Young, Sick, and Invisible by Ania Bula

Read: 15 August, 2016

Full disclosure, Ania is a close friend and I read an early draft of the book back in 2014 (I’m even named in the acknowledgements, albeit with a slight misspelling!), so this is my second read through.

In Young, Sick, and Invisible, Ania tells the story of her illness – from the first aches and pains, though the diagnosis, and on to coping. She talks about dealing with doctors (the good and the bad), navigating school and employment, relationships and sex, family, and even the occasional excursion into “alternative medicine.” She offers helpful tips for other sufferers of chronic illness, and tips for those of us who want to help but don’t quite know where to start.

The writing style sometimes lapses into a laundry list with too little narrative scaffolding. It would have been nice if the book could have focused more on Ania’s experience, rather than her experiences, because that’s where the book is at its most interesting.

Even so, Young, Sick, and Invisible is a good primer on disability issues (including accessibility, ways in which the Canadian medical system needs improving, and how Canada handles long term unemployment for medical reasons), all wrapped around an interesting personal account.

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    Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

    Read: 8 August, 2016

    Who Fears Death takes place in post-nuclear holocaust Africa, though save for a few mentions of computers and scooters and other relics of modernity, it might as well have been set in mythic time.

    The story follows Onyesonwu, a mixed race child born of weaponized rape, as she comes into her power as a sorceress and ends the genocide of her mother’s people. On the way, she gathers friends and allies, falls in love, and learns about her mother.

    I really enjoyed Onyesonwu as a character – it’s rare to find a narrating main character that has quite so strong a personality. She’s certainly no Bella Swan! And while she tends to get angry and lash out, I never felt annoyed by her. That’s no small feat when she keeps impatiently interrupting characters who are trying to explain things to her because they aren’t getting to the point fast enough!

    I loved the setting. I loved Okorafor’s descriptions of the desert, and I tend to favour that mythic, mysterious brand of magic. The early parts of the book, as Onyesonwu is learning about magic, what it can do, and how it works were, in my opinion, the best.

    That said, the book has its flaws. The big one that I see mentioned a lot in other reviews is that it follows that “be mentioned in a prophecy, get mentor, kick ass” formula. I actually found this to be the least of the novel’s problems – mainly because I enjoyed the mentorship sections of the books so much, and because the prophecy bit took a backseat to the characters. It was brought up every so often (along with the plot-paradoxing issue of the two main characters knowing how they were going to die), but Onyesonwu’s strong personality drove the plot forward. Until the very end of the book (which I’ll talk about in a bit), I never had the sense that she was being driven by the prophecy. Events seemed to line up conveniently, but it worked within the context of the world, and Onyesonwu made deliberate choices every step of the way.

    The much bigger issue with the book is its second half. (SPOILERS: Once the group of friends leaves Jwahir, the plot loses its focus. Long passages are spent on side missions, and most of the narration is devoted to the in-group bickering. Toward the end of this, they meet the Vah – a group of people who live in the centre of a sandstorm. The Vah are literally only introduced right before they appear, when Mwita sees the sandstorm approaching and asks if Onyesonwu has ever heard of the “Red People.” These people pop in so late in the story, with no build up, and they end up providing the main characters with the means to destroy their enemy. It’s too convenient, and it stinks of poor planning.

    The ending itself – where the Big Bad is defeated and the corrupted holy book is rewritten – felt horribly rushed. They confront the Big Bad, Onyesonwu is completely incapacitated, and Mwita whips out the magical item that can defeat their enemy. That’s it! After all of that build up and all those journeys and all that accumulation of power, it’s all over in a page or two. And then, when Onyesonwu goes to rewrite the holy book, she does so with a little bit of handwaving. That’s it?!)

    The final thing I want to touch on is the lack of consequences. There are times in the novel when choices are made that have negative consequences, and the impact is just sucked out of them. (SPOILERS: A perfect example is the treatment of FGM. Bringing it up, and having the female main characters all undergo it, is interesting and has consequences for their relationships with others – specifically, Onyesonwu’s friends link the idea of freedom to the physical fact of having a clitoris (much is made of heterosexuality in the novel). But when it comes right down to it, Onyesonwu just uses her magic to grow everyone’s clitorises. That’s it, conflict over, everyone healed, the end. And just when I’d thought it so interesting to see a pre-pubescent girl choose FGM, against her parents’ wishes, for the sake of her family’s honour suddenly hit puberty and rage at her choice. But then she gets to Ctrl+Z and the consequences are just gone.)

    Overall, I did enjoy Who Fears Death a lot. I think that I would have judged it more harshly if it had been written by a white author and set in, oh I don’t know, Chicago, but my library needs a lot more colour. As it was, I welcome Okorafor’s perspective and I was glad to see a non-western European take on magic. If I’m going to read fantasy about Chosen Ones defeating the Big Bads in accordance to prophecy, I’m happier for it to be Who Fears Death than The Fionavar Tapestry.

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      Graceling Realm #1: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

      Read: 29 July, 2016

      This came up in a Goodreads list of YA books with “strong female characters.” The list wasn’t actually that great, namely because there seems to be some confusion over the word “strong” (with some taking it to mean that the female character can beat people up, and others taking it to mean that the female character is complex and has a proper story arc that doesn’t exclusively follow the “begins without man, ends with man” pattern).

      But this one stood out to me – both because the cover art is gorgeous (hear that, marketing people?) and because the premise seemed like it might have somewhere to go.

      And it was pretty good! The Graces could have had a bit more depth and some of the side relationships could have done with some more exploration, but it was a thoroughly solid YA novel.

      Graceling reads like Jessica Jones in Medieval Times. The main character, Katsa, is a young woman with heightened strength (among other survival skills), and she must defeat a man with the power to influence people’s thoughts with this words. Katsa’s Grace make her seem almost over powered, but because of what her enemy’s power is, her own strength is a liability against herself and her allies.

      It’s a fantastic concept, one that I loved in Jessica Jones and love here. The difference is that King Leck just isn’t ominous the way Kilgrave is. He doesn’t feel nearly omniscient, his influence isn’t felt (despite the narrator telling us frequently that it is). There was a bit of suspense because I didn’t know how Katsa would be able to defeat him (and the way she managed it was satisfyingly set up), but Leck just wasn’t terrifying the way Kilgrave was.

      Instead, the focus of the story seems to be on Katsa’s relationship with Po. Which means, of course, that we get to go through the standard “headstrong young woman who isn’t interested in men and just wants to be independent learns to love and be vulnerable.” Which would be a fine plot, except that it is apparently the plot where strong female characters are involved. But while the romance was a bit of a cliché, it wasn’t offensively so.

      All in all, this isn’t some new feminist manifesto, and it isn’t some pseudo-feminist schlock where a “strong female character” learns to be weak for love. It just was. It was interesting, it carried me through from start to finish, and it never caused me to face-palm.

      Though only the first book in a series, Graceling is a complete book on its own. So it’s safe to read without a great commitment. This would be perfect summer reading for 11-15 year olds.

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        The Fionavar Tapestry #3: The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay

        Read: 29 July, 2016

        In the final book of the Fionavar Tapestry, the armies of the Light and Dark meet at last in Andarian.

        In the final book, some of the problems have been corrected. The disjointed tone of the five modern Canadians in a high fantasy setting has been done away with – all five Canadians have thoroughly adopted the local way of speaking.

        Of course, the high fantasy lingo is its own problem. Kay’s prose gets described as “poetic” and “lyrical,” which basically seems to mean that Kay uses a thesaurus when a perfectly common word would have sufficed, and he mangles sentence flow. See exhibit A: “For a long time Coll of Taerlindel at the helm of his ship had fought the wind” (p.126).

        I’m not a fan of the high fantasy lingo, but I can deal with it as long as it isn’t too excessive. Kay teeters at the line.

        My other big complaint about the book (and, really, the series in general) is that the stated scope of the story is so large – not only is the whole world at stake, but all other worlds as well! – and yet the geography is so small. Characters get from one end of a country to another in a day or two on horseback, and there are only a handful of countries to begin with (and only two that feel more substantial than a handful of hamlets, both with only one proper city each). Even so, Kay seems so disturbed by distance and travel time that he’s still given half the main characters the ability to teleport.

        The scope problem extends even further. Despite Fionavar being the template upon which all other worlds are patterned, it is incredibly European. The Cathal have an orientalism to them, but most of the mythology Kay uses has a very western/northern European flavour to it.

        The worst part about these issues is that they could have been so easily avoided. Doing away with the “through the wardrobe” trope would have solved a lot of the tone issues. Having the world of Fionavar, and its conflicts, matter for them own sakes rather than going on about the pattern on which all other worlds are based would have solved most of the scale issues. But that would require Kay to trust in his own narrative, and to trust that his Canadian readers could care about non-Canadian characters.

        But all of my whining has to do with the series as a whole. On its own, The Darkest Road is actually pretty okay. I enjoyed seeing how all the various plot threads resolved themselves, and there were quite a few very satisfying payoffs. Had Kay dumped the “through the wardrobe” trope and condensed the narrative into a single book, I could have overlooked many of the story’s other issues.

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          LEGO Star Wars: Phonics Box Set

          Now that my child is just on the cusp of reading on his own, I’m struggling to find him enough ability-appropriate materials (he seems to be growing into quite the avid reader, not sure where he gets that from…).

          So far, we’ve mostly been going through the BOB books, supplemented with a few emergent readers from the library. I found a LEGO Star Wars chapter books at the toy store, and I got really excited! My kid loves LEGO and he loves Star Wars, so what could be better? The book was a little too overwhelming for him right now, but I don’t think it will be long, so I bought it and then took to Amazon to see if any more were published (spoilers: there are quite a few!).

          While searching, I came across this Phonics box set and immediately purchased it.

          The text is actually a mix of early phonics and more complex words, so it’s ideal for parents reading along with their children. The books make this extra easy by bolding the words for the child to read. As with most phonics books, each book overs a different vowel sound.

          The stories themselves are a little silly. They aren’t exactly high literature, but they are definitely a relief after a few weeks of BOB books (don’t get me wrong, I love the BOB books, but there’s only so much I want to hear about the things Mat has been sitting on).

          The artwork isn’t great. It’s colourful, but it looks a little rushed – proportions are often off, for example. But it is colourful and it is easy to tell who the characters are and, frankly, my kid didn’t notice anything amiss.

          The set includes two workbooks. The materials in the workbooks are fine, but they are so small! They lack guidelines, and the spaces provided for kids to write in their answers are far too small. Emergent readers tend to be very young, and they lack fine motor skills. The format of the workbooks would be more appropriate for a grade 2-3 child, while the content is more suited for K-grade 1. Rather than frustrate my kid, we decided to just go through the workbooks verbally.

          Overall, I think the box set is well worth it’s price. It could have been done a little better, but it’s a lot of fun and I appreciate more materials in my child’s fandoms being available. My kid already loves reading, but giving him characters that he’s already invested in just makes the experience even better.

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            The Magicians #1: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

            Read: 17 July, 2016

            When I was told to read The Magicians, it was explained to me as “Harry Potter for grownups.” Which isn’t inaccurate, and I guess that Harry Potter is probably the more likely to have been read comparison for people of my age and younger, but I found it to be much more like “Narnia for grownups.” The magical school stuff is in there through the first half of the book, but the focus seemed to be on setting up the worldbuilding and main characters. When we get to the Narnia portion, The Magicians reads quite well as a direct response to the series.

            Perhaps the best way to describe the novel would be “Narnia, with a touch of Harry Potter, but where the characters are terrible people.” Because “for grownups” is just a nice way of saying that the main characters will lash out and do terrible things for petty reasons, and there will be no redemptive nobility at the end.

            Reading through some other reviews, I can see a lot of people didn’t like this book because they didn’t like Quentin, the main character. I can certainly see how they might respond that way – Quentin makes terrible choices, acts out for petty reasons, and then goes on relentlessly about his feelings of guilt. Under many other circumstances, I would have reacted the same way, and I’ve certainly complained an awful lot about books with terrible characters.

            But, for me, it was okay here. I could read about Quentin’s latest hurtful lashing out because the narrator never once made excuses for him. When I judged Quentin, the narrator judged Quention. I was asked to understand, but I was never asked for forgive or overlook. That’s something that many books – even those deliberately setting out to write flawed character rather than accidentally creating them – have trouble negotiating.

            I can see how that may not be enough, though. Watching Quentin train wreck his life over and over again was difficult and frustrating, even with the narrator’s commiseration. Which raises the important question: Is it necessary to like the main character?

            I think John Green addressed that beautifully when he said: “I don’t know where people got the idea that characters in books a supposed to be likable. Books are not in the business of creating merely likeable characters with whom you can have some simple identification with. Books are in the business of crating great stories that make your brain go ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr.”

            The catch, of course, is that there has to be enough going on in the story to make your brain go ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr. At which point, we’re looking at an issue of personal taste. For me, The Magicians worked, but I can understand how others might disagree.

            Back to the comparison to Narnia, it’s hard to imagine that The Magicians wasn’t a response to the series. I didn’t read the books as a child and, when I decided to tackle them as an adult, I decided to go in chronological order and only got through The Magician’s Nephew before I got distracted by shiny things. But even just with that book, it was hard not to see the connections (the talking animals, the “hub world” with many pools through which one plunges into different planes, the witch who controls time/seasons, etc).

            The commentary even gets quite direct in the second half, when the characters go to Fillory. At one point, a character explicitly tells them that they came looking for a child-friendly adventure, one in which they get to become kings and queens and perhaps fulfil their character arcs. And this character tells them that Fillory is its own world, it exists independently of the children who come to it, and it does not exist merely to cater to their desires. That was definitely a ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr moment that made me appreciate the Chronicles of Narnia from a different angle.

            It was interesting to read this at the same time as the Fionavar Tapestry, because the response to Narnia fits Fionavar just as well. Both The Magicians and Fionavar give us flawed characters who enter a new world – but while Fionavar takes the Narnia approach (an oddly naive position given the kinds of things that happen in the series) of having the characters “step up” and unleash the inner nobility that they couldn’t find expression for in the mundane world, Grossman wisely concludes that people do not suddenly change with the scenery. Take a restless, never-satisfied, selfish jerk and plunk him in a magical world and he will still be a restless, never-satisfied, selfish jerk. Real change simply does not happen that fast, or that painlessly.

            For all that ranting, I’m not actually sure how I feel about The Magicians yet, or whether I will be interested in pursuing the rest of the series. Quentin was very unlikable – and while that was okay in the small dose of one book, I’m not sure that I have the emotional energy in following through his entire character arc (wherever that may lead). It’s the same reason why I gave up on Breaking Bad in the second season – I can see that it was a very well made show with a lot of interesting stuff going on, but it was just exhausting.

            The strength of The Magicians is in its commentary on Narnia (and similar books). I get the feeling that Grossman must have grown up with the series, or at least loved it very much, because the criticisms never felt hateful. They were just insightful, and they contributed to how I perceive the series.

            For weaknesses, the series took a very long time to get to the nougaty centre. We had to go through Quentin’s entire magical education in episodic fashion before I had any idea why it should have mattered. Harry Potter did something similar, but the episodes there were so whizz-bangy that they sustained themselves. In The Magicians, Grossman was clearly struggling to balance the wonder of introducing his magical world building with the fact that his main character’s defining trait is a sort of dissociative ennui.

            That said, I’m at a loss on how the issue might have been corrected. The Fillory portion of the story could not have sustained an entire novel, and much of it needed the Brakebills background to work correctly, but making the Brakebills section of the novel more interesting would conflict with the character exposition. Elements were introduced and then immediately dropped, uncharacteristically, because Grossman clearly wanted to save them for later. I suppose a little more foreshadowing could have been sprinkled in, maybe the appearance of the Beast could have had more of an impact, but what there was (and as subtle as it was) worked so well once it all began to fall into place in Fillory.

            I would absolutely recommend this book, but with the caveat that the main character has few redeeming qualities.

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              The Fionavar Tapestry #2: The Wandering Fire by Guy Gavriel Kay

              Read: 2 July, 2016

              The adventure continues for our little band of Canadians in Fionavar. When we last left our heroes, they had escaped from Fionavar in order to save Jennifer, then a captive of the generic Dark Lord. Now, they must find a way back in time to save the world where their lives have, finally, become interesting.

              Every time I mention to a fantasy fan that I’m reading the Fionavar Tapestry, I get some variation of, “Isn’t Kay just wonderful?” And… I’m just not seeing it. It’s fine, but it’s certainly not great. There are a lot of ideas, but they don’t connect with each other well (the tapestry imagery, for example, is lovely, but it has little impact on the story).

              The tone of the writing takes itself far too seriously. It’s going for Tolkienistic heroic myths, but it never comes down from there. Tolkien was able to make it work by more authentically following the mythic form (which includes down time and a bit of humour). The language is at least more consistent now (I had complained that the first book keeps bounding back and forth between modern speech and Ye Olde Heroic Speeche), but it’s done that by making it all bland Ye Olde Heroic Speeche.

              There characters seem rather interchangeable. They each have a function, but that seems to be as deep as their individuality goes. Every single one of them is heroic, self-sacrificing, stoic, etc.

              Which brings me to the problem with every character being self-sacrificing. They all stumble over each other in their rush to be the one to die for the cause, but Kay is clearly worrying about running out of characters. So as each takes their turn to die heroically, they are swiftly spared by some godly intervention or brand new rule that allows them to be resurrected. By the time we got to an actual death that appears to have stuck, I wasn’t able to care. As it was happening, I assumed that he’ll be resurrected anyway so why does it matter? When the book ends and the character remains dead, the moment has passed and it’s too late for me to feel the weight of the sacrifice.

              Though it was established in The Summer Tree that all worlds connect and that Fionavar is an archetype, it didn’t really mean much. Here, Kay introduces King Arthur, who is resurrected in our world and brought to Fionavar where he is known by all. Finally, the idea that all the worlds are connected has some meaning!

              Except that it lacked verisimilitude. Where does the history diverge between worlds? Why is Arthur’s true name Arthur, and known as such in Fionavar, when there’s no precedent for Germanic names there? It’s also clear that Jennifer is Guinevere reborn, which dooms here to repeat the Arthurian tragedy, but Arthur is his old self resurrected. The pattern is already broken, so there’s no reason to think that they would be compelled to repeat the pattern. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have an Arthur reborn in Canada, who then conflicts with the Arthur resurrected? Kay has a lot of interesting proto-ideas that he throws into the series, but they rarely feel thought through.

              My final complaint is rather unfair: Nearly everything I like in this series was later done a little better with Wheel of Time.

              Speaking of which, I’m noticing more and more similarities: The horn that wakes sleeping warriors? The mistrusted society of magic-using women (who are resentful of men in general, and particularly men who use magic)? The tapestry imagery? The people who are reborn versions of ancient people? The trapped Dark Lord who breaks free and wants to destroy all reality (not just this world, but all worlds)? But here, the ideas are hodge-podge. They don’t build on each other to form a cohesive reality. Instead, they all just… coexist. For all his flaws, Jordan did do a much better job in tying them together.

              I have one book left, and I’ll read it because I’m a completionist. But I have to say that, so far, I am not impressed. For all the rave reviews this series has gotten (though I did get a few Kay fans to admit that Fionavar is “not his best work), I’m disappointed. There are a lot of interesting ideas, and I could see how they could spark the imagination for someone who hasn’t encountered them elsewhere already, but the series does not hold up.

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                Dune #5: Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert

                Read: 30 June, 2016

                After the god emperor Leto II fell to his death, there was a cataclysm, a starvation times, that forced much of humanity out into the furthest reaches of space. Now, a thousand years later, these “Lost Ones” are returning, and it upsets the balance of power that has reigned in the galaxy for thousands of years.

                I loved Dune and I liked Messiah and Children well enough, but God Emperor came very close to making me give up on the series. It was so terrible, with so many juvenile ideas about power, women, and psychology – all passed off as the wise words of a four thousand year old being – that I just couldn’t fathom subjecting myself to that again.

                But I’d already bought the last two books, so what could I do?

                Other reviewers have written that God Emperor is the low point in the series, and I have to agree. Heretics was no Dune, but it was, at least, readable.

                But the theories are still there. I’ve become much more of a feminist since reading Dune, so I don’t know if the weird gender stuff is more pronounced in this book, or if I’m just noticing it more. But there is something incredibly unsettling about Herbert creating this group of women who have power and agency, but then centring their power around weaponized sexuality. They forbid love, and use sex to breed desirable genetic traits and assert control.

                In the end, the special mystery power that Duncan Idaho has been given by the Tleilaxu (a mystery through most of the book) is that he can control people through sex in the way that women normally do! And suddenly he becomes a teenage sex god in one of the most disgustingly casual statutory rape scenes I’ve every read. So while the Honored Matre is trying to control him through sex, the tables are turned and she is shocked to find that she is actually enjoying the sex “like a man.” It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Beverly Herbert…

                I liked the idea of the story being set so far into the future, a point mostly brought out through the change in place names. This also gave Duncan Idaho a function in the narrative, as he points out the changes his home planet has undergone since he was alive.

                The action was fine, but Herbert’s writing style is rather dry. In the original trilogy, it worked anyway because the characters worked – we spent time with them and could construct some idea of who they were. Here, however, the cast of characters is too large, and Herbert leaps from perspective to perspective so frequently that it’s hard to get a feel for any of the characters. I started to get interested in some of the main ones, like Miles Teg or Odrade, but then we’d leave them for too many pages. Stuff happens, and sometimes it’s interesting, but there’s very little sense of proper narrative construction.

                The book wasn’t terrible. It was much better than God Emperor, and there were times when I did feel entertained. But that was balanced against too many times when I had to read through a cringe. It might not have bothered me so much – I’ve read plenty of cringe-worthy novels! – except that Dune has been one of my all-time favourite books for years, and Heretics made me question whether Dune would hold up if I re-read it. That, as far as I’m concerned, is this book’s worst crime.

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                  The Fionavar Tapestry #1: The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay

                  Read: 12 June, 2016

                  Back before I had to be careful to avoid horder status, I would peruse the book section of my local thrift stores and pick up anything with an interesting cover. That’s how I ended up with three copies of The Summer Tree.

                  Despite circling the book in this way for a few years, it kept getting deprioritized for reading because, as the back cover puts it, it’s “an epic adventure written in the rich tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.” Has a less appealing sentence ever been written?

                  Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy having read that sort of high fantasy. The problem is that I don’t often enjoy the actual reading of it, in the present tense. I love the ideas, I love learning the lore, but it takes itself too seriously. It’s too pretentious.

                  And The Summer Tree does fall into that trap, but at least it’s only for 323 pages. I can endure anything for 323 pages.

                  Despite the claim that the book is like Lord of the Rings, I found it reminded me much more of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. Or, perhaps, it would be more proper to say that The Wheel of Time reminded me, retroactively, of The Summer Tree, now that I look up the publication dates. I wouldn’t call plagiarism, but some similarities are rather striking at times.

                  The tone is a bit of a weird mix. This is a portal fantasy, so you have the high fantasy thees and thous and highfalutin language, and then you get the informal modern speech of the protagonists. It might possibly be funny if the trope hadn’t already been done to death and the rest of the book didn’t take itself so seriously. But as it was, it just felt awkward and jarring. It’s hard to see what Kay might have done differently, though, once he’d locked himself into the portal plot. I think the lesson here is to just avoid the portal plot.

                  I did have a rough time getting into the book. Part of that might be that I was in a car (and therefore had to keep taking breaks to avoid tossing my cookies all about), part might be that I was just coming down off the very different writing of We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Either way, the first fifty or so pages felt like real drudgery. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that these take place in the “real world” (which, in this case, is Toronto). After that, however, I found that the characters grew on me. I was invested in them (well, some of them – enough of them).

                  It helped that the pacing is consistent, with the exposition mingled with action. Given just how much exposition had to be covered (and covered again, as the protagonists are rarely together and must learn the backstory separately), that’s pretty impressive.

                  My big complaint about the book is its treatment of women. Of the four named women who are dead before the start of the story, three died for men (one to stop her lover from doing more evil, one out of grief because her loved died, and the third out of grief/shame because her lover was exiled). The fourth’s only function in the story is to be dead so that a male character can have an angsty backstory.

                  Of the living women, we have a princess and future queen whose only role in the plot is to be tricked into sex in a scene played for comedy. We also have one of the five “real world” characters whose only role seems to be to get kidnapped and tortured by having her body (and, specifically, her nipples) pinched (SPOILERS: and then be raped).

                  There are a handful of other female characters, but their roles are nearly as passive. They do a few things, make a few decisions, but it is the men who go out and have adventures and fight the baddies and carouse. I lost track of all the women the main male characters have sex with, but the only female characters getting any action are coerced into it.

                  And it just seems so… unnecessary. What is the point of pushing women to the sidelines like this? Of denying them agency and personality? Of raping and killing them, over and over again, to serve the plot? Maybe these books are a product of their time, or maybe the fantasy genre’s conventions make these nasty attitudes difficult to see and avoid. I don’t know, but it’s frustrating and unappealing to see authors view people like me as not really human, and certainly not capable of being interesting. We are sprinkled in because even Tolkien couldn’t write a world that is completely free of women, but we are the mothers, the lovers, the unruly daughters – our pain matters only insofar as it causes men pain, our struggles matter only insofar as they further men’s interests, our agency matters only insofar as it threatens men. It’s frustrating, and it’s disappointing.

                  I will read the second book in the trilogy, and I’ll give Kay a chance to fix his thoughtless parroting of tropes when it comes to his female characters. But every book I read like this makes me less inclined to bother with male fantasy authors in future. We can do better.

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                    We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

                    Read: 6 June, 2016

                    The Sinclairs are tall, beautiful, and athletic. They are old money Democrats, and they spend their summers on Beechwood island. They are liars.

                    This was a particularly interesting read for me because, like Gat, I have spent several summers with a similar family in their “summer compound.” I’m the same age as the cousins, and we get along well, but I’m still conspicuously not a cousin (not that they’ve ever done anything to alienate me – it’s just that they have a history with each other that I don’t share). Lockhart did a fantastic job of capturing the sense of idyll, those summer friendships, the surreal bliss of spending all summer reading books in a hammock stretched over the water, as well as how those feelings change as we get older and begin to notice the cracks and politics.

                    The strength of the story is definitely in the characterization – and the island itself is absolutely a character. The downside is the plot. SPOILERS: The trauma induced amnesia, the characters who are perceived as real but who are actually just figments of the main character’s broken mind, etc. It was all fine, but it’s just been done so much that I’m not sure it can be saved by even the best execution. As it was, it felt like a cheap way to jerk a few tears for the ending. Ironically, I feel like I would have been far more moved if Cadence’s illness were physical, if there had been a real accident (perhaps one that Gat was involved with and felt guilty about), and we saw her being forced to choose between between her love for Gat and her love for her family. Or even if it just explored the grandfather’s death and the mix of grief and relief that would come from it.

                    Despite the novel’s downside, I did enjoy it. It’s a short and relatively easy read (in terms of the mechanics of reading – the plot is, of course, rather brutal), perfect to be consumed whole in an afternoon. Essentially, this is the perfect summer book. It’s a solidly written novel with strong characters and a strong sense of place.

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