What’s Making Me Happy: March 2017

Yummy Epic Fantasy Goodness!

I read many good books every year, and my favorites are always the ones that make me sigh with a smile, “Now this is why I love to read epic fantasy.” Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive and Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series have hit this button for me, along with Michelle West’s Sun Sword series, Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy, and most books by Kate Forsyth and Juliet Marillier. This month I’ve lucked into two books I can add to the growing list: Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves and Michael J. Sullivan’s Age of Myth, both reportedly the first volumes in new series I’m already eager to follow to their ends. They have just about everything I look for when I pick up an epic fantasy novel, and even a little more.

The first, of course, is the quality of the writing itself. It’s hard to explain the appeal of prose style in a blog review without stuffing the review full of quotes, which I’m not of a mind to do.  I’ll say only that the prose I like best is that which puts me in the story’s world from the very first chapter. It makes me curious to explore that world further, curious to get to know the characters who inhabit it and see how they will cope with the challenges it throws at them. With these books, both Sullivan and Elliott succeed. Sullivan’s prose is breezy and energetic, a welcome antidote to the prevailing gray winds of grimdark. Elliott’s prose is a bit more challenging, more intricate, as befits the less traditional fantasy landscape she’s laying out. But both are involving, and they make an agreeable contrast.

Then there’s the world-building and the situations it sets up — the stakes, the complexities. I always appreciate the best fantasy writers’ capacity to create interesting value systems and throw them into conflict. In Age of Myth, Sullivan presents readers with a culture clash between a race of elves called Fhrey and humans, whom the Fhrey call “Rhunes” (ostensibly an insult). The humans worship these elves as gods, while the elves see humans as animals. Over the course of the novel, both these suppositions are challenged, thanks partly to a clever wrinkle: the Fhrey cannot kill each other, but humans can kill them, as we learn in the opening chapter when Raithe, the male lead, earns the sobriquet “God-Killer.” The Fhrey are intriguing creations, neither pure good like Tolkien’s elves nor pure evil like Terry Pratchett’s; some are villains, while others, though initially misguided, emerge as heroic. The female Fhrey, Arion, is a favorite of mine, as she’s injured and must depend on the Rhunes’ care.

In Black Wolves, nonhumans (demons) have a part to play, but the major conflicts revolve around religions competing for power in a multicultural society called the Hundred (a world with which readers of Elliott’s earlier Crossroads Trilogy will be already familiar). In many multicultural fantasy worlds, one subculture will seek to take over and create a homogenized society in which people follow their strict precepts and all dissent is crushed. In Elliott’s novel, this upstart subculture is the worship of Beltak, a faith that demands almost total segregation of the genders and the elimination of women from all say and activity in public life. Beltak worship is a growing danger, thanks to the foothold it has gained in the ruling family, and causing problems for female reeves (a force of peacekeeping riders of giant eagles) like Marshal Dannarah, a female lead in her late sixties. What I find interesting is that the culture of Beltak worship is not presented as wholly evil; some women actually thrive in their cloistered environment and appreciate their separation from men. The evil springs from the religion’s adherents’ insistence that their way should be the only way, their readiness to impose their will on others. Those on the side of good must find ways to protect and defend freedom in the Hundred.

But all the intricacies of world-building and conflict don’t matter much if I can’t latch onto the characters. When I read Spirit Gate, the first book in the Crossroads Trilogy, I struggled with it because I found myself hating every male point-of-view character in the story, since they all shared the same flaw — a crushing lack of respect for women. Thankfully Black Wolves doesn’t have this problem, as its central male figure, Kellas, retired commander of the titular Black Wolves, is a man of honor in the style of Stormlight‘s Dalinar Kholin. In Age of Myth we get to know Raithe the God-Killer, his wisecracking companion Malcolm (a former slave of the Fhrey), and Nyphron, the leader of a band of rebellious Fhrey. In short, both novels offer stalwart heroes, and if their ideas about gender may be a little backward at first, we get the impression they can learn better.

But for me an epic fantasy is only as good as its female characters, and any such fantasy that follows the Smurfette Principle (one lone woman among scores of men) will have to work very hard to win me over. Neither of these novels comes anywhere near that Smurfette mistake. Both offer not one admirable and honorable woman but many, and with a very pleasing diversity of age, appearance, and personality. Both place a mature woman at the center of the action: in Age of Myth, the widowed late-thirtysomething Persephone, and in Black Wolves, the aforementioned Marshal Dannarah. They’re presented as strong and sensible authority figures, with Persephone filling the role of chieftain for her community in the aftermath of her husband’s death, and Dannarah maintaining her command despite the encroachment of hostile forces and taking a leading role in protecting the kingdom. Considering how commonly the fantasy genre portrays female authority as evil, or at least untrustworthy and unnatural, it’s delightful to see women in charge depicted in a sympathetic light. These are women of vision, even if Dannarah’s concern for the kingdom’s well-being may very occasionally lead her to questionable decisions.

These aren’t the only women whose point of view we get. In Age of Myth we see through the eyes of Suri, a teenage mystic who can communicate with trees and who travels with a wolf, and Arion,, the powerful Fhrey who learns (thanks largely to Suri) that everything she thinks she knows about Rhunes is wrong. In Black Wolves we spend time in the shoes of the young reeve Lifka, desperate to protect her family from the Beltak priests and a prince’s petty vendetta, and Sarai, a disgraced woman seeking a place for herself through an arranged marriage (yes, in the book that makes sense). In addition we get a multitude of female secondary characters, also pleasingly diverse. These women aren’t just there for the male characters to fall in love with. In fact, in both books, romance is a comparatively minor concern (though granted, I’m still only halfway through Black Wolves).

Thanks to books like these, and other new releases in the offing (including Age of Swords, the follow-up to Age of Myth), I don’t have to worry overmuch about the state of epic fantasy. And that makes me very, very happy.

It’s Always Women’s History Month

When I want to engage with an inventive mix of realities and possibilities, what we are touched with what we might have been or what we might become, I look to fantasy and science fiction. But when I want to engage with the realities of where we are now through the lens of where we have been, I look to historical fiction and, very occasionally, nonfiction. Women’s place in history has always fascinated me — how they impacted it, how they coped with and/or defied restrictions placed on them. Women have always been complex individuals with lives worth exploring, even if their times and places haven’t been willing to recognize them as such. As another March draws to a close, I’d like to share some recommendations to help readers who share my interests keep the spirit of Women’s History Month alive in their minds and hearts.

Caleb’s Crossing (Geraldine Brooks)

Set in mid-17th century Martha’s Vineyard, this novel tells the story of the observant and insatiably curious Bethia, whose hungry mind keeps trying to escape the bonds set by the well-intentioned men whom her world grants authority over her. The “Caleb” of the title is a young Native American man with whom Bethia forges a friendship, who chooses to “cross” the racial/ethnic divide and embrace the Anglo-European culture he realizes will prevail in his land. Brooks’s quiet and well-crafted narrative shows how Bethia and Caleb sacrifice vital parts of themselves in order to survive in the world in which their “places” are rigidly defined. The prose gracefully evokes both the confining strictures and pastoral beauty of its setting.

Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl (Kate Forsyth)

These excellent novels mark Forsyth’s move away from the traditional fantasy style of The Witches of Eileanan and Rhiannon’s Ride series and toward an examination of the fairy tales that provide much of the genre’s foundation — how the stories were preserved and set down, and how they exert an ongoing influence. Bitter Greens is a blend of fantasy and historical fiction, a retelling of “Rapunzel” set in Renaissance Italy and the story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the delightfully unorthodox 17th century French aristocrat who composed her own retelling of the tale. The Wild Girl is straight up historical fiction, the story of Dortchen Wild, who contributed stories to the Brothers Grimm’s Nursery and Household Tales and later married Wilhelm Grimm. Both depict the value and the vitality of stories, and offer portraits of vibrant, creative women who played a crucial role in preserving those stories for posterity.

Hild (Nicola Griffith)

Some books contain prose so beautiful you almost ache when you read it. One such book is this portrait of a young woman in early medieval England both blessed and cursed by the Sight, valued as a well-born daughter who might make an advantageous “peace-bonding” match and suspected as a woman who knows more than she should and never quite manages to fit in. We see through the eyes of the brilliant, introspective, and often confused Hild as she confronts the responsibilities her visions give her and her own burgeoning sexuality. Because of the Sight, this book skirts the line between fantasy and historical fiction, but since less emphasis is placed on the supernatural elements than on the very detailed evocation of time and place, I would class it as the latter.

The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker)

Even though the heroine and hero are a golem and a jinni, bookstores never shelve this beautiful novel in the fantasy section. The fantasy elements are a bit stronger here than in Hild, but the historical fiction fan will find much to enjoy in the vivid picture of two neighborhoods in turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York: the Jewish corner where the golem makes her home and the “Little Syria” the jinni inhabits. Along with our supernatural stars we get to know a dying rabbi and his social activist son, a socialite with dreams too big for the fate in store for her, an ice-cream seller who once glimpsed something forbidden and has suffered for it ever since, and a host of others. Though Chava the golem is a fascinating figure, for my money the novel’s real heroine is Wecker herself, whose prose will take a reader’s breath away. Well worth the time, in both print and audiobook.

Founding Mothers: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation (Cokie Roberts)

This engrossing nonfiction work offers a look at the lives of a number of prominent women of Colonial and Revolutionary America. Roberts gets things rolling with a description of the life of Eliza Pinckney of South Carolina, that shows us how far from passive and uninvolved her life was and how vitally women like her contributed to the life and culture of their country. In the course of the book we spend time with a number of remarkable women, among them Abigail Adams (a personal heroine of mine, an advocate for an education that would have allowed girls like Bethia to develop their intellect to its full potential), Mercy Otis Warren, Martha Washington, Deborah Franklin, Sally Knox, and Catharine “Kitty” Greene, each of whom proves a capable and courageous woman in exciting and challenging times.

Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales (Valerie Paradiz)

I read this piece of nonfiction before The Wild Girl came into my hands, and I was delighted to see Kate Forsyth cite Paradiz’s work as a source of inspiration as well as detail for her novel. Not only did Dortchen Wild tell stories for the famous brothers to set down in writing; all her sisters did as well, along with many other women from different social strata in early nineteenth-century Germany. Here again we see women whom the “bigger” history books ignore leaving an indelible mark on the culture not only of their own time but of countless generations that have followed.

Lastly, take a look at Kameron Hurley’s essay “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle, and Slaves’ Narrative,” which shows in compelling, persuasive detail that women’s roles in history are far more varied and complicated than some might prefer to think. It’s a well-known essay. You may have read it before. It’s worth a re-read.

Happy Women’s History Month.




Supplemental: Potentially Helpful Lists

If the “Best Of” recommendations lists don’t always (or even often) offer help to readers looking for good fantasy with a female lead that isn’t YA, urban fantasy, or paranormal romance, sometimes we have to look a little harder. Goodreads can be a useful resource, since its lists are often more specifically directed than the generalized “Best Ofs.” Here are a few:




Here’s the thing about Goodreads lists, however: since anyone can cast a vote, sometimes works may make an appearance even though they don’t fit what the list is asking for. Readers will be well-advised to explore the reviews posted for the titles that intrigue them.

Here’s another interesting list, from another website:


Some of these titles I can highly recommend, but the comments are telling. Many commenters take the list-makers to task for their assumption that any fantasy novel with a female lead must be “for women,” as if 1) men would never want to read such things, and 2) works “for women” need a special list, as if they couldn’t compete on equal terms with the male-led titles.

(Note: The Death of the Necromancer and the rest of the Ile-Rien series are written by Martha Wells, not Mary Gentle. Wells has also written the Books of the Raksura, a series beginning with The Cloud Roads. I heartily recommend these books.)

Yes, We Do Part 2: More Trouble with Lists

In my post last week I focused on the issue of visibility for female writers and female-driven stories outside the urban, paranormal-romance, and YA subgenres. Women are writing high-quality epic and historical fantasy, and female leads are featured in it, yet despite obvious evidence (check out the long list of names of female epic-fantasy writers in last week’s post), many remain unaware of it. One culprit is easy to spot — fantasy stories by and/or about women remain a rarity on “Best Of” lists. Such lists can leave an unaware consumer with the impression that male-led stories by male authors are somehow inherently more worth reading.

One such list came to my attention a few days ago, in my Facebook feed: Paste Magazine’s 30 Best Fantasy Book Series of All Time. With thirty possible titles to choose from, the selection is heavily slanted in favor of stories about men — male heroes/saviors, male anti-heroes, male villain protagonists. And the funny-but-sad thing is that many people looking at the list might not think twice about this slant because hey, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn is on it.

Let me break it down.

Stories focusing on male heroes, saviors, or Chosen Ones: The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis), The Chronicles of Prydain (Lloyd Alexander), The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (Stephen R. Donaldson), The Dark Elf Trilogy (R. A. Salvatore), The Dark Tower (Stephen King), The Dresden Files (Jim Butcher), Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling), The Kingkiller Chronicles (Patrick Rothfuss), The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien), The Pendragon Cycle (Stephen R. Lawhead), Shannara (Terry Brooks), The Sword of Truth (Terry Goodkind), Temeraire (Naomi Novik), The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan). That’s not to say that female characters have no roles to play. Sometimes they’re around to help the male hero, and they may even be awesome in that role (e.g. Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, Karrin Murphy from The Dresden Files); other times they exist to put the male hero or heroes through varying levels of hell (e.g. The Wheel of Time). But whatever the case, however impressive the girls or women might occasionally be, the boys and men are the ones with the day-saving Destiny. Total number of titles: fourteen.

Series that focus on male protagonists who aren’t quite so heroic: The Black Company (Glen Cook), The Broken Empire Trilogy (Mark Lawrence), The First Law Trilogy (Joe Abercrombie), The Gentleman Bastards Sequence (Scott Lynch),The Magicians Trilogy (Lev Grossman), The Night Angel Trilogy (Brent Weeks). Number of titles: six — which brings the total of male-centric “Best” series up to twenty.

Then we have the series in which protagonist duty is divided between male and female characters. Some are ensemble pieces, such as Steven Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive. Others focus on male leads in some of the novels and female leads in others: Discworld (Terry Pratchett), The Earthsea Cycle (Ursula K. LeGuin), Redwall (Brian Jacques), Dragonriders of Pern (Anne McCaffrey), and The Realm of the Underlings (Robin Hobb). Sanderson’s Mistborn belongs in this category as well, even though plenty would recognize it as a female-led title; the first three books do focus on a female savior, but the more recent books feature a man in the savior role, the most powerful person of the cast (though three female characters I like a great deal are strong supporting forces).

The only title on the list in which the focus is on a female lead throughout: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And guess what — it’s YA.

No Kate Elliott. No Barbara Hambly. No Juliet Marillier. No Sharon Shinn, whose Twelve Houses series was one of my happiest discoveries a few years back. No mention of Django Wexler’s The Shadow Campaigns or Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, works every bit as powerfully written and thought-provoking as A Song of Ice and Fire, though not as nihilistic. These authors and their works get abundant praise from readers and critics who are actually familiar with them. Yet lists like this routinely leave them off, and meanwhile the same titles are predictably included. Of course The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings are going to be there, as they should; they’re a big part of the modern fantasy genre’s foundation. But must every list name The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Broken Empire, and The Gentleman Bastards? As good as these books might be, couldn’t at least one list-maker gravitate toward Elizabeth Bear’s sumptuous Eternal Sky Trilogy?

Readers like what they like, and Best Of lists can only be criticized so far. But when fantasy fans looking for a new read see the same titles recommended again and again, of course that’s what they pick up, and then recommend to others, and so well-written stories centering on female leads will continue to be ignored, even though they’re out there in abundance. Worse, prospective writers may absorb the notion that a female character’s sphere of action must be limited while a male character’s possibilities are boundless, thus affecting the kinds of fantasy fiction we see in the future.

Women have always had a presence in epic fantasy. It’s high time we stopped ignoring them.

Yes, We Do

A couple of days ago I had one of those wonderful moments when I see my own views perfectly reflected in the words of another writer — in this case, Emily Asher-Perrin, a writer for the Tor.com website. The post was an old one, from 2012, entitled “Break the YA Monopoly — Give Us Female Heroes for Adults,” and in it Ms. Asher-Perrin noted with pleasure the growing number of active heroines in science fiction and fantasy directed at the YA audience, yet expressed regret at the comparative lack of female leads in SFF aimed at adults. In the Comments section (yes, I know, “never read the comments,” but I can’t help myself), one reader took her to task for failing to acknowledge the rise of Urban Fantasy, a sub-genre dominated by female protagonists. Ms. Asher-Perrin admitted the criticism might have some weight but confessed that Urban Fantasy is just “not my cuppa” and she gets tired of being pointed toward it each time she expresses a desire for more woman-centric adult-oriented fantasy.

Welcome to my head, Ms. Asher-Perrin! These very thoughts, in almost these very words, have coursed through my brain when I’ve browsed Goodreads lists like “Best ‘Strong Female’ Fantasy Novels” and “Best Heroine in a Fantasy Book” and noted how many of the titles are either YA or Urban Fantasy or, of course, both. As I’ve stated before on this blog, I can take much pleasure in a well-written work of YA fantasy, and I’d never hesitate to praise the work of Robin McKinley or Tamora Pierce or Gail Carson Levine, particularly as its influence on a rising generation of potential writers cannot be over-appreciated. But I can’t help regretting that male leads continue to dominate in fantasy’s more mature works, with writers like Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, R. Scott Bakker, Brian Staveley, and Mark Lawrence leading the pack. (To be fair, Staveley and Lawrence both have books coming out this year in which they’re trying their hands at female leads. Should prove interesting.) As for Urban Fantasy, while there may be some exceptions, in general I’m with Ms. Asher-Perrin: it’s not my cuppa. Some UF may be very well-written, but the edgy ultra-“modern” writing style tends to put me off. Also, I read fantasy to explore other worlds, not to tour some near-variation of the real one. I’d rather see more powerful, active female presences in the subgenres I prefer — second-world fantasy, historical and epic.

What exactly defines a work of epic fantasy? I freely admit my own novels don’t qualify, though they are second-world (that is, set in a created world). My stories so far have concerned the fates of small sets of characters in limited settings — in Atterwald, a magically secluded estate, and in Nightmare Lullaby, a village. Epic fantasy is wider in scope. In epic fantasy, the fates of nations or even entire peoples is at stake, and military action is nearly always involved. Tolkien’s legendary Lord of the Rings, which essentially gave birth to the modern fantasy-for-adults genre, is of this ilk, and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire stands as the best-known recent example. Women do play significant roles in Martin’s series, but the excuse for why male characters continue to dominate in the genre is a simple, short-sighted, oft-repeated one: women aren’t interested in epic fantasy. We don’t read it, and we don’t write it.

Excuse me. Yes, we do.

Here, if you will, is a list of names, just for a start — and not, by any means, all the women who write or have written epic fantasy. An asterisk denotes those whose work I’ve read and whose quality I can vouch for.

Elizabeth Bear*. Kate Forsyth*. Kate Elliott*. Katherine Kerr. Katherine Kurtz. Michelle West*. Mickey Zucker Reichert*. Jennifer Fallon*. Melanie Rawn. Sara Douglass. Tanith Lee. Naomi Novik*. Robin Hobb*. Janny Wurts*. Barbara Hambly.* Carol Berg. Katherine Addison/Sarah Monette*. Jacqueline Carey*. Julie Czerneda. Lois McMaster Bujold*. Elizabeth Moon*. N.K. Jemisin. Kameron Hurley. Mary Gentle. C.S. Friedman. J.V. Jones. Lynn Flewelling. Teresa Frohock. Rowena Cory Daniells. Jude Fisher. Katya Riemann. Holly Lisle. Evie Manieri*. Stina Leicht*. Patricia McKillip*. C.J. Cherryh.* Helen Lowe. Karen Miller. Gail Z. Martin*. Elspeth Cooper. Jennifer Roberson. Anne Bishop. Judith Tarr. Mercedes Lackey*. Sherwood Smith. Kristen Britain*. Trudi Canavan*. Glenda Larke*. Elizabeth Haydon*.

Given such obvious evidence to the contrary, why do some still cling to the assumption that women, as writers and as readers, don’t care about epic fantasy? Why, when we express a wish for a stronger female presence in adult-targeted epic fantasy, should we be told to read urban fantasy instead? I’ve read plenty of theories, but all of them point back to one thing: visibility. As good as their work may be, these women’s names almost never pop to the top of the Recommendations or Favorites lists, and so many prospective readers may never even realize their work is out there. In the urban fantasy subgenre, female writers are front and center, and so the phrase “fantasy by women” may conjure a certain image in a lot of readers’ minds, of a woman in low-rider jeans and cut-off t-shirt, side-arm in hand and face either cut off or hidden in shadow, the proto-typical cover of an urban fantasy novel.

The perception needs to change, and we can all do our part.

I confess that when I choose books to read, I pay far less attention to the author’s gender than I do to the characters’ genders. A book that omits women or relegates them to background roles won’t appeal to me these days, regardless of who wrote it. And as I’ve mentioned in the past, we can’t assume that women writers will always write better female characters than men do. Male writers like Django Wexler, Brandon Sanderson, and Max Gladstone fill their works with not just one or two interesting women but an abundance of them, but some excellent female writers, like Carol Berg and Sarah Monette, have at times noted that male characters come more easily to them, and accordingly, nearly all their novels feature male leads. The notion that male leads are better suited for the sorts of stories epic fantasy novels usually tell is very easy to internalize.

Yet in Women’s History Month, a too-brief time we set aside to acknowledge and lift up the accomplishments of women, I want to call attention to some of my favorite works of epic fantasy both by women and about women. I know I’ve mentioned some of these in previous posts, so I’ll keep it short and simple.

Elizabeth Bear, The Eternal Sky Trilogy (Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky). What makes it epic? A contest between heroes and villains for the soul of a nation and the lives of its people; a sumptuously detailed Arabian Nights setting; a clash of armies, both human and nonhuman; a plentiful cast of characters, both male and female, including a kick-butt giant mutant tiger.

Kate Forsyth, the Witches of Eileanan series (The Witches of Eileanan et. seq.) and its sequel series, Rhiannon’s Ride (The Tower of Ravens, The Shining City, and The Heart of Stars). What makes it epic? A setting that ranges from castle walls to faery forests to a mountain range inhabited by dragons; a clash between sympathetic witches and grasping witch-hunters for the life and soul of a nation; a plentiful cast of characters, male and female, human and nonhuman, and (perhaps the greatest rarity) young and old.

Robin Hobb, The Liveship Traders (Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, and Ship of Destiny). What makes it epic? Sea battles between pirates and merchants; sentient ships, sea serpents, and dragons, each one of them given point-of-view sequences that give us glimpses of their nonhuman natures; clash of cultures and races.

Michelle West, the Sun Sword series (The Broken Crown et. seq.). What makes it epic? A clash of nations and cultures; a large cast of characters, with detailed and complex points of view, on both sides of the struggle; destiny-shaping nonhuman forces, often in the background but always omnipresent.

Mickey Zucker Reichert, The Renshai Chronicles (Beyond Ragnarok, Prince of Demons, and The Children of Wrath). What makes it epic? A cast of characters that includes humans, elves, and gods; a quest to find a missing heir and save a kingdom from evil forces without and within; political machinations alternating with action sequences.

In short, such books have all the ingredients to make any epic fantasy fan happy. And all include multiple women in important roles. The Illustrated Page is also posting a series this month highlighting the impressive work being done by women in the fantasy genre. Give it a look for even more titles.

Seek out these books. Revel in them. Devour them. Women belong in epic fantasy, both as writers and as characters.

Men of Honor: Some Favorite Male Characters in Fantasy

Throughout my blogging and reviewing days I have given much attention to the representation of girls and women in the various fictions I consume — whether they’re written as complex and believable individuals or as fractious stereotypes, as heroines or as damsels, as active participators or as passive ornaments/trophies. I doubt I’ll run out of anything to say about such things anytime soon. Yet the representation of boys and men merits attention as well, and the avoidance of shallow, reductive stereotyping in their characterizations is as essential to my enjoyment in a story. Misrepresentation of any gender is evidence of a failure of imagination on the writers’ part, a tendency to think too much of “Men” or “Women” as an enormous plural, a monolithic block, an aggregation of shared traits labeled “masculine” or “feminine.”

Something I wonder at times when I look at a lot of the male characters we see nowadays, especially in movies and television, is, “Where have all the adults gone?” The type of the perpetual adolescent, the “boy-man” whose idea of the perfect life is one endless game and who cringes in fear at the thought of commitment or responsibility of any kind, turns up with distressing frequency. For the boy-man, whatever his chronological age, adulthood is a trap — to be evaded if he’s young, to be escaped if he’s older. Worst of all are those boy-men who measure their manhood by their number of sexual conquests, fictional editions of Charlie Sheen who tend to be created by writers who love sex in stories but grimace at the very suggestion of “romance.” A boy-man rarely, if ever, knows how to treat a woman with anything resembling respect.

These aren’t the kinds of men with whom I have (or want) much to do in real life, and they aren’t the kind I enjoy reading about or watching. The qualities I appreciate most in male characters are much the same as those I value in female characters — courage, kindness, capability, and honor. Honor, as Webster’s defines it, means “fidelity to principles or obligations; fairness in dealing; conformance with high standards of behavior.” By this definition, honor is the very characteristic that makes a person an adult in the truest sense of the word.

A few of my favorite men of honor in fantasy fiction:

Dalinar Kholin, from The Stormlight Archive (Brandon Sanderson). Not long before we meet him, this high-born military leader was something of a “boy-man,” a hard-drinking hedonist content to leave serious responsibility in the hands of his older brother, King Gavilar. But when Gavilar is assassinated and his inexperienced, paranoid, and temperamental son ascends the throne, Dalinar is forced to step up, keep a tight rein on his nephew, and lead an army to war against his brother’s killers, all while dealing with chaotic visions that urge him to unify the kingdom’s competing factions. Once he takes on the mantle of full adulthood, he becomes a man of great dignity and wisdom, even though the visions have many people, including his duel-happy playboy elder son, wondering if he’s losing his mind. While he’s very much the kick-butt action hero, I appreciate most his square dealing with those around him, the strong sense of fair play that moves him to free a group of low-ranking “bridgemen” (basically slaves used as arrow fodder) from bondage and offer them a chance at a normal life. He understands that honor may be found even in those considered the lowest of the low.

The third volume in Sanderson’s series, Oathbringer (due out this November), will feature flashbacks of a much younger, less responsible Dalinar. I can’t wait, since seeing the man he once was can only increase my admiration for the man he has evolved into.

Colonel Marcus D’Ivoire, from The Shadow Campaigns (Django Wexler). Another military commander (a job where you can’t evade responsibility if you want to live very long), Marcus doesn’t seem at first glance like a character I would admire. Very much a man of his time and place, a late 18th century pseudo-France, he believes in traditional gender roles and is far from comfortable with the idea of women fighting; when his superior orders the formation of a troop of female soldiers, the Girl’s Own, he disapproves. However, that rigidity fails to hold up as he works with some of the women, gets to know them, and sees first-hand what they’re capable of. He comes to admire and respect them, showing himself open to new understanding gained from experience. He’s one of those rare but wonderful fictional men whom we see valuing women as friends, not just as potential love interests. And I should mention he’s a major-league badass, very good at what he does.

Maia, from The Goblin Emperor (Katherine Addison). This acclaimed novel was not one of my favorite reads of last year, due to my disappointment with its female characters. But if I’m listing fictional men of honor, I can’t omit its protagonist, as he’s pretty much the mensch incarnate. The scorned and unwanted half-breed son of the Emperor of elf-kind, he ascends the throne when every other possible heir is killed and now must figure out how to rule wisely and well. A victim of bigotry and abuse, Maia as an eye that can spy out injustice and a heart that feels for victims of mistreatment and seeks to protect and elevate them. Over the course of his story he earns the nickname “bridge-builder,” as he leads by example and heals division in his society whenever the opportunity arises. With all the divisive rhetoric crackling in the air in US socio-politics, I can’t help thinking we could use a few more men, and women, like Maia.

Sam Vimes and Carrot Ironfoundersson, from Discworld (Terry Pratchett). The two top cops in the city of Ankh-Morpork are the yin and yang that make the Night’s Watch work. Vimes, the cynical recovering alcoholic, offers wry and astute observations about human (or inhuman, as the case may be) nature and the corruption in the socio-political machine of the city he’s supposed to protect, but even though he often doubts he can make any real difference, darn it, he never stops trying. Carrot is, by design, a simpler character, an earnest and optimistic young man who believes in people’s basic goodness. Yet this Dudley Do-Right is not held up to ridicule. Rather, his own innate goodness, his “charisma,” overpowers wrong-doers and makes them want to turn over a new leaf just to impress him. Both Vimes and Carrot exemplify honor, as they understand the right thing and try to do it, and they stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Under their leadership, the Ankh-Morpork Night’s Watch becomes a beacon of diversity and inclusiveness, with dwarfs, trolls, gnomes, gargoyles, religious minorities (a man whose full name is “Constable Visit-the-Infidel-with-Explanatory-Pamphlets”), a werewolf (Carrot’s sweetheart), a golem, a zombie, and even, as of Thud!, a vampire. Carrot has nearly always taken people as he’s found them, but part of being a person of honor is being open to change, and over the course of the series we’ve seen Vimes overcome his own prejudices, one by one by one.


What’s Making Me Happy: February 2017

With various forms of madness on the rise in our country and our world, it’s none too easy at times to focus on the positive. Yet it’s worth a try. There’s still joy to be found in good stories. A few that have given me pleasure of late:

Victoria. All who know me know my weakness for sumptuous British costume dramas, and this one had me from its haunting opening theme. If the excellent film Mrs. Brown (1997) stands as the definitive word on the bereaved middle-aged Queen Victoria, this one may just be the definitive word on the young, inexperienced, newly-crowned Queen awkwardly navigating the treacherous waters of her new position, determined to be her own woman yet at the same time desperate for support and advice. Jenna Coleman’s performance brings her to life as someone you want to strangle at times but root for anyway, and she’s surrounded by such stalwarts as Rufus Sewell (as Lord Melbourne, the much older but still charismatic mentor on whom she develops an early crush) and Peter Bowles (as the stodgy and bigoted Duke of Wellington, his military-hero days behind him). Plus there’s an adorable tricolor Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Victoria’s beloved lapdog Dash, who brings a smile to my face every time he appears. Never underestimate the Power of Cute.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Can you love a central protagonist when you disagree with nearly everything she does? I would have said “No,” before my husband and I started catching episodes of this TV musical comedy on Netflix. But now I have to admit I love Rebecca Bunch, the smart but completely mixed-up lawyer played by Rachel Bloom, who moves from New York to California to be near a childhood flame who, at the end of the day, isn’t worth driving across town for. I’m not quite sure whether I love her in spite of her disastrous choices or because of them — maybe a bit of both, because Bloom, the show’s creator as well as its star, always lets us see why she behaves as she does. She and the other characters may burst frequently into song (and a fine, eclectic bunch of songs they are; for a sample, take a listen to a plea from Rebecca’s alternative love interest and Rebecca’s mother’s disapproving rant when she comes for a Christmas visit), yet they feel more real than many a TV character on shows praised for their “grit”; Rhiannon Thomas’s review aptly praises this show’s realistic portrayal of mental illness.

Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter (the anime series). Since Matt and I are both fans of Japan’s Studio Ghibli, which released such gorgeous films as My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Princess Mononoke, we had to check out this Ghibli offering that’s streaming now on Amazon Prime. The show is clearly aimed at a target audience several generations younger than I, but it goes straight to the heart of my inner ten-year-old. The series has everything my ten-year-old self would have relished: a lush and exquisitely animated forest and a young female protagonist who is allowed to roam through it freely, unsupervised, because her parents deem it fitting that she learn the forest’s ways for herself. The story moves slowly, as do many anime series outside the action-adventure genre. But the clever, curious heroine, who has taught herself not to be afraid, holds my interest. My inner ten-year-old wants to be just like Ronja.

Crooked Kingdom. My happiness in this YA fantasy novel by Leigh Barduro is bittersweet; it’s the second volume in a duology, and I’m sad there isn’t any more. This book has all the virtues I’ve noted earlier about the first volume, Six of Crows: intriguing world-building, plenty of action, emphasis on friendships, flawed and complex characters. Yet I should point out that among those strengths, this book succeeds in the very area where entirely too many YA fantasies fail — the romances. As the six protagonists enact a plan to fleece and expose both a sociopathic merchant and a brutal crime boss, we follow the romantic intrigues of three couples, one of them a pair of young men. In all three cases, Barduro lets us see why the couples are drawn to each other, why they work well together, and how they learn from each other and do each other good.

Memories of Ash. Going all the way back to the days of legend, fantasy fiction has a history of depicting female magic and magicians as evil. (Remember Morgan le Fay?) Because of this, I take special pleasure in novels in which the protagonist is a heroic female mage. In Intisar Khanani’s novel, a follow-up to her novella Sunbolt (which absolutely must be read first), we follow a very gifted young apprentice-mage as she works to save her mentor from unjust imprisonment. (The mentor is also a woman, and these two aren’t even the only impressive female mages we meet.) How the heroine works and experiences magic is described in a vivid detail that rival’s Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, and while she does have a love interest, romance is clearly only part of her story and not the whole of it, always a welcome thing to see with a female lead. Unlike Crooked Kingdom, this novel will get a sequel. I’ll be ready to snatch it up for my Kindle.


Things I Love about… Singin’ in the Rain

Musicals in general don’t get much respect, and Hollywood musicals get the least respect of all. Dislike of musicals is a common opinion among the “smart set,” who claim that musicals are childish fantasies because after all, in real life people don’t suddenly burst into song and dance when they hit emotional highs. But at least Broadway musicals have been known to tell serious, complex stories and use songs to develop character and/or advance the plot. Hollywood musicals, by contrast, have a reputation for being pure frivolity. So runs the general opinion of the wised-up modern cinema audience. Why, then, does some Hollywood creative type try every few years to jump-start the long dormant heart of the musical?

Perhaps because “frivolity” does not automatically equal “waste of time”? Because the occasional bit of frivolity might meet a vital need? I am the naive creature who loves musicals, but even I know that most of Hollywood’s original product in that genre (as opposed to movie adaptations of stage musicals) tends to have shallow, silly plots and paper-thin characterizations. The success of a typical Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers vehicle owes more to the elegance and likability of its stars than to anything else (unless you’re a fan of the music of Gershwin and Berlin, which I am). Yet I’d never turn down a chance to spend time with Fred and Ginger. There’s a certain joy I can find in their company that the harder-edged, more incisive cinema genres can’t quite give me.

The latest attempt to revive the Hollywood musical for modern audiences — an effort of which I’m skeptical, since the “musical stars” on which the genre once thrived, people like Astaire and Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, might be in abundance on Broadway these days but are nowhere to be found in Hollywood — is La La Land, which begins, as old-fashioned Hollywood musicals often did, with a splashy opening number featuring a crowd of southern Californians dancing on top of their cars in the midst of a traffic jam. This review by Rhiannon Thomas sums up with astonishing accuracy how my husband and I felt about the film. (Warning: Review contains Spoilers.) I can see why cynics claim that its huge tally of Oscar nominations springs from Hollywood’s reflexive fondness for movies about itself. But such talk only makes me think of what may be the best film Hollywood ever made about itself, which was also a musical but got almost no love from Oscar. My disappointment in La La Land only serves to remind me of how much I love this film, which possesses in spades the wit and the fun to which the recent film never really bothers to aspire.

I speak of 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. What is it about this movie that makes it such a favorite?

It tells an interesting story. The creators of the film had the clever idea to string together a series of songs written by Arthur Freed (who became a successful producer of musicals) and Nacio Herb Brown in the late ’20s and early ’30s, and weave them into a plot centering on old silent film-era Hollywood’s often traumatic transition to sound. Back in 1952, plenty of people on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot had very vivid memories of this transition, and they shared stories that make their way into the film — for example, the frustration with the stationary microphone, into which early sound film actors had to find a way to deliver all their dialogue. In one hilarious sequence, squeaky-voiced silent screen siren Lina Lamont, wonderfully played by Jean Hagen (who did earn an Oscar nomination), struggles to remember the microphone’s location, and no matter how many times the location is changed, nothing works. “I can’t make love to a bush!” Lina shouts. She’s the movie’s villain, but at this point we can’t help feeling sorry for her, as she’s having to re-learn everything she thought she knew about acting. With this and other problems, we’re left thinking it’s a miracle that cinema survived the transition, and admiring those who actually made it work.

The humor is wide-ranging. The movie opens not with a splashy number but with a deliciously ironic sequence in which Lina’s co-star and fellow silent matinee idol Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly, who radiates twinkling arrogance at this stage of the film) tells the screaming fans who have gathered for the premiere of his latest movie the story of his journey to success. As he talks, reiterating his motto of “Dignity, always dignity,” we watch his real story play out, which proves to be anything but dignified. The contrast between what he’s saying and what really happened — for instance, his descriptions of his early roles as “urbane, sophisticated, suave,” when they’re really a series of wildly dangerous stuntman chores — inspires a slow-building chuckle. In contrast we have the big number of Don’s best pal Cosmo (Donald O’Connor, pure frenetic energy), “Make ‘Em Laugh,” which is pure joyous slapstick. And of course we have the laughter inspired by the hapless Lina, as the transition to sound reveals just how much talent she doesn’t have, and as she tries, and fails every time, to speak in the “round tones” recommended by her diction coach. Whatever flavor of humor a viewer is hungry for, chances are Singin’ in the Rain includes it somewhere. (Except lacings of profanity and non-subtexted lewdness; the movie was made in the early ’50s, after all. But I think that kind of thing can usually be done without, anyway.)

The characters are engaging. I tend to throw the word “engaging ” around a lot. What does it truly mean? From a literal standpoint it speaks to the ability of certain characters and plots to engage the interests and sympathies of an audience. In the context of this film the meaning is simpler: they’re just plain fun to watch. Yet they have more to them than most Hollywood-musical characters. Kathy Selden, the talented aspiring performer played by Debbie Reynolds, who stands to benefit from the advent of sound as much as Lina would be hampered by it, enters the scene expressing disdain for screen acting and thus putting Don in his place as he’s trying to hit on her. We later learn she loves the movies and is particularly a fan of Don’s work, but that only makes her refusal to be a pushover all the more admirable. She may love Don the actor, but Don the person has to win her over by showing her respect and support. They make me smile as they move toward each other (a feat Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone never manage in La La Land), and their happy ending feels earned. They’re fun together, and they’re funny together.

O’Connor’s Cosmo rounds out our trio of good guys, and I love how quick he is to befriend Kathy. Many male characters in his position would resent the intrusion of a woman into his “bromance” with his best friend, but Cosmo knows what we know — that Kathy is good for Don — and welcomes her into their lives with open arms. On the other side of the spectrum, Lina Lamont might just deserve a place among the top ten most entertaining screen villains. Villain she is, as much as we may pity her when she can’t manage “round tones” or remember the location of the mic; her ice-cold treatment of Don when he’s a mere stuntman, her contempt for Cosmo, and her efforts to sabotage Kathy’s chance at stardom reveal her true character. Yet her moment of comeuppance is also one of her funniest, as she addresses the audience at her final premiere and they’re shocked by her cringingly squeaky voice: “If we bring a little joy into your hum-drum lives, it makes us feel as though all our hard work ain’t been in vain for nothing.”

In sum, Singin’ in the Rain has charm, a quality that is notably lacking in most contemporary films (with the exceptions of outstanding animated features). Classic cinema fans will keep going back to it long after most recent efforts to resurrect the live-action musical have faded from our collective memory.

Figures Should Not Stay Hidden

“Maybe, if someone bothered to show [girls] that they could have dreams, they might be able to dream them. Mightn’t they?” — Mercedes Lackey, Phoenix and Ashes (272)

A friend of mine, reacting to the recent spate of Facebook posts related to politics, asked us to post the issues that counted as most important to us. Reproductive rights? Affordable health care? Climate change and the need for greater knowledge and understanding about the environment? Our justice system? All vital issues, but after I gave the matter thought, I realized I had only one honest answer, one that should rest well outside the government’s purview and that plenty of people might dismiss as frivolous compared with the issues above: “Gender representation in stories, be they wholly fictional or based on real people/events.” It’s the issue to which I return again and again on my blog, and will keep returning, as this post bears witness. And of course I must confront the inevitable follow-up question: why does it matter?

Why does it matter that so many epic fantasy sagas continue to follow the Smurfette Principle (one female character surrounded by a multitude of males), or else leave female characters out of the picture altogether?

Why does it matter that some works of speculative fiction, particularly movies and television, continue to divide their female characters into two camps: victim and villain? Why does it matter that a fair number of spec fic creators apparently love, love, love writing about female villains but can’t seem to wrap their minds around the notion of a female hero?

Why does it matter that representations of friendships between women continue to be comparatively rare, while bromances abound? Why does it matter that we almost never see male and female characters interacting as friends — allies united in a common purpose, with a bond sealed by mutual respect?

Why does it matter that while badass women may occasionally be shown saving the male hero, we still hardly ever see them saving the day/world (a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “Trinity Syndrome”)?

Why does it matter?

It’s been said before, but it’s always worth repeating and remembering: because stories are the birthplaces of daydreams. Stories shape how we perceive ourselves and others, and influence our sense of possibility. As old as I am, I feel a greater sense of faith in myself and my capabilities when I see women in heroic roles on page and screen (and in a variety of such roles, not solely the Action Girl); I do believe my thrill at seeing and reading about female heroes doing their thing has only grown stronger over time. But do only female readers/viewers benefit? Surely it helps us all, men and women, to see that the power and resourcefulness to be saviors and problem-solvers is not confined to one gender or the other.

All this should be obvious by now, right? Yet we still see disheartening evidence that some folks just don’t get it. For those who bluster about the supporting nature of Max’s role in Mad Max: Fury Road, those who claim that an all-female Ghostbusters remake is an all-out assault upon their childhoods, and those for whom two female protagonists in the Star Wars franchise are two too many, my desire to see more heroic women on page and screen makes me an SJW (that’s “Social Justice Warrior,” for those not up on Internet insults) who wants to suck all the fun out of speculative fiction and emasculate men in the process. Yet is saying I want more and better roles for women automatically the same as saying that men should no longer get to be heroes, or that male heroes have lost all value? Surely not. I don’t regret a minute of the time I spent with the male heroes that dominated my childhood reading, from Hazel and Bigwig to Gandalf and Bilbo. I can still look up to Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, the Doctor, Captains Kirk and Picard and Sisko, and such big-screen heroes from classic cinema as Jefferson Smith, George Bailey, and Atticus Finch. Does the inclusion of more female heroes in this mix really threaten to dim their luster? Isn’t there room in the vast pool of Story for heroic men and women?

Representation becomes even more vital when race as well as gender is a factor. A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I had the pleasure of seeing the Oscar-nominated, SAG Award-winning drama Hidden Figures, featuring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae as gifted African-American women working as “calculators” for NASA in its early days. If we can point to an all-around triumph in terms of representation in current cinema, here it is. It hits almost all my buttons. Female friendship? Respect and friendship developing between men and women? Women being no-holds-barred awesome at their jobs? Check, check, and check. That these are black women being awesome — Henson winning over skeptics with sheer persistence and the power of her remarkable mind; Monae forging a path as an engineer (“I have no choice but to be the first”); Spencer training herself and her fellow calculators to program the new IBM machines when the “experts” can’t figure them out — only makes the triumph more heady, particularly since these three actresses are so immensely likable in their roles that only the most irredeemably bigoted audiences could fail to root for them to succeed.

This story needed to be told. The question that lingers in my mind is why it took Hollywood so long to tell it.

Who decides which stories, and whose stories, are worth telling? Author Jason Porath raises the question in his book Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics. Porath tells the stories or some of history’s overlooked women in storybook style, with illustrations in the Disney mode, but don’t be fooled. There’s a lot to be learned here, about multitudes of women of all races who, if Hollywood could get over its “girl cooties,” would have their stories told on film. (Hidden Figures is a box-office success, so it’s well past time to retire that worn-out “movies about women don’t make money unless they’re romantic comedies” excuse.)

Where’s the movie about Mary Seacole, a Jamaican nurse who worked alongside Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War and wrote a successful autobiography detailing her experiences? Where’s the movie about “Stagecoach” Mary Fields, who went through a succession of jobs before finding her calling as a postal carrier in the Old West, an “utterly terrifying job” (36)?

Moving from history to fiction, we will soon see a third screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, with its male messiah and its coterie of untrustworthy shadow-dwelling women. Yet so far, no one has thought to make even one screen version of Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Wild Seed or Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, shocking, often disturbing novels with brilliantly complex black female heroes who confront the nature of violence and evil, both within and without, and take their stands for good. I don’t say that Dune shouldn’t be remade; maybe they’ll get it right this time. But why not make some room for these other, no less remarkable stories, in which female power is presented in a more sympathetic light?

Why does it matter?

Because too many people think it doesn’t.

This is my issue.

Things I love about… Hamilton

“You got chocolate in my peanut butter!” So goes the cry of dismay in a commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups that was popular when I was growing up. Two great tastes that taste great together, the tag line runs; the skeptics just have to try it and see. All well and good, as long as you like both peanut butter and chocolate. But what it you adore chocolate but don’t care for peanut butter?

I have loved Broadway musicals nearly all my life, but I’ve never had much fondness for hip-hop, so the idea of their fusion didn’t exactly thrill me. My issues with hip-hop aren’t that the lyrics are spoken rather than sung, since that’s not unknown even in “classic” Broadway musicals (e.g. The opening “Rock Island” number and Harold Hill’s patter songs from The Music Man and all of Henry Higgins’ songs from My Fair Lady). Rather, I dislike the practice of “sampling” melodic licks from previously existing songs rather than composing original tunes to undergird the rap, and the misogyny in the lyrics of some of hip-hop’s most popular stars, Eminem being one of the worst offenders. When Dr. Dre declares that “bitches be nothin’ but tricks and hoes,” it’s pretty clear I’m not the target audience he has in mind. (A friend of mine recently pointed out to me that rap’s reputation for misogyny is unfair because similar anti-woman messages turn up just as frequently in other musical genres, particularly country. I agree with her to a certain extent, but I can’t accept “hey, those other guys are doing it too” as a reason why I should be okay with lyrics like the previous quote. Misogyny should not be given a pass in any genre of music.)

With these blocks against hip-hop, the last thing I expected when curiosity drove me to listen to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton on YouTube was that I would end up liking it. I’d get through two numbers at most, I figured. Yet to my surprise, I kept listening, and I found that with sampling kept to a bare minimum and misogyny altogether absent, hip-hop and the Broadway musical, joined to tell the story of the United States’ first Secretary of the Treasury, could indeed be two great tastes that taste great together. So, just what won me over about Hamilton? (Spoilers will follow, but then again, the opening number pretty much lets us know the fate that awaits our protagonist, just in case we’ve forgotten hearing about it in history class.)

First, Hamilton continues the tradition established by Oklahoma in 1943, of using songs to establish character and further the plot. It gets off to a strong start with the second song, “Aaron Burr, Sir,” in which the story’s central figures meet for the first time and begin a tenuous friendship. The seed of the conflict that will lead to the climactic duel is planted here, as we hear the contrast between the intense, impetuous Hamilton and the laid-back, charming Burr, who advises the brash Alexander to “talk less, smile more.” (Hamilton’s reaction to this advice is also telling: “You can’t be serious.”) This early number engages our interest in the two men. We want to see how their relationship will progress, even though we already know how it ends. Darn good character development.

Second, history interests me. It was my second favorite school subject behind English, as well it might have been when my father taught history at a junior college for many years. Accordingly, historical subject matter catches my attention. Miranda has his Hamilton engage in raucous rap battles with Thomas Jefferson, with George Washington, one of the musical’s sanest characters, doing his best to referee, but while the real life Hamilton and Jefferson almost certainly never talked like this, the substance of their disputes — strong central government vs. states’ rights — rings true to what I remember from history class. One of the show’s best known numbers and a favorite of mine, “The Room Where It Happens,” tells the story of how the nation’s capital came to be on Virginia’s northern border, a story I recall distinctly from my dad’s American History class. Such things make me smile.

Third, Alexander Hamilton himself makes an interesting, charismatic Broadway musical protagonist. He’s too complicated for us to feel one way about. On the one hand, we can’t help but root for him, a rootless young man with no money but boundless potential, determined not to throw away “his shot” even though he has internalized the idea that he will die young. Yet when he behaves badly, the musical does not excuse him. We’re made, for instance, to feel the wrongness of his betrayal of Eliza, his “best of wives, best of women” (more on her in a moment). Adultery is not “just something men do,” it is not “okay,” and in the end Alexander pays dearly for it. An equally complex figure is his antagonist (or is he a co-protagonist?) Aaron Burr. If “My Shot” and the rousing first-act closer “Non-Stop” help define Hamilton, Burr’s dilemma, the tension between his desire to succeed and his instinct for self-preservation, is laid out in the catchy “Wait for It.” (I may never have been a hip-hop fan, but I have a taste for classic 1980s R&B, and Leslie Odom Jr., who originated the role of Burr, reminds me at times of Luther Vandross, in a good way.) This is no simple “good vs. evil” conflict, but the story of two flawed men whom history put at odds. It’s interesting to note that in Hamilton‘s clean-up at last year’s Tony Awards, while Miranda was awarded as the show’s creator, he lost Best Actor in a Musical to Odom. Aaron Burr wins the duel again.

Finally, this story of the Revolutionary War and the evolution of America’s two-party system may seem like a very dudely musical, but it presents us with an admirable heroine in Elizabeth Schulyer Hamilton. On paper Eliza doesn’t seem a character I would like it all, since I’ve never had much patience with the trope of the little woman who begs her husband to pay attention to her when he has his hands full with history-shaping events. But I have to reckon with Philippa Soo, who brings grace and intelligence and a heartbreakingly beautiful singing voice to the role. She’s the story’s emotional core. The most heartfelt moments belong to her — “That Would Be Enough,” in which she tells Alexander she’s expecting their first child; “Burn,” in which she acts to preserve her dignity in the face of her husband’s public confession of infidelity; and the closing number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” in which we learn of the life she led after her husband’s death and her ongoing efforts to preserve the legacy he was so desperate to protect. Even when she has one line in a song, she makes her powerful presence felt, as in “It’s Quiet Uptown,” which deals with the aftermath of the death of her and Alexander’s oldest son Philip. (The narrator here is Eliza’s sister Angelica, another impressive female figure. This song will make almost any listener teary-eyed.)

When it comes to describing a musical, the written word can only do so much, which is why I’ve included links to the songs I’ve mentioned here. Two great tastes that taste great together. Take a listen and see what you think.