Giving Thanks: 2016

I honor the holiday of Thanksgiving less as a historical commemoration than as a time to set negativity aside and focus on the people and things we love. One thing for which I never cease to be thankful is fiction in all its varied forms — stories that sweep me away, touch my heart, and spark my imagination, pointing me in creative directions of my own. Every year brings new fiction for which I can give thanks. For Thanksgiving 2016, I salute the following:

New authors I have tried.

Four in particular have delighted me in the past several months. Todd Lockwood introduced me to a tough, resourceful heroine and a charming, fast-growing female dragonet in his debut novel The Summer Dragon. Karen Lord helped me see the power of common-sense possibility and darn fine cooking in Redemption in Indigo. Zen Cho took me to an alternate Regency London just begging for an unorthodox heroine to shake it up and force it to reconsider its sexist, racist ways in Sorcerer to the Crown. And Leigh Barduro brought together a band of troubled misfits, including two heroines after my own heart, and turned them loose in a detailed quasi-European urban landscape in Six of Crows. These authors have me wanting more, and I’m eager to see what’s next.

Supergirl, Season 2.

I wasn’t sure how the move from CBS to the CW would affect the quality of my favorite among last year’s freshman series, but I was quite disappointed to learn that Calista Flockhart’s Cat Grant, by far the funniest and on occasion the most moving character, would be demoted from regular to recurring because the Vancouver filming locale posed problems for the actress. Yet surprise of surprises, I find the show more compelling than ever. We may not get Cat Grant’s amusing and often incisive bon mots every week, but we have the confident, capable, out-and-proud detective Maggie Sawyer, as well as intriguingly ambiguous figures like Lena Luthor and M’gann, a.k.a. Miss Martian. Plus we have James Olsen showing how a non-superpowered individual can become a crime-fighting hero. There’s so much going on this season that I’ve scarcely had time to miss Ms. Grant. All the same, hopefully she’ll put in an appearance within the next few episodes…

British television on PBS.

It seems an odd thing to be grateful for at this proudly-American time of year, but some of my favorite entertainment over the past two months has come with a British accent. First there’s Poldark, a potboiler set in 18th century Cornwall, not only narratively engaging (despite, or perhaps because of, the lead character’s frequent bad decisions) but pictorially gorgeous, from its seaside vistas to its hunky lead actor Aidan Turner. Eleanor Tomlinson’s Demelza, with her fiercely intelligent green eyes, lilting voice, and pre-Raphaelite red hair blowing in the wind, is my new girl crush (but I still love you, Peggy Carter).

Then there’s The Durrells (US title: The Durrells in Corfu), which my husband aptly describes as Malcolm in the Middle set in 1930s Greece. If the mood of Poldark is one of stormy angst fueled by bad luck and betrayal, the tone of The Durrells is breezy and full of hope. The characters may stumble and hurt themselves and each other, but in the end, love and understanding prevail, thanks largely to the clan’s matriarch, Louisa, wonderfully played by Keeley Hawes. Playing a very traditional feminine role, Louisa is the kind of character I might have been tempted to overlook, but Hawes invests her with such intelligence, warmth, and humor that I can’t help but admire her, and I understand her even when she is in error.

The Durrells has finished its PBS run for the year, and Poldark has only one episode remaining. But both shows will be back next year, and for that I’m quite thankful.

Movies… the best is yet to come.

In a previous post I mentioned I haven’t been thrilled with the roles given to female characters in this year’s movies; only in Zootopia and the Ghostbusters remake have female heroes had a chance to shine. In the time since that post, no movie I’ve seen has made me change my mind. Yet hope is on the horizon. There’s Arrival, out in theaters now but yet to be seen by me, featuring Amy Adams as a linguist lending her expertise to a first-contact situation. There’s Moana, which early reviews assure me (despite all the advertising) is really about the girl and not about the Dwayne Johnson-voiced demigod who travels with her. And of course there’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, with Felicity Jones’ courageous rebel. And there may be female heroes in a number of films that haven’t yet flashed on my radar screen. Even in its last weeks, 2016 still has time to turn things around. My fingers are crossed.

The books in my future.

Trudi Canavan, Kate Elliott, Zen Cho, Brandon Sanderson (Oathbringer!), Laini Taylor, Martha Wells, Max Gladstone, and Django Wexler all have new books coming out in 2017. As long as writers keep writing books I want to read, I have cause for gladness.

So I am thankful for stories, since stories give savor to life. Stories open our eyes to possibilities in ourselves and in others. Stories give us the chance to see through the eyes and walk in the shoes of people different from us. Stories open up common ground. A fiction-less life is a barren, tragic life indeed, and anyone who tries to tell us that fiction is “a lie” without purpose or value deserves our utmost pity.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

A Book Report: Recent Reads

Very rarely do I read a straight-up bad book. I spend enough time researching on Goodreads and other sites to get a feel for whether a title will give me what I seek in reading matter. If by chance I stumble onto a book that is unequivocally bad, I don’t bother to finish it. I don’t enjoy hate-reading, and as they say, life is too short. So I can say with some confidence that every book I read and finish, I either like or love or somewhere in between.

Some books leave a more lasting imprint on my memory than others. Usually, though not always, they’re the ones that fall on the “love” end of my scale; sometimes, however, they leave their mark because despite being entertaining, they have some flaw that troubles me and/or makes me think. Here I highlight a few books I’ve read recently that have stayed with me, for different reasons.

1. The Alloy of Law

Brandon Sanderson’s books just do it for me, and I’m not even certain why. The prose isn’t exactly the most lyrical or breathtaking ever. The concepts are not especially challenging or thought-provoking. Yet I find his books immensely and wonderfully readable. I am not an uncritical fan. (Do not get me started on the climax of Warbreaker, though I think the reason I’m still angry about it is that I’d been enjoying the book so much up to that point.) But when a new Sanderson book set in “the Cosmere” — the alternate worlds he has created — comes out, I’m always keen to get my hands on it as quickly as possible. I can see myself camping out in front of my nearest Barnes & Noble sometime next fall so that I can buy Oathbringer, Book 3 of The Stormlight Archive, the second it hits the shelves. In the meantime, I’m tiding myself over with another series of his, popularly known as “the second Mistborn series,” of which The Alloy of Law is the first volume.

The book as the feel of a Victorian gaslight fantasy merged with a Wild West shoot-’em-up, and the combination works better than we might expect. Featured in the cast are a hero who is a badass supreme, whose tragic past and rigid adherence to his ethical code lend him an aura of admirable melancholy (I keep picturing a young Liam Neeson), a best friend who offers ironic commentary on the proceedings while being badass in his own right, and a heroine whose courage and skill surprise both her and the reader. All three are vividly drawn and worth rooting for, and all get their chances to shine in the course of the narrative. (Heroine Marasi’s participation in the climax almost makes up for my ongoing disappointment about Warbreaker.) And there is no question that they are heroes whose goal is to do what’s right and protect those who cannot protect themselves. At a time when grimdark anti-heroes are all the rage, I treasure the honest-to-goodness (though flawed) heroes that Sanderson creates.

Rating: Unqualified joy.

2. The Aeronaut’s Windlass

Jim Butcher is best known for his urban fantasy series The Dresden Files, and he’s also written epic fantasy in the form of Codex Alera, a sort of “Pokemon set in ancient Rome” (it’s better than that description makes it sound). The Aeronaut’s Windlass is his first foray into the fantasy subgenre known as “steampunk,” in which steam-powered technologies are injected into a quasi-historical setting. Not being into urban fantasy, I’ve never read the Dresden books, but I did like, with reservation, the first four volumes of Codex Alera, so I was curious to see what he might do with steampunk, and I tackled this thick book this summer. The good news: it’s a rollicking adventure, full of daring rescues, hair-breathed escapes, dashing heroics, nefarious villainy, and absorbing world-building. It’s also a fast read, despite its thickness, because it’s darn hard to put down.

The bad news (for me, anyway): I had an issue with Butcher’s writing of women, at least of heroines, in the Codex Alera books, and that issue persists here. To his credit, he eschews the Smurfette Principle and puts three women on Team Good, yet I can feel him holding them back, keeping them from living up to their full potential for awesomeness, making sure that they don’t become too competent to need occasional (or even frequent) rescue. Bridget, my favorite of the three, is physically big and strong, blessed with common sense, and able to communicate with cats; Gwen is a crack shot with a gauntlet, a steampunk firearm (and, regrettably, has a nigh unbearable personality); Folly is an etherealist whose crystals hold power. These strengths should equip them for full participation in the dashing heroics, right? Sadly, at this point in the series their only real knack seems to be for getting into trouble and needing some male character or other, even the male cat Rowl, to bail them out. The two villainesses, by contrast, hold authority. They get to be confident and capable. I guess to be a genuinely badass female character in Butcher’s world — at least, here and in Codex Alera — you have to be evil. Disappointing.

My rating: Qualified enjoyment.

3. The Guns of Empire.

I’ve mentioned it in previous posts, but it bears repeating: Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series hits nearly every one of my reading-pleasure buttons. Stalwart heroes of both genders? Check. Warrior women fighting on the side of Good? Check. Compelling political intrigue? Check. A female authority figure depicted sympathetically? Check (twice)! Friendships between women? Check. Friendships between men and women? Check. Effectively drawn romance (both straight and gay)? Check. I’m hard pressed to think of anything I desire in a fantasy series that this one doesn’t have, and its fourth volume, The Guns of Empire, doesn’t disappoint.

Well, maybe it does, just a little, but it’s not the book’s fault. If I enjoyed the previous two volumes, The Shadow Throne and The Price of Valor, a tiny bit more, it’s because I find political maneuvers more engrossing than military ones, and this book, like the first book The Thousand Names, is very battle-heavy. Those battles are nonetheless stirring, and a reader can feel the bitter cold as our heroes march through Murnsk, this world’s equivalent of Russia. Generals Marcus d’Ivoire and Winter Ihernglass and their liege lady, Queen Raesinia, are as engaging company as ever, and they’re backed up by a diverse and colorful array of supporting characters. The threats are dangerous and palpably evil, and some of my favorites don’t make it to the end, felled by demonic possession or enemy soldiers’ bayonets. A riveting read, but be warned: while the previous volumes each had something resembling a conclusion, this one ends on a cliffhanger — and the next book doesn’t even have a title yet.

My rating: Just when is Book 5 coming out? I really need it.

Free Short Story! Just Read This Entry!

Hi, everyone!  Matt Ceccato (Nan’s Husband) here.  Nan asked my help in letting you know about something exciting for those who have yet to sample her published work!

Today has been a busy day.  About 90% of the content here at my website is created by my wife.  When she needs assistance with the technical side of things, I help out with that. And, in all honesty, I will “sub-contract” some of the web design aspects.  That logo at the top of the page?  That was designed by our good friend Sketch MacQuinor, who only charged us “a hug each” for his gorgeous logo (thanks, Sketch!).  Also, some of the layout aspects came from our buddy Grant Goggans, the webmaster at Marie, Let’s Eat and Fire Breathing Dimetrodon Time.  And if you aren’t reading Grant’s blogs, do yourself a favor and get yourself acquainted.  But wait until you’ve finished this entry first.

So, why has today been busy?  Well, that “Coming Soon” tag on the “Short Stories” page above?  It has content now!  Let me explain…

Earlier this year, Nan posted a “Five Things” entry about Chattanooga, Tennessee.  One of those things, LibertyCon, is a chance for her to connect with readers in person and learn aspects of the publishing industry.  On the Friday of this year’s convention, we were given an audience with Bill Fawcett, an author and publisher who “knows the business.”  On that warm July night in his converted sleeper car hotel room, we learned a lot from Bill, including the value of promotion.  He suggested “a sizzle package:” a short story and excerpts from my two novels.  We took his advice to heart and got together with Nan’s publisher, Gilded Dragonfly Books, to create for you a free (yep, totally free!) copy of “Firegale at the Festival!”  This story originally appeared in Legends of the Dragon, Vol. 1, published in 2015 for Dragon Con. But starting today, you can read this compelling short story of what happens when an actual dragon attends Atlanta’s largest gathering of fans of all thing geek.

So, as promised, here is your free copy of firegaleat-the-festival-promo-pdf

Thanks and spread the word!
Matt

Superhero Movies: What do we do with the love interest?

We all know that in the world of superhero comics, male and female heroes exist, but very rarely do they fall in love with each other. Instead, men of steel typically seek out women of Kleenex as their romantic interests, women whose very ordinariness is part of their attraction. The job of this ordinary love interest is to keep the male superhero grounded, connected with the world and humankind, and to provide him with a sanctuary where he can relax and tap into what is ordinary within himself. Yet does this role have to be as thankless as it sounds? Can this Kleenex woman, this ordinary love interest, be written in such a way that audiences can take an actual interest in her, as an individual distinct from the male hero?

The traditional way of involving love interests in the superheroes’ adventures has been to have the villains kidnap them and have the heroes come to their rescue; with the women in peril, the men get to demonstrate their strength. Lois Lane is the best-known example of the perpetually kidnapped love interest type, so prone to misfortune that she apparently can’t get through a normal day without needing to be rescued at least once. Yet when she’s written well, she’s one of the more tolerable damsels, a passionate journalist whose zeal to discover the truth moves her to run headlong into those dangerous situations she’s not quite equipped to escape. She at least has some purpose of her own, aside and apart from what Superman does. She can be an interesting and intelligent character — again, as long as the writers know what they’re doing.

Far more irksome, to me, is Mary Jane Watson, the repeatedly captured and rescued love interest of Spider-Man (as portrayed in Sam Raimi’s big-screen Spider-Man trilogy) — captured, not because she’s diving head first into a mystery investigation, but simply because she is Spider-Man’s girlfriend. Everything I dislike about the character comes into focus in the third and weakest of Raimi’s films. Early in the film, we see a possibility for growth in Mary Jane, for we learn that she’s actually longing to find her own way to be special, a way she can be more than just Spider-Man’s girlfriend. The logical progression from this set-up would be for her to discover her own brand of awesome over the course of the story. Anyone watching for the first time might expect this to happen. But no. The screenplay abandons Mary Jane’s understandable dissatisfaction and desire to grow beyond her role in order to focus exclusively on Peter Parker’s own angst, his confrontation with his dark side in the form of Venom. The resulting climax has Mary Jane, yet again, captured and rescued, in spite of promises made to actress Kirsten Dunst (who does all she can to endow the character with vitality) that this wouldn’t happen. She never gets the chance to find her own way of being awesome. Instead, the movie implies she should be okay with just being Spider-Man’s girlfriend. To be loved by the hero is all she needs.

The key idea is relevance. The love interest may be important to the hero’s emotional needs, but how can she be a relevant part of the action, other than getting captured and needing rescue? Without any martial skills or training, she can’t stand beside her hero in a fight. So, how can the writers make her matter, without resorting to the old, familiar distressed-damsel option?

Among the last two decades’ glut of superhero movies, two stand out for evading that option. The first is Captain America: The First Avenger, but I’ve sung Peggy Carter’s praises in previous posts; I’ll settle for saying that the screenplay does give her martial skills that equip her to fight beside the hero, and for that alone she would be exceptional. The second is Thor. What makes this one unusual isn’t that love interest Jane Foster is a scientist (we saw that before with Betty Ross in Hulk), but that her scientific exploration figures into the action. She never needs rescuing, except as far as the entire human race needs rescuing, but she still matters to the plot as well as to the hero. I have only two regrets regarding Jane. First, Natalie Portman gives a lifeless, don’t-want-to-be-here performance, leaving me to wonder how I might have taken the character to my heart if a more invested and energetic actress had played her. Second, the good work of the first film is utterly undone by the sequel: Jane gets some cool action near the end, only after she’s spent the majority of the running time unconscious and being carted around by Thor or Loki — a huge step backward, and more proof that Hollywood’s writers are still clueless on how to write superheroes’ love interests as active and interesting people.

Doctor Strange comes out this weekend. I’m going to see it. It has garnered good reviews, but more importantly, my husband wants to see it, and since I made him go to Deadpool and Ant-Man without me, I owe him this one. If only, if only the glowing reviews I’ve read didn’t mention among the movie’s flaws the Rachel McAdams character, a more underdeveloped and colorless love interest than usual. I haven’t heard or read anything about her getting captured and needing rescue; the complaint, rather, is that despite her being a skilled surgeon, the screenplay gives her nothing significant to do. She’s window-dressing, there only because someone decided Strange needed a love interest. The cynic in me suspects that, having made the decision to gender-flip Strange’s mentor the Ancient One, the creative team decided any real development of McAdams’ character wasn’t necessary. We’ve got one interesting and active female character; why would we need two?

Thor has three interesting and active women. Not only can Marvel do better; they’ve already done better, so they should know better.

The big screen continues to be very slow to give us female superheroes in crucial roles. The least it could do is find a way to turn these love interests into actual people — the kind of smart, funny, and resourceful people that fans like me will enjoy identifying with.