Fictional Characters that Gave Me Joy in 2020

  1. January Scaller, The Ten Thousand Doors of January (Alix E. Harrow)

The first-person narration that Harrow employs for much of her novel is a bit polarizing; I’ve heard some readers strongly dislike it. I, however, find it rich in intelligence and humor as it conveys January’s personality and inner life — her energy, her boundless curiosity, and at times her confusion and uncertainty. As I read it, I felt I was making a friend. She frustrated me and tried my patience sometimes, but then, good friends do that.

2. Circe, Circe (Madeline Miller)

To be honest, when I last read The Odyssey I had a feeling the sailors Circe turned into pigs when they landed on her isle must have had it coming; after all, half the trouble Odysseus and his crew get into results from their failure to respect the rules of hospitality. So it delights me to see the story told from Circe’s point of view, and to get to know her as, on the one hand, a badass witch who takes no guff, and on the other, a lonely, longing woman whose insecurities have their roots in an unloved childhood. Her story, particularly its conclusion, is a thing of beauty.

3. Setsuko, The Sword of Kaigen (M.L. Wang)

While protagonist Misaki (whom I also like) has garnered most of her attention, for me her sister-in-law and best friend Setsuko is the MVP of Wang’s breakout success. While Misaki makes her arduous journey, Setsuko is a supportive, optimistic presence, a woman who knows how to love and value herself despite the repressive gender roles of the society she lives in and, through example, helps Misaki learn the same. As Maya Angelou might put it, she is a woman, phenomenally. We should all have a Setsuko in our lives.

4. Jane and Katherine, Deathless Divide (Justina Ireland)

Side by side on the cover of the book, Jane and Katherine appear to be the prototypical “Tomboy and Girly-Girl,” yet their story reveals them to be beyond category. Jane is all uncompromising toughness and hard-edged humor, messy and often unreasonable, yet she’s driven by her strong moral code, and she’s far more capable of great love and loyalty than she likes to let on. Katherine is overtly more sympathetic, often wearing her kind and generous nature on her sleeve. Yet even though, as the cover makes clear, she’s very ladylike in her deportment, she’s every bit as kick-ass as Jane, every bit as active and defiant in the face of evil. The two friends share a spot on this list, because it’s together that they shine most brightly.

5. Tarasai, Raybearer (Jordan Ifueko)

If I had the chance to buy and gift one of the books I read this year to every single friend and follower I have, it would be this one; if it were within my power to make Jordan Ifueko as bit a YA fantasy superstar as Sarah J. Maas, Saaba Tahir, Tomi Adeyemi, and Cassandra Clare, I’d do it in a minute. Her debut novel is rich in complexity of plot, character, and world, and its protagonist, Tarasai, is smart, powerful, curious, courageous, and decent. She isn’t without flaws, but when she makes mistakes, she owns them and tries to correct them. Unlike (IMO) too many YA fantasy heroines, she doesn’t deliberately act like a jerk to the people around her.

6. Csorwe, The Unspoken Name (A.K. Larkwood); Xiala, Black Sun (Rebecca Roanhorse); Shefali, The Tiger’s Daughter (K. Arsenault Rivera).

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: monster heroines — women who are not quite human and at least a little bit scary — are my jam, and this year I got to know three splendid ones: the ogreish Csorwe, with her tusks and her defiance of “destiny” and her slow-burn romance; the merwoman Xiala, with her seagoing swagger and her sea-controlling powers and her slow-burn romance; and Shefali. with her. . . I can’t say too much because I want to recommend the book rather than spoil it, so I’ll settle for pointing out that she ends up being the scariest of all of them and her romance is the stuff of legends. I’m not the type of reader who insists that every book she reads absolutely must have a romantic plot or subplot, but it does make me smile that all these monstrous heroines, in their scary glory, are valued and loved.

7. Angela Abar, Watchmen (HBO)

When it comes to movie and TV characters, my reasons for loving a character may be a bit on the shallow side. In the case of the indomitable superhero protagonist of Watchmen, aside from Regina King’s stalwart, magnetic performance — I just love her crime-fighting outfit! The trousers and boots and long black coat ensemble is my favorite superheroine outfit ever, and perfect for the heroine this dark, gritty, and involving story requires.

8. Sylvia Tilley, Star Trek: Discovery (CBS)

Neuro-atypical heroes of any gender are regrettably rare, though when they do appear, they tend to be male. It’s refreshing to see this kind of character in female guise for a change, but that’s not the only reason that the awkward, over-eager Tilley is precious to me. She reminds me so much of myself as a teen: wanting friends, wanting to fit in yet not quite knowing how. Yet I can only wish I’d been half as brilliant, generous, and open-hearted as she is. She kicks butt and surprises people while doing it. Over the course of three seasons, she’s shown that underestimating her is a bad idea, and has won the respect and friendship of her colleagues.

9. The cast of Hamilton (Disney+)

Calling them “fictional” is a stretch, but I couldn’t leave them out. Watching the film of the Original Broadway Cast was simply too big a highlight of my 2020 for me not to acknowledge it. This one lives up to the hype.

10. Navani Kholin, Rhythm of War (Brandon Sanderson)

I’m still in the midst of the fourth doorstopper volume of the Stormlight Archive series, but my favorite thing about it so far has been seeing Navani, a supporting player in the previous books, step into the limelight as a co-protagonist. Navani is super-smart, endlessly curious, resourceful, and well past her prime — in short, a wonderful heroine for me to spend time with as I face mid-life.

The Christmas Movie Gender Gap

I have a confession to make: I have never watched A Christmas Story. Here’s another one: I don’t plan to.

I know plenty of women who love the film, but for me it’s always come across clearly as a story about guys, for guys. Maybe it’s that ridiculous, tasteless “leg lamp” that we’re apparently meant to find funny. Or maybe it’s the absence of girls from any substantial roles. Or maybe it’s because it features only two women of significance: the downtrodden killjoy mother and the shrewish killjoy teacher, both obstacles to protagonist Ralphie getting his heart’s desire, a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.

But a few days ago I thought to myself, “Surely a holiday tradition so beloved can’t be that sexist, can it?” So I did some Googling, and I discovered the movie may be even worse than I’d imagined where its representation of female characters is concerned. It seems that hidden under the narrative of Ralphie’s quest for a BB gun Christmas present is another, darker story, of a woman so disregarded that she “hasn’t had a hot meal in fifteen years,” a woman who does her level best with the hand life has dealt her yet gets no respect whatsoever. That’s the story the movie doesn’t expect its viewers to notice, let alone think or care about.

Well, it’s just a movie, and no one is going to tie me to a chair and force me to watch it. No big deal, right? The trouble is that when I think over those modern (1980s and after) Christmas movies that have either become classics of stand poised to become so, I find that almost none of them focus on girls or women. The best-known holiday heroes, from Santa to Scrooge to Jack Skellington, are all male. Even the ones I love most — not only The Nightmare Before Christmas but also Trading Places, Arthur Christmas, and Klaus — center on male leads. (When Matt and I rewatched Arthur Christmas last year, I was shocked at the number of off-hand sexist remarks I’d apparently blocked from my memory; a dash of misogyny is hardly a welcome spice, particularly in a narrative where the offender is unlikely to learn any better.)

According to my Googling, the picture for female representation in quality Christmas movies isn’t completely bleak. Thrillist’s 50 Best Christmas Movies includes Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, and Tangerine, featuring two trans women protagonists, both of which I still need to check out. Rotten Tomatoes’ list of 62 Best Christmas Movies of All Time tips its hat to both the 1994 and 2019 adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women as well as other potential gems I haven’t seen yet, Happy Christmas and Anna and the Apocalypse, and the brand-new Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, which we recently watched and enjoyed. Yet even after looking over the list, I still can’t help feeling a bit disheartened.

First, there’s the issue of quantity. Of the fifty best Christmas movies mentioned by Thrillist, only six have female protagonists or co-protagonists, and of those, only three were made after 1980. Among Rotten Tomatoes’ sixty-two movies listed, only fourteen have girls or women as central characters. That leaves a substantial majority in which female characters serve as mothers, love interests, and/or Hero Support.

Second, most of the exceptions, the movies with female central characters, have romance as the main thrust of their plots. Apparently, in the movies, the only way a woman can truly get into the Christmas spirit is by finding love. In the “cheesy” holiday movies ground out by Hallmark and Lifetime’s assembly line, the woman usually surrenders to Christmas by abandoning her big city job (because evidently, cities don’t celebrate Christmas) and settling down to a quiet, small-town, domestic experience as Ralphie’s mom; 1940s classics like Remember the Night, Christmas in Connecticut, The Shop Around the Corner, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Miracle on 34th Street seem positively enlightened by comparison. (It helps that these films feature something rarely seen in the modern made-for-cable stuff: good writing and acting.) Yet even when they’re good, should romances be the only kind of female-led Christmas story we see? Carol and the new Happiest Season at least challenge heteronormity, but even so, it’s past time for the writers of holiday films to broaden their concepts of what female characters’ Christmas experiences might involve.

This narrow idea of What a Woman’s Christmas Is All About may be one cause, direct or unconscious, of my third point of dissatisfaction: a noticeable lack of young girls as protagonists of the best-loved and most highly acclaimed Christmas movies. 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street may stand the test of time — and despite only netting him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Edmund Gwenn’s Kris Kringle is the real protagonist, with little Natalie Wood being off screen for most of the film’s second half — but among modern films there simply is no girl-centric equivalent, at least in terms of popularity, to A Christmas Story or Home Alone. Of those that do focus on girls, many just aren’t very good (e.g. Eloise at Christmastime, All I Want for Christmas, the ill-advised remakes of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and, despite the talent involved, Mrs. Santa Claus), and others, despite their quality, fail to catch on (e.g. 1991’s The Story Lady, which centers on three generations of female characters with nary a romance in sight). While it may be that if the female protagonist of a Christmas movie is too young to fall in love, audiences aren’t interested, but more likely the problem can be put down to the old, infuriating “conventional wisdom” that while stories about boys are for everyone, stories about girls will only appeal to girls. I do have some hope that Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, which features a very resourceful and likable young heroine, might make some lasting impact. Fingers crossed.

There’s not much we can do about the existing body of Christmas films. Nor do I mean to suggest we should throw out all the guy-focused holiday favorites: “it’s not for me” does not and will never translate into “it shouldn’t be for anyone.” I only mean to point out a gap that talented writers might fill in the years to come. We need worthier female-centered holiday stories, and we need people willing to write them.

Here is an offering of mine.

Weighing In on the Impossibility of Lists

Part I

TIME Magazine has posted a list of the “100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time,” as determined by a panel of fantasy authors including N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman, Sabaa Tahir, Tomi Adeyemi, Diana Gabaldon, George R.R. Martin, Cassandra Clare, and Marlon James. In the world of geek social media, this list — as might be expected for any list claiming to name the “best fantasy books of all time” — has drawn a good bit of criticism.

Some have accused the list of “recency bias,” of ignoring older titles by such authors as Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and Gene Wolfe in favor of recent works that, they argue, simply haven’t been around long enough to be considered “best of all time.” Since one of the markers for consideration is influence, this argument makes sense. But if we’re going on quality alone, an excellent book should have a shot at inclusion regardless of when it was published. Recent books on a list like this serve a clear purpose: to demonstrate how the genre has evolved, as well as where it might be headed. My issue isn’t so much with the inclusion of recent books as with the choice of which recent books to include — but more on that later.

Others have looked askance at the decision to include multiple works by the same authors, while other important and deserving names have been pushed off the list altogether. This I agree with. I would never be so foolish as to suggest Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings shouldn’t be on a Best Fantasy of All Time list; on influence alone, if nothing else, its inclusion is indisputable. But why a spot for each book in the series, when Tolkien himself regarded it as a single narrative entity? It should be given a single spot, rather than three. Likewise, LeGuin’s Earthsea and Jemisin’s Broken Earth should be honored as series, not as individual books. This would leave room for at least a few other deserving titles.

Then we have the most common and inevitable complaint about lists of this kind: “Where are my favorites?” Some have protested the omission of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive; others decry the absence of Erikson’s Malazan; still others look in vain for an entry from Cook’s The Black Company; and so forth, and so on. Here, I admit, lies my own greatest personal dissatisfaction with the list. It may have “recency bias” in favor of works from a time when the genre’s authors and characters are not so overwhelmingly white and male, but where is Robin Hobb? Where are Kate Elliott, Barbara Hambly, Juliet Marillier, Martha Wells, Patricia McKillip, and Lois McMaster Bujold? Where are Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Spinning Silver, one a Hugo winner and the other a highly regarded nominee? The superb Octavia Butler may be regarded as more of a science fiction writer than a fantasy writer, but if Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight belongs on this list, why not Kindred or Wild Seed? I can’t agree with those who sneer at the inclusion of YA titles on the list, but even in YA, what’s good (e.g. Ifueko’s Raybearer, Ireland’s Dread Nation/ Deathless Divide, Soria’s Iron Cast, Croggon’s The Books of Pellinor) seem to have been ignored in favor of what’s popular.

And therein lies a problem that can’t be escaped: the impossibility of gathering a panel of experts who would be familiar with everything in the genre they’re trying to determine the best of. It hasn’t escaped the attention of the list’s critics that works in translation are almost entirely absent from the list; moreover, particularly where the recent books are concerned, almost every work included is by an American author. Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens still stands out in my mind as one of the finest works of historical fantasy I’ve ever read, but it’s virtually unknown in this country. Moreover, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that none of the panelists are familiar with Juliet Marillier’s work. Thus “best” tends to mean “best known,” and I’m not sure what might be done to change that.

Yet while all such lists are flawed, most of them manage to get at least a few choices right. Here are just some of the works I was happy to see included:

The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster) — While I’d normally resist a children’s fantasy book as heavily male-centric as this one, this one is just too darn delightful for me to hold that against it.

The Last Unicorn (Peter S. Beagle) — This book contains some of the most stunning yet simple prose I’ve ever read.

Watership Down (Richard Adams) — I’ve written previously about this one.

The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter) — Here’s one of the most enjoyably feminist items on the entire list; these short stories helped cement my taste for fairy-tale retellings.

Good Omens (Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman) — This is one of the few contemporary-set fantasies I genuinely enjoy.

Spindle’s End (Robin McKinley) — This lovely retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” one of my most disliked fairy tales, too often gets ignored in favor of Beauty, The Blue Sword, and The Hero and the Crown. It’s nice to see it recognized as it deserves.

Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor) — This one knocked me breathless when I first read it, and remains, along with Butler’s Kindred, one of the most disturbing-in-a-good-way books I’ve ever read.

Circe (Madeline Miller) — I fell in love with the writing and characterization of this one within the first twenty-five pages.

Empire of Sand (Tasha Suri) and Gods of Jade and Shadow (Silvia Moreno-Garcia) — As recent as they may be, these two works do something all too rare in the fantasy genre: they get the romance right.

Coming Next: Building My Own List.

It’s (Past) Time for Girls to Matter

My home state of Georgia has earned a measure of infamy for its various public school systems’ handling of the COVID-19 crisis as they proceed with Fall Semester. I can empathize with their dilemma, as their choices seem limited to one that sucks (to open up even though enforcing safe social distancing is all but impossible) and one that sucks less (to continue with virtual learning). But when school officials claim they can’t possibly enforce a mask mandate because the decision to wear or not to wear a mask constitutes a “personal choice” that should not be interfered with, I can only roll my eyes and groan. As has been pointed out frequently on social media, this constitutes rank hypocrisy, since school systems interfere with students’ fashion choices all the time, most often when those students happen to be girls. Evidently a girl in a miniskirt constitutes a greater danger to campus health than a maskless boy jostling and elbowing his way down a crowded corridor between classes.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve always disliked skimpy clothing. When I was in my early teens, my mom had to fight to get me into a pair of shorts during the summers. I’ve mellowed quite a bit since then, but I still find concealing outfits nicer to look at than revealing ones. (I feel this way about men’s clothing as well as women’s; Speedos do nothing for me.) But, with apologies to Voltaire, even if I don’t like what you’re wearing, I will defend to the death your right to wear it, especially when I consider just whom most school dress codes are intended to support and protect. What girl would imagine the school has her best interests at heart when the principal orders her to go home and change out of a short skirt and into a pair of jeans? She’s more likely to feel humiliated than cared for. This kind of thing is done for the sake of the boys whose attention might wander if the girls in their classroom show their legs, shoulders, etc. The idea is that boys will lose all self-control if they’re forced to look at girls’ exposed skin — the same logic behind the burka.

What do girls learn from this? That boys and their interests come first. That boys will carry the future that the students are being prepared for. That boys matter more.

It’s the same message I got while growing up and watching movies where boys got to save the galaxy, travel through time, stop nuclear war, and challenge evil rulers, while the only battles girls got to fight had much lower stakes and were generally domestic-centered. It’s the message I got from family sitcoms where the funniest, most charismatic characters, the ones the audience adored, were always boys. Popular culture has made tremendous strides since then in the direction of inclusion, but as Jacqueline Carey points out, we still have a good distance to go.

But even if entertainment doesn’t drive home the point that boys count in ways that girls don’t, news of the real world can do the job. Recently, the Jeffrey Epstein scandal has come back into the news, as his alleged procurer, Ghislaine Maxwell, has been arrested. Not many crime stories sadden me quite as much as Epstein’s. How was he able to keep his “Lolita Express” in business, servicing powerful men of all backgrounds and political ideologies? That question preys on my mind every time I see a picture of Ghislaine Maxwell standing next to President Trump or ex-President Clinton, and the only answer I can find is that Epstein and Maxwell were able to keep their game running because not enough people thought the girls mattered enough to interfere with the men’s fun. Men’s money was chosen over girls’ well-being, until the list of victims was simply too long to be ignored.

The news repeats the same story ad nauseum, with only the names changing — from Harvey Weinstein to R. Kelly to Bill Cosby to Matt Lauer to Louis C.K. and on and on and on. And girls are watching this, learning from it. Just how many books by Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, movies like Moana and Wonder Woman, and TV shows like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is it going to take to counteract the poison of that oft-repeated story?

The daydreams we offer to girls have much power to do good, but fiction can’t carry all the weight. We have to start thinking about what we’re really saying to girls in the behavior we applaud, the behavior we excuse, and the policies we set — including school systems’ selective policing of what their students wear.

It’s past time to start telling girls that they count.

Book Report: Recent Reads

The True Queen

At the story’s outset, author Zen Cho introduces us to two sisters. There’s Sakti, tall, beautiful, replete with magic, and more than a bit temperamental and selfish. Then there’s Muna, smaller, less beautiful, and distinctly unmagical; she’s also the one who does the heavy lifting in the sisters’ close relationship. Sakti longs for experience, to escape the “tyranny” of their mentor, Mak Genggang; Muna, by contrast, is a patient homebody. A little familiarity with such earlier fantasy fiction as Gail Carson Levine’s The Two Princesses of Bamarre should clue the reader in to which of the girls will prove to be the story’s hero, and sure enough, as they pass through the land of Faery on their way to England, where hopefully they’ll discover the secret to lifting the curse upon them, Sakti disappears, and Muna must carry on alone, not only to undo the curse but to save her sister.

Muna, who as previously mentioned lacks magic, must somehow present herself as a powerful sorceress to gain entry to England’s foremost — well, only — school for female magicians, run by Sorceress Royal Prunella Gentleman Wythe (the heroine of Cho’s previous novel, Sorcerer to the Crown). As she taps into a reserve of resourcefulness to keep up the charade and to search for answers, we readers come to realize two things: 1) we really only care about rescuing Sakti because Muna does, and 2) Sakti’s disappearance is actually the best thing that could have happened to Muna, as it gives her a chance to discover who she is, and what she can do, outside the shadow of her oh-so-special sister. Resourcefulness is perhaps my favorite trait in a hero, and Muna’s time in England and her return trip to Faery win me firmly to her side. Like Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins, Muna has more about her than she or anyone else guesses. The truth about herself and her sister reveals she is far from the ordinary girl she always thought herself. While on the surface this resembles plenty of YA fantasy narratives that depict their heroines learning they have supernatural powers — Goodreads and other internet reviewers coined the term “special snowflake” to describe these girls long before the alt-right got hold of it — Cho handles the trope with skill, and Muna’s eventual discovery of her specialness feels earned.

The book includes a romantic subplot, as Muna and Prunella’s best friend and fellow instructress, Henrietta Stapleton, are drawn to each other. Here again we see Cho’s strength, as she deftly navigates away from the most annoying cliches. Finding love is part of Muna’s journey rather than the whole of it, and Henrietta is not simply a Satellite Love Interest to be left on the sidelines till the hero is ready to settle down. She has a character arc of her own, and she’s at Muna’s side on her return journey to Faery, playing a vital role in her adventures, including the rescue of an imprisoned dragon. In Henrietta, Muna finds someone who can give her the love and support she deserves, and that makes me smile.

Some might ask, is it necessary to read Sorcerer to the Crown in order to understand The True Queen? Not really. Muna’s journey can be followed without prior knowledge of Prunella’s struggles in the previous novel to win the right to practice magic, for herself and all women. But why would you want to skip it? I admit I enjoyed the sequel a little bit better than I did the first one. In Sorcerer, we have to read through fifty-odd pages before we meet Prunella, at which point I became fully engaged in the story; this one, which introduces its protagonist at the beginning, had me invested from the get-go. Also, since Muna is a more empathetic heroine than the brilliant, dauntless, but slightly chilly Prunella, the book as a whole has a bit more warmth to it. But Sorcerer is, nonetheless, a fine work, and the two novels together form a tribute to Cho’s talent and range as a writer. I look forward to seeing what she has in store for us next.

Down with Default

What role does the artist play in times of socio-political turmoil? I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. And all my thoughts keep turning back to my old nemesis, The Default.

We have to dismantle the Default. I’ve written about it before, but now, in light of recent events, tearing it down brick by brick feels like a more urgent task, to which we must apply ourselves with conscious effort.

Just to reiterate: what is the Default? The way it works in fiction is that whenever the sexual orientation, race, or gender of a character has no bearing on the plot, that character defaults to a white, straight male. Through the Default, we get an overabundance of characters — not just protagonists, but characters in general — who are white, straight males. Most writers who employ the Default aren’t trying overtly to be racists, sexist, or homophobic. The Default works on an unconscious level, which is why it will take quite a lot of work to eliminate.

The Default is one of the key roots of privilege.

When 95% of movies made, along with at least that percentage of the books we study in school, are about you, privilege naturally follows.

When stories depict you as “normal,” while everyone of a different race, gender, or sexual orientation is shown to be a deviation from “normal,” privilege naturally follows.

When you can play any role in a story, while the roles played by those who differ from you are dictated by their race, gender, or sexual orientation — because there must always be a reason why a character is black, female, gay, or trans — privilege naturally follows.

When stories about you are considered universal, while stories about others are deemed “niche,” privilege naturally follows. This is perhaps the Default’s most insidious aspect. Readers of color, female readers, and gay readers are constantly asked, through their school years and after, to identify and empathize with straight white male protagonists. Yet if you’re a member of the Default, not only is the same effort not required of you, it’s not even expected.

The kind of racial violence we see in the murders of George Floyd and Ahmad Arbery is the extreme end result of this failure of empathy. It’s entirely too easy to brutalize someone you’ve been taught all your life, not only by elders and peers but by the stories you take in, to regard as “Other,” as not “normal,” as not part of “Us” but part of “Them.”

We need to start telling better stories. We can only do that once we become aware of the role the Default might play in the characters we develop. I include myself in this. I came of age on a steady diet of 19th century British fiction, classic black-and-white movies, and Masterpiece Theatre, which has shaped the way I imagine my characters. I may have been challenging the Default when it comes to gender, but I need to do more when it comes to race.

This is no quick fix. It’s a long game. But the more we set our minds to the problem, the stronger the groundwork we’ll lay for those who come after us, so that in time every well-written story, whatever the protagonist’s race, gender, or sexual orientation might be, will be perceived as universal, and empathy for those different from us will be expected of everyone.

In the meantime, my plan, once I’ve finished the books I’m currently reading, is to spend the rest of 2020 reading only books by authors of color (except for the new Stormlight Archive novel; that I have to read as soon as it comes out this fall). I have quite a list: Gods of Jade and Shadow (Silvia Garcia Moreno), The True Queen (Zen Cho), The Tiger’s Daughter (K. Arsenault Rivera), The Ghost Bride (Yangzee Choo), Song of Blood and Stone (L. Penelope), Parable of the Talents (Octavia Butler), Deathless Divide (Justina Ireland), The City of Brass (S. A. Chakraboty), House of Binding Thorns (Aliette de Bodard), Brown Girl in the Ring and The Salt Roads (Nalo Hopkinson), Everfair (Nisi Shawl), Children of Virtue and Vengeance (Tomi Adeyemi), Shadow of the Fox (Julie Kagawa), Dragon Sword and Wind Child (Noriko Ogiwara), The Bloodprint (Ausma Zehanat Khan), Flame in the Mist (Renee Ahdieh), and books from the considerable bodies of work of Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, and Michelle West. I’m on the hunt for new authors to try, so recommendations are welcome.

The Invisibility of Mothers and Daughters

Another May is with us, and another Mother’s Day has just gone by. Every year, Mother’s Day brings multiple salutes to the mothers of fiction, both good and bad. Reddit Fantasy — a site I frequent because despite Reddit’s reputation, a good many insightful discussions take place there, and its moderators take the “Be Kind” rule seriously — offered a thread where members could post about their favorite mothers and mother figures of fantasy, good or evil or both. Since parents are hard to find in most fantasy fiction, I was interested to learn what people would say.

Some of the “best moms” mentioned included Molly Weasley (Harry Potter), Lady Patience (Hobb, Farseer), Cordelia Vorkosigan (Bujold, The Vorkosigan Saga), Misaki (Wang, The Sword of Kaigen), Phedre (Carey, Imriel’s Trilogy), Mrs. Frisby (O’Brien, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH), Sally Jackson (Riordan, Percy Jackson and the Olympians), Tavi’s mother (Butcher, Codex Alera), and Polgara (Eddings, The Belgariad). As name after name rolled by, I started to notice a couple of things.

One, while fantasy fiction may include more mothers and mother figures than might have been previously thought, it could still do better. In particular, it could give us more mothers as protagonists and co-protagonists in their own right, rather than relegating them to supporting parts in someone else’s stories. Women don’t suddenly stop being interesting people with stories worth telling the moment they become mothers, and fantasy writers need to realize this.

Also, I couldn’t help seeing that the vast majority of the “best moms,” particularly those moms who claim substantial space in the narratives, are mothers of sons.

Polgara, Cordelia, Sally Jackson, Tavi’s mother, and Patience are raising male heroes. Phedre, the central character of the first Kushiel trilogy, raises a male hero in the second. Mikasi, a splendid character in a very good book, has four sons, no daughters. Mrs. Frisby has daughters, but it’s to save her son that she goes on her hero’s quest. (The passing thought she gives to her oldest daughter is to dismiss her as empty-headed.) Likewise, despite her climactic “Not my daughter, you bitch!” moment, Molly Weasley spends a majority of her page time throughout the series acting as Ron’s mother, not Ginny’s. This makes sense, since Ron is the more important character, but still it makes her part of the pattern rather than an exception to it.

Why do we see so few characters being awesome mothers to daughters?

I considered some of my favorite reads over the last several years, checking my memory for some positive mother-daughter interactions. One stood out: Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy, in which protagonist Amalia’s mother grooms her to follow in her political footsteps. Amalia’s relationship with her impressive, exacting, and often intimidating mother is given a good bit of attention, especially in Book 1, The Tethered Mage. Theirs is a complicated bond, and yet for all the tension between them at times, I never had cause to doubt their love and affection for each other. Even more remarkably, Amalia’s mother is still alive at the end of the trilogy. We have every reason to believe she will continue to be a supportive guide and occasional source of frustration for her daughter.

When I tried to think of similar relationships in other books, however, I found myself disappointed.

The acclaimed trilogy with the most obviously central mother-daughter relationship is N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo-winning trilogy The Broken Earth. Over the course of the series, Jemisin develops both Essun (mother) and Nassun (daughter) as intriguing, complicated characters. But while Essun clearly loves her daughter — she spends most of the books trying to find her again after they were separated — she shows her almost no affection, so that when the two finally do reunite, they’re practically enemies. In the search for fantasy fiction’s Mother of the Year, it’s doubtful Essun would crack the top fifty.

Then I considered another fantasy series I love, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion, specifically The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls. These two books give us three generations of women: The Provincara, Ista, and Iselle. It sounds like an ideal set-up for mother/daughter bonding, right? If only they actually shared more than 5% of total page time. In Paladin of Souls, Ista expresses her love for her daughter Iselle, and we believe her because she is a character we trust. But we never see them interact. All the affection between them is kept off page, making them a less than satisfying contrast to the story’s villain, a monstrous mother who subjects her daughter to torture for the sake of her ambitions for her son.

Another series I love, Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, also comes up short. Two supporting characters, Navani and Jasnah Kholin, are pretty okay with each other for the most part, but they, too, share almost no page time, particularly when contrasted with the complex but sympathetic bonds between father Dalinar and sons Adolin and Renarin, as well as between Kaladin and his surgeon father. Then we have Shallan, our female lead, who has only ever been loved by men (brothers, fiance, father who was abusive to everyone but her). As a child she kills her mother in self-defense, and her relationship with her stepmother is just as toxic. So, no Mothers of the Year here. Sanderson’s work is not completely lacking in complicated-but-loving relationships between mothers and daughters, but you have to look to his (excellent) short story, “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell,” to see such a relationship given any substantial focus.

After my mental search let me down, I went back to r/fantasy and started a thread of my own, asking, “Why are good mother/daughter relationships in fantasy so rare?” As you can see from this link, I got quite a few responses.

Some posters pointed out books that had good, sympathetic depictions of mother-daughter relationships: Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Patricia McKillip’s Cygnet duology, Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series (particularly those books that focus on Queen Selenay and Princess Elspeth), Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow, and Ursula LeGuin’s Tehanu. These posts, naturally, made me happiest.

Others argued that all parent-child relationships are underrepresented in fantasy, since the absence of parents facilitates young protagonists’ following the call to adventure. I see that point, I really do. But it still seems to me that mother-daughter bonds, and as well as bonds between young women and mother figures, get less attention from the genre than parental connections of other kinds — father/son, father/daughter, mother/son — as if a male character must be in the picture in order for the relationship to matter. Some posters did point this out.

Others noted that the scarcity of mothers in fantasy fiction might be due to society’s expectation that mothers should be paragons of perfection, not flawed, not complicated, and therefore not interesting from a fictional perspective. If mother characters are less than perfect, one poster writes, they “earn titles of nagging hags and evil matriarchs.” If a number of writers decided to make it easy on themselves by omitting mother characters altogether, it honestly wouldn’t surprise me.

Then there were the saddest points of all, those that claimed good mother-daughter relationships are rare in fantasy because they are rare in real life. I’m still not certain how to respond to this one, except to say that no one should have to grow up with toxic parents. Art imitates life, but then, as Oscar Wilde famously said, life imitates art. A lack of representation of healthy relationships between women could play no small part in the social conditioning that leads many women to see each other, even their own daughters, as rivals.

The worst part of this lack is that we may not even be aware it, until or unless someone calls our attention to it. I didn’t think about it when I crafted my current work-in-progress to give my female protagonist a dead mother and a neglectful stepmother, though she does have a sympathetic female mentor. However, my next planned work, a gender-bent take on George Eliot’s Silas Marner, will focus heavily on a mother-daughter connection. I can hardly wait to see it take shape.

I’m far from the only one who has questioned the comparative absence of mother-daughter relationships from fantasy. Sarah Kozloff and Aliette de Bodard have insights that are well worth reading.

 

What’s Keeping Me Sane: April 2020

Over the past few years, I’ve tended to preface my posts about things that make me happy with some variation of, “We’re living in hard times, so the things that give us joy are all the more precious.” Since I’ve gotten into that habit, times haven’t gotten much better. Instead, they’ve gotten worse. Right now, they’re about as bad as they’ve ever been in my lifetime. I don’t know of anyone who isn’t suffering, at least on some level, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Beyond a doubt, our lives have changed, and we’ve been seeking out ways not only to stay healthy but to make life bearable within our social-distancing cocoons.

My surest lifeline has always been, and (I know now) always will be, fiction — stories that become a part of my consciousness even as they direct my focus outward, away from the anxieties that threaten to cripple me. When stories take my imagination on journeys beyond the here and now, I feel how much more there is to life than this present moment. Even though it can sometimes seem like it, I — we — won’t be stuck here forever.

My husband, the best quarantine companion I could ask for, has suggested to me that we should each share with one another movies and TV shows that the other hasn’t seen. First up (I’d seen it, he hadn’t) was a DVD set of the late 1970s classic miniseries I, Claudius. I’d forgotten just how involving this superb piece of historical fiction is. If it were fantasy, it would doubtless be labeled grimdark, since the ancient Rome it depicts is smotheringly decadent, all its characters are deeply flawed (Derek Jacobi’s noble but often foolish title character and Brian Blessed’s blustering but good-nature Augustus being the most sympathetic), and most of them are downright evil. But the series is so well-acted, and the dialogue so smart and often darkly funny, that I love it anyway. Perhaps I just find grimdark more entertaining on the screen than on the page. After we’d finished the series, Matt showed me Robert Altman’s The Player, a story nearly as cynical and bitter, set in modern-day Hollywood. Though I’ll never love it quite as I do I, Claudius, I found it fascinating.

Now, however, we’ve started binge-watching a series as different as can be imagined: Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock. I still find it the most delightfully girl-friendly family show of the 1980s, with the absence of gender prejudice in the Fraggle community and the presence of fun characters like the hyper-energetic Red, the dreamy Mokey, the lore-keeping Storyteller, and, perhaps most unique of all, the oracular Marjory the Trash Heap. Marjory is like the Sibyl of Greco-Roman mythology, but she also happens to be a gigantic sentient pile of garbage with a heart of pure gold. She gets some of the best moments in the first few episodes.

And, of course, I have my books.

Two I have recently finished, Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, are Hugo nominees for Best Novel, and I can confirm both nominations are richly deserved. I would be happy if either won. January, with its sparking prose, its flawed but smart and imaginative protagonist, and its story of doorways between worlds and a struggle between those who would open the doors and those who would see those doors destroyed, has my heart. Empire, with its more mature and level-headed protagonist trying to navigate a labyrinth of I, Claudius-like politics while remaining true to herself and her mission as Ambassador, has my head. Both have set a high bar for my remaining reads of the year.

Yet all the books I’m currently reading stand a chance of meeting that bar, or at least coming near it. Here’s a run-down:

The Sword of Kaigen (M.L. Wang)

Fantasy readers tired of the same old medieval-European settings should find much to intrigue them here. In Kaigen, we find technology akin to modern- day but cultural mores that resemble medieval Japan. It is, alas, one of those fantasy cultures where simply being born a woman is a great misfortune, and the degrading misogyny to which heroine Misaki is subjected by her repellent husband and even more loathsome father-in-law is quite painful to read about. But Misaki has iron within. Husband and father-in-law don’t succeed in wearing away her sense of self-worth. Just when it seems like they might, help enters the scene in the unlikely form of her cheerful, indomitable sister-in-law, Setsuko. I’m admittedly not far in — around 30%, and it’s a long book — but already Wang has depicted relationships between women as powerful. That, the strong prose, and the protagonist keep me reading, despite my discomfort with the misogyny level.

The Winged Histories (Sofia Samatar)

This is one of those books that envelops a reader slowly. It takes time to figure out just what plotline its characters are moving through. We learn names, but only over time does it become clear how they fit into the larger picture. Samatar’s interest is, first and foremost, character — specifically, four different women affected by a military conflict. Through their voices and their observations, she shows us who they are, employing some of the most exquisite prose I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I’m taking my time with this one. Samatar’s writing style, much like Patricia McKillip’s, demands an observant, reflective read.

A Brightness Long Ago (Guy Gavriel Kay)

Kay’s prose is not quite as intricate as Samatar’s, but it’s nonetheless beautiful and involving. He takes a broader approach to the military conflict in his story, so that it’s the least intimate of my current reads. Yet I’m intrigued by the canvas he unveils and the characters that move through it. To my satisfaction, Kay has improved at writing female characters since the days of the not-that-great-in-this-regard Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. In one sequence, a female healer saves the life of an injured woman who has just assassinated a perverted, murderous aristocrat. As the recovered patient takes her leave, the healer reflects: “It was a good thing. . . that there were women working to widen the world in different ways. They could nod at each other in passing, in recognition, then carry on expanding what was allowed” (105). It’s one of the most hopeful passages I’ve read from a book set in a society with limiting gender roles.

The Unspoken Name (A.K. Larkwood)

(SPOILER ALERT)

Csorwe is not your usual female protagonist. For one thing, she isn’t exactly human. (She has tusks! Tusks, I tell you!) For another, at the start of her story she’s closer to anti-heroine than heroine: she’s not quite sure what she believes in, and her sole emotional tie is to a mentor of rather dubious character. She works to help him accomplish his goals without bothering to question whether those goals are right or just. But that’s what makes her so intriguing. She has a moral journey to make. In the latest scene I’ve read, she is forced to choose between claiming the object her mentor sent her to retrieve or saving the life of an innocent captive. It’s her “All right, I’ll go to Hell!” (Huckleberry Finn) moment, in which she breaks the code she’s been trained to obey and shows us she has the stuff of heroes in her before she sees it herself. I can’t wait to see where her journey takes her next.

I’ll let A.K. Larkwood herself have the final word.

 

 

 

Who Loves the Creative Woman?

One of my favorite animated features, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, opens with its hero, Victor, sketching a butterfly and then setting it free from the elegant glass dome that imprisons it. We see his pen sweeping over the paper, bringing the work of art into the world with soulful concentration. Later he watches as his subject takes wing and disappears, and he’s left with the memory he created. This establishes his character from the get-go, a gentle, awkward, introspective artist. A couple of scenes later, when he goes with his parents to meet his future in-laws, we learn that in matters artistic, Victor is twice blessed: he also plays the piano, and brilliantly too.

It’s here that we meet his love interest, Victoria, whose name suggests she is (or should be) his female counterpart. In some respects, she is. Like him, she’s shy and awkward. Like him, she doesn’t feel valued by those who should be closest to her. She also shares at least some degree of his soulfulness, as she’s drawn to the beauty of the music he’s playing. What she does not share, alas, is his creative ability. She doesn’t play the piano, her mother having deemed music “too passionate” for a young lady. It’s a safe bet she doesn’t sketch butterflies, either; the most “creative” thing we see her do is mend a blanket, which is framed as more like 19th century housework than art. Here, the ability to make art is a guy thing, something Victoria will love her husband for but never do herself.

This movie offers one of the more palatable (for me, anyway) examples of the Creative Man/Commonplace Woman trope, seen everywhere from Big Fish to Phantom Thread to Coco, in which making art is coded as male, particularly when it’s said to rise to the level of genius. Some of the women in this trope, like Victoria and the wife in Big Fish who is so colorless and underwritten that her name escapes me, find a measure of happiness with their artists. Others, like the “Muse” in Phantom Thread, suffer for loving the art-obsessed genius. But in all cases, we see the women drawn to the creative greatness of their men while aspiring to nothing similar in themselves. And for the most part, their men like them just as they are, simple and ordinary.

So what happens to the creative woman? A few of her are sprinkled here and there among the many men whose burning desire to create will not be squelched. The titular Corpse Bride does play the piano, and even duets with Victor in a delightful scene. But even though she’s drawn so that we like and sympathize with her, she can’t emerge the winner in the love triangle. For obvious reasons, the girl with the spark of creativity must give way to her ordinary rival.

Creative women, when they do appear in film and television, don’t tend to win romantic happily-ever-afters. The story of Emily Dickinson is already known; as told in A Quiet Passion, she secludes herself, suffering from an illness that grows steadily worse over the course of the film. The titular folk artist of Maudie does have a husband, but their relationship is problematic; he’s more hostile toward her art than supportive of it. In Crimson Peak, for aspiring novelist Edith, romance turns out to be a trap from which she barely escapes with her life. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, in a show of appeasement to editors and readers of its day, marries its creative spirit Jo March to an older man who doesn’t think much of her writing, and in the 2019 film adaptation, “Under the Umbrella” becomes Under the Question Mark, leading us to assume that like Alcott herself, Jo will go it alone. Meanwhile, her sister Amy, an ambitious painter, gets to marry the man she loves only after she has renounced her art.

For women on screen, are love and art incompatible? The 1980s miniseries Anne of Green Gables offers a counter-example, to a degree, but even there, the boy isn’t specifically won by the girl’s creativity. The only example I can think of in which a man is attracted to a woman’s art is 1954’s A Star Is Born, in which James Mason watches and listens to Judy Garland sing and both falls in love and perceives her genius — and that story ends in tragedy. For the most part, men aren’t shown to be drawn to creative greatness in women.

So it shouldn’t surprise me that my favorite movie about love and art doesn’t involve a man at all.

The 2019 French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire tells the story of Marianne, who comes to a remote island chateau to paint a portrait of a young aristocrat, Heloise, who has been called home from a convent following her sister’s death and now must marry to preserve her family’s fortunes. The portrait is meant to attract a husband, but Heloise, still shunning marriage, refuses to sit for it. Marianne must spend her days serving as Heloise’s walking companion and observing her in minute detail, and then commit all that she observes to canvas at night. It’s a job that, given the story’s late eighteenth century setting, only a female artist could do.

As the film progresses, Marianne and Heloise discover a spiritual kinship as well as sexual attraction; these are two women who genuinely enjoy each other’s company, and eventually, Heloise does consent to sit for Marianne. The screenplay rejects swoony romantic cliches in favor of realistic dialogue, as the women first feel each other out and then come to admire and love each other. The aura of romance isn’t conveyed by a musical score — the film doesn’t have one — but by the camera and lighting. The soft- focus beauty of each shot makes it clear we’re seeing a story of love, not mere lust. And all the while, art is being created, as we see the paintbrush stroke the canvas.

Of course, the 1780s having been what they were, we can’t expect happily ever after. Yet the tragic ending we might have thought was coming is avoided in favor of a realistic conclusion that feels almost happy by comparison. I won’t give too many details, as I want you, my readers, to see the movie. But overall, Marianne and Heloise lift each other up. Each is better for having known the other.

Now I’m left to see just how long I’ll have to wait for the next good movie that shows a woman artist at work.

 

The Most Frustrating Time of the Year

After Monday, January 13, a friend of mine posted a Tweet that the most wonderful time of the year had arrived — the time to complain about the Academy Award nominations for 2019’s crop of films. The complaints have hit so hard and fast that much of what I have to say on the subject may seem redundant.

But I can’t help myself. This year I really thought things would change, as I noted the release of a number of strong, well-reviewed movies with female characters at their center — The Farewell (98% on Rotten Tomatoes), Booksmart (97%), Little Women (95%), Knives Out (97%), and some I’ve yet to see, Us (93%), The Souvenir (90%), and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (97%). I couldn’t stop myself from hoping that scores like this would make these movies impossible for Oscar to ignore; surely, even given their long history of honoring man-centered movies, the voters might find just a little love in their hearts for high-quality stories about women.

They didn’t.

Of all the movies nominated for Best Picture, only Little Women focuses on female characters. The rest are about men. Some, like 1917, are simply about men — that is, male-character focused, but made without a specific demographic appeal in mind (e.g. The Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List, and 90% of all war movies, good and bad). Others, like Joker, The Irishman, and Once upon a Time in Hollywood, are not only about men but for men, designed specifically with a male audience in mind. Movies that are about men may exclude women from major roles due to the practicalities of their settings. In movies about men, for men, the exclusion, marginalization, or shallow/stereotypical characterization of women is part of the point. Obviously I’m not going to favor the latter type of movie with my time or money, so this may be a year in which the Best Picture Oscar goes to a movie I have no intention of seeing, ever. Since Little Women‘s chances are slim, Greta Gerwig having been denied a Best Director nomination, I now feel obliged to root for either 1917 or Parasite, both of which I will eventually see.

The all-male slate of Best Director nominees has already been discussed quite a bit, so I’ll keep it brief on that point, and only mention that when protests of the exclusion of women like Gerwig and The Farewell‘s Lulu Wang appeared on Twitter, they were shouted down by Tweets (mostly but not all from men) claiming that the nominees were chosen because they were the best, and quality matters more than diversity, and those of us who thought Gerwig or Wang deserving of Oscar’s attention are just loony leftists who need to “get over it.” I couldn’t help remembering a discussion that had gone on on Reddit Fantasy just a day or two earlier, concerning why so many women have been winning Hugo Awards of late. Quite a few posters suggested the choices were politically motivated, a reaction against the notorious “Sad Puppies” campaign a few years back. So if I understand this correctly–

Only men are nominated for, and have a chance to win, Best Director Oscars for 2019: It’s because they’re the best!

Mostly women have been nominated for, and won, recent Hugo Awards: It’s political.

Maybe that latter view isn’t altogether wrong. Perhaps all tastes, all preferences, have a touch of politics about them. My own preference for a story of a Chinese-American woman confronting cultural differences within her own family as well as the impending loss of a loved one over a fresh serving of Charles-Mansonia may be motivated on a certain level by politics. But if that’s the case, might the nominations for Best Director, as well as the omissions, be political as well?

Take, for instance, one of the most puzzling snubs: the absence of Knives Out from the Best Picture and Best Director categories. Rian Johnson is a man, after all; why isn’t he up there with Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino? The popularity of Knives Out with audiences as well as critics — an original story, not a sequel, remake, or part of a franchise — has surprised and delighted many. Its success shows people do indeed want to see such films, as long as they’re well-made and entertaining. Besides, I have yet to hear a negative word about this movie from anyone whose opinion I have reason to trust. I thought it was a shoo-in. But no.

Instead, Academy voters chose to nominate the highly polarizing Joker and its even more polarizing director, Todd Phillips, who has made a whole career out of making movies about men, for men, and who not long ago claimed that he made a drama largely because he felt his bro-tastic comedies (e.g. Old School, the Hangover series) were no longer welcome in our current “woke” culture. Phillips’ name alone would suffice to keep me away from Joker, since all his movies have one notable thing in common: the view that women exist to make men miserable, either by cheating on them or nagging them or threatening to break up their Bro Gangs or simply expecting love and commitment. In the Phillips-verse, the only tolerable women are prostitutes, since they’ll give men the only thing men truly desire from women — sex — and will expect neither respect nor affection in return. As a review of Old School put it, “women are, if not the enemy, at least the mystery meat.” Based on what I’ve been able to ascertain from both reviews and word of mouth, Joker doesn’t depart from this: the driven-mad protagonist’s evil mother is the root of all his woes.

Why, then, did the voters choose Joker when Knives Out was right there? I have a theory I pray isn’t true. Knives Out exposes the poisonous hypocrisy of a super-rich family as the protagonist, a young working-class woman of color, is forced to deal with them in very dire circumstances. The voters themselves are super-rich, and it may be they saw themselves not in the put-upon, kind-hearted Marta but in the horrible Thromby family. Joker, on the other hand, especially considering Phillips’ “woke culture” complaints, could be seen as a finger in the eye of the #MeToo Movement that has shaken Hollywood to its core. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if at least some voters’ support of it weren’t a teensy bit political.

Whatever the case, I won’t feel the same surge of hope this year if high-quality woman-centered movies appear. It seems clear that the Oscar voters won’t be opening their hearts to films that tell women’s stories anytime soon, no matter how good those films happen to be.

Here’s a relevant video: