Boneshaker & Storm Front (a 2-4-1 book review)

Since I can’t exactly update you on my writing because [insert incredibly valid and relatable excuse here], I may as well update you on my reading. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest is one that I picked up because the premise sounded cool and I’ve always wanted to check out some steampunk, while Storm Front by Jim Butcher is Storm Front by Jim Butcher, and as it seems the book ideas I’m coming up with lately fall broadly into the urban fantasy genre I may as well know what I’m dealing with. In short: I didn’t like Boneshaker that much aside from some stuff right at the beginning and right at the end that I wanted to hit me in the feels and I guess it did, just not as hard as it could have; and while Storm Front was pretty fun and I appreciated how tight and Chekhov’s Gun-y the storytelling was, it’s also one of the more misogynistic books I’ve read lately. Which is saying something, because I’ve been reading a lot of YA paranormal stuff in the past couple of years. In the end, though, nobody does misogyny quite like men.

In fact let’s just start with that and get it out in the open: when I saw Thor: The Dark World I was incensed at how many misogynistic cliches they managed to stuff into the story, from Frigga getting Fridged, to Lady Sif being a Strong Female Character, to Jane Foster being literally reduced to the status of an object (not even the MacGuffin, just the object containing the MacGuffin). Part of why I found that so unpalatable is because it was made in 2013, a full year after Katniss invented feminism and destroyed the patriarchy. Storm Front was published in 2000, when the word “feminism” was very much still an f-word, and misogynistic shit like putting women in refrigerators, the virgin/whore dichotomy and a super-tasteful rape joke here and there were just seen as hallmarks of storytelling.

I will say this: I like Harry Dresden in the sense that he is a total loser and he knows it. The only problem is that he’s a very, how shall I put this, male character, and while some of his flaws make him interesting and even a little bit original, he also has flaws that the book goes out of its way to excuse. These latter flaws are, as you might have guessed, his views on and attitudes towards women, and the story’s treatment and casting of women make them so much worse than they would be on their own. I am pretty sick of the whole “he doesn’t understand women” character; I am super sick of the male hero having women throwing themselves at him in one form or another, whether it’s for sexual reasons or because they need somebody to save them, and Dresden ticks all of these boxes. It’s a shame, because the pacing is pretty good – this is a first novel so I’m going to cut Butcher some slack on that one – there are a lot of little incidents that end up paying off later on in the book that make the whole thing feel very well put-together, and aside from the rampant sexism is a pretty rollicking good time, especially for a first novel. It’s nothing particularly deep; it’s written to be read quickly and effortlessly, and if you can ignore the misogyny … well, if you can ignore the misogyny then we probably can’t be friends, but you might enjoy this book more than I did. And I did enjoy it. I just really, really wish it had been, y’know, not misogynistic.

I feel like I would read the rest of the series, or at least the next book or two, just to see if it gets less sexist, because it if does then the rest of it is great and I’d be very into that. The fact that it was written over a decade ago, by a man, and the fact that the series is still on-going and has 15 entries to date are not excuses for the sexism in this book, but I don’t think it’s a guarantee that just because this book was honestly quite foul in a lot of places, the rest of the series won’t get better. But when I eventually get around to reviewing the Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman I will have a lot to say about the difference between a sexist character and a sexist story, and that was a trilogy that only got worse in that regard as it went along. I am dreading the same thing for The Dresden Files. I’m nowhere near as hateful of this book as one Goodreads reviewer, but I honestly wouldn’t disagree with them on many of their points, either. Maybe the one about it failing “on almost every technical level”, because while the writing wasn’t amazing it was absolutely fine, and for me it was the pacing and payoff of little things throughout the book that sold me. Also maybe the comment about Harry being nothing but another smug asshole chauvinist main character, but only because I think the story is far more guilty of being un-critically misogynistic than the character, and to me that’s what matters. I’d forgive a story for having a misogynistic character, easily, if the story made it clear that they are, in fact, misogynistic, and that this is a bad thing.

Sadly, for all of its good points, Storm Front is emphatically not that story. On the surface, it is actually startlingly refreshing that the majority of the supporting cast is female, but it’s a pretty transparent and flimsy surface. There’s a woman in this book who serves no purpose other than to be the butt of a date-rape joke about halfway through – don’t worry, “nothing happens” so that makes it okay – and to be a sexy lamp the rest of the time. There are no less than three women who are completely defined by being abused by men and unable to do anything to protect themselves, two of whom end up dead, one at least partially because of Harry (and at least he feels responsible for it, which is more than I was expecting). The two women who end up dead are also suggested to have been lovers, so there’s some good old-fashioned homophobia as well, and they were both sex workers, so throw in some casual whorephobia to top it off. The one “strong female character” is constantly belittled in Harry’s narration, shown to be near-hysterical when things don’t go her way, and ends up getting Damselled – again, at least Harry cops to the fact that it was his fault for not being more forthcoming rather than doing the tough guy thing of blaming her for “sticking her nose in”. He’s more progressive than he could be, but sadly he’s in a story that is, in places, scarily misogynistic.

This book has problems is what I’m saying. It’s the kind of story I was fully expecting to tell when I was still writing my shitty YA werewolf book, and you know what, I wouldn’t have regretted it, because I was focused on the story. And again, this book has tight, snappy pacing that, while it could have been tightened up (the majority of the filler in this book is also where a lot of the misogyny comes from, so cutting it out would have killed two problematic birds with one stone), was very enjoyable to read. The only thing is that, after I wrote my shitty YA werewolf thing, I would have revised it. And yes, this was written in 2000 when feminism was still struggling to even exist in the public consciousness, never mind be as accepted by mainstream society as it is today, and it really is hard to overstate how much things have changed between then and now, but my point is that this book reads like somebody writing as fast as they can with no thought to the consequences because they just need to get the fucking thing written. And to be fair, that’s exactly what this book is; that’s how publishing works, and how this sort of writing goes. You are expected to write fast and often, and inevitably certain things are going to be sacrificed as a result. We’re still at a place where feminist values are things a lot of us have to actively think about, rather than automatically defaulting to them, and so in that sense I absolutely understand why this book is as sexist as it is. But it doesn’t change the fact that it is as sexist as it is, either, and so if I do read more in the series, maybe I’ll skip ahead a few issues.

Boneshaker was notably less misogynistic, perhaps because it was written by a woman, perhaps because it was written by somebody who didn’t have as much chauvinistic baggage to work through, perhaps because it was written about a decade later, perhaps because of the genre – I don’t know, and it wasn’t enough to make the actual story very enjoyable. I loved the premise; I loved the prologue that sets everything up, and I usually hate prologues; I liked the idea of the two main characters, the fact that it was a mother and her son on society’s blacklist because of the dead husband/father’s crimes (which provide the premise), and the interactions between them were the best parts of the story.

Sadly, those interactions came right at the start and right at the end, because the rest of the story has the two of them split up. The rest of the story also suffered from consisting of: running away from “rotters” – perhaps because Cherie Priest is aware that “zombies” are part of the Vodou religion and did not want to contribute to the ongoing appropriation of the term, perhaps because she couldn’t be bothered coming up with something actually original and so just changed the name – meeting ambiguous allies; running away from zombies again; running into more ambiguous allies or sometimes the same ones; running away from more zombies again … it’s repetitive, it’s long-winded, and the characters are just really flat. I couldn’t care less if literally every single character had died at the end. There’s a twist at the end, and the twist is not important or meaningful or climactic; it’s just a twist. There’s a second twist afterwards that explains it and that one is better, but still. Also the actual steampunk part of the story just kinda seemed incidental; I was expecting a lot of innovative technological concepts, and there really weren’t any (aside from using the not-zombie gas to make beer and narcotics, which I must admit is pretty awesome). I don’t even know what the main focus of the story was, and perhaps Priest didn’t either, because it honestly felt like a solid first act split in two and bulked up in the middle with monotonous filler. There was a lot of potential in this story that came to nothing, and while I’d consider reading more in the series just to see if it does eventually come to something, I’m kinda not looking forward to the prospect. This didn’t have the snappy pacing of Storm Front to redeem it; at least with Storm Front I can learn a few things about storytelling technique to emulate. I can learn from Boneshaker as well, but only in terms of what not to do. Both of them have filler, but with Boneshaker the filler took up most of the story.

It’s just a shame that the “actual content” of Storm Front was so fucking sexist.

All in all, a pair of problematic texts. I definitely enjoyed Storm Front, but with huge reservations. I’m kind of ashamed that I enjoyed it. It’s that bad. And as for Boneshaker – I just wish it had been good. It had good ideas, it really did. It just didn’t follow through with them.

I get the feeling that Boneshaker is not really supposed to be a stand-alone story, that it’s setting up the world so that you can get used to it as the series builds on it, and that’s why I’m willing to give it a pass, in the same way that I’m willing to give Storm Front a pass because it is a first novel, written in a different time, and it has other elements to recommend it on. They both have potential, but it’s potential that, if it ever pays off, will obviously do so further down the line. They’re kind of polar opposites, in that while Storm Front was simultaneously very engaging, snappy and well-put-together it was also seriously fucking toxic, to a truly disturbing extent, while Boneshaker was neither offensive nor dynamic enough to really hold my attention. It took me about two weeks to read Boneshaker, and three days to read Storm Front. So if I had to pick a series to follow just on those grounds, it’d be The Dresden Files.

I have decided, though, that I do want to start getting more into urban fantasy, although from what I’ve heard Jim Butcher is hardly the only urban fantasy author guilty of rampant misogyny. I like the idea of steampunk, but maybe somebody can recommend me something more, I dunno, meaty to cut my teeth on.

And worst of all: I didn’t want to rip off either of these books. Although I might go back to my cyberpunk-fantasy series that I was super excited about three-ish years ago and then just nose-dived into nothingness. I feel like there’s some potential there.

Or I could work on my thesis. That thing I’m going into debt for as I try to prolong my assimilation into the adult world.

Or my current novel that I had a huge brainwave for the other day and was all inspired to follow through with. For the thousandth time.

And still haven’t.

Also for the thousandth time.

I think I might have a problem.

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