Monday, February 9, 2015

Book Triad: Women in Fantasy

I'm not planning on turning the blog into nothing but book reviews, or even reviews, but as I said before, I've got a backlog of book review content. In fact, one of the advantages of having a backlog is that I can do a bit of picking and choosing in terms of grouping similar books together so that I actually have something significant to say that applies to all three.In this particular case, that means pairing two recent reads with an older one, by way of contrast. After the break, we have reviews of Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men, Lois McMaster Bujold's The Sharing Knife, and Patricia C. Wrede's Thirteenth Child.

I'll warn you in advance--these are all books that got me thinking a fair bit, so the reviews are lengthier than usual AND I have a lot to say afterwards. All worth saying, of course.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett. After nine year old Tiffany Aching's grandmother died, people carried on as best they could. But then the Baron's son went missing, and there was that business with the old woman everyone thought was a witch. And now, the fairies are back, and they've kidnapped Tiffany's little brother, and she knows no one would ever believe her. Thus, she has to go get him back herself. Good thing she has the Mac Feegles--the toughest inches-high fighters to ever headbutt the world in the face--on her side.

This is the first book in the Tiffany Aching series, a series set in Pratchett's Discworld, but aimed for a younger audience. The other three books in the series follow a very clear pattern: Tiffany, in a bit of arrogance, overrreaches herself and unleashes an ancient creature that wants to reshape the world in its own image. She confronts it, and learns the secret to beating it is not to see it as the enemy, but understanding it as something alienated but not alien. Add some inch-high hijinx, and you've got a nice metaphor for the process of growing up (which, admittedly, puts it much in the same vein as every YA fantasy ever--the better ones, at least). This book is different--the Queen is an invading force, not one that Tiffany inadvertently calls to her. Still, because of what the Queen represents--childhood never-ending, forcing the world to fit your wishes, isolating yourself from the world--it fits the larger "growing up" metaphor.

Moreover, in a way, this story isn't really about the Queen but about Tiffany defining who she is in the wake of the death of a person very important to her. And on that level, it's near flawless--I read a lot of fantasy, and I'd be hardpressed to name another that hits its emotional beats so well--every Granny Aching scene is heart-wrenchingly well-done. The MacFeegles are great comedy relief, with just enough personality between the various members to distinguish them. I haven't read this story in years, and this time, looking back, I'm reminded of what a girl-friendly story this is. It's a fantasy story with great female characters (protagonists and villain) that doesn't have to go the "strong female character" route.

My go-to description for the book is "Harry Potter with Hermoine as the main character," and Tiffany's brainy side is definitely in the Hermoine cast. But there's also a strong resemblance to the Hobbit and the Bilbo Baggins type--an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances who copes not by becoming some epic, all-powerful hero, but by thinking things through and trying to do the right thing--and much more than Bilbo, this comes not out of the idea of some inherent Tookness but because of Tiffany's upbringing and the people in her life. The book's not perfect--while the dialogue in the extended encounter with the Queen is spot-on, the actual descriptions of the dreams seems kind of tenuous, and not in a good "dreams are indescribable" sort of way, but in a confusing "what's going on here, again?" sort of way. And Tiffany herself could use a lesson in subtlety every now and then. But for the most part, it's a great start to a great series. This is Pratchett very high on his game.

 The Sharing Knife: Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold  starts with Fawn Bluefield running away from home after learning both that she is pregnant, and that the child's father isn't the man she hoped she was. Unfortunately for her, she runs straight into a malice, a creature bent on stealing people's life forces. Lakewalker Dag--an older man, with one hand lost to his fight--is nearby, and the two battle together to fend off the threat. Of course, an ancient evil unfathomable by man pales in comparison to what awaits Fawn when she brings a Lakewalker home... I have a policy where I tend to skip over any fantasy book that contains the word "love" in its plot description. Beguilement is both an example of why that policy is in place, and why choosing it limits my reading options in a negative way. It's not that I've got a blanket ban on all fiction depicting relationships--I've got multiple seasons of Gossip Girl, Gilmore Girls, and Everwood under my belt. It's more that it often seems like a substitute for plot, and that the end is never in doubt, and when both those hold, my attention wanes. And they both hold here; if you took out the first half of the book, Beguilement is basically a rural romance story with a veneer of fantasy thrown in, a story of an older, foreign man trying to win over a rural town to claim his bride. And while some of the more obstreperous town folk put themselves in his way, the outcome is hardly in doubt--Aragorn isn't about to lose a thinking contest to the local bar thug. And I had absolutely no patience for the "will they or won't they" portion of Fawn and Dag's relationship--it was a pretty foregone conclusion rather immediately.

However, the second half of the book is also the book's strength. So much of mainstream fantasy is focused on epic scale--the warring Houses (with the capital H), the rise and fall of nature, the final battle of Good versus Evil. Rarely do we see anything on the day to day life of people in these worlds. Bujold offers that here, and that change is refreshing. It's also, I'll note, a difference that's often gendered; if I think of the best known authors who have followed similar tactics, the names that come to mind are Robin Hobb and Ann McCaffrey, and it's probably not a coincidence that it takes female writers to write about the "small" matters of day to day life and marriage in a fantasy world. That, I think, is what I'm missing when I enforce my "no love in book jackets" policy, and it is policy that could arguably be said to be a gendered one.

Ultimately, it's still about 150 pages of wedding hijinx that don't escalate beyond an errant hornet's nest, fifty pages of YMMV vanilla sex, and 150 pages of demon fighting. The two main characters are likeable if not amazingly so, and it has a slower pace rare for fantasy without getting bogged down. So if that's your thing, this is the book for you.

Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede. 
Eff Rothmer is the elder twin sibling of Lan Rothmer. Lan's the second seventh son of a seventh son, which makes him a focal of considerable magical power. Eff, on the other hand, is a seventh daughter--and a thirteenth child, which, as some unpleasant extended family members continually remind her, means she's doomed to go bad and bring ruin and bad luck to her family. Things improve for Eff when her parents move to a town on the frontier where no one knows her status, but all the same, she's careful to stay withdrawn and away from magic, so none of that thirteenth-ness ever comes out. No one outside her family--not even her close friend William--knows her secret. You'll notice I mentioned the frontier a sentence ago, and that's an important part of what makes this book unique. Most fantasy is set as a pseudo-medieval story; Thirteenth Child is a pseudo-American frontier story, where the United States isn't yet entirely settled, as the land to the West is populated by wild, magical creatures such as sphinxes, steam dragons, and stranger things that haven't been discovered yet. When a strange uprising of bugs in the frontier require her father--a University magician--to investigate, Eff, Lan, and William are part of that team. And there, in a Rationalist camp that refuses all magic use altogether, Eff will finally have to face what she's feared her whole life.

This book is doing a *lot* of interesting things on a lot of different fronts, and I'm a big fan of it on that side of things alone. The frontier is the traditional stomping grounds of sci-fi, but Wrede proves there's a lot that fantasy can do with it as well. For starters, magic essentially constitutes a system of science in this alt-America, or rather, several systems of science--there's magic as characterized by the Avrupan school (the predominant one), the Hijero-Cathayan, and the Aphrikan. Now, on the one hand, this allows a radically different history to unfold, as the technological advantage that Avrupe (Europe) held in the age of imperialism doesn't happen, allowing other cultures to meet it (presumably) on more even footing. But at the same time, there's a level of cultural appropriation going on in pursuing, say, Aphrikan magic (or is there? Does cultural appropriation exist between cultures on equal footing?) not to mention erasure--there's a wild magic outside the Columbia settlements, but notably not a Native Columbian people (although I'd be very surprised if they didn't turn up in full force in future volumes (you can tell how intrigued I am with the series by the superfluity of parentheses.)) 

And then there's the gender side of things. I recently read Bujold's Beguilement, and it left me a little cold. And I wondered if there was something sexist in my disinterest, that I was predisposed to dislike fantasy that dealt with more ordinary day-to-day life that's often more marked as feminine. With Thirteenth Child, I can say that's not the case. It is about day-to-day life--specifically, Eff's day-to day-life--and I was pretty much riveted throughout. And Eff's reticence to draw attention to herself and explore her own potential is a great metaphor for the performance of femininity we often still demand today. In fact, it's almost too great; it borders on being the Plain Jane trope, wherein a female protagonist believes they're the most boring, ordinary person on the planet, when the evidence for the opposite is screaming loudly on every page--and it's invariably a straw trope brought out to be torn down in the story's conclusion. But that's a pet bugbear of mine. Anyway, it's a deft interplay of American frontier life, traditional fantasy, science as magic as cultural value, and on top of that, there's the Rationalists--in a world of magic as science, those who refuse to use magic and rely entirely on technology become, basically, their world's Mennonites, and that's yet another fascinating reversal, one that's explored very neatly by a character near to Eff. All in all, it's a book that shows why some of the most innovative fantasy is fantasy not aimed at an adult audience.


....Still here? I told you it was going to be a lot. You know, for someone who constantly talks about how he's not trained or experienced enough to write about gender issues, I sure have written a lot about gender issues. And I sure do get defensive of that perceived lack, as evidenced by my invoking of Girls Gossip and Gilmore in the Beguilement review. It's not quite as bad as "I've got one black friend!" or "Not All Men!" but it ain't the most flattering shade of brown.

That said, thanks to Thirteenth Child, I think I'm in a better position to say what I disliked about Beguilement.(All right, I'm cheating--I got it reasonably well the first time, but I'm moving that paragraph down here and expanding, to create the illusion of a more classical thesis - antithesis - synthesis sort of thing.) As I said, the core dilemma rang inherently false, or at least hollow. I never doubted that the wedding would go through, just as I never doubted Fawn and Dag would be a couple, more or less from the moment one reflected on the ample shape of the other. It was a foregone conclusion, and a lot of romantic comedies are similarly structured so that the end is always in sight.
On the other hand, it's not like fantasy is this genre of constant surprise; the victory of the hero in a fantasy story is usually a foregone conclusion too, and in fact, I tend to get a little disgruntled when it goes any other way. I don't mind things turning out well for everyone--but I do prefer an actual turn. The difference here, I think, is that the obstacles were all external things fairly easy to overcome. In fantasy, it's not unusual for the external conflict to be a literal version of the character's internal conflict--Willow's exploration of magic in Buffy, for example, dovetails with her exploration of her sexuality (magic also functions for Willow as a source of addiction, instrument of vengeance, and symbol of redemption--might want to nail that down, Whedon).  For Beguilement, for me at least, both internal and external fall flat. The external, for most of the book, is superficial, and the only internal conflict between Dag and Fawn was Dag's uncertainty in loving again, and since we don't get the reason for that it's an internal struggle we see from the outside, in the book's second half. (Given what happens to Fawn, she really *should* have had more conflict; the book moves past what would really should be a physically and mentally debilitating event for her to skip to the romance in fairly short order.) 

 Contrast this with Thirteenth Child, where the external conflict is kept relatively low key throughout--even the bugs come in rather late, and as a minor threat at best, since they don't threaten Eff's family or home directly. But her internal struggle against her own repressive measures is clear and intense, even if the outcome isn't particularly in doubt (more on that in a second). And contrast it with Tiffany, who faces a much more traditional "save the day" quest plot externally, but internally, is doing something much more complex about grief and growing up. Even if the struggle in the protagonist's way is an illusion, I want it to be a *good* illusion. To get at the problem from another angle, I'm not a fan of David Eddings' later work specifically because it's epic fantasy where the heroes are massively overpowered against the bad guys. There's not only no illusion that they might lose, they actually come off as bullies at times for being so absolutely relentless against a much weaker force.

Ok, that's Beguilement. Let's talk about the one element of Thirteen Child I wasn't so crazy about: what I'm calling the Plain Jane. It's a trope fairly prevalent in fiction in general--particularly romance stories--but it's become more prominent in fantasy and science fiction recently, for reasons that should soon be fairly obvious. The romantic version is a woman who's utterly convinced of her own average, mundane nature, a conviction that frequently goes so far as to think of herself as ugly. In fantasy/sci-fi, it often goes one step further, where she's not just convinced of her average appearance, but that she has no other gifts as well. And inevitably, through the course of the story, she's proven wrong, and comes into her own power. Bella of Twilight is the poster girl for this (although it'd be a very plain poster of course, and she'd probably be wearing a thick sweater or something); there's also more than a little of it in Katniss, and, as I noted, in Eff.

On the most superficial level, I don't like this trope simply because it's such an artificial construction. In order to make the eventual reversal make sense, the author has to start laying in the groundwork pretty early on, which makes the protests of ugliness/plainness/ordinariness a case of the protagonist that doth protest too much. (Really, Eff? You can't think of a single reason why William would spend so much time around you? Not one?) Film versions exacerbate just how labored a construction it is, when the "plain" girl is inevitably cast as a clearly beautiful female actor. Plain Jane is a cliche, and a tired one.

...And by this point, incidentally, my male entitlement is now so unchecked that if I was at a restaurant, the waiter would be pointedly making comments about how I'd feel more comfortable if I shed some layers (okay, that metaphor worked better in my head). Yeah, it's a trope, and yeah, maybe it is overused. But it exists for a reason and serves a significant purpose, and to ignore either is to ignore the reality of women in Western society. Look; it's a fairly traditional trope in fantasy and fiction in general for the protagonist of any gender to start off as an ordinary person thrust into un-ordinary events, and changed into extraordinary by them. And it's true that boy protagonists tend to shed the "oh, I'm ordinary and couldn't possibly be anyone special" at a much faster rate than girl protagonists.  There's a reason for that, though--a lot of boys grow up being told they can do anything, that it was within them to fulfill their greatest potential. For a very, very long time, girls got the other message, that their potential was something useless or dangerous, that needed to be suppressed. Feminine modesty was--and in many ways, still is--held up as the ideal. You'll never get a husband if you try to be smarter than the boys. Don't be loud, it's not ladylike. (And somewhere behind that sentiment, a series of intensifiers, ugly ones. Be quiet. Stop talking. Don't be a bitch.) Don't make waves.  Don't fight back. Behave. Be a good girl. Be Plain Jane, in short. 

And Eff is an exaggeration of that, but not much of one. She internalizes everything that her relatives say is evil and dangerous about her magic, and does her best to hide it, while her brother is encouraged to revel in it (and he's also a good example of how the "Be Mighty, son" message can also fuck you up). The reversal is predictable, but powerful (maybe more powerful?) for that predictability. As a certain somewhat-popular song would tell us, take that repression, and let it go. 

Where it gets complicated, though, is where any well-known reversal gets complicated--if you set up the same premise every time, that premise is always getting exposure, even if it is just there to disappear in a later act.The worse version of the plain jane is the implication that it's a cause and effect relation: be the quiet, ordinary girl now, and you get to be the extraordinary girl later. That in order to become the mockingjay, you have to first prove yourself worthy by being the plain jane. An even worse version that this transformation can only come about through the hands of another person, that you need someone else to unlock your own potential. And the worst version is that this someone has to be a man. Think Cinderella: some day, my prince will come. Suffer virtuously--and quietly--now, and some day soon, real soon, honest, your prince will come and love you and that love will be your proof of how awesome you are. (For all that it rubbed me the wrong way, props to Into the Woods for depicting a situation a little more complex than that.)

Katniss has that, a bit, in Peeta and Gale, though it's mostly the virtuous suffering. As does Eff, though Wrede mitigates it a lot by emphasizing how much of it is Eff's traumatizing internalization. My understanding of the Twilight novels is that Belle eventually grows beyond the model to become something more, but in that first book, she is absolutely the plain girl elevated by the love of an older vampire man whose love gives her the release from that plain life. Fawn in Beguilement has it, in that it's Dag who recognizes her true value. But it's a little more complicated than that--Fawn spent most of her life as the good, virtuous girl, then, the one time she rebelled, she gets pregnant, and flees town in a panic. And in fact, one interpretation is that that's what causes the initial strife of the story, that she's so convinced she's lost the good girl status forever that  So in that way at least, Bujold goes against the ordinary virtue model, and honestly, if it's going to be trotted out, I'd rather it was like this, to illustrate that good people can make mistakes.

But another problem with the Plain Jane model is that it erases the other option, the girl who's proud of her exceptional nature. That's what I like so much about The Wee Free Men's protagonist, Tiffany. She's smart. She's different. And she's proud of being both those things. Her grandmother was a personal example of how women can be exceptional without having to hide it (and the scene where a younger Tiffany proudly presents Granny Aching with the feminized, idealized Shepherdess statuette she won is *devastating* for the way it implicitly pigeonholes her into a more socially acceptable feminine ideal).  Like I say in the review, I see a similarity between Tiffany and Hermoine, and I'm very, very pleased to live in a world where the exceptional Hermoine Granger is available as role-model. (Less thrilled that she has to share the spotlight with Harry Potter, who gets to be more exceptional at much less effort, and Ron, who is, let's be honest, below average who's been lifted up. Gender double standard right there. Woman has to work twice as hard for half the credit.)

I've got an odd relation to these texts, because I relate to both models. Personality-wise, I tend towards a quiet passivity that's often marked as feminine (though when a guy does it, it's stoicism). And I can certainly relate to Tiffany's sense that she's different and the oscillations back and forth between being proud of that and being afraid there's something wrong with you. In fact, the two feed off of each other, where I've been told more than once that my quiet awkwardness comes off as arrogant intellectual disdain. But on a pretty significant level, I can't relate entirely, because there's an entire embodied reality here that I get to opt out of by virtue of appearing as a white, middle class dude. (I'm basically my own Plain Jane. Plain Dick, if you will.)

I don't envy the fantasy writer trying to craft a female fantasy protagonist. Does she appear to be a Mary Sue? A Plain Jane? Is she too passive, and relies on others to solve her problems? Is she too aggressive, and thus offputting? Too much of a tomboy? Too girly? Is she a Strong Female Protagonist, and all that entails? There's a thousand pitfalls, and armchair critics like me camped out every step of the way. Honestly, I think it's too much weight to put any one character. The solution--if there can be a solution to a really complex problem born out of the turmoil of constantly shifting social standards--is to present a variety of different women, in body shape and temperament. Frozen was actually a pretty good step in this direction, as Ella and Anna were clearly different in personality and outlook (kind of the same body type, though). The recently ended Legend of Korra slowly and subtly became a showcase of great female characters. Rat Queens, the comic series, is a little more overt in its aims, but also does a good job in this regard. But the series I want to close on is an older one--Tamora Pierce's writing. Now, her Alanna series and its spin-offs are a great example of a variety of different female protagonists, but the series I'm thinking of in particular is the Circle of Magic books. It's got a magic system that creates a powerful metaphor, revolving around nature and crafting (and crafting both traditionally gendered female AND male, to boot); it's got a focus on magic as metaphor for growing into yourself; and it's got three different female characters (and a token male) who manage to mix up the typical stereotypes, as well as other significant ones that are added as time goes on. (Plus, normalized, nonheterosexual relationships, which are almost unheard of in YA fantasy.)

Hmmm. Someone should write a paper on approaches to nature, craft, and gender in Tamora Pierce's writing.

Oh right.

What, you thought this focus on women in fantasy wasn't going to end with a plug for a white male writer? Hey, it's Plain Dick talking here!

Later Days.

edit: I found out later that the book's Native American population do not appear in force later, and in fact, don't even exist, as in Wrede's world, no one ever crossed into the Americas from the West. In particular, she says she did this because she didn't want to write stereotypical Native Americans, and instead, their... alter-descendants? have a significant impact on Asian culture. (Although we don't actually see that, not in this book at least.) .And that this caused a bit of a stir when the book came out. Kind of makes my criticism of gender look like complaining about the safety conditions of the boiler room on the Titanic. Good cause, but in retrospect, not the big issue. I'm a believer in it being okay to like problematic things--in this case, potentially racist things that perpetuate the erasure of Native American (and Native Canadians, and I guess Native South American) cultures, even if your intentions are otherwise. And really, Wrede is just an extreme case of what frontier science fiction in particular and pseudo-medieval fantasy have done for much of their history. But maaaan--it takes a lot of good will not to reduce this whole thing to "let's do a frontier myth where we can skip over the genocide part."

No comments: