Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray

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After three years, the long-awaited sequel to Libba Bray’s The Diviners has finally hit shelves!

Since The Diviners is one of my favorite books of all time, my expectations for Lair of Dreams were pretty darn high. Probably too high, really. Few books can live up to three years of waiting, especially when readers are expecting for it to be another “best book of all time.”

Luckily, although Lair of Dreams is far from perfect, it is a truly beautiful book. It manages to recapture the magic of its predecessor while bringing its readers something new, and Libba Bray’s characters and prose enchant from the start. In this addition to the Diviners series, 1920s New York is experiencing Diviners Mania, with everyone wanting a piece of those newly-discovered seers and miracle-workers. But a deadly sleeping sickness is sweeping through Chinatown, and no one knows who it might strike next.

Lair of Dreams is fully of fascinating, well-drawn characters, and is absolutely brimming with diversity. Anyone who claims that you can’t have or don’t need diversity in historical fiction needs to read this book. We’ve got Irish-Chinese Ling, who has to use braces to walk after surviving polio and develops a crush on another girl. Or Memphis, who dreams of being part of the Harlem Renaissance, and his white, small-town, dream-big dancer girlfriend Theta, running from a murder she accidentally committed. We see Jewish immigrant Sam who’s reinventing himself in order to succeed, and Evie, the Sweetheart Seer, who parties until she forgets, and Henry, who’s searching for his lost lover Louis in dreams. The line-up of protagonists can make it slightly hard to get re-invested in the book at first, since the narrative jumps perspective so much, but every one of them is compelling and unique.

And Lair of Dreams isn’t just nominally diverse. It has diversity in its settings, in its secondary characters, and in its perspective, addressing issues of racism, prejudiced hysteria, and the dark underside of the glittering twenties that weren’t so glittering for everyone.

The novel is written in the gorgeous prose that Libba Bray is known for, with not a single word wasted. It’s lush, immersive and thematic, treating 1920s Manhattan as a compelling character all of its own, treating dreams with such skill that they feel like a character in the novel too. Her worldbuilding, her attention to detail, the voices of her characters, the life she imbues her setting… Libba Bray really offers everything as a novelist, and it’s all on display here.

Unfortunately, the novel does have a few issues. It’s slow to start, with the plot very much a slow burn. The inclusion of so many different disparate characters and plotlines, most of which didn’t seem connected to the main “sleeping sickness” plot until near the end, also made it difficult to get hooked. I read the first 30% of the novel with a kind of detached appreciation, knowing it was fantastic, but not feeling particularly compelled to read multiple chapters or pick it up quickly again.

The novel is also written in third person omniscient, meaning that we jump around and hear different characters’ perspectives within single scenes. This is good for getting a more objective “bird’s eye view” look at what everyone is thinking or feeling, but it’s a style that I find slightly jarring, which hurt the reading experience a bit.

But once the story comes together, it really comes together. This is punch-you-in-the-gut novel, gripping and emotional, with one realization in particular that left me gaping at the book in dawning horror and that I’m still not recovered from weeks later. It took me a week to read the first third of this book and a day to read the rest, and I closed it both desperate for the next instalment and envious of those people who still got to experience this one.

If you read and enjoyed The Diviners, definitely read this one. And if you haven’t read the Diviners… I recommend you go read that, and then read this one, without the agonizing three year wait in between.

Analyzing the Hugo Award Results

After months of build-up, the winners of the Hugo Awards were announced on Saturday evening. You can get all the voting stats here, but here’s the quick summary:

Generally speaking, voters ranked all Puppy-slated nominees below “No Award,” with No Award winning all five pure-Puppy categories (Best Novella, Best Short Story, Best Editor Long Form, Best Editor Short Form, Best Related Work). The only Puppy nominee to win anything was Guardians of the Galaxy, and the only other Puppy nominees to rank above “No Award” were Interstellar, the Lego Movie, Game of Thrones, The Flash and Grimm.

So what does this mean? To me, it suggests that voters very firmly rejected the Puppies and their slates, but didn’t necessarily vote against things simply because they were on the slates. Slate inclusion was a count against a work, but it wasn’t enough to get it completely dismissed if people still enjoyed it. In categories where people had strong existing opinions, it didn’t matter much. But in categories that are more obscure, the “Puppy” vs “non-Puppy” status played a much bigger role.

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The Hugo Awards are Coming

And, in a radical departure from usual business at Feminist Fiction, I made a video about it.

Really, this is just a five minute refresher on the heart of the “Puppies” controversy — who the Puppies are, why the Hugo voting system allowed them to take over the awards, how people responded, and the different potential outcomes in the awards ceremony later on today.

If you need a summary of everything to prepare for the inevitable deluge of discussion and analysis that will hit the internet tomorrow (and this website probably on Monday), then I hope this helps! And if not… well, my cat features at the end, and she’s pretty adorable either way.

Supporting Female Authors in Epic Fantasy and YA

Many people have been talking recently about a post on the Fantasy subreddit, discussing why it can be hard to find female authors of epic fantasy, and why people assume that those female authors who do exist must be writing urban fantasy or YA.

It led to an extended, interesting and depressing conversation, with highlights including examples of war fantasy being given romance-y cover, just because it was written by women, discussion of the pressure on female authors to switch to YA, and author Janny Wurts strongly recommending that new female authors of epic fantasy use their initials or a pseudonym in order to be successful.

And it got me thinking about female fantasy authors, and the relationship between “regular” epic fantasy and YA. As a YA fantasy author myself, I obviously don’t see any problems with female authors writing that genre, and I find it somewhat offensive that people assume a book must be bad purely because it has the YA label (those people have clearly never read books like Shadow and Bone and The Winner’s Curse). As YA is “for children,” and specifically “for girls,” it’s created a kind of safe-haven where debut female authors can receive the sort of advances, marketing budget, and attention that they could only dream of in epic fantasy — but it’s also created the misconception that women should therefore only write YA, and the prevalence and popularity of female authors and female readers has devalued anything in the genre in many readers’ eyes. In short, female authors are shunted off into another genre, and then are considered lesser because they’re there with all the other women.

Meanwhile, we’re told, “real” authors would fight to stay in epic fantasy — but face the fact that they’ll receive little support and are unlikely to have success while they’re there.

Everything about this invented dichotomy — female writers who sell out, write “bad fantasy” and succeed, and female writers who write “good fantasy” and are ignored — is irritating, to say the least. We shouldn’t need to defend female authors’ work by saying “it’s not YA!” and “it’s actually good!”, as though those were different from the norm.  Women shouldn’t feel like they’re betraying fantasy by choosing to write YA, either out of preference or necessity, or like they have to define themselves as “not like other female writers” in order to succeed.

The UK doesn’t have as big a YA industry as the US, and YA fantasy even less so. In fact, maybe YA fantasies in the US are published as adult fantasy here. Perhaps that is a blessing in one way, as female authors are not shoe-horned into YA. But it also means that female fantasy authors lose the one not-entirely-romance fantasy genre where they aren’t shoved into the background. With YA fantasy published along with epic fantasy, authors all have to face the same issues with a lack of shelf space and promotional opportunities.

So we see things like the famous Waterstones controversy, when Fox Meadows reported that the bookshop’s fantasy book recs booklet contained 113 authors, but only 9 women, and zero authors who weren’t white. Even more laughably, Juliet E. McKenna reported that when she challenged bookstore staff about the fact that they almost exclusively recommend male authors on their table displays, she was told that “women don’t write fantasy.” Assumedly they didn’t realize they were talking to a female fantasy author at the time.

As another example, the David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy this year did not feature a single female nominee in either “best fantasy novel” or “best debut,” and only one female author has won in either category since it started in 2009.

To get a picture of how “unusual” women are considered in epic fantasy, I have an anecdote about my own local Waterstones: there’s We Need Diverse Books table in its fantasy section, which is definitely massive progress. But We Need Diverse Books is all about diverse authors writing about diverse characters in children’s books and YA, specifically about racial diversity, sexuality, gender identity, and disabilities. Most of the books on the table did not fit those criteria. Many were books by white female authors, because that was considered a major minority group (not to mention that, assumedly, the curators did not know of any other diverse fantasy novels to include).

There has been some positive change, of course — I recently saw a different fantasy table simply titled “get hooked on a new series” that ONLY featured female authors, without any mention of their gender, for example. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. And for my part, I must admit, I haven’t read many female authors of epic fantasy. Actually, the list may be “Robin Hobb, Trudi Canavan, Jen Williams,” and at first I didn’t even know Robin Hobb was a woman. I haven’t read widely in the epic fantasy genre in general, as most of my reading time is spent on keeping up with new YA releases, but I’ve definitely read more male writers than female, and I could definitely name many male writers, and only one or two female writers.

I make no apology for prioritizing YA fantasy novels, because I enjoy them, it’s part of my job to stay current on the genre, and authors in that genre are worthy of support too. But the best way to address these issues is to buy, read, discuss and recommend epic fantasy novels from female authors as well, particularly from those who publish under their own name. I’m sure the recommendations of a female YA author who writes on a website called Feminist Fiction will mean little to anyone who already thinks that women only write YA and romance, but as these books are generally less publicized, less discussed and left off of recommendation lists, I hope that I’ll at least be able to find some interesting books, and maybe have some interesting discussions about the work of female writers in a genre that is still male dominated, in terms of both characters and authors.

So that is my challenge for the rest of the year — to read as many female YA epic fantasy authors (particularly those writing female protagonists and not using male pseudonyms) as possible, and to discuss them here. “As many as possible” is not going to be a deluge, because epic fantasy is time consuming and my “to read” list is already a bit jammed, but I’m going to do the best I can!

And if you have any recommendations of epic fantasy written by female authors, and particularly ones that deserve more attention than they’ve received, please share in the comments! I’d love to hear everybody’s thoughts.

On Crowd Scenes and Counter Examples

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While scrolling through the internet yesterday, I stumbled across an argument that never fails to frustrate me. The “I can think a single counter example, so your point is invalid” argument.

This is a pretty valid argument if we’re talking in absolutes — suggestions that no-one does this, or every expert says that, or not a single example of something exists. It’s not such a valid argument when people are talking about trends — the “usually”s and “in general”s and “on average”s.

Yet it’s still an incredibly common, and quite powerful, tool in discourse, especially online. Conversations about female characters in Marvel movies often come back to the blatant fact that there are now two female Avengers. Discussions about the lack of Black Widow merchandise are shut down with arguments that she’s on this one lunch box. Critics of ageism in Hollywood are told that Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren exist. People can name one female fantasy writer, so there’s no gender imbalance there. And on and on, in politics, in the business world, in science, in arts, and, of course, in fiction.

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Hugo Nominees 2015 – Ms Marvel: No Normal

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Ms Marvel is a really fun, adorable comic — yet another win for a reader who “didn’t like graphic novels” a few weeks ago, and who now is glaring at her library’s waiting list, eager for more.

It was hard to miss this reboot of Ms Marvel when it came out. A Muslim, Pakistani-American Ms Marvel? The internet went into fits of glee, and it was one of the best-selling comics of the year. And that’s no surprise, since not only is it refreshing diverse, it’s also incredibly fun to read.

Kamala Khan is a fantastic and refreshing female protagonist — a gaming expert, an Avenger fangirl, a fanfic-writer, and a little bit of a rebel. She’s undergoing something of an identity crisis, wishing she was more like the “beautiful” cool girls but not actually wanting to be like them, when a strange cloud smothers her and she wakes up with the ability to transform herself at will.

The result is a story full of diversity, family, friendship, and humor, with an interesting setup for stories to come.

Unsurprisingly, Ms Marvel explores a lot of common “superhero origin story” themes, and this is both a strength and a weakness. The first volume barrels through a lot of superhero-identity questions in one go, and a lot of the themes were dealt with so bluntly that they seemed to lack finesse. Kamala, for example, starts the books wishing she could be pretty and blonde like Captain Marvel, but realizes through her body-morphing powers that “being someone else isn’t liberating. It’s exhausting.” These themes are important and interesting, but this volume discussed every one of them head-on, and then quickly moved on to the next.

A lot of the plot-points are also fairly by-the-book for a teenage superhero’s origin story — most notably, perhaps, the fact that she hides her powers from her parents. At some points, this made the story feel a bit too predictable, and I was longing for the inventiveness in character to be reflected in the plot.

But perhaps that’s a good thing too. Ms Marvel‘s biggest strength point is its diversity, and the familiar teenage superhero story is familiar precisely because it rings true to the teenage experience. Cynical older readers might comment that they’ve seen all this before and want something new, but there are female readers, Muslim readers, Pakistani readers — many readers beyond the white male reader — who haven’t seen this before in a character that they can see themselves in. Ms Marvel doesn’t necessarily have to re-invent the wheel in superhero storytelling, because its characters are fresh and new, and provide representation to a lot of readers who’ve been sidelined or excluded before.

All in all, Ms Marvel is an exciting mix of classic superhero and refreshing diversity, with slightly predictable plotlines transformed by fresh, well-written characters and a gorgeous art style. I’m probably one of the last people to pick this one up, but if you haven’t read it yet, give it a chance. Even if you’re not usually a comic book person, it’s definitely worth a look.

Ant Man and the Problem of Marvel’s Necessary Women

Over the weekend, I saw Marvel’s Ant Man, and, much to my surprise, I really enjoyed it. It’s an incredibly fun movie, full of schemes and adventure that strike a great balance between dramatic and ridiculous. But, like many Marvel movies before it, it has a slight female character problem.

Yes, the movie has multiple named female characters. Yes, one of them is “kickass.” And no, it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. But the most significant thing was that it suddenly made clear to me a problem with Marvel movies, and with a lot of movies in general: the only characters that are female are those that have to be female.

At least, those that have to be female from a heteronormative Hollywood perspective.

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Game of Thrones, Mira, and the Illusion of Choice

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A few months ago, I wrote about how much I loved the Game of Thrones game from Telltale Games. I particularly loved the female characters in the game, especially Mira, the daughter of House Forrester and handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell, who must survive the manipulative landscape of King’s Landing around the time of the Purple Wedding.

But the latest episodes have been something of a let-down. Despite the appearance of Daenerys Targareyn and lots of gasp-worthy twists, the story isn’t quite coming together.

And the major problem is the game’s neglect of Mira, its only playable female character.

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Hugo Nominees 2015 — Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery

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Let me preface this by saying I’m far from an expert on graphic novels. I’ve read some of Buffy Season 8 (but found it too weird for my tastes), and, more recently, some of the Fables series (until it got too disturbing), but after a few failed attempts, I’d concluded that I’m simply “not a comic book person.”

And then I read Rat Queens.

I ended up devouring the entire thing in one go.

The back of the book describes the series as “Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack.” But I’m not sure this description does it justice. It’s a Dungeons and Dragons-esque quest and monsters fantasy, except it’s about an all-female team of total badasses who joke and fight and scheme their way through life and have more personality in their little fingers than anyone in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny. The art style is just plain gorgeous to look at. And the characters… the characters! There’s Hannah, the reckless elf mage with a very short temper, Betty the Smidgen (like a halfling) who loves girls, sweets, being adorable and breaking and entering, Dee, the atheist introvert cleric, and Violet, the rebel dwarf fighter who shaved off her beard to make a statement but might just regrow it now everyone is copying her.

The secondary characters also have a lot of life to them, and the comic is bursting with diversity — diversity in skin color, in sexuality, in fantasy races (female orcs! Female trolls!), and even just in body type and general look. None of that “all female faces are alike” Disney thing here. They’re all different, and they’re all badass in their own way.

I was absorbed into their world within a couple of pages, and by the end, I was converted from a reluctant comic book reader to someone absolutely desperate to see what would happen next.

A very funny, tongue-in-cheek take on D&D adventure, that somehow also manages to have a strong emotional heart. I need the next volume immediately.