Tag Archives: fantasy

Red Rising: Fantasy Mashup and Bestseller Bonanza

Red-Rising-2

I described Pierce Brown’s Red Rising to C. as a cross between Hunger Games, Divergent and Game of Thrones and then as she was reading the back, she pointed out the same description was on the cover. Probably because it’s an apt way of capturing the plot and theme points. And because I’m a book reviewer genius and the Kirkus Review has nothing on me.

Right… so like the Hunger Games in that we’re set in a dystopian society of stratified classes. Instead of Districts we have Colours (like the Divergent factions) each associated with a different professional role in the Society (capital S on purpose). Like HG the young must do battle with one another in an arena (or sorts) though instead of killing one another the quest is to establish dominance over the land (think Game of Thrones battles, strategy and endless betrayals). It’s a battle within a battle (sort of like Enders Game come to think of it) with our hero – Darrow – working to infiltrate the upper echelon of the Society so he can take it down from the inside and free his people.

There’s some pretty silly bits. In the early chapters Darrow’s realization of his captivity and subsequent awareness of the wider world reads as an obnoxiously similar description of Plato’s cave: like there’s an actual cave and actual fire. There’s a lot of searing pain (think Harry Potter and the interminable descriptions of How Much His Scar Hurts) and teenage hormone.

But these silly parts are endurable for the well-paced plot and the genuine interest and care cultivated for Darrow and his quest (cultivated in no small part in that Darrow is a very well developed character with complex and unpredictable reactions – except when it comes to women, more on that in a minute). I liked reading this one so much I couldn’t wait to order it from the other library and (actually) waited outside the bookstore for it to open this morning so I could get the second installment (it is, of course, a trilogy).

*light spoilers to follow*

I liked reading it even while I was troubled and annoyed with the representation of women. Darrow’s wife, Eo, is a singular martyr and Darrow’s romanticization of her throughout the rest of the book put me off as it made Eo’s entire purpose the inspiration and motivation of her husband-man: “They didn’t create me. She did” (115). His later love interest, Mustang, is more developed as a character, but similarly defined in relation to Darrow: she is a traitor, she is loyal, she is helpful, she is destructive all in terms of what she does to or for him.

A related sticking point is the representation of bodies. The women are – without exception – only loveable or worthy of character development if they also happen to be slight and wispy whiffs of a person: “Though she’s swaddled with wolfcloaks as thick as my own, she hardly comes up to my shoulder. And when we walk through deep snow, it’s almost a laugh to see her try to keep apace with me. But if I slow, I earn a scowl. Her braid bounces as she keeps up [for real. her braid bounces]. When we reach easier ground, she glances over at me. Her pert nose is red as a cheery in the cold, but her eyes look like hot honey” (309-310). Okay, this passage probably won’t make you want to run out and get the book (it really is a fun read and worth checking out). I highlight it because it’s an example of the fragility-made-tough that women are meant to have in the book. And the way our ponytails should bounce. Contrast with the male characters who are worthy of veneration for all kinds of body types and shapes.

All that said it really was a romp of a fun read with Allegory and Importance thrown in for some fun. You could easily enjoy on the beach, a plane or wait until – inevitably – the blockbuster movie comes out (unless you’re in book club, in which case you have to read it because we’re reading it).

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Station Eleven: Why are you having a baby when the world is ending?

I’ve wanted a baby since my lady bits started twitching in my late twenties. I’ve been asked – and had trouble replying – why I want a baby. It’s a good question, and one we (collective humanity we and my partner-and-me-we) should probably be able to answer before we go ahead and have one. Enter me reading Emily St John Mandel’s (excellent) Station Eleven and feeling ever more sure that the world as we know it is ending, and that having a baby is… [enter your adjective]: risky, selfish, hopeful, terrifying, absurd, brave. Sure, when I was born in the 80s my parents must have felt a similar sense of foreboding: the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation probably made it feel pretty scary to have a kid. And without the same frame of reference, I can’t be sure, except the arrival of disasters brought on by global warming makes the ‘threat’ not a possibility, but a reality.

So what does my baby-end-of-the-world-angst have to do with Station Eleven? The book narrates the post-apocolyptic world of a mix-matched cast of characters for whom the mantra “Survival is Insufficient” prompts them to not just survive, but to make and appreciate art, to maintain friendships and romances, and to form complicated relationships with ideas of past and future. It also gave this reader the scope and space to consider the [enter your adjective] of being a parent in any world, the massive responsibility and the abnegation of self called for by culture and circumstance (am I more or less likely to have a baby now? Time will tell).

With characters scattered in time and geography, the novel moves back and forward as readers are invited to piece together the events surrounding the collapse and the journies and connections of different characters (much, I might add, as one of these characters might be positioned to try to make sense of their world). We witness a magnificiently drawn setting of winter Toronto (really, not since the mostly wretched The Night Circus have I enjoyed a setting quite so much) and scenes along the north-east seaboard of North America (less brilliant than that of Toronto). Our characters are a little uneven in how successfully they’re drawn, but for the most part their motivations are well grounded in past events and rich personalities. (I would add that the narration of the lives of these characters ‘before’ the collapse is excellent – our knowledge of the imminanent end to their existence through the juxtaposition of their present adds urgency and poignancy to already great narration).

The past is captured in the creation and curation of the “Museum of Civilization” – an effort on the part of a few characters to preserve the history of the world that was lost, and to teach future generations about the cultures destroyed through their objects. The Museum is contrasted with characters who have ‘lost’ memories of the first years after the collapse. A sense that while remembering and presevation is a critical part of rebuilding culture, so too, an active forgetting (of the violence and isolation, we presume) is required for the same.

The future gestured to at the end of the novel is one of an expansion of connectivity (the lights go on again), the spread of ideas (the creation of a newspaper) and expanded travel (the networks of roads grow). It is a future, though, predicated on the tenacity and hope of its populace. The willingness of each character individually, and the groups collectively, to learn from one another and to trust one another (as in newspaper interviews and expansions of communities).

More than the (truly excellent) video game The Last of Us, the TV series The Walking Dead and the host of other post-apocolyptic futures we’ve encountered in recent years, Station Eleven calls on us to consider not only the everyday marvels and luxuries that surround our priviledged lives, but the threads of civilization that make a human life worth living: art, community, a connection to the past, a sense of hope for the future.

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Filed under Bestseller, Book Club, Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner, Reader Request

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Yawn

n-k-jemisins-the-hundred-thousand-kingdomsNetflix knows I’m a feminist. Untrue. Netflix knows I like movies and TV shows with “strong female protagonists.” May as well be the same thing. I should probably create that as a category on this blog, too. I do like books with women who are complicated, deep and challenging. I guess because I like reading about nuanced, complex characters and turns out, women are those, too. What I do not like reading are stock ‘strong female protagonists’ you know the sort who have ‘boy-like’ figures and unwieldy curly hair and piercing eyes (you noticed those were all descriptors of appearance, too, huh?). Who are awkward or ungainly, who aren’t supposed to succeed, but do because they are overlooked because of their previously stated ‘unconventional’ appearance. These female characters are confident, they’re independent and yet they end up relying on men (or in this case gods) (see the Divergent series for a great parallel, here, or Twilight for that matter) and don’t see it as reliance (or an abdication of their independence), but as a admission that their fierceness is all exteriority and really they do need help and someone has finally recognized their preciousness. Someone sees them for who they really are. Yawn.

It wasn’t just that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has one of these stock ‘unconventional’ strong female protagonists (who is secretly not-as-strong-as-she-looks and needs her man). Usually I can accept the character – or the text – on its terms and enjoy other elements, or enjoy the character needing others (because that can be enjoyable, too). But this book was just terrible in so many other ways, too. Woe was me that this was the only book I took on the plane with me (lesson here in packing more than one book in your carry-on. I made the same mistake in only bringing How to Be Both on the flight-there and finished it in the first half of the flight leaving me bookless and bereft – or maybe a lesson in getting an e-reader? but we all know how that ended last time: submerged in the tub).

Anyway, here are the ways it was terrible (in addition to its really sucky protagonist):

Overly and unnecessarily complex world-building: one of the reasons I love fantasy is for reading the way the worlds are constructed and imagined, the elements of magic (and where they appear) the alternate and parallel societal structures and the ways these are played with, the introduction of geography and the effort to situate the reader among these elements. One of the reasons I disliked this book was it made no effort to guide the reader in these elements. It assumed familiarity (to the point I thought maybe I was reading book two in a series) and in consequence overwhelmed this reader with detail, hierarchies, names, relationships and histories. It was too much and not enough all at once.

Inconsequential Plot: The thrust? Some gods have been made ‘slaves’ to a race of people and are being ‘held captive’ in human bodies. Our ‘daring’ female protagonist happens to have a duel soul – sharing her soul with that of one of these gods – only she didn’t know she had this duel soul until the sexy-god-man revealed it to her (yawn). With her duel soul she can emancipate the slaved gods and punish their captors. To do so she’ll be killed (or will she? or will the sexy-god-man save her? you might as well predict the outcome). This plot has potential! Make some connections to social inequality, to racial inequality, to inequality! make connections to forms of violence and oppression. Make the god characters someone I could care about by describing more than their “cavernous dark eyes”. No such luck.

Tired tropes of other characters: Evil step-sister? check. Punishing patriarch? check. Wise woman with potions and herbs? (re: witch) check. Sexy-dangerous lover? (Edward, anyone?) double check.

So yeah, this wasn’t a good book for me. But a bazillion other people seem to really love it (getting both Hugo and Nebula nominations for best book). So… tell me where I’m wrong. I’m willing to change (because, I too, am secretly not-as-confident-as-I-look). Untrue.

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Worst Books

The Magicians: Or, When Smug Authors Are Obviously Smug

The-MagiciansI suppose Lev Grossman thought he was being very clever in The Magicians when he has his magician protagonist mock Harry Potter. And ever more sly when his magician characters yearn to journey to a barely disguised Narnia which has taken all the over-the-top Christian symbols of Narnia and replaced them with hedonistic moments and cursing. As if in the coy wink we all share at the expense of Narnia (and feeling so very clever for having pieced together *as if this was some kind of challenge* the parallel). Suffice it to say I don’t think it’s particularly commendable to simply mock popular (young adult) fantasy or fairy tales just because. Sure, please mock it if you have something properly interesting or provocative to say – make it a dialogue between novels and we’d have something worth discussing. I mean, look at Daughter of the Forest if you want a thoughtful (if problematic) remaking of earlier fantasy/fairy tales. Or all of Angela Carter.

Alas, The Magicians has only smug takedowns for the sake of being like “look at me, I’m smugly taking down Narnia.” I admit to enjoying the first 50 pages in its world-building and descriptions of boarding school (true life confessions: I often wish I could attend a boarding school, but then so does everyone else when that boarding school is made of magic, everyone is witty and good-looking and genius is a prerequisite). But other than that? I continued reading just so I could be sure there wasn’t some momentous turn-around so that when I wrote this review I could feel justified in saying: don’t waste your time the way I wasted mine.

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