Author Archive

Hugo Nominees 2014: Parasite by Mira Grant

13641105Mira Grant has been nominated for the Hugo Awards twice before with her novels Feed and Deadline, but has yet to win the grand prize. So, will Parasite be the book that earns her the win?

Well, to be honest, no. Parasite is a fun enough read, but there’s nothing groundbreaking or inventive about it, and its merits are marred by its predictability and unsatisfying conclusion.

Six years ago, Sal was in a horrific car accident, leaving her brain dead. Miraculously, just before the doctors were ready to pull the plug on her, she woke up, with no memory of her past life, no trace of her previous personality, and no recollection of how to speak or walk or anything. Experts believe that her life was saved by her medical parasite, a tapeworm genetically engineered to provide potentially life-saving support to its human host. Since then, Sal has been supported and experimented on by the pharma company that produces the tapeworms, and has been trying to get on with her life.

But then the tapeworms start turning people into zombies.

They’re not called zombies in the book, of course, but Parasite is very much a zombie outbreak novel with a twist on the cause. People lose their minds. They stare blankly, and amble along, and eventually start eating flesh. All we’re missing is a cry for “braaaaiiiins,” and even that is included more subtly in the plot along the way.

The tapeworm-zombies do lead to some terrifying zombie apocalypse scenes, and there’s a lot of other horror elements in here to enjoy, from human experimentation to shades of Doctor Frankenstein. And as the situation gets more and more dire, Sal’s race to figure out what the hell is happening and how she can stop it is compelling.

But it’s also obvious. Really, really obvious. It’s obvious what’s going on. It’s obvious what’s happening to Sal. It’s obvious what the final “shock twist” will be about 50 pages in. And the obviousness just makes it all feel too neat, too predictable. How can horror be scary if we know the answers several hundred pages before they come up?

Worse, the “shock twist” is the only resolution we get in the book. Parasite is the first in a trilogy, and it really doesn’t stand alone. Book 1 is basically characters figuring out what’s going on, with the assumption that most of the action will come later. But having characters reach a conclusion doesn’t really make for a satisfying plotline. If I read a 500 page novel, I want to feel like I’ve got somewhere by the end of it, but I kind of felt like I’d just been dawdling up to the start line. If the other books in the series were out, I might feel differently, but as it stands, I just walked away from the book with a strong feeling of dissatisfaction.

Of course, there’s a lot to commend Parasite from a feminist fiction perspective. Diversity is the name of the game. A female protagonist, female friendship, casual inclusion of gay marriage and a bisexual character and lots of racial diversity… it really can’t be faulted there. But unfortunately, the plot just doesn’t measure up.

Parasite is an enjoyable light read, as long as you don’t expect too much from it… and as long as you don’t mind that no resolution is currently in sight.

Beauty and the Beast

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Beauty and the Beast is the ultimate “not like other girls” Disney movie.

Make no mistake, the animation and the music are gorgeous, Belle is a great character, and the dynamic between Belle and Gaston gives us some interesting scenes. But although Belle is intelligent and ambitious and wanting adventure, she’s explicitly set up as being different because of it. She doesn’t fit in, because nobody else she knows could possibly also like reading, or dreaming, or want their life to come to something.

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How much do promo images matter?

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The BBC have released their official promo image for the new season of Doctor Who. Although it’s nowhere near as controversial as last season’s “unconscious Amy” promo picture, the image has come under fire for reflecting the continuing sexism in Moffat’s Doctor Who.

Which begs the question: do promotional images really matter? They’re not stills from the show. They’re marketing tools, and as such, they might not even properly reflect the content of the show. They’re single images, a different medium from whatever they’re representing. How can we criticize something based on that?

But they do matter, precisely because they’re marketing tools. A promo pic is designed to represent the spirit of the show in a single memorable image, so that people get a sense of what it’s about and hopefully get excited to watch it. The promo pics might not always be entirely accurate, if there’s disagreement between the marketing department and the show creators, but they are supposed to represent the spirit of the show in a way that appeals to the masses.

And in television, they usually reflect this pretty well. Every year, Downton Abbey‘s promo pic is of the whole cast standing in front of Downton, telling us (accurately) that this is an ensemble show, set in a country house in the 1910s and 20s. Orange and the New Black, meanwhile, has had two different approaches to promo pics. The image for the first season focused on Piper, dressed in orange, in the middle of the other girls, who are less noticeable in grey. In contrast, in the second season promo pictures, Piper’s just one face in the group, showing that she’s now less important, and that the show has become a true ensemble. In Sleepy Hollow‘s image, Ichabod and Abby are center stage, glaring into the camera, with a couple of secondary characters in the background, and the creepy misty woods declaring that this is a horror show. And on and on and on. Promo pictures have a message. They are designed to represent the show.

So what does this latest promo pic tell us about the new Doctor Who? Fabulous new TARDIS, fabulous new Doctor. The Doctor stares into the camera, a challenging and perhaps even irritated expression on his face, while he stands in a power pose. He is commanding, authoritative, ready to take on the universe. And then there’s Clara. A smaller figure, more in the background. She’s looking into the distance, not at the camera, and so is not engaging with the viewer. She’s holding onto the TARDIS and standing with her knees bent, a much weaker position, with an almost dreamy smile on her face. She’s definitely the passenger in this image, the dreamy-eyed girl that the Doctor is taking on an adventure, not an adventurer in her own right. And it’s a far cry from previous Doctor Who promo pics, where the companions have been shown on equal footing with the Doctor, engaging with the camera, in power positions, ready to fight and explore.

Yes, it’s just an image. But it’s an image that tells us a lot. At best, this depicts what the BBC thinks most viewers want to see, the image that they think will appeal the most. At worst, it depicts precisely what we should expect from the new season of Doctor Who. Exciting adventures with a moody new Doctor, with his pretty little assistant along for the ride.

Hugo Nominees 2014: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

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If The Wheel of Time wasn’t also nominated for the Hugo this year, I’d say that Ann Leckie had an excellent shot at becoming the fifth female author to win both the Nebula and the Hugo for the same book. Ancillary Justice is well-written with good characters and a compelling plot, but, most importantly for an award-winning sci-fi book, it is also full of challenging ideas, including a unique take on gender.

Ancillary Justice tells the story of the last remnant of an ancient spaceship in a human body, determined to kill the multi-bodied leader of the universe for reasons that are initially unknown. The narrative is split between flashbacks, explaining why our spaceship protagonist is on this mission, and “present day” events, where she is hunting down the only method of killing this ruler while fighting for survival herself.

The first few chapters are very confusing. Ancillary Justice errs on the side of “we’ll throw you in the deep end and explain everything later,”  and it was a little too far into the deep end for my tastes. Who is this person? What are they doing? Wait, they’re a ship? How are they a ship and also a person? What is going on? Why are we in a flashback now? The opening pages made my head hurt, and not in an intrigued sort of way. But once the book offers more explanation and eases the reader into the world more, the story becomes intriguing, and then tense, and then intense, with lots of action and character growth and compelling emotion to keep you turning the pages.

But the most compelling and interesting part of the novel, to me, is its treatment of gender. It isn’t important to the plot, it’s only mentioned a few times by the protagonist, but after the whole “this person is a spaceship” confusion, its the most memorable element of the novel by far.

Our protagonist doesn’t see gender, and so refers to absolutely everybody in her thoughts as “she.” This is, of course, far more interesting than if she referred to everybody as “he,” since that would just make it a fairly traditional sci-fi/fantasy story. The protagonist struggles to correctly gender other characters in her dialogue with them, pointing out that different races and cultures have so many different ways of marking “male” and “female” that its almost impossible for an extensive traveller to guess which is which.

This gives the book a Left Hand of Darkness-type feeling, as it slowly trains the reader to stop defining the characters by gender (except this time, the “default” is a she, not a he). But when I say “slowly,” I mean slowly. I spent a lot of the book trying to figure out which characters were male and which were female, so that I could picture them “properly.” Occasionally other characters will refer to people as “he” instead of “she,” and that feels like a vital and hard-won nugget of information: now we know that this character is definitely male or definitely female. Except, as the main race of people in the book don’t differentiate between gender at all, this isn’t a definite answer but simply a revelation of how one particular character views another’s gender.

It should be simple — everyone’s referred to as “she” and gender doesn’t really matter — but it took a long time for me as a reader to accept it. The book’s characters resisted categorization every step of the way, and I still wanted to know what box I should fit them into. This got particularly ridiculous when it came to the ruler of the universe, who is thousands of years old and controls thousands of bodies. And yet, I still wondered: he or she? It was uncomfortably revealing to see how much my brain relied on gender when it was suddenly taken away.

I would recommend Ancillary Justice for its challenging take on gender alone, but, luckily, it’s not a novel that’s all concept and no plot. Its background gender ideas are supported by compelling and evolving character relationships, by a strong plot and plenty of tension and action and an explosive finale. It’s a novel that challenges the reader, and that isn’t always comfortable to read, but it aims to grip and entertain its readers too, and it succeeds on all levels. Highly recommended!

Giveaway

Things are going to continue to be quiet around here for the rest of the week (first deadlines and other author-related work kept me busy, and now I am taking a much needed BREAK — yay for long weekends!), but if you’re interested, the cover of my debut novel A Wicked Thing was revealed on IceyBooks this week!

There’s also a giveaway of an advanced copy of the book, as soon as its available, that runs until July 30th, so if you’d like to read it, hop over there and click the enter button. :)

And FeministFiction will be back on Monday with a review of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

Marvel So Far: Iron Man

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I’ll give Iron Man this: it tries.

It tries to include female characters and overcome sexist tropes. It doesn’t try very hard, and it doesn’t do a very good job, but the signs of effort are there.

Disclaimer: I’m not a comic book fan. Although I have picked up some tidbits about comic book plots here and there, I’ve never read them, so I’m commenting solely on the movie. This is definitely a casual viewer/laywoman’s review.

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Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo

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Ruin and Rising is the long-awaited finale to Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy, and probably my most eagerly anticipated book this year. It did not disappoint. But since I assume most people who’ve read the first two books of the series have already picked up the third, and because I don’t want to write any spoilers, I’m going to focus here on reviewing the series as a whole.

The Grisha Trilogy is deliciously dark YA fantasy, full of shocks and twists and big questions that will have you gripping the pages and desperate for more. The story starts out predictably enough. Ordinary trainee soldier Alina finds out that she has magic powers, and is thrust into the elite world of the magical Grisha to train. Her unique power — summoning and controlling sunlight — may be the key to her kingdom’s problems. But there are forces that wish to use her power for evil. Etc etc. You’ve heard all this before. But the skill is in the execution, and Leigh Bardugo writes it amazingly. No possibility is too dark. There’s no success when failure seems inevitable. The story goes places you would never expect it to go and explores possibilities you would never expect it to explore.

Alina is a fascinating — if controversial — protagonist. She starts the story as a lonely orphan, somewhat caustic and short-tempered, but caring too. She hates the Grisha for treating the lives of people like her as disposable, and when she finds out she is one of them, she’s less than pleased. Her character development throughout the series then takes her many interesting places, and raises endless questions. How much power is too much power? Is it OK to be power-hungry if you’re doing it for “good”? Does power corrupt — or was the corruption always there? What sacrifices are necessary to be a good leader? Is it selfish to do things for yourself when others view you as their savior? Through the books, Alina is a soldier, an apprentice, a captive, a runaway, a leader, even a saint, and her actions, decisions and desires are challenged every step of the way. She’s a heroine who might not be entirely good, a female character with power who makes mistakes, someone manipulated and manipulative in turn, commanding and demanding and intriguingly unique. I know not all readers respond positively to her, but I loved her, and she’s definitely a challenging and compelling character to read about.

Alina also finds herself in the middle of a kind of love square, the one element of the books I found disappointing. There’s Mal, her childhood friend who is probably her true love but who alternates between being boring and criticizing Alina for daring to have more power and significance than he does. Then there’s the Darkling, the leader of the Grisha who controls darkness and shadow. Sexy, tortured… but also ambitious and highly untrustworthy. The likelihood of a good relationship with him is kind of apparent in his name. And then there’s the Book 2 addition, Nikolai, a charismatic prince who sees Alina as an excellent political ally. He’s easily the most likeable of the bunch, but as he represents the pragmatic, sacrifice-for-duty option, he’s less part of a “love” triangle and more part of a “love vs great friend who I could do great things for the kingdom with” triangle. Which is an interesting dynamic, except for the fact that her “love” Mal spends a significant amount of time sulking and disparaging her for having power and priorities other than him. He does grow as a character as the series continues, but I soured to him to the point I kind of just wanted him to go away. Unfortunate, when he’s a major part of the romantic plotline.

Still, one love interest aside, this is a great series. Fun magic and worldbuilding, several fantastic female characters, excellent writing, and a lot of really intriguing ideas. Highly recommended!

The Little Mermaid

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I may be a tiny bit biased when it comes to The Little Mermaid. This was my favorite movie as a child. I would sing Part of Your World at the top of my lungs and carry my Ariel doll around with me and recreate the dramatic “emerging from the ocean” moment in the bath… it was a pretty big deal to me.

So when The Little Mermaid comes under fire for being one of the most “anti-feminist” Disney princess movies, I take it a little bit personally. The movie that they criticize is not the movie that I remember adoring. Although I’ve written before about how Ariel is a great protagonist, and how these criticisms are off-base, I felt some trepidation about rewatching the movie and writing about it again. I didn’t think I was wrong, but what if I was?

And did I find the movie to be all I remembered? Well… yes and no. People are wrong to criticize Ariel as an “anti-feminist” protagonist, and the first two thirds of the movie are fantastic to watch. But as we approach the movie’s conclusion, things start to fall apart.

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(Un)likeable characters in Orange is the New Black

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Nothing is simple in Orange is the New Black.

The show has received a lot of praise for its diversity, but it’s just as noteworthy for the complexity and moral ambiguity of its characters. We’re used to seeing male characters like Breaking Bad‘s Walter White walk a path of questionable-at-best choices and to rooting for them despite the terrible things that they do, but female characters are usually forced into much narrower moral narratives. They’re good or they’re bad, the hero’s girlfriend or a bitch, and one questionable decision or moment of weakness can catapult them into the realms of the unlikeable “annoying bitch.”

Not so with Orange is the New Black. Moral ambiguity is the name of the game. And, aside from a couple of villain characters, likeability doesn’t really play into it.

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The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet

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Lizzie Bennet is back! Sort of. No new season of Lizzie Bennet Diaries (although there were two new semi-awkward videos, if you missed them!), but if you’ve been missing the old Youtube series, you can now check out the tie-in book: the “diary” of Lizzie over the year of vlogging her life, Darcy and all.

When I got the chance to read an advanced copy of the book, I was positively jumping with excitement, and I started reading it straight away. And if the idea of spending more time with this Lizzie and her world makes you similarly excited, then it’s definitely worth picking up a copy.

Let’s be honest: this book isn’t going to change your world. But if you enjoyed the videos as they aired, it is going to make you all nostalgic for the Lizzie Bennet Diaries and eager to watch them all again. In fact, I think the best way to read this book is by rewatching the videos simultaneously — each diary entry has a real date so that you can match up the videos and chapters in the right order, and see how they interact. (There’s even a helpful timeline on the official website, for those who want to do that). 

The book also has a fair amount of new material, including a few plot twists that never made it to screen. We actually get to see Lizzie’s parents interacting, and so we can see them with more depth. There are more Darcy scenes, including details of the day in San Francisco, and more detail/honesty about early Darcy moments than we hear about in the videos. And, of course, it has a copy of Darcy’s letter. However, it’s a little disappointing how the book handles the big moments that we already saw on screen — aka Darcy’s confession and the moment when the two of them get together. The book just uses transcripts from the videos, rather than adapting them into diary format or scenes from a novel. And yes, we have seen these moments before, but it would have been great to get some of Lizzie’s interiority during the scenes. As it is, it comes off as a little redundant.

The book also takes the chance to address some of the problems with the show. A lot of people criticized the series for Lizzie’s slut shaming of Lydia, and the idea that Lydia was utterly cowed and changed by her experience with Wickham. The book tackles both. First, by Lizzie realizing how badly she screwed up, and how she should have appreciated her sister for who she was, and secondly, by suggesting that this is a new Lydia, but not a BETTER Lydia, and that the old Lydia is bouncing back. I was always on team “Lydia is shown with great depth and we’re not supposed to support Lizzie’s perspective on her,” and whether that was genuinely the case or not in the show, it’s great to see that the book makes the problems with Lizzie’s attitude explicit.

All in all, it’s a cute tie-in for a cute addictive series. It won’t appeal to people who haven’t seen the show, but then, it’s not really meant to. It’s for fans of the show, and as long as they don’t expect too much beyond cute, enjoyable light reading, they’ll certainly enjoy it.

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