Book Report: Recent Reads

Anthony Ryan, The Waking Fire (Warning: Spoilers)

Waking Fire

Ryan is a rising star in fantasy; praise blurbs on the cover of this opening volume of the Draconis Memoria series call him the heir-apparent of the late David Gemmell. Though the popular Raven’s Shadow trilogy came before it, this is my first experience with his work. I was drawn to it when several Goodreads reviewers named the novel’s female lead, Lizanne Lethridge, as their favorite character. They described her as a “female James Bond,” so naturally I had to make her acquaintance. As far as she was concerned, the book didn’t disappoint.

The story concerns the Ironship Trading Company, a kind of “econo-mocracy” in which sailing ships have names like Viable Opportunity. Trouble is brewing between this nation and its neighbor, an Empire keen on doing what Empires generally do, that is, add nations to its ranks. Its best line of defense are the “blood-blessed,” people who acquire special powers by drinking the blood of the drakes (supposedly non-sentient dragons) that are hunted and harvested. Ryan presents us with three point-of-view characters: spy Lizanne, street tough Clay, and steady, practical sailor Hilemore, the only one of the three who isn’t blood-blessed. Each POV sequence has its own distinct feel, with Lizanne in a drama of political intrigue, Clay in a trek through the jungle, and Hilemore in a seafaring adventure involving pirates and betrayal. At the very end, the plotlines intersect.

Put simply, The Waking Fire is a lot of fun. The prose is brisk and solid. The action rarely lets up. The figure of “the White,” a draconic Moby Dick both desired and feared, and as the threat from abroad escalates, our protagonists are faced with a possibility that could turn their society upside down: the drakes may not be as non-sentient as originally thought, and they just might be out for revenge. Even while we hope they’ll succeed in protecting themselves and those closest to them, it’s hard not to think that revenge is a little bit justified.

The weakest point is Hilemore’s storyline. In and of itself, it’s actually quite interesting, as our straight-arrow “normal” hero must form an alliance with a pirate queen who’s one of his country’s Most Wanted. But while Lizanne and Clay interact telepathically at regular intervals as they move through their separate plot threads, Hilemore is on his own, and no sooner do we start to care about him and the fearless Zenida Okanas than they disappear from the book and remain out of sight throughout the exciting last third. It’s as if Ryan takes the trouble to develop Hilemore and his situation, only to decide he doesn’t really know what to do with him. What role he’ll play in the next book, we can’t be sure.

But as you might expect, Lizanne makes the book for me. The moment we meet her, we learn she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty in the service of her government, but there are certain lines she won’t cross; when she’s ordered to kill Tekela, a spoiled-rotten daughter of privilege who has seen too much, she refuses, instead becoming a mentor to the girl, who improves measurably under her guidance. When her own mentor turns out to be a duplicitous double agent and meets her end between the jaws of a drake, Lizanne steps up and takes charge of the defense of her city, and proves an awesomely competent authority figure. More active than acted upon, adept at thinking on her feet, she’s a satisfying heroine to read about, and I look forward to seeing how she’ll handle the next crisis she has to face.

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My Top 25 Fantasy Novels/Series of the 21st Century

With a brief explanation of each.

25. The Emperor’s Soul (Brandon Sanderson). Shai, artist and forger and eventual hero, is my favorite of all Sanderson’s female characters.

24. The Second Mistborn Trilogy (Brandon Sanderson). This series of books solves its predecessor’s Smurfette problem.

23. The Books of Pellinor (Allison Croggon). YA fantasy on an epic scale, with a female musician as its protagonist. Music + Magic = Delight.

22. The Books of the Raksura (Martha Wells). For this immersive epic series, Wells creates a cast of nonhuman characters that readers can relate to.

21. Dhulyn and Parno (Violette Malan). Inseparable friends and occasional lovers, this female/male mercenary duo always have each other’s backs.

20. Scriber (Ben S. Dobson). One of the few fantasy novels to focus on the growth of a 100% friendship between a man and a woman — in this case, a reclusive scholar and a battle-leader.

19. Elantris (Brandon Sanderson). Bookish diplomat-princess Sarene is my kind of heroine, one who won’t stop even when she’s at a disadvantage.

18. Cygnet (Patricia McKillip). McKillip writes some of the most breathtaking prose in the genre, and her two female leads in this duology, one a sorceress and the other a fighter, are nothing less than awesome.

17. The Shadowed Sun (N.K. Jemisin). This involving, often disturbing tale focuses on a shy cleric who grows from self-doubter to full-on badass.

16. The Fifth Season (N.K. Jemisin). I’ve only read this first book of the Broken Earth series, but I’m already highly invested in its powerful lead character.

15. City of Stairs (Robert Jackson Bennett). Another series I’m just starting, this one touches on the nature of faith and divinity and an intriguing clash of cultures.

14. Bitter Greens (Kate Forsyth). A skillful blend of fantasy (a retelling of “Rapunzel”) and historical fiction (the story of French author Charlotte-Rose de la Force).

13. The Curse of Chalion (Lois McMaster Bujold). This story of a queen’s rise to power features one of my favorite male protagonists in SFF.

12. Paladin of Souls (Lois McMaster Bujold). The sequel to #13, this one features one of the most unique female protagonists in SFF, and also one of my favorite endings.

11. Among Others (Jo Walton). A coming-of-age tale centering on an imaginative nerd girl — how could I not love that?

10. Uprooted (Naomi Novik). I’m very fond of this novel’s underdog hero and its vividly detailed descriptions of magic.

9. The Spiritwalker Trilogy (Kate Elliott). An epic fantasy with a steampunk touch, this one features some gorgeous world-building and an endearing female buddy pair.

8. Black Wolves (Kate Elliott). Exciting, disturbing, satisfying — where is this book’s sequel, already? My hands ache to hold it.

7. The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker). Wecker’s masterful prose in this historical novel with fantasy elements makes me both ambitious (I want to be a better writer!) and frustrated (can I ever measure up?).

6. The Twelve Houses (Sharon Shinn). This criminally underrated series tells an epic story with an intimate feel.

5. The Shadow Campaigns (Django Wexler). I’ve praised this series multiple times already.

4. The Eternal Sky Trilogy (Elizabeth Bear). Exquisite prose brings a magnificent Arabian Nights landscape to life.

3. Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor). Warning: this one is very dark, almost painful to read at times. But its immense power can’t be denied.

2. The First Sevenwaters Trilogy (Juliet Marillier). This series features lovely, dreamlike prose and three generations of resilient women.

And finally… The Stormlight Archive (Brandon Sanderson). This series may not feature the most gorgeous prose or the most edgy characterizations, but it practically defines Epic Fantasy. Also, Dalinar and Jasnah Kholin, Kaladin, Syl, and Lift are in it.

 

 

 

The Damsel/Demon Dichotomy

My lack of enthusiasm for female villains is already well documented here. I’ve written a few in my time, both in my novels and in my plays for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, and I admit to a measure of pride when I’ve felt they were working well within the context of the stories I was telling. But while a female villain may earn my interest, my curiosity, she will never win my heart. The fact that female villains are absolutely everywhere these days, from Harley Quinn to Hela, from Miss Lint to the mysterious robed woman in Solo: A Star Wars Story, not to mention good-girl-gone-bad Dark Phoenix, offers evidence that many people love these kinds of characters, and some of their biggest fans are women. I feel sometimes like the odd woman out, because I don’t share their enthusiasm.

Two good articles I’ve read in the past week have made me reflect that others’ love for female villains and my discomfort with them might spring from the very same place.

The first is a blog review of Ursula K. LeGuin’s fantasy classic A Wizard of Earthsea, written by one of my friends on Goodreads. I’ve mentioned before that I tried to read this book immediately after finishing The Lord of the Rings. I’d imprinted on Eowyn’s character, and I’d hoped to find a fantasy novel that would feature some heroine like her in a larger, more central role. (Why, oh, why was there no one around who could have pointed me toward Tamora Pierce or Robin McKinley?) I hadn’t read up to fifty pages of LeGuin’s novel before I realized it wasn’t going to give me what I was looking for, and I returned it to the library unfinished. None of the glowing reviews I’ve read since then have given me cause to regret my decision. There are no Eowyns here. Instead, there’s a Morgan le Fay.

Yet this is the character on whom my friend imprinted, and she notes that her delight in villains has its roots in the many stories she grew up with where Villain was the only role that capable, active women were allowed to play. Villainy demands capability. A female villain has to be a badass, if she is to be a credible threat. If you’re hungry for female badassery, the villainess rarely lets you down. In that light, it’s little wonder that people are drawn to her.

The other article, published on the website Fantasy Cafe as part of its “Women in SFF Month,” was written by R. F. Kuang, author of the new fantasy novel The Poppy War. Entitled “Be a Bitch, Eat the Peach,” it describes how legends have been used to teach Asian girls about the dangers of ambition and the trouble they’ll cause if they try to ask or take too much for themselves. Kuang cites the famous Asian damsels whose defining feature is their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the men in their lives. As a girl, she found an antidote to all this female self-abnegation in Azula, the primary villain of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. Azula captured her imagination and her heart because she took what she wanted without hesitation, precisely as a “good girl” would never do.

I can imagine myself in Kuang’s place, told again and again in story after story that feminine virtue is characterized by the denial of all ambition and desire and that anything you do for yourself is not worth doing. I too would have found Azula captivating. She would certainly have outshone the series’ principal “good girl,” the one we’re supposed to like, who serves as the “Heart” of Team Good and uses what capability she has to facilitate the achievements of the male hero rather than achieve anything of her own or win anything for herself.

But this contrast between the “good girl” who moves more often than not in the shadow of a male hero and the “bad girl” who leads rather than follows is the very root of my own dissatisfaction. Too often, it seems, the fascination of the female villain rises from a false choice that too many writers offer their female characters: you can be the passive damsel, the embodiment of self-denying womanly virtue, or you can be the ruthless vixen who looks out for Number One. You can be good, or you can be powerful. You can’t be both. This dichotomy is the habit of centuries, and while progress has been made, it still persists.

When writers have this false choice in the back, or the front, of their minds, it isn’t the characterization of female villains that suffers. Their power, as well as their allure, remains undiminished. The problem lies instead with the female characters presented to us as “good,” and the limits placed on them.  We still see comparatively few female characters who are heroes in their own right, and even fewer who are written to be as fascinating, as charismatic, as the typical female villain. As long as the female characters we’re meant to like are served to us as docile sacrificial lambs who, if they have any capabilities of their own, never quite manage to measure up to male heroes, readers/viewers are going to prefer the evil ones.

But what if we could manage to consign this dichotomy to the fires of history where it belongs?

What if we saw more female heroes who achieve rather than merely enabling the achievements of male Chosen Ones?

What if we saw more powerful women who use their power to build worlds rather than burn them?

What if we saw more female heroes who have messy lives and sometimes make bad decisions, rather than being visions of pristine purity?

What if ambition and empathy were not portrayed as incompatible in female characters?

If we could see such things more often, those who love female villains wouldn’t love them any less. But maybe, just maybe, I could enjoy them too.

 

The Exceptions: Girl-Positive Geeky Movies of the 1980s

In my previous post I highlighted why I felt too much nostalgia for the films of the 1980s, particularly those that seem most beloved by the geek community, might be counterproductive, if we have any desire to move past our idea of the straight white male as the default for Hero. Yet among those films I can recall a few gems, movies that stand out as including female characters who are active, resourceful, and worth rooting for. They fall into three categories.

  1. She’s the hero of her own story.

Aliens (1986). Seven years after the excellent sci-fi/horror mash-up Alien, Sigourney Weaver’s smart, brave, take-charge Ellen Ripley returned to the screen in my favorite film of what would become a franchise. Despite some conservative elements (e.g. Ripley’s desire to live and be a part of the world again is revived through her maternal instincts), she is a fighter and a leader, and there is no doubt that she saves the day. As a bonus, she isn’t the only woman worth watching. Jenette Goldstein’s tough marine Vasquez is another hero worth taking notice of, despite, or even because of, her tragic end.

Labyrinth (1986). In Jim Henson’s fantasy-adventure that had to wait several years to get the attention it deserved, a girl makes a classic Hero’s Journey to save her kidnapped baby brother, picking up allies along the way through her courage and compassion. Jennifer Connelly’s performance is disappointingly vacant (you would find it hard to believe that she won an acting Oscar years later), but when we pay attention to the way her character, Sarah, is written, we can see she’s actually a spirited, imaginative daydreamer of the Jo March/Anne Shirley school — in other words, a female hero after my own heart.

Romancing the Stone (1984). Here’s another sibling-rescue story featuring a hero initially in over her head. Kathleen Turner’s Joan Wilder, a popular romance novelist, sets out to rescue her kidnapped sister and meets the sort of dashing loner (Michael Douglas) she writes about. We’re set up to expect this jungle-wise he-man will prove her savior at the climax. What a pleasant surprise when she turns out to be the rescuer! Plus, the hilarious scene in which a group of bandits holding Joan and her rogue at gunpoint turn into worshipful fanboys once they learn who she is almost makes the whole movie.

The Secret of NIMH (1982). Compared with nearly everyone around her, widowed field mouse Mrs. Brisby is ordinary. Her late husband was a lab-engineered genius. His ailing son might have inherited his gifts. The rats whose aid she seeks to move her house out of harm’s way are also super-geniuses (and all, regrettably, male), and she trusts them to know what to do. She could easily have proven a mouse Bella Swan, the plaything of events, at the mercy of more capable characters. But no. She refuses to stand by and let others do the hard work. She insists on taking an active role, and in the end, her own courage prevails and saves her family. Though surrounded by extraordinary creatures, the ordinary mouse turns out the hero.

The Last Unicorn (1982). A faithful screen adaptation of Peter S. Beagle’s novel (screenplay by Beagle himself), the movie staggers a bit in its second half, partly because the unicorn becomes much less interesting when she’s transformed into a woman. But the unicorn is the title character for a reason, and once she has her true form again, she rescues her fellow unicorns from captivity and puts an end to their monstrous captor — one of the few times a female character actually gets to slay the monster.

2. Girlfriends Who Matter

Dragonslayer (1981). Caitlin Clarke’s cross-dressing heroine Valerian is actually the one who sets the plot in motion, leading the expedition to find a magician who can slay a dragon who has terrorized her kingdom for years. She may begin the story disguised as a boy, but once she begins wearing girl’s clothes, she doesn’t lose her tough, plain-spoken, not-always-likable demeanor. It’s her uniqueness, along with her courage, that wins the heart of Peter MacNicol’s apprentice sorcerer Galen. Also noteworthy is the princess, the sort of conventionally beautiful maiden we (and Valerian) expect Galen to fall in love with. Once she discovers she’s been shielded from the dangers other girls have been facing, she chooses to sacrifice herself so that those others might live.

The Dark Crystal (1982). Male Gelfling Jen may be the Chosen One, destined to heal the Dark Crystal and bring an end to the power of the evil Skeksis, but the one who knows what’s going on is female Gelfling Kira, who, once she meets Jen, becomes his guide and saves him more than once. Her role at the climax may be a bit disappointing, but on the whole I can’t help liking her. She has wings!

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Calling her a “girlfriend” may be a bit of a stretch, but dedicated marine biologist Gillian is one of the more active one-shot female characters in the film franchise (who isn’t a villain, that is). She starts out unsure what to make of these strangers who have turned up in her world — the Enterprise crew, who have traveled through time seeking a pair of humpbacked whales that can save their universe — but once she figures out who they are and where they’ve come from, she becomes a useful ally, a difference-maker. Little wonder she finds a home in the “future.” (The bad news: Catherine Hicks’ performance is lackluster. The role deserved a stronger actress.)

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987). The only movie bearing the creative hand-print of John Hughes (author of the screenplay) I can still watch and enjoy today is also the only one in which I actually like the girls involved. The protagonist is an aspiring artist (Eric Stoltz) in love with the popular girl (Lea Thompson) and loved by his tough-talking tomboy best friend (Mary Stuart Masterson), but what could have been a straightforward love triangle becomes more interesting as both girls are depicted as sympathetic and even unique. Masterson has personality to burn, and Thompson’s happy ending involves not getting a guy but finding the courage to be alone and figure out who she is.

3. Girls Can Be Geeks, Too

Real Genius (1985). Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), the female lead in this nerds-stick-it-to-the-Man comedy, is smart, funny, and flawed. She’s awkward in social situations and she talks too much when she gets excited, but her brainpower is unquestioned. She’s one of the very few 1980s heroines who is allowed a genuine passion for matters intellectual, a passion she shares with the guy who becomes her boyfriend. My only complaint about her is that she doesn’t have as much to do as I would like. Nonetheless, her presence, and the way her contributions are respected, makes this movie light-years more enduring than the somewhat similar Revenge of the Nerds (1984), which also features Meyrink but is an absolute nightmare where gender representation is concerned.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987). This is the odd movie out, in that it’s relatively free from the gloss of nostalgia that illuminates the movies listed here and in my previous post. It’s a quiet little film about adults, for adults, and it’s been largely forgotten. But it belongs here, as its heroine, played by Anne Bancroft, is a brainy middle-aged lady with a sharp wit and a love for out-of-print and antique books. This enthusiasm leads her into a love-affair-by-correspondence with Anthony Hopkins’ antique bookstore owner. Not only does their mutual interest seal their connection, but Bancroft has a circle of female friends who appreciate her passion. Not a traditional romance by any means — our two main characters never meet face to face — it deserves to be better known.

 

Remembering the ’80s: My Not-so-Nostalgia Trip

In 1980, I turned eleven. In 1987, I graduated from high school. In 1988, I voted in my first presidential election. In 1990, I could order a cocktail with my birthday dinner. It’s safe to say I did much of my growing up in the ’80s. Yet do I miss the decade, with all its pop culture furniture? Do I find myself wishing today’s books, movies, and TV could be more like what we had in the ’80s? Do I want to go back and relive the decade?

Hell, no.

The only area of pop culture where I honestly prefer the 1980s is music. ’80s music, I’ll admit, has my heart, from Hall & Oates and Duran Duran to Luther Vandross and Al Jarreau. It’s said you never quite lose your love for the music you listened to when you were a teen, and I believe it. But the rest of ’80s pop culture, particularly the movies? Some I did and still do love, but in general, you can keep ’em.

This is not, I hasten to say, a dig at Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which my husband and I recently saw. Ernest Cline’s novel, along with Cline himself, is polarizing, but I really liked the movie and its female lead, Art3mis. The move from the page to the screen might have helped, since in the movie we don’t see Art3mis solely through Wade’s eyes, which gives her a chance to become more of a person than simply an object of desire or prize to be won; I have it on authority that Wade, too, is more likable in the movie. I may see it again before it leaves theaters, though Black Panther is still my favorite movie of 2018 so far.

Yet in general, all this nostalgia for the ’80s, and the attempts like Netflix’s Stranger Things to recreate that certain ’80s magic, only serve to remind me of how much I was missing back then, particularly where SFF and action-adventure movies were concerned. Then, far more than now, I was the Target Audience That Didn’t Exist, and while I may not have been able to articulate it at the time, I know I felt it.

Consider some of the movies that we geeks remember fondly, year by year. Most of these I have seen; an asterisk indicates those I’ve seen only partially.

1980: The Empire Strikes Back, Airplane!, The Blues Brothers*, The Shining, Caddyshack, Flash Gordon.

1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Time Bandits, Superman II, Stripes, An American Werewolf in London*, Clash of the Titans, Excalibur.

1982: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, Tron, 48 Hours, Blade Runner, The Thing*. (Haven’t seen: First Blood, Conan the Barbarian.)

1983: Return of the Jedi, WarGames, A Christmas Story*, The Outsiders*. (Haven’t seen: National Lampoon’s Vacation.)

1984: Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid, Footloose, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Splash, The Last Starfighter, Revenge of the Nerds, Sixteen Candles, Dune*, The Terminator*. (Haven’t seen: Beverly Hills Cop, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.)

1985: Back to the Future, The Goonies*, Clue, Cocoon, Fright Night, Ladyhawke, Legend*, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome*, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure*, The Breakfast Club. (Haven’t seen: Brazil. Could not be paid enough money to sit through: Weird Science.)

1986: Top Gun, The Karate Kid Part II*, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Highlander*, Stand By Me. (Haven’t seen: Crocodile Dundee, Flight of the Navigator.)

1987: Fatal Attraction*, Dirty Dancing, Good Morning Vietnam, The Lost Boys*, The Princess Bride, Spaceballs. (Haven’t seen: Lethal Weapon, The Untouchables, Monster Squad.)

1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Naked Gun*, Big, Scrooged, Willow*. (Haven’t seen: Die Hard, Earth Girls are Easy.)

1989: Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade*, Heathers*, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. (Haven’t seen: Back to the Future II, Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters 2, Say Anything, Look Who’s Talking, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.)

That’s quite a few titles. Many I adored at the time. Some I could watch at the drop of a hat even today (Empire and Jedi, Airplane!, The Princess Bride, Stand By Me, Good Morning Vietnam, E.T.) But how many of my year-by-year titles still hold up under my inescapably feminist perspective? The answer, sadly, is darned few. Not that the ’80s were a total loss for women: we did get Coal Miner’s Daughter, Terms of Endearment, Out of Africa, The Color Purple, and Broadcast News, all good female-centered movies that were nominated for Academy Awards. But of the treasured ’80s geek culture movies I’ve listed, only three — Sixteen Candles, Dirty Dancing, and Heathers — have female leads, and how interesting or empowering are these characters? (Samantha of Sixteen Candles, in particular, is average and bland because she’s deliberately written that way, and she’s surrounded by some highly questionable messaging.)

The vast majority of them serve up the wish-fulfillment fantasies of boys everywhere, hence their enduring popularity. What boy, after all, wouldn’t dream of defeating a bully (the Back to the Future films, the Karate Kid films), besting both Nazis and Indian blood cultists and finding the Holy Grail (the first three Indiana Jones films), saving the galaxy (the Star Wars and Star Trek films, The Last Starfighter), befriending an alien and breaking him out of a government facility (E.T.), or humbling an evil prince and rescuing his true love (The Princess Bride)? If you’re a boy, you can do all this and more. Of course geek guys love ’80s movies. If I were a guy, so would I.

But what do girls get to do?

They can be damsels in need of rescue (Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Lost Boys, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Raiders of the Lost Ark — and the last example is especially frustrating, since Karen Allen endows Marion Ravenwood with such toughness it’s easy to overlook that she never actually does anything). They can be villains who need to be thwarted (Excalibur, Blade Runner, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome). They can be nonentity love interests (the Karate Kid films, the Back to the Future films, WarGames, The Last Starfighter, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). They can be tag-alongs who never get much chance to do anything important (E.T.). And, of course they can be sexual conquests. Princess Leia does get her chances to battle evil and comes close to getting her own development arc in the Star Wars films, and even in the cheesy Flash Gordon Dale Arden kicks more butt than her 1930s serial counterpart ever got to do (admittedly not a high bar to clear). But on the whole, female characters’ possibilities seem distressingly limited. Hero, in particular, doesn’t seem to be an option.

Things have changed a lot in our pop culture since then, and mostly for the better, as more filmmakers have started to acknowledge that 1) yes, female geeks exist, and 2) yes, we too have big dreams, a whole variety of them. Yet today’s Hollywood also struggles to find fresh ideas, and filmmakers keep returning to the well of the ’80s, with reboots and even sequels (Indiana Jones 5??). When these reboots and sequels try to engage with the dreams of the female audience, ’80s purists bridle. Most obviously, the female-led Ghostbusters remake was drowning in Internet hate before it was even released, with purists protesting that it “killed their childhood.” A remake of The Last Starfighter (a movie I liked a lot, largely because of Robert Preston’s performance as an inter-galactic con man) is now in the works. If the screenplay expands the girlfriend’s character beyond the passive, mopey, unambitious bore we met in the original, will keepers of the ’80s flame cry “foul”?

Of course, creators should acknowledge their debt to the past, and today’s cinema owes a great deal to the films of the 1980s. Among other things, the ’80s saw a huge revival of the energetic, optimistic adventure and science fiction/fantasy stories that had largely been in hibernation for most of the 1970s, and movies like Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Wonder Woman carry that spirit in the present and into the future. Yet when it comes to mining for source material, I can’t help thinking Hollywood would be better off letting the ’80s go. They happened, they were great in many ways, and we learned from them. Time to move on.

(If anyone notices important titles left off my year-by-year list, that’s on purpose. They’ll be covered in my next post: “The Exceptions — Girl-Positive Movies of the 1980s.”)

 

 

Hope Springs Eternal

 

In my previous post, I offered a list of things that make me “die a little inside” (or that lead me to think, in the words of Futurama‘s Professor Farnsworth, “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore”), ranging from personal pet peeves to more seriously disturbing signs of the mean streak in our culture. The one thing they all have in common: in ways great or small, they compromise my hope that our world and the stories that help shape it are getting better as more and more voices are heard. I mentioned at the close of the post that we as a society are suffering from “growing pains.” For almost a century, many of our core definitions — of “right,” “wrong,” “normal,” “male,” “female,” “race,” “American,” and more — have been shifting, and people frightened by the changes have been pushing back against them. Historically, this is nothing new. Where will we be when all this changing stops? The question is pointless, for change never stops.

Hope finds its way. I can fend off the threat of pessimism as long as I know where to look. Since one of my biggest concerns is what stories are being told, how they’re being told, and who gets to do the telling, I look there first.

  1. In the SFF literary community, diverse voices are honored.

A couple of posts ago I pointed out the Academy Awards’ long history of honoring films both by and about white men. For contrast, we have only to look at the Nebula Awards, given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Among the seven nominees for 2017’s Best Novel, only one (Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders) was written by a white man. Four (The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, The Stone Sky, Six Wakes, and Autonomous) have female protagonists. Two (The Stone Sky, Jade City) were written by women of color. At least one (Amberlough) foregrounds queer characters and themes. And that’s not even taking into account the other categories.

A look into the nominees, as well as into the previous years’ winners, shines a light on why diversity, far from being a matter of “tokenism” or “over-sensitivity” or “PC blandness,” is so valuable. We’re seeing a broadening, a widening, of the kinds of stories writers want to write and readers want to read. A greater variety of characters, themes, and plots not only enhances understanding; it also makes for better entertainment, and gives readers broader choices. This is why the Golden Age of Science Fiction and Fantasy is now, when a variety of approaches (from hard sci-fi to space opera, from urban to mythic/epic fantasy) is welcome, and straight white male characters aren’t the only ones who matter.

(Since drafting this blog, I’ve learned of the nominees for the Hugo Awards. Here, too, diverse voices are honored.)

2. Technology gives young readers a forum to share their passion.

We all know that the Internet can be a cesspool, a habitat for narrow-minded and mean-spirited trolls. Discussions of the Internet in general usually spotlight the bad side, yet while it’s important to know about the ‘Net’s dark corners, we should also give some attention to the good stuff happening online. In particular, I love YouTube — specifically, searching YouTube for videos made by young readers, the kind who just might become writers themselves one day. A couple of videos I’ve found and enjoyed recently:

(Regan doesn’t like featureless blank-slate female protagonists any more than I do.)

When I’m disappointed that students of mine declare they don’t like to read or can’t remember the last book they enjoyed, it does me good to know young women like this are out there, sharing thoughts on stories they love and inviting others to do the same.

3. As long as you keep finding out about books you’re eager to read, all is never lost.

Good stories can offer us an escape from the chaos in the world around us, and at the same time equip us to better handle that chaos. I never stop looking for books that just might do this for me. Here are some I bought recently, with birthday gift card money.

Book pic 1

Book pic 2

Book pic 3

Later in the year, we’ll see the release of Spinning Silver, the next stand-alone fantasy by Naomi Novik (whose Uprooted I adored), as well as the next two books in Michael J. Sullivan’s Legends of the First Empire series (Age of War and Age of Legend) and a number of titles by authors I haven’t read before, that have peaked my interest. Cass Morris’s From Unseen Fire and Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, in particular, have me hungering to get my hands on them. I have a lot of wonderful book journeys to look forward to.

4. The brighter side of human nature still shows itself in different places.

There’s a scene in Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch (see my Goodreads review here) in which the hero, Sunny, attends her first gathering for “Leopard People” (magically gifted). She goes with her friends to a wrestling match, and witnesses what she thought would be a friendly contest transform into a brutal bout to the death. Shocked and disgusted, she cries that she wants to go home. She’d met the fallen loser briefly and he’d shown her kindness, and she’s horrified that his death should be treated so casually. She’s no longer sure that she wants anything to do with the Leopard People or their world.

Yet in the midst of her shock, she notices the dead man’s stricken widow. Despite being told to stay in her seat, she sneaks down to the field to speak to the woman, to let her know she’d met her husband and would remember him and his kindness. She extends compassion to the woman, when no one else has thought to do so. When I read this moment I thought, “This is why Sunny — rather than her more experienced and confident friends — is the hero of this story.”

Kindness matters, in both fiction and real life. Whenever we see or read about someone seizing an opportunity to be kind, we should celebrate it. It’s what we humans are capable of.

 

The Many Small Deaths of the SJB

A List Post

“I die a little inside.” I’ve been saying that a lot lately, every time I see, hear, and see something that compromises my hopes for the future of the world around me. It is a kind of death, I think, when something chips away at hope and casts shadows over our vision of the road ahead. This year has already brought with it a heavy share of tragedy, and we have grieved together; we cry out that something needs to change, but we can’t agree on what. Yet more often than not, it’s the small things, the little symptoms of great diseases, that get to me the most.

It’s time I compiled a list of those things that move me to say or write, “I die a little inside…”

  1. When one of my students in my English classes tells me he/she hates reading.
  2. When Internet users go on record to say that animated movies are “kids’ movies” and therefore not worth seeing, and, in a similar vein, they claim science fiction and fantasy are “juvenile literature” and therefore not worth reading.
  3. When I read quotes from politicians whose idea of “debate” is name-calling and personal insult, and I’m reminded of the depths to which political debate in this country has sunk (even if the story does have a happy ending).
  4. When I remember all the close-ups of Vladimir Putin’s ice-cold, soul-dead face throughout the TV coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and I realize we’re no closer to seeing the last of him now than we were then.
  5. When new book or movie releases offer evidence of how many writers are unwilling to let go of the old-fashioned “Damsel in Distress” ,“Stuffed into the Fridge”, and “Disposable Woman” tropes.
  6. When books and movies that rely on these old-fashioned tropes get nearly unanimous raves from critics and consumers.
  7. When writers and fans defend the excessive and ubiquitous use of rape in epic fantasy as “realism.”
  8. When female-led movies get creamed by critics (less than 50% on Rotten Tomatoes) so that I’m no longer interested in seeing them in the theater, and I have to wait months for another woman-centered movie to be released.
  9. When I find myself wondering if poor female representation ceases to matter when the male protagonist is black, trans, or gay.
  10. When critics call out books and/or movies for poor female representation, and then get attacked for doing so, their complaints dismissed as “SJW” rantings.
  11. When guy nerd characters, particularly in movies and TV shows, act surprised, nay, shocked, any time a girl expresses an interest in SFF or comics.
  12. When writers seem to think that wish-fulfillment fantasies for boys involve saving the world or otherwise defeating evil, while wish-fulfillment fantasies for girls involved being rescued and adored by a supernatural hunk.
  13. When yet another of my favorite used bookstores closes its doors for good.
  14. When I’m reminded that Harvey Weinstein exists.
  15. When I learn that, apparently, some folks are still keen to excuse him, and/or claim his actions weren’t really so bad.
  16. When I catch myself reflecting on the fact that Sir Terry Pratchett is dead and there will never be any more new adventures for Sam Vimes or Granny Weatherwax.
  17. When I catch myself thinking that the sublimely plus-sized Lady Sybil Ramkin, heroine of Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!, would almost certainly played by a svelte, petite actress in the upcoming TV series if it were made by an American company rather than (thankfully) the BBC.
  18. When I think of how few people seem to know who Patricia McKillip, Juliet Marillier, and Barbara Hambly are.
  19. In a similar vein, when lists of “25 Greatest Fantasy and/or Science Fiction Novels and/or Series” pop up online, and only one of the titles (if that) is written by a woman or focuses on a female lead.
  20. When I reflect that our culture, popular and otherwise, is having “growing pains,” but where and how are we growing, and can we handle the pain?

A more hopeful list will come soon.

Book Report: Recent Reads

Warning: Spoilers

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

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

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors

Alchemy cover

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

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

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

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

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

The Infernal Battalion

Battalion cover

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Okay, Hollywood, Now What?

Whatever quarrels we might have with the winners and losers, most of us would agree that the 2018 Oscars as a whole serve as a hopeful sign of the growing diversity in the entertainment industry. Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay for Get Out, the first time an African-American has ever been honored in that category. Best Director went to immigrant Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water. Coco, a celebration of Mexican culture and the strength of the family, took Best Animated Feature (albeit without much serious competition). And while some have complained that The Shape of Water is a “safe” choice for Best Picture, in comparison with the more challenging Get Out, it still represents one of the few times that a movie with a female protagonist has taken the top prize. All in all, not a terrible night for movies that aren’t about, or created by, white guys.

Maybe Hollywood is at last broadening its views of what kinds of stories have value.

It’s been a lesson that has badly needed learning. In the wake of the Oscars, a chart floated around my Twitter feed, showing the results of a study of what percentage of dialogue went to men and to women in the Best Picture winners over the last four decades. In winner after winner, men were shown to do a vast majority of the speaking. The movies that came closest to striking a balance were American Beauty (not a feminist film by any stretch of the imagination) and The Silence of the Lambs. Clicking on the comments, I saw, to my lack of surprise, that many people didn’t see the point of the study. They took it as a suggestion that the winners didn’t deserve their awards or would have been better movies if the female characters had talked more. “Should The King’s Speech have been The Queen’s Speech?” That was the general gist. I happen to love The King’s Speech and was thrilled when it won Best Picture. I wouldn’t have changed a word of dialogue in that movie or in most of the other winners. But that is not the point.

The real point might best be seen in the Oscar race for the best film of 1995. Going into the ceremony there were two clear front-runners: Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. The latter had already picked up a Golden Globe for Best Picture — Drama, and most of the critics were behind it. But Braveheart was a story about a manly male hero and his manly heroic deeds, a splashy, sprawling epic. (I admit I once found it stirring, though my Mel Gibson cooties has made it impossible for me to watch it now, or for me to tolerate him in anything other than Chicken Run and Gallipoli.) Sense and Sensibility, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s first published novel, told a more intimate and woman-centered story. The Academy gave the top honor to Braveheart. But honestly, is it a better film than Sense and Sensibility, which boasts note-perfect performances across the board, a solid storyline, and a screenplay both witty and heartfelt (which did win Emma Thompson an Oscar)? Braveheart has a more epic scale and a better score. That’s all.

Braveheart‘s win illuminates the true point the study is making: that historically we have tended to honor and value stories about men far above stories about women, even when the latter are every bit as good or even superior. Men’s stories are seen as more important, and of course more universal. And more movies are made about men, which naturally increases their chances of being honored.

That’s why The Shape of Water‘s win does my heart good, safe choice though it might be. Dare I hope it may be a sign of good things to come — woman-centered movies given the creative energy, attention, and care so often lavished on the man-centered historical dramas, movies so good the Academy can’t afford to ignore them? (I do remember that the Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, lauded by critics, might never have been made for all the notice the Academy paid to it.)

It starts, perhaps, with quantity. According to IMDb, thirty-three more movies are slated for release this March, and thirteen of those have female leads (including I Kill Giants, which I hope against hope does better with critics than A Wrinkle in Time has). IMDb lists twelve releases for the month of May, which ushers in the summer movie season. Seven of them have female leads. So far, so hopeful — until we reach June. Seventeen films are listed, but only one of them, Ocean’s 8, is clearly centered on female protagonists; marketing for The Incredibles 2 continues to sell it as a retelling of Mr. Mom with superpowers, and in Mr. Mom, who thinks about Teri Garr?

So what now, Hollywood? Keep the forward momentum going, or continue with business as usual?

I have a very specific wish list. If I see these, I will be convinced at last we are living in a time of progress.

  1. Another major, high-quality American animated release with a female protagonist, and at least one per year afterward. Moana was over a year ago. It’s time.
  2. Biopics focusing on Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Gertrude Stein, and Zitkala-Sa. Creative geniuses aren’t always white dudes, and it would be nice if the movies in general made that clearer.
  3. A movie adaptation of Linda Medley’s splendid graphic novel Castle Waiting.
  4. A new movie written and directed by Jordan Peele, with a woman of color in the lead. Bonus if she’s played by my newest girl-crush, Letitia Wright.

If Hollywood really cares about me as a target audience, we’ll see all of this within the next decade.

About Movie Posters

Confession time: I find Madeleine L’Engle’s inspirational nonfiction more engaging than her fiction. When I first tried to read A Wrinkle in Time, I bounced off what struck me as a rather dry, stiff writing style, and as with the also beloved The Golden Compass, I never managed to finish it. Nonetheless, I appreciate its importance within the canon of YA science fiction and its role in paving the way for smarter, more active female leads in the genre, and I totally get it when SFF writers and fans in succeeding generations point to Wrinkle‘s protagonist, Meg Murry, as an inspiration.

The movie version about to appear on the scene, however, looks inviting even for me. When reading a book you may like or dislike certain prose styles, but in a movie adaptation all you have is the story itself, and this story just might hit me where I live. (I may return to the book for another try.) In particular the young actress playing Meg, Storm Reid, makes the character seem like someone my inner twelve-year-old might follow anywhere. Movie posters like this one don’t hurt, either.

A Wrinkle in Time poster

(Courtesy of http://www.shockya.com)

The poster clearly situates Meg as the point of view character, and the geometric shapes hint at her predilection towards STEM. The coloring gives the whole an aura of wonder. The images alone excite my curiosity. Yet not everyone is quite so enamored of it. One woman whose comment came up in my Twitter feed praises the poster on the one hand, but then adds the question, “Don’t they want little boys to see this too?”

To which I respond with the question, “Do we really have to do this again?” Because when I look at the poster I can’t see anything that might drive little boys away, except that it makes it clear that a girl is the central character. It’s that same very old and very bitter story I’ve railed against in the past: boys won’t see or read stories about girls. Boys can’t identify with girl protagonists or see female characters as role models. Never mind those little boys who enjoyed the heck out of Wonder Woman or who come away from Black Panther loving Shuri or Okoye even more than the title character.

It’s just one woman’s comment, and I could easily ignore it but for the fact that it’s all of a piece with the litany of protests that have rung out over the internet ever since the Star Wars franchise followed up The Force Awakens with Rogue One (two female leads in a row! Horrors!) and went through the roof when it was announced that Jodie Whittaker would play the Thirteenth Doctor. Now that we’re seeing more female characters in important roles in movie genres other than romantic comedy and domestic drama, the rallying cry of the push-back is, “Will no one think of the men?” Or in this case, the boys?

What the pushers-back can’t see, apparently, is that plenty of people are thinking of the boys, particularly in the genre to which A Wrinkle in Time belongs, the family film. Since the 1980s — quick, name a memorable live-action family film from the ’80s that featured a girl as the central character, other than Jim Henson’s Labyrinth — family films have been overwhelmingly male–dominated. In the area of live action, while teen protagonists might occasionally be female (e.g. Clueless, the Freaky Friday remake, and of course the Hunger Games series), child protagonists are nearly always male, and the characteristics these boys exhibit, exploration and innovation and risk-taking, are coded as male, while female characters are called upon to represent stability (yawn). In animation, male leads get to be thieves and vagabonds and lion kings and lords of the jungle, not to mention toys, ants, cars, and rats; female leads, by contrast, are usually princesses and rarely anything other than human (which is a big part of why I took Zootopia to my heart). If parents of sons are looking for movies and TV shows that feature boys being awesome, they have plenty of options to choose from. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: every major American animated release in 2017 featured a male protagonist, and this year it’s more of the same. Boys aren’t hurting for male heroes. They just aren’t.

But on the matter of movie posters, let’s take a look at these:

Boss Baby poster

(Courtesy of Roger Ebert)

Despicable Me 3 poster

(Courtesy of IMDb)

Coco poster

(Courtesy of IMDb)

Peter Rabbit poster

(Courtesy of IMDb)

Hotel Transylvania 3 poster

(Courtesy of IMDb)

Has anyone looked at these posters and thought, “Don’t they want little girls to see this, too?”

I daresay not. As we all know, boys are the default. Girls are fine with seeing movies that center on boys, and they won’t even mind when the depiction of female characters gives off a whiff of misogyny, as we see in Mars Needs Moms, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, and Minions (although the first two on this list didn’t exactly set the box office on fire). Girls can happily identify with boys and look to male characters as role models, yet hoping that boys might do the same with girls and female characters is asking far too much. We all know that, right?

So when a movie like A Wrinkle in Time promises to give girls a character of their own gender worth admiring and identifying with — not a princess of an age to fall in love and marry but a real girl-child, and a socially awkward nerd at that — I can’t spend too much worry on the boys who might be driven away by “girl cooties.” It might just be that movies like this one, along with Black Panther, could help any number of little boys see that girl characters can be just as fun, and worth identifying with, as the boys, and in the long run, if the movies are good enough, the “boys’ stories are universal, girls’ stories are particular” notion might at last begin to die the death it deserves.