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Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

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Oh my god, I’m so in love with this series right now.

The Liveship Traders Trilogy was recommended to me by Claire Rousseau on Twitter, who described it as “pirates and courtship and women crossdressing to go to sea.” Obviously, I was sold. It’s my second Robin Hobb series, after reading (most of) the Rain Wild Chronicles a few years ago. Although I adored the first two books in that series, when I moved onto her Farseer trilogy, the massive switch in style (and the kind of blah, seen-it-before male assassin coming of age story) put me off catching up on any of the others.

But this book. This book.

Like many wonderful and addictive fantasy series, I almost put this down after about 150 pages, because it really takes its time to get going. It sets up the world, sets up its large cast of characters, and leaps from storyline to storyline as things start to come together, resulting in an opening that’s difficult to invest in, and an ensuing story that takes over your whole brain. And once it kicks off, I fell completely in love.

I am obsessed with this cast of characters. I’m just reviewing the first book here, because I haven’t finished the series yet, so it’s possible that the remaining book and a half will fall to pieces. But these characters.

First, Althea Vestrit, who is already one of my favourite characters of all time. She’s a complete badass, if also a little selfish and spoiled at first. She’s grown up travelling on her father’s liveship — a magical trading ship that bonds with its owners and comes to life after three of them have died on its decks — and she has always believed that she would captain the newly-awakened Vivacia herself after her father’s eventual death. But when her father dies, the ship is instead given to her brother-in-law, a selfish, arrogant man who only cares about how much profit the Vivacia can bring him. He forbids Althea from ever stepping foot on the shop again, but in a fit of anger, he swears by the gods that if she could ever get proof that she worked successfully on any other ship, the Vivacia would be hers. It’s Althea’s only chance, so she disguises herself as a boy and sets sail on a mission to earn her liveship back.

Back home, her mother Ronica is stuck dealing with the death of her husband, the disappearance of her daughter, and the financial ruin that seems to be falling down upon them. Slavery has been introduced to Bingtown, where they live, and the only way to compete would be to use slaves on her property herself, but Ronica is determined that the old ways must prevail over the approach of these heartless newcomers. With her is her older daughter Keffria, a woman who’s suddenly realized that she’s disregarded by her husband and disrespected by her daughter, and who is determined to prove herself.

And then there’s Malta. The wonderful, horrible Malta, Keffria’s self-centered and ruthless thirteen-year-old daughter. She’s exactly what people accuse Sansa Stark of being, like a young Cersei Lannister, at least at first. She’s delightfully, hatefully awful, obsessed with jewels and parties and manipulating everyone around her to adore her, but she doesn’t understand the forces that she’s messing with, and she could end up in far deeper trouble than she realizes. I love her. I can’t stand her. I can’t wait to see where her story goes.

There’s also Wintrow, Keffria’s teenage son, who was training to be a priest before his father forced him to travel on his liveship instead. He feels like a prisoner there, an unhappiness sensed by the newly-awakened Vivacia. And then there’s Captain Kennit, a ruthless pirate who dreams of being a king, is the true villain of the story, but somehow keeps stumbling into appearing the hero instead.

And I just love it all. I’m flailing so much. I’m sure the series has flaws that will become apparent to me once I’ve finished it and given it space, but I’m currently in that addicted and adoring space that you find so rarely, when an epic book series completely sweeps you away. I definitely have to write a whole post about Malta, once I’ve finished reading. In the meantime, if you haven’t tried this series, I really, really recommend you pick it up. It’s so amazingly, wonderfully enchanting, with rich, flawed characters, buckets of adventure and just a hint of dragons.

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Rape in YA Fantasy

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Young Adult fantasy has a bit of a rape problem.

I mean, all fantasy has a bit of a rape problem. But let’s talk about YA fantasy specifically here — a genre that typically has teenage female protagonists, lots of action, lots of romance, and an intended young female audience. And, almost inevitably, at least one rape threat, if not several of them, over the course of each book.

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while, but it really came to the front of my thoughts as I was reading Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, an incredibly compelling, well-written book that I nevertheless want to describe as the Outlander of YA fantasy, because oh my god is rape a big theme here.

I didn’t keep a tally while reading, but there were at least three graphic, imminent threats of rape, one very violent, fully-fledged attack, at least one instance of a female character being tied up and given as a prize for a male character, and more casual mentions of it than I can count. Two of three young female characters are graphically threatened, and the third is only excused because she had her eye gouged out pre-book, and so “no one finds her attractive enough.” It’s never, never treated as acceptable by the protagonists, but it’s an endemic part of this book’s world, and it comes up very often.

Of course, violence in general is an endemic part of An Ember in the Ashes. The protagonist gets off lightly, with only being beaten within an inch of her life and permanently scarred by someone cutting a large letter into her chest. Characters are, off-screen, made to eat hot coals and have their faces shredded, and, on-screen, literally whipped to death. This is a brutal world, and a completely unsanitized exploration of slavery and oppression, and the frequent and casual appearance of rape is part of that.

But I think a book loses the “it’s a realistic exploration of oppression” justification when it directly and repeatedly correlates beauty with risk, with many, many characters noting that the beautiful protagonist is in more danger than most, and that the eye-missing secondary character is entirely safe. Add in the fact that none of these threats or attacks have any impact or the plot or on character development, and it feels like something thrown in entirely for flavor, as a quick world-building marker to show us that things are “bad.”

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Pretty Girls in Stranger Things

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In Stranger Things, Nancy is the “pretty girl.” She’s set up in a kind of 80s teen movie protagonist role, both by Eleven and by the show itself. We meet her as the main boy’s older sister, and she ticks off so many tropes that we probably think we can predict where her story is going. She’s the girl who wants to be popular, with a jerk boyfriend, disagreements with her mom, and an awkward nerd guy waiting in the wings who she’s obviously destined to be with as a reward for his inevitable heroism.

She’s also the girl that Eleven borrows dresses and make-up from, the sort of girl that Eleven is apparently trying to emulate — and delighted about emulating — when the boys stick a wig on her and try and make her look “normal” for school.

And this “pretty” plotline seemed to annoy a lot of people. Eleven is, after all, simultaneously an extremely traumatized child and a paranormal-powered badass. We meet her as the polar opposite to Nancy –the supernatural experiment girl with a shaved head who grew up in a lab, and has always been used for other people’s ends. She doesn’t know words like “friends” and “promise,” but she does know “pretty,” and she seems to treasure the idea that it could ever apply to her.

But just as “friends” and “promise” take on great meaning over the course of the show, “pretty” to Eleven doesn’t really seem to mean “pretty.” It’s being “normal,” and, with it, being worthwhile.

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child NEEDS a simulcast

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That’s not exactly a radical statement, I know. But I was lucky enough to see Cursed Child in previews last week, and that was one of my strongest feelings once I stepped out of the theatre. This is a story that needs to be seen, and everyone should have a chance to see it.

NB: This post does NOT contain plot spoilers for Cursed Child, but it DOES contain emotional reaction spoilers — purists beware. 

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Game of Thrones’ “Girl Power”: Women on Top (and stabbing you while you’re down)

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After criticisms of Game of Thrones’ misogyny rose to a fever pitch last year, the show has been determined to tell us how very feminist it really is. From the obvious “Women on Top” feature in Entertainment Weekly to seemingly endless interviews with cast members (especially cast members who had previously hinted at criticism of the show, like Natalie Dormer) asserting how it’s the most feminist series on TV, the idea that the show is actually super empowering has practically been shoved down our throats.

And, to give the show credit, this wasn’t only a branding effort. As I said last week, this season of Game of Thrones did manage to be less overtly awful, where “less overtly awful” sometimes meant “holy crap, is this even the same show??” when we watched yet another episode without any blatant misogyny.

The show has been helped by the fact that critics can no longer compare its plotlines to events in the books and reach conclusions based on what the writers left in and what they chose to change. That hasn’t stopped those criticisms entirely — instead we’re just guessing what will probably happen or not happen in the books based on the series — but it gives the show more leeway in terms of exploring misogyny in the name of the plot.

But for all its apparently genuine efforts, the show is still clinging to the idea of “feminism” it’s had for many seasons, where strength and badassness mean callousness, cruelty, and killing without guilt or mercy.

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Burn Them All: Cersei in Game of Thrones S6

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The opening twenty minutes of The Winds of Winter was one the best things I’ve seen on TV in a while. Sure, the battle in episode 9 was gritty and artistically shot, but the conclusion to the Faith Militant plotline this season was near stylistic perfection. It was beautifully directed with fantastic music, slowly building and building to a wonderfully tense and atmospheric conclusion. Some elements didn’t quite make sense — I’m still not sure why Lancel followed that child — but it was too compelling in the moment to care.

I’m fairly convinced that some version of this storyarc will also appear in the novels — it fits Cersei and Jaime’s book character arcs too perfectly for it to be entirely a show invention. But although the show did a great job atmospherically and stylistically, it tripped up with its interpretation. Because, for a series that’s determined to show us how gritty and unflinching it is, it really flinched away from the consequences of this dark plotline.

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Sansa, Queen in the North

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I had really high hopes for Sansa in the first few episodes of this season. In short succession, she united with Brienne, reunited with Jon, and began planning how to retake Winterfell, with strong opinions of her own and allies all around her.

Sure there were some hiccups, like her forgetting the words to accept Brienne’s fealty, but overall, it was a plotline that looked to be going great, emotionally satisfying places. And by that, I mean I think I half-jokingly texted the words “QUEEN IN THE NORTH” to friends a billion times while watching those early episodes.

But none of that promise played out in later episodes, because the show is unwilling to do anything to change Sansa’s one defining characteristic — being the victim.

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Game of Thrones: “Better” not “good”

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Well, color me surprised. Not only did I watch all of Game of Thrones Season 6, but I actually enjoyed it. Judging from discussion on the internet, I’m not the only one. Many people have praised the show for its dramatic improvement in quality from last year.

At some points, “dramatic improvement in quality” feels like a massive understatement. Some sort of divine intervention seems to have taken place, removing most of the absurdly overt misogyny that has plagued the show from the beginning, and only gotten more intense as the seasons progressed. Perhaps the mainstream criticism of Sansa’s plotline concerned the showrunners. Perhaps network bosses stepped in because the show was losing viewers and getting bad publicity. Whatever happened, somebody somewhere decided that they needed to cut it out.

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Redefining “Torture Porn”

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One of the big conversations about the new season of Orange is the New Black has revolved around whether or not the show has descended into “torture porn.” Personally, many scenes made me feel physically sick or psychologically disturbed me long after I finished watching, and there’s been a lot of debate about whether that makes good television or means that its been taken too far.

But Orange is the New Black, like other cable shows, doesn’t want you to enjoy watching this pain. It wants to make you uncomfortable. And that, I think, is part of a general shift to a new kind of “torture porn,” where shows compete to horrify the audience as much as possible in the name of serious storytelling.

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