Lord of Shadows

Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare

In this continuation of the Dark Artifices series, the Shadowhunters of the Los Angeles Institute go into Faerie to save a friend from execution, then search for the Black Volume of the Dead, which is in the hands of a recently resurrected woman with a grudge. Then they are pursued by legendary deathless faerie warriors and astonishingly kill one of them. The heart of the story is the forbidden love between Julian and Emma, parabatai with a magic bond that is supposed to stay strictly platonic. The angst in this installment comes from Emma trying to deny that love to Julian, while he pines. Their climactic scene is some of Clare’s most intense and sexy writing yet. The relationships of Julian’s siblings, and their new friend Kit Herondale also develop. Julian’s ruthlessness in protecting his family is revealed. 

I was particularly pleased by the political turn that the story took in this volume, making it seem more timely than Clare could have anticipated when she was writing the book a year or two ago. At the end of the Mortal War, covered in the Mortal Instruments series, the Shadowhunters declared the Cold Peace, which penalized and stigmatized the Faeries. Here’s an astute description of the effects of that agreement, very applicable to today’s political climate: “When a decision like that is made by a government, it emboldens those who are already prejudiced to speak their deepest thoughts of hate. They assume they are simply brave enough to say what everyone really thinks” (105). In this book, a group of young bigots calling themselves the Cohort is making a power play, and Julian and his friends are hoping to stop them.

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Life and Death

Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined by Stephenie Meyer

So for the 10th anniversary of Twilight’s publication a couple years ago, Stephenie Meyer published a gender-switched version of the story. I think the point was to address her critics who say the story is sexist and stereotyped. Like, “See, it’s not sexist, because you can totally switch the protagonists’ sexes and it still works!”

Except it doesn’t.

When you change Bella Swan to Beaufort, and Edward Cullen to Edythe, it only draws attention to how gender-stereotyped the original characters are, because they are so much less believable as the opposite gender. I think it would be theoretically possible for believable characters to do and say some of the things Beau and Edythe do, but not the way they’re presented here. Making Bella into Beau without adding any more work in characterization only draws attention to the vacuum at the core of this character, perhaps because we’re less used to reading flat male protagonists than flat female protagonists. The reason Bella has no substance is so that she can better serve as a vehicle for her female audience’s wish fulfillment. Female readers are used to identifying with male characters, even in romances, but not with vacuous male characters meant to be their stand-in for masturbatory fantasy.

Ironically, one of the passages marking the gender change makes Beau significantly more secure and confident than Bella. His masculinity isn’t threatened by Edythe’s strength.

I wondered if it was supposed to bother me that she was so much stronger than I was, but I hadn’t been insecure about things like that for a long time. Ever since I’d outgrown my bullies, I’d been fairly well satisfied. Sure, I’d like to be coordinated, but it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t good at sports. I didn’t have time for them anyway, and they’d always seemed a little childish. Why get so worked up about a bunch of people chasing a ball around? I was strong enough that I could make people leave me alone, and that was all I wanted.

So, this small girl was stronger than I was. A lot. But I was willing to bet she was stronger than everyone else I knew, kids and adults alike. She could take Swarzenegger in his prime. I couldn’t compete with that, and I didn’t need to. She was special.

Because its language is so bad, Twilight is not usually the kind of book I re-read . Putting aside the merits of the story, or lack thereof, the sentences are plodding, exaggerated, and repetitive. Though I admit the wish fulfillment aspect of the story took me in pretty strongly on my first reading, I still remember being incredibly irritated by the flowery way Edward was described, and the unrealistic social scene at Forks High School. You would think Meyer would try to improve on this aspect of the story, given the chance to re-write it, but maybe she just doesn’t have the skill, or the material brings the language down to this level.

There are very few changes to the story, though I would think that for an author, making changes would be half the appeal of a retelling. The car accident happens exactly the same way. The science classes do the exact same experiments. Most of the dialogue is copied word for word. I would advise no one to read this rewrite unless they have a burning desire to re-read Twilight itself, the experience is so similar, with so few new insights delivered by the gimmick of the gender-switch.

I found so many of the choices Meyer made in this rewrite odd. She gender-switches almost all the characters, including making the school secretary and nurse men. In my 12 years as a student and 8 years as a teacher I have never once run into a male secretary or nurse in a school. That’s just not realistic. Choices like that take you out of the story and draw attention to the gender-flipping. At the same time, she leaves Beaufort’s parents the same, and they certainly have a much more strongly gendered impact on the story than minor characters like Mr. Cope.

Spoiler alert! The ending is one big change. I assume since Meyer wasn’t going to rewrite the whole series, and since making the human character male meant there wasn’t going to be any vampire baby anyway, it made some sense to change Beau into a vampire at the end. One odd part of this ending is that there is a lot of superfluous information inserted there, parts of the larger world that Meyer built that fit in New Moon and Eclipse, but had no place in Twilight. Another part is that the epilogue just goes on for way too long, and doesn’t have enough kissing. Jules Black, the female Jacob, kind of gets the shaft here. She doesn’t appear in person in the way-less-dramatic-than-it’s-trying-to-be vampire/werewolf confrontation scene, and the gender-switching has prevented her soulmate from being born, so I guess she’s going to die alone, but hey, at least Beau told her mom that he wants to be her friend.

Midnight Sun, Meyer’s unfinished, unpublished novel that tells the story of Twilight from Edward’s point of view, might have been more a interesting text to gender-switch. It’s the same problematic story, but Edward’s voice is stronger, and he’s a much more conflicted, complicated character than Bella. Allowing female readers to identify with a strong, immortal female vampire as she falls in love might have allowed them to feel powerful and bad ass.Twilight is all about wish fulfillment; a gender-switched Midnight Sun might have given female readers a chance to experience an even more subversive fantasy–a relationship where she’s in control and worshiped for it. But, again, I don’t think Meyer was ever doing anything revolutionary with gender roles. And this book is proof.

All Grown Up

All Grown Up by Jessi Attenberg

This novel reads like a bunch of linked short stories with the same narrator, Andrea Bern, a single graphic designer living in New York. Her voice is cynical and hip, but also vulnerable and searching. I was hooked by the first story, the only one told in second person, a claustrophobic meditation on artistic frustration and thwarted ambition. One organizing principle of the book seems to be that each chapter/story is about a different relationship or person in the protagonist’s life. Dysfunctional and doomed relationships, frustrated artistic ambitions, a family heartbroken by the impending death of her young niece. I didn’t relate much to the terrible romantic relationships, though they were fascinating to read about. I wish Attenberg had explored Andrea’s failure as an artist more. The thought of her terminally ill niece hangs ominously over it all, kept away because of her own fear of approaching this deep sadness. The ending is open to interpretation in a way that’s a little frustrating, but also hopeful and depressing at the same time. It’s a short, very engrossing and perceptive novel that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about.

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s work is weird and wonderful. The Bone Clocks and Black Swan Green are two more of his unique novels. All of his writing features strong attention to language and first person narrators with engrossing, unforgettable voices. I was fascinated by the unpredictability of The Bone Clocks, but Cloud Atlas took that to an entirely new level. It has six different novella-length narratives, arranged in a pattern that is likened in the text to Russian nesting dolls. Finding the connections between the stories, and the scattered metaphors for the title and the novel’s form is like finding Easter eggs. Each narrative is a different genre in a different setting, ranging from the epistles of an English notary exploring the Pacific islands in the 1800s, to a hard-boiled detective novel, to a “corpocratic” future dystopia where “fabricants” are enslaved clones. One main theme connecting the narratives is escape from oppression and slavery. The beautiful humanist vision at the conclusion is one I’ll remember a long time.