Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch


Snow Like Ashes is one of the most action-packed novels I’ve ever read. The plot covers so much ground that I think other authors may have stretched it into a trilogy, but Raasch combines it into a part one that moves at a gripping pace while still finding time for great character development.

Sixteen-year-old Meira is one of eight refugees from the conquered Winter kingdom, on the run with the kingdom’s young prince to try and restore the kingdom’s magic and free its enslaved population. Meira sees herself as a warrior for the cause, but she has never been allowed to test herself in combat, until an accident means she is the only one available to go undercover in an enemy city and attempt to retake Winter’s magic pendant that is hidden there.

Things, unsurprisingly, go wrong.

The story that follows is a mix of a whole bunch of fantasy elements: heists, political scheming, big battles, one-on-ones with the big bad, noble sacrifices and betrayals and shocking reveals. Snow Like Ashes has many twists and turns, never quite going where I expected, and it is gripping to the last page. Raasch masterfully weaves together character-driven plot with deep world building and a really inventive magic system, so that the story feels fresh but never confusing.

It’s quite a dark book, although dark in the sense of “morally complex and doesn’t hold back,” rather than the “grimdark” that’s become a fantasy cliche. And although the story dances close to some YA cliches, particularly the good old love triangle, it always feels emotionally genuine.

Snow Like Ashes is definitely my favorite YA fantasy of the last year, and one of my favorite YA fantasies period. If you’re looking for a good read for a cold winter evening, this is definitely one to pick!

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The 100: Remember Me


After the drama of last month’s mid-season finale,  The 100 faced a massive test. Plenty of shows manage the shocking, dramatic plot twist, but far few shows are able to follow through with the twist in the episodes that follow. Truly shocking plots are going to have severe emotional consequences for the characters and will color everything that follows, but this key story development is often handwaved away for more twists or for a return to the status quo.

Luckily, The 100 passed the test.


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Why Watch The 100


In December, I got ever-so-slightly addicted to the CW survival show, The 100. After a fall TV season that’s left me feeling pretty cynical about most of my current favorites, The 100 was the perfect dose of addictive action, great plot twists and fantastic female characters.

The show follows a group of 100 teenage criminals (or “criminals,” as the case may be) who are sent down to a post-nuclear-apocalypse earth to see if its survivable when the space station hosting the last remnants of humanity begins to fail.

And since the whole show is available on Netflix, and the series is returning tonight after an amazing mid-season finale, I thought it was time to talk about why this show is a must-watch.

It’s LOST meets Battlestar Galactica

Even some of the cast is the same! The show is basically split into two halves — the people on a dying spaceship, trying to survive, and the teenagers dropped in the forest on earth, trying to figure out this strange world and not die in the process. One half is run-down space tech and political coups and harsh punishments and oxygen shortages, the other is unexplored landscapes and strange creatures and hostile Others and shortages of medical supplies. And in both parts, the greatest threat is often not any outside force, but the main characters themselves.

It has a fantastic cast of female characters

And these female characters are often in positions of power.

The protagonist, Clarke, is the healer and (at least initially) the more pacifistic of the teens’ leaders. She’s tough as nails, brave, determined, resourceful, insightful and caring. Then there’s her mother, Abby, the best healer on the space station and one of its leaders. She shares a lot of traits with her daughter, but she also has a selfish streak that leads to some very interesting issues. There’s Octavia, a girl who spent most of her life hidden away, who’s equal parts rebellious and empathetic, brave and reckless, or Raven, the group’s genius mechanic. Plus a bunch of other interesting female characters and leaders who can’t really be discussed for spoiler reasons, but who add a lot to the show.

And the male characters are interesting too!

Just in case anyone would consider accusing the show of making the male characters play second fiddle as part of some evil feminist agenda. Clarke is the main protagonist, and her relationship with her mom is important, as is her relationship with her dad. But there’s also the male Chancellor, who must tackle the difficult moral issues of being the leader of a society that cannot survive without some sacrifices along the way. Or the Vice Chancellor (Desmond from LOST), whose more aggressive and rule-driven approach is challenged as the story goes on. Or Bellamy, the immediate leader of the 100 whose anarchist approach quickly leads to chaos.

The cast is one of the most diverse on TV

Always a plus when a show is supposed to be about a future society where all countries merged in space.

The plot is endlessly twisty

It never settles for the expected. It’s tense and relentless, and occasionally pulls the Ned Stark/Game of Thrones-esque “that will never happen — OH MY GOD IT HAPPENED” twist where our own narrative expectations work against us. Sure, it often relies on Red Shirts to up the drama level, but that doesn’t mean it goes soft on its main characters, and it can be very difficult to predict where it’s going to go next.

It has surprising moral complexity

Yes, it starts off feeling very “teen drama”-esque. But it ultimately isn’t afraid to really tackle questions of survival and morality. Pretty much everyone ends up at least somewhat morally grey, and the show asks “what can we do for the sake of survival?” again and again, pushing the issue further each time.

Of course, the show does have its flaws. Sometimes the dialogue is a little weak, and the earlier episodes have an addictive binge-watching quality that doesn’t feel like it’s driven by quality (at least, in my experience). But then the show throws a sucker-punch at you, only a few episodes in, and you realize that it’s not quite what you expected. If you can buy into the characters — and by halfway through the first season, I was hooked by them — then their story of survival is beyond compelling.

The 100 probably isn’t a show for everybody, but if you like some light teen drama with your survival narratives, or if you’re just as sick of genre TV shows relying on Damsels in Distress, token girls, female character fetishization and rape threats as I am, then this show is definitely worth a watch.


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The Oscars and Women in Film

Yesterday, the 2015 Oscar nominees were announced, and the internet exploded.

There are no non-white nominees in any of the four acting categories. No women were nominated for best director, best screenplay or best cinematography, despite Ava DuVernay’s movie Selma being nominated for best picture. And all the best picture nominees were male stories.

Obviously, there’s some very real sexism and racism displayed in the choice of nominees — unless we are to believe that Selma was one of the best pictures of the year, but only had average directing, average scriptwriting, average acting from its lead and average cinematography (in which case what, exactly, made it good?). But I think also think that, by the time we get to Oscar nominations, it’s a little late. The Academy does have many problems of its own, but it mostly highlights deep and often-unnoticed issues in Hollywood as a whole.

In short, Hollywood’s diversity problem is getting worse.

Every year, the Celluloid Ceiling Report tracks how many women have been involved in the industry over the past twelve months, looking particularly at the 250 top grossing movies. The 2014 report was recently published, and the figures are almost impossible to believe.

Only 7% of the directors involved in the top 250 grossing movies in 2014 were female. This is an increase from 6% (6%!) in 2013, but a decrease from 9% from the first study in 1998.

Female writers faired a little better — 11% of the writers involved in the top 250 grossing movies were women, down from 13% in 1998. Women were also 18% of editors (down from 20%), and 5% of cinematographers (up from 4%). Ultimately, women faired the best as producers — 23% of producers and 19% of executive producers were women in 2014.

38% of movies had 1 or 0 female directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, or cinematographers, and only 3% had 10 or more women on the team. The study implies that 14 was the maximum number of women found. Meanwhile, all movies had at least one man involved, and 69% had between 10 and 27 men on the team.

The problem is worse when it comes to sound and music. According to the study, women represented only 1% of composers, 5% of sound designers and 5% of sound editors.

No wonder so few women are nominated. 93% of directors are men. 89% of writers are men. 95% of cinematographers are men. 99% of composers for film soundtracks are men. Compared to those figures, the fact that only 77% of non-executive producers are men begins to sound positively wonderful. A true example of diversity.

Of course, the Oscars aren’t off the hook for their nominations. Selma‘s status as a potential best film without a nomination for any individual involved is incredibly revealing. And the Oscars could arguably be exacerbating the problem by not celebrating diverse talent when they find it. If only white male directors win Academy Awards, then only white male directors get that career-driving buzz. Worse, you end up with the implicit suggestion that only white male directors are talented enough to win Oscars, closing further doors to other aspiring directors.

But this isn’t simply a problem of the Academy being out of touch. It’s a problem with the entire industry. Even without Academy bias, if less than 1 in 10 directors is female, then what are the odds that any of them will be one of the 5 nominees for best director?

Until more women are directors, few if any women will be nominated for Oscars. And until those few successful women directors are recognized for their work and nominated for Oscars, few if any studios will be willing to take the “risk” in hiring them. It’s a vicious circle of discrimination. But even then, it takes a pretty gutsy industry to be over 90% men in almost every significant aspect, and still not notice there’s a problem.

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Into the Woods


As a fan of fairy tales — and of twisted fairy tales especially — it’s kind of ridiculous that I had never seen or heard anything from Into the Woods until I went to see the movie last weekend. Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack and Rapunzel combined into one cross-fairy-tale adventure, with the “happy ending” in the middle before all of the characters’ wishes turn dark and fall apart? Perfect!

Obviously, I can’t compare things to the Broadway version, so take this as a commentary on the movie only. But I thought this was a really fun and interesting movie. It had its flaws — especially when it came to pacing and its attempts to lighten up the subject matter — but it was visually gorgeous, magical to listen to, and, best of all, had a fantastic range of fascinating female characters.


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Stacey Jay, Kickstarter and the Value of Female Creators

Last week, YA author Stacey Jay put up a Kickstarter to fund the sequel to her novel, Princess of Thorns. The book hadn’t done well enough for her publisher to be interested in releasing any more, but it had done well enough for her to think that self-publishing would be worthwhile, and she decided to make a Kickstarter both to fund the project (she’s a full time writer) and to test the waters to see if enough people actually wanted a sequel.

Cue the internet backlash. Most of the anger seemed to focus on the fact that Jay included living expenses in her Kickstarter, with people suggesting that readers shouldn’t be expected to pay her mortgage and bills. The backlash got bad enough that Jay cancelled the Kickstarter, and then closed all social media accounts, but this did pretty much nothing to stop things. Jay was eventually doxed and threatened via email, after which she reopened her social media accounts and posted her own furious response to events on her blog.

All this over a Kickstarter. There are many, many artistic Kickstarters out there. Those that enough people support get funded, and the projects happen. Those that people don’t support don’t get funded. It’s a very straightforward system. And yet Stacey Jay was driven off the internet by her audacity to even ask people to consider supporting her project. Simply putting the suggestion of a future novel out there was worthy of vitriol and doxing.

And why? I’m sure most people on the internet have heard of the Veronica Mars kickstarter, where a movie was at least partly funded through the crowdfunding site, to the tune of 5 million dollars. The project with the most backers before that was the point-and-click video game, Broken Age, and that’s just one of many video games made through Kickstarter. Zach Braff crowdfunded a movie on Kickstarter. A crowdfunded novel featured on the longlist for the Man Booker prize for the first time this year. Crowdfunding creative projects is not new.


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Selfie: I Woke Up Like This


Last week, the final episode of cancelled ABC comedy Selfie went up on Hulu. And although the episode clearly wasn’t originally intended to serve as the series finale, I think it worked perfectly to capture the heart of the show and leave the characters in a place that feels both resolved and full of possibility.

The makeshift Selfie finale aired the same week as the Miranda finale, and both shows tackled both their protagonist’s need for self-confidence and self-belief, and the ever-present issue of the will-they, won’t-they romance. However, while the Miranda finale left me frustrated, failing to properly deliver its message of empowerment, Selfie almost accidentally nailed its conclusion.

Eliza, we know from previous episodes, became the glamorous social media addict that she is because she was bullied for being awkward and ugly at school, and vowed to never be in that position again. She reached out to Henry to “re-brand” her after a social media disaster that made her feel more alone than every. And although Eliza is fairly authentic in most of her interactions, “branding” is one of her biggest concerns. How should she act to win people’s approval?

So it’s fitting that, in this final episode, Eliza is forced to confront the middle school memories that started this whole thing. On Henry’s advice, she’s searching for a female role model, and she picks the glamorous and successful author who bullied her as a kid. This already tells us a lot about Eliza’s character, and how she still sees the middle school mean girls as superior figures who were right to reject awkward!Eliza. But when she goes to her bully’s book signing, she learns that her once-bully has been presenting Eliza’s past as her own, saying that she was the awkward unpopular victim who was voted “most butt” and had her hair cut off at a slumber party. After all, a “mean girl” past doesn’t sell books.


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Miranda and the Problem with “Will They, Won’t They”


“Will they, won’t they?” ruins shows.

I’ve talked about this issue before, but the final two-parter of the fabulous British comedy Miranda, and its huge focus on the resolution of its on-going “will they, won’t they?” plotline, has got me really thinking about it again.

Because yes, “will they, won’t they?” plotlines attract audiences and make us invested in the characters. But once a show decides to break the tension and declare that yes, they will, it really shouldn’t backtrack. Take ten seasons and a movie to get the protagonists together, sure. But once they are together, don’t throw in ridiculous drama after ridiculous drama to keep springing them apart, especially if the drama comes from the characters themselves.

The problem, I think, comes when writers go for the “they will” payoff too early, and then decide that the relationship itself can’t provide enough interesting storylines. They want back the early addiction caused by uncertainty, and so as the seasons roll by, they create endless breakups and ongoing relationship drama that turn the “true love” into an unhealthy relationship and stop the ultimate “happy ending” from seeming so happy after all.

And so it was with Miranda. The Christmas special opens exactly where the last season ended, with both Miranda’s boyfriend Mike and her it’s-never-worked-out love Gary proposing to her. She decides to get married to Gary, and everything is wonderful… except for the fact that Gary has always been terrified of commitment before, has never been clear about his feelings, and still hasn’t told her that he loves her despite setting a wedding date.

But when Miranda (quite fairly) challenges him on this and says that she needs more from him, he throws a fit and storms off, saying that they can’t be together because she’s so insecure.

This was the point where I wanted to hit Gary, by the way.

The second half of the finale focussed on Miranda getting over the breakup, figuring out who she is, and moving forward in her life with confidence… including confidence in the fact that she really wants to be with Gary. She goes to him, they make up, they get married immediately, he tells her he loves her, Gary Barlow sings, and everyone lives happily ever after. Yay!

Except not yay, because the endless “will they, won’t they?” set up has made Gary look like a terrible match for Miranda. He makes her feel awful. He is emotionally demanding but refuses to support her own valid concerns. He only proposed because somebody else proposed first, won’t tell her he loves her, and messes her around time after time. And yet this is supposed to be true love, the happily ever after ending. It’s almost as if “will they, won’t they?” drama isn’t supposed to reflect what their relationship is actually like. It’s all meaningless drama, and now the story has ended, it’ll be smooth sailing forevermore.

To be honest, it’s quite simply bad writing, playing into the romance tropes without actually thinking about the characters or what the implications of these plotlines might be. I went into the finale wanting Miranda and Gary to end up together. I ended the finale cheering for Miranda’s self-assertion and growth, but frustrated that the show wrapped up with the big happy Miranda-and-Gary wedding. A show can explore its character’s strength and growth and newfound confidence all it wants, but if it suggests that part of her problem is an unhealthy relationship, and then has the newly confident character decide to be in that relationship anyway without the guy making any changes, it’s ultimately less than empowering. In fact, by having Gary accuse her of being too insecure and untrusting, and having her change her ways and grow in confidence but him do nothing before their big reunion, it puts the problems in their relationship entirely on Miranda’s shoulders, and excuses Gary from any failings whatsoever.

It was the big happy ending that viewers might have hoped for after season one, but it wasn’t the one that the rest of the series had earned. Perhaps it was too rushed for a simple two-part finale. Perhaps it retrod too much old ground to be compelling. But in the end, I blame the endless see-saw of will they, won’t they, and the failure to explore the implications of this audience-captivating drama for the characters themselves.

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Yet More on Female Characters in Fantasy

While I was off enjoying my winter break, the conversation on female characters in fantasy rumbled on. Lots of perspectives were expressed, Mark Lawrence weighed in again on Reddit, and Robin Hobb even expressed her opinions on Facebook. (Robin Hobb!!)

Her Facebook post is here, but as its fairly short, I’m going to quote the whole thing below:

Hm. Elsewhere on Facebook and Twitter today, I encountered a discussion about female characters in books. Some felt that every story must have some female characters in it. Others said there were stories in which there were no female characters and they worked just fine. There was no mention that I could find of whether or not it would be okay to write a story with no male characters.

But it has me pondering this. How important is your gender to you? Is it the most important thing about you? If you met someone online in a situation in which a screen name is all that can be seen, do you first introduce yourself by announcing your gender? Or would you say “I’m a writer” or “I’m a Libertarian” or “My favorite color is yellow” or “I was adopted at birth.” If you must define yourself by sorting yourself into a box, is gender the first one you choose?

If it is, why?

I do not feel that gender defines a person any more than height does. Or shoe size. It’s one facet of a character. One. And I personally believe it is unlikely to be the most important thing about you.

If I were writing a story about you, would it be essential that I mentioned your gender? Your age? Your ‘race’? (A word that is mostly worthless in biological terms.) Your religion? Or would the story be about something you did, or felt, or caused?

Here’s the story of my day:

Today I skipped breakfast, worked on a book, chopped some blackberry vines that were blocking my stream, teased my dog, made a turkey sandwich with mayo, sprouts, and cranberry sauce on sourdough bread, drank a pot of coffee by myself, ate more Panettone than I should have. I spent more time on Twitter and Facebook than I should have, talking to friends I know mostly as pixels on a screen. Tonight I will write more words, work on a jigsaw puzzle and venture deeper into Red Country. I will share my half of the bed with a dog and a large cat.

None of that depended on my gender.

I’ve begun to feel that any time I put anyone into any sorting box, I’ve lessened them by defining them in a very limited way. I do not think my readers are so limited as to say, ‘Well, there was no 33 year old blond left-handed short dyslexic people in this story, so I had no one to identify with.” I don’t think we read stories to read about people who are exactly like us. I think we read to step into a different skin and experience a tale as that character. So I’ve been an old black tailor and a princess on a glass mountain and a hawk and a mighty thewed barbarian warrior.

So if I write a story about three characters, I acknowledge no requirement to make one female, or one a different color or one older or one of (choose a random classification.) I’m going to allow in the characters that make the story the most compelling tale I can imagine and follow them.

I hope you’ll come with me.


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