Recent Noteworthy Reads

It’s January 2017, and what will my reading year bring? I hereby resolve that it’s not going to be eleven months of filling in time before Brandon Sanderson releases Oathbringer, the third Stormlight Archive volume. Instead I’m going to spend quality time curling up in the comfort of familiar favorite authors like Kate Forsyth, Juliet Marillier, and Barbara Hambly, and finding some new names to add to my favorites list. I’m going to dive into epic fantasy worlds, some that look a bit like medieval or Renaissance Europe and others that couldn’t resemble it less. I’m going to do some exploring in genres I’m not as familiar with, like historical (rather than contemporary) urban fantasy. And I’m going to seek out lesser-known works that just might be to my taste.

I’m already off to a pretty good start.

One of the most refreshingly unrecognizable fantasy worlds I’ve read appears in Mark T. Barnes’ The Garden of Stones, which I read on Kindle. The basic plot may feel familiar — a group of rebels must band together to stop the rise of a mentally unstable tyrant, and since this is the first of a trilogy (called Echoes of Empire), their ultimate victory is delayed — but the vivid details of culture, landscape, and character names are like nothing I’ve seen, certainly not European but not wholly Asian/Eastern either. The challenge of conjuring images without some securely familiar frame of historical reference is a rewarding one, and one I wish authors would ask of their readers a bit more often. My favorite aspect of this world: gender is of light account. Both men and women appear as leaders, soldiers, healers, and mages, and no one questions their presence at any level of society. The foremost “wise mentor” figure is a woman, and the stalwart hero’s right hand and best friend is a female not of his race. The female lead still has quite a bit of growing to do, but I can already tell she will come into her own in future volumes.

M. H. Boroson’s The Girl With Ghost Eyes takes urban fantasy in a less typical direction by choosing 1898 San Francisco Chinatown as its setting. Female protagonists with supernatural abilities, like Li-lin whose “ghost eyes” enable her to see and to move within an often terrifying spirit world, may be common in the genre, but unlike so many of them, Li-lin, a widow only recently bereaved, is not distracted by various amorous temptations. Boroson’s narrative is first-person, so we learn about Li-lin’s worlds as she moves through them, as she tries to put an end to a threat to her father and eventually the whole of Chinatown. The hallmark of Li-lin’s character is resilience, as she devises various plans for defeating the threat, sees those plans fail, and then tries again. She may think to herself from time to time that she is powerless, but she persists in trying. Though her enemies and her society may tell her she has little value, she values herself. Her shoes are at times frustrating, but ultimately rewarding, to walk in.

Mickey Zucker Reichert’s Beyond Ragnarok is the first volume of an out-of-print epic fantasy series published in the 1990s. I stumbled onto the title, with its attention-getting reference to Norse mythology, on Goodreads’ “Best ‘Strong Female’ Fantasy Novels” list, but I only lifted it to the top of my Want-to-Read ranks because I chanced on the final two books at a favorite used bookstore’s going-out-of-business sale, and I picked them up on the odd chance that I would enjoy the first one. A book over seven hundred pages long represents a commitment. Once you start it, you know you’re going to be with it a while, and other stories in which you might be interested will have to wait their turn. If I’m going to proceed through such a book, it has to engage me in a big, quick way, and keep me wanting at every turn to know what will come next.

This little-known epic, perhaps the victim of a glut of multi-volume epic fantasies back in the day, managed to do just that. What do I love even more than reading about female characters being awesome? Reading about male and female characters being awesome side by side, as comrades. In this mythic world in which humanity is ascendant and the gods and elves are in decline (which the gods accept, but the elves… don’t), male and female heroes can share in an adventure; among a hybrid race, the Renshai — to which the most prominent heroine belongs — no gender distinctions exist in its warrior class. The prose is nicely readable, the action plentiful. I may not have been smitten with the love triangle that emerged in the book’s last half, but thankfully the romance plot does not altogether swallow up the characters involved; for all of them, other concerns remain important. If love triangles there must be, I’d be okay if they were more like this one.

Beyond Ragnarok and its sequels (Prince of Demons and The Children of Wrath) can be tricky to find, but fans of heroic adventure may find much to like here. It’s actually a sequel to an earlier trilogy by Reichert, The Last of the Renshai, but I’m pleased to report that Beyond Ragnarok, at least, can be read and understood without having first read the earlier trilogy.

So many books, so much to look forward to.

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On Feminist Stories, Judy Hopps, and Trying Everything

What makes a story feminist? What elements should it contain? I could go on all day (and have) about the long list of qualities I would like to see in a feminist narrative, but first and foremost comes one thing: an important female character overcomes the tyranny of low expectations.

These expectations do not have to revolve around gender in order for the story, and the heroine, to be feminist. They could hinge upon almost anything — race, nationality, species, social class, magical ability or lack thereof, physical appearance, ethnicity, religion, or even profession/walk of life. In one especially fun feminist tale I’ve read recently, K.B. Wagers’ science fiction adventure Behind the Throne, the heroine comes from a matriarchal society where being female is an advantage rather than otherwise, but because she’s a known gunrunner living and working along the edges of the law, almost no one thinks she’s up to the task when she is forced to take her place as heir to her estranged Empress mother’s throne. She overleaps these low expectations and reveals herself to be a capable and even compassionate leader, thwarting a conspiracy to destroy the government. A feminist heroine, a feminist story.

By this definition, Disney’s Zootopia, a Golden Globe winner for Best Animated Feature and a front-runner in the Oscar race in the same category, qualifies in spades. Overcoming low expectations is key to the journeys made by both the movie’s central characters, as they and, by extension, the movie’s youthful target audience are encouraged (in song, the merits of which are up for debate) to “try everything.”

This ethos has an interesting history within the Disney canon. As a fan of animation, I admire Disney’s early work, and I consider the first five of the company’s animated features among the most gorgeous pieces of art ever put on film. Yet many of the early works have a core of conservatism directly at odds with the individualistic message of “try everything.” Consider the 1934 Silly Symphony “The Flying Mouse,” a lovely and at the time groundbreaking animated short. All the mouse protagonist dreams of doing is taking to the air, and after he performs an act of kindness, his wish is granted — and oh, does it ever not go well. Dreaming too far or too high, this little cartoon suggests, will only bring disaster. Rise (literally) above expectations, and the birds you so long to befriend will shun you, your family will flee from you, and gangster bats will taunt you. Be happy where you are. Settle. I can almost hear Judy Hopps’ parents talking.

This same stay-within-the-lines conservatism can be found covertly in Snow White (don’t open the door to strangers!) and more overtly in Pinocchio (can anyone ever forget the fate of bad little boys in that film?). Then, in 1941, a little film called Dumbo happens, and we get what may be our first Disney glimpse of “try everything,” which may be why I love it so much despite its obvious flaws (e.g. the product-of-its-time depiction of race and the tough-to-take cruelty to which poor blameless Dumbo is subjected for most of the film). Elephants are not supposed to fly. Everybody knows that. But Dumbo does, and it’s awesome. And where the poor flying mouse is punished for his aerial antics, Dumbo is rewarded.

In this regard, tiny rabbit Judy Hopps is Dumbo’s spiritual heir, a defier of expectations in multiple ways. Everyone knows rabbits don’t become police officers. Even if, through the power of sheer resourcefulness, they manage to graduate from the police academy (at the top of their class, no less!), the most they can ever hope to do is hand out parking tickets, which everyone knows is no job for a “real cop.” They don’t manage to crack the most baffling criminal case the city has seen, and they don’t, ever, become friends and partners with foxes. But by the end of her story, Judy has done it all.

It’s hard for me to decide between Zootopia and Moana as my favorite Disney film of 2016; I’m thankful I can freely love them both, as they diverge wildly in tone. Yet Judy and Moana resemble each other in some interesting ways, the most central being that both of them are eager to leap over the fences meant to hold them in. Unlike so many previous Disney heroines, Judy and Moana both have living, and loving, parents. They aren’t cruel tyrants who stand in the paths of their daughters’ dreams out of envy or sheer malice. Rather, they set up the boundaries with the most sympathetic intentions, to protect their daughters from danger and disappointment. Through them we see that sometimes our biggest obstacles can come not from those who hate or fear us, but from those who love us.

Another key element Judy shares with Moana is her central relationship in the film, not a romance but a friendship with a male co-lead. Nick Wilde and Maui also have striking similarities, both being tricksters whose sense of responsibility begins and ends with themselves. Both are forced to work against their will with idealistic heroines. And both are won over, slowly but surely, by the deep, strong integrity they observe in the heroines. This is why it matters so much that these are friendships rather than romances. The relationships are cemented not by beauty or by charm, but by character.

Yet while I love both heroines, after a recent rewatch of Zootopia on Blu-Ray, I think I love Judy just a little bit more, because she has a deeper obstacle to overcome: her own prejudices. At the very moment that should have been her biggest triumph, she messes up in a major way, and despite the fact that we of the audience have been rooting for her wholeheartedly throughout, her mistake falls in line with what we know of her. She still has growing to do. As the magnitude of her misstep becomes more and more apparent to her, it takes her some time to figure out how to atone for it; for a moment she even (shudder) gives up. But the bigger the error, the greater the satisfaction when she finally corrects it, and she does so partly by giving someone else, Nick, a chance to surmount expectations and try everything.

Judy’s mistake highlights something crucial about the “try everything” ethos: we can’t be afraid of failure. When we fail, we learn. When we first see Judy at the police academy, we see her failing constantly. But from that place of having stumbled and fallen, she figures out how to transform failure into success, to turn weakness into strength. This is her repeated course of action throughout, whether her failures are small or big, and it makes her a very satisfying heroine.

Zootopia isn’t flawless. The positive female-character interaction such as we see between Moana and her grandmother is largely missing from this film, since the one major female character we think is Judy’s friend turns out (Spoiler Alert) to be anything but. Also, while I love the look Mrs. Otterton gives to Judy after our heroine has helped her reunite with her husband (perhaps they will become friends in the future), I wish we could have seen just one more female predator as a significant character. But now that I’ve rewatched it, I feel pretty sure I’ll rewatch it again. And again.

Because Judy’s story makes me want to try everything.

2016: My Year in Books

Here you won’t find anything too deep or detailed, just a retrospective on my reading life over the past year, both good and bad.

Total number of books read in 2016: thirty-nine, not counting the two I didn’t read in their entirety.

Best books of the year, from as objective a standpoint as I can manage based on prose quality, characterization, and world-building: Django Wexler, The Price of Valor and The Guns of Empire; M.R. Carey, The Girl With All the Gifts; Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo.

Favorite books of the year, from a subjective standpoint of pure enjoyment: Brandon Sanderson, The Alloy of Law; Kate Forsyth, The Pool of Two Moons (second in the sadly underrated Witches of Eileanan series); Todd Lockwood, The Summer Dragon; Leigh Barduro, Six of Crows.

Favorite characters whose acquaintance I made this year: Nina Zenik, the funny, deadly, but decent Heartrender (Six of Crows); Melanie, the “little genius” who doesn’t know quite who or what she is (The Girl With All the Gifts); Norah Blackstone, the shy wallflower who stumbles into a career as a silent-film scenarist while working to save her sister-in-law from an ancient curse (Bride of the Rat God); Prunella Gentleman, the woman who has more magic in her little fingernail than most men have in their whole bodies but is nonetheless forced to prove herself (Sorcerer to the Crown); Paama, the brilliant cook who uses common-sense goodness to defy evil (Redemption in Indigo).

Most enjoyable working of a theme I’m tired of: Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown. I may be sick to death of the repeated-ad-nauseum “you can’t do (x) because you’re a woman” conflict, but Cho’s historical fantasy won me over, thanks largely to the charismatic character of Prunella, see above.

Most enjoyable working of a theme I’m NOT tired of: Todd Lockwood’s The Summer Dragon. Dragons! Female dragons! Give me more, give me excess of them! Lockwood’s debut fantasy novel delivers. (There’s a brave, stalwart human heroine here, too.)

Biggest disappointment: Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. All my friends loved it, and considering its intricate world-building and highly sympathetic protagonist, I can certainly see why. But the dearth of significant sympathetic female characters kept me at arm’s length.

2016 read I would most like to see made into a movie: K.B. Wagers’ science-fiction action-adventure Behind the Throne, with its kick-butt gunrunner princess protagonist, practically screams out for the big-screen treatment.

“It just wasn’t for me” award: Jon Messenger’s Wolves of the Northern Rift. Note to publishers: if the most important female character in a book has barely any page time and readers are not encouraged to care much about her at all, do not put a gorgeous picture of this character on the cover of said book. Please.

Most infuriating read: Shana Abe’s The Sweetest Dark. Not even the promise of a dragon shifter heroine could surmount my irritation with that misogynistic “Not Like Other Girls” trope with which this book absolutely reeks. The exceptional heroine is indeed brave and capable, but every other female character — every single one — is some shade of icky and untrustworthy, and it’s impossible for me to overlook.

Books I liked but wish had been just a little bit better: Jim Butcher, The Aeronaut’s Windlass; Marshall Ryan Maresca, A Murder of Mages; Sharon Shinn, Heart of Gold.

Welcome to my world — new authors I’ve tried and enjoyed: Todd Lockwood; Zen Cho; Karen Lord; K.B. Wagers; Stina Leicht (Cold Iron).

Welcome back — favorite authors who have continued to please: Brandon Sanderson; Django Wexler; Kate Forsyth; Barbara Hambly (Bride of the Rat God); Violette Malan (Path of the Sun); Guy Gavriel Kay (Children of Earth and Sky), Max Gladstone (Full Fathom Five).