Skip to main content

Tropes, Intentions, and Critical Role

tumblr_nu1wndm8lz1uz17elo1_500

Whenever writers get criticized for invoking troubling tropes in their stories, there’s one excuse that crops up more than any other: “this was where the story needed to go.” Yes, many other stories have shoved girlfriends in fridges or killed off the lesbian characters or had the black guy die first, but they weren’t thinking of that when they were writing this story. The story told them that this needed to happen, for the good of the narrative, and so that’s what happened.

It’s almost as though the writers have no say in where the story goes. The narrative takes over their brain, and any critical thinking ability or chance of reflecting on things vanishes. There’s no editing, no critical thought, just the all-powerful Story.

This has always struck me as complete nonsense, since no matter how “in the moment” a writer might be when creating a first draft, they have plenty of editing time afterwards to consider a story’s implications. But I’ve been thinking about it in more depth recently, inspired by my new favorite thing to recommend to people, whether they want to hear about it or not, Critical RoleCritical Role is half improv show, half radio play, built around the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons. Not only is the story mostly improvised, but it happens in reaction to the randomness of dice rolls. Who lives, who dies, who tells their story… in the end, the dice decide. For once, the writers really don’t have total control.

And one moment sticks in my mind, from several months ago now. (Spoilers for episode 68, Cloak and Dagger). Once upon a time, a character called Vax struck a fanboy on the head, knocking him out, to show him how out of his league he was and warn him not to get messed up in the sort of stuff that the protagonists of Critical Role face. About 50 episodes later, that kid shows up again, allied with some of their enemies, and in the ensuing fight, he almost kills Vax’s girlfriend, Keyleth. She doesn’t die, but it’s close, and she only survives because the dice rolls come out in her favor.

It was a really interesting narrative moment for me, because it had great unplanned narrative symmetry, a consequence of Vax’s harsh actions coming back to bite him after so long. If it were planned, it would be compelling, but also troubling, as a female character was killed off for a male character’s story arc. Unplanned, it might actually represent that unseen pure case that writers often attempt to invoke, where “that’s just where the story wanted to go.”

The hypothetical has stuck in my head for months since the episode aired, precisely because I’m wondering how I would have reacted to this trope actually appearing by accident. Would it still have bugged me? Would the fact that she’s an independent character controlled by her own actress have changed how things felt? Intention isn’t magical, but to what extent does invoking a trope by accident excuse the troublesome implications? It didn’t happen, so it’s all hypothetical, and I won’t dig into it too deeply, because I think it’ll make my head explode with all its problems and contradictions.

But one thing I know is that, even if the story had come together completely randomly, it wouldn’t have stopped the idea that a female character dying to enhance a male character’s story is troubling. That the actors would have needed to handle things carefully, both during and afterwards, to ensure that Keyleth’s death had remained a key part of Keyleth’s story, and not been all about Vax’s mistakes and the consequences on him. And if pure random chance doesn’t completely override the context of troubling tropes, regular storytelling methods have no excuse.

Read More

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

BearAndTheNightingale_eCards_v2-6

The Bear and the Nightgale is a medieval Russian fairy tale-esque novel by debut author Katherine Arden.

And it’s beautiful.

That’s pretty much the whole review I want to give this book. It’s beautiful. It’s an experience. You should absolutely read it.

The closest comparison I can think of is Uprooted by Naomi Novak, for the same dark fairy tale feel. The Bear and the Nightingale is something of a slow burn book, about a family living in Northern Russia, and particularly about their youngest daughter, Vasya, who loves to run wild in the forest and sees the creatures of folklore all around her.

The novel juxtaposes Vasya and her stepmother, Anna, two young women who have the sight. Vasya embraces the creatures as protectors of the land and her friends, while Anna sees them as demons, and throws herself into religion to try and escape them. Then a young charismatic priest, Konstantin, comes to the village, and decides that he’s been called by God to rid these people of their old-religion superstitions and fill them with fear of God’s wrath. He reviles Anna, who wants nothing more than to be his disciple, and is obsessed with Vasya, who he increasingly sees as a witch. When Konstantin’s fear allows a dark force to awaken in the forest, Vasya must fight to protect the magic that protects them all.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a book of wild forests, dark creatures, unsettling promises, and complex characters. It’s a story of magic, of wonder, of fear, and of not fitting in, beautifully imagined and enchantingly told. I really recommend it.

Read More

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

9781447284123a-thousand-nights

I have to admit, I was wary of this book. The cover is so stunning that I picked it up almost every time I saw it in a bookstore, but the cover on The Wrath and the Dawn was gorgeous too, and that retelling of Arabian Nights made me more furious than enchanted. Could a retelling of this story exist in YA without romanticising or glossing over the fact that the king murders hundreds of girls? Several people told me yes. You guys recommended it to me again and again, and I finally got my hands on a copy last week. And then read it almost all in one go.

A Thousand Nights is a beautiful book. It more than lives up the beauty of its cover. In this retelling of Arabian Nights, Lo-Melkiin has had three hundred wives, and three hundreds wives have died. Laws now state that he must take one wife from every village before he is allowed to return to any one place to choose a second. So when he comes to the village of our story’s protagonist, she makes sure that she wins his attention, in order to save her sister. She expects to die immediately. But night after night, she continues to survive.

This is an absolutely lush novel about the hidden, often unseen power of women. I’m not sure how much I can say without being too spoilery, but a great deal of the plot draws on this idea that woman have a great deal of overlooked power, and that they have power, in part because they’re overlooked. The plot hinges on information gathered while quietly sewing in the corner, on news women spread to one another, on the power of having your facial expressions concealed by a veil. It’s about the songs and stories that the women tell, the protections they grant one another, and the worship that they perform. It’s a story of quiet power, subtle power, in contrast to the foot-stomping masculine strength of Lo-Melkiin and the demon that possesses him and drives him to kill all his wives.

It’s only as I come to write this, by the way, that I’m realising a key detail about the book. It’s written in first person, so I got completely pulled into the protagonist’s perspective, and never realised that we don’t actually learn her name. We don’t learn her sister’s name, or her mother’s name, or her sister’s mother’s name. We don’t learn the name of the king’s mother, or the protagonist’s henna artist. In fact, the only names we learn are Lo-Melkiin’s and the people that he names himself. Everyone else is described in terms of role. This echoes traditions of storytelling, the idea of mixing a forceful character with generalised anonymity, so well that that I didn’t even notice, but it also reflects this idea of unseen power, of the things that Lo-Melkiin  doesn’t notice being the things that will bring him down. The common people in general, yes, but particularly the women, common and uncommon, who he never focusses on long enough to see the risk they may pose.

Thank god, this book isn’t a romance. The relationships at the heart of this book are all women, and how they support each other. Two sisters who adore each other and are willing to sacrifice themselves and their dreams for one another. The women in the palace who help the protagonist — the henna artist, the servants, the spinners — and are willing to risk themselves to protect her because they can sympathise with her and her position. And the stories that the protagonist herself spins about her sister, and the strange power they seem to hold.

This is a quiet book, although an addictively readable one, at least until the conclusion. When things get a bit more action-packed towards the end, I have to admit my interest wavered a little, as the slightly distant myth-spinning storytelling style that worked so well elsewhere drained some of the immediacy and the tension of the action. But overall, A Thousand Nights is an amazing book, with lush prose, enthralling world-building, and a strong feminist bent. If you’re going to pick up a retelling of Arabian Nights, pick this one.

Read More

An Ode to Malta Vestrit

ShipofMagic-UK

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.

(more…)

Read More

Maas and Masculinity: a few thoughts on Empire of Storms

eos-cover

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–

Or:

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.

(more…)

Read More

Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

ShipofMagic-UK

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.

Read More

Rape in YA Fantasy

an-ember-in-the-ashes-by-sabaa-tahir

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.”

(more…)

Read More

Hugo Nominees 2016: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

19161852

Much of history is unwritten. Remember this.

According to the official summary, The Fifth Season is about a woman searching for her daughter in a post-apocalyptic world. Technically, that’s true. But it doesn’t really capture the essence of the book.

The Fifth Season is set in a world that faces apocalyptic geological events, called Fifth Seasons, fairly frequently. Everything in society is built around preventing a Season, if they possibly can, or else surviving one if it comes along. The world also has magic users, called Orogenes, who are feared and hated for their ability to control the forces of the earth — or to kill people, if they use their power untrained. They work to prevent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other potentially Season-causing catastrophes, but society despises them none-the-less.

The novel has three orogene protagonists. There’s a young girl, Damaya, whose parents just discovered she is an orogene. There’s a young woman, Syenite, who is trying to climb to the top of the orogene ranks and has just been sent on a seemingly run-of-the-mill mission with her new mentor. And there’s Essen, a middle-aged woman living in hiding whose husband just murdered her son and kidnapped her daughter after realizing that they were orogenes.

(more…)

Read More

Hugo Nominees 2016: Uprooted by Naomi Novak

uk-uprooted

On the back of my copy of Naomi Novak’s Uprooted, author Maggie Stiefvater says that it “feels as if it has always existed and has been waiting patiently for me to return to it.” I couldn’t think of a better way to describe this enchanting novel about fairy tale magic. Uprooted is a spellbinding novel, and even on the first read, it feels like a familiar story that you’re finally coming home to.

The plot is slightly difficult to describe, but the tone is perhaps summed up by the first line: “our dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.”Agnieszka’s valley is ruled by the Dragon, a mysterious sorcerer who lives in his tower and emerges once every ten years to choose a girl to work for him. The girls come back changed — seemingly fine, but unable to return to live in the valley for long — and the villagers decide it’s a small price to pay for the Dragon’s protection against the evil Wood that lurks nearby. Everyone in the valley knows that Agnieszka’s best friend, Kasia, is going to be the girl chosen this year. But when the untidy, disorganized Agnieszka show a hint of magical power, she is chosen instead.

Uprooted invokes a lot of dark fairy tale tropes — the evil Wood, enchantment in food and water, the maiden whisked away to the tower — with a writing style that gentle echoes the feel of a fairy tale while adding more character and emotion and depth to the style. It’s incredibly readable, and I found myself tearing through the pages. I couldn’t read it fast enough.

Agnieszka is an interesting character, but the real protagonist is the valley, with the Wood as its antagonist. The Wood is a living, breathing evil entity, waging war against the kingdom, desperate to grow and corrupt until nothing good is left. In a sense, Agnieszka is an extension of the valley, the force fighting against the Wood, and her magic is deeply rooted in her home and in the natural world around her. She does have a dose of “special snowflakeness,” in that her magic is uniquely powerful and works differently from absolutely everyone else’s. This is explained somewhat by her connection to the valley and a potential link to an old mythical witch called Jaga, but it’s not really explored in depth, which might frustrate some people. She’s just Special, because she’s the Valley, and we have to accept that.

The friendship between Agnieszka and Kasia drives a lot of the plot, and is one of the book’s greatest strengths, outside its world building. Both Agnieszka and Kasia are fully realized people, and there is so much nuance in the loving relationship between them. Kasia has spent her life knowing she’s going to be chosen by the Dragon, and Agnieszka has spent her life knowing she’s going to lose her best friend. Agnieszka’s selection allows the novel to explore the resentment that lingers under the surface of these assumptions, how Kasia knows Agnieszka was always glad it would be her best friend and not herself, how Agnieszka feels both resentment and relief at not being the Special One. The two characters’ love for one another plays a huge role in the story, and that love is giving a compelling amount of depth and shade.

The Dragon, meanwhile, is a familiar trope. Whether that’s fun or tired will depend on the reader, I think. He’s the grumpy, rude, distant sorcerer whose heart will eventually soften toward Agnieszka, but not enough to actually be nice to her. He’s grouchy and closed off, he never explains himself, and his way is always the right way. And lets not forget the kidnap thing, which he never even considers could be upsetting for the girls until Agnieszka points it out to him. The romance between the Dragon and Agnieszka feels as inevitable as it is unnecessary, and although its rooted in magic in an interesting way, it’s exasperating that a novel that’s so inventive in other ways trips into that familiar trap of “older guy who is a jerk mentor and young girl who falls for him even though he’s never ever nice to her.” SPOILERS (highlight to read): At the end of the novel, Agnieszka seems to step away from the Dragon, going to live in the Woods to help end its corruption, and I was so delighted by this. She had the cliche romance with the Dragon, but in the end, he wasn’t going to change and become any less closed off, and she had her own story and her own life to live. Except, of course, that’s not the ending at all. He returns on the last page, she takes his hand, and that is that. Disappointing, I thought, when it could have been so much more original.

The structure of the novel also feels slightly off. The plot goes off in a lot of different directions, and although you can look back at it and see how Agnieszka’s story led her from A to B, it seems to take a lot of detours that don’t feel cohesive to the story. Agnieszka is trying to befriend people at court! Agnieszka is modifying a prince’s memory, which is mentioned as dangerous multiple times but never really comes into play again! The novel also shrugs off its fairy-tale feel for a good chunk of the story, turning to a more battle and human focussed plot, which I found quite confusing. Eventually, this all becomes clear, but I had a lot of questions in the middle there, and that uncertainty didn’t seem to be deliberate. But when Uprooted focusses on the magic of the Wood, it is phenomenal. Gripping and nuanced, original and yet familiar.

Uprooted certainly isn’t a perfect novel, but it is a very good novel, and definitely worth a read. I’m not sure if it’ll be top of my Hugo ballot, but it’s definitely worthy of consideration.

Read More

Forgetting the Plot: Amnesia and Romantic Fiction

Amnesia really sucks as a plot device.

Occasionally, it can create interesting, although not dazzling, dilemmas. IZombie’s current “the zombie cure might give you amnesia” plotline isn’t the best thing it’s ever done, but as it affects one of the villains and not the protagonist, it does create new dilemmas in the story without sending it off the rails.

But when the protagonist of the story gets amnesia, and especially when the amnesia crops up in a romantic plotline… then, things get a little more frustrating.

(more…)

Read More