THE BLOODPRINT by Ausma Zehanat Khan

A new review, over at Tor.com:

I wanted to like it [The Bloodprint] more than I did. In terms of voice, characterisation, and prose style, it feels not quite cooked yet: it only begins to feel like it gels together into something greater than the sum of its disparate parts in the last 100 pages (quite late for 400-page-plus book), just in time for it to cliffhanger on the way to volume two. I’m an old and jaded critic, and I have come to prefer books that feel narratively satisfying within a single volume, even if they are clearly part one, than books that feel as though they stopped more because they ran out of room than they reached a natural break point.

Sleeps With Monsters: The Cold Blade’s Finger

A new column over at Tor.com:

I want to rave about Elizabeth Bear’s The Stone in the Skull. Actually, it feels like I need to rave about it: a glorious, dramatic, lush and striking fantasy set in the same continuity as the Eternal Sky trilogy (Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and The Steles of the Sky), with a brilliant cast of characters and an opening that involves an ice wyrm attacking a caravan on its way up a frozen river. It’s no exaggeration to say I was hooked from the first page.

OF FIRE AND STARS by Audrey Coulthurst

I submitted this piece to one of the places for which I write reviews. They handed it back to me as unduly cruel to a debut author writing in an underrepresented subgenre. I will not name the venue. “Unduly cruel” may be a fair criticism of this review. So if you read on, be warned.

(I will write and sell at some point, I hope, a longer essay on the stakes involved with writing about underrepresented groups and the extra frustration when a cool premise in that regard turns out to have crappy execution.)

Of Fire and Stars is Audrey Coulthurst’s debut novel, out of the Balzer + Bray HarperCollins imprint. It’s a novel that I wanted very much to like.

Unfortunately, I found myself very disappointed by it. One might go so far as to say I was brutally underwhelmed by its achievements.

Of Fire and Stars promised me a princess, Dennaleia of Havemont, sent away from home to fulfill an arranged marriage. A princess who falls in love with her betrothed’s unconventional sister, Amaranthine, better known as “Mare”. With extra magic and all sorts of hijinks. That’s what it promised me.

You’d think it might be difficult for such an intriguing premise to turn out bland and somewhat boring, wouldn’t you? I mean, wouldn’t you?

As it turns out, you’d be wrong.

Let me enumerate the ways in which Of Fire and Stars disappoints:

Everyone in this book is an idiot. There are constant, confused — and confusing — infodumps about politics, and a cast of political actors who… well, let’s just say I’ve seen more sophisticated school yearbook committees, and leave it at that. In politics everyone has an agenda! Often more than one! This book does not have any clue how to depict that effectively. No one has the least suspicion that a Helpful Guy might be manipulating everyone for his own profit. Neither princess knows how to lie. I can’t see a single redeeming feature about the prince, who may be a complete incompetent — jury’s out, because no one in this book is particularly competent.

And every so often, we’re treated to a scene of the ruling body of the country sitting around a table yelling infodumps at each other — and committee meetings are just as boring to read about as they are in real life, unless you can appreciate cunning politics in play.

Of course, that means there needs to actually be cunning politics.

Of Fire and Stars is told in the first person, alternating points of view between Dennaleia and Mare. Neither of the voices are particularly well-defined. Neither of them can be easily distinguished from each other. Denna and Mare are thinly drawn protagonists, and unfortunately the members of their surrounding cast are just as thin, if not more so. In the main, character motivation is ridiculously shallow, where it isn’t confused. And the pacing — It’s all over the place.

I haven’t even mentioned the worldbuilding. “Lightly sketched” might be overstating the case: there is very little solid here, very little that feels real or plausible or even that follows the general constraints of physical geography. It also possesses an unfortunate lack of linguistic tact in its naming conventions — if they were sufficiently consistent that I might call them conventions, that is.

Sod me, I wanted to like this book. I really wanted to like it: there’s not so much mainstream fantasy with queer lady protagonists out there. I’m always looking for reasons to love every single one.

It is a perpetual canard of the “anti-PC” crowd that “social justice warriors” promote politics over quality, in art. And untrue as that is, I’m prepared to give something that tells a story I don’t often get to see — a story like this — much more benefit of the doubt than I otherwise would.

But Of Fire and Stars makes me want to get out the Immortan Joe MEDIOCRE clip.

It is mediocre at best. I spent the three hours it took me to finish it hoping against hope, hoping desperately, that it would show a glimmer of something great before the end. A hint of shine. A promise of better things.

NOPE.

It lets the queer lady awesome side down, is what it does.

Of course, part of my problem here is scarcity. And scarcity, where it comes to queer female protagonists who do not end up dead or miserable, is a major problem. I’m annoyed at Of Fire and Stars, and frustrated by it. Would I be as annoyed if I had acres of stories with queer female protagonists to choose from?

No. I wouldn’t be nearly as annoyed.

And that’s not fair to Of Fire and Stars. But we don’t have acres. We have a scant handful every year. (Even scanter if we look for stories whose protagonists aren’t white.) So every example carries an unfair weight of hopes and expectations: every example’s success is a wedge by which to pry open more space to tell these kinds of stories to wider audiences.

And failure therefore, particularly on economic grounds, becomes a stick that can be used to beat that wedge back.

I wish I could simply not care that Of Fire and Stars is a mediocre offering for the Young Adult marketplace. I wish I had that luxury. Just say “meh,” and let that be an end to it. Instead, I find myself uncomfortably rooting for the success of a novel that I find at best third-rate, because if it sinks without a trace, who the hell knows when I’ll see another fantasy take on a similar premise?

And this is an unhappy place to land.

Epic Lists of Epicness: Postmortem

Following on from our posts about “essential” epic fantasy (mine here and here), Jared’s followed up with some number-crunching.

What have we learned from this experiment? Across all four lists, only two works are universal: The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire. We have a little better luck with authors – but even there, we don’t have a list of even ten we all agree on.

Participants in the list-making exercise are based in Ireland, UK, Australia and USA. Two identify as men, two as women. We’ve covered the bases of the Anglosphere, I think. And what we’ve learned is that there is no universal agreement on

a) what constitutes epic fantasy
b) what constitutes essential epic fantasy
c) whose opinions are the most wrongheaded.

Useful data all around, wouldn’t you say?

Go read Jared’s post. He has charts.

Inaugural Missing The Point Award – What Does This Comment Even Mean?

Coming from a location in Kingston-Upon-Hull, UK – says the IP address – comes a comment on Realism, (Male) Rape and Epic Fantasy I’ve kept in the “pending” bin. A comment that wins our very first “Missing The Point” award!

“Almost” only counts with horseshoes and hand grenades…

Wow. Hats off to you. You’ve somehow managed to make men being raped into something that shows how awful men are.
I mean, good show, that is some impressive logic to take a horrifying account of male rape through to a line of questioning that reads: “Come on, you bastards! Write more about torn anuses! Stop attacking the women! I won’t be happy until I see you (in literature) rectally bleed!”

My dear readers, I appeal to you: what does this comment even mean? Have I really expressed myself so poorly, in pointing out the horrors and the prevalence of sexual violence, that someone may honestly interpret it as advocating for more literary representations of sexual violence, instead of better ones?

I cast myself upon your good graces for an answer to this question.

Linky wants to start by referring back to realism

Since I just had an interesting discussions on Twitter about it.

Does genre have a tendency to do everything to lurid excess, as Niall Harrison suggested in another branch of that discussion? I’m not surely, personally, for myself. But it’s an interesting question, combined with that of realism.

Marie Brennan is also talking about realism, over at SF Novelists, in Welcome to the Desert of the Real:

That’s the way the world was Back Then, the defenders of grimdark say, and they’re just being honest about it.

(Strange how narrow a view of Back Then those defenders usually have. I want to see them applaud a grimdark fantasy in which the manly tradition of warriors includes institutionalized age-structured homosexuality, with the older members buggering the trainees. Oh, sorry, did I get realism in their “realism”? My bad.)

This trend came up at Fourth Street Fantasy last year, and I found myself vehemently rejecting the notion that only the ugly parts of the world are real. Men’s respect for women is just as true and meaningful as their disrespect. If the unbreakable trust of an ally is not inevitable, neither is betrayal; the world is made out of both. There really are people of breathtaking virtue and decency, as well as complete scum. You can focus on the latter if you want to, but don’t tell me it’s better — morally or factually — than focusing on the former.

The Border House Blog wants to see more female protagonists in video games:

We’re not just lagging behind as a narrative medium, we’re stubbornly stagnant and we’re risking complete cultural irrelevance as a result. Imagine the absurdity of a novelist saying that it would be “tough to justify” telling a story through the eyes of a female character. And where would film be as a medium if producers never even considered casting female leads? Alien was made in 1979 and went on to earn back ten times its budget at the box office. But, in 2013, video game developers are still trotting out the same tired excuses for failing to change the representational landscape of the medium.

From Dahr Jamail at Al Jazeera comes a report on how the use of depleted uranium munitions during the war on Iraq have led to exponential increases in the rate of cancers and serious birth defects:

Dr Alani has visited Japan where she met with Japanese doctors who study birth defect rates they believe related to radiation from the US nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

She was told birth defect incidence rates there are between one and two per cent. Alani’s log of cases of birth defects amounts to a rate of 14.7 per cent of all babies born in Fallujah, more than 14 times the rate in the effected areas of Japan.

…[N]ever before has such a high rate of neural tube defects (“open back”) been recorded in babies as in Basra, and the rate continues to rise. According to the study, the number of hydrocephalus (“water on the brain”) cases among new-borns is six times as high in Basra as it is in the United States.

Abdulhaq Al-Ani, author of Uranium in Iraq, has been researching the effects of depleted uranium on Iraqis since 1991. He told Al Jazeera he personally measured radiation levels in the city of Kerbala, as well as in Basra, and his geiger counter was “screaming” because “the indicator went beyond the range”.

Dr Savabieasfahani pointed out that childhood leukemia rates in Basra more than doubled between 1993 and 2007.

“Multiple cancers in patients – patients with simultaneous tumours on both kidneys and in the stomach, for example – an extremely rare occurrence, have also been reported there,” she said.

So generous, what the USA has done to Iraq.

As a chaser, here is a link to an amusing cartoon of St. Patrick and Medusa.

Realism, (Male) Rape, and Epic Fantasy

This post contains discussions of sexual violence, including anal rape and sexual mutilation.

In the last few days, I’ve crossed paths with a couple of discussions of realism, rape, and epic (quote-unquote “grimdark” or “gritty”) fantasy, that make much of the ubiquity of female sexual victimisation (“realism”) and the absence of male sexual victimisation in situations of threat.

The first of these is Sophia McDougall’s excellent article on The Rape of James Bond: On Sexual Assault and “Realism” in Popular Culture:

I found I couldn’t cope with rape as wallpaper.

When there had been two rapes of children (one of whom was also murdered) within about twenty pages of each other, when I realised I was physically tensing up every time a male and female character were in the same scene as each other, because something always happened, even if it was “just” sexualised verbal abuse, it occurred to me I was no longer having any fun with this book.

This is where the fans, whether of G.R.R.M or Rapey Pop Culture in General say, “But! That’s the point! That horrible sense that sexual violence permeates everything — that’s realistic.”

…But that heightened vulnerability to sexual violence applies to men too. So where are they, all the raped male characters? People say, it would be unrealistic if she wasn’t raped, but take it for granted that of course he wasn’t.

Why is that?

About one in every 33 men is raped… And that’s your statistically average, real life man. Despite all the privileges and protections of being male, he still faces a non-zero risk of rape.

He also doesn’t have a horde of enemies explicitly dedicated to destroying him. He doesn’t routinely get abducted, and tied up.

I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.

The other discussions on similar topic came to me via Adventures of a Bookonaut – who raises the question of why literary male-on-male sexual violence is often flinched from by the (usually male) authors of epic fantasy in the “grimdark” vein – and Episode 77 of the Galactic Suburbia podcast (around, I think, the 43rd minute mark), which discusses sexual threat with specific reference to Brienne of Tarth and Jamie Lannister in GRRM’s ASoIaF.

And this? This brought me to a 2011 Guardian Observer article on the rape of men in conflict zones:

Laying the pus-covered pad on the desk in front of him, he gave up his secret. During his escape from the civil war in neighbouring Congo, he had been separated from his wife and taken by rebels. His captors raped him, three times a day, every day for three years. And he wasn’t the only one. He watched as man after man was taken and raped. The wounds of one were so grievous that he died in the cell in front of him.

…Eleven rebels waited in a queue and raped Jean Paul in turn. When he was too exhausted to hold himself up, the next attacker would wrap his arm under Jean Paul’s hips and lift him by the stomach. He bled freely: “Many, many, many bleeding,” he says, “I could feel it like water.” Each of the male prisoners was raped 11 times that night and every night that followed.

…Men aren’t simply raped, they are forced to penetrate holes in banana trees that run with acidic sap, to sit with their genitals over a fire, to drag rocks tied to their penis, to give oral sex to queues of soldiers, to be penetrated with screwdrivers and sticks. Atim has now seen so many male survivors that, frequently, she can spot them the moment they sit down. “They tend to lean forward and will often sit on one buttock,” she tells me. “When they cough, they grab their lower regions. At times, they will stand up and there’s blood on the chair. And they often have some kind of smell.”

In its turn, “The Rape of Men” led me to Lara Stemple’s 2009 article in Hastings Law Journal (#60), “Male Rape and Human Rights”. Which, if you have access to this journal, I also recommend reading.

International estimates of the prevalence of male sexual victimisation range from 3-29%, including cases of childhood sexual abuse. There are two contexts outside of childhood in which risks of male sexual victimisation rise: prison (“Prisoner rape,” says Stemple, on p609, “is an alarmingly widespread human rights abuse that has received little attention within international human rights law,”) and conflict situations.

In conflict situations, Stemple says:

“Although these circumstances often include the rape of those detained in prisons or prison-like conditions, a discussion separate from prisoner rape is merited. In armed conflict, perpetrators are more likely to be captors from opposition forces, whereas in the domestic prisoner rape context, the perpetrators are most often, though not exclusively, other inmates.

The heightened political tensions during armed conflict and the frequently lengthy sentences carried out in domestic prisons are other important contextual distinctions.” [611]

“An astonishing 76% of male political prisoners surveyed in El Salvador in the 1980s reported at least one instance of sexual torture.” [612-13]

“The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia also instituted a Sexual Assault Investigation Team, which included investigations into the rape of men during the civil war. The team reported that men were castrated and otherwise sexually mutilated, forced to rape other men, and forced to perform fellatio and other sex acts on guards and one another.

“One study of 6ooo concentration camp inmates in Sarajevo Canton found that 8o% of males reported that they had been raped in detention. Accounts of abuse throughout the conflict were often quite graphic, including severe genital mutilation and forced incest.” [613]

An observer may therefore venture to suggest that sexual victimisation of men in conflict situations approaches that of sexual victimisation of women in the very same situations. In reality. But not, for some reason, in male-authored epic fantasy. What statistics we have on the (severely underfunded and under-reported) prevalence of male rape in conflict zones today, suggest that in epic fantasy every in-conflict-zone deployment of sexual threat against women should be almost matched by sexual threat against men.

And yet, in male-authored epic fantasy, it’s not.

(I’m not arguing for the inclusion of more sexual violence in epic fantasy. But if we halved the present incidences of sexual violation of female characters in epic fantasy, and subjected the male characters to that 50% surplus? We might approach “realism”. Of a sort.)

Why do men flinch from the reality of their victimisation? Does it not fit their fantasies of power? Of gritty, grim, realistic life and violence?

Sucks to be you, lads, but in a warzone you’re almost as likely to be raped as I am. And I am (women as a class are) a little less likely to be shitting myself for the rest of my life afterwards. How’s that for gritty and realistic?

Sleeps With Monsters: Epic Fantasy is Crushingly Conservative?

I’ve a new column up over at Tor.com today: Sleeps With Monsters: Epic Fantasy is Crushingly Conservative?

I’ve been thinking about a question asked by @Gollancz on Twitter. “Epic Fantasy is, by and large, crushingly conservative in its delivery, its politics and its morality. Discuss. And why? (Oh why?)” [7:20 pm DST, Feb 20, 2013.]

Following, and participating in, some of the conversation that followed—which either took the statement for granted or argued that it was an incomplete characterisation of the subgenre—several things occurred to me. The first is that we keep having this conversation, over and over again, without defining our terms. How do we define “epic”? What counts as “conservative”? (It’s a word with multiple axes of interpretation.)