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Rape in YA Fantasy


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


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


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)


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


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


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”


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”


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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Hugo Nominees 2016: Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie


Ancillary Mercy is the third in Ann Leckie’s acclaimed Imperial Radch series, which I’ve voted for in the Hugos for the past two years. Leckie’s debut series, to me, has always been perfectly balanced sci-fi. It’s  high-concept science fiction, but it’s also an emotional, humorous and character-driven story. On the one hand, it’s very personal — the story of an outcast risking themselves to get revenge against the leader of the human universe because they killed someone she loved. On the other hand, it’s very, very “sci-fi” — the story of the last remaining ancillary of a battleship AI that was otherwise destroyed, and its captain murdered, by the multi-bodied leader of the human universe. That leader has grown over so many bodies that she’s split and is now fighting a secret war with herself; one side wants to use the protagonist as a pawn against the other, but our protagonist wants them all gone.

Also, there’s reflections on colonialism and gender theory and questions of identity and all that fun stuff. Something for everyone, really.

Unfortunately, this instalment started off a little weak. It has to take a lot of little story steps to transition from Ancillary Sword to its own main plot, which meant that it felt pretty slow. It’s probably more effective if you read the books back to back and not after a year’s break, but with that gap, I found myself struggling to remember who everyone was and what was going on. If I hadn’t loved the previous two books, I might have given up.

But once the main plot kicks off, with Anaander Mianaai looming on the horizon, it becomes a really absorbing read.

Ann Leckie’s writing remains immensely readable. Her characters have so much life to them, and her writing has a real sense of humor, even as it builds a serious sci-fi world exploring serious themes.

The first book was usually discussed as “that gender book,” because of the gender-neutral race and language at the center of it. At this point, however, the gender stuff is just worldbuilding — it still exists, but it’s not really the point. We’re talking about other things, like colonialism and oppression and self-determination. I’ve seen people criticize this book for losing that focus, creating the sense that we’ve got an all-female cast (as it uses “she” and “her” for everyone) rather than a gender-neutral cast. But we’ve been spending time in this world for two books now. Perhaps it’s fitting that the book, like the protagonist herself, treats gender as Not A Big Deal, except for the times Breq meets other races and has to scramble to choose the correct gender for them in her speech. People who distinguish between male and female are the slightly confusing other here — not bad, just culturally different — so it makes sense that the book has long since put any sense that its gender language is unusual aside.

That said, Ancillary Mercy is still very, very focused on the idea of identity. It’s just that its questions of identity are explored in ways that make sense within its own world. After considering a lot of issues of colonialism in the last book, Ann Leckie mashes the questions of gender, identity and self-determination together here by focussing mostly on AI — whether they count as beings in their own right, whether they should be free to be their own “captains,” whether they should be able to protect themselves from access codes that interfere with their own opinions, whether replacing one AI core with another counts as murder. AIs are referred to as “it” instead of “she” by default, and the novel explores the connotations of this language, and the idea that some AIs prefer to be referred to as “it,” because they are different.

Because although gender isn’t even a consideration in this world, the question of “Significance” is. It would be easy to misread one of the novel’s big themes as “what it means to be human,” but as the language issue suggests, the AI here aren’t arguing that they are human. In fact, Breq is insulted by people who say “you don’t seem like an ancillary,” because it implies that her reality is lesser and that she’s somehow transcended it. It’s not “should the idea of humans be expanded to include AIs?” but “human or not, they are individuals, and they deserve autonomy.”

Unfortunately, although the AI theme was hinted at from the beginning, I doubt it was the driving plot conclusion that many people were expecting. In Ancillary Justice, Breq wants to kill Anaander Mianaai. All of her. She wants to destroy her. To me, that sets up an expectation that, by the end of the trilogy, Breq will act on fulfilling this goal. Whether she succeeds or fails or changes her mind at the last moment, the possibility has to come up. Ancillary Sword was smaller in scope, set on Athoek Station and its nearby planet, but I’d assumed that Ancillary Mercy would expand to consider the bigger picture again. It never really does. Actions in the book have consequences for the rest of the universe, but we’re still very focussed on the wellbeing of this station and this planet and these characters and this single incarnation of Anaander Mianaai.

Perhaps this comes from my reading too much YA and watching too much space opera, but by book three, I was expecting the protagonists to take on The Enemy with potentially world-changing consequences. They have to be at the center of the story. But most of Ancillary Mercy feels like a fringe fight, just something else happening in the vast universe. And perhaps that’s the point, but it felt jarring after that initial Book One promise. I expected the book to be structured as “first we fight the extra evil Anaander Mianaai that’s here, and then we take the battle to the rest of her.” The novel’s conclusion was really clever, with gripping action, and it has massive implications for the whole universe, but it’s still relatively small, compared to the scale and severity of the Anaander Mianaai Problem. It resolves the immediate problems of the characters we know by focussing on this question of AI autonomy, but the long term consequences and stability are unclear. It’s the sort of series ender that makes you go, “OK, but THEN what happens??”, which might be good or bad, depending on how you read it.

Overall, Ancillary Mercy is a great read, with wonderful characters, gripping action, a great sense of humor, and a lot of interesting things to say. However, I’m not sure it lived up to all of the promise we saw in the series’ first instalment. The series doesn’t quite feel cohesive, which is why I don’t think Ancillary Mercy will be at the top of my voting list this year.

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