Sleeps With Monsters: Epic Fantasy and Feminism in THE WOMEN’S WAR and THE RUIN OF KINGS

A new post over at Tor.com:

Who doesn’t like epic fantasy? And feminist epic fantasy, at that?

The Women’s War by Jenna Glass and The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons are both opening volumes in new epic fantasy series. I read them one after the other, and can’t help comparing their approaches to feminism—because both of them set themselves within oppressive societies. And yet, though The Women’s War spends more of its time with female main characters and sets itself amid a violent struggle for the liberation of (some) women in a rigidly patriarchal society, I found The Ruin of Kings more inclusive and more persuasive—more liberatory—in its approach to a patriarchal society.

SONG OF THE DEAD by Sarah Glenn Marsh

A new review over at Tor.com:

Song of the Dead is the sequel to Sarah Glenn Marsh’s debut Reign of the Fallen. I reviewed Reign of the Fallen here last year and enjoyed its voice and approach, though I found its pacing uneven, and its treatment of relationships not quite up to the highest mark, but it had voice in spades, and engaging characterisation.

Song of the Dead shares some of Reign of the Fallen’s flaws, but also its virtues.

A LABYRINTH OF SCIONS AND SORCERY by Curtis Craddock

A new review over at Tor.com:

An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors (2018), the first volume in Curtis Craddock’s The Risen Kingdoms series, was an extremely accomplished fantasy novel. It combined intrigue, adventure, and swashbuckling in a setting filled with airships and floating kingdoms, ancient religion, lost knowledge, and powerful magic. Its politics bore the influence of Renaissance Europe while its narrative approach held something of the flair of Alexandre Dumas. An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors set a strikingly high bar for any sequel to follow.

Fortunately, A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery more than meets that bar. It’s just as good as its predecessor—if not better.

THE SISTERS OF THE WINTER WOOD by Rena Rossner

A new review over at Tor.com:

The Sisters of the Winter Wood is largely measured in its pacing (one might call it slow), save for those moments where everything happens all at once. It is, perhaps, a promising debut. I wish I’d liked it more, because I really feel the genre needs more fantasy that draws on explicitly Jewish (and Muslim) backgrounds in the face of the pull that Christian soteriological and teleological influences exert on the literature of the fantastic. I hope it finds an audience.

Alas, that audience is not me.

Sleeps With Monsters: Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver

A new post over at Tor.com:

There’s a strange phenomenon whereby one truly enjoys a novel, admires it for its craft and emotional impact, and still finds one element painfully frustrating.

Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver is just such a novel, a glittering jewel of a novel influenced by fairytale and by—as far as I can tell—the history of medieval Hungary. Miryem is a moneylender’s daughter, who takes over her father’s business because he’s too soft-hearted to actually demand repayment. She’s so good at it that the Staryk—beings of winter who covet gold—come to believe she can turn silver into gold, and one of them sets her a challenge with her life as the stakes. Victory won’t bring her any joy, either: if she wins, the Staryk king will take her to be his queen, far from home.

FROM UNSEEN FIRE by Cass Morris

A new review over at Tor.com:

These characters engage in political intrigue, magic, and war. In emotional terms, From Unseen Fire focuses on whether Latona will allow herself to claim ambition for herself—to move into spheres that custom and habit would deny her—and whether or not she’ll allow herself to act on her attraction to Sempronius Tarren. Meanwhile, Tarren is aiming at election to the praetorship, with an eye to having control of the legions in Iberia and advancing his ambitions for the future of Aven, but his enemies have no hesitation at stooping to dirty tricks to try to bar his way.

 

THE FAIRIES OF SADIEVILLE by Alex Bledsoe

A new review over at Tor.com:

Bledsoe’s prose, as always, is carefully precise and elegantly measured, a delight to read. But The Fairies of Sadieville feels more scattered and less unified than his previous Tufa novels, without—it seems to me—a compelling through-line to draw the whole work together. Thematically and in terms of characterisation, the book feels slight, lacking the depth of its predecessors. Its strands are woven together without the deftness of connection that I hope for in a Bledsoe book, failing to support each other for the maximum tension or strength of feeling. It’s not quite all that one desires in the capstone volume of a series with the Tufa series’ strengths.

THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR by Tessa Gratton

A new review over at Tor.com:

There have been many fantasy treatments of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, several on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and even one or two (I believe) on Coriolanus, but this is the first novel I recall to deliver a fantastical take on The Tragedy of King Lear.

 

Though it must be said my appreciation for the book was rather tainted by reports of Gratton’s objectionable behaviour.

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.

So, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST?

So, X-Men: Days of Future Past?

It’s sexist crap. I mean, sexist even by your ordinary Hollywood blockbuster standard, which is pretty sexist already. There are some female characters in the brave band of heroes at the end of the world (and why couldn’t we have the film about the band of heroes at the end of the world?)…

…and then there’s Mystique. Who is a fucking awesome, active, badass character –

– that the film treats as a combination of Macguffin/prize for the boys with their sad manpain.

C.C. Finlay says it best:

So the world is a better place because Mystique grows and changes as a person. And when we snap back to the future, we’ll get to see a glimpse of her and how she’s changed.

Hahaha! Sorry.

Just like Mystique only functions earlier in the story as a foil for Charles’ man-pain vs. Magneto’s man-pain, she’s completely absent from the denouement. Because her growth as a character is irrelevant to the rewards that the men-folks get for a job well done.


To make up for that, here’s Trudi Canavan talking about women and epic fantasy in Australia and New Zealand.

E.C. Blake, MASKS (DAW Books, 2013)

E.C. Blake, Masks. DAW, 2013. Review copy courtesy of DAW Books.

Masks is the first novel in a series. In the Autarchy of Aygrima, everyone wears a mask. The mask’s magic tells the Watchers if a person has broken a law, or if they are disloyal to the Autarch. Not wearing a mask is punishable by death.

Mara is the daughter of the master mask-maker. But at her coming-of-age at fifteen, at her masking ceremony, her mask rejects her. Sentenced to labour in the Autarch’s mines, she’s rescued by a small band of rebels – before falling into the hands of the Autarch’s enforcers once more. She discovers that the magic she has is powerful enough to kill, and one way or another, people want to make her into their tool.

The tone and style of this book seem to aim it at the Young Adult audience, but it doesn’t turn up the emotional pitch the way most good YA does. This may, in part, be due to how much time Mara spends following other people’s leads. At no point does she ever choose a direction that someone else hasn’t pointed her in: she never tries to escape anywhere on her own, nor is she intelligent about using the leverage she does have. This makes for an unevenly paced and somewhat disappointing novel. On the other hand, things blow up, it’s easy to read, and sufficiently entertaining to finish: perhaps the forthcoming sequel will have more of Mara doing things, rather than being done unto.

Warning for offscreen sexual violence, not done to our protagonists, but not treated with any particular depth.

Some more links of interest

Ann Leckie on there not being any such thing as apolitical fiction:

Most times, when someone complains that they just don’t like stories with politics, or with a message, what they mean is they don’t like stories with messages or politics that disturb or confront their own assumptions about how the world is, or could be, or ought to be. This is worth remembering the next time you’re tempted to assert that Reader A only likes Work Z because it contains a fashionable or approved political message, while you, Reader B, value a good story, thank you, without all that political crap. Guess what? Those good stories you love are crammed full of that political crap–it’s just the politics are different.

Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) on Of Better Worlds and Worlds Gone Wrong:

My point, aside from remarking that both Tolkien and Le Guin are arguing that escape means hope, and hope is one of the great virtues of fantasy, is what Tolkien says at the end of the passage: they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Because I think that’s exactly it. The denigration of “escapism” comes from an implicit belief that it is brave and necessary and heroic to face “reality,” where “reality” is grim and dark and nihilistic (“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as that tremendous pessimist Thomas Hobbes puts it), and that if you turn away from that “reality,” you are a deserter and therefore a coward.

There are a number of fallacies here, as Tolkien notes. One is the claim to the exclusive right to define “reality.” Second, if this is an accurate definition of “reality,” it is a fallacy to believe that it is even possible to desert from the front lines by anything short of suicide. Even if your consumption of fiction takes you away from “reality” for an hour or two, you’re always going to have to come back. Clearly, if we accept this definition of “reality,” “escapism” can only be the most tremendous blessing fiction has to offer.

Linky has a headache lately

Marie Brennan on G.R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons:

Let me say this up front: I do not think this is as bad as Crossroads of Twilight, the absolute nadir of the Wheel of Time. Unfortunately, I do think it’s worse than, say, The Path of Daggers — which I consider to be the second-worst book of that series.

Just to give you a sense of scale.

Also up front: Martin faced a very large problem here. As I understand it, he had originally planned to jump ahead five years, to give Dany’s dragons and some of the human characters time to grow up. The more he thought about it, though, the less feasible that seemed, so he decided to write a bridging book, which then turned into two, Feast and Dance. Makes sense, in a way . . . but it creates its own problem.

Strange Horizons rounds up discussion on the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Particularly interesting: Pornokitsch with The 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Shortlist: An Imaginary Judgement.

Juliet E. McKenna at The Fantasy Book Café, “Inequality of Visibility for Women Writers”:

Lack of visibility by way of reviews matters because that’s the information which so often guides the non-fan book-seller making disproportionately influential choices. Just last month I went into a local branch of Waterstones to be confronted by a display promoting epic fantasy tied into the new series of A Game of Thrones on TV. Below the George RR Martin titles were a selection of very good books, many of which I have read – and every single one was by a male writer.

When a bookseller saw me standing looking thoughtfully at this fixture, she asked if there was anything she could help me with. I said she could promote some of the many books by women who write epic fantasy on those shelves. ‘Do they?’ she asked, sceptical. ‘Like who?’ When I gave her a list of names (yes, including my own), her answer was to shrug and say dismissively. ‘Well, I don’t read science fiction’. No, so where did she find those authors to showcase? From the review pages or perhaps in one of the recent articles recommending other writers to A Song of Ice and Fire fans, so often and so infuriatingly only listing men.

That bookseller may not read the genre but her choices can skew SF&F purchases in favour of male writers, so when someone higher up the chain is looking at sales figures to pick those safe bets for front-of-store promotion, they will apparently see proof of the insidious myth that SF&F by women doesn’t sell. If it won’t sell, there’s no profit in promoting it. So those books aren’t among those offered for people to buy at those insidiously attractive discounts and thus the self-fulfilling prophecy is reinforced.

Books in brief: Hartman, Smith, Lidell, Malan

Rachel Hartman, Seraphina. Corgi, 2013.

So Foz Meadows praised this and Aliette de Bodard criticised it. It sounded interesting. It turns out that me, I think it’s pretty bland, a fluffy faux-medieval arabesque that soft-pedals its more difficult questions and ultimately favours the conventional over the provocative. (In the thought-provoking or any other sense.) Enjoyable YA, but it doesn’t live up to its praise, and the specialness of its protagonist is rather irritatingly predictable. (Magical half-breeds, sigh.)

Sherri L. Smith, Orleans. Putnam, 2013.

This, on the other hand, is a book I really enjoyed. YA, playing with a similar sense of mood and character to The Hunger Games, although the secondary protagonist is a little too much cipher, a little too little person (a consequence, I feel, of privileging aesthetic over consistency, which all YA does at times). Its worldbuilding feels vivid, if not always entirely solid, and the emotional tones and driving desires of our protagonist Fen are very well-sketched. Good pacing, and good writing: Smith deploys dialect in narrative with a sure-handed deftness.

The conclusion leaves something to be desired as a conclusion, but since I’ve no idea whether or not there’s to be a sequel, I’ll place my money on a continuance. This is the kind of book that makes me eager to see a) what else the author’s written, and b) what she may write next.

Alex Lidell, The Cadet of Tildor. Penguin Dial, 2013.

Another YA, and one which I fear I may be too generous towards, for it reminds me of much that is good in both Sherwood Smith and Tamora Pierce. (Such things I am inclined to enjoy.) Lidell is a debut author, possessed of one of those gender-neutral names. The author bio claimed for her a female pronoun, up to which point I had been rather uncertain – but Cadet Renee de Winter is too much an adolescent girl to have been written by someone who wasn’t intimately familiar with having been one.

A bunch of the worldbuilding and details annoyed my suspension of disbelief. On the whole I’m inclined to give benefit of the doubt, and call it worthwhile and entertaining, though.

Violette Malan, Path of the Sun. DAW, 2010. Copy courtesy of DAW.

I really, really like Malan’s Dhulyn and Parno novels. They’re just fun, in a sword-and-sorcery, epic-ish fantasy sort of way: implausibly competent, decent heroes Thwart Bad People and Have Excellent Fights. (If this is not a genre, it ought to be one.)

Linky runs in perpetuity on not sleeping

Border House Blog on the gender wage gap in gaming:

I’m reading through the latest digital edition of Game Developer Magazine which contains their annual survey. The salary numbers overall weren’t concerning to me, until I scrolled down and saw the differences between the male and female survey respondents. The next time someone tells me that men and women get paid equally for their talents in the game industry, I wanted something to link to them. This is just plain disgusting.

Fantasy Café, Women in SFF Month: Jacqueline Carey:

As of this writing, Martin, Jordan, and the granddaddy of them all, J.R.R. Tolkien, top the list of Amazon.com’s fantasy author rankings. A glance at the first fifty listings on the Popular Epic Fantasy bookshelf on GoodReads.com reveals forty-seven titles by thirteen male authors, ranging from long-established Big Names to more recent arrivals like Brent Weeks and Patrick Rothfuss. Exactly three books by female authors made the list: The first two titles in Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy and my own Kushiel’s Dart.

Jo Walton at Tor.com, “Fantasy, Reading and Escapism”:

Reading is a culturally approved practice, it improves my mind and widens my cultural capital. But if I admit what I read — more fiction than non fiction, more genre books than classics, fantasy, science fiction, romance, military fiction, historical fiction, mysteries and YA — then I lose that approval and have to start justifying my choices. I also read a lot of Victorian fiction and biographies and random interesting non-fiction and some things published as literature… and I don’t hold any of them as better than any of the others.