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Down With Love

The latest IGN review of Game of Thrones has got me feeling… mildly disgruntled. It’s just one sentence, but it’s a sentiment that I’ve seen repeated, in various forms, all over the web since The Lion and the Rose aired.

It’s worth noting too that the series has landed down firmly on the “Brienne secretly loves Jaime” side of the fence, which weakens her character if you ask me.

Repeat after me, folks: romantic plotlines don’t ruin female characters.

A female character isn’t weak because she has normal human emotions. She isn’t anti-feminist because she has vulnerabilities. There’s a difference between a female character existing entirely to be in love with the male character and a female character who happens to have a romantic subplot as part of her story.

It isn’t feminist to insist that female characters have to be “badass” unfeeling robots, detached from absolutely anything considered “feminine,” including, apparently, emotions. Sure, we don’t want female characters to be damsels in distress, but swinging in the other direction, to cardboard-cutout-badass-making-quips, isn’t much better. Good female characters appear human. And sorry, romance-haters, but love is a part of that.

Of course, I’m a little biased in this case, because I’m also in the “Brienne loves Jaime” camp (and in less of a neutral and more of an “omg otp!!” kind of way). But love is already a major part of Brienne’s character. She loved Renly. Her having soft and girly feelings isn’t exactly a new development. Brienne is a badass with a sword, and she eschews a lot of gender expectations, but her personality is far closer to Sansa’s than Arya’s. She’s quite naive, a romantic in the Arthurian sense of the word, captivated by stories of honor and often motivated by love. That’s what’s so great about her character! She shows that a female character doesn’t have to reject all softness or vulnerability or stereotypical feminine characteristics to be the warrior maiden type. In fact, these “feminine” attributes put her far closer to the traditional knightly ideal than anyone else.

Yet the show has made an effort to “toughen up” Brienne and make her more into the expected stereotypical badass, and these reviews buy into the idea that that is the way a good female character should be. She’s “not like other girls,” and anything that seems too girly only diminishes her.

And it’s nonsense. It’s sexist, offensive nonsense, paraded as some kind of powerful feminist statement. And it really needs to stop.

The Lies of Locke Lamora


A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post wondering about Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke LamoraFifty pages in, and a female character had yet to speak. Or possibly appear at all. Everything else about the book — the writing, the world building, the characters — seemed really good. Far more fun than the first 50 pages of most epic fantasy books I’ve read. But still, committing myself to 500-plus pages of a world where female characters didn’t matter? I wasn’t keen.

Thankfully, a whole bunch of people chimed in to tell me that I simply must keep reading. And they were absolutely right. I loved this book. Loved, loved, loved. I haven’t been so gripped by a fantasy series since I discovered A Song of Ice and Fire. The combination of super fun characters and schemes with really shocking (slash emotionally traumatizing) plot twists had me completely addicted.

And now I have some female character related thoughts. (Warning: this is NOT a spoiler-less review. If you want to read the book without knowing its plot twists — and I recommend that! — please look away now).


Wish Fulfilment in YA Dystopia

Over the last few years, young adult fiction has been dominated by dystopia. The trend is dying out now, although it lives on in movie adaptations, but for a few years, you couldn’t pick up a popular or hyped book without it featuring an oppressive society, a futuristic world, and government-forbidden love. From the gritty military/criminal mashup of Legend to the pretty dresses and dating game-esque The Selection, societies were crumbling and oppressing everywhere you looked.

I love a good dystopian novel, but the avalanche of dystopian romances surprised me. It’s such a weirdly specific genre to become so popular. Why are we as readers fascinated by horrific, controlling societies? The answer, I believe, is that these books function as a kind of wish fulfilment; not as the life we wish we could live, but as the power and influence we wish we could have.

Because yes, these worlds suck. But in YA dystopia, they can also be changed. And teenage girls are the ones to change them.

These dystopian worlds serve as rather extreme metaphors of the teenage experience. These are worlds full of rules, where all choices are taken away. Individuality ranges from “frowned upon” to “punishable by death.” Love is seen as a terrifying disease. These societies dictate everything about the protagonists’ lives, from what they eat and wear to who they marry, how many kids they have, and what careers they pursue. It might seem extreme to say that this reflects life as a teenage girl, but combine the confusions of adolescence with the extreme pressures that our current society places on girls, and I think the connection is clear. Teenagers in general lack the power to entirely make their own decisions, and this powerlessness can range from insignificant things to the selection of colleges or career paths, depending on the people around them. And teenage girls particularly spend their lives being dictated to by society: they have to dress a certain way (and if they don’t, they deserve whatever bad things happen to them). They must hide their true faces with makeup, but not let any see that they’re actually wearing makeup. They must be smart, but not be a nerd, and certainly not be smarter than the boys. They must be thin. Food is an indulgence. But they mustn’t be too superficial and obsessed with dieting. Romance is a girlish frippery, but they need a boyfriend to have worth.

The constant contradictions are incredibly stressful and repressive. Girls are told it’s their responsibility not to misstep, but almost everything is a misstep. The world is constraining and stacked against them. Is it any wonder, then, that dystopian novels became some popular? Just as girls are not allowed to break all of these contradictory rules, they’re also not allowed to criticize the rules. Conformity is everything. The extreme metaphors of dystopian fiction therefore create a space where female characters can rebel against the repressive rules of society, without directly criticizing or breaking the rules of our society. They can fight for their individuality, and for the right to love whoever they please.

And they can winOver the course of their trilogies, these female protagonists go from completely trapped by society to being instrumental to tearing them down. They successfully fight to create new worlds, where individual choices matter. Where teenage girls have power. Where freedom is possible. We rarely see these worlds, because the books end on this note of optimism for the future rather than delving into the reality of social change, but they’re full of possibility. There’s even the possibility that they’ll be better than the societies we live in now, that these girls will truly carve a place for themselves and be free of all the restrictions that have held them back thus far.

Paradoxically, dystopian YA fiction ultimately represents hope. A dark hope, the kind that exists in desperate situations, but hope none-the-less. It’s hope that we will overcome the restrictions placed on us, tear down those who judge us or mistreat us, and find space to who we’re actually meant to be. And that, I think, is a very powerful and valuable thing.

Stolen Songbird by Danielle L. Jensen


Stolen Songbird is SUCH an enjoyable novel. Interesting characters, compelling romance, a surprisingly complex moral landscape, curses, rebellions, tyrants and trolls… it all comes together for a book that starts off a little slow but quickly gathers speed for an addictive and emotional read.

Nobody knows what’s hidden in the tunnels of the Forsaken Mountain… or at least, those who know cannot speak of it. Under the mountain’s heavy stone, under constant risk of collapse, the lost city of Trollus thrives, full of magical creatures desperate to escape their cursed existence and see the sun again. When a prophecy declares that the union between a troll prince and a human girl will break the curse that traps them in the mountain, they arrange for the kidnap of Cecile, a young singer who is dragged into the city she never knew existed and forced to marry the aloof and apparently resentful Prince Tristan.

Yet the wedding does not break the curse, leaving Cecile trapped in a city of creatures who at best think her inferior, and at worse want her dead. Cecile is obsessed with escaping the mountain, but leaving isn’t easy when deadly creatures prowl the tunnels beyond the city limits, and one tiny misstep inside the city could lead to her murder.

The kidnap/arranged marriage/escape plotline is compelling, but even more interesting, to me, were the problems within Trollus itself. The city is plagued with class issues, racism and an obsession with blood purity. Slavery and brutality are accepted. In her fight to escape, Cecile becomes tangled up in the city’s brewing potential rebellion, and this is where the best character moments, the strongest emotional plotlines, and the most challenging and interesting questions come into play. Cecile wants to escape, but she also wants to help. These creatures are trapped in slavery unless the curse is broken, but the trolls’ powers and bigotry mean that humanity may be at risk if they do manage to leave the mountain. Different priorities and loyalties pull at Cecile, who after all has been forced into this situation by kidnap, and the answers to the many moral quandaries are never easy.

All in all, Stolen Songbird manages to combine the fun, the romantic, the challenging and the dark into one fantastic and highly enjoyable debut. Highly recommended!


How I Met Your (Step)Mother


I stopped watching How I Met Your Mother several months ago. The show had devolved from a fun, witty and emotionally compelling sitcom to something that managed to be offensive on almost a weekly basis. Worse, it had committed the cardinal sin of long-running TV shows — it had become boring. I stopped watching and never looked back.

Until this week, when the series finale finally aired. I stuck with the show for so long because I wanted to see how it ended (with Barney and Robin together, I hoped), and that impulse hadn’t gone away. Yet I’m glad that I quit when I did. It ever-so-slightly softened the blow (although I still shouted “WHAT?!?!” when I first read about the conclusion).

Because, unsurprisingly, the show’s finale stayed true to what the series had become: nonsensical, stuck-in-the-past and frankly sexist and offensive, despite its “true love” exterior.


The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski


When I first heard about The Winner’s Curse, it went straight into my mental “nope, NEVER going to read, seriously, nope” pile. Set in a fantasy world where a Rome-like militant people have conquered and enslaved their more artistic neighbors, the novel’s quick summary reads like a slave and mistress love story. Throw in any of the common YA romance tropes, and the result sounded frankly offensive.

Yet people kept talking about this book, about how amazing it was, and since the cover was pretty and I wanted to know what the hype was about, I caved. And you know what? It’s not at all what I expected. It’s actually a pretty great and challenging read. Yes, romance is a central part of the story. But it’s a lot darker and a lot more complicated than I initially imagined.

Our protagonist, Kestrel, is a rich general’s daughter, being pressured to join the military or else marry within the year. She lives an incredibly privileged but restrictive life, and her closest bonds are with her fashionable best friend, and with the now-freed woman who raised her after her mother died. She’s an interesting and engaging protagonist, but she’s also (by necessity, I think) a problematic one. She benefits from life in a slave society, and she often overlooks the power dynamics that are in play. She sees herself as magnanimous, but she doesn’t ever think that slavery should be abolished. Although she’s very intelligent and insightful, her confidence in her own intelligence and insight often causes problems.

And, without spoiling the dramatic turns of the story, her choices are often very morally complicated. She could easily be seen as on the side of the villains, even though, from her perspective, she’s on the side of good. Because the narrative raises some interesting questions, particularly about loyalties and about “good” vs “evil.” If slaves are fighting for freedom, but those plans endanger the lives of Kestrel’s dearest friends, is it wrong for her to try and stop them? If a just cause destroys things she loves, can she oppose it and fight for vengeance?

The other protagonist, Arin, is similarly complex and challenging. Although he was part of his country’s noble class as a child, he is now a blacksmith, a slave, and a key part in a rebel movement that plans to destroy these invaders. Arin despises Kestrel and anyone like her, and although it’s easy to see and sympathize with why, his actions also skirt the boundaries between good and bad. Is it OK for his actions to potentially kill many innocent others, if he’s fighting for freedom for himself and his people? Are those others innocent, if they benefit from slavery, even if they’re too young to have created it themselves? How far can his own justified anger-fuelled cruelty go before it becomes plain cruel? The book digs deep into these questions, and the answers are never as simple as they might at first appear.

Then, of course, we have the romance. No matter how you dress it up, Arin is Kestrel’s slave, and thankfully, we’re not treated to any “love at first sight,” Romeo and Juliet forbidden love nonsense. In fact, there’s a lot of anger and bitterness and even hatred going on at various points in this relationship, which starts, in part, because of Arin’s inability to hide his contempt for Kestrel and everything about her life. In her boredom, Kestrel responds to his silent knowing looks with a challenge: beat me at my games, she says, and I’ll answer any question truthfully. But if she beats him, he has to be similarly honest. Things of course become complicated when blunt conversations reveal more than intended, and the two begin to respect and even like one another. And that tentative alliance of course becomes twisted once the rebellion begins in earnest.

All in all, The Winner’s Curse is a gripping, addictive and challenging read. I wasn’t always entirely sure what I thought of it, and I’m sure many people will question whether it handles its difficult subject matter adequately, or gives too many emotional weight to the oppressor side of the story. But for a novel that’s not only readable and compelling but also a rather tangled web of emotion and morality, it’s definitely worth a try. The first five chapters are available for free download.

Do books HAVE to have female characters?


I’ve been in a bit of a quandary this week.

A couple of days ago, I finally started reading Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, after literally years of encouragement from friends and the fantasy-reading world at large. So far, everything I’ve been told about the book is true. The writing is skilful, the characters and world intriguing, the story compelling. Normally, entering a new fantasy world is a slog for me, but The Lies of Locke Lamora pulled me right in.

There’s only one problem. 50 pages in, there’s not a female character in sight.

Sure, female characters exist in this world. I think one was mentioned in passing somewhere. But all the characters that we’ve met so far have been male. And my suspicious googling suggests that that isn’t going to change, with the only important female character being an object of longing who never appears “on screen.” Numerous reviews mention how great it is to see a world populated with influential female characters on equal footing with men, but does it really count if none of them play any role in the story?

Here’s the thing. Beyond this all-too-common misstep in fantasy fiction, The Lies of Locke Lamora is proving to be a good read. But I know I’ll get more and more frustrated at how male it all is, and the question that nags me is — is that OK? Is it OK to put down a book because none of the characters share a gender with you?

The obvious answer is “yes.” Yes, of course it’s OK. Firstly, because you can choose to read or not read a book for any reason you like. We have to select from the abundance of potentially enjoyable books somehow. But also because this shouldn’t even be an issue. Women are 50% of the population. Unless the story takes place in a prison, a boy’s boarding school, or a world where all the women are dead and the men are trying to cope with the inevitable end of the human race, women should exist. And not just as names and background characters and love interests who never appear. As characters who influence the story. As peopleAnd this should almost count double in fantasy. If one of the key tricks of a good fantasy book is suspension of disbelief, it seems to be a major misstep to present us with worlds where apparently women don’t really appear. Who, after all, can truly believe in that?

But despite these obvious points, and despite the fact that I’m a feminist blogger who writes about female characters all the time, the question has been nagging at me. It’s so ingrained into our society that female characters are extra or niche, and that asking for them is asking too much, that the very act of questioning the lack of them feels overdemanding. A lack of imagination. A refusal to read books without characters who aren’t “like me.” Somehow, it feels wrong of me to abandon a book merely because it lacks female characters. After all, I read books by female authors and about female characters all the time. Why shouldn’t I pick up a book about male characters for a change?

Except, of course, even books that are all about female characters feature male characters too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book whose characters are 100% women, or even 100% women and their love interests. It simply doesn’t happen, because of course men exist. Of course they have impact on events and play significant roles in other people’s lives. Of course you couldn’t write a book, even a book set in an entirely different world, without them. But when it’s the reverse? Well, then you can’t expect women to be shoehorned in everywhere. Why would they even be around? It’s a fantasy world. It’s about criminals. You’re being unreasonable expecting women to be there. You’re asking too much.

It’s nonsense, but it’s incredibly pervasive, to the point that a part of me insists that if I put down a book because of a lack of female characters, even if I know I therefore won’t enjoy it, that’ll mean I’m not a “serious reader” or a “serious writer” or simply don’t understand books. And that’s not a nice feeling to have.

But in the end, why give time and brainspace to a novel that doesn’t give time or space for your half of the population? I’m still not decided whether I’m going to try and finish the book (or even read halfway). But I’d love to occasionally read some hyped fantasy that isn’t YA or written by George RR Martin, and have female characters show up too. So far, my experiences haven’t been good.

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