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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.

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A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

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A Gathering of Shadows is the sequel to V E Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, a fantasy novel about parallel Londons, the one guy who can travel between them, and the thief from our Regency London who gets caught up in a dark scheme to destroy them all.

The series has fantastic world-building and incredibly compelling characters, and is an addictive read. A Darker Shade of Magic has (deservedly) received some Hugo buzz, and I, for one, was desperate to get my hands on Book Two.

In this instalment, Delilah Bard is pursuing her dreams of becoming a pirate as the official thief on the Night Spire, captained by the charming magician Alucard Emery. But she’s starting to get too comfortable, to like these people too much, and she’s getting the itch to run again. Meanwhile, Kell and Rhy are preparing for the Essen Tasch, an international magic tournament that should bring trust and peace after the horrors in A Darker Shade of Magic. Kell, exhausted by everyone’s mistrust after those dark events, plans to compete in secret — and so does magical newcomer, Lila Bard.

A Gathering of Shadows is very much a middle book. It’s a good book, and it’s an enjoyable book, but its purpose is to move the pieces from the mostly self-contained Book One to the even higher-stakes threat of Book Three. Most of the tension comes from anticipating when the characters will collide — anticipating when Kell and Lila will finally meet again, anticipating when the quiet threat growing in the background will finally burst into the foreground.  The tournament itself provides some fantastic moments and is a compelling plot, but we anticipate it a long time before it begins, and people wanting the same high stakes, fast-paced plotting of the first book will be disappointed.

But the characters are, once again, fantastic. Lila Bard is a great protagonist to read about — so closed off, so angry, so desperate, charming, determined, adventurous, stubborn, and unwilling to let anything get in her way. The series is a little short on significant female characters, but those who do appear are perfect. I found the palace-based drama with Rhy and Kell a little less compelling, but events at the end of the previous book definitely add a new, interesting dimension to their relationship with one another and with the rest of society. Alucard, meanwhile, was a fantastic addition, and quickly became my favorite character.

If you enjoyed the first book, you’ll enjoy this one, as Schwab expands on the world of Red London and digs deep into her character development. Just don’t expect it to be quite as dramatic — that kind of tension is clearly being reserved for the third and final book in the series.

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Loveable Murderers and The Wrath and the Dawn

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Everyone loves a good hate to love relationship. It’s fun to watch characters who think they loathe one another finding out that they actually kinda like each other after all, and the shifting relationship can be a great way to explore character development.

But here’s the thing: the “hate to love” trope only works if the characters don’t actually have good reasons to hate one another. Either they’re just full of Han and Leia bickeryness, or they hate each other based on misconceptions that’ll all get sorted out once they’re forced to go on an adventure together. At most, the characters can get over their justified hatred by undergoing major character development and learning pretty significant things that they didn’t know before, but that’s only in the hands of a very gifted storyteller across several novels.

Which brings me to The Wrath and the Dawn, a Thousand and One Nights retelling by Renee Abdieh. The basic premise is that young King Khalid keeps murdering his wives, including our protagonist Shahrzad’s best friend, so Shahzrad volunteers to marry him in order to get revenge and kill him.

Obviously, Shahrzad is going to despise him for most of the book, and then find out what’s really been going on, and maybe feel a little bit of sympathy for him. And then, if the book insists on having those two get together, their relationship will grow from there. Right?

Actually, Shahrzad has known Khalid for about three days when she starts to think about how handsome and lovely and kind he is. She still thinks he murdered her best friend for no good reason, but he doesn’t seem like a murdering psychopath when she talks to him, and he hasn’t killed her yet, so she’ll start to fall for him instead. It’s basically Stockholm Syndrome: Arabian Nights edition.

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Queen of Shadows by Sarah J Maas

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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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Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell

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Mechanica is a beautiful, heartbreaking retelling of Cinderella for feminist fans of traditional fairy tales.

Ever since her parents’ deaths, Nicolette has been treated like a servant by her step-family. They call her “Mechanica,” mocking her for love of inventing, but when she finds her mother’s abandoned workshop, she decides that her inventions will be her path to escape. There will be a royal exhibition in a few weeks, and if Nicolette can present something truly wonderful, if she can find a patron, then she can finally have her freedom again.

Readers should be warned that this isn’t a Cinderella retelling in the vein of Cinder or Throne of Glass, with plot-heavy elements and the fate of the world in the balance. It’s a bildungsroman, a story of a character, and although that character and that story are fantastically crafted, and the world-building hints at fascinating possibilities, it’s a very different reading experience from a lot of YA fantasy retellings.

That said, Nicolette is an amazing heroine. She’s resourceful, determined, and incredibly intelligent, heartbroken and furious by what she endures, something of a dreamer but always fighting for what she wants. She feels like the protagonist of a fairy tale, but a new one, one where enchantment and self-determination mix, and where courage and self-confidence save the day.

And Nicolette’s story will hit you right in the heart. Cornwell conveys emotion with amazing skill, making you feel exactly as Nicolette feels. I cried multiple times reading this novel. I grinned and leapt for joy. I hoped, and I feared, and I felt my heart shatter. As a reading experience, it was both terrible and wonderful, just as you want a character-focussed novel to be.

Mechanica is in constant dialogue with the familiar tale of Cinderella, and with our expectations of it. The reader will realize, within moments, when the protagonist meets her “prince in disguise,” and cynical readers might scoff at their ability to see this “plot twist” from a mile away. But the book expects you to notice the prince, and it expects you to anticipate that Cinderella plot you’ve seen a million times before. That knowledge is woven into the novel’s emotional arc, and Cornwell plays off these preconceptions and expectations with incredible skill. The result is a novel that feels both traditional and incredibly modern, with a powerful emotional punch.

In short, Mechanica is an enchantingly told tale, with gorgeous prose, wonderful characters and magical worldbuilding. It is deeply, unflinchingly feminist, and an absolute wonder to read. Go read it!

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Analyzing the Hugo Award Results

After months of build-up, the winners of the Hugo Awards were announced on Saturday evening. You can get all the voting stats here, but here’s the quick summary:

Generally speaking, voters ranked all Puppy-slated nominees below “No Award,” with No Award winning all five pure-Puppy categories (Best Novella, Best Short Story, Best Editor Long Form, Best Editor Short Form, Best Related Work). The only Puppy nominee to win anything was Guardians of the Galaxy, and the only other Puppy nominees to rank above “No Award” were Interstellar, the Lego Movie, Game of Thrones, The Flash and Grimm.

So what does this mean? To me, it suggests that voters very firmly rejected the Puppies and their slates, but didn’t necessarily vote against things simply because they were on the slates. Slate inclusion was a count against a work, but it wasn’t enough to get it completely dismissed if people still enjoyed it. In categories where people had strong existing opinions, it didn’t matter much. But in categories that are more obscure, the “Puppy” vs “non-Puppy” status played a much bigger role.

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Supporting Female Authors in Epic Fantasy and YA

Many people have been talking recently about a post on the Fantasy subreddit, discussing why it can be hard to find female authors of epic fantasy, and why people assume that those female authors who do exist must be writing urban fantasy or YA.

It led to an extended, interesting and depressing conversation, with highlights including examples of war fantasy being given romance-y cover, just because it was written by women, discussion of the pressure on female authors to switch to YA, and author Janny Wurts strongly recommending that new female authors of epic fantasy use their initials or a pseudonym in order to be successful.

And it got me thinking about female fantasy authors, and the relationship between “regular” epic fantasy and YA. As a YA fantasy author myself, I obviously don’t see any problems with female authors writing that genre, and I find it somewhat offensive that people assume a book must be bad purely because it has the YA label (those people have clearly never read books like Shadow and Bone and The Winner’s Curse). As YA is “for children,” and specifically “for girls,” it’s created a kind of safe-haven where debut female authors can receive the sort of advances, marketing budget, and attention that they could only dream of in epic fantasy — but it’s also created the misconception that women should therefore only write YA, and the prevalence and popularity of female authors and female readers has devalued anything in the genre in many readers’ eyes. In short, female authors are shunted off into another genre, and then are considered lesser because they’re there with all the other women.

Meanwhile, we’re told, “real” authors would fight to stay in epic fantasy — but face the fact that they’ll receive little support and are unlikely to have success while they’re there.

Everything about this invented dichotomy — female writers who sell out, write “bad fantasy” and succeed, and female writers who write “good fantasy” and are ignored — is irritating, to say the least. We shouldn’t need to defend female authors’ work by saying “it’s not YA!” and “it’s actually good!”, as though those were different from the norm.  Women shouldn’t feel like they’re betraying fantasy by choosing to write YA, either out of preference or necessity, or like they have to define themselves as “not like other female writers” in order to succeed.

The UK doesn’t have as big a YA industry as the US, and YA fantasy even less so. In fact, maybe YA fantasies in the US are published as adult fantasy here. Perhaps that is a blessing in one way, as female authors are not shoe-horned into YA. But it also means that female fantasy authors lose the one not-entirely-romance fantasy genre where they aren’t shoved into the background. With YA fantasy published along with epic fantasy, authors all have to face the same issues with a lack of shelf space and promotional opportunities.

So we see things like the famous Waterstones controversy, when Fox Meadows reported that the bookshop’s fantasy book recs booklet contained 113 authors, but only 9 women, and zero authors who weren’t white. Even more laughably, Juliet E. McKenna reported that when she challenged bookstore staff about the fact that they almost exclusively recommend male authors on their table displays, she was told that “women don’t write fantasy.” Assumedly they didn’t realize they were talking to a female fantasy author at the time.

As another example, the David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy this year did not feature a single female nominee in either “best fantasy novel” or “best debut,” and only one female author has won in either category since it started in 2009.

To get a picture of how “unusual” women are considered in epic fantasy, I have an anecdote about my own local Waterstones: there’s We Need Diverse Books table in its fantasy section, which is definitely massive progress. But We Need Diverse Books is all about diverse authors writing about diverse characters in children’s books and YA, specifically about racial diversity, sexuality, gender identity, and disabilities. Most of the books on the table did not fit those criteria. Many were books by white female authors, because that was considered a major minority group (not to mention that, assumedly, the curators did not know of any other diverse fantasy novels to include).

There has been some positive change, of course — I recently saw a different fantasy table simply titled “get hooked on a new series” that ONLY featured female authors, without any mention of their gender, for example. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. And for my part, I must admit, I haven’t read many female authors of epic fantasy. Actually, the list may be “Robin Hobb, Trudi Canavan, Jen Williams,” and at first I didn’t even know Robin Hobb was a woman. I haven’t read widely in the epic fantasy genre in general, as most of my reading time is spent on keeping up with new YA releases, but I’ve definitely read more male writers than female, and I could definitely name many male writers, and only one or two female writers.

I make no apology for prioritizing YA fantasy novels, because I enjoy them, it’s part of my job to stay current on the genre, and authors in that genre are worthy of support too. But the best way to address these issues is to buy, read, discuss and recommend epic fantasy novels from female authors as well, particularly from those who publish under their own name. I’m sure the recommendations of a female YA author who writes on a website called Feminist Fiction will mean little to anyone who already thinks that women only write YA and romance, but as these books are generally less publicized, less discussed and left off of recommendation lists, I hope that I’ll at least be able to find some interesting books, and maybe have some interesting discussions about the work of female writers in a genre that is still male dominated, in terms of both characters and authors.

So that is my challenge for the rest of the year — to read as many female YA epic fantasy authors (particularly those writing female protagonists and not using male pseudonyms) as possible, and to discuss them here. “As many as possible” is not going to be a deluge, because epic fantasy is time consuming and my “to read” list is already a bit jammed, but I’m going to do the best I can!

And if you have any recommendations of epic fantasy written by female authors, and particularly ones that deserve more attention than they’ve received, please share in the comments! I’d love to hear everybody’s thoughts.

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Hugo Nominees 2015 — Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery

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Let me preface this by saying I’m far from an expert on graphic novels. I’ve read some of Buffy Season 8 (but found it too weird for my tastes), and, more recently, some of the Fables series (until it got too disturbing), but after a few failed attempts, I’d concluded that I’m simply “not a comic book person.”

And then I read Rat Queens.

I ended up devouring the entire thing in one go.

The back of the book describes the series as “Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack.” But I’m not sure this description does it justice. It’s a Dungeons and Dragons-esque quest and monsters fantasy, except it’s about an all-female team of total badasses who joke and fight and scheme their way through life and have more personality in their little fingers than anyone in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny. The art style is just plain gorgeous to look at. And the characters… the characters! There’s Hannah, the reckless elf mage with a very short temper, Betty the Smidgen (like a halfling) who loves girls, sweets, being adorable and breaking and entering, Dee, the atheist introvert cleric, and Violet, the rebel dwarf fighter who shaved off her beard to make a statement but might just regrow it now everyone is copying her.

The secondary characters also have a lot of life to them, and the comic is bursting with diversity — diversity in skin color, in sexuality, in fantasy races (female orcs! Female trolls!), and even just in body type and general look. None of that “all female faces are alike” Disney thing here. They’re all different, and they’re all badass in their own way.

I was absorbed into their world within a couple of pages, and by the end, I was converted from a reluctant comic book reader to someone absolutely desperate to see what would happen next.

A very funny, tongue-in-cheek take on D&D adventure, that somehow also manages to have a strong emotional heart. I need the next volume immediately.

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Hugo Nominees 2015: Novellas

Reading the Hugo nominees for Best Novella really revealed to me why people are so upset about the block voting of the Sad/Rabid Puppies. It’s not just about politics and keeping “untraditional” sci-fi/fantasy writers and fans out of the club. It’s about turning the Hugo into a joke of an award in the process.

Because these novellas were bad. Unbelievably, awfully bad.

I really tried to find the merit in them, to enjoy them, even. I was determined to evaluate the stories without any bias in mind. I was expecting them to be not to my taste, perhaps, but still decently written stories.

But the novellas that followed were an exercise in “how bad can a published sci-fi novella be?” Really bad, it turns out. Really, really bad.

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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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