The Cahill Witch Chronicles by Jessica Spotswood


Jessica Spotswood’s Cahill Witch Chronicles is a YA attempt at The Handmaid’s Tale… with magic.

The series is set in an oppressive version of 1890s New England, where society is run by the Brotherhood, a group of religious extremists who insist that all women either marry at 18 or join their nun equivalent, the Sisterhood. Once, New England was run by witches, but they were almost all killed in a religious uprising, and now any woman suspected of “impropriety,” or accused of witchcraft, is sent to work on a prison ship, locked up in the infamous Harwood Asylum, or simply disappears without a trace.

Cate Cahill and her two younger sisters are all witches. They practice magic in secret, but as their mother died when they were young, they know very little about their powers or magic’s past. Cate has sworn to protect her younger sisters from the Brotherhood, but her eighteenth birthday approaches, when she must either find someone to propose to her, or be married off at the Brotherhood’s behest — and they don’t like quiet, strange girls like Cate at all.

Religious oppression runs deep in this book, and it reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale multiple times, but, as I said, this is very much a YA version of that theme, both in the sense that it has romance that’s central to the story, and in the sense that it has hope. Things get pretty grim, but they’re never hopelessly grim, in part because magic is real, the girls do have power, and we always get the sense that they’ll be able to do something about their oppression in the end. It’s that YA dystopian “the world sucks, but teenagers might be able to fix it” thing, and it helps the book feel far more fun than it otherwise could have been.

The initial plot set-up is very marriage-plot-esque — Cate must declare her intention to marry in a few months time, or her husband will be chosen for her. And this does play a significant role in the story. But this plotline is quickly overtaken by Cate’s discovery that her mother didn’t tell her everything about her magic, and that protecting her sisters may not be as simple as she once hoped.

At its heart, The Cahill Witch Chronicles is about the relationship between these three sisters. Although it has a couple of love interests and a dead-mother trope, it’s full of vibrant female characters and their many complicated relationships with one another. It’s also a very diverse book, embracing the idea that if this alternate history can have actual witches, it can definitely have people who aren’t white. So the richest and most influential people in the town are the Ishida family, with Brother Ishida as a major antagonist and his daughter Sachi playing an important role in Cate’s story. This basic principle of “if you can have magic, you can have diversity” is found throughout all three books, and it’s a refreshing change.

Also, lesbian witches!

This is a great book series for fans of Libba Bray, Robin LeFevers, or any “Victorian magic!” style fiction. I devoured all three books in about two days, and I can’t wait to see what this author writes next.

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A Twilight Genderbend Could Never Work


On Tuesday, Stephenie Meyer announced that she had released a genderbent version of Twilight. The tenth anniversary edition contained a retelling of the novel where every single character (minus Bella’s parents Charlie and Renee) had their genders switched. According to Meyer, she started the project to challenge the idea that Twilight is sexist because Bella is a damsel in distress. She is a human in distress, and this retelling was intended to prove that.

Before you get excited, or overly horrified, this isn’t a new story. This isn’t, as I originally thought, a case of Meyer wondering what the story would have been like if Bella were a guy and Edward were a girl and writing it. The vast majority of this retelling is a find-and-replace job, switching out the names and leaving the context intact, with a few bigger changes when necessary — most notably the ending, where Beau is turned into a vampire, avoiding all that messy “love triangle, half-vampire baby” stuff from the sequels.

Initially, I intended to read the new book, and maybe do a side-by-side comparison of the changes. But as I mused on it, I realized that such criticism is an exercise in pointlessness. No matter how Meyer has rewritten Twilight, no matter what she changed or left the same, the result is going to have incredibly troubling implications about gender and about relationships. The relationships and gender dynamics in Twilight are so flawed that Meyer’s experiment was doomed from the beginning.


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Not-So-Strong Female Characters


By now, everyone is familiar with the “Strong Female Character” trope. The badass girl who can take anyone in a fight, looks gorgeous doing it, and, most importantly, doesn’t have any of those pesky weaknesses or emotions, except perhaps her love for the hero.

She’s expected to be Strong, where “strong” means unflinching and undeveloped, and where any hesitation, un-pretty sadness or doubt immediately makes her whiny and weak. Although the trope has often been posited as “girl power,” it forces female characters into an even more restrictive narrative box, and perpetuates the idea of “strength” as unattainable, inhuman perfection. And it’s worked. The trope has become so ingrained that critics are quick to criticize female characters for not being “strong” enough, for being “weak,” simply because they’re affected by the dramatic events around them, or because they’re not immediately completely in control of their situation.

Which is why I’ve loved seeing YA-inspired stories recently that deal with the mental toll of being “strong” in an intense, life-and-death type environment. Stories that show female characters who are leaders, who make difficult decisions… and who don’t emerge from it unscathed.


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I’ve never really understood the whole zombie craze. Yes, everyone needs a good apocalypse escape plan, just in case, but zombies have never really worked as serious monster-villains for me. They shamble around and eat brains? And we need five hundred stories about this why, exactly?

So when I heard Veronica Mars’s Rob Thomas was working on a new show called iZombie, I never really thought I’d watch it. It just didn’t sound like my sort of thing.

Luckily, it was then recommended to me enough times that I decided to watch it, because iZombie is fantastic.

Like many great genre shows before it, iZombie‘s title and quick summary don’t really do it justice. Here, ambitious medical student Liv is turned into a zombie after a particularly disastrous boat party, and needs to eat brains to survive. But when she eats someone’s brain, she takes on some of that person’s personality and memories. So she gets a job at the police morgue, convinces a homicide detective that she’s a psychic, and uses her visions to help solve people’s murders.

It’s a ridiculous, fun, tongue-in-cheek set-up to allow for the “mystery of the week” story structure, and it’s treated with just the right balance of humor and sincerity that it works.

But, like Veronica Mars before it, the show’s real strength comes from the overarching story that builds in the background — a story that I don’t want to spoil, as it really is better as a surprise, but which is not a zombie apocalypse story. It is a story of both human and zombie villainy, but villainy on a far more real-life scale.

The show, unsurprisingly, is very reminiscent of Veronica Mars, with a strong Buffy flavor as well. If you enjoyed Veronica MarsiZombie will give you nostalgia in all the best ways. It utilizes the mystery-of-the-week and protagonist voiceovers that will be familiar to Veronica Mars fans, and presents its supernatural elements with a blend humor and genuine emotion to create a show that is really fun to watch, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, but that also really sucks you in and packs a punch too.

Is it as strong as Veronica Mars’ first season? No. But that’s an incredibly high bar to meet, since Veronica Mars’ first season is almost perfectly plotted, and it’s as strong if not stronger than Veronica Mars’ other seasons.

Unfortunately, like Veronica Mars‘ before it, the show suffers from what I can only call “Female Protagonist Syndrome,” where it presents a really interesting and well-developed female protagonist… and then forgets to include any other female characters in the main cast. Liv is a great character, well-defined despite her habit of taking on new character traits each week, but her best friend is underdeveloped, her mom is rarely seen, and all other recurring characters are male. The cast of iZombie is fairly diverse, but it’s trapped in the “characters are only female if they have to be” trope — moms and best girl friends, but not the police chief, or the detective, or her boss, or the villain.

But despite that, it’s a winning show. It has a ridiculous concept, but somehow it works, and it’s the first show in quite a while that sucked me in with the pilot and had me addicted by episode four. Some plot elements feel slightly rushed, probably because of the 13-episode season, and a couple of minor plot points got a little lost along the way, but it’s gripping and enjoyable throughout. Even if one plot point in particular has scarred me for life.

And it’s incredibly refreshing to see a genre show that aims to be enjoyable, rather than grim. It’s gripping and emotional, without relying on gratuitous violence and the audience shock factor — just delicious character-driven drama, a healthy dose of plot twists, and a great sense of humor too.


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Agent Carter: Sexism, Historical Accuracy, and Badass Female Characters


A couple of weeks ago, I fell in love with Peggy Carter.

Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the first Captain America. So when I finally tuned into Agent Carter, I didn’t know much about what to expect, beyond the fact that everyone loves Peggy and she’s appeared briefly in some movies I’ve seen. It didn’t take long for me to realize that she’s a fantastic character. Smart, self-assured, resourceful, glamorous, kind, no-nonsense, talented, and completely badass — what’s not to love?

I then spent many hours watching her prove how awesome she is — and watching her get beat down, again and again, because she also happens to be a woman. Agent Carter deals heavily with post-war era sexism, and although at first I thought that was a good thing, the show made me wonder. Is there such a thing as too much realism? And what is the right balance between that and romanticizing the past?


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Nimona by Noelle Stevenson


Nimona is one of the funniest, cleverest, most wonderful and adorable books I’ve ever read.

Is that overselling it? I’m just excited that I read it at all, because Nimona is the sort of book that I would usually admire every time I saw it in the store, but never actually buy. The artwork is fantastic, but I’m not much of a graphic novel person. It looks fanficcy and fun, but, you know, I’m not much of a graphic novel person. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’d love, but… well. Luckily, a friend took that decision out of my hands, because Nimona is a joy to read.

Originally a webcomic by Noelle Stevenson, Nimona is the story of a shapeshifting girl who talks her way into becoming supervillain Ballister Blackheart’s assistant in evil. Together, they plot to take down the Institute of Law Enforcement and Heroics, especially Blackheart’s nemesis, Ambrosius Goldenloin.

But of course, Blackheart and Goldenloin are “nemeses” in that Hark! A Vagrant way — something that, instead of just being fun subtext, becomes very much Text as the story continues.

The story has lots of tongue-in-cheek moments, playing with expectations and cliches in a way that will really appeal to readers with fannish tendencies. But the story also has a lot of heart. The characters have so much personality that you can’t help getting attached to them very quickly, so when bad things happen to them… well, let’s just say it’s emotionally resonant too.

And it’s all set in a very modern heroes-and-villains fantasyland, with movies and pizza delivery and evil science labs… and dragons and medieval peasants and tournaments and villainy.

It’s a wild adventure of a book, wonderful and clever and incredibly well-told. If you’re a fannish sort, you should definitely check it out.

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Doctor Who: The Witch’s Familiar


I’d like to propose a new show to the BBC. It can still be called Doctor Who, for tradition’s sake, but the Doctor’s in trouble. No TARDIS, no screwdriver, no actual ability to affect the plot. A rather crotchety Doctor in Distress, if you will.

And so, in order to save him, his faithful companion Clara and his nemesis Missy team up and travel through time and space, fighting evil, fighting one another, and generally having adventures that will one day lead to them freeing the Doctor — although hopefully that “one day” isn’t for a season at least.

Overall, The Witch’s Familiar was a decent episode, with some fun and clever moments, but hampered, as the show often is these days, by a lack of development and an attempt to think too big. And despite the long history of the Doctor and Davros, its best moments, its best chemistry, came from the new pairing of Clara and Missy, and the freshness they brought to an otherwise quite tired, contradictory incarnation of the show.


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Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice


When I started watching The Magician’s Apprentice, I was about as un-enthused about a show as you can possibly be while still making time to watch it. Habit told me that I should probably tune in, but my caring level was pretty much zero.

By the end of the episode, my caring level was about a four. So, in one sense, The Magician’s Apprentice was a very successful episode of Doctor Who. It converted my apathy into intrigue, and it deserves kudos for that.

As a whole, though, the episode was on the good side of “classic Moffat Who” — fun, with some genuinely creepy and shocking moments, but casually offensive, and lost in an attempt to be more epic than it needs to be.


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So Game of Thrones won the Emmys

OK. Let’s talk about the Emmys.

Last night, Game of Thrones won 12 awards, breaking the record for the show with the most wins in one night. Among those awards, it won best drama for the first time in its history, and best director and best writer for its season finale, Mother’s Mercy.

The fact that it won for best drama this year is laughable. Even ignoring all the show’s misogyny, its changes to Sansa’s plotline simply for shock value, its overuse of rape as a plot device, its decision to burn Shireen to death so that Stannis could become a villain… even ignoring all of that, Season Five was not a well-written season. Episodes lacked flow, with the sense that we were working through a checklist of “gotta see every character for five minutes before the episode ends.” Character plotlines fell apart. Brienne spent weeks staring at a window. Myrcella lived and died with no discernible personality or characteristics. Everything was misogynistic and nothing made sense.

But the real sting comes from the wins for Mother’s Mercy. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Lena Headey’s nomination for her work in this episode, and how the power of her performance shouldn’t be dismissed because of its context. Lena Headey lost that award to Uzo Aduba — a very worthy surprise winner. But while Lena Headey lost, the writers and director who created that context of misogyny won.

This wasn’t a pointed message from the voters, but its connotations are still skin-crawling. Those who create stories about misogyny deserve commendation. The women who bring those stories to life, who have to experience those emotions and recreate that humiliation, do not.

An Emmy for the man who chose which camera angles to show Cersei’s full-frontal naked walk through the streets. An Emmy for the man who chose to have Cersei descend into shot so we could see her whole body before we saw her face, and who decided what other nudity to have in the scene. Basically, an Emmy for the gazer, the one who constructs how we see Cersei, how we see all of the story.

And an Emmy for the men who wrote the scene. The men who put the words in each character’s mouths. The ones who chose to use misogyny for shock value. Not much writing was needed for the Shame scene, since it was lifted straight from the books and was short on dialogue, but they were rewarded for the writing in the whole episode… killing Myrcella, after a season where she was given no real personality, no apparent goals, no explanations for her actions. Including the Sand Snakes as interchangeable figures where one literally says “you want the good girl, but you need the bad pussy.” Hanging Selyse in grief over her husband killing her daughter. Deciding that Stannis needed to be killed off-screen, because that would be gratuitous.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this is considered Emmy-winning stuff. These days, “good drama” seems to have become interchangeable with “shocking drama,” the more painful to watch the better. And although Game of Thrones has pulled off major shocks, most notably Ned Stark’s death and the Red Wedding, a really good drama needs to inflict that shock value on women. Nothing is more award worthy than a rape story, especially one where an emotionally broken male character can win his redemption by helping the victim. Showing the screams of a young girl burning to death while her father watches is a powerful way to transform him into a villain, and that’s good TV. And a woman forced to walk naked through the streets for seven minutes of unbroken TV time while a mob screams misogynistic abuse has the triple threat of being painful, shocking TV, being a vivid “critique of misogyny,” and providing the audience with full-frontal nudity. Thanks to our culture’s toxic mix of viewing women as delicate flowers/helpless victims while also treating them with distrust and contempt, nothing is more shocking yet somehow acceptable as seeing a woman forced to suffer, especially if she suffers for being a woman.

And nothing is more Emmy worthy than shocking an audience in a way that they can ultimately feel comfortable with — by mistreating women, erasing their stories, and calling it unpredictable, brutally realistic art.

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Queen of Shadows by Sarah J Maas


It’s no secret that I love Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass series. The first book was wildly fun and addictive in a somewhat fanficcy way, the second book was dark and twisty and horrible and wonderful, and the third book dug deep into character development and shrugged off any YA roots for an intense epic-fantasy level story. It’s a difficult series to recommend to people, as its eventual quality and depth aren’t necessarily clear from the opening pages, but it’s definitely worth the attempt.

So, does Queen of Shadows live up to its predecessors? Yes. In fact, it surpasses them, as Maas’s writing only grows stronger with each passing book.

Like Heir of Fire, this is a really character-driven fantasy novel masquerading as action/adventure. Yes, there’s lots of fights and lots of danger, there are monsters and demons and an overarching need to save the world, but most of the focus is on the characters and how they develop in response to this world-changing threat. It’s enthralling, but it’s far from plot-plot-plot.

And that suits me fine. One of the great benefits of a long series is that we can really get to know the characters and see the far-reaching consequences of their actions. We can see the immediate pain that characters cause one another, and then we can see the scars of that months or years later. A single glance or word can pack a huge emotional punch.

And Sarah J Maas writes such amazing characters.

Aelin continues to be an incredibly rich and fun protagonist. She’s been criticized before as a “Mary Sue,” because she’s pretty and powerful and so must be an overpowered cliche, but she’s hardly flawless perfection. She has a lot of skill as an assassin, but she pays a severe emotional price for that. She’s a very dark, vengeful, violent character, and while that makes her compelling, it’s hardly held up as a strength.

But Maas’s best character work may be with some of Aelin’s deadly enemies, the witches in the employ of the king. Although you could never, never describe these characters as “nice,” Maas still manages to make them emotionally compelling and even sympathetic… while also being vicious, bloodthirsty, and cruel. Her perspective character Manon has a complex and fascinating character arc, continued here from Heir of Fire, as her loyalties are challenged, and her sense of honor clashes with her

One final character that needs mentioning is the courtesan, Lysandra. Although she’s a new addition in this book, she has a long history with Aelin from her days as an assassin. Aelin has dismissed her for years as vapid, vain and useless, because of her own biased assumptions and because of the things that Lysandra has done to survive, but the fact that Lysandra has survived is a testament to how wrong Aelin is about her, and their developing trust and friendship is one of the strongest parts of the book.

Of course, this isn’t a perfect book. Although there’s lots of action and lots of tension, it doesn’t entirely flow together, plotwise, with a couple of interludes that had to happen so certain characters could meet or someone could learn something, but which otherwise felt like detours. Fine if you’re enchanted by the characters, but if you’re very plot focussed, it could get frustrating. And when things do get very plotty and climax-y in the final hundred pages, some of the book’s spell was broken for me — but I’m very hard to please when it comes to Big Dramatic Conclusions, and it was more “this wasn’t QUITE as enjoyable as the rest of the book” than “this is disappointing.”

Overall, if you’ve read as far as Heir of Fire and felt “meh” about it, this book probably won’t change your opinion on the series. But if you haven’t picked up this series yet, definitely give it a try. Once you’ve got past the first few chapters of the first book, you’ll find a rich fantasy world full of drama, emotion, and some of the best drawn female characters in any fantasy YA… or any fantasy series, period.

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