Book Report: Recent Reads

The Queen of Blood

Cover pic Queen of Blood

I’d been told by those I trust that Sarah Beth Durst’s high fantasy novel about a realm plagued by malevolent spirits only a Queen can control was good. If I had imagined how good, I might have read it much sooner.

Or maybe not. With all the new books that come to my attention on a monthly basis, I can’t be sure. Suffice it to say that The Queen of Blood was exactly the book I needed to read at the moment I was reading it, a moment when I was feeling even more than usually disheartened by the ongoing flow of “Me, Too” stories coming out of creative communities. Hearing about so many women victimized by powerful men in Hollywood and elsewhere, I needed (and continue to need) stories about women who claim power for themselves and don’t have to smash their moral compass against a rock in order to do so. I couldn’t help but get a thrill from seeing Durst’s hero, Daleina, forge forward and refuse to listen to anyone who tries to tell her “no” — including herself.

Through Daleina, Durst plays with the fantasy genre’s traditional trope of the Chosen One, the protagonist from humble beginnings appointed by Destiny to save the kingdom and take the throne. Guided by some unseen hand of Fate, the Chosen One magically overcomes any obstacle in his (it’s usually “his”) path. He’s meant to be King because Destiny says so, though very often we’re not sure why. The triumph of the naive Everyman over and ahead of those outwardly more suited to success has a certain appeal, and Durst manages to keep what works about the trope while subverting its problems.

Like most Chosen Ones, Daleina is the one you wouldn’t look at. She does have a gift for controlling spirits, but her gift is much less pronounced, less remarkable, than the other girls training along with her for a chance to become the next Queen. Others are more obviously up to the task. But when Daleina does win the throne, it isn’t thanks to the hand of Destiny showing itself by the sudden appearance of a surprising ability; if you’re waiting for her to miraculously become the Best At Everything, you will wait in vain. Instead, she succeeds because she knows her weaknesses and is determined to get better. She takes responsibility and pours every ounce of effort into developing her skills. The keys to her rise are not inborn talents but determination, imagination, and resourcefulness. Many of the short-sighted people in her orbit actually look on her hard work as a weakness. But Ven the legendary Champion sees it for the virtue it is, and he takes her under his wing to train her to be the next Queen.

The idea of training to be Queen is another thing I love about the book. In this world, the royal title is not inherited and passed on through a bloodline. Rather, it is earned. The girl who proves herself the most adept at thwarting the spirits’ murderous impulses becomes Queen. Daleina works to achieve the title not so much to win personal glory as to keep the country safe from the tragedy her home village suffered when spirits raged out of control. Her concerns aren’t limited to the well-being of family and/or a few close friends. She thinks bigger.

Also noteworthy is that only girls and women can harness the power to control spirits, and therefore only a woman can rule. This might seem like the seed for a knock-down drag-out battle of the sexes, with men fighting to claim power and women determined to keep them in their place. Yet to my immense relief, nothing like this happens! We may seen tension between individual characters, but gender-based hostility is all but unknown. All walks of society and roles other than Queen are open to all genders. The men accept the authority of a Queen rather than feeling emasculated by it, and we meet men and women who treat each other with respect and forge solid friendships.

The Queen of Blood is not, in an obvious sense, a feel-good book; look at the title, after all. The threat of violence is everywhere, in the very air and wood and water, and the novel includes many horrifying scenes of nature turning against humankind. Characters die, and many of them are people we like. The country Daleina earns the right to rule has been badly shaken, thanks to the hubris of the previous ruler, and she must take charge of rebuilding even as she mourns the loss of so many friends. Yet still, the book affirms hopeful truths we need to hear in these frustrating times. Women can claim power and lead well. Men and women can support and strengthen each other. We just need to make up our minds to do so.

A big Thank You to Durst for giving us this book.

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What’s Making Me Happy: July 2018

  1. Ross and Demelza

Since 1995, when my new kitten TZ (short for Twilight Zone) came with me to Auburn University at the beginning of my doctoral work, pets have been a part of my life, to the point where I have trouble conceiving of a daily routine in which no animal plays a part. Few things make me smile as readily as watching cats and dogs at play, and few things rouse me to fury as quickly as stories about animal abuse. Never in my life has that been truer than now.

Back in March, the last of my three “Auburn cats,” Gandalf, succumbed to heart failure at the age of sixteen. For the first time in over twenty years, I didn’t have a beautiful cat to climb up on my lap whenever I stretched out with a book. My husband and I agreed we should fill the gap by adopting a pair of kittens, but we made up our minds to wait until July. In the meantime, we had our sweet Winnie Dog. I can’t quite put Winnie into words. Here’s her picture.

Winnie on Couch 1

Then, at the very end of June, the worst happened. Winnie, too, we lost to old age and declining health. For a couple of weeks we were without a pet, with memories of Winnie and Gandalf haunting every corner of our empty house. Those memories are with us to stay, and we’ll carry them with us even when we move to a new house where they’ve never lived.

Yet we proceeded with our original plan, and on July 3 we went to the Hall County, GA Animal Shelter to pick out two kittens, a boy and a girl. Matt was the first to notice a black-and-white pair housed in the same cage. This housing indicated they were litter mates, so they would already be used to each other. We took them out of their cage and into the “play room” where we could set them down and watch them entertain themselves (and us) with a set of toys. An hour later, they came home with us. We named them Ross and Demelza, after characters from PBS’s adaptation of Winston Graham’s Poldark series.  Ross’s nose is the whiter one.

Ross Demelza 2

Ross (l), Demelza (r), with their daddy.

Since then we’ve been getting used to them, and they’ve been getting used to us. They’ve curled up to snooze on our shoulders, chest, and lap, in between periods of chasing each other around the room at Mach 2 and engaging in toothy-clawy wrestling matches and scaling the heights of their scratching-post tower. With their energy and curiosity, they make the whole house a happier place. We still miss our Winnie Dog, and still wonder how she would have reacted to them; I like to think she would have looked on their antics with Maggie Smith-like bemusement. But it’s hard not to smile when we look at them and imagine them growing into cathood under our eyes.

Ross Demelza 1

2. YouTube commentary on SFF: Book reviews and trope analysis.

Much of what you find on YouTube, just like any Internet site, is garbage, but it can also be a repository of riches of many kinds. Here are a couple of finds I’ve enjoyed recently:

The Authentic Observer takes on Cassandra Clare’s incredibly popular Shadowhunters series, in ways that remind me a bit of Mark Twain’s classic take-down, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

Jenna Moreci shares her views on the Ten Worst Fantasy Tropes, and she doesn’t mince words.

3. A Song in the Dark

Song in the Dark

Even though I’m a fiction addict — perhaps because I’m a fiction addict — I venture into nonfiction territory from time to time, not least because some tiny seedling I find in a true story might take root and grow into an idea for a fantasy. Plus, uncovering information about something you love is always a treat, and one thing I love, almost if not quite as much as I love fantasy fiction, is “classic Hollywood,” the works and the history of cinema from its inception through the early 1960s. Any study of the films of this time period will attract my attention, whether it’s voice artist Mel Blanc’s charming autobiography That’s Not All, Folks! or Richard Barrios’ examination of the earliest musicals both good and bad, A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film. Just how did the Hollywood musical evolve and manage to survive near-extinction? Barrios shows us, with an ample helping of detail spiced with dry wit.

4. Season 2 of GLOW, on Netflix

My only problem is that Matt and I binged this one way too fast. Not our fault, really; we couldn’t help ourselves. But now we have to wait a whole year for more. I can remember a time, not that long ago, when I thought a show subtitled “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” had no business being any good. Yet what other show presents us with such a diverse array of female characters, all funny, all flawed, all working their hearts out? The closest the show has to a central protagonist, Ruth (Allison Brie), is so wonderfully real, with her problems and her perseverance, that she’s become one of my favorite characters on television. GLOW joins Brooklyn Nine-Nine on my short list of Shows Everyone Should Be Watching.

(And speaking of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Matt and I are forever grateful to NBC for renewing the show for a sixth season.  Alas, we have to wait until mid-season to catch up with Jake, Amy, Gina, Rosa, Boyle, Terry, and Captain Holt.  But their story will continue as there’s still one good season left…)

 

My “Yes!” List

Lists of forthcoming SFF releases, complete with nutshell synopses/descriptions and hopefully an advance review or two, can never come out soon enough to suit me. If a new book has some combination of the following qualities, it goes at once onto my To-Read list; certain combinations propel it into the top ranks.

A second-world or historical setting.

If I click on a title and its description includes contemporary character or place names, more often than not I’ll click away from it without exploring further, unless it’s by an author whose style I admire (e.g. Patricia McKillip, whose contemporary take on Arthurian legend, Kingfisher, delighted me last year). When I read, I want to dream myself into a time and place removed from the ones I physically inhabit. New York, Chicago, and/or Atlanta with sorcerers, vampires, or werewolves thrown in just don’t have the same appeal for me as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Sanderson’s Cosmere, Wexler’s Khandar or Vordan, Pierce’s Tortall, or Bujold’s Chalion.

An active, capable female lead.

I’ve said it before, but I’m fond of repeating it: I avoid damsels, I admire heroines, but I adore female heroes. I may relish books in which the female hero is one of multiple protagonists (e.g. The Stormlight Archive and The Shadow Campaigns), but I have a soft spot for those books or series which feature a single central female hero who drives the plot (Bujold’s Paladin of Souls being one of my favorite examples), and I wish with all my heart we could see more such books and series outside the subgenres of urban fantasy and YA.

Multiple important female characters.

The Smurfette Principle — the trope of a sole female character surrounded entirely by boys/men — isn’t an automatic “No”; I don’t find it quite as abhorrent as the Not-Like-Other-Girls “girl-on-girl hate” feature I mentioned in my previous post. But whenever I read such a book, even if it’s well-written and the female character in question is dynamic and powerful, I come away feeling disappointed, as if the story were not quite complete. Unless said story is set in some rarefied environment such as a monastery, it doesn’t make sense for women not to have a noticeable presence in that world, in both background and foreground. One thing that helps a great deal–

Gender-egalitarian built worlds.

It gladdens me no end to read about societies in which men and women are shown at every level and in a variety of roles in society, and in which female and male characters do not have to jump over mile-high hurdles reading “SEXISM” in order to accomplish their goals or save the day. For some good examples, see this Goodreads list.

Friendships between women.

Not only are such friendships an effective antidote to the poison of girl-on-girl hate, but they also serve as pushback against the notion that the only relationships of any value or importance in a woman’s life are those that involve sex and/or romance. Our lives are much too full and complex to be summed up by whom we fall in love or have sex with, and I hope to see the day when as many SFF novels center around “womances” as around “bromances.” Here, for your perusal, is another Goodreads list.

Friendships between men and women.

Can men and women be “just friends”? Absolutely. In fact, the ability of men and women to interact in ways beyond the sexual is a key component of social health. The idea that men and women need and value each other only for sex lies at the heart of society’s darkest and most toxic corners, from homophobic hate groups to the “incel” movement. Children benefit when they see male/female friendships modeled as they grow up, and teens need to experience such friendships as they navigate around the land mines of adolescence. So every time I read a book like Ben S. Dobson’s Scriber or Curtis Craddock’s An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors or Sarah Beth Durst’s The Queen of Blood, in which a male/female friendship occupies a central place, I feel a little better. Another Goodreads list.

“Slow burn” romantic plots/subplots.

I have little to no patience with the type of romance commonly referred to as “insta-love,” the trope that has two characters lock eyes and immediately decide they are Meant To Be Together even though they’ve never even exchanged words. What sort of love blossoms between two people who know nothing about each other’s characters, values, ambitions, or interests? A shallow one, of course, based on nothing more than looks and sexual attraction, that in the real world would fall apart inside of a month. I might be able to suspend my disbelief for a fairy tale, but not for a novel where at least some measure of detail and development is expected.

I like a good love plot, but I want to see it built on a foundation of respect and understanding. However they start out, I want the delight of seeing them develop, surely and steadily, an appreciation of each other as individuals with unique minds, hearts, and souls. I want to come away from their stories with a strong sense they will have something to say to each other when they’re not kissing and cuddling. If I get a whiff of a book with such a plot, developed with feeling and skill, into my TBR it goes.

Kindness portrayed as strength, not weakness.

Some writers refer to showing a tough character’s kind-hearted side as “softening” that character. Why, exactly? How is kindness “soft”? Isn’t stepping in to help someone in trouble a brave and heroic thing to do? Isn’t allowing yourself the vulnerability that comes with “giving a damn” an act of courage? Kindness is tough. It’s often hard and frequently inconvenient; it’s so much easier to care solely about ourselves and about those whose “friendship” can benefit us in some way. But kindness changes hearts, and by extension it can, if given a chance, change the world.

A few new and recent titles near the top of my To-Read List, that are not the next novels in series I’ve already begun:

Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver

Rachel Hartman, Tess of the Road

Elizabeth Bear, The Stone in the Skull

Sam Hawke, City of Lies

Justina Ireland, Dread Nation

K. Arsenault Rivera, The Tiger’s Daughter

S.A. Chakraborty, The City of Brass

 

My “No” List

Goodreads’ “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2016” has 424 titles listed. “Can’t Wait Sci-Fi/Fantasy of 2017″ lists 307 titles, while the list for 2018 names a whopping 491. Factor in all the SFF titles published  Herover the past four to five decades, and you have more books than anyone could possibly read in a single lifetime, even if one had no other responsibilities beyond reading. In short, no one can read everything. Not only word of mouth from friends whose opinions we trust but online resources like Goodreads, LibraryThing, Tor.com, and The Illustrated Page can help us decide which books to put on our to-read list, which ones to move to the top of said list, and which ones we might just as well leave unread. It helps tremendously to have a “Yes!” List, characteristics in a book most likely to appeal to you, and a “No” List, qualities you find off-putting. My own personal “Yes!” and “No” Lists have helped me maintain control of my reading life, even if my to-read list is, dare I say, unwieldy.

I’ll get the negative out of the way first. If I hear or read the following, or some paraphrase of the following, in multiple reviews for a stand-alone book or a series, I probably won’t read it.

Women are either love interests or villains.

A Tor.com review/discussion of the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child led by Emily Asher-Perrin points out that while the adult Hermione and even Ginny are given somewhat decent roles, the rising generation of female characters doesn’t include anyone who might be the next Hermione. “Practically all other women in the story are either fridged or irrelevant, except where they apply as love interests or villains,” the review tells us, and that tells me all I need to know. Cursed Child can win all the Tonys it wants, but I won’t be reading or seeing it. I’ll stick with Rowling’s original seven books, thanks, unless somebody wants to write a spin-off revolving around the adventures of the grown-up Luna Lovegood.

Girl-on-Girl Hate.

Few things put me off a story with a female protagonist, particularly in YA, faster than this phrase. This isn’t to say I can’t accept any scenario in which two female characters loathe each other. The mutual detestation between heroic grandmother Ista and monstrous “mother” Joen in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls, for example, is very apropos. Yet for me, this enmity works partly because Bujold includes a strong friendship between Ista and the young courier Liss, so we see the unique female hero doesn’t view all other women as her natural enemies. If a book paints every interaction between a female protag and another female character as hostile, as if catty jealousy and suspicion were somehow the norm for relationships between girls and women, that’s a hard pass. I’ve read such books before, so I know from experience that my frustration with this kind of thing is bound to rage-blind me to whatever other virtues the book might have.

The female characters are the book’s weakest link.

There are two ways I spot this in reviews. The first is when positive reviews praise the male characters to the skies and decline to mention a female character even in passing, while negative reviews complain bitterly about how weakly the women are written. The second is when it’s stated outright, with words like, “I like this book, except for (insert female character’s name here),” or “If you can overlook the female characters, you’ll enjoy this book.” Since overlooking female representation is a little outside my skill set, I save myself the trouble and avoid the book in question.

“Rapey.”

I have read some excellent fantasy fiction centering on a victim of rape; Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace, and Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld spring to mind at once. I acknowledge this kind of story may be (and dare I say it, needs to be) well told. But the term “rapey” in reviews of certain books gives a warning light, more often than not, to a phenomenon I’ve heard called “Rape as Wallpaper,” in which the prevalence of rape is baked into the world-building and instances of rape are so thick on the ground — the victims often being either minor characters in which we make no emotional investment or one-scene wonders who may as well be named “Rape Victim #44” — that readers cease to feel shocked or disturbed by them. Writers whose works are “rapey” like to claim their heavy use of rape is “realistic” in view of the historical period they’re drawing from in their built worlds. But in this case, I feel, realism is overrated.

Unleavened despair.

In a story that features rape, what happens to the victim? Is she destroyed by the experience, either dying of her injuries, perishing of a broken heart, or going irretrievably mad? Or does she find a way to survive and make the slow, steady march toward recovery? I may not be very keen on rape plots in general, overused as they tend to be in fantasy fiction, but if the latter is the case (as it is in the titles I mention above) I may give it a shot, particularly if I admire the author. But the former is a deal-breaker, as such a thing often serves as a sign that the book as a whole holds out no hope to its characters or its readers.

I don’t mind stories with deeply flawed characters, or stories that veer into dark or even disturbing territory, but I will shun any book that depicts life as little or nothing but a continuous downward spiral, a long, pitch-dark tunnel with not a glimmer of light at the end. If I wanted to spend time in a world where kindness is viewed as weakness and compassion is all but unknown, I’d watch the evening news.

Coming Next: The “Yes!” List