The Sketchy Feminist

Staring down the male gaze, or: Looking at looking at women in popular culture

Tag: books

Recommended Reading: Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy and Princess Academy: Palace of Stone

So, I just checked out Shannon Hale’s 2006 Newberry Honor book Princess Academy, and I liked it so much that I checked out its 2012 sequel, Princess Academy: Palace of Stone.

Man, I’m glad I didn’t read the first book in 2006. Then I would have had to wait six years for the next one.

Review for both [some SPOLIERS ahead] under the cut:

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A Couple of “Oh No” Moments in Urban Fantasy

I like urban fantasy. I like to read urban fantasy novels. Like other forms of fantasy literature (and, uh, all other literary genres, including “mainstream”), urban fantasy novels sometimes have what can only charitably be called “problematic” gender dynamics.

Even when they have strong female characters. Even when they star strong female characters. Even when (as I believe was the case when last I checked, though I have not checked recently) women are the primary audience for urban fantasy novels.

For the uninitiated: urban fantasy is a blanket genre term for fantasy stories that take place in what is otherwise the ‘real’ world: usually a modern, technologically advanced setting. These stories do not necessarily take place in cities, but after a short-lived showdown with the term “contemporary fantasy” (which, while avoiding the trap of implying an urban environment, can also be taken to mean ‘fantasies written at the same time as one another’), “urban fantasy” seems to be the term that has stuck. Charles de Lint writes primarily urban fantasy*; so does Charlaine Harris. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is arguably urban fantasy, depending upon which angle you use to look at it (though I usually think of it as “dual world” fantasy, since the Harry Potter ‘verse generally drops the mundane muggle world by, like, chapter four of each book).

Anyway, the two urban fantasies I would like to look at tonight are Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson novels and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels.

Jim Butcher and Patricia Briggs are two of the biggest names in urban fantasy right now, and Mercy Thompson and Dresden Files are their most popular titles. I like both series. I do. But they each have something that I am going to call an “oh no” moment. A moment that I found so upsetting that it made/makes it really, really hard for me to keep reading. A moment that bothers me so much that I think about it every time I think of the series, and that, therefore, colors my experience of the series as a whole, even if it doesn’t come up until several books in. In both cases, this “oh no” moment occurs when the series’ problematic gender dynamics become crystallized in a scene which exemplifies that these are terrible universes for women and it’s not just because of the monsters.

So, rather than being a good reviewer and starting at the beginning, I am skipping most of the early stuff to focus this post on one scene from the third book of the Mercy Thompson novels, Iron Kissed, and one scene from the eighth book (yes I said eighth) of the Dresden Files, Proven Guilty. Because it’s my blog and I can do what I want.

SPOILER WARNING FOR THOSE BOOKS.

TRIGGER WARNING for rape, assault, mind control, trauma, sexuality policing and general dickishness.

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Book Review: Ink, by Amanda Sun

A good alternate title for this post would be “What I Get For Judging a Book by its Cover.” Because just look at that:

The book cover of Amanda Sun's debut YA fantasy, Ink

The stunningly pretty book cover of Amanda Sun’s debut YA fantasy, Ink. Cover art by Petra Dufkova; interior illustrations by Ross Siu.

Have you ever wondered what you would get if you blended a bunch of paranormal teen romance tropes with a bunch of school romance manga and anime tropes and then wrapped them all up in a beautiful package? I now know exactly what you get (or, well, one of the things you can get) when you do this, because the other day I picked up Amanda Sun’s debut YA novel, Angst Ink. I meant to say Ink. (But I really did almost write Angst first, completely by accident. Not even kidding.)

Warning: some SPOILERS lie ahead.

Ink is about a teenaged American girl, Katie Greene, who is living in Japan with her aunt after her mother’s death. The book starts a few months after her move, when Katie is still struggling with integrating into a new culture and trying to overcome the language barrier. One day, she discovers that her moderately obnoxious, but handsome senpai (or upper-classman at her school) has a dark and intriguing paranormal secret.

So, she pretty much starts stalking him. In the book, he cracks a few “jokes” about how she’s his stalker, but … yeah, she’s basically his stalker. Which made me a bit conflicted, while reading, because I didn’t want to be rooting for a stalker, but dammit, this is not a plot-heavy book. For at least the first hundred pages, Katie stalking Tomohiro is the only way that the plot moves forward. So eventually I just rolled with it.

And then, of course, Tomohiro ends up loving Katie because she’s more-or-less his stalker and he can’t frighten her away, no matter how hard he tries to be off-putting. Ugh. Way to positively reinforce bad behavior, Tomohiro.

This paragraph SPOILS something that doesn’t happen for a couple hundred pages in, so be warned. And now that you know this paragraph is SPOILERY, I feel I should mention that it also warrants a CONTENT WARNING for unwanted advances. Eventually, Tomohiro decides he really, really wants to drive Katie away to protect her, so … he takes her to a love hotel. Where he starts to get pushy. As in, handsy. And he keeps touching her when she first tells him to lay off. And when he finally does let up, he insults her, and she runs away in tears. But of course it is all For Her Own Good. And after berating herself for a few pages for being taken in by his good-guy act and letting herself get into such a dangerous situation, she realizes it was all For Her Own Good, and berates herself for an approximately equal number of pages for being taken in by his bad-guy act and losing faith in him. Because it’s her fault both ways, see? Or at least she thinks it is, whether or not the reader is supposed to. (Ink is written entirely in first person.) Yeah, I almost gave up on the book–especially the Tomohiro part of it–right then and there.

The book’s paranormal teen romance tropes include: the heroine getting mixed signals from some moderately obnoxious dude with supernatural powers who wants her to leave him alone, but not really; he only pushes her away in an attempt to protect her from his dark side. There are others (like the single-parent family and the way almost every boy character of the appropriate age expresses interest in the main girl character), but that’s the big one. (And I will save the rant about how much I hate the “male love interest pushes female love interest away to protect her” trope for another post, because it would get pretty long-winded and probably derail this review.)

The book’s school romance manga-slash-anime tropes include: bad boys with dye jobs, kids with yakuza connections, sakura blossom viewing, karaoke with friends, a love confession interrupted mid-sentence, that moment when somebody pulls a fallen sakura petal out of the heroine’s hair and–my personal favorite–the main character climbing a tree and feeling all triumphant until she realizes the annoying boy she’s talking to can see up her skirt. (Yes, that is a thing.)

To be fair, a lot of the tropes in both of the above paragraphs could easily fit in either category, because there’s a lot of overlap between paranormal YA fiction and school romance/fantasy manga. (A lot of manga are technically paranormal YA.) This book still feels like a blurring of two genres, though. Two already closely related genres.

The thing is, I bought Ink specifically because I wanted a YA fantasy novel that was basically a school romance/fantasy manga in novel form. Because those things? Are two things that I dearly love. And that’s what this book is, at its heart, so I can’t complain too much that what’s inside the book is basically what it says on the tin. However, I was hoping that Ink would be more than the sum of its parts, and it just isn’t.

Ink is very much the sum of its parts.

Which is not to say that Ink is bad. There’s some good stuff in here. For example: the book’s magic elements. The Moderately Obnoxious Love Interest’s big dangerous secret is that he draws pictures that come to life. He’s still dangerous to our heroine, because his sketches want to attack her for some reason, but that’s more interesting to me than, say, him being dangerous to her because he’s secretly a vampire who wants to drink her. Also, “The Boy Who Drew Cats” was seriously one of my very favorite stories growing up, so yay for magical living pictures in a Japanese setting.*

Speaking thereof, I also really like the Japanese setting! The mundane details of Katie’s life in Japan are pretty interesting, and the author does a good job incorporating snippets of Japanese language here and there to add to the book’s sense of place. There’s even a glossary of Japanese terms at the back! (There’s also a set of discussion questions. What’s with discussion questions in YA novels these days? Is it me, or do they seem more prevalent than they used to be?)

The standout, breakaway, bonus feature of Ink, however, is the book’s production. This is a beautifully made paperback, with a textured, faux-book-jacket cover that emulates the feel of handmade paper. Petra Dufkova’s cover art incorporates both transparent watercolors and ink to brilliant effect, and the portrait of the heroine on the front of the book is rendered in a way that suggests the blending of Western illustration and manga art. This is perfect, considering the nature of the book itself. Ross Siu’s pen-and-ink drawings (mostly representative of Tomohiro’s drawings) are scattered throughout the book, and there are a few multiple-page sequences of marginal illustrations that call attention to aspects of particular scenes. (There’s one sequence of a bird in different poses that even works as a–somewhat choppy–animation if you flip the pages.)

So, I guess what I’m saying is, if you have never read another paranormal YA book and you haven’t encountered much manga and anime, this book might be awesome. And if you have read every paranormal YA book you could get your hands on and consumed a metric ton of manga and anime, and just find yourself hungry for more, because you love it all indiscriminately, this book might be tailor-made for you. And if you find yourself so seduced by a book’s production that you can overlook its other elements, then this book might deserve a place on your shelf, because it’s really flipping pretty.

But if you are familiar with YA fantasy and familiar with school romance manga and anime, and like both genres well enough but not indiscriminately, and prefer to seek out interesting and original titles that spin old tropes in new, creative ways, then I suspect Ink will come across as too derivative. It just doesn’t break much new ground.

All that being said, Ink is the first book in a series (though it has a prequel, a novella available in ebook form), and it still has room to grow. I enjoy its atmosphere enough, and I’m curious enough about where it will go from here, that I will probably check out the next installment when it’s released.

* * *

*Ink also suffers from a sad lack of magical cats.

Recommended Reading: The Girl of Fire and Thorns Trilogy

So, I just finished reading Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy, and I recommend that you do too. Minor SPOILERS ahoy.

Cover image of the first book in the Girl of Fire and Thorns Trilogy.

Cover image of the first book

Elisa, the protagonist, is by far my favorite heroine in the recent crop of YA Fantasy* novels.

Elisa starts the first book as a “sedentary” princess with self-esteem issues relating to her weight and the presence of her slender, athletic, poised older sister, whose very existence tends to make Elisa feel terrible about herself by comparison. Elisa’s father and sister marry her off to some king she’s never met, and so her adventure begins.

So, I already like that the first book starts off with a plus-size heroine. I like slightly less that, yes, weight loss is a big part of the character’s journey. However, my dislike for this move is mitigated by two factors: (1) It’s brought about pretty organically by the plot. After using food as a crutch most of her life (and it’s clear that she eats when upset, not just when she’s hungry) Elisa does a lot of being force-marched through the desert on minimal rations. (2) Even by book 3, Elisa (who is our narrator) still describes herself as “with a tendency toward plumpness,” so I never felt the need to imagine her as rail-thin.

I also like that most of the main characters, including Elisa, are described as having dark skin and dark hair. (The Others of this world, the Inviernos, are pale, tall, fair-haired people** who may or may not be descended from tall, three-fingered aliens.) I would love, love, love for this series to be made into a movie (or, better, a trio of movies) someday. And if/when that ever happens, my hope against hope is that Elisa will not be portrayed by a thin white girl.

UK Cover for Fire and Thorns

The UK cover both shows a clearly non-white protagonist and does not include the word “Girl” in the title. It also more accurately implies the desert culture described in the book itself.

Moving on! OK, so what really makes me all giddy about these books is that Elisa herself is kind of incredibly awesome. She learns and grows over time, and she gets progressively more awesome with every book. As an adventurer, she learns to face danger and hold her own in a crisis situation. As a ruler, she learns to make tough, life-and-death decisions, often weighing life against life, and she can be ruthless when she has to be. I like a female lead who can order a man killed for the greater good.

Elisa is pretty much the Boss of Everybody. She’s a queen and all, so throughout most of the second and third books, at least, the people around her are her followers. I like stories about women in power. I realize that woman-in-power does not necessarily equal empowered woman, but in a genre in which a lot of girls are being seduced by mysterious men with mysterious power over them, it’s nice to see the girl on top. And Elisa’s pretty damn empowered. She both thinks things through and gets shit done. She’s all about the negotiating and the seeking out of non-violent resolution to conflict, but she will resort to aggression when she thinks it’s necessary. Elisa is basically your Captain Jean-Luc Picard of your Adventurer Queens.

While Elisa does have romantic experiences, and while they are important to her, and important to the books, they are not the be-all and end-all of her world. She’s a queen, and her people always come first.

On a side note, and just to give you fair warning, a lot of the magic (and/or mysterious far-future tech) in this world revolves around the living Godstone, a gem in Elisa’s navel that grants her access to possibly-divine power. That’s the faceted jewel that shows up in all the US covers, with Elisa’s partial face peering through them.*** I expect that this is by far the best series you could hope to read about a girl with a magic belly button.

Amazon link for Book 1, The Girl of Fire and Thorns

Amazon link for Book 2, The Crown of Embers Hey, look! The Kindle version is only two bucks at the moment. I don’t know why that is, but I’m pleased.

Amazon link for Book 3, The Bitter Kingdom

* * *

* Technically, The Girl of Fire and Thorns is far-future Science Fiction. Y’know, the same way Star Wars is set in the distant past. However, the magic in the world of The Girl of Fire and Thorns is never fully explained, so it reads more as F than SF.

** No, they’re not elves. This is technically far-future SF, remember?

*** And doesn’t she look disappointingly a bit like a thin white girl? I admit that the stone’s color washes out her own color, making her race hard to read, but I am afraid that people who do not crack open the book will read her as a thin white girl by “default,” because we are used to YA fantasies starring thin white girls. However, apparently both the US and UK covers are better than the original US Advance Reader’s Copy cover.

The ARC cover for The Girl of Fire and Thorns

Because seriously WTF

See a review of the first book which covers the covers over at The Book Smugglers. The Forever Young Adult review (where I first learned about the book), also briefly discusses the ARC cover. Pitch Dark, which appears to be another YA book review site, looks at the various international covers of the first book. My favorite is the German one.

German cover for The Girl of Fire and Thorns

Which looks like this.