My “Yes!” List

Lists of forthcoming SFF releases, complete with nutshell synopses/descriptions and hopefully an advance review or two, can never come out soon enough to suit me. If a new book has some combination of the following qualities, it goes at once onto my To-Read list; certain combinations propel it into the top ranks.

A second-world or historical setting.

If I click on a title and its description includes contemporary character or place names, more often than not I’ll click away from it without exploring further, unless it’s by an author whose style I admire (e.g. Patricia McKillip, whose contemporary take on Arthurian legend, Kingfisher, delighted me last year). When I read, I want to dream myself into a time and place removed from the ones I physically inhabit. New York, Chicago, and/or Atlanta with sorcerers, vampires, or werewolves thrown in just don’t have the same appeal for me as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Sanderson’s Cosmere, Wexler’s Khandar or Vordan, Pierce’s Tortall, or Bujold’s Chalion.

An active, capable female lead.

I’ve said it before, but I’m fond of repeating it: I avoid damsels, I admire heroines, but I adore female heroes. I may relish books in which the female hero is one of multiple protagonists (e.g. The Stormlight Archive and The Shadow Campaigns), but I have a soft spot for those books or series which feature a single central female hero who drives the plot (Bujold’s Paladin of Souls being one of my favorite examples), and I wish with all my heart we could see more such books and series outside the subgenres of urban fantasy and YA.

Multiple important female characters.

The Smurfette Principle — the trope of a sole female character surrounded entirely by boys/men — isn’t an automatic “No”; I don’t find it quite as abhorrent as the Not-Like-Other-Girls “girl-on-girl hate” feature I mentioned in my previous post. But whenever I read such a book, even if it’s well-written and the female character in question is dynamic and powerful, I come away feeling disappointed, as if the story were not quite complete. Unless said story is set in some rarefied environment such as a monastery, it doesn’t make sense for women not to have a noticeable presence in that world, in both background and foreground. One thing that helps a great deal–

Gender-egalitarian built worlds.

It gladdens me no end to read about societies in which men and women are shown at every level and in a variety of roles in society, and in which female and male characters do not have to jump over mile-high hurdles reading “SEXISM” in order to accomplish their goals or save the day. For some good examples, see this Goodreads list.

Friendships between women.

Not only are such friendships an effective antidote to the poison of girl-on-girl hate, but they also serve as pushback against the notion that the only relationships of any value or importance in a woman’s life are those that involve sex and/or romance. Our lives are much too full and complex to be summed up by whom we fall in love or have sex with, and I hope to see the day when as many SFF novels center around “womances” as around “bromances.” Here, for your perusal, is another Goodreads list.

Friendships between men and women.

Can men and women be “just friends”? Absolutely. In fact, the ability of men and women to interact in ways beyond the sexual is a key component of social health. The idea that men and women need and value each other only for sex lies at the heart of society’s darkest and most toxic corners, from homophobic hate groups to the “incel” movement. Children benefit when they see male/female friendships modeled as they grow up, and teens need to experience such friendships as they navigate around the land mines of adolescence. So every time I read a book like Ben S. Dobson’s Scriber or Curtis Craddock’s An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors or Sarah Beth Durst’s The Queen of Blood, in which a male/female friendship occupies a central place, I feel a little better. Another Goodreads list.

“Slow burn” romantic plots/subplots.

I have little to no patience with the type of romance commonly referred to as “insta-love,” the trope that has two characters lock eyes and immediately decide they are Meant To Be Together even though they’ve never even exchanged words. What sort of love blossoms between two people who know nothing about each other’s characters, values, ambitions, or interests? A shallow one, of course, based on nothing more than looks and sexual attraction, that in the real world would fall apart inside of a month. I might be able to suspend my disbelief for a fairy tale, but not for a novel where at least some measure of detail and development is expected.

I like a good love plot, but I want to see it built on a foundation of respect and understanding. However they start out, I want the delight of seeing them develop, surely and steadily, an appreciation of each other as individuals with unique minds, hearts, and souls. I want to come away from their stories with a strong sense they will have something to say to each other when they’re not kissing and cuddling. If I get a whiff of a book with such a plot, developed with feeling and skill, into my TBR it goes.

Kindness portrayed as strength, not weakness.

Some writers refer to showing a tough character’s kind-hearted side as “softening” that character. Why, exactly? How is kindness “soft”? Isn’t stepping in to help someone in trouble a brave and heroic thing to do? Isn’t allowing yourself the vulnerability that comes with “giving a damn” an act of courage? Kindness is tough. It’s often hard and frequently inconvenient; it’s so much easier to care solely about ourselves and about those whose “friendship” can benefit us in some way. But kindness changes hearts, and by extension it can, if given a chance, change the world.

A few new and recent titles near the top of my To-Read List, that are not the next novels in series I’ve already begun:

Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver

Rachel Hartman, Tess of the Road

Elizabeth Bear, The Stone in the Skull

Sam Hawke, City of Lies

Justina Ireland, Dread Nation

K. Arsenault Rivera, The Tiger’s Daughter

S.A. Chakraborty, The City of Brass

 

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My “No” List

Goodreads’ “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2016” has 424 titles listed. “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2017″ lists 307 titles, while the list for 2018 names a whopping 491. Factor in all the SFF titles published  Herover the past four to five decades, and you have more books than anyone could possibly read in a single lifetime, even if one had no other responsibilities beyond reading. In short, no one can read everything. Not only word of mouth from friends whose opinions we trust but online resources like Goodreads, LibraryThing, Tor.com, and The Illustrated Page can help us decide which books to put on our to-read list, which ones to move to the top of said list, and which ones we might just as well leave unread. It helps tremendously to have a “Yes!” List, characteristics in a book most likely to appeal to you, and a “No” List, qualities you find off-putting. My own personal “Yes!” and “No” Lists have helped me maintain control of my reading life, even if my to-read list is, dare I say, unwieldy.

I’ll get the negative out of the way first. If I hear or read the following, or some paraphrase of the following, in multiple reviews for a stand-alone book or a series, I probably won’t read it.

Women are either love interests or villains.

A Tor.com review/discussion of the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child led by Emily Asher-Perrin points out that while the adult Hermione and even Ginny are given somewhat decent roles, the rising generation of female characters doesn’t include anyone who might be the next Hermione. “Practically all other women in the story are either fridged or irrelevant, except where they apply as love interests or villains,” the review tells us, and that tells me all I need to know. Cursed Child can win all the Tonys it wants, but I won’t be reading or seeing it. I’ll stick with Rowling’s original seven books, thanks, unless somebody wants to write a spin-off revolving around the adventures of the grown-up Luna Lovegood.

Girl-on-Girl Hate.

Few things put me off a story with a female protagonist, particularly in YA, faster than this phrase. This isn’t to say I can’t accept any scenario in which two female characters loathe each other. The mutual detestation between heroic grandmother Ista and monstrous “mother” Joen in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls, for example, is very apropos. Yet for me, this enmity works partly because Bujold includes a strong friendship between Ista and the young courier Liss, so we see the unique female hero doesn’t view all other women as her natural enemies. If a book paints every interaction between a female protag and another female character as hostile, as if catty jealousy and suspicion were somehow the norm for relationships between girls and women, that’s a hard pass. I’ve read such books before, so I know from experience that my frustration with this kind of thing is bound to rage-blind me to whatever other virtues the book might have.

The female characters are the book’s weakest link.

There are two ways I spot this in reviews. The first is when positive reviews praise the male characters to the skies and decline to mention a female character even in passing, while negative reviews complain bitterly about how weakly the women are written. The second is when it’s stated outright, with words like, “I like this book, except for (insert female character’s name here),” or “If you can overlook the female characters, you’ll enjoy this book.” Since overlooking female representation is a little outside my skill set, I save myself the trouble and avoid the book in question.

“Rapey.”

I have read some excellent fantasy fiction centering on a victim of rape; Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace, and Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld spring to mind at once. I acknowledge this kind of story may be (and dare I say it, needs to be) well told. But the term “rapey” in reviews of certain books gives a warning light, more often than not, to a phenomenon I’ve heard called “Rape as Wallpaper,” in which the prevalence of rape is baked into the world-building and instances of rape are so thick on the ground — the victims often being either minor characters in which we make no emotional investment or one-scene wonders who may as well be named “Rape Victim #44” — that readers cease to feel shocked or disturbed by them. Writers whose works are “rapey” like to claim their heavy use of rape is “realistic” in view of the historical period they’re drawing from in their built worlds. But in this case, I feel, realism is overrated.

Unleavened despair.

In a story that features rape, what happens to the victim? Is she destroyed by the experience, either dying of her injuries, perishing of a broken heart, or going irretrievably mad? Or does she find a way to survive and make the slow, steady march toward recovery? I may not be very keen on rape plots in general, overused as they tend to be in fantasy fiction, but if the latter is the case (as it is in the titles I mention above) I may give it a shot, particularly if I admire the author. But the former is a deal-breaker, as such a thing often serves as a sign that the book as a whole holds out no hope to its characters or its readers.

I don’t mind stories with deeply flawed characters, or stories that veer into dark or even disturbing territory, but I will shun any book that depicts life as little or nothing but a continuous downward spiral, a long, pitch-dark tunnel with not a glimmer of light at the end. If I wanted to spend time in a world where kindness is viewed as weakness and compassion is all but unknown, I’d watch the evening news.

Coming Next: The “Yes!” List

Crafting Femininity: The Coveting of Characteristics

I’ve noticed in recent days a growing number of attacks on the “strong female character” trope, most of them focusing specifically on the “action girl,” and a common complaint seems to unite them all: the “action girls” aren’t feminine enough. They succeed by displaying traits society deems masculine, such as aggression, ambition, and the drive to win. They are reportedly “men with boobs” who dress in trousers and chainmail, carry swords and know how to use them, and shun such girly things as dresses and jewelry and gossip and romance (though they often end up falling in love). The proliferation of these sorts of characters, critics argue, undervalues femininity and contributes to masculine privilege. One particular example comes from a YouTube commentator called “The Authentic Observer,” which I link here.

I’m of two minds about such criticisms.

On the one hand, I disagree vehemently with the notion that fighting skills automatically make a female character “masculine,” as if all the girls and women who take karate classes were selling off their femininity one lesson at a time. (Kameron Hurley has some wise words on the subject.) On the other hand, I can see where the idea of the badass female warrior character as an attack on femininity comes from. Many action-girl heroes, in YA especially, are written as “not like other girls,” contemptuous of softer, more traditionally feminine characters. In some works, such as Ann Aguirre’s Enclave, the action girl’s disdain for softer girls/women is shown in time to be misguided. In others, such as V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy, the narrative implicitly endorses her prejudice by depicting the more overtly feminine characters as shallow morons deserving of the action girl’s scorn. This tendency to tag the dress-wearing, non-fighting ladies as “lesser” can indeed come across as dismissive of femininity in general. It’s a big part of the reason why I love to see solid friendships between action girls and girlier counterparts, such as Starhawk and Fawn in Barbara Hambly’s The Ladies of Mandrigyn, Cat and Bee Barahal in Kate Elliott’s The Spiritwalker Trilogy, and Senneth and Kirra from Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series. In these stories, both the fighter and the “girly girl” are drawn as competent characters, and the reader sees in them that there’s no one right way to be a woman, no single unchanging blueprint for femininity.

In the final Twelve Houses novel, Fortune and Fate, Shinn presents the most warlike of her action-girl heroes, the Rider Willawendis, Wen for short. In Wen’s story Shinn addresses, point for point, all the problems I have with too many writers’ characterizations of warrior women. First, Wen isn’t depicted as an anomaly, the only woman who can fight. Other female Riders exist, and there are women among the bodyguard trainees Wen whips into shape in the course of the book. Second, Wen, like Senneth before her, forges a bond with a more ladylike character, in this case the young noblewoman Karryn, and at the climax, in a delightful twist, the two women rescue each other. Finally, the fully fleshed out and three-dimensional characterization of Wen herself thwarts any attempt to dismiss her short-sightedly as a “man with boobs.” What we have here is not an attack on femininity, but a celebration of the many ways of being a woman.

Books like Fortune and Fate show us there is room for many kinds of female heroes, with a variety of strengths. Yet in its critique of the female fighter as a “masculine woman,” the Authentic Observer’s video also brings up the question of whether violence and aggression are “masculine” traits that the girls and women who consume SFF should covet for themselves. Do we female SFF fans really daydream about riding into battle and killing people? The popularity of characters like Wonder Woman would suggest that yes, we kind of do (although Wonder Woman’s foremost impulse, at least in the 2017 film, is to protect people). But what “masculine” traits, or characteristics most often assigned to men, do I personally covet? If I had the power to craft a new understanding of femininity — and to some extent I do, as a writer — what would I change?

  1. Men travel and explore, while women stay home. This idea of the man who wanders and the woman who functions as a stabilizing force within the home is everywhere; in a recent example, it’s the driving force behind the plot of Pixar’s Coco. (Disney’s Moana, Best Animated Feature Oscar winner the previous year, happily subverts this idea.)
  2. Men define themselves by their work and achievements, while women define themselves by their relationships. Just how many “The Male Professional’s Female Relative” titles are out there? Here’s a Goodreads list with just a few: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/3705.The_Female_Relative_Phenomenon#18619684
  3. Men fight to save the world, while women fight to save their families. As Susan Isaacs’ Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen (a book that could really use an update) notes, “For many wimpettes, the world stops at the white pickets of their fences; they lack the curiosity to look past the spaces between the pickets at the world beyond. . . Larger causes — racial equality, justice — are left to the guys” (7). Today’s writers scramble to create the female Indiana Jones or the female James Bond, yet where is our female Atticus Finch?

I’ll start with these three things, and see what happens later.

My ambition is, over the course of my writing career, to create female characters who want to see the world, maybe even the universe, and aren’t talked out of it. I want to write about women who explore, who discover. Maybe they have a home and a family to which they return from time to time, and a spouse who helps keep things stable. But maybe they don’t.

I want to write about women who love their work as much as I do, and take pride in their accomplishments. I want to write about women who perceive the wrongs and injustices in the worlds they inhabit and decide to do something about them, even though it might be dangerous.

I’m just getting started, and thankfully, I’m not doing it alone. Writers like Shinn, Hambly, Elliott, Tomi Adeyemi, Sarah Beth Durst, Kate Forsyth, Curtis Craddock, Cass Morris, Django Wexker, Max Gladstone, and many more are working on it too, offering us new and greater possibilities of what female characters should be and do.

(Isaacs, Susan. Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen. NY: The Library of Contemporary Thought, 1999.)

 

 

My Mid-Year Recap: June 2018

Here at the midpoint of 2018, I sometimes feel myself sinking in a sea of bad news, as if the very air I breathe is poisoned with the stink of meanness, vulgarity, ignorance, and irrationality. Three things help me keep my head above water. The first is, always, my husband. Next come the rest of my family and friends. Last, but far from least, are stories — creating them, consuming them. We can’t ignore the state of the world, nor should we. But stories can give us the hope and the wisdom to imagine things can be better. In the stories I love best, flawed and complex characters may struggle with their meaner natures, but also display courage, insight, and empathy. We need all the models and reminders of these qualities we can get.

So far, 2018 has been a good year for stories. In particular, it’s been a happy reading year. More than once I’ve experienced that giddy rush of “where have you been all my life?” as I’ve dipped into a good book. Among the books I’ve reviewed on Goodreads this year are Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, Ken Liu’s The Wall of Storms, Curtis Craddock’s An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (a reread), N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Django Wexler’s The Infernal Battalion, Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch, Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns, John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, Anthony Ryan’s The Waking Fire, Sarah Beth Durst’s The Queen of Blood, and Sharon Shinn’s Fortune and Fate. I’ve loved some of these more than others, but all have had at least something to recommend them.

Most Pleasant Surprise: The Queen of Blood, a fresh breeze of a book. Expect a Book Report on this one soon.

Favorite Female Hero: The competition is stiff for this one, but after some deliberation, I’m going to go with the brilliant, resilient Isabelle des Zephyrs from An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors.

Favorite Male Hero: Dalinar Kholin, Oathbringer.

Saddest Good-Bye to a Group of Heroes: The Infernal Battalion, the last of Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series.

Best Catch-Up With Old Friends: It’s been at least five years since I read Reader and Raelynx, the fourth of Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series. Now I’ve finally gotten around to reading Fortune and Fate (perhaps because I didn’t want the series to end), and it’s so good to spend time with this set of characters again.

Best First Volume of a Series I’ve Newly Engaged With: A tie between The Fifth Season and the aforementioned The Queen of Blood. Close runner-up: The Waking Fire.

Best “First World Problem” to Have: No matter how good the first volume is, I rarely read straight through a series, because there are just so many other worlds and casts of characters I want to wade into. But Ryan’s The Legion of Flame, Durst’s The Reluctant Queen, and Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate are already on my shelf.

Though books have given me the most “story joy” this year, I can’t omit a few highlights from movies and TV as well:

Most Heroic Superhero Movie: the MCU’s Black Panther. When the misogynistic vitriol that infects the commentary on Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi starts to get me down, I remind myself of how fans welcomed this movie, and its cast of awesome female characters, with open arms.

Most Feminist Movie of 2018 So Far (even more so than Black Panther, and that’s saying something): A Quiet Place. I won’t Spoil by giving details, but even if you don’t like horror, this movie is worth a look.

I Had Issues With It But Still Enjoyed It: Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War.

Best TV-related News: Fox cancelled the wonderful Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but NBC heard the outcry and promptly picked it up. The prospect of more Captain Holt is always a good thing.

Worst TV-related News: The delightful The Librarians, after being cancelled by TNT, failed to find a new home. This show deserved so much better.

Actors I Wish Could Be In Everything I Watch: Andre Braugher, Melissa Fumero, Emily Blunt, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira, Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman, Zoe Saldana, Melissa Benoist, Clark Gregg, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Zazie Beets, Morena Baccarin (come on, Deadpool 2 writers, you know darn well this actress deserves better than what you gave her), Lindy Booth, Ming-Na Wen, Jaime Alexander, Rose McIver, Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Stephanie Beatriz, Carey Mulligan, Sally Hawkins, Aidan Turner, Eleanor Tomlinson.

 

Book Report: Recent Reads

Spoiler Alert as per usual

Children of Blood and Bone

Children Blood Bone pic

In the second-world kingdom of Orisha, magic has been brutally suppressed. Its king, Saran, lives in perpetual fear that it will rise again, and he persecutes all those who would have potential to practice it — diviners, as they’re generally called, or “maggots,” as bigots call them, distinguishable from ordinary people by their white hair. He has found a scroll that may hold the power to bring back magic, but he has to conduct a test to see what it can do. To that end, he orders his daughter’s white-haired maidservant/companion, Binta, brought to him under guard. Once she’s served her purpose, he kills her without hesitation. She’s collateral damage, and the fact that she’s very dear to his daughter, Amari, means nothing to him. She’s only a “maggot,” after all.

This is what evil looks like in Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone — raging hatred borne of fear, an “us” vs. “them” antagonism that tags “them” as subhuman. The central protagonist is Zelie, a diviner who remembers seeing her mother slaughtered by the king’s soldiers, and the memory nourishes her own rage. Thus hatred begets itself.

But hope is not lost. The princess Amari, broken-hearted by Binta’s murder, steals the scroll from her father and flees the palace. She and the fierce, bitter Zelie forge a tenuous alliance and embark on a journey to resurrect magic and overthrow the king. They’re pursued by the prince, Inan, his father’s favorite and quite the slave to his father’s good opinion, determined to retrieve the scroll, despite being a secret diviner himself.

Of the three main characters, Zelie is the easiest sell for me, a tough, outspoken risk-taker whom we first meet at a fighting lesson. When she learns of the possibility that magic might be restored to her country, she leads the leads the charge in that direction; here we have a flawed but on-the-whole good character who actively seeks to become empowered rather than feeling frightened by the prospect and wishing she were normal. At the same time, she recognizes the dangers inherent in magical power. She knows that she and her fellow maji must not become the very thing their persecutors fear.

While I expected I would like Zelie and was not disappointed, Amari surprised me. In the course of my reading I lost patience with her more than once, but having finished the book I can appreciate her as the one whose rebellious action sets the whole plot in motion and who does the most growing throughout the story. She engages my sympathy as someone who, at the book’s outset, loses the only person who has ever shown her kindness or love. She’s a naturally loving person who wants to be loved and valued in turn. Thankfully she finds Zelie and her brother Tzain, and earns their affection and respect. The friendship that grows between Zelie and Amari is the book’s most satisfying relationship.

What I disliked about the book can be summed up in a single word: Inan. His situation as someone who loathes and fears magic despite (or perhaps because of) his own powers is an interesting one. He seeks to destroy that part of himself that would divide him from his father and his people, and as such he could have made a compelling villain, the kind you can’t help admiring even while you root for him to fail. Unfortunately, what we end up getting is a drawn-out bad boy/good girl romance between him and Zelie. If at times it seems like it just might work, his weather-vane loyalties — and the way he falls for his father’s mind tricks every single time, even after he’s seen the man torture the girl he supposedly loves — make him the worst love interest imaginable. His act near the end of the book is so clearly a deal-breaker that I found myself frustrated at the amount of page time devoted to this ill-advised relationship.

All the same, I liked the book far more than I disliked it. It sticks its landing, letting the readers see both Zelie and Amari at their most powerful at the climax, and thus making us anxious to learn where they will both go from here. I’m already impatient for the next book in the series.

 

Avengers: Infinity War — What I Loved, What I Loved Less

Warning: Spoilers! Lots of them!

Confession: I hated Doctor Strange.

My chief reasons center on the movie’s last fifteen minutes or so. The wizards of the New York sanctum, headed by Wong, are preparing for battle with the villain. These wizards are a diverse lot, plenty of POC and women, and I smiled to think of them all kicking butt at the climax. But the scene cuts away, and when we rejoin Wong, and Strange asks where his team is, he answers with a shrug, and without the slightest hint of grief, that he’s the only one left. All those people have just disappeared, without a tear shed on their behalf. This is bad enough. What makes it worse is that the gender-flipped (cool), whitewashed (not cool) Ancient One has already fallen victim to Mentor Occupational Hazard, and once the villain’s two henchwomen are duly dispatched, female wizards have effectively been wiped from the face of the earth.

The only woman of significance left alive at the end is another underwritten Little Miss Normal, who in this film exists primarily to get treated like crap by the hero. With only a tweak or two, Dr. Christine Palmer might have been awesome. After all, her primary action is to perform a very difficult operation successfully and thus save the hero’s life, all while supernatural eruptions are happening all around her. But instead of highlighting her courage at this moment, the movie chooses to put tight focus on her tremulous confusion, and to play it for laughs, so that when she should have been seen as most bad-ass, she comes across instead as ineffectual, a crushingly ordinary woman who couldn’t have a place in the extraordinary life the hero must now lead. Most of the movie’s champions don’t hesitate to name her as the weak link.

All in all, I’d call Doctor Strange the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most dismal failure where gender representation is concerned, even worse than Thor: The Dark World (in which Jane, despite being helpless for most of the film, at least gets her chance to be heroic in the final act). Yet I accuse the MCU here not of malice, but of misjudgment. Those in charge doubtless felt that by making the Ancient One a woman, they would satisfy the audience’s desire for an awesome female character. Yet frankly I’d rather Wong have been gender-flipped (though not whitewashed) instead. Then at least there would have been one female wizard left standing at the end.

What does this have to do with the MCU’s newest blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War? Simply that it didn’t make the best impression on me, despite the praise it received from friends whose opinion I trust. Doctor Strange and Wong are among the first characters to appear (after a prologue that slaps a grim coda onto Thor: Ragnarok‘s hopeful finish), and residual ill feeling from Strange’s solo film spilled over onto this one. To make matters worse, the first female superhero we see, Gamora, doesn’t show up for over thirty minutes into the movie. Up to that point, except for the brief appearances of a lady super villain and Iron Man’s anxious significant other Pepper, it’s all dudes, all the time.

Thankfully, things get better.

Gamora shows up, and afterwards, Scarlet Witch gets a cool action sequence. Then, at last, Black Widow appears on the scene. No longer distracted by excessive testosterone or residual Doctor Strange-hate, I could settle in and enjoy the new movie. And I did enjoy it, overall. There is much to like, as our multitude of heroes unite to defeat Thanos, a villain who believes he’s doing good by culling by half the population of every planet where he sets foot. The fight against Thanos, the King of Collateral Damage, is everyone’s fight, and all our favorite MCU heroes — even Mantis, who disappointed me bitterly in Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 — get at least one chance to shine. The latter point is, for me, the film’s chief virtue.

A few more things I loved:

  1. The action rarely lets up. I was never bored.
  2. Captain America: Civil War badly underutilized Scarlet Witch, but here she gets a bigger share of the action and a chance to show how deadly she can be.
  3. Everything Wakanda is full of win. I have high hopes that General Okoye of the Dora Milaje will carve a more substantial place for herself in the MCU as a whole. As for Black Panther himself… well, his ending isn’t happy, but unless Black Panther 2 turns out to be a prequel, we know he’ll somehow be all right.
  4. Speaking of the deaths en masse at the end: even though our common sense tells us most of them are only temporary, they still carry emotional weight. The MCU would be insane to kill Spider-Man, the comics’ most popular character, for good when they only recently won the rights to use him. Yet still, Peter Parker’s terror at feeling himself on the verge of turning to dust — “I don’t feel so good” — is absolutely heartbreaking.
  5. Captain Marvel is coming! Good signaling, movie!

But I did have problems, which, like my issues with Doctor Strange, spring more from misjudgment than from malice. Avengers 4 will have some things to prove.

First, while nearly all the characters get their chance in the spotlight, the white male ones do seem to dominate. The movie leads with them, as Doctor Strange, Iron Man, and Spider-Man get the first big action sequence. Also, in bringing all the MCU’s important figures together in one film, we get to see them interact with those outside their own sub-groups of friends and allies, yet while we get lengthy sequences of Iron Man and Doctor Strange bantering (a “goatee-off,” as NPR’s Glen Weldon calls it) and Thor traveling through space with Rocket Raccoon, the female characters interact only briefly with those outside their group. We do get an awesome scene of female solidarity in which Okoye, Black Widow, and Scarlet Witch team up to take down a villainess, but they exchange very little dialogue. Gamora, arguably the movie’s most important female character, exchanges only a few short words with Thor, and afterwards never interacts with any of the heroes outside her accustomed sphere. My hopes for face time between her and Black Widow, or Doctor Strange and Scarlet Witch, went unfulfilled. On the whole, this lack serves as a reminder that the MCU’s women haven’t really had a chance to carry the action independently of their teams.

Second, it’s obvious the bulk of this movie was made before anyone had much of a clue that Black Panther would become the phenomenon it eventually did. T’Challa had already intrigued me in another big-team film, Captain America: Civil War, so even if his solo film hadn’t happened yet, I would still be disappointed with how little screen time he gets.

Third, I know Captain America and Black Widow are in this movie, but beyond Widow’s helping Okoye and Scarlet Witch dispatch the evil Proxima Midnight, I couldn’t tell you what they do. Blink and you’ll miss them.

Finally, while again I know most of the people turned into dust will come back, here are a few stats I find bothersome:

  1. The Guardians of the Galaxy now consist of Rocket Raccoon.
  2. Both major heroes of color, Black Panther and Falcon, are gone.
  3. Black Widow is now once again the Avengers’ Smurfette.

True, Okoye remains, and with very little training she could easily take up a superhero’s mantle. Since we didn’t actually see Black Panther’s sister Shuri turn to dust, I insist she’s still alive and could become Black Panther, at least until her brother’s resurrection. (Or maybe they could both be Black Panther?) If I see these things in Avengers 4, that will salve the ache. But in the next film, Cap and Black Widow had better get some meaningful screen time, and we’d better see what was so conspicuously absent from Doctor Strange — mourning for the fallen.

And a Starbucks sign being raised in Wakanda.

 

Book Report: Recent Reads

Anthony Ryan, The Waking Fire (Warning: Spoilers)

Waking Fire

Ryan is a rising star in fantasy; praise blurbs on the cover of this opening volume of the Draconis Memoria series call him the heir-apparent of the late David Gemmell. Though the popular Raven’s Shadow trilogy came before it, this is my first experience with his work. I was drawn to it when several Goodreads reviewers named the novel’s female lead, Lizanne Lethridge, as their favorite character. They described her as a “female James Bond,” so naturally I had to make her acquaintance. As far as she was concerned, the book didn’t disappoint.

The story concerns the Ironship Trading Company, a kind of “econo-mocracy” in which sailing ships have names like Viable Opportunity. Trouble is brewing between this nation and its neighbor, an Empire keen on doing what Empires generally do, that is, add nations to its ranks. Its best line of defense are the “blood-blessed,” people who acquire special powers by drinking the blood of the drakes (supposedly non-sentient dragons) that are hunted and harvested. Ryan presents us with three point-of-view characters: spy Lizanne, street tough Clay, and steady, practical sailor Hilemore, the only one of the three who isn’t blood-blessed. Each POV sequence has its own distinct feel, with Lizanne in a drama of political intrigue, Clay in a trek through the jungle, and Hilemore in a seafaring adventure involving pirates and betrayal. At the very end, the plotlines intersect.

Put simply, The Waking Fire is a lot of fun. The prose is brisk and solid. The action rarely lets up. The figure of “the White,” a draconic Moby Dick both desired and feared, and as the threat from abroad escalates, our protagonists are faced with a possibility that could turn their society upside down: the drakes may not be as non-sentient as originally thought, and they just might be out for revenge. Even while we hope they’ll succeed in protecting themselves and those closest to them, it’s hard not to think that revenge is a little bit justified.

The weakest point is Hilemore’s storyline. In and of itself, it’s actually quite interesting, as our straight-arrow “normal” hero must form an alliance with a pirate queen who’s one of his country’s Most Wanted. But while Lizanne and Clay interact telepathically at regular intervals as they move through their separate plot threads, Hilemore is on his own, and no sooner do we start to care about him and the fearless Zenida Okanas than they disappear from the book and remain out of sight throughout the exciting last third. It’s as if Ryan takes the trouble to develop Hilemore and his situation, only to decide he doesn’t really know what to do with him. What role he’ll play in the next book, we can’t be sure.

But as you might expect, Lizanne makes the book for me. The moment we meet her, we learn she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty in the service of her government, but there are certain lines she won’t cross; when she’s ordered to kill Tekela, a spoiled-rotten daughter of privilege who has seen too much, she refuses, instead becoming a mentor to the girl, who improves measurably under her guidance. When her own mentor turns out to be a duplicitous double agent and meets her end between the jaws of a drake, Lizanne steps up and takes charge of the defense of her city, and proves an awesomely competent authority figure. More active than acted upon, adept at thinking on her feet, she’s a satisfying heroine to read about, and I look forward to seeing how she’ll handle the next crisis she has to face.

My Top 25 Fantasy Novels/Series of the 21st Century

With a brief explanation of each.

25. The Emperor’s Soul (Brandon Sanderson). Shai, artist and forger and eventual hero, is my favorite of all Sanderson’s female characters.

24. The Second Mistborn Trilogy (Brandon Sanderson). This series of books solves its predecessor’s Smurfette problem.

23. The Books of Pellinor (Allison Croggon). YA fantasy on an epic scale, with a female musician as its protagonist. Music + Magic = Delight.

22. The Books of the Raksura (Martha Wells). For this immersive epic series, Wells creates a cast of nonhuman characters that readers can relate to.

21. Dhulyn and Parno (Violette Malan). Inseparable friends and occasional lovers, this female/male mercenary duo always have each other’s backs.

20. Scriber (Ben S. Dobson). One of the few fantasy novels to focus on the growth of a 100% friendship between a man and a woman — in this case, a reclusive scholar and a battle-leader.

19. Elantris (Brandon Sanderson). Bookish diplomat-princess Sarene is my kind of heroine, one who won’t stop even when she’s at a disadvantage.

18. Cygnet (Patricia McKillip). McKillip writes some of the most breathtaking prose in the genre, and her two female leads in this duology, one a sorceress and the other a fighter, are nothing less than awesome.

17. The Shadowed Sun (N.K. Jemisin). This involving, often disturbing tale focuses on a shy cleric who grows from self-doubter to full-on badass.

16. The Fifth Season (N.K. Jemisin). I’ve only read this first book of the Broken Earth series, but I’m already highly invested in its powerful lead character.

15. City of Stairs (Robert Jackson Bennett). Another series I’m just starting, this one touches on the nature of faith and divinity and an intriguing clash of cultures.

14. Bitter Greens (Kate Forsyth). A skillful blend of fantasy (a retelling of “Rapunzel”) and historical fiction (the story of French author Charlotte-Rose de la Force).

13. The Curse of Chalion (Lois McMaster Bujold). This story of a queen’s rise to power features one of my favorite male protagonists in SFF.

12. Paladin of Souls (Lois McMaster Bujold). The sequel to #13, this one features one of the most unique female protagonists in SFF, and also one of my favorite endings.

11. Among Others (Jo Walton). A coming-of-age tale centering on an imaginative nerd girl — how could I not love that?

10. Uprooted (Naomi Novik). I’m very fond of this novel’s underdog hero and its vividly detailed descriptions of magic.

9. The Spiritwalker Trilogy (Kate Elliott). An epic fantasy with a steampunk touch, this one features some gorgeous world-building and an endearing female buddy pair.

8. Black Wolves (Kate Elliott). Exciting, disturbing, satisfying — where is this book’s sequel, already? My hands ache to hold it.

7. The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker). Wecker’s masterful prose in this historical novel with fantasy elements makes me both ambitious (I want to be a better writer!) and frustrated (can I ever measure up?).

6. The Twelve Houses (Sharon Shinn). This criminally underrated series tells an epic story with an intimate feel.

5. The Shadow Campaigns (Django Wexler). I’ve praised this series multiple times already.

4. The Eternal Sky Trilogy (Elizabeth Bear). Exquisite prose brings a magnificent Arabian Nights landscape to life.

3. Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor). Warning: this one is very dark, almost painful to read at times. But its immense power can’t be denied.

2. The First Sevenwaters Trilogy (Juliet Marillier). This series features lovely, dreamlike prose and three generations of resilient women.

And finally… The Stormlight Archive (Brandon Sanderson). This series may not feature the most gorgeous prose or the most edgy characterizations, but it practically defines Epic Fantasy. Also, Dalinar and Jasnah Kholin, Kaladin, Syl, and Lift are in it.

 

 

 

The Damsel/Demon Dichotomy

My lack of enthusiasm for female villains is already well documented here. I’ve written a few in my time, both in my novels and in my plays for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, and I admit to a measure of pride when I’ve felt they were working well within the context of the stories I was telling. But while a female villain may earn my interest, my curiosity, she will never win my heart. The fact that female villains are absolutely everywhere these days, from Harley Quinn to Hela, from Miss Lint to the mysterious robed woman in Solo: A Star Wars Story, not to mention good-girl-gone-bad Dark Phoenix, offers evidence that many people love these kinds of characters, and some of their biggest fans are women. I feel sometimes like the odd woman out, because I don’t share their enthusiasm.

Two good articles I’ve read in the past week have made me reflect that others’ love for female villains and my discomfort with them might spring from the very same place.

The first is a blog review of Ursula K. LeGuin’s fantasy classic A Wizard of Earthsea, written by one of my friends on Goodreads. I’ve mentioned before that I tried to read this book immediately after finishing The Lord of the Rings. I’d imprinted on Eowyn’s character, and I’d hoped to find a fantasy novel that would feature some heroine like her in a larger, more central role. (Why, oh, why was there no one around who could have pointed me toward Tamora Pierce or Robin McKinley?) I hadn’t read up to fifty pages of LeGuin’s novel before I realized it wasn’t going to give me what I was looking for, and I returned it to the library unfinished. None of the glowing reviews I’ve read since then have given me cause to regret my decision. There are no Eowyns here. Instead, there’s a Morgan le Fay.

Yet this is the character on whom my friend imprinted, and she notes that her delight in villains has its roots in the many stories she grew up with where Villain was the only role that capable, active women were allowed to play. Villainy demands capability. A female villain has to be a badass, if she is to be a credible threat. If you’re hungry for female badassery, the villainess rarely lets you down. In that light, it’s little wonder that people are drawn to her.

The other article, published on the website Fantasy Cafe as part of its “Women in SFF Month,” was written by R. F. Kuang, author of the new fantasy novel The Poppy War. Entitled “Be a Bitch, Eat the Peach,” it describes how legends have been used to teach Asian girls about the dangers of ambition and the trouble they’ll cause if they try to ask or take too much for themselves. Kuang cites the famous Asian damsels whose defining feature is their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the men in their lives. As a girl, she found an antidote to all this female self-abnegation in Azula, the primary villain of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. Azula captured her imagination and her heart because she took what she wanted without hesitation, precisely as a “good girl” would never do.

I can imagine myself in Kuang’s place, told again and again in story after story that feminine virtue is characterized by the denial of all ambition and desire and that anything you do for yourself is not worth doing. I too would have found Azula captivating. She would certainly have outshone the series’ principal “good girl,” the one we’re supposed to like, who serves as the “Heart” of Team Good and uses what capability she has to facilitate the achievements of the male hero rather than achieve anything of her own or win anything for herself.

But this contrast between the “good girl” who moves more often than not in the shadow of a male hero and the “bad girl” who leads rather than follows is the very root of my own dissatisfaction. Too often, it seems, the fascination of the female villain rises from a false choice that too many writers offer their female characters: you can be the passive damsel, the embodiment of self-denying womanly virtue, or you can be the ruthless vixen who looks out for Number One. You can be good, or you can be powerful. You can’t be both. This dichotomy is the habit of centuries, and while progress has been made, it still persists.

When writers have this false choice in the back, or the front, of their minds, it isn’t the characterization of female villains that suffers. Their power, as well as their allure, remains undiminished. The problem lies instead with the female characters presented to us as “good,” and the limits placed on them.  We still see comparatively few female characters who are heroes in their own right, and even fewer who are written to be as fascinating, as charismatic, as the typical female villain. As long as the female characters we’re meant to like are served to us as docile sacrificial lambs who, if they have any capabilities of their own, never quite manage to measure up to male heroes, readers/viewers are going to prefer the evil ones.

But what if we could manage to consign this dichotomy to the fires of history where it belongs?

What if we saw more female heroes who achieve rather than merely enabling the achievements of male Chosen Ones?

What if we saw more powerful women who use their power to build worlds rather than burn them?

What if we saw more female heroes who have messy lives and sometimes make bad decisions, rather than being visions of pristine purity?

What if ambition and empathy were not portrayed as incompatible in female characters?

If we could see such things more often, those who love female villains wouldn’t love them any less. But maybe, just maybe, I could enjoy them too.

 

The Exceptions: Girl-Positive Geeky Movies of the 1980s

In my previous post I highlighted why I felt too much nostalgia for the films of the 1980s, particularly those that seem most beloved by the geek community, might be counterproductive, if we have any desire to move past our idea of the straight white male as the default for Hero. Yet among those films I can recall a few gems, movies that stand out as including female characters who are active, resourceful, and worth rooting for. They fall into three categories.

  1. She’s the hero of her own story.

Aliens (1986). Seven years after the excellent sci-fi/horror mash-up Alien, Sigourney Weaver’s smart, brave, take-charge Ellen Ripley returned to the screen in my favorite film of what would become a franchise. Despite some conservative elements (e.g. Ripley’s desire to live and be a part of the world again is revived through her maternal instincts), she is a fighter and a leader, and there is no doubt that she saves the day. As a bonus, she isn’t the only woman worth watching. Jenette Goldstein’s tough marine Vasquez is another hero worth taking notice of, despite, or even because of, her tragic end.

Labyrinth (1986). In Jim Henson’s fantasy-adventure that had to wait several years to get the attention it deserved, a girl makes a classic Hero’s Journey to save her kidnapped baby brother, picking up allies along the way through her courage and compassion. Jennifer Connelly’s performance is disappointingly vacant (you would find it hard to believe that she won an acting Oscar years later), but when we pay attention to the way her character, Sarah, is written, we can see she’s actually a spirited, imaginative daydreamer of the Jo March/Anne Shirley school — in other words, a female hero after my own heart.

Romancing the Stone (1984). Here’s another sibling-rescue story featuring a hero initially in over her head. Kathleen Turner’s Joan Wilder, a popular romance novelist, sets out to rescue her kidnapped sister and meets the sort of dashing loner (Michael Douglas) she writes about. We’re set up to expect this jungle-wise he-man will prove her savior at the climax. What a pleasant surprise when she turns out to be the rescuer! Plus, the hilarious scene in which a group of bandits holding Joan and her rogue at gunpoint turn into worshipful fanboys once they learn who she is almost makes the whole movie.

The Secret of NIMH (1982). Compared with nearly everyone around her, widowed field mouse Mrs. Brisby is ordinary. Her late husband was a lab-engineered genius. His ailing son might have inherited his gifts. The rats whose aid she seeks to move her house out of harm’s way are also super-geniuses (and all, regrettably, male), and she trusts them to know what to do. She could easily have proven a mouse Bella Swan, the plaything of events, at the mercy of more capable characters. But no. She refuses to stand by and let others do the hard work. She insists on taking an active role, and in the end, her own courage prevails and saves her family. Though surrounded by extraordinary creatures, the ordinary mouse turns out the hero.

The Last Unicorn (1982). A faithful screen adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s novel (screenplay by Beagle himself), the movie staggers a bit in its second half, partly because the unicorn becomes much less interesting when she’s transformed into a woman. But the unicorn is the title character for a reason, and once she has her true form again, she rescues her fellow unicorns from captivity and puts an end to their monstrous captor — one of the few times a female character actually gets to slay the monster.

2. Girlfriends Who Matter

Dragonslayer (1981). Caitlin Clarke’s cross-dressing heroine Valerian is actually the one who sets the plot in motion, leading the expedition to find a magician who can slay a dragon who has terrorized her kingdom for years. She may begin the story disguised as a boy, but once she begins wearing girl’s clothes, she doesn’t lose her tough, plain-spoken, not-always-likable demeanor. It’s her uniqueness, along with her courage, that wins the heart of Peter MacNicol’s apprentice sorcerer Galen. Also noteworthy is the princess, the sort of conventionally beautiful maiden we (and Valerian) expect Galen to fall in love with. Once she discovers she’s been shielded from the dangers other girls have been facing, she chooses to sacrifice herself so that those others might live.

The Dark Crystal (1982). Male Gelfling Jen may be the Chosen One, destined to heal the Dark Crystal and bring an end to the power of the evil Skeksis, but the one who knows what’s going on is female Gelfling Kira, who, once she meets Jen, becomes his guide and saves him more than once. Her role at the climax may be a bit disappointing, but on the whole I can’t help liking her. She has wings!

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Calling her a “girlfriend” may be a bit of a stretch, but dedicated marine biologist Gillian is one of the more active one-shot female characters in the film franchise (who isn’t a villain, that is). She starts out unsure what to make of these strangers who have turned up in her world — the Enterprise crew, who have traveled through time seeking a pair of humpbacked whales that can save their universe — but once she figures out who they are and where they’ve come from, she becomes a useful ally, a difference-maker. Little wonder she finds a home in the “future.” (The bad news: Catherine Hicks’ performance is lackluster. The role deserved a stronger actress.)

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987). The only movie bearing the creative hand-print of John Hughes (author of the screenplay) I can still watch and enjoy today is also the only one in which I actually like the girls involved. The protagonist is an aspiring artist (Eric Stoltz) in love with the popular girl (Lea Thompson) and loved by his tough-talking tomboy best friend (Mary Stuart Masterson), but what could have been a straightforward love triangle becomes more interesting as both girls are depicted as sympathetic and even unique. Masterson has personality to burn, and Thompson’s happy ending involves not getting a guy but finding the courage to be alone and figure out who she is.

3. Girls Can Be Geeks, Too

Real Genius (1985). Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), the female lead in this nerds-stick-it-to-the-Man comedy, is smart, funny, and flawed. She’s awkward in social situations and she talks too much when she gets excited, but her brainpower is unquestioned. She’s one of the very few 1980s heroines who is allowed a genuine passion for matters intellectual, a passion she shares with the guy who becomes her boyfriend. My only complaint about her is that she doesn’t have as much to do as I would like. Nonetheless, her presence, and the way her contributions are respected, makes this movie light-years more enduring than the somewhat similar Revenge of the Nerds (1984), which also features Meyrink but is an absolute nightmare where gender representation is concerned.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987). This is the odd movie out, in that it’s relatively free from the gloss of nostalgia that illuminates the movies listed here and in my previous post. It’s a quiet little film about adults, for adults, and it’s been largely forgotten. But it belongs here, as its heroine, played by Anne Bancroft, is a brainy middle-aged lady with a sharp wit and a love for out-of-print and antique books. This enthusiasm leads her into a love-affair-by-correspondence with Anthony Hopkins’ antique bookstore owner. Not only does their mutual interest seal their connection, but Bancroft has a circle of female friends who appreciate her passion. Not a traditional romance by any means — our two main characters never meet face to face — it deserves to be better known.