Posts Tagged ‘YA’

Q: On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work? A: I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though. – Andrew Smith

The idea that Andrew Smith’s daughter is the first girl he ever had in his life is a staggering lie. For one thing, he has a wife, and presumably has, or had, a mother; and for another, women are half the global population. They have been his classmates, colleagues, girlfriends, relatives, and while not all those relationships will have had the same degree of meaning to him – while his connection to his daughter might be the most important of all – the idea that he was functionally isolated from women before he up and fathered one is bullshit. What he’s saying isn’t that he never had a chance to bond with women, but rather that, until he had a daughter, he didn’t, and wow does that tie into some ugly rhetoric about male ownership of women being a trigger for their caring about our wellbeing. (The fact that we still pitch women’s rights to men by giving them the what if it was your mother/sister/daughter/wife speech, as though it’s completely unreasonable to expect them to care about us on our own merits, is a case in point.)

There is, to me, a casual kind of sexism, a sort of paterfamilias handwave, that comes of a man who’s lived with a wife and daughter for almost twenty years blithely admitting his total ignorance of their gender. Never mind that this is also a lie, unless Smith seriously wants to double down and claim that, yes, the women he loves most in the world are fundamentally alien to him; the problem is that he saw nothing wrong with pretending they were strangers.

I don’t think Smith meant to do this: I suspect, rather, that he was trying to acknowledge the implicit criticism in the question without actually engaging it, and ended up blundering into a much thornier problem by accident, rather like stepping into the path of oncoming traffic in order to skirt an open manhole, which you then stumble into anyway, but not before taking a couple of motorists with you. Having brothers is not what stops you learning about women. Maleness can be insular, the culture of masculinity rigidly maintained, but just the mere presence of men is not, by itself, a thing that negates the simultaneous presence of women. Smith was ignorant, not because he had brothers, but because a combination of cultural influence and inherent privilege conspired to tell him that women weren’t worth learning about, and by ignoring the distinction, he points the blame away from himself, and from the culture in which he was raised – both of which can be subject to critical analysis – and onto an objective fact over which he has no control, and which therefore seems impervious to criticism. I was raised with four brothers, therefore I couldn’t possibly know about women. QED.

I’m not angry because Smith gave a flippant answer to a serious question; I’m angry because he seemingly didn’t care enough to realise that’s what he’d done. Even if Smith’s daughter was the first real girl in his life, he’s had seventeen years to consider that she, and other girls like her, are unique individuals capable of sustaining narrative interest, and to realise that his ignorance on that front is unacceptable. Citing her birth and his brothers as part-reasons why he hasn’t already done so is, therefore, if you’ll pardon my French, a really fucking lazy way of saying the dog ate my homework. Tacking a ‘but I’m trying to be better though’ on the end of that mess without understanding that literally every word preceding the final sentence proves its necessity is just adding insult to injury, like you’re aware there’s a problem, but couldn’t be bothered to check if your answer was part of it. Here is what I feel for Andrew Smith, and other men like him, who end up in these situations: embarrassed. You’re a professional writer who expressed a thing so glibly, so naively and so poorly ina professional context that you’re now put in the unenviable position of having to explain, over and over, that you didn’t actually mean the words you wrote. Which leaves you with a choice: either own up to having produced an astonishingly bad piece of writing, inasmuch as it utterly failed to communicate your actual views on women, and try to address why this happened, or defend the quality and cop to the sexism.

It’s your call.

It’s 1892, and Abigail Rook, the runaway daughter of an English explorer, has just arrived in the American port city of New Fiddleham, dressed as a boy and in search of a job. After a chance encounter with the eccentric R. F. Jackaby, a self-professed paranormal detective and seer, Abigail soon finds herself employed as his assistant. But a serial killer is on the loose, and with Jackaby convinced the villain is supernatural rather than human, Abigail finds herself thrust into danger. With the help of Charlie Cane, a young policeman, and Jenny Cavanagh, a resident ghost, can Abigail and Jackaby solve the case? Or will they end up on the wrong end of the killer’s knife?

Given the current multiplicity of Sherlock Holmes adaptations on screen and in print, it was only a matter of time before a paranormal interpretation emerged. Aimed squarely at a young adult audience and published by Algonquin Young Readers, Jackaby is a playful, affectionate take on the Holmes mythos wherein the titular character has the unique ability to see the supernatural. The homage to Conan Doyle is openly acknowledged in Chapter One, when Abigail surmises Jackaby to be a detective ‘like whatsisname, aren’t you? The one who consults for Scotland Yard in those stories, right?’ (pg 7-8). However, in deference to the fact that Jackaby’s oddness and deductive powers are much more rooted in the magical than the scientific – he can literally see what others can’t – it soon proves to be Abigail who’s more possessed of the traditional Holmsian flair for noticing details.

Every so often in my reviewing career, I come across a book whose plot is so transparent that I can’t decide whether it’s a feature or a bug. On the one hand, the fact that some books can be incredibly complex doesn’t preclude others from being intentionally simple, not because the author is underestimating their audience (or at least, not necessarily for that reason), but because the emotional impact of the story lies elsewhere. On the other hand, it’s quite possible that the whodunnit in Jackaby was intended to be a puzzle for the reader to solve, instead of – as I found it to be – blindingly obvious from minute one. But even in the latter case, this doesn’t necessarily make it a flaw in the narrative so much as, potentially, a reflection on me as a reader: I’ve always had something of a knack for narrative prescience, and particularly in shorter books, it takes a lot to really surprise me with a Big Reveal.

All of which is a way of saying that, while the internal logic of Jackaby’s central mystery was consistently plotted, there was never a point at which I was left wondering whodunnit. The facts of the whydunnit, however, were much more compelling – and, indeed, original. There was, however, a bothersome reliance on Characters Not Telling Each Other Things in order to maintain suspense around this point: as Abigail, not Jackaby, is our narrator, the fact that he solves this aspect of the mystery much earlier on is hidden from the reader by his refusal/inability to explain his theory to Abigail. This is always a dicey gambit to try, even when the characters have good reasons for hiding the truth from each other, but in Jackaby, it ends up being played as a consequence of interrupted conversations and Jackaby’s abstract nature, which is a fairly poor excuse.

That being said, the mystery itself – while not actually mysterious, per se – nonetheless serves as a solid introduction to the world itself; and, more specifically, to Abigail’s place within it. A clever, insightful heroine who more than earns her place in Jackaby’s employ, Abigail makes for an excellent narrator. She has a sense of humour, a realistic approach to the strangeness she encounters, and a spirit of inquiry and determination that make her thoroughly likeable. What really makes Jackaby work, however – and what serves to give Abigail such a strong voice – is author William Ritter’s skill as a writer. The book itself is lovingly written, managing to give a period feel without coming off as either dense or pompous, and whatever other complaints I had about the book, the literary style was not among them.

All things considered, Jackaby makes for a quick, enjoyable read – a solid introduction to what I hope will be an ongoing series, and an affectionate take on the Holmes ideal as told from the perspective of a competent, quick-witted heroine.

That being so, and in the spirit of Christmas cheer, I’m giving away another Algonquin Young Readers title, Kelly Barnhill’s The Witch’s Boy. The giveaway is open internationally, and will close on Christmas day. To enter, leave a comment telling me about your favourite new YA title of 2014, and a winner will be chosen randomly by December 22nd.

ARCs of both Jackaby and The Witch’s Boy were provided to the writer by Algonquin Young Readers.

I’m a bit late to the party on Michelle Dean’s Our Young-Adult Dystopia, which article appeared in the New York Times in mid-February; nonetheless,  I can’t quite see my way to letting it pass without comment. Unlike the vast majority of people who end up wringing their hands in mainstream publications about how YA Novels Will Doom Us All, Dean appears to actually have read the books she’s talking about, rather than merely criticising them from afar. This has not, however, stopped her from writing one of the most pompous and irritating opening paragraphs of our times:

I sometimes wonder what Dante or Milton or any of those guys would make of the modern appetite for the young-adult epic. It wasn’t always a lucrative thing, writing grand, sweeping, fantastical stories, you know. It was a job for nose-to-the-grindstone, writing-for-the-ages types, and worldly rewards were low. Milton died in penury, blind and obscure; Dante met his maker in literal exile. Would they look with envy upon their celebrated and moneyed modern analogues — your J. K. Rowlings, your Suzanne Collinses?

Ah, yes – those were the days! How I yearn for the golden past, when fantasy was Serious Male Business to be ground out in penury, rather than Crass Female Business resulting in fame! Once again, I’m forced to play the game of Mainstream YA Article Bingo, and as you can see from the card below, it’s not looking good:

YA Article Bingo

Having already compared modern YA with stories written over a century ago and dipped into the Free Space with the requisite reference to The Hunger Games (to say nothing of coming perilously close to an elitist dismissal of popular fiction as trash), Dean then proceeds to get the bit between her teeth:

You do not have to believe the latter [Collins and Rowling] match their ancestors in skill or intelligence to see that they live in a charmed time for their craft. Writing a big, imaginative epic, and particularly one aimed at children or that vaguely defined demographic, “young adult,” will get you plenty of money and status in the grown-up population. You’ll get your big Hollywood movie, and you’ll get your New Yorker profile.

Speaking as a YA author whose money, status, big Hollywood movie and New Yorker profile have all mysteriously failed to eventuate, presumably having been lost down the back of a couch somewhere between Berkeley and Manhattan, I am, in the parlance of the modern internet, 1000% done with people who wilfully mistake the massive success of a few bestselling and debut authors for a universal phenomenon. But then, where’s the sensationalist fun in that? You can’t kickstart outrage by pointing out that, even though most YA authors are still working day jobs to make ends meet, earning low four-digit advances, doing their own publicity and attending no shindig fancier than a launch at the local library, a handful of their peers have nonetheless experienced enormous success due to various trends and fluctuations within the marketplace but, most of all, the hard work of actually writing books. All those tedious humdrum facts lack punch.

There is, nonetheless, a downside to this epic bubble. As in every other area of American life, the sweet smell of success wafting from on high proves irresistible to Johnny-and-Jane-come-latelies. Scarce will we have let down our Katniss-inspired braids this year, for example, than something called “Divergent” will come hurtling toward us. The film adaptation of the first book in this trilogy comes out in March. The economic success of these books, written by 25-year-old Veronica Roth, can’t be overstated. The finale, “Allegiant,” came out in October, and its announced first printing was two million copies — a number nearly unheard-of in the depressed coal-mining town that is publishing, these days. It rose to the top of the best-seller lists instantly, as though by divine right.

How dare new authors be inspired to write successful books in popular genres! Never mind that, owing to the long lead times in publishing, Roth’s Divergent was picked up by Harper Collins in July 2010, a month before the final Hunger Games book, Mockingjay, was even on shelves – of course Roth is a latecomer! And how dare the third book of a successful trilogy be printed in huge numbers, apparently! Down with big print runs! Publishers shouldn’t be confident in their authors! (Bonus points will be awarded to those who find it odd that Dean here refers to the publishing industry as a “depressed coal-mining town” when her entire piece is otherwise objecting to the lucrative new vein of stories it’s currently tapping, to considerable profit. Apparently, it’s only noble and right for publishers to make money if they’re not trying to make money.)

I am not the kind of person who sniffs at “low culture.” Still, something like “Divergent” has been so hastily assembled, and then so cynically marketed, that I cannot help being offended on the part of the reading public.

Dean doesn’t sniff at low culture. She just calls it low culture – rather than, for instance, popular culture, which is both more accurate and less snobbish – and thinks its success is an indictment on the industry. I also find it noteworthy that, by implied definition, the “reading public” here described doesn’t include any Roth fans. (Because, like so much else in discussions of popular culture, “reading public” is code for “erudite people who read a better class of book”. You don’t have to like Divergent to find this construction suspect.)

I know it sells, and God knows that publishing needs the money. But the pushing of this stuff is starting to make me feel as if we’re all suckers. Cruelly, the gilded age of young-adult literature threatens to suck the life out of the whole thing.

But for whom, though? Book blogs, digital imprints and teenage readerships are all booming, as are indie publishers, YA fandoms and online communities devoted to the passionate sharing, discussion and creation of YA. Nobody is forcing Dean to read Veronica Roth, or anyone else, for that matter. It’s not being “pushed” on her, like hard drugs or the execrable opinions of Jeremy Paxman. Dean is free to dislike Roth, or not, as the mood takes her. What I’m struggling with is the suggestion that Roth is somehow representative of the moral/commercial bankruptcy of modern YA, just because she’s successful beyond what Dean feels her writing is worth.

Few are bothered by the costs of this excitement, though successful writers in the young-adult market do seem to have noticed the way the industry depends on them. John Green, whose (excellent, though non-epic) young-adult novel “The Fault in Our Stars ” will get its own film adaptation in May, explained his predicament to The Chicago Tribune last fall: “It’s a massive amount of pressure, and not just from fans, but from people whose jobs are on the line because of what you write.” And that pressure’s twin seems to be a blunt carelessness in selecting and editing new work for publication. Most of these Next Big Things appear to have escaped any serious redlining. It seems their “editors” simply pray to the gods of chance that the author lands on a critical featherbed, rather than being thrown to the wolves.

It took me several attempts to parse this argument, because it’s so wholly ludicrous. For the first time ever, YA SFF novels – and particularly books written by and for young women – are considered a big, commercial Hollywood business. But rather than celebrating the unprecedented prominence of female-centric stories and daring to dream of fame, Dean says, YA authors and editors should be endeavouring to safeguard the jobs of film industry professionals by being harder on themselves. If only YA editors would really dig their heels in at the outset, bad movies wouldn’t happen, because Hollywood wouldn’t be tempted to make doomed-to-fail adaptations of “low culture” crap! Young authors need to stop writing commercially successful books, because if someone buys the film rights, another person’s job could be threatened years down the line when forces beyond the writer’s control lead to poor box office receipts! (That sound you hear is me banging my head on the keyboard.)

Setting aside the extremely pertinent fact that authors on film sets tend not to have an enormous amount of directorial discretion, even though it’s their books being adapted, such that the success or failure of what’s produced can’t reasonably said to rest solely on their shoulders – no novel makes it onto the screen verbatim. As various fandoms can attest, Hollywood has never shrunk from making merry with established canon, whether that means whitewashing a previously diverse cast, adding new characters to familiar stories, or generally just chopping and changing various details as par for the course, and that’s before you get to the question of successful promotion. Big studios might be snapping up YA movie rights out of a cynical desire to find the next Hunger Games, but if the end products are failures, authors are hardly the ones to blame. The fact is that, regardless of the editorial energies expended prior to a book’s release, it’s the finished product that attracts (or doesn’t) the eager eye of studios, whose adaptations are then perfectly placed to redress whatever failings the text might have. So while I can perfectly understand the authorial worry that one’s book adaptation will flop, thereby bringing untold misery to those kind souls who’ve expended so much energy bringing it to life, the idea that they could’ve prevented it all by begging their editor way back when to be crueller with the red pen is a solipsistic fear with no bearing on reality.

(And speaking of facts – vaunting John Green as excellent  while criticising female YA authors? Ladies and gentlemen, check your bingo cards!)

…Roth was 21 when she sold the book and all this started. Had I been exposed to such widespread public scrutiny at that age, I doubt I’d have survived it.

Of course, Roth was selected for this fate in part because she was young. Youth is key to the marketing message.

Does Dean have any evidence for this assertion – that Roth is successful, not just because an agent, a major publishing house and a film studio all decided to back her story, but because of her youth? Evidently not, but that doesn’t matter: for Dean, it seems, it’s just the logical explanation for why a book she thinks is poorly written was given such advantages.

I could not help noticing how Roth’s case echoed in another over the summer: Samantha Shannon’s. She was a 21-year-old Oxford student when her first novel, “The Bone Season,” was declared the Next Big Thing last August…  Hopes were clearly high for its instant blockbuster success, and Shannon had all the ritual blessings the young-adult epic market can offer: a six-figure deal for the first three planned books of seven and a prepublication purchase of film rights. The “Today” show declared it the inaugural pick of its Book Club.

But readers did not respond, not this time. According to Nielsen Bookscan, American sales were in the low-to-mid-five figures in hardcover.

This is, once you break it down, an incredibly misleading statement. Firstly, Dean is citing only the American hardback sales of a book that’s been published both internationally and in ebook format – at a time when ebook sales are surpassing hardcover sales in the US market – as evidence that The Bone Season has failed to live up to its promise. Secondly, those “low-to-mid five figures” in the US hardcover market alone were still strong enough to see the book debut at no. 7 in the New York Times bestseller list, which is hardly something to be sneezed at. With the paperback version not forthcoming until April, and the film version as yet unmade, it seems a little preemptive to judge as a failure a book that’s been sold in 21 countries on the basis of its early sales in just one of them.

I often wonder if the people in charge of these decisions noticed that Rowling was 30 when she sold “Harry Potter,” or that Collins was 46 when “The Hunger Games” appeared. If they did, then they must have also noticed how much the present state of affairs resembles the Hollywood starlet system. But I know why movie producers prefer the young ones. That position is even less defensible among book editors.

Though I can think of a number of other modern YA authors published at young ages beyond Roth and Shannon – myself among them, for the sake of full disclosure; I can scarcely call myself famous, but my first book was nonetheless bought by a publisher in 2009, when I was 23, and came out the following year – the idea that publishers are deliberately mimicking the “starlet system” is absurd. While some journalists certainly get a kick out of emphasising the improbable youth of authors like Alexandra Adornetto and Steph Bowe (both published in their teens), the plain fact is that if some YA novels are being written by young adults, it’s not because of some creepy decision to market books in tandem with the nubile flesh of their authors; it’s just a natural consequence of the fact that young adults like writing for themselves, and are, on occasion, good at it.

Judging by her heavily gendered comparison with starlets, however, Dean appears specifically to take issue with the success young female authors, presumably because she, like almost everyone else, has been taught by our sexist culture that successful young women must necessarily be trading on their youth and beauty, rather than being in possession of any actual talent. Whether she’s an author, a fan, a singer, an actress or anything else in the public spotlight, if a young woman does something, you can be guaranteed that, sooner or later, someone’s going to say she’s not a “real” whatever-it-is, because clearly, young women can’t be. Even so, if young women were the only authors having their books adapted to the big screen and given the five-star treatment, then perhaps Dean would have a point: if nothing else, it would certainly be worth discussing. But as she herself acknowledges, the authors of many other successful franchises – like Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, to name the requisite Big Three – are all in their thirties and forties; and while YA certainly boasts a number of prominent female creators, there are plenty of men being given film deals, too. Besides John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which Dean is already demonstrably aware of, there’s Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, now on its second instalment, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and, of course, the three Narnia movies. (Naturally, though, when male-authored films meet with poor or only middling success, as several of these have, no one ever seems to suggest the source material was at fault, or takes it as an indictment on the skills of male authors generally – they were just bad adaptations). Hollywood doesn’t care who writes the books – it just knows that YA and SFF are popular, and wants to get in while the getting’s good, a slapdash attitude that often leads to subpar films regardless of where the inspiration comes from.

But by all means, let’s continue to focus on how undeserving young women are of fame.

Children’s literature toys with our chronological expectations because the best of it has always been written, actually, by the comparatively elderly. Lewis himself was 51 when the “Narnia” books came out; Lois Lowry was 56 when “The Giver” was published; Madeleine L’Engle wrote “A Wrinkle in Time” in her 40s, and L. Frank Baum his “Oz” books in the same decade of his life.

Age is what the greats have in common. The long years between adolescence and middle age seem to be necessary soil for this craft. It requires roots, and no quick shoots will do. They need years to grow and tangle and set before the brilliant, unforgettable book appears… 

Books like Frankenstein, perhaps – one of the undisputed greats of modern literature, and the arguable genesis of modern science fiction? Which was, of course, conceived of and written by Mary Shelley at the ripe old age of 19. And how about  Jane Austen, who started writing Pride and Prejudice when she was 21? Edgar Allen Poe began publishing short stories in his early twenties, receiving a prize for MS. Found in a Bottle at 24 – the same age as Alfred, Lord Tennyson when The Lady of Shallot first appeared in print. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, also produced his first major play at the age of 24, in 1958; award-winning author Helen Oyeyemi  famously wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, while still at school; and just three years ago, Yugoslavian writer Tea Obreht won the Orange Prize with her debut, The Tiger’s Wife, at age 25. Which isn’t to say that no writer ever matures or improves with age – quite the opposite. It’s just that a blanket belief in incompetent, callow youth is equally as inaccurate as a sweeping assertion that age necessarily leads to great books. For every new YA author aged in their teens or twenties, I can think of others in their thirties, forties, fifties or sixties whose works aren’t automatic masterpieces. If I were going to try and make any sort of general statement about the relationship between one’s age and one’s ability to write, in fact, all I’d say is this: that first novels, regardless of the age at which we write them, are seldom our very best works, but that their quality is more likely dependent, not on how old we are, but on how long we’ve been writing when they’re published.

English literature is full of young male writers lionised, both then and subsequently, for their incredible gifts, not least because most of them were busy dying of sybaritic illnesses before they got their first grey hair: John Keats was dead by 25, Percy Bysshe Shelley by 29 and Lord Byron by 36, and that’s just for starters. But once again, it’s the young women of today whose outpourings are held to be inferior, not on the basis of individual talent or literary preference, but because young people just can’t write.

I suppose I’m admitting that those people who call young-adult readers “childish” are onto something. It’s just not the pure desire for regression they pompously diagnose. It’s a desire for stories substantial enough to withstand the ages, that are like smooth river rocks you can turn over and over again.

 I see: having first stepped in to defend the honour of the “reading public” from the insult of commercially successful YA novels, Dean has proceeded to fix the blame on YA authors for being too young and YA readers for being too “childish”, and on everyone else in the equation for giving young women power, whether as creators or as members of a demographic audience. On the basis of the evidence, then, it’s harder to say if Dean really resents Roth and Shannon because they’re successful in a genre she dislikes, or if she dislikes the genre because it’s made them successful without recourse to her opinion of their talent. Clearly, though, it’s not just the problem of commercialism in literature that’s upsetting her – or if it is, then I’d humbly suggest that she’s drawing a bead on the wrong target. If the soul of publishing is truly being imperilled by the relentless drive for monetary gain, then the likes of Jeffrey Archer, Clive Cussler, Dan Brown, Matthew Reilly and David Baldacci are far more worthy targets, each of whom has produced far more pulp bestsellers than Roth and Shannon combined. But then, of course, these are adult men, and even though we might collectively mock novels like The Da Vinci Code or wonder who on Earth keeps giving Nicholas Sparks money, we never question the rights of adult male readers to enjoy whatever the hell they like, no matter how trashy and poorly written we find it.

But women, whatever their age, are held to different standards. We’re presupposed to be the moral and aesthetic gatekeepers of every genre we’re discouraged from actually enjoying, not just because girls aren’t meant to like that sort of thing (and if we don’t, we’re humourless, fun-hating harridans – natch), but because, if we do, it’s unseemly and inappropriate and we’re doing it wrong, and why does there have to be romance and boys and ugh, trashy films with magic and explosions are just so much better when they fail the Bechdel test and are made for teenage boys and young women need to stop participating in popular culture!

And this, ultimately, is why I end up gritting my teeth whenever I see yet another mainstream article lamenting this female-heavy trend in YA – and that’s really what Dean is doing here, for all that she’s trying to pretend otherwise. It’s not that YA and its authors should somehow exist beyond criticism (they shouldn’t) or that there’s no problematic trends, romantic or otherwise, being perpetuated by the current crop of YA novels (there are), or even that it’s inherently wrong to analyse the logic underpinning commercial YA (it’s not). It’s because, overwhelmingly, this sort of analysis isn’t what happens. Instead, we get sour grapes and grudge matches: journalists outraged at the success of particular stories confusing their failings with the failings of an the entire genre; pundits decrying the ubiquity of books they’ve never read in genres they don’t understand for audiences they didn’t know existed, and calling it the end of civilisation; moral crusaders up in arms that girls are reading about sex, or writing about it, or doing anything other than waiting chastely for the good Christian wedding night where they’ll lie back and think of England, because even stories dealing with the aftermath of rape are somehow pornographic; and on, and on, and on. Whether we’re conscious of our biases or not, we’re culturally predisposed to be extra critical of everything women, and particularly young women, do (to say nothing of the women themselves) – and now that YA novels have become such a breakaway phenomenon, with plenty of film adaptations still in the works, otherwise sane adults are falling all over themselves to declare the whole business a type of commercial heresy.

While the YA market should be criticised for many things, like its habit of whitewashing book covers, its faith in the works of young female writers isn’t one of them. Let young people write books for each other – the result might not always be literature for the ages, but it’s still produced some damn good stories, and with so many new authors entering the field with decades still ahead of them in which to develop their talents, I for one am excited to see where not just YA, but the future of writing is headed.

YA Article Bingo

The past few years have seen so many terrible articles in mainstream publications about the rise, worthiness and content of YA that it’s hard to keep them straight. Just last month, for instance, Joanna Trollope declared that the entirety of YA SFF “doesn’t really relate to the real world” because she dislikes The Hunger Games, which novels she admits to never having read. Before that, there was Megan Cox Gurdon up in arms at the idea that YA novels might tackle difficult topics like rape, abuse and self-harm, an alarmist piece which lead to the creation of the #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter.  We’ve had pundits suggesting boys won’t read YA titles unless they have gender-neutral covers, and others saying that YA has become so female-dominated that boys are being left behind anyway – which is ironic, given the regularity with which various YA heroines are criticised as being poor role models for girls. While some good commentary has occasionally emerged through the morass of moralising, misapprehension and general handwringing, more often than not, the dominant mood of such articles is censorious:  a condemnation of popular YA in particular that quickly turns to disparaging the genre in general, and doubly so where SFF is mentioned.

Which brings me to the latest such offering:  Laura C. Mallonee’s Time For Teen Fantasy Heroines To Grow Up, which is a perfect example of Mainstream YA Article Bingo and then some. After a few establishing remarks about the current glut of YA film adaptations, it’s not long before Mallonnee presents us with this gem of a paragraph:

“But it would be a mistake to assume that the same girl who sped through Twilight and Hunger Games will easily find her way to The Martian Chronicles or even contemporary fantasy’s immediate forbearers — works by authors like Tamora Pierce or Robin McKinley. Teens today aren’t genre nerds who only love fantasy. According to Ms. Sutherland, they read these books because it’s what their friends are reading. But how did they become so popular? And what do they have to say — specifically to their young, female readers — about the world?”

Obligatory pairing of Twilight and The Hunger Games? Check. The suggestion that modern YA fantasy is somehow fundamentally different to REAL fantasy, or even to the YA novels of yesteryear? Check. Assertion that popular kids read genre now, too? Check. Moral panic about female readers? Check. The cliche density is so high in just this one section alone, it’s hard to tease out all the problematic logic underpinning each and every statement. Take, for instance, the immensely judgemental suggestion that the “same girl” who reads popular YA fantasy novels is unlikely to also read real SFF, presumably on the basis that she’s a popular kid rather than one of the “genre nerds”. What this is, in essence, is yet another permutation of the Fake Geek Girl argument: a deeply sexist panic at the idea that, even when they’re reading dystopian novels, watching comic movies and learning archery for fun, ‘regular’ girls can’t really be true fans of real SFF, because their enjoyment of other, more mainstream activities – or, far more often, their possession of conventionally attractive looks – invariably marks them out as dilettantes only feigning nerdness in order to drive boys crazy. In making this distinction, all Mallonee has done is shift the accusation of dilettantism to the (again, female) creators of modern YA novels: they’re not writing real SFF, like Ray Bradbury did – just popular, pretendy SFF for cheerleaders and pretty girls to read.

We’re then treated to five paragraphs on the history of novels written for young women (comparing modern YA to books written over a century ago? Check!), which, while interesting, betrays a rather heavy-handed attempt to suggest that girl-oriented stories have always fallen into one of three categories: lurid, lower-class love triangles and romantic pulp, written for money; sweet domestic fantasies; and feminist novels where girls do sports and go to college and postpone marriage for the sake of their careers. Which isn’t to say that Mallonee’s analysis is wholly inaccurate, at least as far as the texts she’s chosen to reference are concerned. (Conspicuous omission of J. K. Rowling and the Harry Potter phenomenon while discussing the rise of YA? Check!). But in trying to draw comparisons between these categories and different types of modern YA – which is inarguably the intention – Mallonee is not only neglecting the idea that, this being 2013 rather than 1860, a heroine can quite plausibly experience a love triangle AND be domestic AND play sports at college without the readers’ heads exploding, but is effectively arguing that only one of these categories has any feminist value at all. And as much as I enjoy reading YA novels where the heroine avoids romantic complications (and despite my own strong feelings on the subject of love triangles) the idea that such romantic elements are inherently anti-feminist, regressive, cheap or otherwise unworthy simply doesn’t wash.

The next section – an analysis of Twilight and its reception – is quite breathtakingly hypocritical. Having rebuked the almost universal condemnation of Bella Swann with the assertion that “Branding youth culture as obscene or degrading is old hat — and teens don’t care,” Mallonee immediately jumps on the exact same bandwagon, comparing Bella with Elnora Comstock, heroine of Gene Stratton-Porter’s 1908 novel, A Girl of the Limberlost. “In a time when few women went to college,” she says, “Elnora’s ambition was a brave push into new territory, inspiring readers with aspirations for their own futures. What hope did Bella inspire?” The comparison with Elnora is then extended, only slightly more favourably, to Katniss Everdeen, who wins some praise for being a capable woodswoman – but not much. Once again, Mallonee’s hypocrisy comes to the fore:

“Though Katniss never had romantic feelings for him before the Games, she pretends to return Peeta’s affection in order to “give the audience something more to care about,” and it’s this complex brand of romance that becomes her main tool for survival. Critics have applauded Collins for subverting standard romantic hooks, but this faux love story actually draws many Hunger Games fans, who debate aggressively online over the respective hotness of Peeta and Gale, Katniss’s childhood friend. Though Katniss eventually becomes a hero, up until page 156 of the first book, her internal struggles revolve around her conflicted emotions toward Peeta and Gale, not on the ethical dilemma of having to kill people.” 

Take a moment to parse the above. In the first sentence, Mallonee asserts that Katniss has no feelings for Peeta prior to the start of the Games, pretending to love him as a survival technique only after he admits to loving her himself; she then complains that, up until page 156 of the first book, Katniss’s inner monologue is dominated by her struggle to choose between Peeta and Gale. Which is a rather astonishing claim to make, when you consider that Peeta doesn’t even admit his feelings for Katniss until page 158 – at which point, they haven’t even reached the arena. Even allowing for a slight slip in page numbers between various editions, it’s still clear that Mallonee has contradicted herself, first claiming that the romantic elements don’t exist at the outset, and then complaining that the outset consists of little else. And as for the idea that Katniss “eventually” becomes a hero – what of her selfless decision to save her sister by volunteering as tribute in the first place? Does that not count as heroic? Evidently not – but then, Mallonee is so keen to criticise both the series and its fans for their focus on romance that, rather ironically, she hasn’t focussed on any other elements herself. Except for death, of course – the dystopian setting is “grotesque”, and Mallonee takes a perverse delight in reciting just how many times the word ‘dead’ appears in the trilogy. (Dystopias are depressing and unsettling for teenage readers? Check!) Mallonee then expresses regret at the fact that, rather than emphasising a comforting moral or specific lesson, the ending of The Hunger Games is thematically open-ended. “Readers,” she laments, “are left to untangle the book’s intimations about the real world for themselves.” You’ll have to forgive me, but I fail to see how an invitation to further critical analysis counts as a negative.

And then, of course, there’s the obligatory comparison of these pulpy, trashy, regressive, female-authored SFFnal YA novels with a literary, contemporary, feminist, male-authored work which – funnily enough – is better than mere YA: Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. (Male authors doing feminism better than women? Check!) Despite having a teenage, female heroine, Mallonee finds it ” almost — but not quite — surprising” that Winter’s Bone wasn’t marketed to teenage girls; but then, even if it had been, one suspects that her imaginary, popular strawgirls wouldn’t have had the wit or wisdom to appreciate it. Not like those nerdy, unpopular readers, the ones we’re not talking about; the kind of girls who like popular YA novels are, according to Mallonee, a different breed entirely. This sort of dislike of the readers of popular YA is evident in her conclusion:

“The problem with Twilight and Hunger Games is that while operating in a seemingly black-and-white world they actually infect their readers with chaos: Twilight by exploiting its audience’s desire to completely escape reality, and Hunger Games by cementing its readers’ fears that there is nothing beyond the darkness.

The value of books like Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone is that while acknowledging the world’s ugliness, they carve a path of resilience the reader can follow.”

Respectfully, I would submit that this is bullshit. Throughout her article, Mallonee has made clear her contempt, not only for popular modern narratives, but for stories which dare to include a romantic component for their heroines – an opinion she has tried to imbue with historical significance by first disparaging the “promiscuity” and “passivity” of early romance-oriented novels aimed at girls, and then contrasting these lesser works with their unromantic, college-and-sport themed heirs,  novels which “captured the spirit of the Suffragettes”. That being so, it hardly seems irrelevant that, in critiquing modern YA novels, Mallonee has described the romance in Twilight as “sinister” and disparaged its role in The Hunger Games, all while praising the lack of romance in both Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone. For Mallonee to conclude, then, that the value of the latter titles and the failure of the former is due to other factors entirely – thematic descriptors that, quite pointedly, have nothing to do with romance – is both insincere and deeply inaccurate. Instead, she tries to pin that sentiment on David Levithan, quoting him in such a way that her own, snide conclusions about the failings of SFFnal YA read as an interpretation of his remarks, rather than as a revelation of her own bias. To quote:

“I asked David Levithan, Scholastic’s vice president and editorial director, whether such books might be a way for girls to escape the real world. He explained that most successful fantasy literature is actually deeply relatable to the reader: “The themes (survival in Hunger Games, unrequited love in Twilight, etc.) are completely real even if the situations are not.” Within this milieu, authors as influential as Meyer and Collins have the opportunity to inspire their readers toward greatness, but they squander it miserably. Neither Bella nor Katniss have dreams that transcend their current situations.”

 In fact, it’s not even clear if the bracketed reference to Twilight and The Hunger Games is something Levithan actually said, or whether Mallonee inserted it herself to contextualise his comments and just so happened to forget the convention of using square brackets when commenting within a quote. In either case, though, it seems abundantly clear that Levithan’s actual statement – that the success of fantasy literature hinges on its use of real and relatable human elements – is the exact opposite of Mallonee’s conclusion, which is that Meyer and Collins both fail to do this, as neither of their heroines “have dreams that transcend their current situations.” Whether intentionally or not, Mallonee has ended her article by quoting a prominent YA editor in such a way as to make him look highly critical of Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins – a ploy which is not only grossly misleading, but cheap. And that, I’m afraid, is the tone of her article all over. Rather than enter into an honest discussion of her issues with the portrayal of romance in YA novels and the genre’s newfound popularity – both meaty topics, and well worth discussing – Mallonee has instead decided to invoke the age-old spectre of SFF as meaningless pulp, less worthy of praise than real literature, and used it as a shoddy cover for different anxieties. As she herself says:

“Louisa May Alcott may have written sensational vampire stories, but she also wrote Little Women, a classic I first read in middle school that taught me I could do or be anything, and that my uneventful life was filled with meaning. I’m not betting on Meyer or Collins to create her, but I’d like to think another Jo March might still be out there.”

What a condescendingly sexist, genrephobic mess. While there’s nothing wrong with either critiquing the role of romance  in popular narratives or disliking popular works, the intimation that the presence of the former and success of the latter is somehow fundamentally unfeminist, unliterary and unworthy is deeply problematic –  as is criticising exclusively the tastes of female readers and the motives of female authors under the guise of impartial, literary concern. Thanks ever so for your patronising thoughts on YA SFF, Laura – but next time, save yourself the effort.

Sometimes, I read a thing, and despite whatever mixture of rage, incredulity, consternation and general agogness it provokes in me, I nonetheless manage to sit down, muster my thoughts in an orderly fashion, and write out a calm and cogent rebuttal.

Other times, I read a thing, and my entire brain explodes in a symphony of What The Actual Fuck in D Minor. When that happens, I still try to do the whole cogent rebuttal thing, but I don’t always succeed, and the end result usually involves swearing.

This would be one of those others times.

Behold this blog post by author Rod Rees, expressing his thoughts as to whether or not male authors can successfully write female characters. This is an important question, one that can and frequently does lead to interesting discussions about privilege, the male gaze, stereotypes and default narrative settings; that being said, my short answer is always going to be an unequivocal yes. Above and beyond the fact that many of my favourite fictional ladies are male creations, I strongly distrust gender essentialism in all its forms, and the idea that women are inherently different, unknowable creatures, such that we exist beyond the true comprehension of men, falls firmly into that category. So, from the outset, let me be clear: male authors are totally, 100% capable of writing a wide variety of awesome female characters, and many of them frequently do just that.

But Rod Rees, I suspect, is not among them.

The utter gobsmacking cluelessness of his approach to the matter can best be summed up in the following quote:

This brought to mind other criticisms. One woman commented on the scene where Odette (a character I introduced in The Demi-Monde: Spring) was admiring her breasts in a mirror by opining that ‘Women don’t do that!’ I was tempted to reply, ‘Oh, yes they do!’

OK. Look. As I’ve recently had occasion to say elsewhere, women are not a hivemind. No one woman speaks for all women. And obviously, men can have genuine insight into women as individuals that some women might not have. But part of that insight must necessarily come from listening to women, and especially on the topic of women themselves. So when Rees’s response to criticism on the topic of women, by a woman, is a straight-up desire to gainsay her – as though her lived experience of actually being a woman is automatically inferior to his observations of same? That, I’m prepared to say, is the TOTAL FUCKING OPPOSITE of a healthy, helpful attitude.

As for admiring our breasts in the mirror, some women certainly do that. Hell, I’d even go so far as to say it’s something I’ve done myself. But if I’m agreeing with Rees, then what’s the issue? The answer is twofold: first, his reaction to the criticism as outlined above; and second, the text of the actual passage in question, which it just so happens I’ve read. Because there’s a big, honking difference between showing someone doing something normally, and showing someone doing something normal in an exaggerated, problematic fashion – such as, to pick just one example, the difference between the way women actually eat salad, and the way we’re depicted eating salad in a disturbingly large number of advertisements. Which, once again, isn’t to say that no woman in the entire history of human civilisation has ever sat at home, alone, laughing manically while delicately lofting a piece of cos in the direction of her epiglottis – it’s just that, by and large, this isn’t what happens.

This is how Rees describes Odette at the start of The Demi-Monde: Spring:

Examining herself carefully in her looking glass, Odette Aroca decided that she made quite a striking Liberte. That she stood tall and proud… and that the breast she had exposed was full and plump, all meant that she was the living embodiment of the figure shown in Delacroix’s famous painting…

Moreover, the instructions had continued, the robe had to be cut so that the right breast – and it had to be the right breast, the UnScrewed Committee members were devils for detail – was unsheathed. ‘Tempting but Untouchable’ was to be the UnScreweds’ catchphrase, and for a woman like Odette this was good news. She regarded her breasts as her second- and third-best features, having, as was often remarked upon by her admirers – many of her regrettably few admirers – big breasts. But then Odette was a very big woman, so it was natural that she should have breasts to match her great height and her equally great girth. Still, never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Odette gave a wiggle and was pleased to see that her untethered breast jiggled in quite a charming fashion. 

Which is to say, he spends near as dammit two whole paragraphs describing her boobs in that telltale way invariably used by people without boobs of their own who are nonetheless possessed of a great interest in the boobs of others, viz: by using the language and phraseology of a sexually interested outsider, as opposed to the language and phraseology of someone who, regardless of their levels of self and sexual confidence, is talking about their own body. Because – and I’m speaking from experience, here – the idea of a woman who thinks that “her untethered breast jiggled in quite a charming fashion” is about seven different shades of ludicrous, never mind the “full and plump” part. More to the point, though: these are descriptions that Rees has actively chosen to incorporate into his narrative. We don’t need to hear a lengthy paean to Odette’s breasts in order to picture her physically, and we certainly don’t need one in order for the story to make sense, but we have them, because Rees likes boobs and thinks that his readers might like them, too. And that’s fine! It is totally cool that Rod Rees likes boobs, and wants to share his boob-love with the world. But that doesn’t mean that Odette’s thoughts about her breasts are any way realistic, and it certainly doesn’t mean that his decision to start the first paragraph of the first chapter with lots of gratuitous boobietalk isn’t going to look like a cheap, sensationalist ploy to grab the attention of male readers.

Returning, then, to Rees’s blog post, I find his apparent belief that male characters are typically the victims of more negative, pervasive stereotyping than female ones to be not only bizarre, but wildly inaccurate. He writes:

Female characters are, in my humble opinion… free of the limitations and pre-conceptions imposed by the curse of stereotype-itis that afflicts male characters. A male lead is beset by doubts and indecision and the appellation ‘weak’ heads his way: a female lead is beset by doubts and indecision and she is seen as ‘sensitive’. A male character panics in the face of adversity and he’s one step away from being labelled ‘a coward’; a female character does the same thing and she thought of as a pragmatist. A male character charges unthinkingly into a perilous situation and he’s ‘high on testosterone’; a female character . . . well, I doubt if she would, females being the smarter half of the h.sapiens double act.

Ignoring the gender essentialism of that last sentence – because benevolent sexism is still sexism, Mr Rees, however much you’d like to believe it’s a complimentary attitude – my reaction to this paragraph can best be summarised as follows: are you fucking KIDDING me? In what universe aren’t female characters subject to rampant stereotyping? In what universe are they stereotyped less than guys? I mean, where do I even begin debunking this bullshit? With the omnipresent damsel in distress trope? With the ubiquity of women in refrigerators? With an in-depth conversation about just how many stories don’t pass the Bechdel test, and why film schools actively teach screenwriters to fail it? I mean, Christ on a fucking BICYCLE – this is 101 stuff, and it is EVERYWHERE. And if Rees honestly thinks that male stereotyping in narrative is a bigger goddamn problem than the stereotyping of women – by which I mean, if he honestly thinks that male stereotyping in narrative is more common, more pernicious, and more deeply intertwined with fucked-up, sexist cultural notions about traditional gender roles than female stereotyping*? Then we have more and bigger problems than the boobie issue.

Such as, for instance, the fact that Rees thinks that learning exclusively about radical feminism is the same thing as being “pretty clued up” about the entirety of feminism:

What I discovered is that like all quasi-religions, Feminism has its zealots: so much so that I found it damned difficult to make HerEticalism more extreme than the world envisaged by the out-there radical-feminists. The upshot of all this reading and pondering was that I thought I was pretty clued up on feminism.

Maybe I was wrong.

Firstly, if you’re going to describe feminism as a “quasi-religion” – as opposed to, you know, the crazy belief that women are people who deserve equal rights, and coincidentally, where the fuck is my MRA bingo card when I need it, oh wait, it’s right here, and lookie! “Feminism is a religion” IS ACTUALLY ON IT, please wait while I headdesk unto infinity - then you have officially forfeited the right to talk about feminism as though you understand it. Period. Secondly, if you are incapable of distinguishing between radical ANYTHING and the non-radical version, then CONGRATULATIONS, YOU FAIL BASIC COMPREHENSION FOREVER. I mean, is it really THAT FUCKING DIFFICULT? He’s got the word radical IN there, and yet is evidently unaware of its role as a descriptive qualifier. Thirdly, why do I feel like the radical feminism Rees is referring to belongs to the same, outdated, Andrea Dworkin school of fringe theories that Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg are so fond of conflating with the movement as a whole? What, did all these old, embittered white guys go to the same seminar on Why Feminism Is Insane back in 1973 and just take it as gospel forever and ever, amen? Do I even want to know the answer to that question?

And then, it gets even worse.

What I found most unsettling about these criticisms was their nugatory nature. My characters were being criticised not for doing what strong, independent women should be doing, but for doing what a section of the readership believes they shouldn’t be doing. Rather than look at the broader attributes/attitudes of a character, it is the minutiae that was being picked over… I am drawn to the Biblical parable about motes and beams and could take this religious analogy further: feminist criticism has many of the features of the theological debates in mediaeval times where being pilloried for heresy turned on the most trivial of deviations from the accepted canon.

Bear in mind, this comment is made in response to a female reader objecting to the fact that one of his female characters described herself  as “a lush thrush with a tight tush”.

Seriously.

Savour that phrase for a moment. It might well be worse than the bit about the jiggling, untethered breasts, but either way, it’s sort of like comparing guano to horseshit, if animal faeces were composed entirely of gross, sexually objectifying language. But, I digress, because Rees has once again missed the point by a margin so epic, it’s like watching a man trying to drive to Dover and ending up in Calais. The issue isn’t with what your female characters are doing – it’s how and why you portray them doing it, and whether or not you’ve stereotyped them horribly in the process. Which, given the fact that Rees is evidently oblivious to the issue of female stereotyping – he even goes on to lament his “troubling suspicion” that feminist critique is trying to “confine female characters in much the same way as male characters have been” – sends up a red flag the size of Neptune about his total inability to recognise and avoid it. (As do his unthinking use of the Big Breast Pride and Omniscient Breasts tropes. For instance.)

Then I reached the penultimate paragraph.

But I have a suspicion that these proscriptions affect female writers as much as they affect male ones. It seems to be a fixture at the SF conventions I’ve attended to have a panel discussion debating why there are so few women writing in the adult SF and fantasy genres. Could it be that the success of female writers in YA fantasy fiction is in part attributable to their young female characters being better able to adhere to this template of the ideal female? Once female writers venture into the more visceral world of adult fiction they find this stereotype doesn’t work and hence struggle. Just a thought.

Let me get this straight: according to Rees, female authors only succeed in writing YA fantasy novels because it’s easy, and that once they try to venture into the “more visceral world of adult fiction”, they “struggle” to move beyond the “stereotype” of non-passive, actively feminist characters – and this is “why there are so few women writing in the adult SF and fantasy genres”?

WHAT. THE. ACTUAL. FUCK.

Here’s an alternate theory: adult SF and fantasy are chock-full of spectacular women writers despite the fact that troglodytic, sexist asshats like Rod Rees think that most of us are incapable of writing grown-up characters due to our Hindering Ladyfeelings. Plus and also? The idea that you graduate to writing adult novels after starting out in YA – or rather, that WOMEN can graduate to writing adult novels after starting out in YA, presumably because men who write about jiggling tits are sculpting literary masterpieces whatever the age of their intended audience – is fucking INSULTING.

And I just. I CANNOT with this fuckery, this I’m-so-enlightened-because-I-have-a-wife-and-daughters, therefore it’s COMPLETELY OK that I sexually objectify my female characters using the grossest language possible, ignore all female criticism of same because I know more about being a woman than women do, write off feminism as a radical religion while claiming to know all about it, and plead total and comprehensive ignorance of even the most basic forms of stereotyping that affect women in narrative, all while positing that the dearth of female writers in my field is due to female incompetence. YES. YOU ARE TRULY A PRINCE AMONG FEMINISTS.

AUGH.

I don't want to live on this planet any more

Angry dome

*Which isn’t to say that male stereotyping isn’t a problem: it is, and it’s rife with problematic gender essentialism, too, particularly around the perpetuation of culturally constructed, restrictive and ultimately toxic notions of masculinity. Sexism in stereotyping cuts both ways, because that’s what sexism does: it hurts everyone, even the people it’s ostensibly meant to benefit. But there’s also a deep imbalance in terms of the scope and ubiquity of the representation afforded to men as opposed to women, and a much greater variety of male portrayals as opposed to female, which is why (for instance) you have Seth Rogan acknowledging the fact that Pineapple Express would never have been made if it were about two girls, and that he wouldn’t have a career if he were female.

30 June 2013, ETA: As of today, Jo Fletcher Books has taken down both Rees’s original post and a post published subsequently wherein Jo Fletcher explained why she’d allowed it to appear in the first place. (In a nutshell: Because Free Speech, I don’t censor my authors even though it’s not something I’d have written myself, which is fine, except that this isn’t what people were objecting to – or at least, not insofar as the decision to publish went – and therefore came across as missing the point. As was explained by several people in comments on that second post, the issue on that count was more to do with the fact that, if you publish something on your company blog, regardless of whether or not You, The Person agree with it, then people are, not unreasonably, going to assume that You, The Organisation does – or at the very least, that your company doesn’t *disagree* enough with the content not to have refrained from publishing it in the first place. Thus: if you publish a sexist piece on the company blog, then while Because Free Speech will certainly explain your personal decision to do so, this explanation is neither synonymous with nor a substitute for an explanation about why you chose to associate your company with sexism – or, more pertinently in this case, with why you’d then be surprised that people were disappointed in you for having done so.)

Anyway. The original blog might be gone, but this being the internet, it lives on in cache and screencap, in which form it can still be found here.

3 July 2013, ETA: With no explanation, both posts are now back up at the Jo Fletcher Books Blog. So, there’s that.

After encountering a slow but steady stream of positive reviews for Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, I decided to give it a read; and when I saw that the wonderful AnimeJune of review blog Gossamer Obsessions had the same idea, it only made sense to put our heads together and write a joint review. The result was a back and forth about the novel’s themes and merits, of which there are many – and here it is.

The Synopsis:
 

AnimeJune: The story takes place in the nation of Goredd – a place (modelled on medieval Europe), in which humans and dragons coexist. Thanks to a treaty drafted forty years ago by the human Queen Lavonda and the dragon leader Ardmagar Comonot, this coexistence has been peaceful, but only barely. Most humans continue to hate and fear dragons, thanks in large part to the dominant religion that depicts them as soulless animals at best, and an unholy scourge on the earth at worst.

Meanwhile, most dragons, despite their ability to take human form and study among humankind, remain baffled by human sentiment and interaction. Inherently logical and mathematical, dragons rigidly police their own emotions, and so often come across as tactless and awkward in their dealings with humans.

Into this conflicted world comes Seraphina. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, Seraphina is a child of both worlds, born of a human father and a dragon mother. However, her father raised her to despise and hide her true parentage since both sides consider half-breeds to be anathema – or they would, if they weren’t convinced human-dragon interbreeding was impossible. Despite Seraphina’s fierce desire to avoid attention and fly under the radar, she has an equally fierce passion for music and, against her father’s wishes, she takes a position as assistant to Viridius, official musician to the Goreddi royal family.

When the Goreddi crown prince is murdered in a visibly draconian way two weeks before the Ardmagar is set to visit, Seraphina finds her anonymity threatened by bumbling dragons, bigoted humans, sinister politics, a disturbingly astute and investigative Prince, and her own uncanny talents.

Foz: Forty years ago, the human Queen Lavonda of Goredd forged a peace treaty with the dragon leader Ardmagar Comonot, effectively ending a war between the two races. Trust, however, has proved much harder to come by, thanks to both the Goreddi religion of Allsaints, which demonises dragons, and the mixture of contempt and confusion with which dragons, a highly logical species, view human emotions. Further complicating this state of affairs is the fact that dragons possess the ability to shapeshift into human form, in which guise – called a saarantras – they’re distinguishable by little more than their alien mannerisms, silver blood and, in the majority of cases, the enforced wearing of distinctive bells. This leads not only to human fears of dragon infiltration (to say nothing of prompting endless, lascivious jokes about the highly taboo prospect of cross-species sex), but to dragon fears of human contamination. The latter charge is a serious one: all saarantrai are monitored by the Censors – a powerful dragon agency with the power to physically excise the brains of emotionally compromised dragons – and must learn to partition their thoughts accordingly.

The story is told from the point of view of Seraphina, a teenage girl with a dangerous secret: her mother, Linn, was a saarantras, a fact she concealed from her human husband and which was only revealed with her death in childbirth. As a result of her mixed heritage, Seraphina not only possesses extraordinary musical talent, but has scales on her arm and stomach and unusual mental powers. Working to control her unique magic with the help of her dragon-uncle, Orma – a music scholar who doesn’t wear a bell, and is therefore widely assumed to be human – Seraphina wants only to excel in her new position as assistant music mistress at the Goreddi court. But when the crown prince Rufus is killed in the lead-up to the treaty celebrations – and worse, killed in a manner suggestive of a dragon attack – Seraphina finds herself drawn into the heart of human-dragon politics. Working with the bastard prince Lucian Kiggs to discover the truth behind his uncle’s death, Seraphina must confront not only her mother’s buried memories, but also the implications of her own abilities – and all while keeping her bloodline secret from those who would deem her a monster.

 

The Main Character
 

AnimeJune: When it comes to the heroine, Seraphina, I stand here overjoyed and relieved because she could have been exactly the type of YA heroine I dislike the most – the Mopey Sadsack who doesn’t understand how good she has it until someone else (usually a guy) convinces her how awesome she is. Instead, she’s a multifaceted, determined, and fiercely intelligent character.

She does harbour a fair amount of self-loathing – after all, both dragons and humans would consider her a monster if they knew what she was, and the dragon scales on her left arm and around her waist never let her forget. She’s also visited by visions of the dragon memories her mother bequeathed to her during childbirth, as well as visions of bizarre, often-deformed people with whom she shares a strange connection.

However, what I immediately like about Seraphina is that she could have hidden herself away as a recluse in her father’s house, but she didn’t. With all her freakish flaws, Seraphina also possesses a wondrous gift for music and she follows that passion to find a position in the royal court, very much in defiance of her father’s wishes. Seraphina still avoids social contact, thinks of herself as a freak, and assiduously guards her secret beneath layers of lies and ill-fitting clothing – but she still pursues the passion that makes her happy. She still believes herself worthy of independence, even though it comes at the high cost of loneliness. To me, that says so much about her. She’s not a cursed damsel waiting to be rescued or a martyr who believes herself unworthy of joy. She’s a little too aware of what makes her strange and frightening, but she’s also aware of what gives her power, and I loved that about her.

Foz: I very much agree with AnimeJune’s assessment. Though Seraphina does struggle with self-loathing, she’s also quick-witted, compassionate, practical and possessed of a sharp, sometimes mischievous sense of humour – and better still, she isn’t afraid to laugh at herself. Far too often, SFF stories narrated by troubled heroines with mysterious pasts and outcast baggage default to use of the Broken Bird trope, with only a smattering of black humour to leaven the pervasive mood of hardboiled despair and repression. By contrast, Seraphina is not only inquisitive and cheerful, but determined to succeed on her own merits – not ashamed of her heritage, but rather fearful of its implications.

This means that, despite her (very reasonable) worries about her own monstrousness, Seraphina reads as exquisitely human. As a heroine, she fully inhabits her actions: we always understand exactly why she’s said or done a particular thing, because her motives are always in keeping with her personality, rather than being impinged on by the needs of the plot, and in a novel as rich and satisfying as this, that’s no mean feat.

 

The Supporting Cast
 
Foz: When it comes to characterisation, Hartman is an incredibly skilled practitioner. In the hands of a lesser writer, certain of the recognisable archetypes underpinning her secondary characters would be cartoonish and stereotypical, or else inverted so clumsily as to achieve much the same effect. Instead, her touch is both deft and subtle, leaving us with a gorgeously varied and believable supporting cast. Her employer, the gouty music master Viridius, is a case in point: though pompous and demanding at times, he’s also possessed of unexpected depths, guiding Seraphina both politically and musically through her time at the Goreddi court. Princess Glisselda, too, is a lovely surprise: beautiful, blonde and Seraphina’s romantic rival, it would’ve been the work of a moment to render her antagonistic, stupid or both, instead of which her high spirits, flashes of arrogance and occasional naivety are counterbalanced by genuine intelligence, a desire to learn, the ability to listen, and a shrewd (if fledgling) political eye.
Far and away, though, my favourite secondary character was Orma, Seraphina’s dragon uncle. Though ostensibly cold, detached and logical, both his dry humour and respect for Seraphina completely won me over, and his development as the novel goes on is an absolute pleasure to watch. Though technically inhuman, he nonetheless felt completely believable – not just as a dragon, but as a scholar, uncle and friend.


AnimeJune: Yes! I loved Orma! The worldbuilding depicts dragons as a lot like Vulcans – while capable of emotion, they repress and police it extremely fiercely (especially when they’re more vulnerable to it in human form) because they cannot explain it in a logical, scientific manner. Orma demonstrates, in his own subtle, unconventional way, how much he cares for his niece, Seraphina, even as he risks having his mind excised of his memories of her by the dragon Censors. His character is all the more fascinating as he displays his emotions in an extremely atypical way that is, frankly, adorable.

I also quite enjoyed the minor character of the Ardmagar Comonot – the strict dragon leader who takes human form for the first time in forty years to celebrate the treaty and finds human emotion a little more than he can deal with.

That being said, my favourite supporting character is Lars – a foreign visitor invited to the Goreddi court by Viridius because of his ground-breaking (and ear-drum-breaking) musical invention, the megaharmonium (think of a giant organ). As musicians, it’s only natural that Lars and Seraphina should meet, and even more natural that they should both discover they share a secret connection. Lars’ reaction to this is one of my favourite scenes in the novel because despite the secrets he’s forced to keep (such as his heavily-implied homosexuality), he’s such an emotionally open, cheerful, friendly person. This takes Seraphina by surprise, since she’s spent her life convincing herself that closing herself off from other people is the only way to survive.

The Romance and Romantic Interest
 

AnimeJune: But enough about that! Let’s talk about the love interest. I’ll be honest, I’ve gotten a little tired of romance in YA lately. I’ve read too many YA stories in which the main plot is an action-adventure, or a science fiction parable – and this completely unnecessary romance is shoehorned in, greased with Insta-Love to make it fit without stretching the page count with, you know, actual romantic development between the characters.

So I’ve started seeing the YA Romantic Subplot as that annoying little sister the Real Plot has to babysit, something to tolerate and ignore while I hang out with the cool, funny Real Plot.

That was so not the case with Seraphina. First of all, there is no Insta-Love between Seraphina and Prince Lucian Kiggs, the head of the guard charged with keeping the peace until the Ardmagar arrives. There’s no Insta-Hate, either – that tiresome rigamarole where the protagonists automatically hate and snipe at each other until they discover it’s Been True Love All Along.

Instead, they start out respecting each other. What a novel concept! Lucian is an extremely intelligent and scrupulously honest investigator who takes notice of Seraphina’s sharp observational skills and surprising knowledge of dragon culture and seeks out her assistance in finding out who murdered the crown prince. At first, Seraphina is terrified that it’ll only be a matter of time before Lucian puzzles out her own secrets, but as they spend more time together, they discover they share more in common than they thought.

Their relationship builds realistically – with increased proximity and intelligent interaction. Lucian’s attraction to Seraphina builds on his admiration of her talents (intellectual and musical) and her bravery.
Despite their relationship not being very physical (and it really can’t be – Seraphina has too much to hide and Lucian’s engaged to another), it’s extremely moving and powerful to read because it fits so completely with the development of their characters.

Foz: Once again, I’m in total agreement with Elizabeth. I cannot even begin to express how refreshing it is to read a first-person YA romance that is neither saccharine nor abusive, and which features more instances of emotional and intellectual compatibility than it does descriptions of the hero’s arms and eye colour. The attraction between Seraphina and Lucian is all the sweeter (and, at times, all the sexier) for dispensing with the traditional, cartoonish binaries of Fated Love and Impossible Obstacles, and instead focusing on how and why two such different-yet-similar characters come to love each other. Lucian treats Seraphina with kindness and respect, and she in turn esteems his skill and intelligence long before she ever admits her feelings for him.

It helps enormously that, in developing their relationship, Hartman avoids the cliched pitfalls of what I tend to think of as Sitcom Logic – that is, entendre-laden mishaps, implausibly elaborate lies, wacky coincidences and Idiot Plot devices – which so frequently seem to crop up in YA romance. Instead, their relationship develops organically: both characters are lonely, intelligent and, despite loving their respective careers, prevented from truly fulfilling them by the restrictions of duty (Lucian) and the necessity of secrets (Seraphina). Though their relationship is certainly not without mishaps, its development makes perfect sense: they really do fit together, and I can’t wait to see where Hartman leads them in the next volume.

 

Style and Worldbuilding


Foz: On a technical level, Seraphina is an exquisitely written novel. Hartman’s prose style is lyric and flowing without being purple, and though there’s no infodumping that I noticed, she nonetheless manages to convey the many complexities of an original world without either skimping on detail or bogging down the narrative. Which isn’t to say the worldbuilding is perfect; the fact that the dragons have electricity and advanced technology, for instance, while intriguing, didn’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the setting,  while I was never quite clear on how the Goreddi social mores could allow for a bastard prince like Lucian Kiggs to hold such a prominent court position without any apparent pushback or consequence from the other nobles. But the story is so compelling, the politics otherwise so thoughtful and the premise such a pleasing mix of the familiar and the unexpected that, by and large, I really wasn’t bothered by such minor slips or omissions: I just wanted to keep on reading.

For me, the only sour note in the whole book was Seraphina’s – and, by extension, Hartman’s – tendency to repeatedly iterate the skin-colour of POC characters, as though she were worried the audience might forget that Goreddis are white and Porphyrians brown. It really stood out to me as an instance of White Is The Default writing, as no other race or subset of characters received the same treatment; I also flinched at the inclusion of exotic Porphyrian dancing (disparagingly called bum-waggling by at least one character) as a plot point, especially as it coincides with the appearance of a Porphyrian man who, to all intents and purposes, speaks in broken English. Given the sophistication of the rest of the novel, I was disappointed to find such stereotypes included in the story; and though it certainly helps that otherwise, the POC characters were treated respectfully, it’s the one aspect where I feel Hartman could stand to improve.
On a more positive note, I absolutely loved the the inclusion of Seraphina’s mother’s memories. Each one was perfectly timed in terms of narrative placement, helping to enrich our understanding of dragon culture while simultaneously comprising some of the most beautifully written sections in the whole novel. In a story where both the heroine’s and the hero’s lives are significantly informed by the actions of their disobedient, unconventional – and, as a consequence, dead – mothers (a dual fridging conceit that could have gone badly wrong, and yet somehow works), it goes a long way towards ameliorating the Absent Female Parent factor that Linn, by dint of her first-person memories, ends up feeling much more like a living character in her own right than a distant specter. I’d very much like to see more of her, and am confident that, come Book 2, we will.

AnimeJune: I’ll have to disagree on the depiction of the Porphyrians. I see where you’re getting at now that you point it out, but as I was reading Seraphina, I thought the racist and ignorant thoughts directed towards them were intended as a parallel to the bigotry the dragons endured. Many of the Goreddi feel their bigotry towards dragons is justified because dragons are simply “soulless animals,” and they believe the Queen should put human concerns first and foremost – but then these same Goreddi turn around and make fun of the Porphyrians. To me, it underscores how their bigotry will simply target anything that is significantly different from them – regardless of species.

What nettled me about the worldbuilding with Seraphina was how, forty years after the truce, the human population was still almost entirely opposed to dragons. If all but a very, very few humans are still violently opposed to dragons, how come the Queen’s dragon treaty managed to last four decades without any major incidents? How come there were no uprisings or revolutions until now? It didn’t seem realistic that a whole generation of humans would just sit on their hands for this long if their hate was that powerful.

Moreover, human lives and memories are significantly shorter than those of dragons. While there are dozens of dragons depicted as willing to overlook the atrocities the humans committed against their kind (atrocities these dragons still remember thanks to their ability to pass memories down generations), there are almost no human characters willing to see dragons in a positive light. Don’t get me wrong – the rampant bigotry is a realistic and understandable obstacle in the novel, but I did expect there to be more humans (at least those of the younger generation born after the treaty) willing to work with dragons.

For me, however, that was a minor quibble. I agree wholeheartedly with Foz – the general worldbuilding strikes the perfect balance in terms of detail – not enough to be a slog, but not so little of it that it feels like a wallpaper fantasy.

All in all, I just plain enjoyed this book. It was a meaty, emotional story with sympathetic and well-drawn characters, a truly swoon-worthy romance, and some fantastic magic and worldbuilding to explore.

Foz: Agreed. Seraphina is a truly excellent novel, and I can’t wait to see how the rest of the story unfolds.

AnimeJune: Thank you so much, Foz, for having such a great discussion with me about such a great book!

Foz: My pleasure!

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.