All the Rage by Courtney Summers

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“You know all the ways you can kill a girl? God, there are so many.”

All the Rage is the book that Courtney Summers was always meant to write.

Its themes will be familiar to anyone who’s read a Courtney Summers book before. Mean girls. High school viciousness. A friend who’s gone missing, and a protagonist who feels partly responsible. A rape accusation against a powerful boy that ostracises a previously popular girl.

But All the Rage brings all these things together in a way that Summers’ previous (and excellent) novels didn’t. It’s a very internal novel, focussing on highschool senior Romy, several months after she was raped by the sheriff’s son and dismissed as an attention-seeking liar. When her ex-best friend goes missing on a night Romy doesn’t remember, she’s forced to face her repressed trauma while navigating a society that grieves for her friend the way they never grieved for her.

And the book turns it all into a brutal indictment of society’s treatment of teenage girls. I started highlighting quotes to potentially use in my review about halfway through, and I ended up with more than I could possibly use, more painful little statements than my heart could handle.

Things like:

“I wish I didn’t have a body, sometimes.”

“No is a dead word.”

And the one that I think is most thematically relevant:

“I wonder if that means she thinks I’m beautiful enough to be tragic.”

Because I’m tired of stories about rape. I’m tired of stories about missing girls, dead girls, girls who are tragically destroyed so that others can live and learn. I’m exhausted by this aesthetic of the delicate Ophelia type, drowning in the cover art of her own book, the ways that a suffering pretty girl is meant to be beautiful. But All the Rage is both one of those books and a challenge to those books. It’s punch-you-in-the-stomach real, ripping to shreds the idea of the “beautiful victim” and tearing back all the layers of how girls are victimized, punished, hated, destroyed, simply for being girls. It’s ugly and horrific and terrifying and so important to read.

It’s not a happy book. It’s not a comfortable book. It’s not a hopeful book. But it is an excellent book, if you have the stomach to read it.

Outlander: Witch Trials and the Devil’s Mark

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In The Devil’s Mark, Outlander upped its game once again, redeeming a couple of weeks of questionable choices and patchy character development with a stunning episode of persecution, desperation and self-determination. After getting arrested for witchcraft, Claire and Geillis face their trial, knowing that no one is coming to help them, and knowing that the people have already decided they must burn.

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Game of Thrones: The House of Black and White

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In The House of Black and WhiteGame of Thrones took a sharp turn away from the books, changing or inventing material for pretty much every plotline.

The results were, unsurprisingly, hit and miss. In some cases, the show provided intriguing alternatives to the book’s plotlines, streamlining the story while staying true to its spirit. In other cases, it veered off wildly, its changes reconfirming the show’s prioritization of violence and vengeance over any “softer” characteristics.

This post contains book spoilers.

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None of the Above by I. W. Gregorio

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None of the Above is a unique contemporary novel. Written by one of the founders of We Need Diverse Books, I. W. Gregorio, it follows the story of homecoming queen Kristin Lattimer in the weeks after she’s diagnosed with androgen insensitivity syndrome. After a friend’s betrayal causes her diagnosis to be leaked to the whole school, she must come to terms with her own identity while dealing with the reactions of her peers.

The result is an incredibly detailed and well-informed novel about issues that are rarely discussed anywhere, let alone in young adult fiction. Gregorio uses her medical background to great effect, discussing not just the science of intersex,  but also issues of discrimination, questions of gender identity, and even the details of gynaecological exams. I’m sure that anyone who reads this book will learn a lot, and have questions ponder, and the novel’s unflinching look at “taboo” medical issues is desperately needed.

That said, None of the Above is very much an “issues” book. Kristin’s medical diagnosis is the entirety of the plot, and the novel itself has a very medical perspective in general. I often felt like certain conversations or scenes were purely to inform us about the science of being intersex, rather than being a natural part of the story. The explanation and exploration of intersex came first, the characters and story came second.

I also worry about how the book handles Kristin’s friends, and their reactions to her diagnosis. All of her friends are horrified and basically abandon her, although of course they come around in the end for a happy conclusion. Kristin’s boyfriend is horrific to her. Her whole school ostracizes her, while others berate her for being too melodramatic when that upsets her. She has to make new friends to find people who accept her, except of course that everything ties up with an “it was all fine in the end” perfect bow in the book’s final pages. To me, it lacked nuance, and again made it feel more about the “issues” than about real-feeling people.

In the end, the book is clinical, not character driven. I could see this book being used as part of a curriculum to discuss intersex issues, but not as a novel that a lot of people would read in its own right. And perhaps that’s okay. This is the first YA novel like this I’ve ever come across, and it has to start from the assumption that its readers know nothing about the topic at hand. If its goal is to inform, then it does so very well, and I’m certain that it will be an enlightening read for anyone who picks it up.

If you want to learn more about intersex or gender issues in a non-textbook way, then None of the Above is worth picking up. It’s not a casual read by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s informative and refreshingly feminist, and it’s definitely worth a look.

Responding to the Hugos

As everyone has probably heard by now, there’s been some pretty big controversy in the sci-fi/fantasy fandom over this year’s Hugo nominations.

For a long, detailed and very well-informed summary of events, check out the series of posts at George RR Martin’s blog. He’s incredibly knowledgable about WorldCon and the history of the Hugos, and he presents a well-reasoned exploration of the facts leading up to this.

For the cliffnotes version: a group calling themselves the Sad Puppies decided that the Hugos had become too liberal and political, at the expense of good, old-fashioned science fiction and fantasy. The best summary of their motivations comes from Sad Puppies founder Brad R Torgersen himself:

A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women.

[But now] The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation…A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.

They put together a slate of suggested Hugo nominations that better fit their idea of what the Hugos, and sci-fi/fantasy in general, should be, and organized voting so that those suggestions now make up most of the nominees. In short, it’s a backlash against increasing diversity in sci-fi/fantasy, and it’s succeeded.

So here’s the key question: how should people who disagree with the Sad Puppies react?

One popular suggestion is that voters should only vote for works that weren’t featured on the Sad Puppies slate, and otherwise vote for “no award” (a valid voting option in any year). Another, more radical, approach suggests that voters should vote “no award” for every single category.

I disagree with both of these approaches. The second approach, in particular, will only encourage the Sad Puppies to double down on their approach, “proving” there’s a liberal conspiracy at work, while doing nothing to support more diverse books and authors and preventing potentially worthy titles from winning an award that could really help a creator’s career. The first approach is somewhat better, but only if the voter genuinely believes that none of the books on the slate deserve a Hugo Award.

To me, the only viable strategy is to simply vote. Don’t put together a list of how “anti-Sad Puppies” should vote, don’t discriminate against books just because they were on the slate…  take the moral high ground and vote honestly.

I’ll admit, I haven’t read any of the stories on the Sad Puppy slate yet, so I’ve no idea if they’re worthy, mediocre or offensive. I don’t know which would have been nominated even without the slate. If they are offensive, then people who are “anti-Sad Puppies” will want to put them below “no award,” regardless of any organized campaign. Perhaps if they’re mediocre too, depending on how a person likes to use their vote. And if this apparent liberal mafia that values diversity so much reads the books and likes them and thinks they deserve to win a Hugo… well, then they should vote for them.

The key thing, in the end, is voting. If we want diverse creators and titles to be included in the Hugos, then we need to show up and have our voices heard. And not just as an act of protest, but as an act of engagement. Read the nominees, make a genuine evaluation of which ones we like the best, and vote for them because we truly believe they deserve to win. Sure, it’s not as dramatic as nuking the votes, and it makes a less headline-worthy point of “we matter too,” but it’s the way that “untraditional” sci-fi/fantasy fans should be able to engage with the Hugos, and the Sad Puppies don’t prevent us from doing that. If enough people who don’t fit the Sad Puppies idea of “real sci-fi/fantasy” feel inspired to vote, then diverse works will be included naturally. The Sad Puppies slate only worked because very few people actually contribute to the Hugo nominations. The best way to stop them, therefore, is to contribute. And no matter how much some people believe that must be a conspiracy, anyone with sense can easily see that it’s just honest diversity in action.

For $40, you can get a supporting membership for Worldcon, which gives you the right to vote in the Hugos this year and nominate next year. (You also get a digital voter’s packet containing many of the nominated works to help you to vote). This is by no means a feasible option for everyone, but if you’re feeling invested in this and have the money to spare in exchange for voting rights and digital copies of most of these works, then it’s definitely something worth considering. (Or just actually go to WorldCon. It’s fun!). I’ll be getting a supporting membership and discussing as many of the nominated works as possible here in the run-up to the awards.

If you can, vote. Vote however you feel best, but just vote. It’s the only thing you can do in response to all this that matters.

Game of Thrones: The Wars to Come

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Game of Thrones is back! And, as far as first episodes go, this was a good one. Well-paced, enjoyable to watch, and (gasp) relatively unoffensive, the episode did an excellent job of reintroducing us to the various characters and setting up their plot-arcs for the season. Although I went into the episode feeling uncertain whether I wanted to dive into this world of high and heart-crushing disappointments again, the episode reminded me why I fell for the series in the first place.

It also reminded me of lots of reasons why it makes me want to pull my hair out in frustration, but I suppose you can’t have everything in life.

Since character plotlines are getting more and more separate and no one really dominated this episode, this review is going to be split into sections based on key characters.

This post contains book spoilers.

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Outlander: Thoughts on Laoghaire

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Generally speaking, By the Pricking of My Thumbs was a return to form for Outlander. The show seemed more than happy to forget that last week’s episode ever happened — Claire and Jamie are happy once more, we’re back to Claire’s narration, and the plot barrels onwards with the focus, once again, on Claire’s experience of the past.

Claire even managed to hatch her own schemes and assert her own agency without facing a single threat of rape this week, which is another breath of fresh air. Claire gets into some considerable danger, but it’s almost all based on the clash between understand of the world and the realities of the 18th century, and although some of that threat is very gender-based, it’s not sexual at least. If anything, there’s a considerable amount of female sexual autonomy in this episode, ranging from the opening scene with Jamie to Geillis’s summoning, both of which focus on female pleasure and power.

But there is a sticking point with the current story. Laoghaire. Originally introduced as a somewhat naive young girl with a crush on Jamie, she’s rapidly spiralled into a spurned woman with murderous intentions. That would be a pretty intense escalation under the best of circumstances, but Laoghaire’s development is also hampered by lazy writing, falling back on tired old tropes of female rivalry and “hell hath no fury” to move the plot forward.

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Questions from Google #2

Here are the answers to some of the questions that led people to visit Feminist Fiction in March.

Some of the questions are slightly edited to turn them from Google-ese into normal English, but all are genuine searches from my site statistics.

1. Why doesn’t Game of Thrones have Robb Stark’s POV?

You’d have to ask George RR Martin for a definitive answer on that, but I’d assume it’s because he wanted to avoid the standard fantasy narrative of the young boy king triumphing against the odds, and instead focus on different perspectives. In the case of Robb’s story, the main perspective is actually the boy king’s mother, putting her struggles and fears front and center.

2. Did Shae deserve to die?

No. No no no no no. No.

Well, OK, people have different opinions on this. In the books, she apparently betrayed Tyrion by providing evidence against him in his trial and sleeping with his father, and we never find out why. But we can assume that the Lannisters exerted pressure on her. She was in an incredibly perilous position — she was handmaid to a girl now accused of murder, she had no other friends or allies in King’s Landing beyond Tyrion, who had also been arrested, and both Cersei and Tywin threatened to hurt “his whore” if they got their hands on her. Did she really have a choice in how she responded? She was almost certainly acting out of self-preservation, and in the end, Tyrion wasn’t her “true love” but her employer. She didn’t owe him loyalty, and when he kills her, it’s more about his own self-loathing, his fury that Shae was not who he had imagined her to be, than about Shae herself or what she deserved.

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Cinderella: The Feminism of Kindness

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Despite being generally praised by the media, the new live-action Cinderella movie has faced a lot of criticism for being anti-feminist. Cinderella, it’s been said, is too weak, is a terrible role model, is “more of a doormat than an actual doormat.” Her movie is an insipid attempt to sell little girls the idea of princess feminine perfection, tiny waist and all.

What absolute rubbish. Once again, the idea of “feminist media” has been twisted around, so that anything short of sassy female characters dishing out one-liners and kicking butt is seen as “weak” and “anti-feminist.”

This movie is not flawless. But it utterly enchanted me, and the more I think on it, the more powerful and important that sweeping sense of magic and romance seems to me.

The movie’s key message is “Have courage, and be kind,” an important and inspiring message that isn’t heard often enough. Some might focus on the “be kind” part and argue that it encourages girls to always be sweet and put themselves second, even in the face of cruelty, but, as the movie shows, there are many ways a person can have courage, and many ways a person can be kind.

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Outlander: Reckoning

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It can be difficult to return to an enchanting show after six months away. It’s exciting to finally get more to watch, but how will they feel now that the spell created by marathoning through the existing episodes is broken? Time away means time to reflect, time to read the book on which it’s based, time to think about why the show threatens its protagonist with rape every five minutes.

So what happens when the show returns?

Well, Outlander is as gorgeous as it ever was. The music swells, the setting enchants, the chemistry between Claire and Jamie crackles.

But, unfortunately for the show, its first episode back tackled an extremely controversial scene in the books. And if it intended to maintain the feminist, “female gaze” perspective for which it’s been praised, it failed in every possible way.

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