2017: My Year in Fiction, Part 2

Part 2: Movies and Television

How can anything good come out of Hollywood, a community where reprehensible abuse of power is apparently so prevalent? Strange as it seems, good entertainment does happen, and I’ve had some good times at the theater this year, as well as at home in front of the television set. A fiction enthusiast like myself appreciates any medium through which engrossing stories might be delivered.

Favorite Blockbuster: Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi. I know not everyone loves it. In fact, I have friends that hate it with astonishing vehemence. I know that sensible complaints involving plot holes and miscommunication and extraneous subplots can be made against it. But darn it, I still loved it. I’ll have more to say about it in a later blog post, once I’ve had a chance to see it again. Close runner up: Wonder Woman, the movie many of us (including myself) thought stood no chance of being watchable, but turned out to be amazing.

Favorite Non-Blockbuster: The Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, among the best depictions of a woman’s creative power put on film. It was released too early in the year for Cynthia Nixon’s amazing performance to get Oscar’s attention, and that’s a terrible shame.

Favorite Date Movie: The LEGO Batman Movie, which my husband and I saw together on Valentine’s Day at the Movie Tavern in Suwannee, GA. After all, what could be more romantic than sharing laughs — lots of them? The movie also deserves props for giving us the best depiction of Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) we’ve seen to date.

Least Favorite Date Movie: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Friends loved it. Critics liked it. My husband and I rode the wave of positive buzz into the theater, and we came out wondering what the heck we’d just seen. For me the worst part came during the credits, where a scene made it clear that the aspect of the movie I disliked most, the villainous matriarchal super-race the Sovereigns, would be back for the third film. I doubt I’ll bother.

Most Pleasant Surprise: Atomic Blonde. The trailers didn’t impress me. This looks cheesy, I thought. Yet it turned out to be a well-made action-packed spy thriller with my favorite movie soundtrack of the year.

Most WTF Comment on the State of Entertainment: A Tweet that turned up in my feed, positing that The Last Jedi and the Thirteenth Doctor were evidence that Hollywood was falling into a “feminist black hole.” Uh, just how many big money-making adventure movies with female protagonists did we see this year? Three, I think? That’s hardly evidence of a feminist takeover. It is evidence, however, of the theory that for some people, one big movie hit with a female lead character out of twenty such movies with male lead characters is one too many.

I Still Need to See: Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.

Favorite TV Shows Watched in 2017: Netflix’s Luke Cage and GLOW, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Supergirl, Agents of SHIELDiZombie, and PBS’s Victoria (Season 1) and Poldark (Season 3).

When It’s Good, It’s Really Good: Peter Capaldi’s final season of Doctor Who, featuring my favorite New Who Companion, Bill Potts. (Why is it that these days, the ones I love most only get one season?) We got some lackluster episodes this year, but also some darn fine television.

Television Show With the Best Score: Poldark.

Television Show With the Best Soundtrack: Luke Cage.

I Can’t Believe I Actually Like This: I’ve never been a wrestling fan, and GLOW took me completely by surprise as I found myself connecting with the talented but hapless and often unlikable protagonist played by Alison Brie, as well as the diverse cast of female characters around her. What started as a show about female rivalry evolved into a show about female friendships, and I relished seeing that happen.

These Things Were Absolutely Made With Me in Mind: Poldark and Victoria.

Show We All Need to be Watching Right Now: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a sitcom that mixes humor with heart as it depicts a group of very diverse individuals working well together, feeding off each other’s competence, and appreciating each other. Nearly every week we see that a show need not be mean in order to be funny.

Best TV Boss: Without question, Captain Raymond Holt of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He also speaks my Favorite Line of Dialogue: “Any time someone stands up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place.” (To put it in context, he says this to one of his officers, Det. Rosa Diaz, just after she has come out as bisexual.)

Most Improved: Agents of SHIELD. I was lukewarm on the show when it began, but I kept watching in the hope it would get better. The last season shows just how far it’s come since its awkward beginnings. I did have issues with this season’s ending, though…

Female Villains Need More Unique Motivations: Does it always have to be jealousy? The villain of the last half of Agents of SHIELD‘s season tries to destroy humankind because the man she loved preferred someone else. The villain who threatened the earth at the end of this past season’s Supergirl did so because her son chose his sweetheart over her and the privileged domination she offered him. In both cases, a woman goes genocidal because a man rejected her. Darn, but this kind of thing gets old.

Most Disappointing Departure: Floriana Lima, a.k.a. Det. Maggie Sawyer on Supergirl. Losing the character would be regrettable enough in itself, but the writers could at least have had her accept a promotion in another city and shown her and Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh) trying their hand at a long-distance relationship. Instead, they chose to break them up and add these ladies to the already-too-long list of lesbian TV couples denied a happy ending.

Most Unjustly Overlooked Show: iZombie. The zombies here aren’t mindless monsters but intelligent humanoids trying to figure out how to satisfy their need to consume brains without becoming menaces to society (although some of them would be fine with that). To me, this makes them a lot more interesting. Plus, Rose McIver’s Liv Moore is one of those smart, capable “female Other” protagonists I absolutely adore. Yet nobody seems ever to talk about this show. In discussions of supernatural-tinged action shows with strong female leads, this one rarely if ever comes up. I wonder why.

Now That’s How You Do A Reboot: Disney’s new Duck Tales, which manages the neat trick of improving on the original while still honoring its memory. I’m enjoying all the characters, but the new Webby is my favorite, not just because she’s more badass but because she’s flawed, which gives her more chances to be funny than the sweetness-and-light original ever got. Plus, David Tennant, my favorite of the “New Who” Doctors, voices Scrooge McDuck! I’m on board. But I’m well past ready to see some new episodes. Come on, Disney.


2017: My Year in Fiction, Part 1

Part 1: Books.

When the news gets sometimes scary, other times depressing, or both at once, fiction becomes more important to me than ever. While the news may show me the sad state of society and politics, fiction can offer hope, or at least a sense that things don’t have to be like this. The act of writing in itself is hopeful, as we take bits and pieces from the world around us, both light and dark, and knit them together into something new and potentially beautiful. While stories of sexual harassment and assault and violence motivated by racism have been buzzing in my ears, I’ve been hammering away at my most ambitious fantasy novel project to date, as well as crafting plays about Santa Claus’s elves and reindeer. And of course, I’ve been reading.

Some highlights of my year in books:

Most Epic Epic Fantasy: Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves, a 780-page feast featuring a myriad of complicated and intriguing characters, vivid world-building, and clashing cultures and belief systems. I need the next book ASAP.

Most Epic YA: Leigh Barduro’s Crooked Kingdom, the sequel to Six of Crows. Six outlaw heroes deal with conflict between nations and potentially deadly skirmishes between rival gangs on the streets of a quasi-17th century Ketterdam (Amsterdam). Tamora Pierce meets George R. R. Martin.

Most Lyrical Urban Fantasy: This one doesn’t have much competition, but it’s Patricia McKillip’s Kingfisher. McKillip brings her distinctively luminous style to the usually gritty urban fantasy genre, with (for me) satisfying results. If only more urban fantasy were written like this.

Most Underrated Read: Intisar Khanani’s Memories of Ash, the novel-length sequel to her novella Sunbolt. Khanani’s lovely, fluid prose and skillful characterizations deserve far more attention.

The “Welcome to My World” Prize: This one goes to the authors whose work I’ve read for the first time this year, whose future efforts I intend to seek out. N.K. Jemisin (The Shadowed Sun), Robert Jackson Bennett (City of Stairs), Michael J. Sullivan (Age of Myth, Age of Swords), Becky Chambers (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), Melissa Caruso (The Tethered Mage), Mickey Zucker Reichert (Beyond Ragnarok), M.H. Boroson (The Girl With Ghost Eyes), Adrian Tchaikovsky (The Tiger and the Wolf), Mark T. Barnes (The Garden of Stones), Ken Liu (The Wall of Storms), Phil Tucker (The Path of Flames), Mark Lawrence (Red Sister).

The “Continues Awesome” Prize: For authors I already love and whose works I read this year didn’t let me down. Kate Elliott (Black Wolves), Kate Forsyth (The Cursed Towers), Patricia McKillip (Kingfisher), Daniel O’Malley (Stiletto), Terry Pratchett (Witches Abroad), Brandon Sanderson (The Bands of Mourning, Arcanum Unbounded, Oathbringer*). *– Still in progress, but I’m listing it anyway, because what I’ve read so far is just that good.

Favorite Female Heroes Who Have Passed Their Prime: Marshal Dannarah (Black Wolves), Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg (Witches Abroad), Persephone (Age of Myth, Age of Swords), Silence Montane (“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell,” Arcanum Unbounded).

Favorite Female Heroes Who Are In Their Prime: Hanani of the Hetawa (The Shadowed Sun), Li Lin (The Girl With Ghost Eyes), Shai (“The Emperor’s Soul,” Arcanum Unbounded), Suri (Age of Myth, Age of Swords), Hitomi (Memories of Ash), Shara Khomayd (City of Stairs), Marasi and Steris (The Bands of Mourning), Zomi and Thera (The Wall of Storms).

Favorite Female Heroes Who Are Children (Sort Of): Lift (“Edgedancer,” Arcanum Unbounded).

Favorite Female Supporting Characters: Kizzy and Sissix (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), Sunandi (The Shadowed Sun), Highmarshal Azure (Oathbringer), Jane (A College of Magics), Mulaghesh (City of Stairs), Lifka (Black Wolves), Arion, Brin, and Roan (Age of Myth, Age of Swords), Dame Scotia Malory (Kingfisher).

Favorite Male Supporting Characters: Sigrud (City of Stairs), Kellas (Black Wolves), Adolin and Rock (Oathbringer), Wylan (Crooked Kingdom), Mni-inh (The Shadowed Sun), Wayne (The Bands of Mourning), Gaetona (“The Emperor’s Soul,” Arcanum Unbounded), Luan Zyu (The Wall of Storms).

Favorite Male Heroes: Dalinar Kholin (Oathbringer), Kelsier (“Mistborn: A Secret History,” Arcanum Unbounded), Asho (The Path of Flames), Indris (The Garden of Stones), Captain Ashby (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), Rudy Solis (The Time of the Dark).

Favorite Audiobook: A three-way tie: Arcanum Unbounded (read by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading), A Darker Shade of Magic (read by Stephen Crossley), and The Curse of Chalion (read by Lloyd James).

Disappointments: Barbara Hambly’s The Time of the Dark, K.B. Wager’s After the Crown, Sharon Shinn’s Wrapt in Crystal, Kristen Britain’s The High King’s Tomb, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven. None of these books were terrible; I just didn’t love them quite as much as I have these authors’ other work.

Books I’m Most Looking Forward To in the Coming Year: Django Wexler’s The Infernal Batallion, Mark Lawrence’s Grey Sister, Michael J. Sullivan’s Age of War, Melissa Caruso’s The Defiant Heir, and Kate Elliott’s Dead Empire, all to be published (hopefully) in 2018.

A Christmas Treat from the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company

One of my best accomplishments of 2017 came near the end: on December 9 and 10, the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company produced and performed my new Christmas play, “The Sleigh of Unspoken Dreams.” The very first draft was a heavy-handed polemic about the gendering of toys and toy-giving.  Over time, with the company’s help, it became something more and better. While my previous holiday script, “Christmas Rose,” is rooted in reality, this one is a North Pole fantasy that touches on a question of import: just how do Santa’s elves cope with burnout?

I herewith share the performance with you. I think it went beautifully. Featured are the voices of:

  • David Benedict as the Announcer and World of Learning Historian,
  • Melody Bonnette as Zoe,
  • Elisabeth Allen as Lydia,
  • Chris Little as Rupert,
  • Kelley S. Ceccato (that’s me!) as Vixen the Third,
  • Joe Ravenson as Santa Claus,
  • Paige Stedman Ross as Maya and World of Learning Singer, and
  • Christa Burton and Billy Barefoot as Elf Sergeants 1 and 2.

Special thanks to Ron N. Butler, who gave me the ending (the Santa Claus scene is almost entirely his work), and to the Stewart family of Marietta, who lit the spark that in time became this play.

Since this is a live recording, please turn up the volume on your chosen device all the way for better playing.

The Sleigh of Unspoken Dreams


Christmas, Christ, and the Christian

I haven’t written much about my faith in this blog, since I haven’t wanted to give my readers the impression I might be preaching to you, or worse, at you. But today I feel moved to bring it up, since it’s been on my mind a good bit lately. I was raised Baptist, and as a young adult I switched to Methodist, and today I am happily Episcopalian. I have never not thought of myself as a Christian, and this Christmas season, 2017, has been a challenge for me. Why? I’ve felt my faith under attack.

The threat doesn’t come from Muslims, Jews, agnostics, or atheists. It doesn’t come from homosexual couples who want to get married or from women (like me) who have no interest in motherhood. It doesn’t come from Starbucks coffee cups or retail clerks who wish their customers “Happy Holidays” in December.

No, the threat comes from those who invoke the name of Christ but demonstrate little to none of his spirit and thus paint a distorted picture of Christianity itself. It comes from those who shout about Christ and Christianity, yet almost none of their shouts are shouts of joy.

It comes from those who pluck bits and pieces of Scripture, rarely from the Gospels, out of their context in order to persuade themselves and others that straight white men rule by divine right, and everyone else must fit into a narrow “role,” as if the gift of individuality, of uniqueness, was only given to that one privileged segment of the population.

It comes from those who hang “Keep Out” signs on the door of faith, and would hang those signs on our nation’s halls of power and even on our nation itself if they only could. I read this philosophy expressed in a simple statement on a political website: “A good sermon makes the heathen run screaming into the night.”

Really? That flies in the face of everything I’ve always thought and felt. A good sermon doesn’t chase anyone away. Rather, it makes the “heathen,” such as they are, listen and reflect. A good sermon helps those who hear it grow in understanding, however much faith they may have come in with.

So many people who call themselves Christians spend nearly all their time wagging their fingers at the supposed sins of others. But I was taught that my duty as a Christian was to look at myself first, and ask, “What am I doing? What should I be doing? How can I do better?” One of my favorite fictional clergymen, Father Mulcahy of M*A*S*H*, declares that God put humankind on earth “so He could be here Himself.” Am I part of that? Do people see Christ’s love in me? Every day I fall far short of where I should be. But Christ urges me to keep trying, to look out for opportunities to show love and to see those around me as He would see them.

I want to make the effort, for the Jesus who never said a word against gay people or birth control, but who did say, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me. . . I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25: 35-40) For the Jesus who, at a time when women were denied any role in public life, spoke and listened to women, and who befriended those cast to the margins of their society (fishermen, tax collectors, Gentiles), and who rebuked the religious leaders of his day for their small-hearted hypocrisy. For the Jesus who lived by the radical idea that every person has value.

Here is a song not many people know, but for me it gets right to the heart of, as Linus van Pelt might say, “what Christmas is all about.”


Book Report: Recent Reads

(Spoiler Warning)

Often, how much I enjoy a good SFF adventure will have a lot to do with whether the female lead “saves the day” — that is, how instrumental a role she plays in solving the book’s central problems. Where is she at the climax, and what is she doing? Is she off stage, tucked away in a place of safety? Is she passive, observing the crucial events from a distance? Is she incapacitated and rendered helpless? Or is she in the thick of the action, mixing it up with the bad guys in some form or fashion? So many novels have been ruined for me by a heroine’s ineffectuality or even irrelevance at crunch time. Likewise, I’ve found myself on the fence about some novels, only to become their champion when the heroines prove their worth at the climax.

Two recent reads, each brilliant in its own way, have brought this issue to the forefront of my mind.

Stiletto (Daniel O’Malley)

The Rook, the first volume of O’Malley’s “Checquy Files” series, overcame my usual dislike of contemporary fantasy to the point of becoming one of my favorite reads of 2013. It has quite a few of my favorite elements to recommend it, among them a writing style that deftly mixes humor and horror and eschews urban fantasy’s usual “noir” shtick, an unlikely and resourceful female protagonist, and a welcome emphasis on supportive relationships between women. These ingredients are still present in its sequel, Stiletto, a longer and more complicated book featuring not one female protagonist but two.

The Rook introduces us to the Checquy, a London-based organization of mutants whose aim is to neutralize eruptions of the paranormal. By the end, our heroic mutant bureaucrat, Myfanwy Thomas, has thwarted a takeover by the Checquy’s enemies, the Grafters, a group of Continental Europeans who have given themselves special abilities through technology, and she has brokered a cessation of hostilities between the two. Peace is in the offing. Happy ending, right? Not so fast. Hatred and suspicion between the Checquy and the Grafters runs deep, and many doubt that the two can coexist, let alone cooperate. In Stiletto, it’s up to a Checquy pawn, Felicity Clements, and a Grafter surgeon, Odette Liefeld, to ensure the future of cooperation and stop a murderous conspiracy aimed at sabotaging the treaty.

Giving us the points of view of both Checquy and Grafter heroines is a master stroke, as we see how even fundamentally decent people can fall prey to a hatred with centuries behind it. Felicity and Odette, much like Elphaba and Galinda from the musical Wicked, loathe each other on sight, expecting the worst of each other and, at first, getting it. Yet over time, as they work toward their common goal, they come to tolerate, appreciate, and even like each other. Since we like them both, we’re thrilled to see this happen.

Yet as I was enjoying the novel, I hit a wall at the climax. Though our heroines do a good job at figuring out the villains’ identity and tracking them down, they end up captured, and they’re saved less through their own skills and competence than through luck and the foresight of Odette’s male cousin, who inserted a fail-safe device into her without her knowledge. All those moments showcasing the ladies’ courage and ingenuity were leading up to this? Seems a bit of a let-down, especially considering how active Myfanwy is at the climax of the previous book — until I consider that O’Malley might be putting to the test our common notions of “saving the day.”

What is, after all, the central problem of the book? The age-old hostility between Checquy and Grafters, and the attitude that the two groups cannot be expected to work together. Considering this, I can see that Felicity and Odette actually do save the day, through becoming friends. Together they embody the hopeful future their leaders are working toward, and it’s fitting that the book’s final scene shows them chatting and joking with each other as friends do. Through them, we see that old hatreds can indeed be overcome.

The Shadowed Sun (N.K. Jemisin)

In this, my first experience with acclaimed novelist Jemisin, the question of whether the female lead saves they day has a less ambiguous answer. Yes, she does. Hanani is, without question, a female hero, and her triumph makes an often troubling, tough-meat novel a hopeful read.

The Shadowed Sun is actually the second volume in a duology, the first of which establishes the struggle for power and territory between two peoples with deeply conflicting ideas about religion and culture. I chose to read the second volume first after it was recommended in response to my request for sympathetic portrayals of clergywomen in SFF (since the novel I’m working on will include such characters). I was told I would have little trouble catching up, and once I had absorbed the world-building details, I was able to connect with Hanani’s story without much difficulty. She is the first ever woman of the Hetawa, her people’s religious leaders, since her healing powers are undeniable. But she’s not exactly made to feel welcome, and her superiors send her and her mentor on a dangerous diplomatic mission without caring much whether she makes it out alive. Yet it turns out that Hanani, the disregarded and undervalued, has both the skills and the heart required to save her people from a psychic plague foisted on them by a monstrous man, who has turned his abused and mentally damaged daughter into a weaponized nightmare. The hero’s courage and compassion overcome the darkness.

Then comes the part that at first disappointed me. After having more than proved her right and her fitness to belong to the Hetawa, she turns her back on it and walks away, leaving the Hetawa a boys’ club once again. Yet as I reflect, I can see that this too serves as a sign of why Jemisin has such renown as a strong feminist writer. Hanani abandons the Hetawa because — once again I’m reminded of Wicked — she’s “tired of playing by the rules of someone else’s game.” With the strength she has gained on her journey, she’s ready to live life on her own terms, both as a healer and as a lover. And rather than regressing, the Hetaway has realized at last that it needs to change, thanks to her.

On the surface, Stiletto and The Shadowed Sun couldn’t be more different. Yet both offer the same hopeful thesis — there are many ways in which a woman can be a hero.

An Open Response

The following is a response to a friend of mine who, after reading my previous post “It Might Have Been,” noted that he didn’t see the imbalance between male-centered and female-centered movies I’d written about. There are so many movies about girls and women now, he said, and to support his contention he cited Twilight, Divergent, and The Hunger Games as popular movie series that center on strong heroines.

As my friend, he deserves the best response I can give him, but I can’t help thinking he’s not the only one who may not notice the imbalance, particularly in this year of Wonder Woman. So herewith I present my answer.

Dear (Name Withheld),

I would certainly agree that representation of female characters in Hollywood movies has improved vastly since the 1980s, when a kick-butt SFF heroine like Ellen Ripley was pretty much out there on her own. But we still haven’t arrived at the balance I so long to see.

First, you cite Divergent, Twilight, and The Hunger Games as movie series with strong central female characters. With The Hunger Games, point taken. The first two films were critical and commercial successes, and while critics were more lukewarm on the last two, audiences still flocked to them. I loved the first two and even enjoyed the last two, and actually found the Katniss Everdeen played by Jennifer Lawrence a stronger and more proactive character than the Katniss of the books (something I would normally never say).

Yet I have to dispute the other two examples. The Divergent series failed miserably with critics, and bad movies, unless they perform spectacularly at the box office, tend to lead to fewer movies with female leads, not more. (Catwoman, anyone?) In fact, the underwhelming response to Divergent and others of its kind has led me to suspect that adaptations of popular female-protagonist YA SFF book series may be on the way out.

Twilight is its own animal. The book series’ fanbase would storm the theaters to see these films no matter what critics might say. Yet I have to respectfully agree to disagree with those who see the vacant, passive Bella Swan as a strong character. One of my biggest regrets about the current state of YA fantasy fiction is that Twilight and its legion of imitations have made more scarce the sort of adventure-driven female-led stories that Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley are known for writing. I know I want to read about and see young heroines saving their worlds, not obsessing over their hot supernatural boyfriends. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer at least got to do both.)

Also, that these movie series exist doesn’t prove that male-driven movies no longer dominate the screens. This summer we got two good mainstream movies with powerful female leads, the energetic and hopeful Wonder Woman and the darker Atomic Blonde. But since the summer, what have we seen? True, “Oscar bait” limited releases like Battle of the Sexes, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri have popped up (all of which I want to see), but of major mainstream releases, how many have boasted female characters who are not love interests, sidekicks, or villains? Among family films and animated films, the lack speaks loudest, at least to me. Where is this year’s Hunger Games? Last year Disney released a strong pair of heroine-driven cartoon features, Moana and the Oscar-winning Zootopia. This year, however, every single major American animated release has had a male protagonist, except Leap (which failed) and The My Little Pony Movie.

Of course Wonder Woman was great — I saw it twice in the theater, and regret not having gone back for a third time — but compare the number of Wonder Woman films we’ve seen to the number of Batmans and Spider-Mans. Good movies with female leads are out there, but for every one of them, we see ten or more movies with male leads. I’d like to see things even out just a little more.