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.

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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.