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.

Siege and Storm

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

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This series is the kind of thing that makes me want to fangirl all over the place. I loved the dreamy/nightmarish Russian-inspired setting, and the way magic works in this fantastic realm. Mal and Alina’s romance in Shadow and Bone was so sweet, and compared to the way they act in this book, innocent. But in a second book of a trilogy, things have to get complicated. Mal and Alina are clearly made to be together, but they’re bad at communicating, and their circumstances pull them apart. There are petty jealousies and new inequalities of rank. It’s sad to see people who love each other hurt each other, not in spite of their love but because of it. Mal acts both idiotically and with stubborn honor; Alina doesn’t work hard enough to keep him close to her, mostly because she doesn’t quite understand that that is where he wants to be. I love that this heroine has considerable lust for power and darkness within her, in addition to her sarcastic, prickly personality and inferiority complex–she’s not sunshine and roses even though her power is literally summoning light. In this book, Alina and Mal spend a lot of time in the royal palace, and a new character is a very romantic figure–a second-born prince, rumored to be a bastard, who has been away from the capital inventing flying machines while disguised as a privateer. I was afraid he would turn the story into a love triangle, but thankfully Alina is never really tempted by his (and his brother’s) pragmatic proposals.  Though the tone is often incredibly dark, there are also many funny moments. Like many #2’s in trilogies, the ending seems like it’s as bad as it can be–an explosion of violence, the heroine willingly handing herself over to the villain to save her friends. But you know it’s only going to get worse. I can’t wait to pick up the finale.

The Ask and the Answer

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

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This sequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go picks up right after that book’s cliffhanger ending, as both Todd and wounded Viola are captured by the villain, the Mayor. Narration alternates between Todd and Viola, who are separated for most of the story. Todd reluctantly joins the Mayor’s inquisition, while Viola gets taken in by a mostly-female resistance group, whose leader may be just as bad as the Mayor, in her own way. The most interesting thing about the story might be the way it shows how good people can be convinced to become complicit in evil, especially when the pressure is on and a skilled manipulator pulls the right psychological strings. Gender did not seem as prominent an issue in this book as in the first. Instead, the focus was on slavery and colonization, as Todd served as a foreman forcing the alien Spackle to work, and on terrorism, as the Answer bombed strategic sites. The last book in the trilogy is bound to be just as exciting, as war is brewing and a new power enters the arena–the colonists from Viola’s ship.

Sevenwaters series, books 1 and 2

This fantasy series is set in early medieval Ireland. These awesome fantasy books feature compelling female first person narrators, beautiful sentences, and romantic love stories. There are mysteries, secrets, political alliances, fairies, prophecies, and an elegiac sense of magic about to leave the world. The series is a set of two trilogies, so I’ve really just scratched the surface.

Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

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When a sorceress puts her brothers under a spell that turns them into swans, Sorcha has to endure a harrowing trial to break the spell. Over several years, she works to weave them shirts of nettles from scratch, while enduring rape and kidnapping in silence. There are some problematic aspects to this one: Stockholm syndrome, was that rape really necessary? But overall, I was enchanted by the book and in awe of its heroine and her incredible determination and stamina.

Son of the Shadows by Juliet Marillier

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Sorcha’s daughter, Liadan, is the focus of this book. She is also kidnapped, and falls in love with her captor, but she is quite sassy to him throughout, and ends up saving his life in more ways than one. I was impressed by Liadan’s political acumen as she bargains for her lover’s life and discerns who she should share her prophetic visions of the future with. The story picks up some threads that the first book left open, and leaves several others dangling in turn, so that the next book promises to be amazing.

Royal Assassin

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb 51NoiQqkVWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This fantasy trilogy got even better with its second volume. I really enjoyed Assassin’s Apprentice, in which royal bastard Fitz is recruited by his grandfather the king to be a secret assassin. The first book mostly lays the foundation for the trilogy, while this book takes it to a very adult place, as Fitz becomes a man, has a serious relationship, fights in a war, and has to make some hard choices concerning his loyalties and their limits. It’s a very engrossing read, with formal high fantasy language, multi-dimensional characters, and dramatic high stakes. Hobb’s psychological astuteness as she portrays Fitz’s relationship ambivalence and his court strategizing is impressive. Two characters that interested and surprised me most are Molly, Fitz’s girlfriend, and Queen-in-Waiting Kettricken. The intrigues and shifting alliances in this royal court entrap Fitz until his end is almost classically tragic. I can’t wait to see the comeback he makes in the next book, to see him solve the mystery of the Red Ships, and to see the villain get his due. I think this series would make a great TV show comparable to Game of Thrones, except that a lot of the drama would be difficult to portray on screen, since it involves telepathic magic. I highly recommend this series to anyone who likes fantasy.

Shades of Earth

Shades of Earth by Beth Revis

10345937This book concludes the great Across the Universe series. At the beginning of the novel, Elder and Amy crash-land on the planet that they have traveled lightyears to colonize. While they and their people explore the planet, they’re being killed off in mysterious ways, one by one. There are conflicts between Elder and Amy’s dad, a military commander who has assumed leadership of the Earth-born passengers who were cryogenically frozen. Revis proves that she has the guts to write horrific violence and kill characters and imagine some real human evil. The love story is one of the trilogy’s strengths. I like to see teenage characters who get to have sex without horrible consequences that just turn the story into a morality play, and this qualifies.

Like the other books, the plot depended a bit too heavily on events progressing extremely quickly, and people trusting the wrong people, foolishly withholding information from the right people, and failing to demand to be told everything. I kind of expected part of the ending, but there were definitely surprises. A couple of those surprises seemed a bit far-fetched (which may or may not be fair to say about science fiction) but still, it was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. At the very end Amy really comes into her own and becomes a true leader and a real bad ass, growing through grief and making a change that I love to see a female protagonist make. Now where is the cable series based on these books? I want it in production last year so I can watch it tomorrow.

A Million Suns

A Million Suns by Beth Revis

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This book is a sequel to Across the Universe, second in the trilogy set on a spaceship bringing colonists from Earth to a new planet. It’s told in alternating chapters from Amy and Elder’s perspectives. Amy comes from Earth and was cryogenically frozen; Elder was born on the ship and is its young leader. They have a budding romance that gets less focus than you might expect in this genre, but so much other stuff is going on that it didn’t bother me.

The structure of the story is a mystery. It begins with Elder directly addressing the crew on the question that was revealed to be crucial at the end of the first book, and he gets an answer that baffled me in all the best ways. Amy and Elder follow clues left by Orion, the first book’s villain, to find out what the ship’s real problem is. The answer was something I didn’t expect, and I love it when books surprise me. Meanwhile, Elder has to deal with increasing upheaval on the ship: people disagree with his rule and are refusing to work and to distribute food fairly. And people are getting killed by overdoses of Phydus, a Xanax-like drug that makes them calm and compliant. The plot depends on things happening very quickly; I kept wishing I could call time out and sit everyone down to talk things out. I enjoyed this book just as much as the first one, and that’s saying something. I’ve already started the last one and it’s as much fun as the first two.

The Book of Life

The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

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This book concludes the Discovery of Witches trilogy. I think I found myself enjoying each book in this series less than the one before. Instead of growing on me, the characters grated. I had a lot of expectations for this book, but I didn’t find the revelations as surprising as I’d hoped, although it was somewhat satisfying to see some of the villains get their comeuppances.

The gender politics in this book are complicated, but overall seemed to me to be more progressive on the surface than they were at the deeper level where it counts. At the very least, I found them questionable, and that was disappointing, because I remember thinking the previous books were so egalitarian. (Maybe it’s also a sign of my own standards getting higher in the intervening years.) It’s good that Matthew encourages Diana to keep her name rather than take his, and refers to their family as the Bishop-Clairmont clan. It’s good that Diana has to save Matthew at the climax, rather than vice versa. But on the other hand, numerous times, characters discuss how hard it is for Matthew to be away from Diana even for very short periods of time, and it starts to sound kind of unhealthy. In this way the story romanticizes overprotective and clingy behavior. And on the sentence level, several passages describing the emotional relationship between them seemed slightly off:

“The secret is that I may be the head of the Bishop-Clairmont family, but you are its heart,” he whispered. “And the three of us are in perfect agreement: The heart is more important” (447).

 

“Dance with me, I said…

I trod on his toe. “Sorry.”

“You’re trying to lead again,” he murmured. He pressed a kiss to my lips, then whirled me around. “At the moment your job is to follow.”

“I forgot,” I said with a laugh.

“I’ll have to remind you more often, then.” Matthew swung me tight to his body. His kiss was rough enough to be a warning and sweet enough to be a promise (552).

These passages seem to emphasize that despite Diana’s intelligence, scholarship, and supernatural power, she has to take a submissive role in relation to Matthew. Harkness romanticizes this submissive role, making it seem sexy and going on about how important it is, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that it tilts the balance of power in the relationship away from the heroine.

One aspect of the series I found mildly annoying was the focus on opulent backgrounds and settings. Harkness meticulously describes décor, furnishings, and artwork, as well as the extravagant menus of several parties. I think these passages are mostly meant to provide the reader with pretty images, as well as to show the wealth, power, and exquisite taste of the characters. Since the de Clermonts are vampires, they’ve had centuries to accumulate money and collect fine art from every era. One character makes a big deal about the fact that a portrait by a  famous Renaissance artist is hanging in one of the bathrooms of the de Clermont castle. I would have gotten the point about what these settings communicated about the characters if 3/4 of these passages had been cut from the books. In their excess, these passages mostly just read to me as materialism.

When Diana first encounters the villain, she hesitates to use her magic arrow to take him down, and the story makes a big deal of this hesitation, as if it’s her tragic flaw or something. I don’t find it to be a moral failing to hesitate to kill someone, to weigh that decision carefully even in a tense moment of threatening confrontation, so this idea rang false to me. After all, Diana is not a trained soldier, so expecting her to react like one is unrealistic, and the way she berates herself and accepts guilt for the villain’s later actions is ridiculous.

 

Hollow City

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

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Hollow City is the sequel to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a strange and fun YA fantasy involving time travel and kids with weird talents. In this book, the children travel through England to London on the run from “hollows,” bogeys trying to eat their peculiar souls. They’re also trying to restore Miss Peregrine, who has been frozen in her bird form, back to her human shape.

The book is illustrated by unsettling vintage photos that Riggs found and used as inspiration. Some of these fit better into the narrative than others. There are times when a description of one of the pictures seems wedged into the story with poor transitions. But the pictures do add atmosphere to the story and are really cool to look at. Another criticism is that the various adventures and obstacles on their road seem exaggerated somewhat, so that each one threatens dire failure to the mission, but they are all resolved neatly in their turn without causing as much real trouble as it seemed they must.

The ending gave me a surprise that made sense and yet dismayed me on behalf of the characters. There was a dire cliffhanger that made me wish the third book were already available. This series is a lot of fun for anyone who likes dark, chilling fantasy.