A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

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A Darker Shade of Magic is an enchanting and addictive novel. Dark, inventive and intriguing, it combines an incredibly strong fantasy voice with great world-building and compelling characters to create a new fantastical/historical adventure that shouldn’t be missed.

The most impressive thing about A Darker Shade of Magic is the world building. The novel spans three different versions of London — the peaceful and magic-filled Red London, the bland magicless Georgian Grey London (aka our London), and the terrifying White London, where magic is fading and people hunger for power. Our protagonist, Kell, is one of only two people able to travel between these worlds — officially as an ambassador, unofficially as a smuggler of magical artefacts. We visit all three Londons early on, and each of them is vividly depicted, with Schwab making us believe in these multiple worlds in a way that some writers fail to do with one.

Meanwhile, lurking in the background is Black London, a realm destroyed by magic and locked away. When Kell accidentally smuggles a dangerous magical artefact from this Black London into Grey London, he must must fight his way back to that forbidden kingdom before anyone else learns of the artefact’s existence.

Schwab writes fantastic characters. Kell is a solid male protagonist, but my favorite was the female protagonist, Lila, a pickpocket who dreams of being a pirate who steals her way into Kell’s adventure. Brave, determined, no-nonsense and fiercely moral (within her own code, of course), Lila feels like she can barely be contained by the pages of the book. She’s fun to read about, as an aspiring Georgian pirate is bound to be, but she also feels intensely real, the perfect mix of fantasy adventure and genuine emotion.

Most other characters in Schwab’s world are fleeting presences, as necessitated by the constant movement of the plot, but these are all vividly written too, so that even characters only present for a page feel immediately real and compelling.

The plot itself starts out slightly slow, but that hardly seems to matter. The world and the characters are enjoyable from the start, and although I found myself wondering when the plotline described on the back cover would begin, I was gripped by the book either way. Plus, as a bonus for anyone who likes getting absorbed in new worlds but has a case of series fatigue, this is the start of a new series, but it works incredibly well as a stand-alone novel too.

All in all, this is one of my favorite discoveries in a good long while. If you enjoy the magical Victorian(-ish) aesthetic and are looking for a new adventure to read, A Darker Shade of Magic is definitely worth your time.

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Hugo Nominees 2015: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

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I tried to like The Goblin Emperor. I really did. The book has been on my to-read list for almost a year, ever since I first heard the concept. But after two weeks of forcing myself to read it, I’m admitting defeat.

100 pages into The Goblin Emperor, and I find myself completely unable to connect with or care about any of the characters or plotlines. I wouldn’t describe it as “boring” so much as “unengaging.” It doesn’t provide any of the things I need to connect with a novel.

The concept is appealing enough. Our protagonist, Maia, is the half-goblin youngest son of the elven emperor, growing up in exile far from court. But when his father and all of his older sons are killed in an airship accident, Maia must travel to this unfamiliar court and take the throne for himself.

But The Goblin Emperor isn’t about Maia, at least not in its first 100 pages. It’s not about his struggles and triumphs. It’s about the politics of the world that Addison has created, and all the difficulties and ambiguities therein. And if a novel that works as a showcase for fantasy etiquette and court wrangling sounds like fun, this might be perfect for you. But it didn’t work at all for me.

The world building in The Goblin Emperor is demonstrably extensive. Every detail has been mapped out, including the nuances of naming conventions and its own rules for English grammar. But many basic details necessary to understand this world are left unspecified in the first 100 pages. What, for example, is the relationship between goblins and elves? Our protagonist is half-elf, half-goblin, and seems to be looked down on for that, but his mother was the empress in this elven court. So what are relations between the two races like? Are there many half-goblins? Is our protagonist disliked because of that, or something else? I couldn’t grasp the key elements that would allow me access into the logic of this world — things I consider far more important that the differences in addressing the empress vs the widow empress, which is what we actually learn.

Minutiae seemed to be the book’s main concern. It starts eventfully enough, with our protagonist finding out that he’s suddenly emperor in the opening pages. But it feels as though we never miss a waking moment of his life from that point on. Every day, we learn how he wakes up, how he is dressed, how he replies to political letters, how he talks to interchangeable-seeming people whose complicated fantasy names all start with C, how he doesn’t know who to trust, how he eats, how he goes to bed. There’s very little urgency to the story, and very little plot, beyond a demonstration of how a new emperor might live in this fantasy court. I assume that actual plot must show up later, but 25% of the rather long book seems a reasonable amount of time for it to establish itself.

And the biggest problem? My simple inability to care about the protagonist, or most of the characters around him. I couldn’t get a grip on Maia’s personality, and the novel was written in a rather distant style that made it difficult for me to emphathize with him. His supporting cast were worse — we met many of them (almost exclusively male), and they felt completely interchangeable. I feel that I must have missed something while I was reading, some key element that would have made the story click together, that would have given me an emotional connection with the protagonist and turned it into the compelling book I’ve seen people raving about.

Perhaps those things click on page 101, and I’m missing out on a fantastic read by bailing before the end. But I can’t bear to force myself through a single page more.

If you’re a fantasy fan who enjoys the genre for court politics and world-building details, this might be one for you. It’s certainly been enjoyed by many people other than me. But if you’re more of a character reader, like I am, then I don’t recommend it. And it won’t be getting my Hugo vote this year.

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

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The Miniaturist is a beautiful book. Painful, yes. Brutal at times. But a completely absorbing tale, enchantingly told.

I must admit, I bought The Miniaturist without really knowing what it was about. It seduced me through a combination of a gorgeous cover and an inescapable presence in UK bookstores. I imagined it would be something quite gothic and unsettling, dark in magical way. Most likely about a miniaturist who controls another’s life through a doll house. Or something like that.

I was almost completely wrong. The Miniaturist is a story of real-life Gothic, of the darkness and danger of being an outsider in society. It focusses on Petronella, a young bride from the countryside who moves to Amsterdam to join the household of the near-stranger she has just married. Nella has dreams of happiness and romance, but her husband is distant, his sister imperious and cold, and her new life makes her feel powerless and ridiculous. In order to entertain herself, she orders some miniatures to go in the dollhouse her husband got her as a wedding gift — and is both excited and terrified when she receives un-asked for creations that echo her life in ways that no stranger could possibly know.

But the miniatures are not really the focus of the story. It’s impossible to talk about the many wonders of this book without potentially spoiling the experience — it’s a tapestry of secrets and mysteries, and I don’t want to pull on even the smallest thread here. But at its heart, The Miniaturist is about how the disenfranchised struggle to define themselves in a society that gives them little power. It’s a novel about different kinds of bravery, about loneliness and family and love. Far from possessing the gothic ethereality I expected, The Miniaturist is a highly political book with social commentary that cuts like a knife.

Add in the novel’s intricate character development and its gorgeously readable prose, and you have a must-read on your heads. Pick up a copy if you can. It’s a truly wonderful book.

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Including the Puppies

Online hate campaigns are usually bursting with irony.

A campaign about “ethics in video game journalisms” dedicated to doxxing, harrassing, threatening and driving out anyone who might disagree with them. People responding to criticisms of racism and misogyny by exploding into racist, misogynistic rants and threats. Felicia Day getting doxxed within minutes to saying that she was afraid to comment on GamerGate, because she feared getting doxxed.

I guess it should be no surprise that sci-fi/fantasy publishing decided to jump on the bandwagon after the recent controversy.

Some brief backstory: two groups of sci-fi/fantasy writers and fans decided to create voting slates for the Hugo Awards to counteract a perceived liberal agenda of blocking out good, old-fashioned stories with needless diversity. Sci-fi/fantasy had become anti-conservative, and they needed to take it back. The “Sad Puppies” are the more moderate group, while the “Rapid Puppies” are the extremists, led by the explicitly and unapologetically racist and misogynistic Vox Day. Their slates dominated the Hugo Award nominees, and the furor has been going on ever since.

So. A few weeks ago, Tor Creative Director Irene Gallo replied to a question about the Puppies on her personal Facebook page, calling them “two extreme right-wing to neo-Nazi groups … calling for the end of social justice in science fiction and fantasy. They are unrepentantly racist, sexist and homophobic.” It was a fairly intense statement, but clearly one of a personal, not professional, viewpoint. And nothing happened until last weekend, when Vox Day posted an old screencap and encouraged his followers to call for her to be fired.

And call they did, prompting Tor publisher Tom Doherty to post this letter of apology on Tor.com.

There are huge problems inherent in this metaphorical throwing under the bus. GamerGate has made it unavoidably obvious what happens when the internet picks a woman to vilify, and Tor’s apparent capitulation to this anger only increases the possibility of such a hate campaign. I can’t find anything about what has happened to Irene Gallo since this went down — I would hope nothing, but history suggests she’s just being quiet on that front — but at the very least, people are screaming for her to be fired, and Vox Day’s twitter feed suggests that he is at least trying to create a campaign that will drive her to quit.

But there’s also such intense irony in Tom Doherty’s statement that it would be hilarious, if it wasn’t real.

In short, we seek out and publish a diverse and wide ranging group of books. We are in the business of finding great stories and promoting literature and are not about promoting a political agenda.

Rest assured, Tor remains committed to bringing readers the finest in science fiction – on a broad range of topics, from a broad range of authors.

Throughout the apology, Doherty takes pains to reassure the Puppies that Tor is dedicated to diversity, that it isn’t political in any way. In short, to placate the Puppies, it’s pledging to be everything that the Puppies hate.

It’s difficult to say what the Puppies stand for any more, with the different factions and people getting passionately involved for different reasons, but it’s clear how it began. It was an attempt to stop the Hugos from being an “affirmative action award,” where good, old-fashioned white male authors are shut out by people blindly voting for diverse authors and stories, regardless of quality. Because, assumedly, those diverse stories couldn’t actually deserve to win.

And now publishers are attempting to placate that group by reassuring them that they are committed to diversity. Because “diversity” has been twisted to be something that they represent, where the traditional white, male sci-fi/fantasy author is somehow the minority whose inclusion must be protected. Tor promises that it doesn’t discriminate based on author politics, to reassure people who think that Vox Day is reasonable that they won’t be excluded or criticized for their hate. It promises it doesn’t care about politics to appease a group that is entirely motivated by politics.

It’s some headspinning gymnastics, so that the groups that think diverse stories and authors are undeserving of awards become the ones campaigning for diversity of thought and inclusivity, and those calling them out are the hateful ones.

It’s another incarnation of that headache-inducing idea that free speech allows all kinds of racist, sexist or homophobic ideas to be stated without criticism, but that it doesn’t allow for criticism of those words. It’s the idea that it’s more exclusionary to accuse someone of being racist, sexist or homophobic than it is to actually say things that are arguably racist, sexist or homophobic.

You have to laugh at the irony of the whole thing, really. Otherwise… well. You know.

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Zombieland and Unlikely Damsels in Distress

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I’m thinking about a fairly old movie today, partly because I just saw it on Netflix, and partly because I think it perfectly demonstrates how pervasive certain tropes about female characters can be.

Zombieland was, overall, an incredibly fun movie. It’s a very tongue-in-cheek zombie apocalypse survival movie, where nothing is taken particularly seriously and a lot of our genre expectations are turned on their heads. Heck, it’s a movie where the bad-ass, gun-wielding character’s main motivation is finding a Twinkie bar during the end of the world. It’s not one to take too seriously. But the movie’s otherwise clever and irreverent writing becomes lazy when it comes to its female characters.

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Hugo Nominees 2015: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

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In the wake of the Sad Puppies controversy at the Hugo Awards, Feminist Fiction will be looking at and reviewing every possible nomination — looking at merit without regards to politics. For more of my thoughts on the Sad Puppiesread here.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie — nominated for Best Novel

Ancillary Sword is an excellently crafted and compelling novel. It’s less complex than its award-winning predecessor Ancillary Justice, but it’s also far more accessible, making it arguably a better read over all.

Ancillary Sword has the same conceptual set-up as the first in the series. Our protagonist, Breq, was once the AI of a ship, built by a society without gender, that controlled hundreds of once-human ancillaries and became trapped in one of the ancillary bodies when the rest of the ship was destroyed. Breq dedicated herself to destroying the ruler of the universe in revenge for both her own death and the order that forced her to kill her beloved captain.

As far as unusual protagonists go, she’s pretty high up on the list.

But this is the backstory rather than the focus of Ancillary Sword. After the events of Ancillary Justice, Breq has command of a ship and has become responsible for protecting a distant planetary system from whatever the threat of growing civil war. It’s a much simpler plot than Book One, a serviceable middle-book story that is self-contained but not mind-blowing. But Ancillary Sword shines not in its plot but in its writing and characterization — simultaneously enjoyable and compelling, complex but accessible. Leckie has mastered the art of using her complex world building to inform, rather than define, the story, and the result is progressive sci-fi that’s a joy to read.

The gender concept takes a back seat here, present but not all-encompassing, which seems fitting when the reader has had a whole book to adjust to it. The book’s philosophical questions are more focussed on issues of colonialism and the concept of “civilization,” challenging assumptions and exploring dark repercussions without detracting from a story well-told. It also hints at a lot of questions of identity, setting up, I think, for the last book’s final showdown with a villain whose is the embodiment of an identity crisis. Behind all of its complex world-building, Leckie’s debut series asks a simple question — what defines who we are? The question lies at the heart of Breq’s story, encompassing its plot threads about free will and circumstance, hive minds, ancillaries who were once human and are now ships, humans who must pretend to be ships, and a villain who can’t accept her past actions and is literally split over how she chooses to respond to it.

Overall, Ancillary Sword is an excellent read. I don’t know if it stands a chance of winning the Hugo, since Leckie won last year, but it’s a worthwhile candidate, and it’ll take an excellent book to knock it off the top of my list.

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Genre TV Recommendations

Since I know that many people have been dropping Game of Thrones recently, and events in various TV shows have made me pretty tired of everything I’m watching right now, I thought it would be good to have a genre TV recommendations post.

Basically, what recent fantasy/sci-fi/horror/action/non-real-life TV shows have you been enjoying that:

– Have interesting, well-written female characters, and

– Don’t use rape as a plot device.

Normally I would just ask for that first one, but after the past couple of weeks of TV, I would really like a break from the second, and I’m sure other people would too.

I wish I could add my long list of recommendations here, but I have little to offer, as most of the shows I would have recommended last year have gone somewhat off the rails.

However, I will suggest The 100, as a deceptively-soapy-seeming, morally complex drama with a great cast of female characters (and leaders) with endless plot twists to keep you on your toes.

What shows would you recommend?

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Rape in the Outlander Season Finale

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Opinion on the Outlander finale has been very starkly divided. AV Club (my personal go-to for TV reviews) compared the episode positively to Game of Thrones, saying that Outlander is a show that understands rape and portrays it thoughtfully. Meanwhile, Hitflix described the episode as unacceptable torture porn.

And honestly, I think both the praise and the criticism is right, to a certain extent. The show is good at thinking about the psychological aftermath of rape and attempted rape. But it also uses it as a plot device far too liberally for comfort, and this episode in particular was beyond horrific to watch.

But here’s the question: is it problematic for a show to show us this much awful detail? Is that a strength of storytelling, or is it exploitative? I really don’t think there’s an easy answer.

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The “Rape for Empowerment” Trope

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It’s an old truth of fiction: if you want to make a female character suffer, rape her. If you want to make a male character suffer, rape a female character he cares about. And rape is pretty much the default threat in most genre or “gritty” fiction. I read mostly young adult fantasy, and almost every single one I read features at least a small throwaway scene where the protagonist is threatened in this way.

This is almost invariably treated as a terrible threat, as it should, and rape victims in the majority of stories I read are treated with great sympathy. But in the quest for Strong Female Characters, for a way to give protagonists “empowerment” plot lines, some writers have been using the rape trope in a different way, using it as the impetus for that transition from “weakness” to “strength.”

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