Book Report: Recent Reads

Of all fantasy novel subgenres I have two unrivaled favorites: big, sweeping epics with sprawling casts of characters that include plenty of interesting women, and smaller- scale fairy-tale retellings with lovely, lyrical prose and a mystical feel. In the past couple of months I’ve read a fine example of each.

Oathbringer pic

Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson

The world of Roshar, which Sanderson has constructed for his epic Stormlight Archive series, is deep and wide enough for a fantasy fan happily to drown in. Whenever one of these novels comes out (Oathbringer is the third), I know I’m going to get thoroughly lost in an amazing landscape. I love this series so much that it’s not enough for me to have and read a print copy only. I must own it on audiobook as well, so the world can sweep me away a second time, or a third, or however many times I like.

I’ll keep my description as simple as possible. The Stormlight Archive centers on a military conflict between the humans of the kingdom of Alethkar and a formidable race of humanoids called Parshendi. A malevolent immortal force plans to use this conflict as a means to destroy the world, and the only hope for survival rests with a group of magically gifted individuals, the Knights Radiant. Three of these Knights are our central characters — Kaladin, a resentful young hero with an instinct to protect victims of injustice; Shallan, a noble woman with a troubled past, who can manipulate perceptions and create illusions; and Dalinar, a military leader with a history of ruthlessness, now seeking to unite opposing factions and recover what honor he can. Surrounding these three is an array of splendid supporting characters, kings and queens and farmers and warriors, foreigners from mountains and deserts, human and nonhuman. One of my favorites is Jasnah, Dalinar’s niece, whose logical perspective is often mistaken for cold-heartedness. I also adore every member of Kaladin’s crew of misfit ex-slave bodyguards, “Bridge Four” (except one, but I don’t want to Spoil too much).

The first book in the series, The Way of Kings, focused primarily on Kaladin, while the second, Words of Radiance, centered on Shallan. Oathbringer is Dalinar’s book, though the others get their shining moments. In the first two volumes, Dalinar’s past has been shrouded in mystery, hidden even from him, but now his worst memories, once taken from him as an immortal’s “boon,” have returned to him, and both he and we learn that whatever we might have imagined about his history, the truth is worse. The core theme of this story is redemption, as he must struggle with the man he has been in order to become the man the world needs him to be. Redemption isn’t pretty, it’s messy, and above all, it’s painful. If Dalinar is to be redeemed, he must own his misdeeds.

The redemption theme may center on Dalinar, but it reaches out to others, including Shallan, who transforms into other personas to avoid the weakness she sees in herself, and Venli, a Parshendi woman indirectly responsible for the death of her more sympathetic sister, who finds herself called upon to become the person that sister should have been. (In actuality one of my favorite parts of Oathbringer is how much we learn about the Parshendi, far from a one-dimensional malevolent race of Orcish monsters.) So many of the main characters are broken in some way, but Sanderson deftly handles the darkness of their situations without ever crossing into nihilistic grimdark territory. In grimdark, virtue is a lie and redemption an illusion. In the Stormlight Archive, hope is never fully lost.

Bear Nightingale pic

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

This wintry tale takes its inspiration from the old story of “King Frost,” in which an innocent maiden is sent out to die in a frozen field by her wicked stepmother, but she survives and is rewarded for speaking to the winter king himself with courageous civility. Arden takes her readers back to an Old Russia ruled by the Tsar and his landowning boyars, and her novel’s greatest strength is the lovely, detailed prose with which she sets her scene, creating a world never truly warm, a world where humans’ survival depends on respect for the spirits of both nature and hearth.

Like all my favorite fairy-tale retellings, this one centers on a female lead, Vasilisa, or Vasya. Unlike the rather passive maiden of the fairy tale, whose chief virtue is endurance, the spirited, tomboyish Vasya is active in her support and her respect for the spirits, fostering a connection with them that she uses to protect those she loves and even, at two separate points, to save the life of an enemy. She’s easy to like, smart and observant and brave, unwilling to fall without a fight into a role she isn’t suited for even though her father and brothers keep telling her it is the “lot of women.” Interestingly, though the father and brothers might represent the status quo, the narrative depicts them with sympathy and understanding. All the important characters are understandable in their own ways, even the villains, the prideful priest “tempted” (from his own perspective) by Vasya, and the envious, tormented stepmother, so unable to catch a break from her first scene to her last that I can’t help pitying her just a little.

Sadly, the book falters where it ought to be the strongest — the climax. Vasya has been a proactive figure throughout the narrative, and we have every reason to think she’ll save the day in the end. But at crunch time, her courage and her power prove insufficient, and it’s left to someone else to strike the death-blow against evil. Yet despite my disappointment, I’m eager to continue with this series. I suspect Vasya’s ineffectuality might be a symptom of “first book syndrome,” since this is the beginning of a trilogy. Arden can’t have her hero (for I have faith that’s what Vasya will become) peak too early. Just how, and how far, will she grow? I want to see.


Differing Perspectives

Since my 2017 Year in Review posts, I’ve had the chance to see Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. I loved it. I felt that, like Pan’s Labyrinth before it, it reflected the filmmaker’s sympathy with daydreamers whose wavelengths are out of tune with the ordinary and mundane. I viewed Sally Hawkins’ Elisa, like Mercedes in Pan’s Labyrinth, as a powerful woman who knows society views her as powerless and uses that perception to deceive and defy those who would dismiss her. I connected with her almost immediately, thanks to Hawkins’ deftly detailed performance. How could I not like a woman who wishfully imitates Bill Robinson’s dance moves? I came away hoping this movie might clean up at this year’s Oscars, embracing it as a welcome rarity, a critically acclaimed film with an abundance of heart.

Then I read the following article on (Warning: it contains Spoilers.)

The author of this article is looking at the movie from a different perspective from my own, focusing on the ways in which it portrays the heroine’s disability. As I read it, I could understand, point for point, all the elements in the movie that she found frustrating. I remembered them all, but caught up in the film’s dreamlike romanticism, I didn’t see them in the same way. While I was engaged by Hawkins’ performance, I didn’t consider that some might be bothered that the role didn’t go to an actress with the same disability as the character. Now I can see it. I can’t say that a single word of this article is wrong.

So, is it okay if I still love The Shape of Water?

The worst thing anyone can say in response to a differing perspective is, “You shouldn’t be offended.” It’s not one person’s place to judge what someone else finds offensive or problematic. Yet while I can perceive the movie’s problems, I can’t deny it caught me up in its spell. I can’t deny I want to see it again. The difference of opinion/response offers more proof that each of us creates meaning in tandem with the creators of the art we consume. Our own identities and experiences affect our responses to it. If we bear this in mind, surely we can understand and appreciate someone else’s different movies on a piece of art we love, without necessarily losing that love.

I had a similar experience when I read Tor’s review of Roald Dahl’s Matilda:

I’d praised Matilda as a good read for girls in my previous blog post. The story still has my heart, more than ever since I saw the musical recently. But I can’t deny that everything the author found problematic is very much a part of the tale. Miss Trunchbull is as despicable as the story demands (and I have my own issues with the ways in which her evil is bound up with her physical strength and bigness), but did her more competent replacement have to be a man? Why not promote Miss Honey instead, as happened in the film version?

But darn it, I still love Matilda. I actually think it does us good to read perspectives on stories that diverge from ours, particularly when it concerns something we love. Understanding that not everyone sees the same thing the same way doesn’t have to diminish our joy. But maybe it makes us think a little more about where our joy might be coming from.

What I appreciate about these two articles I’ve shared is that neither author is what I call a “Missionary of Hate.” They state, “I find these aspects problematic,” and then they explain their case. They do NOT cry out, in so many words, “I hated it, and if you didn’t hate it too, then you’re WRONG!

For contrast we have only to look at the Internet vitriol directed at Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Now, The Last Jedi has problematic aspects of its own, and some have pointed them out with a great deal of insight. Foz Meadows, for instance, notes how the choice to ignore the chemistry between Finn and Poe in favor of building up a heterosexual love subplot for the former diminishes the movie as a whole (though she does point out she enjoyed it). Again, beware Spoilers:

Yet voices like Meadows’ have been drowned in a flood of shouts declaring that critics who praised the movie must have been paid off. Some haters have even started a petition with the apparent aim of forcing writer/director Rian Johnson to admit publicly that his movie sucks. When I read Meadows’ article, I know we saw the same movie. But when I venture a look into the haters’ spew, I can’t believe we saw the same movie.

The haters’ aim is to make those who disagree with them feel like fools, to the point where we may be embarrassed or even afraid to admit that we actually like the object of their scorn. They’re not happy until their voices alone are heard. While we should be accepting and understanding of opinions different from ours, we should take care to keep a clear view of the line between disagreement and bullying. Disagreement we should appreciate, but bullying we should resist with all our might.

Bullies should never win.

Advice to Girls Looking for Heroes Like Moana and Judy Hopps

One of the reasons behind my current dissatisfaction with Hollywood is the depressing lack of female protagonists among mainstream American animated releases in 2017, especially as compared to 2016, which gave us both Zootopia and Moana. (I’m still keen to see the smaller-scale indie animated film The Breadwinner, but its release has been so limited that it’s quite a bear to find a theater where it’s playing — a disgraceful way to treat a film that would appeal to families.) I understand that everything media-related comes in cycles, and that a year with one or more solid girl-centered offerings will frequently be followed by a year in which girls get shoved back into sidekick, villain, or background roles, if they appear at all. Remember 2011, when the front-runners for the Best Animated Feature Oscar were the male-heavy Rango and The Adventures of Tintin? The following year gave us Brave and Wreck-It Ralph, both enjoyable movies featuring female characters in central roles. So, since 2017 was lacking in noteworthy animated heroines, at least we can look ahead to the next months of 2018 with hopeful hearts, right?

Well, maybe not. Check out this YouTube compilation of trailers for 2018’s animated releases, at least in the first half of the year. Some look like fun — Aardman’s Early Man might be amusing, at least, because Aardman’s films usually are — but for all their differences, these movies, going by their trailers, have one thing in common that isn’t hard to spot:

Male protagonists.

It looks very much like this year will just be last year, all over again.

One of these movies, The Incredibles 2, is an interesting case. I loved the original, so I can’t help but be a little bit interested in the sequel, and I’ve read some excerpts from promotional material suggesting that Elastigirl, a.k.a. Helen Parr, will take a leading role and that the movie will be a female-led superhero film following in the footsteps of 2017’s Wonder Woman. If that’s true, then hurrah! But I’m afraid I can’t help being a little skeptical, since the teaser-trailer — which, like most teaser-trailers, gives us no hint of the film’s actual plot — chooses to focus on Mr. Incredible and baby Jack-Jack. I can’t help being reminded of the prominence of Olaf the Snowman in the marketing for Frozen and of Maui in the marketing for Moana. No matter how well a female-centered animated feature may do with audiences, marketers are still squeamish about letting people know when or if an upcoming release is focused on a female character.

Yet the rest of the movies are very clearly about dudes, so girls watching them will have to daydream themselves into the shoes of the male heroes or settle for identifying with the sidekick or love interest — again. And again. And again, and again. What are girls to do if they want a female hero as cool as Moana or Judy Hopps? Two things come to mind. The first is to fall to our knees and pray that Ava duVernay’s upcoming A Wrinkle in Time is every bit as good as we long for it to be.

The second: read instead.

Good books for young readers (children and tweens, not teens) centering on boys may outnumber those centering on girls, but good books about girls certainly outnumber good recent movies about them. If you make a friend of a good book when you’re ten or twelve, you’ll have a friend for life. A few of my favorites:

Matilda (Roald Dahl). Despite what movies and television want us to believe, child geniuses are not always boys. Matilda uses her immense brainpower to defy those who would tell her she’s nothing (parents, school principal) and to empower those around her. She’s a rule-breaker, a game-changer, and a wrecker of oppressive authority.

The Wee Free Men and its sequels (Terry Pratchett). Young witch Tiffany Aching is no Chosen One in the Harry Potter mold. Rather, she earns her hero status through a winning combination of hard work, determination, common sense, and fearlessness.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, beginning with Dealing With Dragons (Patricia C. Wrede). Wrede employs a light-hearted, humorous style to tell the story of two female characters who become the best of friends. One is a dragon who eventually becomes King (yes, you read that right), and the other is an unorthodox princess determined to chart her own course.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World (Shannon Hale). The indomitable Doreen Green, a hero with the combined powers of Squirrel and Girl, may be in high school in this novelization of the popular comics character. But I can’t think of anything in this breezy, entertaining tale that couldn’t be enjoyed by smart girls as young as ten or even eight.

Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter (Astrid Lindgren). I picked up this novel after its anime adaptation charmed me. If you’ve always dreamed of living in a forest and learning the ways of the wild things, finding a best friend on your own adventurous wavelength, and conquering hate with the force of friendship and love, this is the book for you.