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.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip

This short fantasy novel enchanted me thoroughly with its gorgeous formal language, imagery, scenery, and magical animals. The female protagonist, Sybel, cares for mythical creatures alone on a mountain, until she is given a baby prince to care for. When he grows up, she is thrown into the middle of the rivalry between the king and a competing court. She tries to keep herself out of the drama, until she is brought in against her will. It’s so cool and rare to find a strong woman character who knows who she is, who has power without the need to prove anything by wielding it. Watching Sybel almost lose that quality in a search for revenge was tragic; seeing her finally save herself and prevent a war, with the help of her loved ones, was triumphant. Except for the villain, who mostly acted in fear and desire, the characters all treated each other with such love and acceptance and forgiveness. The final twist was perfect and beautiful. If you like immersive fantasy and pretty sentences, this book is worth a try.

Mediocre Fantasy

Here are 3 quick reviews of some fantasy novels I wasn’t very impressed with. The last two of these books are very long, and may have been worth the time investment if it weren’t for that factor.

Fever by Lauren DeStefano

I enjoyed the first book in this series, Wither, because it seemed like a YA version of The Handmaid’s Tale, with drastically shortened lifespans to add extra stress. But Rhine, the protagonist, seemed to lose much of her spark and will to fight in this sequel. She spent much of the narrative ill or in a drugged stupor, and then got captured again at the end.

City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

This book concludes The Passage Trilogy. It examines the series’ villain at length. I often found it needlessly violent and maudlin. I had a hard time buying into the ending, in which 700 people on an isolated Pacific island are all that’s left of humanity, then 1000 years later things are back to normal, almost exactly the same as they used to be before the virus, with technology and culture comparable to today’s. I found that absurd.

The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I remember loving The Mists of Avalon years ago, but Bradley’s version of the Trojan War is not as good as her version of the Arthurian legends. She chose Kassandra, the future-predicting daughter of Priam, as her protagonist. One perhaps understandable flaw, which may be inherent in the source material, is the idea of predestination and the will of the Gods, which makes the choices of the characters seem pointless.

The Wrath and the Dawn

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is the beginning of a trilogy retelling the story of Shahrzade. The language is good for a YA novel, if a bit breathless, with many paragraph breaks and emphatic sentence fragments. Shahrzade’s storytelling is less of a focus than romance and court intrigue. In this version of the story, the king who kills his wives is (spoiler alert!) compelled to do so by a curse, which does most of the work of turning him from a serial killer into a Byronic hero. However, in this novel, on his first night with Shahrzade, the king, Khalid, has very “perfunctory” sex with her. She submits, seething with hate. She notes that on the second night, she is getting good at dissociating during these encounters. They don’t have sex again until after they fall in love. But that is what I don’t get. How can she fall in love with a man who raped her?

On the other hand, maybe I’m just being prudish. Maybe it would be almost silly or unrealistic if they didn’t have sex. It makes sense that sex and marriages would work this way in this very patriarchal society, with sex a given. But there’s no way for this kind of sex to be anything but coerced at best, and coerced sex is rape. Khalid never apologizes to Shahrzade for it, although he does decide not to do it again until she consents fully. A question that’s left unanswered is whether or not Khalid slept with every one of the other murdered wives, and whether they consented. Were their final hours spent being violated? The book seems to lead me to answer, probably. Although it also seems possible that he simply stays away from the women, since he is so bad at emotional intimacy and didn’t seem to enjoy the impersonal sex he has with Shahrzade their first night anyway. Shahrzades’ honest gaze at their wedding ceremony is what intrigues him enough to visit her, but rather than asking her questions to begin with, he jumps right into bed, because he can and because he doesn’t have the skills or the guts to talk to her. He seems to begin their conversation with sex, because he doesn’t know what else to say–she says he seems to derive no real pleasure from it. His cowardice leads to her violation. And the narrative does not address this issue at all.

While the story does a great job of describing the couple’s physical attraction, it doesn’t sufficiently explain how Shahrzade deals with these rapes or makes sense of them in the context of their growing relationship. How does her attraction overcome her resentment? When they do finally make love, how do their previous coercive encounters color the act? Does Shahrzade continue to dissociate, even though she no longer needs to escape? Is Khalid still emotionally distant and perfunctory, because that is how he is used to behaving in bed, even though he is trying to express real love?

Ahdieh gives us no answers, but I guess these are my questions: In fiction, is rape a crime that puts a character beyond redemption? Or is there such a place as beyond redemption? What is necessary for that redemption? Can that redemption happen in the same relationship as the rape? Even if a rapist gets redeemed, can he ever deserve a true “happy ending”? Is it exploitative for an author to use this rape–>redemption narrative as a form of character development for a male character? Is it ok for a narrative to gloss over rape and its effects? In stories set in the past and in patriarchal societies, is it realistic to expect that characters act as we 21st century readers would wish them to, with regards to sex and consent? Or is setting irrelevant since all of this is imaginary anyway? I’m not sure what the answers are, and maybe that hesitation is a sign of some thinking I need to do on my own, but I suppose the fact that I felt uncomfortable and unsatisfied around this issue shows that The Wrath and the Dawn didn’t answer these questions sufficiently or convincingly.

The Dark Days Club

The Dark Days Club and The Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman

This YA fantasy trilogy is set in the Regency period in England (think Jane Austen). Lady Helen learns she is a Reclaimer, gifted with the strength and talent to fight Deceivers, people possessed by demonic spirits who feed off the life energy of others. Some of the fantasy elements struck me as just silly, especially when I tried to picture them visually, or say the made-up words aloud, but if you just go with it (an approach necessary for enjoying much fantasy) it pays off. The period language is fun, as is the juxtaposition of proper speech with scary, violent situations. Lady Helen is an admirable heroine, brave and selfless. She spends a significant portion of the second book in men’s clothes. Details like period dress, locations, and history are well-researched and informative. Lord Carlston, who inducts Lady Helen into the Dark Days Club and teaches her to be a Reclaimer, qualifies as a classically inscrutable and intense Byronic hero. Supporting characters, especially Darby, Lady Helen’s stout maid, are well-drawn and interesting. The plots are structured around mysteries that Lay Helen ably solves–at considerable personal cost.

I was particularly impressed by the ending of The Dark Days Pact. Goodman set her climax inside a real historical murder, explained the mystery of Lord Carlston’s illness and his strong connection with Lady Helen–and then revealed a complication that will keep them apart. Goodman is currently working on the third book in the trilogy, which doesn’t yet have a release date.

And I Darken

And I Darken by Kiersten White

I liked White’s paranormal romance series, so I was interested to pick up this historical/fantasy series as well. This story is about a brother and sister, children of an Eastern European prince in the Middle Ages. They are sent to live in the court of the Ottoman Empire as assurance of their father’s cooperation. There they befriend the sultan’s son and take part in many intrigues and adventures, from an aborted coup to a failed siege. The story is dark and violent, with Lada, the sister, as a particularly prickly and tough warrior-princess. Her insistence on receiving military training, and on assuming command of a regiment, pushes gender boundaries. The climax is exciting, and the ending bittersweet. It’s YA, but probably on the ‘mature’ end of the genre.

The sequel, Now I Rise, comes out this year.