner

.

Contemporary Romance

Only Mine, by Susan Mallery

.

What struck me immediately was the staggering difference between how male and female protagonists were depicted on the covers. The heroines of Night Veil and Spell Bound are both shown with bare, toned arms and midriffs, their long hair loose, wearing tight pants and staring sexily forwards from the center of the cover. By contrast, the heroes of  Hammered, Ghost Soldiers, Ghost Story, Bloodlands and Dead Iron are universally set to one side or depicted glancing with their heads turned down or sideways, and all of them bar Atticus of Hammered (who has a sword) are wearing Badass Longcoats. Three of them have weapons. The cover of Naked City, which features both a man and a woman, follows a similar theme: the man is set to the side, glancing downwards and swathed in a coat, while the woman stares sexily from a place of prominence, her corseted cleavage, long hair and bare shoulders on prominent display. Even the YA cover, Touch of Frost, shows a pretty, long-haired girl staring sexily outwards. Note that in every instance, the long-haired girls have brown/dark hair, which the cynic in me thinks is used to denote Sexy Girls Who Are Neither Stupid Not Sluttish, both negative characteristics which are the traditional purview of blondes. 

Compare this with the four romance titles: the two paranormal offerings, Skin Dive and Dead Alert, both show shirtless, well-muscled men. One is faceless, set to the side; the other has a sword, and is accompanied by a PVC clad woman, who – yes – has bare arms, long dark hair, a gun and a come-hither expression. The historical romance has a landscape; the contemporary shows a man and woman, both clothed, on a beach, cuddling intimately.

So, look. I am in no way trying to disparage these books, because they all sound awesome, and at least two of them are already on my TBR list; nor am I trying to point fingers at the authors, or say that the images, taken individually, aren’t compelling. But what the hell is going on in Coverlandia? I mean, it’s not like I’ve been unaware of the gendering of SFF book covers, and I’m certainly not a noob when it comes to trope-spotting. But seeing it all laid out so clearly in a post that had nothing whatsoever to do with cover commentary really brought it home to me. So far as I can tell, these covers have all been constructed in keeping with a set of rules that must look something like this:

  • Sexy, bare-armed brunette women and brooding, weaponised men in coats sell books.
  • Men will be objectified only when the books are being marketed to women.
  • Women will be objectified regardless of audience, though this will be dialed back slightly for YA titles.
  • Men are sexiest when they appear diffident.
  • Women are sexist when they appear confident.
  • Unclothed men are sexy. Clothed Men are sexy. Unclothed women are sexy. Clothed Women, though, are not.

And so on, to the point where my response to the whole wretched business is as follows:

   

Last night, I stayed up until 2am finishing my ARC of Water to Burn, the second Nola O’Grady novel by Katharine Kerr. Despite being set in San Francisco and following the exploits of Nola, a psychic employed by a secret government agency on the side of Harmony, it’s not quite accurate to describe the series as urban fantasy. For one thing, an ongoing plot point from book one, License to Ensorcell, focuses on the discovery and exploration of deviant world-levels – that is to say, alternate and parallel realities both similar and dissimilar to Earth – populated in some instances by doppelganger inhabitants raised under vastly different circumstances. This puts the flavour closer to SF than fantasy at times, raising questions about the setting’s scientific theories and contributing to a rich sense of narrative possibility. The series is also distinguished by its strong sense of Earth politics: Nola’s offsider, bodyguard and love-interest since book one, Ari Nathan, is a high-level operative with both Interpol and the Israeli government. While some writers might be tempted to mention this merely by way of exotic background detail, Kerr actively incorporates it into events, not only in terms of Ari and Nola’s respective efforts to balance duties and secrets with their personal relationship, but also as a source of cross-cultural commentary and plot relevance. Just as Nola’s character is defined in large part by her family ties, psychic gifts, religious upbringing and Irish-American heritage, so too is Ari defined by his family ties, martial gifts, religious upbringing  and Israeli heritage. Kerr has done her research, and if ever Nola lapses into forgetting that Ari, despite his perfect English, was raised in a different culture, neither she nor the reader is allowed to keep that ignorance for long.

Plot-wise, the events of Water to Burn follow closely on from the end of License to Ensorcell: the Chaos masters who orchestrated the events of book one are still at large, though their influence is being felt in difference ways. A twelve-year-old girl drowns when a freak wave seemingly pulls her from the shore; Reb Ezekiel, the self-professed prophet who ran the kibbutz where Ari spent his childhood, has been sighted in the city, despite having been thought dead for some years; and a shady businessmen appears to be blackmailing Nola’s affluent brother-in-law. Though seemingly disparate at first, these separate occurrences all begin to tie in with the mysterious Peacock Angel cult and its Chaotic adherents, increasing in intensity as Nola and Ari get closer to the truth.

There are several satisfying differences that set this series apart from other UF works. Firstly, the romance: though Nola and Ari flirted and danced around each other for a significant portion of License to Ensorcell, by novel’s end, they’d reconciled their attraction and embarked on an actual relationship. There is no mysterious third wheel waiting in the wings to try and turn things into a love triangle; nor did Water to Burn begin with either party calling things off, thereby restoring a default state of unresolved sexual tension. Instead, they look for a new apartment and move in together, while Nola wrestles internally with her fear that ‘picket-stakes of domesticity’  are dropping into place in her life, confronting her past issues with commitment and abandonment. Given the fact that her other novels have cheerfully featured romantic, sexual scenes, the fact that Nola and Ari’s encounters are always hidden by a cut-to-black suggests  that Kerr has made a conscious decision to differentiate the O’Grady books from the plethora of sexy, paranormal crime series already available. In this instance, the romance isn’t about wild, passionate tension, but rather about two defensive, similarly wounded people struggling to turn chemistry into love, with all the pitfalls, doubts and self-recriminations that involves.

The series also places a tremendous significance on family. Again, this runs counter to the usual intuitions about urban fantasy: Nola’s gifts are genetic and certainly contributed to her childhood woes, but she is neither an isolate orphan nor an only child. Instead, we’re  introduced to the loving-yet-complicated network of brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles – most of them similarly gifted, though in different ways – that make up Nola’s family. We know her mother is in deep denial about her own magical gifts, let alone everyone else’s, while her father, for reasons that are slowly being uncovered, was forced to leave his wife and children while they were still a young family, with consequences that are still being felt in the present. Nola has seven siblings, one of whom was murdered before the start of the first book; a strong relationship with her caring, religious Aunt Eileen; and a plethora of other such kinships, each one uniquely complicated in the way that only extended family can be. So far, we’ve only been allowed to glimpse Ari’s history, but his own upbringing has already proved crucial to the plot, and with Nola fixing to secretly contact his mother, it seems plain that sooner or later, his family secrets will be subject to just as much scrutiny as Nola’s.

Finally, there’s the issue of Nola’s eating habits. As the books are narrated almost exclusively from her POV, the fact that both Ari and her family members are concerned about her having an ‘eating disorder’ is brushed off in her thoughts as meddlesome paranoia. And yet, we also see exactly how much calorie-counting Nola really does: scrimping her portions, foregoing meals, declining various dishes at family gatherings, and generally keeping herself half-starved. It’s both a refreshing and a confronting move on Kerr’s part: refreshing, in the sense that so many heroines are described as meeting society’s physical ideals without any conscious effort on their part or narrative criticism about the value of said ideals, and confronting, because by the end of Water to Burn, we’re left in no doubt that Nola really does have a problem. Happily, our heroine seems to understand this, too, but issues of esteem are never easy to overcome, and we’re left with the knowledge that Nola has a long road yet to travel.

Water to Burn is an immensely satisfying second installment in the Nola O’Grady series. Rather than relying on sexual tension and violence as the backbone of her series, Kerr has instead built a rich, original, complicated world of politics both real and magical, parallel worlds, family ties, cultural clashes and work-in-progress relationships that cannot help but suck the reader in – and I can’t wait to read book three.

I’ve just been reading this interesting post over at Katharine Kerr’s blog about trying to define what constitutes a work of literary fiction, as opposed to a work of genre fiction. She also talks about the dangers of arguing against litfic and the literary establishment by way of derogatory strawman arguments, not only because this is exactly the kind of negative pigeonholing SFF fans and writers have always railed against when it’s turned our way, but also because it’s unhelpful in trying to understand what literary fiction actually is. It’s an interesting question, but in trying to answer it, I ended up in quite a different place to where I started. Rather than hijack the conversation, therefore, I’m going to take the comment I left as a starting point for answering a slightly different question: how might a lack of named literary subgenres be impeding the success of women literary writers?

As a casual glance at the blogsphere will reveal, there’s been considerable recent debate in SFF quarters about the feminisation of epic fantasy and the nihilism of gritty fantasy, conversations that have been in no small part facilitated by our ability to distinguish between the different SFF subgenres. We know that Tolkien is the Mitochondrial Eve of fantasy writers: one way or another, all our works descend from his. But as with the human race, things have grown more and more diverse with successive generations, such that trying to use fantasy as an exclusive, catch-all terminology has become, except in the most general sense, both useless and inaccurate. Without a language of subgenre terms with which to discuss these differences, it seems inevitable that SFF writing would automatically default to using Tolkien as a blueprint for all new stories – and indeed, up until very recently, we can see that this was the case. Only when writers started trying to break new ground did an alternate language spring up to try and describe their efforts. Partly, it must be admitted, this happened as a means of distancing such heretical works from their canonical predecessors, but also because it was suddenly necessary to look back over everything that had happened since Tolkien and ask whether fantasy could – or should – be more than just the same old Eurocentric, medieval vision of elves, dwarves, men and halflings fighting a succession of ultimate Dark Lords over and over again.

Suddenly, fantasy ceased to be a universal term, and once we started talking and thinking in subgenres, it became easier to understand why new types of story were arising; to pinpoint the tropes their authors wanted to address or change, and for what reasons. True, it also became harder to classify individual works, and the need to fit each and every book into a particular box is something we’re all still arguing about. But the fact is that language is important. Naming a thing allows us greater control over it, and that’s true regardless of whether we’re talking about the magic of Earthsea or the politics of Earth. Consider, for instance, this article by feminist philosopher Jennifer Saul, wherein she talks about the significance of language in feminism. To quote:

“Languages may also lack words for things that matter a great deal to women. This sort of gap is another way that a language can be seen as encoding a male worldview. The term ‘sexual harassment’, for example, is a recent feminist innovation. Women’s discussion of their experiences led them to see a certain common element to many of their problems, and as a result they invented the term ‘sexual harassment’. Once the problem was named, it became much easier to fight sexual harassment, both legally and by educating people about it.”

Which brings me to the matter of the Orange Prize – or rather, to the recent suggestion that an equivalent award is necessary to combat sexism in the Australian literary scene. It’s none too encouraging a sign when women take steps to set themselves apart from men, not because they want or ought to, but because discrimination has left them with no other means of achieving success. For an intelligent and comprehensive rundown on the issue, I highly recommend this excellent piece by writer Benjamin Law, wherein he says, among other things:

“If you take Brookner’s insistence that a meritocracy exists, what are you supposed to make of the raw figures? Books written by women are reviewed less. Women win fewer literary prizes. If that is a meritocracy, then you have to buy into the argument that books by women must be inherently inferior. I can’t accept that. The danger on relying on meritocracy is assuming one actually exists.”

But what, I hear you cry, does any of this have to do with SFF subgenres? Only that women SFF writers seem to have a stronger platform from which to argue their case for equality, simply because their dialogue about content, bias and narrative is so much more linguistically robust than in the literary community. This is not to say that the problems outlined by the recent VIDA statistics on the representation of women vs men in literary reviews are absent in SFF; indeed, it has been demonstrably proven that they aren’t. But when it comes to the question of awards, it doesn’t seem unduly optimistic to say that change is in the air. The Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel in 2011, for instance, are all, with one exception, women, and the situation is identical when it comes to the Nebula. The 2010 Campbell Award was won by a woman, Seanan McGuire, and for the purposes of my argument about subgenre, it doesn’t strike me as irrelevant to note that McGuire’s debut novel, Rosemary and Rue, was the first work of urban fantasy to win its author the Campbell, nor that it did so in competition with another female-authored UF novel: Gail Carriger’s Soulless.

So much of the debate I’ve seen about the disenfranchisement of women literary writers centers on anger at the perception of women’s novels as being “domestic” (where such a label is pejorative) compared to those written by men, which naturally deal with Big Themes and Important Issues. What has always struck me about this complaint – aside from the fact that it appears to be correct, both intuitively and in terms of critical perception – is the difficulty these writers seem to have articulating the problem. They talk about literature and literary fiction as a single entity, grasping after a magical phrase that will allow them to explain simultaneously why women might indeed be more prone to writing about domestic topics, why this is not a bad thing, and why it still counts as literature. Because such amorphous justifications are exactly what subgenre terminology exists to prevent, allowing us to acknowledge that two different types of storytelling are related to one another, that they share a common ancestry and ultimately a common genre, but that their conventions and approaches may nonetheless be very, very different. As in the case of last year’s Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel, it allows us to put vastly different works like China Mieville’s The City & The City, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest on the same ballot, despite the fact that the first is heavily noir/New Weird, the second is dystopian SF, and the third is urban fantasy/mythpunk.

It also puts the SFF community in an excellent position to discuss tropes and archetypes. A communal, cultural resource like TV Tropes provides a go-to lexicon for discussing narrative structure in shorthand, with many such terms finding their way into the mainstream dialogue as a matter of course. Perhaps it’s because the origins and inspirations of SFF are so heavily rooted in jargon-heavy areas like mythology, science, linguistics, pop culture and folklore that the community has taken so readily to isolating and naming its parts; alternatively, it seems reasonable to assume that any group of people who spend a significant proportion of their intellectual lives reading made-up languages, interpreting new cultures and memorising invented systems of magic will inevitably come to appreciate the deep precision and relevance of language. Whatever it is, the literary community doesn’t seem to share it – or if it does, then to nowhere near the same extent.

As more than one would-be inventor of slanguage has come to realise, there’s no telling which new terms will enter our collective vocabularies or die a series of quick deaths. But as corny and New Age as it might seem, it strikes me that the writers most deeply concerned with the state of literary fiction and its biases against women could do a lot worse than trying to coin some terms of their own: to name the archetypes they wish to invert or criticise and thereby open up the discussion. If authors can be thought of as magicians in any sense, then the root of our power has always rested with words: choosing them, arranging them and – most powerfully – inventing them. Sexism won’t go away overnight, and nor will literary bias. But until then, if we’re determined to invest ourselves in bringing about those changes, it only makes sense to arm ourselves with a language that we, and not our enemies, have chosen.

Internets, a Thing is bugging me.

Growing up as a tomboy, people were always surprised when, past the age of about ten, I expressed any interest in girly persuits. Aided by the fact that a large number of my friends were boys who had little or no interest in such things to begin with, this lead to mockery, confusion, jokes and/or raised eyebrows whenever I did something like wear a dress or talk about ponies. My reaction was to try and detatch myself from girliness altogether, with varying degrees of success. Even when talking to other girls, I felt I had to be careful. They knew me as a tomboy, and the comforting everydayness of our friendships involved their acknolwdgement of this fact, such that I was counted on, if not expected, to make sarcastic remarks about pretty dresses and my unwillingness to wear them if the others brought it up. In hindsight, I can recognise that this was often a case of the lady protesting too much. I didn’t know how to reconcile my tomboyishness with my femininity, and so attempted – unsuccessfully – to choose between them. It’s taken me years to figure out that I never had to; that there was never a contradiction to begin with. Some days I wear boots and leather and listen to Audioslave, and some days I wear skirts and necklaces and listen to Taylor Swift. It’s all equally me, and I’m cool with that.

The other side of being a tomboy was – is – having more male friends than female, and spending more time with them. This has never meant, however, that I’m always the only girl in a given group of guys, nor that I’m automatically sceptical/resentful of any other girls who might  join in, feminine, tomboy or otherwise, or even that I have no female friends. I do. Girls and guys come in all different flavours. That’s just life.

Which leads me to the Annoying Thing of Annoyance, viz: the sudden preponderence of tough-girl, tomboy urban fantasy heroines who whinge about feminine things like dresses and high heels even as the story forces them to wear both, and always – crucially – under duress. And the villains they face? Are female villains identified as such by their love of pretty clothes, who want to be the only women in their respective roomfuls of men but Who Are Not Real Tomboys Because They Wear Pink And Are Therefore Evil Jezebels,  juxtaposed against the Noble Heroine Who Just Happens To Always Be The Lone Woman Surrounded By Men But Who Wears Pants And Jackets And Is Therefore Trustworthy. What makes me angriest about this trope is the fact that I’ve unconsciously perpetuated it in my own writing – and all because it’s based on a viewpoint that, once upon a time, I shared, and which is still a part of me, despite my efforts towards mental reprogramming.

Listen: I don’t find high heels practical or comfortable, but I still wear them on special occasions out of a desire to dress up. Nobody, not even my mother and not even in childhood, has ever waved a wand, held a gun to my head or otherwise strongarmed me into wearing so much as a scrap of damn clothing that I didn’t want to wear, and I say this as someone who once owned a fluro orange t-shirt and hot magenta overalls that were only ever worn together. I might still feel self-conscious in heels and dresses from time to time, but I also think I look nice like that, and if I ever had guilt about getting dolled up as a teenager, it was because deep down, I was afraid I couldn’t admit to enjoying myself without being laughed at or accused of social apostasy.

So when I read about tough-girl heroines being forced by circumstance to dress up for a party or wear a dress or somesuch and whinging about it non-stop, I get angry. I love me some badass chicks in literature, but I do not want the template for badass chicks to be deeply invested in the Pretty Dresses Are Wrong mindset. And I sure as hell don’t want the most defining characteristic of any and all female villains fought by said badass chicks to be that They Unapologetically Wear Pretty Dresses And Lipstick And Are Basically Evil Hollywood Cheerleaders With Magic.

GAH.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go change my own manuscript so as to appear less like a total hypocrite and more…something less hypocritical.

Damn social programming.