Things I’ve Loved in 2018, Part 2

Books.

“If you start a book, then you must finish it” is a principle I’ve long since abandoned. If neither my brain nor my heart is connecting with a book, I set it aside and pick up something else. If I finish it, that means I enjoyed it. Here, then, is a list of all the books I enjoyed, to varying degrees, in 2018:

Destiny Soria, Iron Cast; Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower; Katherine Arden, The Girl in the Tower; John Gwynne, A Time of Dread; Ursula K. LeGuin, Lavinia; Melissa Caruso, The Defiant Heir; N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky; Becky Chambers, A Closed and Common Orbit; Juliet Mariller, Den of Wolves; Kate Elliott, Court of Fives; Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver; Justina Ireland, Dread Nation; Elizabeth Bear, The Stone in the Skull; Lev A.C. Rosen, All Men of Genius; Ben S. Dobson, The Flaw in All Magic; Richard Barrios, A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film;  Jeannette Ng, Under the Pendulum Sun; Cass Morris, From Unseen Fire; Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War; Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows; Sharon Shinn, Fortune and Fate; Sarah Beth Durst, The Queen of Blood; John Scalzi, The Collapsing Empire; Toni Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone; Anthony Ryan, The Waking Fire; Patricia McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; Kate Forsyth, The Beast’s Garden (audiobook); Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Witch; Theodora Goss, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter; Django Wexler, The Infernal Battalion; Kendare Blake, Three Dark Crowns; N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season; Aliette de Bodard, The House of Shattered Wings (audiobook); Curtis Craddock, An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors; Ken Liu, The Wall of Storms; Brandon Sanderson, Oathbringer.

Yet I have my favorites, books that strike multiple chords of pleasure and satisfaction. Here are a few highlights of my reading year.

Book I loved: Spinning Silver (favorite read of 2018). Why I loved it: Not content with giving us one female hero, this novel presents us with three, women from different social strata whose lives intertwine. Bonds between women are emphasized. Kindness plays a key role in saving the day. Add to that Naomi Novik’s vivid, evocative prose, and there was almost nothing I didn’t love about this book.

Book I loved: The Parable of the Sower. Why I loved it: Here’s a book that manages to be shocking, disturbing, and uplifting at the same time. Set in a horrifying future, it focuses on a brilliant young woman and her growing understanding of the nature of God. (Religion, for once, is neither a source of infinite goodness nor the root of all evil.) I wasn’t crazy about the love story that cropped up near the end, but my admiration of both protagonist Lauren Olamina and Octavia Butler’s powerful prose carried the day.

Book I loved: The Infernal Battalion. Why I loved it: It’s a bracing conclusion to a series that seemed to be designed with me in mind, as it has pretty much everything I love to see in the fantasy genre: male and female heroes working together and forming friendships; strong bonds between women; sensitively handled romantic plots both gay and straight; scary forces of darkness; plenty of action. I would like to have seen a little more racial/ethnic variety in the cast — Khandari mage Feor should have played a bigger role — but that’s about all that’s lacking.

Book I loved: Dread Nation. Why I loved it: When it comes to supposedly “badass” heroines in YA fantasy fiction, my motto is, “Don’t tell me they’re tough and competent; show me.” Justina Ireland shows us repeatedly just how brave and formidable her protagonist Jane McKeene really is. But what I love most about Jane is how flawed she is, yet how willing to learn from her mistakes and grow. This one also foregrounds female friendship, always a plus for me.

Book I loved: An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors. Why I loved it: Like The Infernal Battalion, this one has a setting that evokes early 19th century Europe, but it adds some steampunk elements. The prose is light and deft, and the two central characters, Isabelle des Zephyrs and the musketeer Jean-Claude, are people of great intelligence and integrity, well worth rooting for as they navigate a dangerous magical/political maze. The sequel is coming out in the latter part of January, and I can’t wait.

Book I loved: The Defiant Heir. Why I loved it: How do you create a fantasy world rich in conflict without replicating real-world sexism and homophobia? Just ask Melissa Caruso. If I had my way she’d give a crash course in world-building to any budding SFF writer keen to avoid the usual cliches. Here we have two female heroes: Amalia, who struggles with self-doubt but is never made to feel her gender is a source of weakness; and Zaira, who goes through relationship drama that has nothing to do with her sweetheart being another woman. It can be done, everyone! Look and see!

Book I loved: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Why I loved it: Patricia McKillip’s dreamlike prose is perhaps the most beautiful in the fantasy genre. Here she employs it to tell the story of reclusive wizard Sybel, who must venture into the wider world and confront choices that will show her, and us, what she’s truly made of. Sybel is a powerful, complex, flawed hero, and clearly a woman, not a girl.

Book I loved: Den of Wolves. Why I loved it: Like McKillip, Juliet Marillier has a prose style I find enchanting, and this concluding novel of her Blackthorn and Grim series is lovely in all the ways I expect from this author. I adore the female lead Blackthorn, in all her angry, temperamental, messy, observant, and competent glory, and her partner, Grim, embodies the strength of kindness. The girl to whose aid they come, Cara, is also a memorable figure, who makes the kind of mistakes to which an adolescent girl is prone but has so much potential as she tries to figure out who she is and who she might be.

Book I loved: The Fifth Season. Why I loved it: Like Butler, N.K. Jemisin crafts a story both disturbing and beautiful, and I don’t recall reading anything else quite like it. It’s the first book in her Broken Earth Trilogy, and in my view, the best, as it shows us the journey of its complex, alternately heroic and messed-up protagonist at three different stages of her life.

Book I loved: Iron Cast. Why I loved it: Set in 1919 Boston (why don’t more writers explore this intriguing historical transition between the Great War and the Jazz Age?) this story introduces us to a group of mages called “hemopaths,” who can harness magic through creativity — poetry, music, drama. At this premise I’m already half sold. But Destiny Soria draws me further into the novel’s spell with strong prose, intriguing plot twists, deftly built romantic subplots (no insta-love here), and the sort of solid, supportive friendship between girls that should feature far more often in YA.

Book I loved: Oathbringer. Why I loved it: It’s the third book in The Stormlight Archive, which pretty much guarantees it a place among my favorites as it continues the journeys of characters I already know and love.

On to 2019!

 

 

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Things I Loved in 2018, Part 1

Cats.

Since my husband and I brought the two tuxedo kittens home from Hall County’s animal shelter at the beginning of July, 2018 has been the year of Ross and Demelza P. Kitty. A quick look at the pictures on our iDevices offers ample proof of this. We’ve both become adoring and hyper-protective cat parents, and it’s not hard to see why. Once they start purring, we have no choice but to surrender to their charms

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Ross and Demelza are litter-mates, and when we found them at the shelter, they were sharing a pen. We chose them to adopt partly because we saw how well they played together when we set them down among the toys in the shelter’s playroom. We knew we were looking at a pair who loved one another, and over the past five months we’ve watched them wrestle with one another, groom one another, and snuggle with one another. They love hanging out at the top of the tower we bought for them…

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… or in the spot on the couch where I usually sit…

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… or outside our bedroom door, preparing to invade that forbidden space the minute one of us tries to come out…

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… or on the back of the couch.

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A couple of weeks ago, we put up our Christmas tree. When we introduced our cats to it, of course this happened. (This particular intrepid climber is Demelza.)

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No matter what kind of mischief they get into, we can’t stay mad at them for long. They’ve made themselves at home in our hearts, and they’re not going anywhere.

Merry Christmas to all, from our household gods.

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Let the Past be Past

In my reading and writing, my preference for second-world and historical fantasy over the urban and contemporary varieties is really all about the clothes.

I have a strange and outdated fashion aesthetic: I think more clothing looks better than less. I don’t judge anyone harshly or make assumptions about their character when they wear outfits that show a lot of skin; I just don’t find those kinds of outfits as pretty as Lady Mary Crawley’s scarlet Edwardian gowns or Demelza Poldark’s spreading green eighteenth-century skirts. When I read, as well as when I write, I like picturing the female leads in long, flowing, sumptuous dresses with eye-catching colors. Mini-skirts and cut-offs, not so much. So I gravitate toward books that let me look in on a visually gorgeous past, for a little while.

But “for a little while” is the operative phrase. I might love to visit the past, purely in my imagination, but I would never want to live there. I like it now. I like that I live in a world where Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the film Wonder Woman, and the DuckTales and She-Ra reboots can exist. I like that it takes less time than ever to get from one place to another, and that I live close to a city where people of different races, genders, ethnicities, and creeds live and work together. I like that we have more choices than ever before, even if some people may find those choices confusing or even frightening. Above all, I like that we’re moving away, slowly but surely, from the idea of “roles” conferred on us at birth by our gender, race, or both. If the “stability” that nostalgiacs yearn for means “everyone knowing their place,” they can keep it. From what I can tell, when the attitudes of the past encroach upon the present, it’s almost never in a good way.

In particular, the past is not a good time to be a woman. I’d like to highlight three stories I’ve seen/read recently that, for me, bring the truth of this home:

  1. Battle of the Sexes (2017 movie)

As this movie paints him, Bobby Riggs (well played by Steve Carell) is a washed-up gambling addict whose glory days as a tennis pro are behind him, eager to do anything that would get him back into the spotlight. When he beats Margaret Court and challenges Billie Jean King, he exaggerates his chauvinism to the enth degree, knowing it will get him attention. How much of it was an act? In the movie, we’re never quite sure. But the sports commissioner, played with expert slimeballery by Bill Pullman, is dead serious in his efforts to undermine women’s tennis and to see that women like King (Emma Stone) receive neither the pay nor the press they deserve. His attitude isn’t unusual, as we see in the number of people who encourage Riggs in his chauvinism. The story takes place in the early 1970s, not all that long ago — during my lifetime, in fact. The success of the feminist movement was by no means assured, and when I watched the movie, even though I knew the outcome, I couldn’t help wondering at times, with a shiver of horror, what might have happened if Riggs had won.

A while back, a Sports Illustrated commentator Tweeted that women’s sports were not worth watching. Back when Bobby Riggs beat Margaret Court, that statement might have been taken seriously. Now, it’s met with ridicule. The present beats the past.

2. “The Yellow Wallpaper” (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

You may have read this one in school. It’s a landmark piece of 19th century feminist literature, written by a woman who, while she may not pass muster as a forward thinker by today’s standards (her ideas on race may be best left unexamined), challenged the limiting roles and expectations placed on women in her time. She drew upon her own experiences with mental illness to write “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a disturbing depiction of a popular treatment for women suffering from neurasthenia, the “rest cure.” The protagonist is instructed to do nothing at all — she’s especially not to write, the activity that makes her feel most like herself — and her strong imagination, starved for an outlet, leads her to obsess about the pattern of the wallpaper in her room, with the end result that she loses her mind completely.

The story strikes home for me, as I wonder what I would do if I were told never to write, were persuaded (almost) that writing was bad for me and that it shouldn’t matter much in the first place. It’s a look back at a time when women were told that any work they did for themselves, for their own pleasure and fulfillment, was unimportant at best and dangerous at worst. Girls growing up were not encouraged to think about what they loved to do as playing a significant role in their futures; indeed, the query, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was hardly relevant for girls, since their futures would be basically the same, if they were “lucky.”

This was the theory, at any rate. In practice, the 19th century was full of women who did great things, from Florence Nightingale to George Eliot to Elizabeth Blackwell to Mary Anning, not to mention Gilman herself. Still, the practice had to butt heads with the theory, as these women who stepped out of their domestic roles were met with ridicule and/or scorn, and in the saddest cases had their contributions erased from history. Now, their names are being recovered. Now, little girls as well as little boys have some chance to decide what they want to be when they grow up, rather than having that decision imposed on them. For all the progress we have yet to make, now is certainly better.

3. The Girl in the Tower (Katherine Arden)

Arden’s historical fantasy series, of which this is the second volume, is set in “Rus,” an analog of 15th century Tsarist Russia complete with rigid gender roles. It’s actually quite a good read, with brisk, fluid, engaging prose and an active heroine worth rooting for. Yet it’s also disturbing, as existing as a woman in this society seems little better than hell on earth.

A woman of heroine Vasilisa’s social class is expected to marry well, and afterward live a cloistered existence apart from her husband, who enters her world only once in a while for the sake of procreation. The spheres of men and women are so separate from one another that a marriage for love seems impossible; what emotional connection could be forged between two people who barely see or speak to each other? Men value their friendships with other men and barely think about their wives (at one point, the Grand Prince casually dismisses his wife as a “barren bitch,” and no one notices) as they go about their rollicking, happily mobile lives. Women, meanwhile, never stir from their terems except to attend worship services. Even motherhood, the one possible bright side to their existence, is a remarkably cheerless proposition, as boys must be whisked away into their father’s world and girls must have their nascent senses of self extinguished, both with all due haste. Vasilisa survives with her spirit intact the only way she can — by pretending to be a boy. Those  are her choices: be a boy, or be a slave. There is, as yet, no liberating third option.

Therein lies my regret with this book. It doesn’t hold out any hope for change. In the first book of Django Wexler’s The Shadow Campaigns, hero Winter Ihernglass disguises herself as a boy to join the army and escape being married off to a repulsive husband. Yet by the end of the series, she has helped to change her world into one in which women are free to be themselves, or at least far freer than they were at the beginning. But Arden paints her world along more strictly historical lines, which means hundreds of years may pass before life for women in general becomes a bit more bearable.

Again, this is not to say the book is bad. It’s quite good. In one crucial way, it improves on its predecessor, The Bear and the Nightingale: while in the former book, another character saves the day, in this one that honor belongs to Vasilisa herself. Also, in characterizing her lead, Arden avoids one of the worst pitfalls of the Not Like Other Girls trope, that of girl-on-girl hate; Vasilisa is much more inclined to help other girls/women than to judge them, and indeed, when she can, she hints to them that they don’t have to take this enforced passivity any more than she does. (I particularly love the moment when she lets her boy disguise drop for a girl she’s just rescued from bandits.) Like the other two works I’ve discussed here, this book has a feminist message. Yet still, despite our hero’s victory, her world remains unchanged, the strict gender roles as fixed and solid at the end as at the beginning. Perhaps Arden is saving the glimmer of hope for progress for the next book. I’ll read and find out.

It’s true that the past is more complicated than we might think, and there have always been women who have made a difference, even despite social barriers. (Jason Porath’s book Rejected Princesses offers a fun and intriguing look at some of these.) Yet when I’ve spent time there, I’m always relieved to return to the present, where I have the freedom to move and where our popular culture is growing more and more comfortable with the notions that women can be heroes and that stories by and about women can be as compelling and important as those by and about men. The present has its own problems, and there’s still plenty of progress to be made. But we need to keep our eyes turned toward the future, and resist all temptation to look back with longing to the past.

Even if it did have prettier clothes.

Female Mentors and Female Heroes

(SPOILERS for Ralph Breaks the Internet)

 

Disney’s new animated-sequel blockbuster Ralph Breaks the Internet may not be a perfect film, but it has one element that wins my heart completely: the bond of friendship that springs up between the spunky racer Vanellope von Schweetz and Shank, the key player in the wild, gritty RPG Slaughter Race. Originally Vanellope wanted to steal Shank’s car so she and Ralph can pay for a steering wheel to fix her own outdated arcade game, Sugar Rush. But as the two engage in a hair-raising chase, each racer realizes just how cool the other one is. Afterward, Shank offers herself as a mentor to Vanellope. My favorite scene in the movie isn’t the famous one in which Vanellope encounters all the Disney princesses, but the one that shows her sitting with Shank on the hood of Shank’s awesome car and confiding in her new mentor her hopes and fears about the future. It’s been a while — too long by half — since I’ve seen two female characters from a family film have a conversation quite like that.

I’m not the only one delighted by this relationship. A recent episode of NPR’s podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour focused on the movie, and while opinions on the movie itself may have been mixed, two of the panelists singled out Vanellope’s friendship with Shank as a refreshing but sadly rare example of a relationship between an older and younger female character that isn’t a rivalry.

That got me thinking. Just how rare is this kind of relationship? And why should it be rare?

Rivalries between old and younger female characters of fiction since ancient times, when Venus sought to destroy a girl who had been proclaimed more beautiful than herself, only to get stuck with her as a daughter-in-law instead. Venus isn’t the only older woman has it in for poor Psyche; her older sisters, too, are driven by envy when they attempt to sabotage her relationship with her mysterious but obviously wealthy and powerful husband. (In fact, they hope to get her killed.) We see this again with Beauty’s older sisters in Leprince de Beaumont, while Venus provides a prototype for Cinderella’s and Snow White’s cruel stepmothers. Women’s jealousy of each other is so baked into our folklore that we keep re-introducing it into new stories, and so we keep feeding the idea that relationships between women are innately hostile.

Yet what of Cinderella’s fairy godmother, and the multitude of helpful fairies that populate the contes de fee of France’s Ancien Regime? What of the mysterious but kindly crones like the Grimm brothers’ Mother Holle, who help persecuted girls on their way to fortune? These figures are part of our folklore as well, yet for some reason, writers of subsequent generations haven’t been quite as keen to reproduce them. Sometimes they’re written out of the stories altogether, and at other times they’re changed beyond recognition. For example, in my favorite screen adaptation of “Cinderella,” Ever After, the fairy godmother’s role is filled by Leonardo da Vinci, a sign of a general preference for male mentors even in female heroes’ stories.

Consider some of the most popular leads in SFF fiction: Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Lyra (His Dark Materials), Vin (Mistborn), Phedre (Kushiel’s Dart), Sonea (The Black Magician Trilogy), Yelena (Poison Study), Lucy (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), Maerad (The Books of Pellinor), Thirrin (The Cry of the Icemark), Althea (The Liveship Traders), Seraphina (Seraphina and Shadow Scale). With these belong the female leads in some of my personal favorite books of the last few years: Isabelle des Zephyrs (An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors), Essun and Nassun (The Broken Earth Trilogy), Hanani (The Shadowed Sun), Agniezska (Uprooted), Daleina (The Queen of Blood), Winter Ihernglass (The Shadow Campaigns), Shai (The Emperor’s Soul). What do all these characters have in common? Male mentors — as if somehow it makes more narrative sense for men to guide them on their journey. In movies and television, the preference for male mentors is even clearer. Where would Buffy be without Giles? (Female mentors in Buffy the Vampire Slayer come in two kinds: evil and doomed.) Or Daisy Johnson without Agent Coulson? Or Alex Danvers without Jonn J’onzz? Or Rey without Han (The Force Awakens) or Luke (The Last Jedi)?

Interesting, when sympathetic female mentors do appear — say, Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, Polgara in The Belgariad, Moiraine in The Wheel of Time, Sybel in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, as well as characters from more recent books/series such as Spellslinger, Age of Assassins, and Monster Blood Tattoo and movies such as Doctor Strange — they’re mentoring male heroes. Women may be wise enough to serve as guides and helpers, yet still, more often than not, older woman + younger woman = rivalry.

So when a story comes along that defies that equation, I’m primed to embrace it unless it has unquestionably deal-breaking flaws. Here are some of my favorite stories to include female mentors who offer help to female heroes:

Wise Child (Monica Furlong). Juniper, a young wise woman, saves the child of the title from her abusive mother and nurtures her latent magical talent. Short, underrated, and lovely.

The Wee Free Men (Terry Pratchett). The cynical, practical-to-a-fault witch Granny Weatherwax recognizes a kindred spirit in the no-nonsense youngster Tiffany Aching after the latter dispatches an evil river-sprite with a frying pan.

Feet of Clay (also Pratchett). To say too much about this installment in the “Night’s Watch” sub-series of Pratchett’s Discworld may constitute a Spoiler. I’ll just note that werewolf police offer Angua turns out to be the ideal person to show an eager young newcomer the ropes.

The Witches of Eileanan (Kate Forsyth). Aged, powerful witch Meghan of the Beasts is first shown mentoring apprentice witch Isabeau, but as the book and the series proceed, she ends up giving guidance to just about every confused young person she comes across, including Isabeau’s fierce twin sister Iseult.

The Tethered Mage (Melissa Caruso). Here, Lady Amalia COrnaro is mentored in the arts of politics and persuasion by her intimidating but loving mother, the Contessa. In the sequel, The Defiant Heir, the Contessa has far less page time, yet she remains a powerful presence in her daughter’s life.

Age of Myth and Age of Swords (Michael J. Sullivan). Injured Fhrey (elf) Arion loathes being indebted to the humans who are caring for her, but when she sees the magic brimming in the “wild girl” Suri, she realizes that everything the Fhrey have always thought about humans is wrong. By the second book, Arion is Suri’s friend and protector as well as teacher. Human leader Persephone also plays an important role in mentoring the girl, so Suri is twice blessed.