Growing Up Feminist

Part I

“Let husbands know/ Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell,/ And have their palates both for sweet and sour,/ As husbands have. What is it that they do/ When they change us for others? Is it sport?/ I think it is. And doth affection breed it?/ I think it doth. Is ‘t frailty that thus errs?/ It is so, too. And have we not affections/ Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?”       Othello Act IV, lines 99 – 107

(I can’t help but laugh at how much like plain common sense these words sound, yet how radical they must have seemed to the audience that first heard them.)

I’m not sure how it all started. It may have been once I began to notice all prospective parents in the books I read and movies I saw seemed to long for boys, as if, even in the very womb, girl-children weren’t good enough.

My parents do all they can to ensure my sister and I knew we are loved and valued and they wouldn’t have traded us for a thousand boys. But an idea so deeply ingrained in our culture as the preference for boys can seep through the cracks of the safest house, like toxic smoke. It’s everywhere — in the Bible (in the stories of Mary and Elizabeth, as well as all those women in the Old Testament who prayed desperately for sons or competed to see how many sons they could bear), in history (remember the story of Henry VIII and his quest for a male heir?), and especially in popular culture, in those classic movies on which I cut my teeth.

I couldn’t name every example if I tried; the ones that stick most fast in my memory come from movies I otherwise admire or even love. 1934’s Little Man, What Now? has pregnant Margaret Sullavan (pregnant of course in a 1934 way, so that her figure is maidenly throughout) told repeatedly to pray and hope for a boy because “girls are useless.” In 1939’s Made for Each Other, as James Stewart and Carole Lombard gaze enraptured at their newborn baby son, a cabbie asks them if the baby is a boy or a girl; Lombard replies simply, “What do you think?” as if no girl-baby could possibly inspire such joy as he sees in their faces. In 1941’s Penny Serenade, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne suffer the loss of their adorable adopted daughter, but they’re consoled with a happy ending, as they’re on the phone with the adoption agency and hearing that the boy they wanted in the first place is finally available. Peter Marshall of A Man Called Peter and Dr. Noah Praetorius of People Will Talk, both brilliant men, insist the babes their wives are carrying must be sons. (The latter goes even further and insists that all their future children will be boys.) To have “all boys” is heavenly, as 1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips makes clear. For a less admired example, we have comedian Eddie Cantor making a whole career out of jokes about his desperate longing for a son and bitter disappointment at having so many daughters — clearly a laugh riot back in the 1930s, but I wonder if any of Cantor’s daughters ever felt happy and secure in their father’s love as I did in mine.

For me as a young girl and then later a young woman, the worst of it was that it seemed this lust for boy-children, expressed again and again in different ways in different stories, was never critiqued or even called into question. It was presented as natural, as right. Of course boys were preferred. Boys were a sign of a father’s virility (a backward idea with no basis in science), and they just might grow up to change the world. Girls, apparently, had nothing to offer the future, except the promise of more boy-children. This idea may be a remnant of the past, a reflection of a certain time and place, but it nonetheless got under my skin and made me wonder exactly what about me was sub-par, at least in the eyes of the world beyond my own home.

Moreover, the preference for boys isn’t as much a relic of decades gone by as I wish it were. When I read about countries and cultures in which female infanticide is common, or read a statistic stating that men who have sons are less likely to abandon their families because they’re more invested in their boys and anxious to provide a role model, or see an episode of a popular TV show in which a woman, already the mother of two boys, terminates every pregnancy once she learns the baby will be a girl (because “girls are nothing but trouble anyway”), or overhear a conversation at a restaurant in which a mother with three sons tells a waitress how “happy and relieved” she is that none of her children are girls, I get that familiar tense, angry feeling. They still get to me, these signs of the notion that girls, and by extension women, are not and can never be good enough.

When you’re loved within your own family but the outside world sends you messages that you’re less valuable, less important, because you lack a Y chromosome, there are three ways you can respond. You can give in to it, accept the idea that you were born inferior. You can laugh it off. Or you can take the sense of pride and self-worth that your family, against the odds, fostered in you and fight. I’ve gone with the third option. I’m still fighting, in the ways I read and write and teach.

Coming next week: Part 2

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Book Report: Recent Reads

Of all fantasy novel subgenres I have two unrivaled favorites: big, sweeping epics with sprawling casts of characters that include plenty of interesting women, and smaller- scale fairy-tale retellings with lovely, lyrical prose and a mystical feel. In the past couple of months I’ve read a fine example of each.

Oathbringer pic

Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson

The world of Roshar, which Sanderson has constructed for his epic Stormlight Archive series, is deep and wide enough for a fantasy fan happily to drown in. Whenever one of these novels comes out (Oathbringer is the third), I know I’m going to get thoroughly lost in an amazing landscape. I love this series so much that it’s not enough for me to have and read a print copy only. I must own it on audiobook as well, so the world can sweep me away a second time, or a third, or however many times I like.

I’ll keep my description as simple as possible. The Stormlight Archive centers on a military conflict between the humans of the kingdom of Alethkar and a formidable race of humanoids called Parshendi. A malevolent immortal force plans to use this conflict as a means to destroy the world, and the only hope for survival rests with a group of magically gifted individuals, the Knights Radiant. Three of these Knights are our central characters — Kaladin, a resentful young hero with an instinct to protect victims of injustice; Shallan, a noble woman with a troubled past, who can manipulate perceptions and create illusions; and Dalinar, a military leader with a history of ruthlessness, now seeking to unite opposing factions and recover what honor he can. Surrounding these three is an array of splendid supporting characters, kings and queens and farmers and warriors, foreigners from mountains and deserts, human and nonhuman. One of my favorites is Jasnah, Dalinar’s niece, whose logical perspective is often mistaken for cold-heartedness. I also adore every member of Kaladin’s crew of misfit ex-slave bodyguards, “Bridge Four” (except one, but I don’t want to Spoil too much).

The first book in the series, The Way of Kings, focused primarily on Kaladin, while the second, Words of Radiance, centered on Shallan. Oathbringer is Dalinar’s book, though the others get their shining moments. In the first two volumes, Dalinar’s past has been shrouded in mystery, hidden even from him, but now his worst memories, once taken from him as an immortal’s “boon,” have returned to him, and both he and we learn that whatever we might have imagined about his history, the truth is worse. The core theme of this story is redemption, as he must struggle with the man he has been in order to become the man the world needs him to be. Redemption isn’t pretty, it’s messy, and above all, it’s painful. If Dalinar is to be redeemed, he must own his misdeeds.

The redemption theme may center on Dalinar, but it reaches out to others, including Shallan, who transforms into other personas to avoid the weakness she sees in herself, and Venli, a Parshendi woman indirectly responsible for the death of her more sympathetic sister, who finds herself called upon to become the person that sister should have been. (In actuality one of my favorite parts of Oathbringer is how much we learn about the Parshendi, far from a one-dimensional malevolent race of Orcish monsters.) So many of the main characters are broken in some way, but Sanderson deftly handles the darkness of their situations without ever crossing into nihilistic grimdark territory. In grimdark, virtue is a lie and redemption an illusion. In the Stormlight Archive, hope is never fully lost.

Bear Nightingale pic

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

This wintry tale takes its inspiration from the old story of “King Frost,” in which an innocent maiden is sent out to die in a frozen field by her wicked stepmother, but she survives and is rewarded for speaking to the winter king himself with courageous civility. Arden takes her readers back to an Old Russia ruled by the Tsar and his landowning boyars, and her novel’s greatest strength is the lovely, detailed prose with which she sets her scene, creating a world never truly warm, a world where humans’ survival depends on respect for the spirits of both nature and hearth.

Like all my favorite fairy-tale retellings, this one centers on a female lead, Vasilisa, or Vasya. Unlike the rather passive maiden of the fairy tale, whose chief virtue is endurance, the spirited, tomboyish Vasya is active in her support and her respect for the spirits, fostering a connection with them that she uses to protect those she loves and even, at two separate points, to save the life of an enemy. She’s easy to like, smart and observant and brave, unwilling to fall without a fight into a role she isn’t suited for even though her father and brothers keep telling her it is the “lot of women.” Interestingly, though the father and brothers might represent the status quo, the narrative depicts them with sympathy and understanding. All the important characters are understandable in their own ways, even the villains, the prideful priest “tempted” (from his own perspective) by Vasya, and the envious, tormented stepmother, so unable to catch a break from her first scene to her last that I can’t help pitying her just a little.

Sadly, the book falters where it ought to be the strongest — the climax. Vasya has been a proactive figure throughout the narrative, and we have every reason to think she’ll save the day in the end. But at crunch time, her courage and her power prove insufficient, and it’s left to someone else to strike the death-blow against evil. Yet despite my disappointment, I’m eager to continue with this series. I suspect Vasya’s ineffectuality might be a symptom of “first book syndrome,” since this is the beginning of a trilogy. Arden can’t have her hero (for I have faith that’s what Vasya will become) peak too early. Just how, and how far, will she grow? I want to see.

Differing Perspectives

Since my 2017 Year in Review posts, I’ve had the chance to see Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. I loved it. I felt that, like Pan’s Labyrinth before it, it reflected the filmmaker’s sympathy with daydreamers whose wavelengths are out of tune with the ordinary and mundane. I viewed Sally Hawkins’ Elisa, like Mercedes in Pan’s Labyrinth, as a powerful woman who knows society views her as powerless and uses that perception to deceive and defy those who would dismiss her. I connected with her almost immediately, thanks to Hawkins’ deftly detailed performance. How could I not like a woman who wishfully imitates Bill Robinson’s dance moves? I came away hoping this movie might clean up at this year’s Oscars, embracing it as a welcome rarity, a critically acclaimed film with an abundance of heart.

Then I read the following article on Tor.com. (Warning: it contains Spoilers.)

https://www.tor.com/2018/01/16/i-belong-where-the-people-are-disability-and-the-shape-of-water/

The author of this article is looking at the movie from a different perspective from my own, focusing on the ways in which it portrays the heroine’s disability. As I read it, I could understand, point for point, all the elements in the movie that she found frustrating. I remembered them all, but caught up in the film’s dreamlike romanticism, I didn’t see them in the same way. While I was engaged by Hawkins’ performance, I didn’t consider that some might be bothered that the role didn’t go to an actress with the same disability as the character. Now I can see it. I can’t say that a single word of this article is wrong.

So, is it okay if I still love The Shape of Water?

The worst thing anyone can say in response to a differing perspective is, “You shouldn’t be offended.” It’s not one person’s place to judge what someone else finds offensive or problematic. Yet while I can perceive the movie’s problems, I can’t deny it caught me up in its spell. I can’t deny I want to see it again. The difference of opinion/response offers more proof that each of us creates meaning in tandem with the creators of the art we consume. Our own identities and experiences affect our responses to it. If we bear this in mind, surely we can understand and appreciate someone else’s different movies on a piece of art we love, without necessarily losing that love.

I had a similar experience when I read Tor’s review of Roald Dahl’s Matilda:

https://www.tor.com/2018/01/15/precociousness-and-telekinesis-rereading-roald-dahls-matilda/

I’d praised Matilda as a good read for girls in my previous blog post. The story still has my heart, more than ever since I saw the musical recently. But I can’t deny that everything the author found problematic is very much a part of the tale. Miss Trunchbull is as despicable as the story demands (and I have my own issues with the ways in which her evil is bound up with her physical strength and bigness), but did her more competent replacement have to be a man? Why not promote Miss Honey instead, as happened in the film version?

But darn it, I still love Matilda. I actually think it does us good to read perspectives on stories that diverge from ours, particularly when it concerns something we love. Understanding that not everyone sees the same thing the same way doesn’t have to diminish our joy. But maybe it makes us think a little more about where our joy might be coming from.

What I appreciate about these two articles I’ve shared is that neither author is what I call a “Missionary of Hate.” They state, “I find these aspects problematic,” and then they explain their case. They do NOT cry out, in so many words, “I hated it, and if you didn’t hate it too, then you’re WRONG!

For contrast we have only to look at the Internet vitriol directed at Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Now, The Last Jedi has problematic aspects of its own, and some have pointed them out with a great deal of insight. Foz Meadows, for instance, notes how the choice to ignore the chemistry between Finn and Poe in favor of building up a heterosexual love subplot for the former diminishes the movie as a whole (though she does point out she enjoyed it). Again, beware Spoilers:

https://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2018/01/11/star-wars-the-last-jedi/

Yet voices like Meadows’ have been drowned in a flood of shouts declaring that critics who praised the movie must have been paid off. Some haters have even started a petition with the apparent aim of forcing writer/director Rian Johnson to admit publicly that his movie sucks. When I read Meadows’ article, I know we saw the same movie. But when I venture a look into the haters’ spew, I can’t believe we saw the same movie.

The haters’ aim is to make those who disagree with them feel like fools, to the point where we may be embarrassed or even afraid to admit that we actually like the object of their scorn. They’re not happy until their voices alone are heard. While we should be accepting and understanding of opinions different from ours, we should take care to keep a clear view of the line between disagreement and bullying. Disagreement we should appreciate, but bullying we should resist with all our might.

Bullies should never win.

Advice to Girls Looking for Heroes Like Moana and Judy Hopps

One of the reasons behind my current dissatisfaction with Hollywood is the depressing lack of female protagonists among mainstream American animated releases in 2017, especially as compared to 2016, which gave us both Zootopia and Moana. (I’m still keen to see the smaller-scale indie animated film The Breadwinner, but its release has been so limited that it’s quite a bear to find a theater where it’s playing — a disgraceful way to treat a film that would appeal to families.) I understand that everything media-related comes in cycles, and that a year with one or more solid girl-centered offerings will frequently be followed by a year in which girls get shoved back into sidekick, villain, or background roles, if they appear at all. Remember 2011, when the front-runners for the Best Animated Feature Oscar were the male-heavy Rango and The Adventures of Tintin? The following year gave us Brave and Wreck-It Ralph, both enjoyable movies featuring female characters in central roles. So, since 2017 was lacking in noteworthy animated heroines, at least we can look ahead to the next months of 2018 with hopeful hearts, right?

Well, maybe not. Check out this YouTube compilation of trailers for 2018’s animated releases, at least in the first half of the year. Some look like fun — Aardman’s Early Man might be amusing, at least, because Aardman’s films usually are — but for all their differences, these movies, going by their trailers, have one thing in common that isn’t hard to spot:

Male protagonists.

It looks very much like this year will just be last year, all over again.

One of these movies, The Incredibles 2, is an interesting case. I loved the original, so I can’t help but be a little bit interested in the sequel, and I’ve read some excerpts from promotional material suggesting that Elastigirl, a.k.a. Helen Parr, will take a leading role and that the movie will be a female-led superhero film following in the footsteps of 2017’s Wonder Woman. If that’s true, then hurrah! But I’m afraid I can’t help being a little skeptical, since the teaser-trailer — which, like most teaser-trailers, gives us no hint of the film’s actual plot — chooses to focus on Mr. Incredible and baby Jack-Jack. I can’t help being reminded of the prominence of Olaf the Snowman in the marketing for Frozen and of Maui in the marketing for Moana. No matter how well a female-centered animated feature may do with audiences, marketers are still squeamish about letting people know when or if an upcoming release is focused on a female character.

Yet the rest of the movies are very clearly about dudes, so girls watching them will have to daydream themselves into the shoes of the male heroes or settle for identifying with the sidekick or love interest — again. And again. And again, and again. What are girls to do if they want a female hero as cool as Moana or Judy Hopps? Two things come to mind. The first is to fall to our knees and pray that Ava duVernay’s upcoming A Wrinkle in Time is every bit as good as we long for it to be.

The second: read instead.

Good books for young readers (children and tweens, not teens) centering on boys may outnumber those centering on girls, but good books about girls certainly outnumber good recent movies about them. If you make a friend of a good book when you’re ten or twelve, you’ll have a friend for life. A few of my favorites:

Matilda (Roald Dahl). Despite what movies and television want us to believe, child geniuses are not always boys. Matilda uses her immense brainpower to defy those who would tell her she’s nothing (parents, school principal) and to empower those around her. She’s a rule-breaker, a game-changer, and a wrecker of oppressive authority.

The Wee Free Men and its sequels (Terry Pratchett). Young witch Tiffany Aching is no Chosen One in the Harry Potter mold. Rather, she earns her hero status through a winning combination of hard work, determination, common sense, and fearlessness.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, beginning with Dealing With Dragons (Patricia C. Wrede). Wrede employs a light-hearted, humorous style to tell the story of two female characters who become the best of friends. One is a dragon who eventually becomes King (yes, you read that right), and the other is an unorthodox princess determined to chart her own course.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World (Shannon Hale). The indomitable Doreen Green, a hero with the combined powers of Squirrel and Girl, may be in high school in this novelization of the popular comics character. But I can’t think of anything in this breezy, entertaining tale that couldn’t be enjoyed by smart girls as young as ten or even eight.

Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter (Astrid Lindgren). I picked up this novel after its anime adaptation charmed me. If you’ve always dreamed of living in a forest and learning the ways of the wild things, finding a best friend on your own adventurous wavelength, and conquering hate with the force of friendship and love, this is the book for you.

2017: My Year in Fiction, Part 2

Part 2: Movies and Television

How can anything good come out of Hollywood, a community where reprehensible abuse of power is apparently so prevalent? Strange as it seems, good entertainment does happen, and I’ve had some good times at the theater this year, as well as at home in front of the television set. A fiction enthusiast like myself appreciates any medium through which engrossing stories might be delivered.

Favorite Blockbuster: Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi. I know not everyone loves it. In fact, I have friends that hate it with astonishing vehemence. I know that sensible complaints involving plot holes and miscommunication and extraneous subplots can be made against it. But darn it, I still loved it. I’ll have more to say about it in a later blog post, once I’ve had a chance to see it again. Close runner up: Wonder Woman, the movie many of us (including myself) thought stood no chance of being watchable, but turned out to be amazing.

Favorite Non-Blockbuster: The Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, among the best depictions of a woman’s creative power put on film. It was released too early in the year for Cynthia Nixon’s amazing performance to get Oscar’s attention, and that’s a terrible shame.

Favorite Date Movie: The LEGO Batman Movie, which my husband and I saw together on Valentine’s Day at the Movie Tavern in Suwannee, GA. After all, what could be more romantic than sharing laughs — lots of them? The movie also deserves props for giving us the best depiction of Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) we’ve seen to date.

Least Favorite Date Movie: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Friends loved it. Critics liked it. My husband and I rode the wave of positive buzz into the theater, and we came out wondering what the heck we’d just seen. For me the worst part came during the credits, where a scene made it clear that the aspect of the movie I disliked most, the villainous matriarchal super-race the Sovereigns, would be back for the third film. I doubt I’ll bother.

Most Pleasant Surprise: Atomic Blonde. The trailers didn’t impress me. This looks cheesy, I thought. Yet it turned out to be a well-made action-packed spy thriller with my favorite movie soundtrack of the year.

Most WTF Comment on the State of Entertainment: A Tweet that turned up in my feed, positing that The Last Jedi and the Thirteenth Doctor were evidence that Hollywood was falling into a “feminist black hole.” Uh, just how many big money-making adventure movies with female protagonists did we see this year? Three, I think? That’s hardly evidence of a feminist takeover. It is evidence, however, of the theory that for some people, one big movie hit with a female lead character out of twenty such movies with male lead characters is one too many.

I Still Need to See: Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.

Favorite TV Shows Watched in 2017: Netflix’s Luke Cage and GLOW, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Supergirl, Agents of SHIELDiZombie, and PBS’s Victoria (Season 1) and Poldark (Season 3).

When It’s Good, It’s Really Good: Peter Capaldi’s final season of Doctor Who, featuring my favorite New Who Companion, Bill Potts. (Why is it that these days, the ones I love most only get one season?) We got some lackluster episodes this year, but also some darn fine television.

Television Show With the Best Score: Poldark.

Television Show With the Best Soundtrack: Luke Cage.

I Can’t Believe I Actually Like This: I’ve never been a wrestling fan, and GLOW took me completely by surprise as I found myself connecting with the talented but hapless and often unlikable protagonist played by Alison Brie, as well as the diverse cast of female characters around her. What started as a show about female rivalry evolved into a show about female friendships, and I relished seeing that happen.

These Things Were Absolutely Made With Me in Mind: Poldark and Victoria.

Show We All Need to be Watching Right Now: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a sitcom that mixes humor with heart as it depicts a group of very diverse individuals working well together, feeding off each other’s competence, and appreciating each other. Nearly every week we see that a show need not be mean in order to be funny.

Best TV Boss: Without question, Captain Raymond Holt of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He also speaks my Favorite Line of Dialogue: “Any time someone stands up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place.” (To put it in context, he says this to one of his officers, Det. Rosa Diaz, just after she has come out as bisexual.)

Most Improved: Agents of SHIELD. I was lukewarm on the show when it began, but I kept watching in the hope it would get better. The last season shows just how far it’s come since its awkward beginnings. I did have issues with this season’s ending, though…

Female Villains Need More Unique Motivations: Does it always have to be jealousy? The villain of the last half of Agents of SHIELD‘s season tries to destroy humankind because the man she loved preferred someone else. The villain who threatened the earth at the end of this past season’s Supergirl did so because her son chose his sweetheart over her and the privileged domination she offered him. In both cases, a woman goes genocidal because a man rejected her. Darn, but this kind of thing gets old.

Most Disappointing Departure: Floriana Lima, a.k.a. Det. Maggie Sawyer on Supergirl. Losing the character would be regrettable enough in itself, but the writers could at least have had her accept a promotion in another city and shown her and Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh) trying their hand at a long-distance relationship. Instead, they chose to break them up and add these ladies to the already-too-long list of lesbian TV couples denied a happy ending.

Most Unjustly Overlooked Show: iZombie. The zombies here aren’t mindless monsters but intelligent humanoids trying to figure out how to satisfy their need to consume brains without becoming menaces to society (although some of them would be fine with that). To me, this makes them a lot more interesting. Plus, Rose McIver’s Liv Moore is one of those smart, capable “female Other” protagonists I absolutely adore. Yet nobody seems ever to talk about this show. In discussions of supernatural-tinged action shows with strong female leads, this one rarely if ever comes up. I wonder why.

Now That’s How You Do A Reboot: Disney’s new Duck Tales, which manages the neat trick of improving on the original while still honoring its memory. I’m enjoying all the characters, but the new Webby is my favorite, not just because she’s more badass but because she’s flawed, which gives her more chances to be funny than the sweetness-and-light original ever got. Plus, David Tennant, my favorite of the “New Who” Doctors, voices Scrooge McDuck! I’m on board. But I’m well past ready to see some new episodes. Come on, Disney.

2017: My Year in Fiction, Part 1

Part 1: Books.

When the news gets sometimes scary, other times depressing, or both at once, fiction becomes more important to me than ever. While the news may show me the sad state of society and politics, fiction can offer hope, or at least a sense that things don’t have to be like this. The act of writing in itself is hopeful, as we take bits and pieces from the world around us, both light and dark, and knit them together into something new and potentially beautiful. While stories of sexual harassment and assault and violence motivated by racism have been buzzing in my ears, I’ve been hammering away at my most ambitious fantasy novel project to date, as well as crafting plays about Santa Claus’s elves and reindeer. And of course, I’ve been reading.

Some highlights of my year in books:

Most Epic Epic Fantasy: Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves, a 780-page feast featuring a myriad of complicated and intriguing characters, vivid world-building, and clashing cultures and belief systems. I need the next book ASAP.

Most Epic YA: Leigh Barduro’s Crooked Kingdom, the sequel to Six of Crows. Six outlaw heroes deal with conflict between nations and potentially deadly skirmishes between rival gangs on the streets of a quasi-17th century Ketterdam (Amsterdam). Tamora Pierce meets George R. R. Martin.

Most Lyrical Urban Fantasy: This one doesn’t have much competition, but it’s Patricia McKillip’s Kingfisher. McKillip brings her distinctively luminous style to the usually gritty urban fantasy genre, with (for me) satisfying results. If only more urban fantasy were written like this.

Most Underrated Read: Intisar Khanani’s Memories of Ash, the novel-length sequel to her novella Sunbolt. Khanani’s lovely, fluid prose and skillful characterizations deserve far more attention.

The “Welcome to My World” Prize: This one goes to the authors whose work I’ve read for the first time this year, whose future efforts I intend to seek out. N.K. Jemisin (The Shadowed Sun), Robert Jackson Bennett (City of Stairs), Michael J. Sullivan (Age of Myth, Age of Swords), Becky Chambers (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), Melissa Caruso (The Tethered Mage), Mickey Zucker Reichert (Beyond Ragnarok), M.H. Boroson (The Girl With Ghost Eyes), Adrian Tchaikovsky (The Tiger and the Wolf), Mark T. Barnes (The Garden of Stones), Ken Liu (The Wall of Storms), Phil Tucker (The Path of Flames), Mark Lawrence (Red Sister).

The “Continues Awesome” Prize: For authors I already love and whose works I read this year didn’t let me down. Kate Elliott (Black Wolves), Kate Forsyth (The Cursed Towers), Patricia McKillip (Kingfisher), Daniel O’Malley (Stiletto), Terry Pratchett (Witches Abroad), Brandon Sanderson (The Bands of Mourning, Arcanum Unbounded, Oathbringer*). *– Still in progress, but I’m listing it anyway, because what I’ve read so far is just that good.

Favorite Female Heroes Who Have Passed Their Prime: Marshal Dannarah (Black Wolves), Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg (Witches Abroad), Persephone (Age of Myth, Age of Swords), Silence Montane (“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell,” Arcanum Unbounded).

Favorite Female Heroes Who Are In Their Prime: Hanani of the Hetawa (The Shadowed Sun), Li Lin (The Girl With Ghost Eyes), Shai (“The Emperor’s Soul,” Arcanum Unbounded), Suri (Age of Myth, Age of Swords), Hitomi (Memories of Ash), Shara Khomayd (City of Stairs), Marasi and Steris (The Bands of Mourning), Zomi and Thera (The Wall of Storms).

Favorite Female Heroes Who Are Children (Sort Of): Lift (“Edgedancer,” Arcanum Unbounded).

Favorite Female Supporting Characters: Kizzy and Sissix (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), Sunandi (The Shadowed Sun), Highmarshal Azure (Oathbringer), Jane (A College of Magics), Mulaghesh (City of Stairs), Lifka (Black Wolves), Arion, Brin, and Roan (Age of Myth, Age of Swords), Dame Scotia Malory (Kingfisher).

Favorite Male Supporting Characters: Sigrud (City of Stairs), Kellas (Black Wolves), Adolin and Rock (Oathbringer), Wylan (Crooked Kingdom), Mni-inh (The Shadowed Sun), Wayne (The Bands of Mourning), Gaetona (“The Emperor’s Soul,” Arcanum Unbounded), Luan Zyu (The Wall of Storms).

Favorite Male Heroes: Dalinar Kholin (Oathbringer), Kelsier (“Mistborn: A Secret History,” Arcanum Unbounded), Asho (The Path of Flames), Indris (The Garden of Stones), Captain Ashby (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), Rudy Solis (The Time of the Dark).

Favorite Audiobook: A three-way tie: Arcanum Unbounded (read by Michael Kramer and Kate Reading), A Darker Shade of Magic (read by Stephen Crossley), and The Curse of Chalion (read by Lloyd James).

Disappointments: Barbara Hambly’s The Time of the Dark, K.B. Wager’s After the Crown, Sharon Shinn’s Wrapt in Crystal, Kristen Britain’s The High King’s Tomb, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven. None of these books were terrible; I just didn’t love them quite as much as I have these authors’ other work.

Books I’m Most Looking Forward To in the Coming Year: Django Wexler’s The Infernal Batallion, Mark Lawrence’s Grey Sister, Michael J. Sullivan’s Age of War, Melissa Caruso’s The Defiant Heir, and Kate Elliott’s Dead Empire, all to be published (hopefully) in 2018.

A Christmas Treat from the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company

One of my best accomplishments of 2017 came near the end: on December 9 and 10, the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company produced and performed my new Christmas play, “The Sleigh of Unspoken Dreams.” The very first draft was a heavy-handed polemic about the gendering of toys and toy-giving.  Over time, with the company’s help, it became something more and better. While my previous holiday script, “Christmas Rose,” is rooted in reality, this one is a North Pole fantasy that touches on a question of import: just how do Santa’s elves cope with burnout?

I herewith share the performance with you. I think it went beautifully. Featured are the voices of:

  • David Benedict as the Announcer and World of Learning Historian,
  • Melody Bonnette as Zoe,
  • Elisabeth Allen as Lydia,
  • Chris Little as Rupert,
  • Kelley S. Ceccato (that’s me!) as Vixen the Third,
  • Joe Ravenson as Santa Claus,
  • Paige Stedman Ross as Maya and World of Learning Singer, and
  • Christa Burton and Billy Barefoot as Elf Sergeants 1 and 2.

Special thanks to Ron N. Butler, who gave me the ending (the Santa Claus scene is almost entirely his work), and to the Stewart family of Marietta, who lit the spark that in time became this play.

Since this is a live recording, please turn up the volume on your chosen device all the way for better playing.

The Sleigh of Unspoken Dreams

 

Christmas, Christ, and the Christian

I haven’t written much about my faith in this blog, since I haven’t wanted to give my readers the impression I might be preaching to you, or worse, at you. But today I feel moved to bring it up, since it’s been on my mind a good bit lately. I was raised Baptist, and as a young adult I switched to Methodist, and today I am happily Episcopalian. I have never not thought of myself as a Christian, and this Christmas season, 2017, has been a challenge for me. Why? I’ve felt my faith under attack.

The threat doesn’t come from Muslims, Jews, agnostics, or atheists. It doesn’t come from homosexual couples who want to get married or from women (like me) who have no interest in motherhood. It doesn’t come from Starbucks coffee cups or retail clerks who wish their customers “Happy Holidays” in December.

No, the threat comes from those who invoke the name of Christ but demonstrate little to none of his spirit and thus paint a distorted picture of Christianity itself. It comes from those who shout about Christ and Christianity, yet almost none of their shouts are shouts of joy.

It comes from those who pluck bits and pieces of Scripture, rarely from the Gospels, out of their context in order to persuade themselves and others that straight white men rule by divine right, and everyone else must fit into a narrow “role,” as if the gift of individuality, of uniqueness, was only given to that one privileged segment of the population.

It comes from those who hang “Keep Out” signs on the door of faith, and would hang those signs on our nation’s halls of power and even on our nation itself if they only could. I read this philosophy expressed in a simple statement on a political website: “A good sermon makes the heathen run screaming into the night.”

Really? That flies in the face of everything I’ve always thought and felt. A good sermon doesn’t chase anyone away. Rather, it makes the “heathen,” such as they are, listen and reflect. A good sermon helps those who hear it grow in understanding, however much faith they may have come in with.

So many people who call themselves Christians spend nearly all their time wagging their fingers at the supposed sins of others. But I was taught that my duty as a Christian was to look at myself first, and ask, “What am I doing? What should I be doing? How can I do better?” One of my favorite fictional clergymen, Father Mulcahy of M*A*S*H*, declares that God put humankind on earth “so He could be here Himself.” Am I part of that? Do people see Christ’s love in me? Every day I fall far short of where I should be. But Christ urges me to keep trying, to look out for opportunities to show love and to see those around me as He would see them.

I want to make the effort, for the Jesus who never said a word against gay people or birth control, but who did say, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me. . . I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25: 35-40) For the Jesus who, at a time when women were denied any role in public life, spoke and listened to women, and who befriended those cast to the margins of their society (fishermen, tax collectors, Gentiles), and who rebuked the religious leaders of his day for their small-hearted hypocrisy. For the Jesus who lived by the radical idea that every person has value.

Here is a song not many people know, but for me it gets right to the heart of, as Linus van Pelt might say, “what Christmas is all about.”

 

Book Report: Recent Reads

(Spoiler Warning)

Often, how much I enjoy a good SFF adventure will have a lot to do with whether the female lead “saves the day” — that is, how instrumental a role she plays in solving the book’s central problems. Where is she at the climax, and what is she doing? Is she off stage, tucked away in a place of safety? Is she passive, observing the crucial events from a distance? Is she incapacitated and rendered helpless? Or is she in the thick of the action, mixing it up with the bad guys in some form or fashion? So many novels have been ruined for me by a heroine’s ineffectuality or even irrelevance at crunch time. Likewise, I’ve found myself on the fence about some novels, only to become their champion when the heroines prove their worth at the climax.

Two recent reads, each brilliant in its own way, have brought this issue to the forefront of my mind.

Stiletto (Daniel O’Malley)

The Rook, the first volume of O’Malley’s “Checquy Files” series, overcame my usual dislike of contemporary fantasy to the point of becoming one of my favorite reads of 2013. It has quite a few of my favorite elements to recommend it, among them a writing style that deftly mixes humor and horror and eschews urban fantasy’s usual “noir” shtick, an unlikely and resourceful female protagonist, and a welcome emphasis on supportive relationships between women. These ingredients are still present in its sequel, Stiletto, a longer and more complicated book featuring not one female protagonist but two.

The Rook introduces us to the Checquy, a London-based organization of mutants whose aim is to neutralize eruptions of the paranormal. By the end, our heroic mutant bureaucrat, Myfanwy Thomas, has thwarted a takeover by the Checquy’s enemies, the Grafters, a group of Continental Europeans who have given themselves special abilities through technology, and she has brokered a cessation of hostilities between the two. Peace is in the offing. Happy ending, right? Not so fast. Hatred and suspicion between the Checquy and the Grafters runs deep, and many doubt that the two can coexist, let alone cooperate. In Stiletto, it’s up to a Checquy pawn, Felicity Clements, and a Grafter surgeon, Odette Liefeld, to ensure the future of cooperation and stop a murderous conspiracy aimed at sabotaging the treaty.

Giving us the points of view of both Checquy and Grafter heroines is a master stroke, as we see how even fundamentally decent people can fall prey to a hatred with centuries behind it. Felicity and Odette, much like Elphaba and Galinda from the musical Wicked, loathe each other on sight, expecting the worst of each other and, at first, getting it. Yet over time, as they work toward their common goal, they come to tolerate, appreciate, and even like each other. Since we like them both, we’re thrilled to see this happen.

Yet as I was enjoying the novel, I hit a wall at the climax. Though our heroines do a good job at figuring out the villains’ identity and tracking them down, they end up captured, and they’re saved less through their own skills and competence than through luck and the foresight of Odette’s male cousin, who inserted a fail-safe device into her without her knowledge. All those moments showcasing the ladies’ courage and ingenuity were leading up to this? Seems a bit of a let-down, especially considering how active Myfanwy is at the climax of the previous book — until I consider that O’Malley might be putting to the test our common notions of “saving the day.”

What is, after all, the central problem of the book? The age-old hostility between Checquy and Grafters, and the attitude that the two groups cannot be expected to work together. Considering this, I can see that Felicity and Odette actually do save the day, through becoming friends. Together they embody the hopeful future their leaders are working toward, and it’s fitting that the book’s final scene shows them chatting and joking with each other as friends do. Through them, we see that old hatreds can indeed be overcome.

The Shadowed Sun (N.K. Jemisin)

In this, my first experience with acclaimed novelist Jemisin, the question of whether the female lead saves they day has a less ambiguous answer. Yes, she does. Hanani is, without question, a female hero, and her triumph makes an often troubling, tough-meat novel a hopeful read.

The Shadowed Sun is actually the second volume in a duology, the first of which establishes the struggle for power and territory between two peoples with deeply conflicting ideas about religion and culture. I chose to read the second volume first after it was recommended in response to my request for sympathetic portrayals of clergywomen in SFF (since the novel I’m working on will include such characters). I was told I would have little trouble catching up, and once I had absorbed the world-building details, I was able to connect with Hanani’s story without much difficulty. She is the first ever woman of the Hetawa, her people’s religious leaders, since her healing powers are undeniable. But she’s not exactly made to feel welcome, and her superiors send her and her mentor on a dangerous diplomatic mission without caring much whether she makes it out alive. Yet it turns out that Hanani, the disregarded and undervalued, has both the skills and the heart required to save her people from a psychic plague foisted on them by a monstrous man, who has turned his abused and mentally damaged daughter into a weaponized nightmare. The hero’s courage and compassion overcome the darkness.

Then comes the part that at first disappointed me. After having more than proved her right and her fitness to belong to the Hetawa, she turns her back on it and walks away, leaving the Hetawa a boys’ club once again. Yet as I reflect, I can see that this too serves as a sign of why Jemisin has such renown as a strong feminist writer. Hanani abandons the Hetawa because — once again I’m reminded of Wicked — she’s “tired of playing by the rules of someone else’s game.” With the strength she has gained on her journey, she’s ready to live life on her own terms, both as a healer and as a lover. And rather than regressing, the Hetaway has realized at last that it needs to change, thanks to her.

On the surface, Stiletto and The Shadowed Sun couldn’t be more different. Yet both offer the same hopeful thesis — there are many ways in which a woman can be a hero.