What’s Making Me Angry: September/October 2018

I will post again, before long, about the things that are making me happy despite all the world’s bad news. This is not that post. I’m angry, and I’m going to say it.

I’m angry because convicted rapist Brock Turner, despite being let off with a wrist-slap, still believes he’s being unfairly persecuted and is appealing his conviction. Evidence against him is overwhelming, he hasn’t been punished nearly as harshly as he deserves to be, yet somehow he feels victimized — no doubt a by-product of being raised by a father who refers to the rape as “twenty minutes of action” that shouldn’t spoil his son’s bright future.

I’m angry because even though two football players in Steubenville, OH filmed their sexual assault on an intoxicated girl and posted their video on social media — pretty damning evidence, nay? — people in their community still found a way to blame their victim, i.e. if she hadn’t been so drunk, the boys would never have given in to the temptation to assault her (an assault that included urinating on her!). I’m angry because when news outlets reported on the boys’ sentencing, they expressed far more sympathy for the rapists than for the victim.

I’m angry because after serial rapist Bill Cosby’s conviction and sentencing, his publicist has the almighty nerve to call his infamous client the victim of a “sex war” and even to compare him to Jesus Christ.

I’m angry because TV writer-producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s article in the Hollywood Reporter, describing accused sexual harasser Les Moonves’ vendetta against her, offers an illustration of the power of predatory men to silence women’s creative voices. A similar article by Cassandra Smolcic in Variety details how her “dream job” at Pixar Studios quickly turned into a nightmare when she realized head honcho John Lasseter was apparently incapable of treating female colleagues and employees with respect and unwilling to let them make any real creative contribution.

And finally, I’m angry because I’ve learned that something called the “Renate Alumni” existed once at Georgetown Prep. This may not serve as conclusive evidence that Judge Brett Kavanaugh is guilty of rape — some family members are fully convinced the allegations against him are false — but this and other yearbook references do offer some strong evidence of Charlie-Sheening. Charlie-Sheening may not be against the law, yet I would argue it is an evil in itself, malum in se, because at its root lies the idea that girls and women aren’t people whose thoughts and feelings matter. Instead, they’re things, life-sized dolls who exist for the benefit and the pleasure of boys and men.

And there it is — the blindness at the heart of all that’s making me angry. All these stories together add up to one thing: girls and women don’t matter. They’re not important. Their value is less than the hopes and dreams of a Brock Turner or a pair of Steubenville, OH football players. It’s gotten so bad that some have even started suggesting that boys, particularly of high school age, are natural sexual predators, that when a boy snaps a girl’s bra while she’s putting her books away in her locker he’s just “being a boy” and it’s pointless to expect better behavior from him. The onus isn’t on boys to shape up; it’s on girls to smile and put up with them.

But are we really prepared to accept that treating girls like objects is “normal” behavior for boys? Honestly, what does that say about boys, and by extension the men they become? That they’re naturally beyond the reach of common decency once hormones get involved? If I were a man I’d be outraged by these assumptions. I’ve known many gentlemen of honor in my life. One raised me. Another married me. I’ve been friends with many of them. I know what good men are like. They’re comfortable enough in their own skin to resist any and all pressure to prove themselves “manly.” They don’t feel the need to make themselves strong by rendering someone else weak. They keep their expectations high, both of themselves and others.

If we expect less and less of each other,that’s just what we’ll get.

And that’s why I’m angry. It’s why a lot of people are angry.

But now comes the question: what are we going to do about it? Anger can be the most useful feeling in the world if it leads us in constructive, not destructive, directions. But if we let it fester and turn inward, we’re lost.

If we want things to change, if we don’t accept that How Things Are Now is the natural order,  first we need to figure out where the problem comes from. In this case, I’m very much afraid there is no quick fix. It’s not simply a matter of changing a law here or there, but of changing, over time, the way we think and perceive each other. Attitudes may be so ingrained that today could be a lost cause. Tomorrow is all we have. We need to think about what we want our tomorrow to look like.

A future where men and women like each other, respect each other, work well together and value each other’s contributions, and see each other as distinct individuals rather than as part of a monolithic, incomprehensible Plural, is good for everyone. Male, female, nonbinary, straight, queer, cis, trans, white, black, brown, theist, atheist, liberal, conservative — everyone. To achieve that highly desirable end, we need to build up future generations’ capacity for empathy, and one of the ways we develop empathy is to practice looking at the world through the eyes of people who are “not like us.” The clearest and most obvious way to gain that experience is to read. The link between reading imaginative literature and developing empathy once moved Percy Byssche Shelley to name poets (and by extension, all writers of imaginative literature) “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (A Defence of Poetry).

Our hopes for future generations, then, ride on whether, and what, they grow up reading.

Acclaimed fantasy author Shannon Hale recently Tweeted that when she gave a reading from one of her Princess in Black books, she was asked, in all seriousness, “When are you going to write books for boys?” — the implication being that because most of her work features female protagonists, boys couldn’t or wouldn’t enjoy it. (My husband read Hale’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World- a novelization of SG’s origin story before I did, and laughed long and hard as he followed the adventures of superheroine Doreen Green. Trust me. I was there.) There it is again, the same sad song: “stories about boys are for everyone, but stories about girls are for girls only.” This supposed truism has always bothered me, and I’ve railed against it in previous blog posts. But recently, since I’ve been angry, I’ve seen even more clearly how much is riding on our willingness to move beyond that idea.

When we read from the perspective of a character in a well-written short story or novel, as we share that character’s experience, we come to know and understand that character as a person with a mind and heart. Even if we dislike that character and/or disagree with their actions, for a little while we’ve felt what it’s like to be them. If boys routinely avoid all fiction that asks them to share a girl’s perspective, wouldn’t this compromise their learning to perceive girls as people with stories and journeys that matter?

Every time a parent tells a librarian or bookseller, “He won’t read books about girls,” or “He won’t like it if it has a girl on the cover,” the likelihood goes up that Charlie-Sheening, or worse, Brock-Turnering, will be a big part of life in years to come.

Stories affect how we see the world, how we see ourselves and others, and how we interact with others. The power of stories just might be what saves us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Spinning Silver and the Value of Women-Centered Fantasy Narratives

The good news first: the fantasy genre is more inclusive than ever before. While female authors have been a part of SFF since its inception, female protagonists have begun to appear in significant numbers only recently, say in the last four decades. Now, finally, writers and fans are realizing that one need not be male, white, and straight in order to be the hero of an epic fantasy tale. We are also, slowly but surely, moving away from the notion that SFF stories about men are better (more exciting, more thought-provoking and substantive) than stories about women; the back-to-back Hugo Award wins in the Best Novel category for Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky make me feel glad all over. We don’t have to make some false choice between quality and diversity. We can have both.

Yet as far as we’ve come, we still have a ways to go, and one of our biggest problems, as I’ve noted in the past, is visibility. The most popular books, the ones that get talked about again and again, are often not the most woman-friendly stories with a diverse set of characters. I recently went wading through reviews for some of the titles on Goodreads’ Top 50 Fantasy Books list, and for more than one of them, I found that most positive reviews praised male characters to the skies but rarely if ever mentioned female characters; only the negative reviews called attention to how the women were written. Here’s a sample:

“Women are shrews, fools, baby-machines or minxes. Every young girl we encounter flirts with [the hero]. The women are mostly concerned with babies.”

“There is a total of one main female character, and she’s stupid.”

“[The author] had a very subtle sort of misogyny in the book. [Female lead] was held up as this paragon of womanhood, yet she spends most of the book scolding men.”

“An author is able to create a fantasy world with a different map, magic system, religion, but can’t help himself and has to respect the status quo about sexism. . . We have a main ‘strong’ female character who spends a whole battle in a revealing dress that oh so conveniently splits open at the thigh.”

“The female characters in the book are there only to cry, and occasionally mother.”

“[Male hero] is the only real character in the book. . . The female characters in particular are badly portrayed.”

“[Female lead] seems a bit of a one-dimensional bitch.”

“I cannot think of a single female character in the entire series who isn’t either raped or threatened with rape.”

“The female characters in [author]’s story, while seeming to be empowered, are really just an exercise in misogyny disguised as misandry.”

One remotely interesting female character would have been fun. . . The women in this book have the depth of a puddle.”

These are from reviews of the top 50 fantasy books, mind you. If the reading public thinks books like this are what the fantasy genre is all about, it’s little wonder that myths like “women don’t write epic fantasy” persist even despite the success of the Hugo Award winners for Best Novel. Women may be winning the awards, but apparently men and man-centered narratives are still ahead in the “popular vote.” And since publishers naturally follow the money, for every Uprooted in which a female lead fights prejudice and defeats a haunted wood with resourcefulness and creative, unorthodox magic, we may have ten or more novels/series in which a man saves the day and only male characters accomplish anything of importance.

Perhaps the real heart of the issue is that idea of importance. Whose stories, and what sort of stories, deserve to be told? More and more I find that the books I love most aren’t the ones in which a singular woman fights to succeed in a “man’s world” at a “man’s game” (though I do enjoy those), but the ones that show the complexities of women’s lives in a variety of spheres and situations. I call them “women-centered fantasy narratives” — “women,” plural, because these stories eschew the Smurfette Principle. Often, though not always, they showcase a small set of characters and employ fairytale and folkloric motifs. In these stories, women have inner lives and a sense of purpose, and their courage, power, and skill may take a variety of forms; their relationships with other characters are also varied, far beyond an exclusive focus on the romantic. Such stories show there’s more than one way a woman can save herself and others. A few writers who specialize in women-centered fantasy narrative (and who consequently are among my favorites) are Juliet Marillier, Patricia McKillip, Kate Elliott, and Kate Forsyth.

A perfect example of  the women-centered fantasy narrative is my favorite read of 2018 so far, Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver.

Spinning Silver cover

This novel is cast in a fairytale-retelling mold similar to Uprooted, yet while the prose is just as vivid and detailed as that earlier work, the narrative it weaves is much more complex. While Uprooted gives us one central female point-of-view figure, Spinning Silver gives us three, along with a few secondary-character perspectives. This brings a greater richness to the world and deepens our understanding of women’s place in it.

First we meet Miryem, the daughter and granddaughter of Jewish moneylenders. Because her father is too compassionate to demand his debtors pay up, which brings the family close to ruin, Miryem steps into his place. She’s all too aware that moneylenders are almost always cast as storybook villains, but she sees a solid common-sense morality in her work, and soon she becomes so successful that people start to whisper of her knack for “turning silver into gold.” This word reaches the king of the Staryk (a sort of wintry elven-folk), who takes it literally and decides to take Miryem back to his kingdom, so she can convert his hoards of silver coins. Once in the Staryk otherworld, she discovers she can indeed transform silver into gold, and the unexpected friendships she finds there prove key to her growth and the stand she takes.

Among Miryem’s family’s debtors is a farmer with a daughter named Wanda. When the farmer can’t pay, Miryem suggests that the girl work off the debt in her household. Wanda, it turns out, is perfectly fine with this; her father is a drunken, abusive lout and she’s all too happy to get away from him. As she works for Miryem’s family, she discovers skills she didn’t know she had and steadily grows in confidence. She also bonds with Miryem’s parents (among the few examples of living and loving parents in the fantasy genre) and learns how it feels to be treated as a person of value. Through this experience she finds the strength to stand up for herself when others, especially her father, try to bully her.

The third female hero is Irina, a nobleman’s daughter forced into a loveless marriage with the handsome but arrogant and cold-hearted tsar. Irina has none of the beauty and meekness prized in noblewomen, but she does have intellect and powers of observation that help her protect herself and the elderly maidservant she loves from the threat of a demon who has inhabited and fed upon the tsar for years. As the threat grows, she decides she must put an end to it, not only for her own sake but for that of her people, for whom the tsar himself cares very little. Irina may be loved by neither father nor husband, but she knows how to value herself, and she speaks my favorite line of dialogue in the book: “My mother had enough magic to give me three blessings before she died. . . The first was wit; the second beauty, and the third — that fools should recognize neither” (277).

As their stories intertwine with and reflect each other, we see many instances of man’s inhumanity to woman, as both Irina and Miryem are trapped in marriages to cruel husbands and Wanda is nearly forced into one. But what stands out, for me, is their willingness to fight with what weapons they have, not only for their lives and their dignity but for those they love and/or for whom they feel responsible. It’s not enough for them merely to survive; they must change the world as they find it, and with their combined strengths they confront both the demon and the everlasting winter the Staryk have imposed on the mortal world. All three women are flawed, all three evolve, and all three prove heroes to root for.

With Spinning Silver, Novik clears the high bar she set with Uprooted. We’ll be hearing about this one again, I have no doubt, come next year’s Hugo Award nominations.

 

DragonCon 2018 Photo Diary, Part 2

The most exciting thing that happened to me at this year’s DragonCon was seeing my new audio playscript, “The Dead-Watcher,” performed by the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, as part of a triple bill with an episode of “Mercury: A Broadcast of Hope” and Elisabeth Allen’s sci-fi drama “A.L.I.C.E.” Sadly, I don’t have many photos to share of this event, but my wonderful husband did snap this picture on that momentous Friday night, with me and the director of my piece, Robert Drake:

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I spent the first panel hour on Saturday morning at the American Sci-Fi Classics Track again, with “Schoolhouse Rock: It’s What’s Happening.”

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There’s something special about sitting in a room full of enthusiastic adults enjoying a sing-along of “I’m Just a Bill” and “Conjunction Junction.” Songs like this can stay in one’s head for hours. The one I couldn’t stop singing to myself under my breath, which I found out is a lot of other people’s favorite as well, is this:

(Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Some of our audience got a little bit more into the spirit of the panel than others:

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Sadly, I didn’t get many more photos of panels after this, though I attended plenty of memorable ones. The Diversity Track offered a discussion of “Lead Female Characters,” and the High Fantasy Track hosted a look at upcoming TV adaptations. (I couldn’t help regretting that most of the shows in the works — The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Witcher, The Wheel of Time — are based on books by male authors, with male heroes. But I did get a thrill when I learned of TNT’s planned adaptation of N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth.) But the next panel whose image I preserved came the following morning, an examination of “Myths and Retellings in YA,” hosted by the Young Adult Track.

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Left to right: Naomi Novik, Diana Peterfreund, E.K. Johnston, Lexa Hillyer, and Alexa Dunne. All the panelists made excellent points throughout, but I have to admit I was there to see Novik, because I was right in the midst of reading her Spinning Silver and swooning over its beauty. “I’m not interested in retellings,” she told us. “I’m interested in conversations.”

After the panel, Novik was gracious enough to render my copy of Spinning Silver something special for me to keep till I die:

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On Sunday and Monday, Matt and I spent some time at the ARTC sales table, helping to sell our CDs and also promoting my novels. Matt captured me in this environment:

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The ARTC sales table is near a platform where many of DragonCon’s musical guests perform. Not long before we left for home, we had a chance to hear a young woman named Erin Hill, whose beautiful voice is matched by her skill with the harp. She looks as if she’d just stepped out of one of the novel concepts I have yet to write, and if ever one of my stories were adapted for the screen, she’d be my ideal choice to do the soundtrack.

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But every Con must come to an end. We departed with our usual resolution to return next year and learn and explore even more. And it did help keep the melancholy at bay when we knew who would be there to welcome us home:

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DragonCon 2018 Photo Diary, Part 1

Pictures are a perfect way to share a wonderful experience, and for me, DragonCon nearly always qualifies. I can always find something there to love and/or to relish doing. Even if I can’t find a panel or a dealer I want to visit, simply being there, surrounded by people who love what you love, is a natural high.

Here are a few photographic mementos of DragonCon 2018.

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The view from our hotel room, by day and by night. The beauty of Atlanta, GA, seen from the twenty-eighth floor.

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I can’t go to DragonCon without indulging, at least once, in Caribou Coffee. (I had the Butterbeer Mocha.) Even if you don’t drink coffee, it’s hard not to love the way this establishment caters to the Con crowd.

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My first panel, Friday morning at 10 a.m.: “Classic Sci-Fi Musicals,” courtesy of the American Sci-Fi Classics Track. Pictured, l-r: Gary Mitchell (head of the track), Taylor Blumenberg, Kitty Chandler. Not pictured: Kathleen O’Shea David, Michael Williams. My favorite moment was Ms. David’s explanation of what appeals most to her about the theatrical community: “If you could do your bloody job, then you were accepted.” That’s right. That is exactly why I’ve loved theater for so long.

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Here’s a Friday panel at the British Media Track, or the Brit Track as it’s fondly known: “British Historical Roulette,” in which the panelists offer their take on current and upcoming British historical TV dramas/comedies, etc. I didn’t get an accurate recording of who’s sitting where, but the panelists were Heather Mbaye, Amanda-Rae Prescott, Kritsen McGeehee, Caro McCully (head of the track), and Angela Hartley.

The bottom pic is of Amanda-Rae Prescott, cosplaying as Elizabeth Warleggan from BBC/PBS’s Poldark (the show from which we took the names of our kittens). With her she has a knit figure of her husband George, the dastardly villain of the piece.

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Here’s the room for the High Fantasy Track, which hosted my next panel, “Intro to Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere.” Sadly I didn’t get the panelists’ names, but they were chock full of knowledge and opinions, and the room was happily packed with fellow Sanderson fans. I repeat, just knowing how many people love the same things you love is a thrill in and of itself.

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Last but far from least of my Friday panel-ing: “Female Writers: A Woman’s Perspective,” hosted by DraonCon’s brand new Diversity Track. Left to right: Anya Martin, Christine Taylor Butler, Seressia Glass, Janny Wurts, L.M. Davis. Not pictured: Aaron-Michael Hall.

Coming Next: Part 2.

How to Tell You’re In a Nan Monroe Novel

Recently I got some disappointing news. My publisher closed its doors. This means I’ll be hunting for a new publication home (be it indie, self, or traditional) for my existing works as well as my works in-progress and to come. As part of that process, I’m moved to consider my “brand.” So many, many writers, both published and aspiring, turn out new fantasy novels every day. What makes me and my work special?

When I heard the news, I made the choice to temporarily shelve a project I’d been working on for over a year, which formerly I’d felt obligated to finish. It should have been my dream novel, with a dragon shifted unwillingly into human as its female lead. Yet somehow I never could finish a draft of it. I’d stop somewhere in the middle of it and say to myself, “Oh, this is what it needs,” and then I’d go back to the beginning. Rinse and repeat. Just what was the problem? At one time I thought my heart was still too engaged by my previous work, Nightmare Lullaby, and if I could just force myself to commit to the new project, it would come out fine in the end. At another time I thought I just needed to change the characters’ names, to give the same story a different world and tone. Yet neither of these was the source of my difficulty. It wasn’t until a newer idea awoke and set my imagination singing that I realized what was wrong.

I was trying to be something I’m not.

As a reader I love nothing more than a good high fantasy series, a sweeping epic with a cast of hundreds in which the fate of nations is at stake. Political intrigue, battle sequences, mighty clashes of cultures — give me more of that wonderful stuff! Just as long as a woman appears at or at least near the center of the story, I’m happy. My project was a high fantasy involving high-stakes tension between religious, with my shifted dragon caught in the middle. Since I love such grand tales, I should be able to write one of my own, right?

Well… no. The story I wanted to tell needed a high fantasy author to tell it. Yet I kept on writing it like me.

As much I might love and admire high fantasy, I write low fantasy. I’m most at home with a smaller canvas, a smaller cast of characters with no more than four POVs. I can’t write a battle scene to save my life, and I much prefer to create characters affected indirectly by politics rather than the movers and shakers in the rooms where it happens. My bent is toward fairy-tale retellings, and I strive for a style that evokes both the light and the darkness of those old stories.

The world of the project I shelved felt alien to me; I struggled to visualize it, and so I could never manage to make it vivid on the page. The world of the project I’ve begun feels natural and right. It feels like me. A good friend and adviser of mine once identified my work as “cozy fantasy.” I’m good with that. There’s a place for fantasy that doesn’t involve kings, princes, and soldiers, and that’s the place where my work lives.

A few days ago, a question was making its way around my Twitter feed. Addressed specifically to authors, it asked us to point out how our readers can tell they’re in one of our novels. Rather than Tweet my answers, I figured I’d save them for a blog post. So, how can someone tell they’re in a Nan Monroe novel?

  1. The bulk of the action takes place in a small setting — an estate, as in Atterwald, or a small town, as in Nightmare Lullaby.
  2. The central character is female. At some point in the future I may try my hand at a male protagonist, but right now I’m busy writing the stories I didn’t get (or didn’t know about) when I was younger.
  3. The female lead is set apart from the Norm in some way, either a nonhuman or a human with unusual abilities. It’s left to other characters to represent the world’s version of “normal.”
  4. She has at least one woman in her support system (e.g. Ricarda in Atterwald, Valeraine and Mennieve in Nightmare Lullaby).
  5. She has at least one good non-romantic relationship with a male character (e.g. Ailbe in Atterwald, Pierpon in Nightmare Lullaby).
  6. She has a rich interior life and a strong imagination, though the ways in which she puts her imagination to use may vary.
  7. Music and the arts play a substantial role. My female lead is more likely to be Bard-Woman than Warrior-Woman.
  8. Fairy-tale elements are present, though their adaptation may be very loose indeed.

I want to thank all of you who follow my blog and who have read and supported my work. And if you’re anxious for my shifted dragon, don’t be. She’s still in my head, and one day she’ll make herself at home in a setting that’s just right for both of us.

Gone to DragonCon

Things I’m most looking forward to at DragonCon 2018:

1) seeing the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company perform my newest radio drama at the Marriott Imperial Ballroom tomorrow night (7 p.m.);

2) selling books at the ARTC table;

3) attending panels about books, authors, and shows I love;

4) hearing authors, especially Naomi Novik (because Spinning Silver is awesome), talk about their work.

What’s Making Me Happy: August 2018

The advent of DragonCon.

This year will mark my fifteenth visit to DragonCon, my fourteenth year as a member of the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, and my seventh time as one of the writers whose scripts ARTC will be performing. If any of you, dear readers, find yourselves at DragonCon this year, please be sure to check out our shows on Friday and Sunday nights. Friday’s is the one for which I have writer credit: “The Dead-Watcher,” on a triple bill with Elisabeth Allen’s new sci-fi script “A.L.I.C.E.” and an excerpt from our ongoing series “Mercury: A Podcast of Hope,” August 31 at 7 p.m. in the Marriott Marquis Imperial Ballroom.

I have the DragonCon app on my iPad and have already drafted a schedule of all the panels I’m dying to take in. One special source of excitement: author Naomi Novik, whose Uprooted I love and whose Spinning Silver I’m currently devouring, will be there! Now if Brandon Sanderson would just come back…

Current reads.

At the moment I’m making my way through not only Spinning Silver, but also Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit and Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, and I’ve just started N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate. All of these works tick off most of my “Like” boxes: engaging and descriptive prose, vivid female characters with distinctive personalities, and well-told stories in which I can invest both my mind and my heart. I’m pretty sure I’ll have much more to say about these books in future posts.

Female authors triumph at the Hugo Awards.

I have spent many an hour of many a day of many a year browsing Goodreads and similar sites in search of high-quality fantasy and science fiction both by and about women. The good books are out there, in greater numbers than ever, yet they don’t get talked about nearly as much as they should, which of course gives rise to myths such as “Women don’t write epic fantasy.” I recommend female-authored books as often and as loudly as I can, doing my heart to counteract such nonsense as this, even as I keep seeing signs I may be fighting a losing battle. Here, for instance, is Goodreads’ list of the 50 Best Fantasy Books. Of course Tolkien’s and Lewis’s work turn up there, along with titles by Stephen King, Richard Adams, and Peter S. Beagle. Yet most of the more recent books on the list were also written by men. Brian Staveley, Brian McClelland, Anthony Ryan, Peter V. Brett, and Brent Weeks make the list, along with such bound-to-be-there names as Brandon Sanderson, Scott Lynch, and Patrick Rothfuss. Yet Lois McMaster Bujold’s splendid The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls are nowhere to be found. No mention of Barbara Hambly, or Patricia McKillip, or Juliet Marillier, or Kate Elliott, or Elizabeth Bear. What exactly makes these authors’ work less deserving?

Then I see the list of 2018 Hugo Award Winners, and I feel a little better.

One of the few recent female writers included on Goodreads’ Best-Of list is N.K. Jemisin, whose The Fifth Season, the first book in the Broken Earth Trilogy, won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2016. She followed that up the next year with a victory for the second volume, The Obelisk Gate, and now, with her victory for the concluding book, The Stone Sky, she becomes the first author ever to win three consecutive Best Novel Hugos. (In her acceptance speech she has a few choice words to say to anyone who might attribute her triumphs to political correctness.) Women scored big in other categories as well, including Novella, Novelette, Short Story, Related Work, and Graphic Story. Rebecca Roanhorse’s win of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer is particularly satisfying when one remembers that Campbell himself held no very high opinion of women’s ability to write quality SFF. The award may bear his name, but history has proven him wrong.

We still need to work on talking up the best books by and about women, and mentioning Elliott and Bujold in the same breath as Rothfuss and Lynch. But victories like those at the Hugos give me hope that we’ll get there eventually.

 

Favorite Female TV Characters

One of the main things I love about television is that it gives us far more diversity, in both characters and creators, than the big screen, where over 80% of widely publicized mainstream releases are made by and about white men despite illusory “gains” in inclusiveness. In particular, TV is a more woman-friendly medium, with more opportunities for female writers, directors, and showrunners (though it could still be much better) and intriguing female characters aplenty. Here are a few of my favorite ladies on currently-airing shows.

  1. Amy Santiago, Brooklyn Nine-Nine

When the show began, I wouldn’t have imagined writing this. Amy looked like the character we were meant to hate, the uptight, ambitious, and humorless foil to the fun-loving, take-life-as-it-comes Jake Peralta. I expected she’d be either the show’s main antagonist or the love interest liberated by Jake from the burden of her own personality. Had either of those things happened, I wouldn’t be watching the show now. But Nine-Nine had different, far more interesting plans for Amy, plans better suited to the talents of actress Melissa Fumero. Still fairly early in the first season, the writers began to deepen her character, at times with strokes so subtle you’d barely notice what was happening. She remained uptight; she remained ambitious; but less and less were these qualities cast in a negative light. They became endearing, as we began to see them as part and parcel of her idealistic and basically decent nature. Yes, she and Jake fall in love, but while she does loosen up just a tiny bit under his influence, he also comes to appreciate, right along with the rest of us, the Amy-ness of Amy. She’ll always be the perfectionist who loves paperwork and would find a visit to a museum exhibit of office chairs a fun way to spend an afternoon — and I wouldn’t want her any other way.

2. Webby Vanderquack, DuckTales (2017-2018)

This show is so much fun it justifies the existence of reboots, and Webby, very much a bland “token girl” in the original show from the late 1980s, is the new show’s breakout star. A key difference between original Webby and new Webby lies in the voicing, which lets us know what kind of character we’re getting: the uber-girlish baby-talking lisp of Russi Taylor vs. the sharp hyper-kinetic sass of Kate Miucci. Miucci’s Webby can break out of captivity in less than two minutes and can keep the gang from getting into trouble by virtue of her readiness to read everything that falls under her eye (how else would she know it’s a bad idea to accept a ride from ponies with wet manes?). “Everything’s about learning!” she tells us, having owned Louie Duck with a practical joke after he’d made fun of her geekishness. But for all her capability, her frenetic eagerness to please makes her funny and endearingly flawed. And darn it, my heart breaks for her whenever she’s hurt.

3. Kara Danvers, Supergirl

This show has had its ups and downs over three seasons, but it’s still one of the too few shows on TV that centers on a female superhero doing her thing, and this core character keeps me tuned in; Melissa Benoist’s likable performance definitely helps. Kara/Supergirl makes mistakes. She may try too hard or try the wrong thing. She may be prone to misjudgments of certain people and things. Yet those mistakes only make it more satisfying when she learns, comes through, and saves the day. Plus, it’s hard for me not to embrace a superhero who is seen kicking bad guy butt one minute and Netflix-and-chilling on her couch in her pajamas the next. Watch, baby, watch.

4. Kimmy, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

As those familiar with Netflix’s sitcom are well aware, Kimmy has spent her formative years shut away in a bunker by a wacko cult leader, which makes her very much the fish out of water in contemporary New York City. But Kimmy is determined to make her way in this weird world, and it’s that determination, which rarely falters and never fails in the face of repeated missteps and misfortunes (hence the show’s title), that makes me love her and root for her even when she might be wrong. Certain episodes touch on her trauma and its effects, and these glimpses make her resolute optimism all the more admirable and endearing. Plus, her kind heart goes out to nearly everyone she meets, even when they don’t deserve it. (A side-note: I didn’t really care for this season’s inclusion of an “incel”-related plotline, in which a new cult of disaffected men forms around Jon Hamm’s despicable “Reverend.” I understand that laughing at evil is one way to cut it down to size, but I have a hard time finding incels funny. Still, I’m here for the next round.)

5. Liv Moore, iZombie

When zombie Liv eats the brains of murder victims, she takes on their memories and their personalities, and in doing so helps nab their killers. For the show’s first two seasons, Liv spent so much time in the personalities she absorbed (giving actress Rose McIver the opportunity to deliver one tour-de-force performance after another) that we didn’t get much chance to know Liv herself. But in recent days the show has given the real Liv a chance to come to the fore, to make herself and her ethics and values known, and to become a hero in her own skin as she takes a stand against the injustices around her. No longer do I merely admire McIver’s ability to adopt new personae each week; I admire Liv the person, as she strives to do the right thing. I really wish more people were aware of this show.

Runners-Up: Jessica Jones (Jessica Jones); Rosa Diaz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine); Ruth, Carmen, and Tammie (GLOW); Alex Danvers (Supergirl); Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Orange Is the New Black); Jemma Simmons (Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD); Veronica Lodge (Riverdale, my guilty pleasure); Demelza Poldark (Poldark); Patterson (Blindspot).

“Never Read the Comments”

In vino veritas, the old saying goes — in wine, truth. The idea is that when we drink, our inhibitions drop and we lose the ability to curb our impulses. With our capacity to guard our tongues so compromised, we may let slip an unpleasant truth about how we feel about something or someone, and such slips as these ostensibly reveal our “true” natures. I don’t know how much I subscribe to this saying. On the one hand, if the side someone shows when they’re tipsy is too ugly, I’d be inclined to keep them at a distance thereafter. (Mel Gibson, whose drunken anti-Semitic tirade killed my taste for his films except Gallipoli and Chicken Run, is my go to example here.) Yet on the other hand, all of us have some ugly side, and our efforts to keep that side under control are a sign of our values and ethical code. With in vino veritas, we get only half the truth, and usually it’s the worst half.

The Internet, I’ve found, functions a lot like the vino in the old saying, in that our inhibitions are lowered and our self-control mechanisms may be compromised when we’re online. Yet this effect isn’t wrought by chemicals we ingest, bur rather by the seductive comforts of distance and anonymity. And as we see all too clearly when, despite the best advice, we give into the temptation to “read the Comments,” there are very few happy Internet-drunks.

We’re not face to face with the people with whom we talk online. We don’t hear their voices. We don’t see how their expressions change as they take in what we say. All we know of them are the handles they use (rarely their actual names) and the words they write. As such, we may find ourselves forgetting that they are truly people. And since they don’t have the means to hold us accountable, we feel we can say whatever we like to them. If they should disagree with us, we’re free to be as hurtful to them as our facility with language will allow, with no stings of conscience. After all, they are only their words, and that means their opinions — opinions we hate.

Examples of the swift descent into meanness when disputes arise are absolutely everywhere, from Twitter (a hotbed) to the Comments sections of articles linked on Facebook. I stumbled onto one instance in a place I wasn’t quite expecting, via a YouTube video. It was an episode of Hollywood, a documentary series on American silent films, and I’d thought the people posting in the Comments section would be at least somewhat united in admiration for this stunning series, sadly unavailable in a proper DVD or Blu-Ray release. Yet an argument came up, and out came the meanness.

At the crux of the debate was whether contemporary Hollywood actively promoted atheistic views, with Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous as an example. One poster argued that critics and Hollywood’s intelligentsia embraced Maher’s exercise in anti-Christian mockery, while another poster pointed out that the overall response to the film was in fact lukewarm. Poster 1 grew angrier and angrier, while Poster 2 tried to counter with detailed evidence until finally he/she realized that wasn’t working and announced he/she was pulling out of the debate. In response Poster 1 wrote, “Kill yourself.”

“Kill yourself.” Let that sink in.

Given the number of people who suffer from clinical depression in this country, “Kill yourself” is just about the most dangerous thing you can say to a stranger online. If there are any words less Christ-like, I don’t know them.

This is far from the only noteworthy example of online meanness, but it stings me a bit because I too consider myself a woman of faith. I don’t care for Bill Maher, with his stock-in-trade smugness. (He’s a misogynist, for one thing.) I can recall reading a few reviews of Religulous which suggested the movie attacks not so much hypocritical believers as belief itself. According to Maher, faith is just stupid. So I have avoided him, on film and TV. Why court rage? It’s not as if, should I meet the man, I would have any hope of changing his mind.  He can stay on his side of the pop culture world and I will stay on mine.

Yet this poster is just one of too many people who call themselves “Christians” who, whenever they perceive their faith under attack, choose to respond in the least Christian way possible. In sending the other poster a message to “kill yourself,” he/she isn’t contradicting Maher, but proving his point.

When we’re posting something online, we ought to consider that in the eyes of others, we are defined by our handles and our words. If we’re having a really, really bad day, as this person on the You Tube message-board might have been, those reading our posts don’t know it. So we ought to consider just what the words we choose are saying about us. Instead of letting ourselves get Internet-drunk, we should think when we’re writing online, just as we would if we were writing anywhere else. Will anyone be wiser or better informed as a result of this post? Will our words do good for anyone or change anything for the better? Let’s think of those who loved us most when we were growing up, who taught us right from wrong. Will our words make them proud?

Drive the Internet sober.

Book Report: Recent Reads

The Queen of Blood

Cover pic Queen of Blood

I’d been told by those I trust that Sarah Beth Durst’s high fantasy novel about a realm plagued by malevolent spirits only a Queen can control was good. If I had imagined how good, I might have read it much sooner.

Or maybe not. With all the new books that come to my attention on a monthly basis, I can’t be sure. Suffice it to say that The Queen of Blood was exactly the book I needed to read at the moment I was reading it, a moment when I was feeling even more than usually disheartened by the ongoing flow of “Me, Too” stories coming out of creative communities. Hearing about so many women victimized by powerful men in Hollywood and elsewhere, I needed (and continue to need) stories about women who claim power for themselves and don’t have to smash their moral compass against a rock in order to do so. I couldn’t help but get a thrill from seeing Durst’s hero, Daleina, forge forward and refuse to listen to anyone who tries to tell her “no” — including herself.

Through Daleina, Durst plays with the fantasy genre’s traditional trope of the Chosen One, the protagonist from humble beginnings appointed by Destiny to save the kingdom and take the throne. Guided by some unseen hand of Fate, the Chosen One magically overcomes any obstacle in his (it’s usually “his”) path. He’s meant to be King because Destiny says so, though very often we’re not sure why. The triumph of the naive Everyman over and ahead of those outwardly more suited to success has a certain appeal, and Durst manages to keep what works about the trope while subverting its problems.

Like most Chosen Ones, Daleina is the one you wouldn’t look at. She does have a gift for controlling spirits, but her gift is much less pronounced, less remarkable, than the other girls training along with her for a chance to become the next Queen. Others are more obviously up to the task. But when Daleina does win the throne, it isn’t thanks to the hand of Destiny showing itself by the sudden appearance of a surprising ability; if you’re waiting for her to miraculously become the Best At Everything, you will wait in vain. Instead, she succeeds because she knows her weaknesses and is determined to get better. She takes responsibility and pours every ounce of effort into developing her skills. The keys to her rise are not inborn talents but determination, imagination, and resourcefulness. Many of the short-sighted people in her orbit actually look on her hard work as a weakness. But Ven the legendary Champion sees it for the virtue it is, and he takes her under his wing to train her to be the next Queen.

The idea of training to be Queen is another thing I love about the book. In this world, the royal title is not inherited and passed on through a bloodline. Rather, it is earned. The girl who proves herself the most adept at thwarting the spirits’ murderous impulses becomes Queen. Daleina works to achieve the title not so much to win personal glory as to keep the country safe from the tragedy her home village suffered when spirits raged out of control. Her concerns aren’t limited to the well-being of family and/or a few close friends. She thinks bigger.

Also noteworthy is that only girls and women can harness the power to control spirits, and therefore only a woman can rule. This might seem like the seed for a knock-down drag-out battle of the sexes, with men fighting to claim power and women determined to keep them in their place. Yet to my immense relief, nothing like this happens! We may seen tension between individual characters, but gender-based hostility is all but unknown. All walks of society and roles other than Queen are open to all genders. The men accept the authority of a Queen rather than feeling emasculated by it, and we meet men and women who treat each other with respect and forge solid friendships.

The Queen of Blood is not, in an obvious sense, a feel-good book; look at the title, after all. The threat of violence is everywhere, in the very air and wood and water, and the novel includes many horrifying scenes of nature turning against humankind. Characters die, and many of them are people we like. The country Daleina earns the right to rule has been badly shaken, thanks to the hubris of the previous ruler, and she must take charge of rebuilding even as she mourns the loss of so many friends. Yet still, the book affirms hopeful truths we need to hear in these frustrating times. Women can claim power and lead well. Men and women can support and strengthen each other. We just need to make up our minds to do so.

A big Thank You to Durst for giving us this book.