Book Report: Recent Reads

Warning: Spoilers

Some while ago, a writer I follow on Twitter posted that she bridles every time female authors are criticized for writing male protagonists, with the usual accompanying accusations of “internalized misogyny.” On principle I wholly agree with her, since no author of any gender should feel pressure to restrict themselves to certain types of lead characters, as if there were only one kind of story they had a right to tell. Yet I admit I’ve found myself irked more than once by certain highly talented female authors’ (say, Carol Berg’s or Sarah Monette’s) clear preference for male leads — not because I believe they suffer from internalized misogyny, but because I love to read good epic/historical fantasy with female leads, and if women don’t write such books, who will?

The answer, at least in part: authors like Curtis Craddock and Django Wexler.

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors

Alchemy cover

She may have been born into the richest and most powerful of the “saint-blooded” families in her land, but Fate has dealt Isabelle des Zephyrs a particularly cruel hand. For one thing, she’s a woman with an active and expansive mind, searching for ways to exercise her faculties in a society in which women are denied access to higher education and are barely even allowed to think without being censured. For another, she lacks the magical power that would mark her as a member of her family, so her parents and brother regard her as useless and deny her any semblance of affection. Finally, she has a deformed hand, which ostensibly renders her unmarriageable. A recipe for misery all around.

Yet this princess refuses to feel sorry for herself. She doesn’t waste time pining for what she lacks and instead values what she has: her best friend and confidante, Marie; her mentor and father figure, the musketeer Jean-Claude, the novel’s co-protagonist; and the joy of learning, even despite the obstacles. If you’re among the readers who are tired of the equation of “strong female character” with “female character who can punch, shoot, stab, or otherwise fight,” Isabelle is the female hero for you. She consistently leads with her brain and thinks her way out of dangerous situations. When she’s sold into an arranged marriage that might be the death of her, she uses her wits and insight to navigate unfamiliar territory and, in the end, to broker a peace between feuding princes. She saves the day with mind and heart rather than with fists and sword.

Also pleasing is debut author Curtis Craddock’s avoidance of a trope that too often emerges when writers create a brilliant female hero — “Not Like Other Girls.” Isabelle is super-smart and she knows it, but she never puts herself above other women and is open to their friendship. One of her top priorities throughout most of the story is to find a cure for her friend, Marie, whom evil magic has robbed of her free will. She appreciates her ladies-in-waiting rather than mocking or avoiding them. She views her new sister-in-law as a potential friend, even though that sister-in-law has been conditioned to see her as a rival and treats her coldly. Isabelle may be extraordinary (and Craddock happily follows the “show, don’t tell” principle), but she’s never propped up at other female characters’ expense. Bechdel Test: Pass.

Isabelle may have drawn me to this book, but she’s not its only selling point. Her mentor Jean-Claude, the only person through much of the book who has her best interests at heart and whom she can truly trust, is another gem of a character, a close cousin of The Curse of Chalion‘s Lupe dy Cazaril, weary and a little dissipated but brave and fiercely loyal. Though we do see some slight glimmerings of romance for both Isabelle and Jean-Claude, each remains the most important person in the other’s life. It’s refreshing, as always, to see a story place its primary emphasis on a form of love other than romance.

I’ll let Isabelle speak for herself: “The most important things we have are dreams. . . Without them we cannot conjure new truths or better worlds. Where we get into trouble is when we tell ourselves dreams don’t matter, or we let other people tell us our dreams are silly or stupid.” (355)

The Infernal Battalion

Battalion cover

Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series, which I have been praising to anyone who would listen for several years now, has reached its end. Every series most have an ending, and it was high time for the evil, soul-devouring Beast to be stopped for good, but I will miss adventuring with General Winter Ihernglass, Colonel Marcus d’Ivoire, and Queen Raesinia Orboan. At least I can take satisfaction in knowing they have made their world at least a little better and fairer than they found it.

I’ve posted previously about this series, highlighting Winter’s awesomeness as a soldier and commander (this female hero does fight), Raesinia’s efforts to reign wisely and well, and the “old-fashioned” Marcus’s growth in understanding and willingness to learn. All those facets of character feature significantly in this last volume, so I will endeavor not to repeat myself too much. But at the end of it all, the book puts the final proof on the series’ overall ethical thesis: when you must confront evil, use what you have. Each of our heroes faces a moment of crisis, a low point at which giving up becomes a great temptation because he/she feels tapped out, with nothing more to give. But each finds a way to keep fighting, to get the job done.

Even when capable female characters are featured, countless narratives follow a similar pattern: “women facilitate, and men achieve.” In the Harry Potter series, for instance, Hermione Granger saves Harry’s life on a semi-regular basis, but it’s Harry who must save the world from Lord Voldemort; likewise, in the Terminator films, Sarah Connor’s job is not to save humankind from sentient, lethal machines, but to raise her son so that he can be the savior. Happily, both Wexler and Craddock turn this pattern on its head. In The Infernal Battalion Marcus knows what he has to do: keep fighting as long as he can so that Winter can strike the final blow against the Beast. In Winter we see the proper exercise of supernatural power, while in Marcus we see the determined resilience of the (comparatively) ordinary man. In An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, Jean-Claude protects Isabelle, but Isabelle saves a nation from civil war. Men are the capable and hard-working facilitators, and women the world-shaping achievers.

Before leaving The Infernal Battalion behind, I should also mention that Raesinia, too, gets her moment to shine, made all the more impressive by her fear of being, and her determination not to be, useless. She uses what she has and emerges as a Queen we can admire, something we could stand to see a bit more often in the fantasy genre. I’ll further say, without going into too much detail, for all three of Wexler’s heroes, love conquers all. The series has yet another thing we should see more often — romance plots that work.

I can’t wait to see what Craddock and Wexler give us next.

 

 

 

 

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