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An Ode to Malta Vestrit


As I wrote about a few weeks ago, I recently became obsessed with Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series. I highly, highly recommend it as one of the best series I’ve ever read. And one of the (many) reasons I adored it was an initially rather awful character called Malta Vestrit.

Malta is the youngest female character in the Vestrit family, at 13, and fights with pretty much every character we grow to love. While her mother and grandmother struggle to make ends meet and her aunt Althea runs off to have adventures on the high seas, Malta just wants expensive jewellery, pretty dresses, and everyone’s attention on her, and she despises every other sympathetic character for standing in her way. In the first book, her selfish actions sabotage her family’s attempts to salvage their situation, and she is very, very hard to sympathize with or like.

But even when I absolutely hated her, I kind of loved her too. I love that Robin Hobb wasn’t afraid to make her act horribly to every other character we care about, and to be horribly wrong in so many ways, not as a villain figure, but as a basis for her growth as a character.


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The first I heard of HBO’s new show Westworld was a not-very-positive review (that I now can’t find again), which said the show was like the ‘new Game of Thrones’, in more ways than one. I wasn’t exactly eager to get pulled into another mess of misogyny with characters just compelling enough that you can’t stop watching, so I ignored it for a while, until people I trust started raving about it and I got overly curious, and ended up marathoning all three aired episodes back-to-back.

Westworld is one of those rare shows that makes me reach for a notebook to scribble down thoughts within about two minutes of starting it. There’s so much to discuss. Does that make it a good show? Was that initial review wrong? Well. I’m not sure yet.


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Thoughts on All-Female Remakes


In case you missed it, there was an all-female remake of Ghostbusters this year.

Not that you did miss it. Nobody missed it. I don’t think there’s ever been such a vitriolic response to a movie before. You’d think the film had been remade as a piece of Nazi propaganda from how fiercely people hated it from the moment it was announced. Making the Ghostbusters into women? Absolutely criminal.

Next on the bandwagon is an all-female Ocean’s Eleven, designed as a companion story/sequel starring Danny Ocean’s sister. Maybe people will be less violently opposed to this one, because it’s not such a childhood movie, and it doesn’t replace the original in the timeline. This one does have a supremely cool-sounding cast, to the point that I might actually go see it, even those it’s not my usual sort of thing.

But as cool as the concept of all-female remakes might be, I’ve never been able to get particularly excited about them. I’m not a Ghostbusters or Ocean’s Eleven fan, so I’m going to imagine that someone planned to remake The Lord of the Rings with an all-female fellowship. The concept would be pretty cool, but I still don’t think I would be able to get genuinely excited about it. Because these “all-female remakes” aren’t badass feminism, even if that’s what their critics say. They’re gimmicks. “Super special edition” versions, like “it’s Sherlock Holmes, but with mice!” “It’s Ghostbusters, but with women!” It’s presented as something different, something a bit weird, something not normal.

On the plus side, this trend does allow girls to watch, for example, a Ghostbusters movie where they’re the heroes. After I’d already written the outline for this post, I stumbled across a Tumblr post that made me rethink this topic a lot, arguing that while adults might talk about, for example, Obama as the “first black president,” children just see him as the president, and that these are the people remakes are really for. Adults might see the Ghostbusters remake as the “female Ghostbusters,” but to a six-year-old, they’re just the Ghostbusters.

And perhaps this is what people are actually worried about when they say remakes are “destroying their childhood.” It’s not their childhood that’s being affected. It’s other people’s childhoods. New childhoods. Kids who won’t get the same all-male Ghostbuster experience that they had, but will instead see women in the roles. Boys, perhaps, who don’t get to see themselves as the new Ghostbusters, the way these people saw themselves in the 80s. That, I think, is what inspires so much vitriol.

But I don’t think they have to worry. Sometimes the reincarnation replaces the original in the public’s consciousness, like Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury or Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica, but in those cases, it’s one more inclusive casting in a context of more traditional choices, and it doesn’t involve the main protagonist. Captain America and Iron Man are still white men. The character change is not the most noteworthy thing about the reboot. But every gender-swapped remake announcement basically confirms that the default is still all-male (or mostly male, one female), and that once you’ve told that story and had it be successful, then you can introduce an all-female story as a gimmicky remake version. The gender swap is the real thing that matters when selling this movie. And sure, they could be cool stories. But I want us to have our own stories too.

Of course, it’s really hard for groups of female characters to avoid that sense of being a “gimmick,” even if they’re in an original story. An all-male fantasy quest is normal, but an all-female fantasy quest would be seen as noteworthy at absolute best, a sign of the domination of women in society and the Fall of Men at worst. But I would love for a story to automatically, naturally have lots of female characters in it. A heist story that’s always about women, not remade to have some women. A superhero story about female superheroes, not male superheroes recast as female ones. There’s something to be said about having female stories from the start and allowing them to become iconic themselves. Like Katniss Everdeen. Like Rey (even though some would argue she is part of a remake).

But of course, it’s hard for these stories to get made, and hard for them to get recognized if they do get made. Star Wars had the benefit of being Star Wars, and The Hunger Games was already a best-selling book series, and even then it was romanced-up in the marketing for the first movie. An all-female remake is a way to get past the “female characters don’t sell” stigma — and even that might be shaky after the vitriolic reaction to Ghostbusters. So I’m not saying they’re a bad thing, or “anti-feminist,” or anything other than “cool but not quite there yet.” I’m still not sure we should heap on the praise for “it’s THIS popular thing, but with women!!” as the epitome of social change. Remakes can be fun. But original female genre stories would be better.

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Tommy Wallach and Literary Suicide

Young Adult author Tommy Wallach has not been having a great week. There’s a full summary of recent events on YA Interrobang, with screencaps and all that magic, but here’s the quick version. A few days ago, he made a (now-deleted) Facebook post to promote the paperback release of his second novel, which includes a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge on the cover. His comment? “That’s a damn sexy bridge right there. I could really get into jumping off it. :)”

When many people pointed out that’s not an acceptable thing to say, he responded, “Oy. Friends. I was not making a suicide joke. The whole conclusion of the book is about whether or not Zelda jumped from that bridge.”

So it wasn’t a suicide joke. It was a joke about the fact that the book ends with the ~mystery~ of whether or not one of the main characters killed herself, and slyly nodding to how fun and sexy it is that his book contains suicidal bridge jumping at all. This on top of an old blog post of his, which I won’t link, about the “top 10 literary suicides,” including jokes such as wishing that all the characters from Girls would kill themselves, and mocking Sylvia Plath for being oh-so emo.

I haven’t read any of Tommy Wallach’s novels, and I really don’t intend to now. But the blatant disregard for the impact of his words here — the apparent assumption that no one who’s ever been suicidal could be reading and be hurt by the joke, the treatment of a character’s suicide as something to wink-wink nudge-nudge about — hints at a wider problem in the representation of suicide and mental illness in fiction. Instead of telling stories to represent the perspectives of people with mental illness, it’s using mental illness as a tool to tell a different story, often about a different character. It’s used to be deep, to be edgy and literary. Because, to put it bluntly, reviewers eat that shit up.


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Maas and Masculinity: a few thoughts on Empire of Storms


I’ve been a big fan of Sarah J Maas’s novels since her debut, Throne of Glass, came out in 2012. Since then, she’s only gotten stronger and more addictive as a writer, and so the fifth novel in the Throne of Glass series, Empire of Storms, was probably my most anticipated read of the year.

But while Empire of Storms was highly readable and plot-twisty and all the things you might expect from a Sarah J Maas novel, the book’s approach to romance left a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth. Like Maas’s May release, A Court of Mist and Fury, Empire of Storms is obsessed with hyper-masculinity, and while in one novels that’s just a theme, two novels back-to-back present a more concerning pattern. In these stories about badass female characters saving the world, almost all the male love interests end up being possessive, aggressive and controlling.

Both series have a similar conception of “fae,” with extremely territorial males that get aggressive whenever anyone else male is even in the same room as “their” female.

Rowan bit down against the sight of other males near his queen, reminding himself that they were his friends, but–


The savage, wild snarl that ripped out of Rhys was like nothing I’d heard, and I gripped his arm as he whirled on Cassian.

The badass female characters roll their eyes at the guys’ stupidity, but it happens again and again, and no one is ever more than mildly irritated at their displays of possessive aggression. In fact, any effort to step away from violent possessiveness is treated as a sign of how great a guy he really is.


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Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb


Oh my god, I’m so in love with this series right now.

The Liveship Traders Trilogy was recommended to me by Claire Rousseau on Twitter, who described it as “pirates and courtship and women crossdressing to go to sea.” Obviously, I was sold. It’s my second Robin Hobb series, after reading (most of) the Rain Wild Chronicles a few years ago. Although I adored the first two books in that series, when I moved onto her Farseer trilogy, the massive switch in style (and the kind of blah, seen-it-before male assassin coming of age story) put me off catching up on any of the others.

But this book. This book.

Like many wonderful and addictive fantasy series, I almost put this down after about 150 pages, because it really takes its time to get going. It sets up the world, sets up its large cast of characters, and leaps from storyline to storyline as things start to come together, resulting in an opening that’s difficult to invest in, and an ensuing story that takes over your whole brain. And once it kicks off, I fell completely in love.

I am obsessed with this cast of characters. I’m just reviewing the first book here, because I haven’t finished the series yet, so it’s possible that the remaining book and a half will fall to pieces. But these characters.

First, Althea Vestrit, who is already one of my favourite characters of all time. She’s a complete badass, if also a little selfish and spoiled at first. She’s grown up travelling on her father’s liveship — a magical trading ship that bonds with its owners and comes to life after three of them have died on its decks — and she has always believed that she would captain the newly-awakened Vivacia herself after her father’s eventual death. But when her father dies, the ship is instead given to her brother-in-law, a selfish, arrogant man who only cares about how much profit the Vivacia can bring him. He forbids Althea from ever stepping foot on the shop again, but in a fit of anger, he swears by the gods that if she could ever get proof that she worked successfully on any other ship, the Vivacia would be hers. It’s Althea’s only chance, so she disguises herself as a boy and sets sail on a mission to earn her liveship back.

Back home, her mother Ronica is stuck dealing with the death of her husband, the disappearance of her daughter, and the financial ruin that seems to be falling down upon them. Slavery has been introduced to Bingtown, where they live, and the only way to compete would be to use slaves on her property herself, but Ronica is determined that the old ways must prevail over the approach of these heartless newcomers. With her is her older daughter Keffria, a woman who’s suddenly realized that she’s disregarded by her husband and disrespected by her daughter, and who is determined to prove herself.

And then there’s Malta. The wonderful, horrible Malta, Keffria’s self-centered and ruthless thirteen-year-old daughter. She’s exactly what people accuse Sansa Stark of being, like a young Cersei Lannister, at least at first. She’s delightfully, hatefully awful, obsessed with jewels and parties and manipulating everyone around her to adore her, but she doesn’t understand the forces that she’s messing with, and she could end up in far deeper trouble than she realizes. I love her. I can’t stand her. I can’t wait to see where her story goes.

There’s also Wintrow, Keffria’s teenage son, who was training to be a priest before his father forced him to travel on his liveship instead. He feels like a prisoner there, an unhappiness sensed by the newly-awakened Vivacia. And then there’s Captain Kennit, a ruthless pirate who dreams of being a king, is the true villain of the story, but somehow keeps stumbling into appearing the hero instead.

And I just love it all. I’m flailing so much. I’m sure the series has flaws that will become apparent to me once I’ve finished it and given it space, but I’m currently in that addicted and adoring space that you find so rarely, when an epic book series completely sweeps you away. I definitely have to write a whole post about Malta, once I’ve finished reading. In the meantime, if you haven’t tried this series, I really, really recommend you pick it up. It’s so amazingly, wonderfully enchanting, with rich, flawed characters, buckets of adventure and just a hint of dragons.

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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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