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The Welcome Rise of Incidental Gay Characters in Fantasy and Historical Fiction!

6 Nov

You guys, I’m so excited. Literature reflects our society, whether that literature takes place in modern-day America, on the moon, or in a made-up world.

Which is why I’m so pleased to see gay and queer characters sprinkled throughout the young adult novels I’ve been reading. It’s not that this in itself is now- but it’s how it’s being done.

Just like including people of color or people with disabilities or other people who get less representation in fiction, there’s a right and a wrong way to write a queer character. I’m excited because I happened across two novels in a row with queer characters where:

  1. Being gay or queer wasn’t their only character trait, or even their central character trait.
  2. Like every character should do in a well-crafted story, they supported the central theme of the story and/or added a richer dimension to the novel’s world.

This kind of writing is exciting to see in any genre, but I’m most excited that I’m seeing it more in historical fiction and fantasy. The kinds of historical fiction and fantasy that feel the most rich and realistic include a wide cast of characters. Why would every person in a fantastical world be straight? And were there only straight people living in the past? Certainly not.

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*sigh* Just ignore the fact that the cover has yet another White Girl in a Prom Dress…

I recently finished Ash & Bramble by Sarah Prineas, a novel that deconstructs the idea of fairy tales and what happens when we go against the fate that “Story” has planned for us. It’s a fascinating allegory for creating your own path in life and going against societal expectations.

The main character, Pin, encounters two women who support this theme, Templeton and Zel. Neither of them followed the expectations that a fairy tale had in mind, and Templeton tells about how they subverted the classic “Rapunzel” story.

Templeton tells Pin:

 

“So the Godmother’s got the prince all picked out. He’ll climb up the tower, rescue her, true love, the end. Doesn’t matter what the prince really wants, or the pretty doll really wants. This is Story at work, you see? … But I got there first. I’d been visiting every night. Zel grew her hair out long as a rope.” She gives her arm muscles a proud flex. “We fell in love, and we wanted to be together,  no matter Story’s intentions. So I became a storybreaker.” (341-42)

Templeton goes on to talk about how she climbed up the tower, cut off Zel’s hair, and had a scuffle with the prince. Subverting a heteronormative love story serves as a perfect example of rebelling against Story’s (and society’s) expectations of what should happen.

I might have cheered and punched the air at this passage when I read it. Honestly, I should just write a blog post devoted to Ash & Bramble, because the novel is thoughtfully constructed and there are lots of fascinating thought puddles to dive into.

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This cover is so pretty…that font! *grabby hands*

Rae Carson’s most recent novel, Walk on Earth a Stranger, isn’t entirely historical fiction, as there’s a magical element, but other than the main character’s ability to sense when gold is near, the world is a very realistic 1849.

Lee escapes a dangerous situation in her hometown in Georgia, disguising herself as a boy to join a wagon trail to California.

Carson certainly did her historical research, which makes the journey come to life. She highlights the expectations of women, which turned into deadly dangers on the trail, as illustrated by one woman who undergoes a dangerous birthing process in Death Valley.

Lee disguises herself as a boy to avoid detection and to make her journey easier. Many of the people on the wagon trail are going to California to seek their fortunes, but Carson writes about other reasons why people braved the trail. Lee’s otherness isn’t missed by two men from Mississippi, who mistake her for one of their own:

“‘What do you mean I’m one of you?’

‘A confirmed bachelor. San Francisco is a new world, with more money than laws. There’s a place for us there. To live the way we want to live, without interference.’

[…] Jasper must trust me completely to be so frank. Or maybe secrets have a way of making people so lonely that they eventually take a risk on someone” (312-313).

 

The “confirmed bachelors'” (a term which, Rae Carson notes at the end, may or may not have been used in America during this time, although it was certainly used by their British contemporaries) desire to create a new life and identify for themselves underlines this central theme in the story, enriching Lee’s personal story and making the world feel more organic and alive.

The portrayals in both of these novels are well-done, although there is always the danger of using underrepresented groups in stories to back up the main, straight, cis-gendered, white person’s journey or perspective. I think, though, that these characters mentioned above are a step in the right direction.

Ultimately, I hope to go into a bookshelf and see a diverse mix of novels, to see stories with queer people or people of color as the main characters in stories that don’t center on that part of their identity.

The call for more diverse stories, and by extension more diverse writers, publishers, and editors, is becoming more and more vocal, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that YA literature is paving the way for more diverse stories. YA literature continues to dominate the book market, and I think – I hope – that it will lead in progress as well as sales.

What do you think? Is YA succeeding in diverse portrayals, or is there more work to be done?

 

 

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Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns Trilogy

20 Jan

This review contains spoilers for A Girl of Fire and ThornsThe Crown of Embers, and The Bitter Kingdom.

Sometime in high school, after reading about yet another vaguely medieval-European fantasy world populated by agile, fair-skinned white people, I decided that, if I ever was to become a writer in the future, I would write a fantasy book in which the protagonist was either a) fat, b) black or darker-skinned, or c) gay. I hadn’t encountered much diversity in fantasy, which seemed to be a genre in love with medieval England and France. 

It’s no surprise, then, that when I picked up Rae Carson’s A Girl of Fire and Thorns I was pleasantly surprised to find a strong, intelligent protagonist who was overweight anddark-skinned, living in a tropics-and-desert climate that was a breath of fresh air from the typical mountains-and-pine forest fare.

Let me have my obligatory “Megan-Moans-About-The-State-of-YA-Cover-Art” section first, though. Let’s look at the US and UK cover art for this trilogy:

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The woman posing in these photographs is so clearly white that it’s insulting, given that the protagonist Elisa is explicitly described as “dark-skinned” several times throughout the trilogy. Compare these frankly appalling covers to the UK versions:

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I don’t know how I feel about her face being covered in all three of these cover photos–in the first one it makes sense since she spends a good deal of time in the desert, but having it covered in all three? That stinks to me of marketing being afraid of showing the full face of someone vaguely Arab-looking on a YA fantasy novel cover, 21st century be damned. That’s problematic, along with the fact that, while definitely more “ethnic” than the US cover art’s cover model, her skin tones seems to have been digitally lightened in these photos. Yikes. However, I love the distinct backgrounds of these covers, as they set the tone and location of each book far better than the US versions.

Okay, enough moaning and groaning about typically racist cover art, because a) What else is new, and b) The writer rarely gets any say on what goes on the cover. The far more important section of this review is what I’m calling

 Why You Need to Read This Trilogy Right Now:

1) The main character undergoes substantial and realistic character growth

Elisa begins as a princess moving into a new kingdom, insecure in political marriage she is entering into. She is overweight and fully aware of it, but eats as a coping mechanism (also making this a book that realistically portrays an overweight person). Though smart and wise, she has yet to learn to speak up for herself and find her leadership role. By the end of the first book, she is far healthier (a long trek through the desert will do that to a person), and more confident. She continues to grow through the second and third book in tremendous ways. She copes with death, she makes mistakes (how many protagonists are allowed to really screw up and learn from it?), and she figures out how to disagree with people that she loves and respects. It is very satisfying to see Elisa’s character reach her full potential by the end of The Bitter Kingdom, in which she has blossomed into a courageous leader with conviction, confidence, and enough political savvy to put an end to a major conflict.

2) The magical element in the story is unique and compelling

When I try to describe the magical element in this trilogy, that Elisa is divinely chosen and has a “Godstone” embedded in her stomach, people tend to roll their eyes. It does sound weird, but Carson makes it believable; there is lore behind the bearers of Godstones, there is a religion that tries to make sense of it, and, as religions often do, certain things are wrongly interpreted. Godstones are also a power source, which makes the enemy, a race born with Godstones embedded in them, even more formidable. Elisa learns to harness her Godstone throughout the trilogy, praying and learning to draw energy from the earth to heal or to destroy. What is absolutely phenomenal about this magical plot device, though, is that it doesn’t end up being a deus ex machina at the end of the trilogy. Once Elisa has mastered the use of her Godstone, it seems clear that she will overpower and win through divine force. It is so much satisfying, then, when she loses her Godstone and still manages to solve the main problems through her own power. 

3) It has unique things to say about destiny and divine intentions

A typical trope in a fantasy novel is having a character that is destined to do something Great. Whether it’s fulfilling a prophecy or having a birthright, it usually serves as the overall map of the story. This trilogy seems to follow that trope for most of the book, since Elisa is a bearer of the Godstone, which is divinely given to those burdened with a specific task that isn’t usually known until completed. As Elisa’s kingdom falls into threat, it seems clear that her divine mission is to unite the kingdoms and restore peace, but in fact her Godstone falls out after a seemingly insignificant act unrelated to the political turmoil, suggesting that divine will might have very little relation to how many lives you save or how good of a ruler you are. In the end Elisa saves the kingdom because she is strong enough, brave enough, and intelligent enough. 

4) It contains a great romantic relationship

It’s always a perk when a well-written fantasy work has a likeable romance that doesn’t overshadow the main plot of the story. At the beginning of the first book, Elisa is engaged to King Alejandro, who is gorgeous and kind, but also an ineffective ruler and uninterested in Elisa. While working with a desert rebellion, Elisa has a budding romance with a young man which isn’t able to last, subverting the “Main woman meets The One immediately and the rest is just inevitable” trope. Her growing friendship and then romance with her royal guard, Hector, however, is where the real meat and potatoes of the romance plot is. From their growing realization of their feelings to their tender and clumsy first time together, the romance feels grounded and realistic, and you can’t help but root for these two characters, who are likeable as individuals and who complement each other well as a couple.

5) It’s exciting!

I can’t overlook the fact that these are, first and foremost, entertaining books. There are plenty of shocks and twists, fascinating world-building, and interesting characters who aren’t what they first appear to be to keep the reader turning pages late into the night.  

In short, lovers of YA fantasy should put this on their “To-Read” lists. It is altogether phenomenal.

Review: His Dark Assassins Series

17 Dec

I love historical fiction, but a common problem that I find is that the author rewrites history to suit our modern sensibilities, giving characters modern thoughts or behaving in ways inappropriate to their historical context. This is especially tricky when trying to write strong female characters; how do you create awesome, strong female characters which still fit in the context of their times? I am in no way saying that there were not strong females throughout history, but understanding their strength often requires some social context of the times, which can be a lot to cram into a novel.

This issue can be resolved by impressive writers, but there is yet another solution! Alternate histories offer the best of both worlds; a rich historical background (to the extent that it serves the story), and the flexibility to create culture as one would in a fantasy world. This means the author can pick and choose what they want to use in their world, which can create a fantastic yarn without the worries of accurately portraying the social context.

The first two books of Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassins trilogy uses this genre to its best possible use, using the backdrop of 15th century Brittany (more or less keeping the political history and adding some interesting religion twists) for her story of empowered female assassins. I’ll give a brief rundown of the two books that are out so far, Grave Mercy and Dark TriumphMild Spoilers Ahead.

url Grave Mercy- First off, let me do my obligatory whine about the asinine Pretty White Girl cover art. Ugh. Why. Why. The art turned me off of the book right away, but I am so grateful that I got past the cover and kept reading, because LaFevers’ writing is gripping and lovely. She immediately plunges us into the world and mind of Ismae, who begins as a turnip farmer’s daughter doomed to be married off to a lecherous man. She is soon sent to a convent where daughters of Mortaine (aka Death Himself) train to become assassins. As one of his daughters, Ismae can see marks on people that Mortaine has chosen for death, and she carries out his will. This soon plunges her into a political intrigue involving a 12-year-old duchess inheriting a duchy of Brittany (which is historically-based), and into an unexpected romance. Ismae also begins questioning the motives of the convent where she trained after she sees Mortaine and finds a whole new understanding of her destiny. In the end she chooses to use death and the freeing of the soul as an act of mercy to those suffering, instead of as vengeance, a clear departure from how she was trained. This plants the idea that institutions can veer away from their original intent, and also demonstrates how groups that seem good can still be flawed or make wrong decisions.

url-1Dark Triumph continues this theme, and it follows a completely different character from Grave Mercy‘s Ismae. Sybella was also convent-trained, but her similarities to Ismae end there. When we readers are first introduced to Sybella’s thoughts, she is a dark-minded and very troubled woman, wishing for death. Whereas Ismae did her assassinations as duties, Sybella loves seeking vengeance. Throughout the book we learn why she is so troubled and cynical; she is raised by a monstrous nobleman, sought after by an incestuous brother, and has seen terrible death and gone through loss and pain. She is more blatantly rebellious against the convent than Ismae is in the first novel, and as the political plot of the young duchess continues to unfold, Sybella begins to heal and starts a romance with Beast, the ugly, strong warrior who also appeared in the first book. They’re oddly perfect together, and it’s refreshing to see two books in a series that approach romance so well, and yet so differently from each other. The growth that Sybella goes through from beginning to end is organic and realistic, and the ending will make the reader be scrambling for the third book, which will feature yet another of Mortaine’s daughters.