The Hero and the Crown (by Robin McKinley)

It has been a while since I wrote a book review, and it’s been a while since I started reading this one. It took a long time to get through, and while I’m very glad I did, it taught me a lot about my own tastes as a reader, as well as the difference between what those tastes actually are and what I would like to think they are.

Specifically that I enjoy dynamic, energetic, fast-paced storytelling, and The Hero and the Crown ain’t none of those things. This is an old-school fantasy novel in the vein of A Wizard of Earthsea or The Last Unicorn: slow-burning, dream-like, a meditative procession through a hero’s journey that focuses mostly on said hero.

I like it, quite a lot, but I only started liking it today, and I’ve been reading this thing for … I don’t even know how long. Over a year, I think, on and off. And most of that time was spent in a state of feverish impatience, waiting for something to happen.

Things do happen in this book, but they’re character-related things, rather than “hey look at that thing happening” things. Our hero – heroine, whatever – Aerin, is the daughter of a king and a “witch” from the North, where demons live; as such, while she is not a bastard child, she is pretty well reviled by most people, because most people are ignorant villagers and her older half-sister. The first three-fifths of this novel are mostly angst. Well-written angst, but also oddly written, because it’s from an outside perspective; third-person omniscient feels very weird when used to describe the visceral intimacy of angst, and emotion of any kind really, especially when it also tells you that the person feeling said angst is only doing so because they don’t know any better, don’t have the life experience, so on and so forth. If this was anything other than a classical fantasy novel, it would have been unbearable, but the voice works in this case – having the voice be a bit “wiser”, I guess, than the POV character brings an aura of having a story told to you, and The Hero and the Crown is a story that revels in its story-ness, and in a way reminds me of Neil Gaiman in that regard.

So, what is it about? Basically, Aerin is used to being – and feeling – ignored and unwanted, so she spends her time geeking around and reading about dragons. There haven’t been any big dragons since the Old Days, but there are still dragons about that sometimes menace villages, usually around the size of a small horse at most. In terms of “stuff happening”, she re-discovers how to create a special oil that protects people from dragon’s fire, the secret of which has eluded the greatest minds of the kingdom for centuries; she rehabilitates her father’s old war horse so that she can ride it, and then goes out and kills a dragon.

You could take care of that in about one chapter, if you really wanted to; this book takes almost half of its page-count to get there. This is because what “happens” is not as important as Aerin’s feelings and motivations along the way. Basically, she goes out to kill dragons because she doesn’t have anything else to do, no prospects or ambitions – no hope, basically, of living the kind of life that might make her happy, and of course she doesn’t know what that is, either. She wants to be valuable, and has vague thoughts of making her father proud by killing dragons, but it’s more just the fact that she’s so isolated and lonely that her thoughts and motives drift almost randomly in this direction, for lack of something to latch onto, something that might make her feel wanted.

Because it took so freaking long to get to the dragon-slaying – a bunch of stuff happens after that, and that’s where I started to like this book – and I was under the impression that this book was primarily about dragon-slaying, I lost my patience frequently while trying to push myself through the first half of this book. But once she kills the second dragon – a proper, dragon-sized dragon – and some other shit starts happening, I realised what the book was actually about and started to get into it. If you’re looking for hardcore, realism-based worldbuilding, you are in the wrong place; if you like being shown instead of told, you definitely need to read something else. And generally, I am one of those people.

But with The Hero and the Crown, I actually quite liked it. I liked other things about it, too; yes, the princess kills dragons and that’s all subversive and whatnot, but there is much more to this story than another Strong Female Character in regards to subverting gender roles, if that’s what you’re looking for. Like the fact that, while there are indeed two love-interests and they are both dudes, she doesn’t actually choose one over the other, and it’s still framed as a positive, healthy, happy resolution to her story. It’s kind of convenient in a way, as one of the dudes is immortal and the other is not, and since she becomes immortal herself she’s able to spend a mortal lifetime with one (where the story ends) and then eventually find her way back to the other one (which the story hints strongly at). On top of that, both dudes, while never meeting, know about each other and there is no jealous confrontation stuff; they just accept that she loves both of them and get on with it. Much props for that.

There’s also some typical high fantasy problematic-ness – our heroine is a pale-skinned redhead in a country full of dark-skinned brunettes, for instance, and out of the two other female characters in the book one is her jealous, bitchy older half-sister and the other is her devoted maidservant – and if that sort of thing bothers you, which it probably should, then there might be other meditative fantasy novels for you to enjoy. For me, I could overlook it because the intimacy and meditativeness, once I got into it, reminded me that I do actually enjoy this sort of story. It’s Aerin’s story, and it’s about Aerin, and I appreciated the narrow focus, honestly.

Particularly today, because I have this knot in my lower back that I’ve had since I was 16 and it decided to flare up really badly last night. As such I’ve spent the past few hours not just reading, as opposed to sitting in front of my computer and endlessly distracting myself with YouTube and WOW, but reading while lying flat on the floor with my legs hooked over my bed. I can’t tell if it’s helped at all, in terms of being able to walk around and stuff, but lying in that position was certainly a welcome relief. And a lot of what Aerin goes through is pain, physical as well as emotional, seeing as she spends a lot of time fighting dragons, teaching herself how to ride a horse and use a sword, hiking, camping in the wilderness – it was really quite cathartic, and comforting, to read about her discomfort while enduring my own. I’ve said that it tells rather than shows, but that’s mostly for plot-related stuff and ambience. When it comes to the mundane agony of Aerin’s nearly-constant discomfort, there’s a lot of showing – and telling. It works well; it feels immersive. And the third-person omniscient voice complimented that, because I could feel a connection to what Aerin was going through while still having a ready-made excuse to distance myself from it if I wanted to. I have said before that I don’t think “show don’t tell” is a good hard-and-fast rule, and The Hero and the Crown proves that point emphatically. Both are good – you just have to know when to use each of them, and sometimes, how to use them together.

Do not read this book for the plot or world-building. Read it for the slow-burn of timeless storybook ambience, and the intimacy with the character and her experiences. I do think I need something a little more fast-paced now to shake things up, but just like coming off a fast-paced, pulpy urban fantasy novel and diving straight into this book was jarring, the thought of doing the opposite is the same. Maybe I’ll give it a day or two.

And in the meantime, I have some writing plans of my own slowly gestating, waiting to be birthed in what is hopefully the not-too-distant future. I’m certainly looking forward to that.


I thought seven was the most powerful magical number

So J.K. Rowling has announced that her The Cursed Child play, co-written with a couple of other people, is going to be released as a two-part book series.

I spent about half an hour writing this huge, rambling post about how all good stories have to end, how it’s unhealthy to treat any one single thing as the be-all-and-end-all to your satisfaction and fulfillment in life, even something as profoundly formative as Harry Potter has been to hundreds of millions of people around the world, including myself. How no amount of sequels, prequels or spinoffs can ever fill the void we all feel, the yearning for more, because that yearning for more isn’t actually a yearning for more of the same – it’s the signal we give ourselves that, yes, we need more, but it’s because we’ve been spending so much time in this single, narrow space trying to convince ourselves that it is the entire world. It’s because we know, deep down, that there is more to life than any one thing, no matter how wonderful, and that we will be much more fulfilled by branching out and finding them – and probably appreciate this one thing all the more for it when we eventually return to it.

And then I actually read the goddamn article and it informed me that this is not actually a book, but a published script of the play.

Which is actually kind of cool. I definitely prefer that to another book. I mean yes this is a book, but I mean a book-book.

Because Harry Potter is FINISHED. It finished, it was supposed to finish, it finished well, and it’s fucking DONE. The last thing I want is for my favourite story to grow thin and stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread. That’s the main reason I am not even remotely excited for the Fantastic Creatures and Where to Find Them films (as well as the fact that they’re being directed by David Yates, who is my second-least favourite director of the HP films): it’s not giving me more of what I want. What I want is more of the feeling of inclusion, of wanting to be included, and I don’t think I can ever get that from Harry Potter again – at least not like this. The closest I can get is to go back to the original seven books and revisit them that way, but it will never be the same. I’ll need to find something else. And that is a good thing.

I mean I’m still going to read this thing but yeah the Wizarding World has had enough of a monopoly over my creative life, time for some new prospects.


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.

Vampire Academy vol. 1 (an incredibly belated and overthought book review)

It’s been 20 months. 20 months since I finished Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead and tried to put my many, many, many thoughts into slightly less-many words in order to exchange this bulk linguistic produce for internet approval.

Hasn’t gone so well thus far.

I have written something like 20k words about Vampire Academy over these 20 months, tinkering here and there, trying to clarify where I can and be as accurate as possible without worrying about succinctness. Which is the method of writing that I think makes the most sense, because it works for me. Get the words out first, and pick the best ones later.

It’s just that I also, y’know, want to not still be writing this fucking review/critique/rant almost two years after I started. Kind of like how want to not still be writing Tallulah almost four years after I started. I want to tick at least one of those things off the list as soon as I can.

So, here is my review/critique/rant of Vampire Academy. It’s not going to be the glorious, thought-provoking, sophisticated epic I hoped it would be, but it will be written goddammit and that’s all I care about right now.

Spoilers ahead, and I’ll spoil some of them for you right now because I’m going to have a fucking structure for this review, fuck it, and I’m going to stick to it, and what I’m going to stick to is discussing:

  • world-building
  • writing style
  • characters
  • issues of slut-shaming and statutory rape
  • why it is that I like this book despite all of its many, many issues

Are you excited yet? I am, because I have no idea how I’m going to manage that last one! But you never know until you try, so let’s get to it.

Continue reading

Tomorrow, When the War Began (a book review)

I guess I’m actually okay with doing book reviews on this blog. Given how many I’ve done already, that probably shouldn’t surprise me.

It doesn’t. It just makes me anxious that somebody’s going to call me a hypocrite. Gotta love social anxiety.

Also gotta love reading books written by grown-ass man-people about the sexual awakening of fictional teenage girls, apparently. Which may be why I do not love Tomorrow, When the War Began. I don’t hate it either, and wouldn’t mind reading the rest of the series – but it’s only that I don’t mind it. I don’t want to read the rest of it. I just kinda want to know what happens. There will be spoilers in this review, but I have to be honest, this is one series I wouldn’t mind having a bit spoiled for me just so that I’d know whether or not it’s worth the investment of reading the rest of it.

I decided to read this book for a couple of reasons. One: post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories that are not clones of The Hunger Games or The Road are something I’m very interested in, and to Tomorrow‘s credit that is exactly what I got, and I did enjoy that aspect of it quite a lot. I guess this is technically a war story rather than dystopian or post-apocalyptic, but it all kind of swirls together in the same genre broth for me. Two: I had heard that John Marsden was really bad at writing a female POV, and heard that there are people who have asked him how he manages to write such believable female characters, and the desire to find out which side of the debate I fell on – if either – has been pretty strong in me ever since. The answer?

I mean I think I already gave it away to some extent, but more giving away of thoughts, opinions and spleen beyond the first bullet-point. And, again, spoilers.

  • Tomorrow, or Maybe Next Week, No Rush Guys

I almost gave up on this book, as I believe I mentioned briefly a few posts ago. If not, well, I almost gave up on this book, and I almost gave up on it because after 60 pages I was still waiting for this titular War to fucking Begin.

Okay, I exaggerate; after 54 pages the War had still not Begun. For comparison, the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring is about 50 pages of absolute filler as well, and anybody who’s read that – and didn’t enjoy the world-building and very slow burn of setting up the plot – can attest that 50 pages is kinda pushing it. While the pages are smaller, the font is bigger and the margins are narrower with Tomorrow it still takes its sweet fucking time getting to the selling-point, and in the meantime …

Well there we were, only weeks ago, though I can hardly believe it, lying in front of the television watching some junk and talking about the holidays. Corrie said, ‘We haven’t been down to the river for ages. Let’s do that.’ (3)

Page 3 is acceptable. Page 3 is even acceptable in The Fellowship of the Ring for not having immediately gotten to the point. All that advice about hooking readers in with the very first opening line and the very first chapter – it’s not like it’s bad advice, but it’s about marketing rather than storytelling. I don’t mind a slow burn, and page 3 is not enough to constitute a “slow burn” in my opinion. So far so acceptable.

The plan was to leave at eight o’clock, nice and early. By about ten o’clock we were nearly ready. By about 10.30 we were about four k’s from home, starting the ascent to Tailor’s Stitch. (17)

Okay, first of all: if you are writing a book and using numbers, you either write the numbers out as words or use actual numbers to represent them, not both. It’s a rookie mistake; it’s something I myself did until late last year, but let’s all learn from this experience of actually reading an instance of using both that is incredibly clunky and unattractive and vow never to do it again. Good? Good.

As to pacing: look, the pages are pretty small, and I’m not kidding about those margins. There’s an average of 10 words per line, 35 lines per page. That’s only 350 words per page (on average), and we also got introduced to the other characters in this time, so yeah, okay. Still fine. And they’ve actually left to go on this trip of theirs. Things are looking up. I’d like a bit more momentum, but I’m willing to push through for now.

The track was taking us downhill all the time. It wound around a bit, looking for the best route, but the trend was always downhill. It was going to be quite a sweat getting back up. We’d lost a lot of altitude. It was beautiful though, quiet, shady, cool and damp. There were no flowers, just more shades of green and brown than the English language knows about. (31)

Scenery is important on a camping trip. Tolkien certainly knew that, and Tomorrow is not being quite that agonizing. Explain the scenery. That’s fine. It’s even nice, a tiny bit poetic. Just explain it while something’s happening, please. Like the war. Or anything. At all.

‘So will your parents let you go overseas?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know. They might, if I work on them long enough. They let me apply for that exchange thing, remember.’

‘Your parents are so easy to get on with.’

‘So are yours.’

‘Oh, most of the time I guess they are. It’s only when Dad is in one of his moods. And he is awfully sexist. All the stuff I had to go through just to come on this trip. If I was a boy it’d be no problem.’

‘Mmm. My Dad’s not bad. I’ve been educating him.’

I smiled. A lot of people underestimated Corrie. She just quietly worked away on people quietly till she got what she wanted. (46)

Anything. At. All.

I sneaked a look at Homer. Kevin was talking to him and Homer was trying to act like he was listening, while he stared frantically at Fi out of the corner of his eye. But looking again at Fi, I was sure she knew. There was something just a bit self-conscious about the way she was walking, and the way she stood there in the cooling sunlight, like a model doing a fashion shoot on a beach. I think she knew, and loved it. (54)


The dogs were dead. (55)


Full disclosure: I got so fucking fed up with this book during the first five chapters that I went off and watched the film adpatation. It’s on YouTube, and it’s not particularly good. But if you don’t have the energy to slog through the first 54 pages of absolutely fucking nothing of interest unless you have never been a teenager yourself and are mesmerised by the idea of how exciting it’s going to be to start going through a hormone apocalypse, the film will cater to your attention span. Attention-span is the sole reason I decided to watch it.

As I found out, though, it also has another advantage over the book: it tells a more conventional story. It at least feels like there are more stakes, and because you can actually see the camping trip it is not nearly as arduous as it is to get through in the book. There’s some incredibly stilted dialogue, particularly the Big-Speech-that-sums-up-the-general-themes-of-the-story scene, but as I discovered later it was actually taken straight from the book:

‘They seemed such innocent days. You know, when we got to high school and stuff, i used to look back and smile and think “God, was I ever innocent!” Santa Claus and tooth fairies and thinking that Mum stuck your paintings on the fridge because they were masterpieces. But I’ve learnt something now. Corrie, we were still innocent. Right up to yesterday. We didn’t believe in Santa Claus but we believed in other fantasies. You said it. You said the big one. We believed we were safe. That was the big fantasy. Now we know we’re not, and like you said, we’ll never feel safe again, and so it’s bye-bye innocence. It’s been nice knowing you, but you’re gone now.’ (107)

This speech in the film is actually even more stilted, but that’s partly because it’s shorter. I have a lot of complaints and issues with this book, but the overarching one is the way that it’s written: it’s almost like a parody, like the SNL sketch of what a trailer for a horror film directed by Wes Anderson would look like. This book is written in the way I’d expect a pre-teen children’s book to be written in terms of the writing style and “level”, but dealing with topics no children’s book would ever tackle because, basically, they’re too dark. In a sense, it does lend itself to the whole “innocence lost” theme, though it could have been less, I dunno, clunky. And there is definitely part of me that admires books written for kids that actively explore dark, serious issues, which Tomorrow certainly does. That is probably the book’s biggest strength, and while I’ve just been complaining up to this point, I do want to emphasise that I think it gets across the shock and horror of war really well, at least insofar as I know anything about the shock and horror of war, which is only what I’ve read in books or seen in movies and television. Once we hit chapter 6 on page 55, after 54 pages of particularly generic teen antics plus *gasp* unsupervised co-ed camping, things really do pick up.

The awkward clash of writing style and the content of the story also has the excuse of Ellie, our token bland main character, being the one telling the story, having been elected the journal-keeper of the group after the war actually begins, so you could say that this is her writing style. But that’s like saying Bioshock Infinite has the excuse of being incredibly linear and “on rails” (not least because rails are one of the core mechanics of the game) because it’s a story about fate and destiny and inevitability: it’s a really thin excuse, and it just emphasises that it is, indeed, an excuse, not a justification. There is no justification for a book dealing with issues this severe being written so … childishly. And while it can be grating to read as an adult because it’s so basic all the way through, it’s worst when it comes to the dialogue.

Actually, I take that back. It’s worst when it comes to sex.

  • Tomorrow, When I Felt Incredibly Uncomfortable Reading Ellie’s Journal

Here’s a particularly charming example, for your reading pleasure:

I remember going to the meatworks once with Dad for some reason, and while he talked business with the manager I watched the animals being driven up the ramp to the killing floor. What I’d never forgotten was the sight of two steers halfway up the ramp, just a couple of minutes away from death, but one still trying to mount the other. I know it’s a crude comparison, but that’s the way we were. ‘In the midst of death we are in life.’ We were in the middle of a desperate struggle to stay alive, but here I was, still thinking about boys and love. (123-124)

I said before that the writing style isn’t particularly naturalistic. This is not just not naturalistic; it is weird. I found that the best way to cope was to read it with an Australian accent, either out loud or just in my head, and the fact that it works so well suggests that where a writer is from most definitely affects their writing sensibilities.

Also: isn’t “steer” a word used for, y’know, male cattle? Are there gay cows in this book? Because that’s kind of awesome. Except that they exist solely to be killed off as a metaphor for the paradoxical link between sex and death, but whatever.

That’s not the part that I had issues with, though. This is just kind of pretentious and ungainly to read; the bit that actually bothered me comes near the end of the book, when the group has returned from a big rescue mission and are hanging out at their undiscovered safe haven out in the bush:

There we were, standing in the cold stream, exchanging hot kisses. I explored not just his lips but his smell, the feeling of his skin, the shape of his shoulder blades, the warmth of the back of his neck. (211-212)

I mean I know it’s just a small thing, but I remember physically recoiling from the page halfway through. I think it’s as much the clunky phrasing, the “I explored not just his lips but” part, as much as the fact that I couldn’t stop being aware of the fact that this scene was written by a man.

And then we get this one:

But if we’d had the privacy that hot afternoon in the clearing in Hell I think Lee and I might have lost our virginity simultaneously. I was clinging to him and pressing against him as though I wanted to get my whole body inside him, and I liked the way I could make him gasp and groan and sweat. I liked giving him pleasure, although it was hard to tell what was pleasure and what was pain. I was teasing him, touching him and saying ‘Does that hurt? Does that? Does that?’ and he was panting, saying ‘Oh God … no, yes, no’. It made me feel powerful. But he got his revenge. I’m not sure who had the last laugh – or the last cry. Normally when I’m out of control, when I get swept off by the white water, whether it’s the giggles or the blues or one of my famous tantrums, I can still stand outside myself and smile and think ‘What a maniac’. Part of my mind stays detached, can watch what I’m doing, can think about it and be aware of it all. But that afternoon with Lee, no. I was lost somewhere in the rapids of my feelings. If life is a struggle against emotion, then I was losing. (237-238)

I hope you’re still reading this all to yourself in an Australian accent. Just lay back and think of Hugh Jackman.

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not particularly eager to read  a 43-year-old man’s strange children’s-book writing style applied to an I-want-to-have-sex scene from a teenage girl’s perspective, if indeed this can be considered the perspective of a teenage girl. Again, we can return to the whole “but she’s writing the journal, so this is how she’s telling the story herself, it’s supposed to be kind of analytical and matter-of-face and a bit clunky because everything that’s happened to her is running together out of trauma” and, like, if anybody cares to take that argument and run with it, maybe pull up a few examples of war journals or something, then have at it. I’d be legitimately interested to read that. But for me, this just reminds me of all the self-conscious blunders I’ve made over the years trying to “get” the “female perspective” as a male writer. I dislike this aspect of the book so much that I am actually semi-seriously considering the possibility of never allowing myself to write female characters, of any age, ever again just on principle.

I was considering making my review of this book part of my snarktastic, ad-hominem-fueled authenticity series of reviews, but I don’t really care about this book enough to do that. But I do have to touch on the issue of authenticity, or perhaps “credibility” is a better word, as a friend suggested to me a while ago, when it comes to Ellie’s voice in this book.

First of all: the framing device. Ellie is the storyteller, telling us all of this stuff that’s happened after it’s already happened. That’s all well and good, and goes some way to justifying the reason for the writing being kind of awkward and distant. But it doesn’t make it good. Obviously whether writing is “good” or not is entirely subjective, but I’m the subject in this particular instance and I think it’s really quite bad. I mean … “It made me feel powerful. But he got his revenge. I’m not sure who had the last laugh – or the last cry. Normally when I’m out of control, when I get swept off by the white water …” Its just so …

These are kids. Teenagers, whatever, but it’s not so much that I have an issue with an adult man writing about teenagers having sexy feelings, making out or actually having sex as much as I have an issue with it being written so incredibly fucking …

I mean just fucking read that. Read that passage and tell me that something isn’t just really uncomfortable about it.

And that little transition in particular really makes me feel uncomfortable; she’s talking about making out with her maybe-boyfriend in terms of “pain” and “power” and “revenge“, which really does not sit well with me when we’re talking about teenagers, and then immediately after veers into this random, kinda purple metaphor about water. This screams “I have no fucking idea what I’m talking about so I’ll chuck words at it until it goes away” to me, a panic that I am all-too familiar with when it comes to writing beyond my personal experience. Even if this had been written by a woman – perhaps this is sexist of me, but I am willing to bet money that this would never have been written by a woman – that’s just removing the extra-textual creep factor. It’s still clunky and jarring and voice-dissonant. It could be just me who thinks this writing style seems like it should be put to use in a children’s book as opposed to a young adult novel, but it’s a big part of why this scene feels creepy and age-inappropriate. The feelings that she’s talking about – fine. Sure. No problem. Sex is complicated, and when it’s new and a bit confusing there are all sorts of contradictions and tone-dissonant thoughts and impulses running around your head. I totally buy that. That’s not the problem. The problem is that this book sounds like it’s written for kids, and that makes any mention of sex or sexuality really uncomfortable. It’s simultaneously way too graphic and way too impersonal for me to want to be invested, and I think the fact that it’s Ellie writing this, reflecting back on her past, that actually makes it harder to forget that this thing is written by a 43-year-old dude, because he’s probably thinking back to his own teenage sexual experiences to write this scene, and it makes Ellie stand out as a proxy. Even if that’s not what’s happening, that’s the conclusion I immediately come to while reading. First-person perspective is not always a good idea.

In fact, let’s try something. I am fully intending to continue my authenticity series of book reviews, and The Magicians is up next. For the sake of comparison, let’s have a look at the first major sex scene in the book that’s told from Quentin’s POV, but in third-person. Let’s see what the differences are:

At first it was like they were getting away with something, as if they half expected someone or something to stop them. When nothing happened, and there were no consequences, they lost control – they ravenously, roughly pulled each other’s clothes off, not just out of desire for each other but out of a pure desire to lose control. It was like a fantasy. The sound of breathing and rustling cloth was thunderous in the little chaste bedroom. God only knew what they could hear downstairs. He wanted to push her, to see if she had it as bad as he did, to see how far she’d go and how far she’d let him go. She didn’t stop him. She pushed him even further. It wasn’t his first time, or even his first time with Alice, technically, but this was different. This was real, human sex, and it was so much better just because they weren’t animals – because they were civilized and prudish and self-conscious humans who transformed into sweaty, lustful, naked beasts, and not through magic but because that’s who on some level they really were all along. (221-222)

FYI, the whole thing about this not being his first time with Alice “technically” and the animal bit is because their first time having sex is after a particularly fucked-up teacher of theirs turns the entire class into arctic foxes for a while, which apparently takes away their inhibitions and exposes their mutual repressed sexual feelings for each other. It later turns out that this same teacher was sleeping with a student some years before, an event that led to Alice’s brother effectively committing suicide in an attempt to stop him. This book is pretty dark, and it’s not always handled particularly well.

But okay, comparison time. The most obvious things are the perspective – this is third-person while Tomorrow is told in first-person – and the level of detail. I personally give The Magicians a much less harsh time in this case because the third-person perspective does not demand quite as much fidelity, so to speak; you can afford to be a bit more removed from the action and still have it feel effective. This is also a great example of how telling can sometimes be better than showing – and, in sex scenes, sometimes make things more exciting. This scene gets into the emotional side of what’s happening, and that’s almost always sexier than blunt exposition. “Leave something to the imagination” and all that.

It’s also a little bit creepy in its own way though; I do not remember the “little chaste bedroom” line, and I’m glad I didn’t remember it. What purpose does that serve? It’s just kinda gross. Then there’s the bit about him wanting to push her and her pushing him “even further” that reeks of male-sex-fantasy to me (a topic I will cover in tremendous detail when I do finally get around to writing that review); much as I dislike the clunkiness of the Tomorrow excerpt, I do not feel like it’s shorthand for a grown-ass man jerking off to the thought of his fictional teenage heroine getting hot and bothered. It reads to me like a grown-ass man trying very hard to get into the mindset of a teenage girl getting hot and bothered, less about titillation for the readers as for the character experiencing it.

Well, at least until the “pain” and “revenge” stuff. That’s just kinda … yeah. No. Also the dialogue. The dialogue didn’t help. Didn’t really have to put that in the journal, did you, Ellie?

Not that Ellie’s writing it it’s John Marsden writing it at age 43 dear god that scene makes me uncomfortable why are men allowed to write female characters why isn’t there a law dear god why and honestly, that’s why I do think I’m on the side of the people who think John Marsden can’t write female characters. But I’m going to bend it slightly, and say that I don’t think he can write teen characters, let alone teenage girls. It might just be Ellie. Some of the side characters I actually quite like, Fi, Homer and Robyn in particular. But Ellie reads like the author’s sock-puppet, a thin disguise for his own voice, and whether it’s the dialogue or the general narrative prose it really does not feel credible to me. It’s not complex enough, nowhere near tormented, confused and generally unstable enough to remind me of what it was like to be a teenager; and yes, I know not every teenager is as much of a bucket of angst as I was, but angst alone does not a teenager make. It’s so many things, and it’s too many things, and that’s the point. No story written this sparsely is going to convince me that it’s about an actual teenager.

Anyway, speaking of dialogue (get it) – there’s another aspect of this book that, while I didn’t actually mind it as I was reading, does bother me upon reflection, because it’s a huge part of the reason why I just don’t care very much either way whether I ever read another installment. I’ve talked a bit about how I like telling over showing a lot of the time, and I stand by that. This book …

Well, “show don’t tell” is common writing advice for a reason.

  • Tomorrow, When the Other Characters Experienced the War and Told Me About It Afterwards

One of the criticisms of the Harry Potter series is the contrivance of Harry having to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to pick up all the clues that he does. I personally don’t mind this at all, because that’s just the kind of story it is and gives it some of its charm. The other reason it’s good is because it means we get shown interesting shit happening, instead of having to hear it second-hand from other characters. It’s techincally no different, seeing as it’s all in writing anyway, but it feels totally different. Specifically, it feels better when it’s first-hand and infuriating when it’s second-hand, unless there’s a good reason for it.

Between the two uncomfortable making-out scenes, Tomorrow, When the War Began gives us ten pages of other characters telling the main character about everything that’s happened to them off-screen. The “good reason” for it is that Ellie is our POV character and she’s writing the journal.

She’s not much of a writer, because a writer knows that you don’t have to fucking transcribe everything you hear word-for-word to make a good story. And in fact that’s one of the great tricks of writing, making things seem realistic while avoiding all the mundanity of reality, particularly when it comes to talking.

Actually, the framed narrative with Ellie being the storyteller y makes this worse, because the story has all already happened, which means that it doesn’t matter if she’s there to experience it first-hand or not, and thus she can tell it any way she fucking wants. She just “chooses” to tell it verbatim, apparently, with no flair or storytelling sensibility whatsoever, which is perhaps the most inauthentic part of the writing. I mean maybe it’s to make it seem more like an actual journal, but I can remember keeping my own journals, some twelve years ago, and whenever I wrote about something that somebody else had told me had happened, I wrote it as if it had happened to me, not with speech quotes to let myself know that, actually, this didn’t happen first-hand to me, somebody just told me about it, because it’s quicker and less awkward to write that way.

And it’s also more honest. It’s how people tell stories; it’s how we’re trained to tell stories, because when we hear a story we’re not often focused on the person telling the story; we’re focused on the story that they’re telling. This depends on context of course; if the story is a friend relating to us a tale of personal woe then we are (ideally) focusing on them and how they must feel at least as much as why they’re feeling that way, but that’s what we do. It gets us into trouble sometimes, but it’s what we do. Even if we’re exchanging gossip, our reference to the fact that this is second-hand knowledge will be along the lines of “did you hear X said …” and then everything from that point on is told as if we are the primary storyteller, because from that point on we ARE the primary storyteller. That’s why gossip is so insidious, why people complain about how social media is destroying public discourse: because we tell stories like stories, not like dialogue.


If we’re using the average of 10 words per line, 35 lines per page, that’s 3,500 words of TELLING.

I try not to give writing advice, but I’ll make an exception here: never tell something in dialogue that you can show in action when there is no reason for it. If this was not a framed narrative, then that would make sense. It would still be annoying, but it would make sense. If it was to set up some payoff later on – which actually does happen, and it’s one of the more powerful scenes in the book – then great. Telling through dialogue is a great way to create a false sense of security, which you can then shatter in any number of cruel and brutal ways, and this book does do that, and it works very well.

Aside from that: never tell something in dialogue that you can show in action when there is NO REASON FOR IT.

Also, the fact that it’s told in dialogue specifically … I mean you guys get it by now: I don’t like the dialogue in this book. Ten pages of it? Like I say, I wasn’t actually bothered by it while I was reading it, but when I think about how I’d probably feel about this book if it had instead been a third-person account, told by Ellie, of what had happened to the others, I actually probably would want to read the rest of this series, not just because this first book would have been more engaging, but because I could imagine the following books being similar, and similarly worth my time. As it stands, I feel like this was not just a wasted opportunity to tell the story in a more interesting way, but to get people invested in the series as a whole.

One thing I will say in its defence is that it does add to the atmosphere of the book, the themes of survival and uncertainty. Ellie being the central POV character gives us a way to experience this war not just in terms of what happens, but who it happens to, the toll it takes on them. Not being able to find out what happens to the other characters until they return to tell the tale themselves reinforces the sense of worry Ellie has for her friends; the fact that Ellie can’t ever be sure if they’re even still alive until she gets first-hand confirmation is certainly a good idea.

The only problem with this defence is that this sense of uncertainty and worry for the safety of her friends wouldn’t have been lost if their accounts had been written as third-person stories with Ellie as the narrator. In fact, it might have reinforced her sense of relief, because she’d get to imagine how it was to be there with them as it was happening, what they were going through, through the writing itself. Dialogue focused on past events is always an act of mediation; it puts distance between the reader and the events being discussed, never mind the character/s who are hearing this dialogue. If it’s to create an effect, then sure. But on the other hand, I’m sure this was to create an effect as well, and the effect is one of dampening the energy of the story. I guess it does go some way to de-romanticising war, which can only be a good thing, but it also goes some way to de-empowering the story, which is not so good. War is hell. I get that. But that doesn’t mean it has to be hell to read.

  • Tomorrow, When I Read Something Else Instead

I know tons of people read and love these books and that’s great, but it didn’t do it for me. There are other things I could talk about. There’s another character introduced in the fourth quarter of the book who does literally fucking nothing at all and exists for precisely I-don’t-fucking-know reasons – he’s another instance of the movie doing something better than the book, despite our introduction to his character being five minutes of him telling us stuff that happened to him while all we get to see is him telling the characters that this stuff happened, I guess a lot of things did make it into the film after all …

There’s stuff that I actually enjoyed, like the late-night rescue mission that precedes the awkward make-out scenes. And, again, some of the other characters are very likeable, and I wish we’d gotten to see a bit more of them.

Then again, there’s also other awkward issues of voice, like when Ellie randomly decides she’s interested in her childhood pal Homer and then about a hundred pages later decides she was never actually interested – and the bit where, about two lines after she decides she’s interested, he asks her to hold his hand while they’re riding bikes, also right the fuck out of nowhere but after he’s already emphasised how into Fi he is to Ellie, at least twice – and again I’m picturing this grown-ass man trying to understand how teenage girls think, to write his way to the answer to the questions he has about why girls are so weird and act so weird and think weird girl things instead of normal things like boys do and it just … it breaks the illusion. That’s actually where I’ll fully join the ranks of those who find Marsden’s female characters a bit lacking, without my “all teenagers” amendment. It does not add up for me, and again, it’s not the feelings, it’s the voice. Voice is everything in storytelling. It can disguise weak plot and unintentional character flaws; it can’t get rid of them, but it can often at least make them palatable. And when it’s enhancing solid plot and intentional character flaws, it serves to elevate those good things into the realm of greatness, sometimes brilliance.

I just don’t “get” this book; I don’t get the appeal, I don’t get the legions of fans, I don’t get the writing style given the subject matter it’s being used to tell – again, don’t hate it, but I do slightly resent it for not being just a bit better. It has been helpful in terms of looking for material beyond the dystopian/post-apocalyptic stories I’ve been exposed to thus far and getting some inspiration, and that’s been enough of a reward that I definitely don’t regret reading this book. And even on its own terms I wouldn’t regret reading it. I’m just not particularly interested in finding out what happens next.

Speaking of which: I have an essay due tomorrow that I’ve barely started writing. 6k words, all of which I need to sound like I understand. I think I’m fucked. I am trying to decide whether it’ll be better to go balls to the wall tonight and tomorrow trying to make it work, or take advantage of the fact that anything you submit over the weekend isn’t counted until the following Monday and give myself until said Monday to turn it in. The question is whether an essay I speed-write between now and tomorrow 11:59 pm so that it gets in on time is going to be better than an essay I write between now and Monday 11:59 pm that is going to lose four marks for lateness. Or, I guess, an essay that I write between now and Friday 11:59 pm that will only lose one mark. That might be the best option, plus the best compromise between getting it out of the way as soon as possible and actually having some chance of making it remotely good.

Except I’ve got a fucking birthday party on Friday ugh oh well book review over time to go be a responsible student or some shit.

Book reviews

I started writing my review/critique/essay on Vampire Academy in October 2013. It turns out I have a lot to say about Vampire Academy, and we’re just talking the first book. The later books, while they put right a lot of the things I thought were wrong in the first one, just aren’t as good. But after coming to terms with the sheer volume of my opinions on that first book alone, I’m thinking it might actually be worth going back and re-reading the entire series – once semester is over – and rather than writing a review/critique as such just kind of do a play-by-play as I read. Mostly because it’ll (theoretically) stop me from over-thinking and thus I’ll end up actually writing stuff.

I did say I was going to stop doing book reviews on this blog, but that was when I decided I was going to delete it once Tallulah was written. Now that’s looking very unlikely. This blog may not be exactly what I want it to be right now, but I’m learning that there’s actually no reason why it can’t be. There’s no reason why I can’t be a bit more intentional in the way I run it – like actually drafting posts before posting them, which I think I’ve maybe done ten times in total in the four years I’ve been a blogger – and turn it into something I’m really proud of.

And I think, whatever I do with the rest of the series, my review/critique/essay of Vampire Academy is going to be the start of that.

There’s a lot to unpack in terms of my thoughts and feelings about that book. I didn’t even have this much trouble writing about Harry Potter when I still wrote reviews on Tumblr, and while I also think I’ll have to re-read that series just to see if it’s still as amazing as I used to think it was, for all intents and purposes it is my favourite book series. But Vampire Academy gets into much more confrontational territory than Harry Potter, which makes it more interesting in terms of conducting analysis on it, and therefore takes a lot of energy to get around to. I tried finishing my original review last night; it clocked in at just over 10k words and, while I technically did finish it, it just wasn’t good enough. It also occurred to me that making my readers sit through a 10k-word rant about a young adult novel was maybe just a bit much, so I’ve decided to break it up into chunks – which helps, because it gives me a chance to focus on the themes more closely, but also doesn’t help, because it makes me want to focus on the themes more closely, which takes more time, etc.

And, of course, cuts into the time I could be spending on writing other things, such as my two research essays due in just under 4 weeks. As long as I start forcing myself to work on them every day I will be totally fine, but I have to start, like, now. Not literally now, as for the rest of the day I’ll be at one of two parties, but from Monday or Tuesday onwards definitely. And then there’s Tallulah, which I absolutely want to get re-started on, and reading my library books, which I am excited to do …

It’s all time, and time is something that I do not have infinite amounts of. But I could be using my time better, and if I do I’ll fit more things in. I do want to fit in reviews/criticisms/essays, because I just enjoy doing that. Guess I really do belong in academia.

My other idea: start a blog strictly devoted to writing reviews. It won’t save time, but it will help me organise, which will help me focus. Theoretically. Lots of theory going on here.

But what I am concretely starting to understand is why fandom is what it is. The more I analyse Vampire Academy, the more I enjoy it and want to read it again; I’m not talking about the god-worship form of fandom, but the fandom that takes that passion and adoration and uses it to fuel not just analysis but criticism of their chosen texts. It’s criticism born out of passion, out of devotion, and other than contributing to critical discussion, which is good for its own sake, it also gives me a new appreciation of the text itself. The more I criticise Vampire Academy, the more I find I appreciate what it has to offer, both in terms of discussion-points and as a statement – and as a story. I’ve also found things that I dislike even more than I initially did, and some things that I didn’t like initially turned out to be far more complicated than just slapping a “like/dislike” label on them. Which is awesome. More of that please.

And it’s also reminded me of another one of my novel ideas that I’m keen to explore once I have time, so I might write a few notes on that before heading off to party no.1.

The Boss (a … review?)

No, since you ask, I don’t have a single solitary clue about how one reviews erotic novels. I mean what do I talk about? Three-act structure? The Hero’s Journey? Characterisation?

And that’s not the point anyway; the point is that I’m a grown-ass man and I am getting embarrassed at even thinking about publishing my opinion on a book, purely on the basis of that book being basically 190 A4 pages of graphically articulated, meticulously kinky sex. This alone disqualifies me from saying anything about The Boss; obviously I have yet to gain the emotional maturity required for such an undertaking.

But okay, here’s something I can say: since I’m actually planning on writing a high fantasy half-parody that is also erotica, the premise being that the word “fantasy” has two major connotations in the literary world and that it is somebody’s job to put them together in a fun, not-entirely-serious kind of way, I kinda had to do some research. I made this decision about 5 years ago. About 2 years ago I read Succubus Shadows by Richelle Mead, and since then I have read nothing of the sort since – not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I did.

I am 27 years old. I turn 28 in a couple of months. This is pathetic.

Oh god FINE spoilers ahead and I suppose this definitely counts as NSFW so here’s a “read more” cut … deep breaths, Jason …

Continue reading

I dunno have some things

I finished Bitten. I tried to write a review. It didn’t take.

I then started reading Graceling, and about 5 minutes ago was forced to concede that I could not possibly care less whether I ever finished it, and thus have opted not to. Next on the list is probably Cinnamon and Gunpowder, a story about a chef who gets abducted by pirates and forced to cook for them with the spices they steal. Pirate captain is a woman, chef prisoner is a man. It sounds too good to be true. I guess I’ll find out soon.

I signed off facebook yesterday and can already feel the strain. It’s annoying that so many of my other social media websites – blip, goodreads, pintrest – were all established by the “sign in with facebook” option. Of course I don’t have to use facebook just because I’m signed in, but I’ve been well-trained to use facebook over the past … wow, 5 years? 6? I really want this monopoly to end. I want other social media sites that perform a similar service (though hopefully better) to get big, so that there’s at least some fucking variety. I thought the whole point of living in a capitalist society was competition. And they say communism failed? Hah!

At least it means I’m not aimlessly scrolling through my feed and waiting with bated breath for that little red notification icon to pop up, telling me I’m a worthful human bean whose existence is acknowledged and Liked and sometimes ever Shared by fellow legumes. It means I’m now exerting even more pressure than normal on Tumblr to fulfil this need, but at least in doing so I’m becoming more self-conscious of it and likely to stop, or that’s the theory anyway.

And since I tried to write a Bitten review I may as well just give you the most salient points, because it’s not going to get a full review, but I do feel I have to say something about it.

  • Bitten review, kinda

I have a similar overall stance on Bitten as I do Vampire Academy: there’s some dodgy stuff in the central romantic/sexual relationship that I really, really do not like, but the rest of it is thought-provoking and – at least in the case of Vampire Academy – legitimately entertaining. Bitten has the premise of all natural-born werewolves being male, and thus the only female werewolves are women who are bitten and survive the transformation, which is very uncommon. Our main character, Elena, is the only female werewolf in existence, and there are only 35 total in the entire world, including her. Scarce resources etc.; you would think that the drama would be non-stop with a premise like that, but it actually only becomes relevant right at the end. Which is the main reason I just couldn’t enjoy what Bitten had to offer despite the horrible shit I wish it didn’t have: it offers a lot of setup that leads to very little payoff, if any at all. A big part of that is Elena’s tragic backstory full of sexual abuse and abandonment, and the other big part is the Only Girl in the World premise, which is not even remotely explored until the last fifth of the novel and we finally uncover the villain’s true intentions – and even then it seems like the villain himself doesn’t really care. I’m not saying I wish this book was more unpleasant than it already is; I’m saying that I wish it wasn’t full of false advertising, because the things it teases and then doesn’t follow through with seem much more interesting than the actual story.

It gets really obnoxious, too; there is a lot of throwaway narration about the dark grittiness of the world, including some commentary about how nobody cares if prostitutes are murdered because society doesn’t care about them, how werewolves see women as good for nothing beyond sex or food and, unless they’re one of the Good werewolves who belong to the Pack, they only ever rape women, in stereotypical dark alleyway fashion, and it’s all just … background. It’s there to set the tone, arouse some ambient outrage and discomfort in the reader and nothing else; none of this gets explored, none of this is ever relevant to the actual story, and it’s all presented in info-dump exposition that breaks up the action rather than being woven into it. At least that way it would feel immersive, though for that reason it might be even more exploitative.

I was so interested in the werewolf lore, and I wasn’t expecting to be. Bitten is written like a private fantasy, which would explain some of why it’s so fucking bad about consent and general respectfulness for the issues it throws away like used tissues. But the part of the fantasy that uses werewolves as a metaphor for gender and sexual dynamics in today’s society, most definitely the whole Alpha Male thing and the marginalised role that women play in a male-dominated world – that was interesting. That held promise. Perhaps in later books that pays off, but here it was mostly used for “hot sex”.

One thing I did genuinely like was Elena. She’s messed up, dysfunctional, pretty fucking despicable as a human being, and I liked it. It felt authentic. If only her fucked-up-ness hadn’t relied on a completely exploitative backstory that even as it’s being told – through narration-interrupting exposition, of course – completely handwaves its own impact on her character.

Actually I’ll just show you:

As I grew in to adolescence, the couples who picked me from the home changed. It was no longer the wife who chose me but the husband, picking up on my childish beauty and my fear. I became the favored choice of male predators who were looking for a very special kind of child. (35)

It gets even better:

As I grew older, I began to see them for what they were, not all-powerful bogeymen who slipped into my room at night, but weak creatures terrified of rejection and exposure. With that realization, the fear slipped away. They could touch me, but they couldn’t touch me, not the me that lay beyond my body. As the fear subsided, so did the rage. I despised them and their equally blind wives, but they weren’t worthy of my anger. I couldn’t let myself me angry at them, wouldn’t let myself waste time and effort better spent elsewhere. (35)

I am perfectly willing to believe that there are survivors of this kind of abuse who have found ways to cope that might mirror Elena’s backstory here. That’s not the issue. The issue is one of storytelling: this backstory looks important, looks like it’s telling us something about Elena’s personality, but is actually only even told to us because the thing we need to know about it is that it does not matter. Why, in Elena’s own words, is this story wasting its time and effort better spent elsewhere? Why the hell would you put something in a story that is only included to be explained away as something that does not matter? Everything in a story has to matter. That’s basic storytelling. Life isn’t like that, but life is not a story.

And I mean tell your own story however you want; there are no rules and I stand by that, but that doesn’t mean every decision is going to appeal to everyone. This doesn’t appeal to me, and combined with the lack of concern for readers who might actually have gone through something like Elena has in the way it’s framed and worded, ultimately I just couldn’t like this book. I got through it because the plot was actually fairly well-attended-to – at least in comparison to a lot of the stuff I’ve read lately – and I liked Elena as she actually is, rather than as the book tells me she is, but that’s not enough.

My biggest problem with Bitten was how Elena was constantly paired up with her lover/abuser Clay, who is, I gather, meant to be sexy because he “just can’t help himself” when he’s around her, is “animalistic” in that he’s selfish, impulsive, violent and inconsiderate – which obviously means he’s fantastic in bed, because that’s totally how it works – and this “can’t help himself” bit includes the fact that he’s the one who bit her.

Before she knew werewolves even existed.

When they were engaged.

She was turned into a werewolf by her fucking fiancee.

Her side of the story I get. She is still in love with him, keeps going back to him even though she knows he’s wrong for her, and knows that if she ever discusses what happened between them it’ll mean she’ll forgive him and let him win. I get that because I was in a relationship that had a similar dynamic, though thank god it was also not abuse of a sexual or physical kind. I get Elena because so many people who are in abusive relationships go through this exact same pattern of thinking and behaving. It makes sense, it feels credible. The only problem is that this is supposed to be romantic. Which is how it explains the first sex scene, wherein Clay ties her hands together, hooks them over a tree-branch so that she can’t get away from him, literally rips her clothes off and starts to have his way with her, only to stop before penetration to tell her – get this – that all she has to do is tell him to stop. He’d never do anything to her if she didn’t want it. She’d like to think he would – can’t imagine why – but she knows he really wouldn’t.

She doesn’t say no. I can’t even be surprised. I’m only surprised that every sex scene wasn’t blatant sexual assault.

And even that, her not saying no, in effect explaining away Clay’s violation of her non-consent because she just happened to start liking it halfway through and, well, that means it’s okay, it’s not him it’s her, makes sense. She makes sense. This shit happens.

To people in abusive relationships. They defend their abusers, explain away their misgivings and objections through self-blame; it makes sense that Elena acts the way she does. But this is supposed to be the dark love story that drives the story as a whole. As a private fantasy: sure. Whatever. Private fantasies are private, and they are also fantasies. A fantasy is not a desire; it is speculation. Part of the reason I see Bitten as a book that wants to be a private fantasy is not just the romanticisation of a highly abusive relationship, but also the ridiculous contrivances that constantly force Elena and Clay to be in each other’s company, when either one or both of them clearly don’t want it. And that can be perfectly sexy in a private fantasy, because people are weird and fantasies are, again, speculation.

A published book, however, is not private, nor is it a fantasy, and as such requires consideration of what you’re actually writing, not least because of who might be reading it, and what they might have gone through – or be going through – in their lives. Until books are required to have content warnings, which they should be, y’all gotta do that shit yourself.

The cherry on top of this layer-cake of suck is that, in places, the book seems self-aware enough of how messed up Elena’s situation is that, at some point in this series, it seems plausible that she would find that she actually wanted to get out of the relationship – but then probably not, because the Pack needs to stay together no matter what, so sayeth the Alpha, and oh god the potential here to explore, respectfully and thoroughly, the dysfunctional, misogynystic power dynamic of the Pack and its male-entitled, superpatriarchal ethic. I want that werewolf story. Bitten is not it. About the best thing I can say for it is that it was wasted potential.

  • Review ends

One of these days I’ll go back and read the The Magicians saga from start to finish; I aim to read the third book before semester begins, and that one is chock-full of gender and sex issues of a similarly misogynistic nature, with a similarly ambiguous level of self-awareness. The first time I read The Magicians – the “look inside” option via Amazon – I couldn’t stand it. Then I bought it and loved it and I think it’s because it was just so male, in that very straight, cis, able-bodied, neurotypical, privileged white boy way. The sad thing is that what’s “male” is oftentimes also “misogynistic”, as well as a whole host of other things, and I don’t think The Magicians is any different. And no, I don’t mean Quentin, who is meant to be all of those things and that’s part of why I like the series. I mean the story itself, the way it’s framed, the stuff that happens and to whom – I still want to talk about it in my sorta-kinda authenticity-themed “series” on this blog, because it raises some very important points regarding use of the word “authenticity”.

I was about to tell you all that I haven’t been writing. However, I actually wrote over 4k words the other night on my weird mermaid erotica side-project that I’ve never quite been able to bring myself to take full responsibility for, and I’m now thinking “Well, I’ve written a lot of it, and I keep writing it, so why not just admit that I’m writing erotica and actually do it properly?” I mean there’s nothing wrong with erotica, and just in the sense that I don’t want to contribute to its ongoing status as a genre of mockery and sexism I’m kind of politically motivated to bring it properly into my list of Things I Am Writing. There’s the tiny issue of my being a virgin/man and thus having no fucking clue what I’m talking about, but I’ve also been reading The Boss by Abigail Barnette, famously promoted by Mara Wilson in response to how god-awful 50 Shades of Grey is and how it should have been and, what can I say, I’m getting ideas. I doubt any of them are good. But that’s writing/men for you.

So actually I’ll probably finish The Boss before moving on to anything else. It’s the first e-book I’ve read besides Awoken (which you should also check out, if you haven’t already), and I much prefer the PDF format to Kindle, I have to say. I just like having definite page-numbers rather than the weird status-bar. And I’m starting to think that I can actually finish everything on my reading list before uni starts, including all the Kindle books I haven’t read. I’m particularly eager to read Chameleon Moonwhich sounds something like if X-Men wasn’t just about coding the characters as queer and were instead actually queer. I believe it was stated that there is not a single heterosexual character in the entire book. I literally don’t think I’ve ever read a book like that, and certainly not in the superhero/fantasy/sci-fi genre. There should be more of them.

And then I’ll force myself to finish my first draft made of chapter summaries before splitting focus between my weird mermaid erotica thing and my highly unimaginative high-school-kids-get-supernatural-powers thing until semester begins – and hopefully continue through the semester as well.

Maybe I’ll also finally learn to play the f-chord on my $500 guitar that I haven’t touched for like 3 years in that time. I can only hope.


Werewolf things

Yet again, writelessness defines my current existence. It’s fine. I can do things other than write. Such as read Bitten by Kelley Armstrong, who I am indebted to for the title of her book Industrial Magic that gave me enough of an idea to build an entire story premise out of (which I have yet to do anything with).

Bitten is … I mean I’m still reading it. It’s rather engrossing. I’ve never read werewolf fiction before; I’d heard a lot about how wolf pack dynamics are translated into super-dysfunctional power dynamics within werewolf culture – so far this is holding true – but actually reading it is … interesting. The main character, Elena, is rather messed-up and I like that, though I’m not sure just how credible her messed-up-ness is considering the reasons given for her messed-up-ness. Also there’s comparisons between psychopathy and animalistic behaviour that I don’t like, mainly because the term “psychopath” does not mean what it’s insinuated to mean here; it is not a synonym for “violent murderer”.

Also there’s some passing off of rape as hot sex.

This is not a YA book; this is aimed at adults, and presumably adults already have a healthy understanding of sexuality, including the very important line between fantasy and reality. Rape fantasies are a thing. They’re quite a common thing. They are not the same thing as wanting to rape/be raped. And while we can argue forever about death of the author and reader agency and what-the-fuck-ever else, at the end of the day there are plenty of adults who are just as impressionable as your stereotypical teenager when it comes to sexuality. Just because your target audience should be mature enough to understand that a sex scene involving sketchy consent that was obviously written to be sketchy consent is not necessarily a justification for when it happens in real life, doesn’t mean that they won’t. And also, yeah, it happens in real life; and also in real life survivors of sexual abuse sometimes read books. There are a lot of books – a lot of media in general – that handle sex, rape and consent just as badly as Bitten has thus far, and in fact many handle it even worse.

It’s not okay.

Now, all of that on its own is more than bad enough – but then there’s Elena’s backstory of messed-up-ness in which rape and sexual abuse are the main feature, and are also, it seems to me, played for rape-as-drama value and nothing more. What struck me about Elena’s backstory is that it doesn’t seem to affect who she is as a person. She obviously has trust issues, but sexual trust issues? Not that I can see. And obviously survivors of sexual abuse can and do recover and go on to have healthy sex lives; that’s not my problem. That’s, like, the opposite of a problem. My problem is that this is not real life; this is a story, and whatever gets put in a story HAS TO MATTER. Thus far – and I’m not even halfway through the book, so take this all with a bucket of salt – a lot of it doesn’t, other than as generic trust-issues angst-fuel that could have been just as effectively achieved if Elena’s backstory just went for the foster-family-didn’t-want-me angle. Thus far, the sexual abuse aspect only serves to confuse and infuriate, because it has no bearing whatsoever on who she is as a character. Bad writing and bad ethics.

Why am I still reading this again?

Well, I persist in reading Bitten because a): I paid money for it instead of checking my local library like a smart person, and b): I am honestly quite fascinated by unethical art. I am doubly-fascinated because, again, this is my first official encounter with werewolf fiction. It’s why I like songs like Every Breath You Take and Dirty Dancer; they tell us something about our culture, the people in it and the norms and values that are given precedence. The whole “beast within” thing has massive influence on our culture in particular, where repression and aggression are set up as diametric opposites in a false dichotomy of self-expression, the constant struggle between becoming an alpha or being made someone else’s beta. Werewolves just fit the bill because they’re both wolves and humans, and as we all know, wolves are ruled by an Alpha (per pack) and humans are assholes.

Except, well, that’s only half true. Humans are assholes, but wolves – in the wild – don’t actually have an Alpha. It’s only with captive wolf packs, where members are not always family members (according to the research linked above, wild wolf packs are family units; the “alphas” are just parents being parents), that the Alpha Wolf phenomenon occurs. In other words, only with human intervention did wolves ever adopt that particular power dynamic.

So actually, werewolves having that toxic Alpha/Beta mentality where their culture, such as it is, is based on unbridled aggression and an “only the strong survive” mentality … actually makes a lot of sense. But only because of their human nature being too strong to resist, ironically enough.

I like it, and I’d like it more if that was the point. Again, I’m not even halfway through this book yet; maybe it’ll surprise me with hitherto un-hinted-at insight and self-reflexivity. I’m going to finish it regardless because, again, I paid for the damn thing and I want my money’s worth – and it is fascinating. I want to write my own werewolf thing; actually my friend and I want to co-write a werewolf thing, inspired in part by the article I linked above, so it behoves me to do some research into the market.

It’s also interesting how Elena is the only female werewolf in existence – lycanthropy (never called that in the book) is only passed down through the male line, which is horrendously sexist (and makes the “no it’s totally not rape” scene even worse), but I like it for that reason. We’ve got this little world run on the same dog-eat-dog, hypermasculine ideology that our contemporary real-world society runs on, and it’s werewolves. And the one female werewolf in all of existence, who is very much aware that her role within the pack is to provide sex and/or dinner (well, she says she’s aware of it), is the main character. Never mind the story; that premise is enough to keep me reading, even if it’s not explored quite as thoroughly as I’d like – not yet anyway. I guess we’ll see. And it’s certainly giving me ideas for my own writing, and I guess at the end of the day that’s what matters. I’ll try and construct a review/critique thingy once I’m done reading; I still haven’t done my Vampire Academy one that I started in October 2013 so don’t hold your breath or anything, but I’ll try.

In the meantime, if you have to take some kind of lesson away from this post, let it be this: if you’re gonna put rape or sexual abuse in your book, do it for more than just a dark backstory. It’s old, and it marginalises the severity of rape and sexual abuse, which are real things that happen to real people. So … yeah. Don’t do it. Do your research. And just be a baseline decent human being.

And so this is Christmas

Or rather it was Christmas, because I live in New Zealand and we get every day first. Time begins in New Zealand. That’s a little depressing if you actually live here, but oh well it’s nice to have something.

Whatever you’re celebrating around this time of year, I hope you have a wonderful time surrounded by loved ones and good food and all that jazz. I myself marathoned the original Star Wars trilogy with the siblings and then watched The Dark Knight for the first time in a few years – still good, but I am hella disillusioned with Christopher Nolan’s storytelling chops. Also how he writes women. Or woman, as is the case for the most part in this trilogy. I am also of the opinion that while his Batman trilogy was what we deserved after the campy ridiculousness of Joel Schumacher (which, let’s be honest, is still pretty enjoyable), it’s still not what we need. It’s so clinical and “smart” and just kind of … rigid. The symbolism is heavy-handed, the two huge plot-hinging-upon moments in The Dark Knight make ZERO sense, and while the ensemble is possibly the most impressive to be seen in a Hollywood franchise this side of Harry Potter, the original Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, when you get right down to it, they mostly don’t have an awful lot to do. It’s not bad, but it’s not brilliant. I’m not too sad losing that illusion, though. Holding out for something better gives me something to look forward to.

I mean not with Zack Snyder in DC’s cinematic universe’s cockpit, but y’know. After that.

There will be an after that, right?

It’s Christmas after all.

Batman is, in my mind, a gritty, Gothic noir thriller. It’s not Imax and explosions; it’s not about action and choreography, but about psychology and the line between sanity and insanity. That’s what the whole Batman/Joker thing hinges on; that’s what the whole Batman/Bruce Wayne thing hinges on for that matter. And it’s not like that wasn’t explored in these films, but it just wasn’t done my way.

Yadda yadda. I still like it. You can only harbour so much resentment for something with Gary Oldman in it.

As I try to force myself to work on this gender-flipped Twilight project for some reason, after all those realisations I’ve had about how fucking unproductive and generally awful it is when I try to force myself to do creative things, I decided to go read through my Christmas-themed novel first draft, completed way back in April 2008. It’s … actually way better than I was expecting. I mean it’s still a first draft, but that’s a moot point; there’s good stuff there that I’d actually want to use, and surprisingly clear and well-developed given that this was me writing seven years ago. At that point I was still surfing the waves of emotional upheaval in the wake of parting ways from Wickham, so I guess that could be where the clarity comes from – you get pretty real with yourself at times like that. This is vintage stream-of-consciousness earnestness here, albeit far more refined and, like, narratively sound than one might expect. As I did. I exceeded my own expectations seven years ago; imagine what I’ll do tomorrow.

I dunno. I can imagine quite a bit.

MAN Star Wars is good.

The storytelling, as in the clear-cut, tightly-knit structure and lack of gimmicky crap does certainly take a dive after A New Hope, but it’s not really noticeable until Jedi. I think Lucas wrote my favourite of the three screenplays (A New Hope, although he did have some uncredited help with the final draft), and it just makes the failure of the prequels all the more – bah. It’s 2014, almost 2015. There’s about to be a sequel trilogy. It looks really flashy and not anything like the Star Wars I know and love, but at least it’s something new to occupy the portion of my brain devoted to fandom business with.

This has been a busy year for me, and I barely remember most of it. I moved house. Like, holy crap, six-ish months ago I was still living in the cramped, messy house I’d been living in since I was 3. I can’t imagine being anywhere but here now. It’s got room. It’s so welcoming it makes me want to remember it. I also had, one right after the other, the absolute worst and absolute best semesters of my student career this year. In that order, happily. I discovered that I could, absolutely make plans and stick to them. I discovered that sometimes you have to scrap all of your plans because they’re absolute fucking shit and start over from scratch. I discovered that I could write the story I’d been trying and failing to complete for 13 years. I discovered that I could do no such thing and, well, it’s really not a big deal. I discovered that I still love being a writer, despite all the setback. I discovered that I am not and never have been just a writer and that I’ve been holding myself back for the sake of clutching onto a stable identity label. I discovered that it’s a bad idea to try and force creativity. I discovered that sometimes you have to force creativity, not because it’s a good idea but because otherwise you might not get any momentum from anywhere else. I learnt that momentum is a bad word to use to justify your actions, because you can apply momentum to all sorts of things, not all of which are good. Some balls should never be gotten rolling.

I discovered that I hate laptops with a burning vengeance, but that they started it. I discovered that I am terrible at university. I discovered that I am am a baller-ass bad motherfucking boss at university. I discovered that I was right when I thought I’d been treating myself unfairly all these years for my teen angst, that that angst was a lot more than just being grumpy and impatient and that I actually had severe mental issues, and that no matter how hard it was for me to treat myself well, it was what I deserved. I discovered that I know how to Go To A Counselor, and that it is a skill. I discovered that it’s a really fucking bad idea to borrow exercise routines off YouTube performed by somebody who looks like they could benchpress six of me, when I myself can hardly do 30 pushups in a row. I discovered that I remember how to ride a bike, and that yes, you can actually forget – a bit, anyway. I discovered that I really enjoy writing snarky, ad-hominem critiques of crappy YA paranormal romance novels, and that I feel really bad about it afterwards. I discovered that I could never write High Fantasy again because it’s iterative and dry and boring. I discovered that I fucking love High Fantasy and can’t wait to get that Great Story rolling, just as soon as I actually know what it is. I discovered that I’m becoming more like my parents and that it bothers me a lot. I discovered that 27 years old is fucking nothing and angsting about how old and decrepit and socially irrelevant I am since I was 17 years old is hilarious, not sad, because seriously, 27 is NOTHING.

I’m sure I learnt more than that and, much like everything I learn, I’ve misplaced it somewhere in my memory banks. Perhaps it’ll come back to me. Perhaps not. But hopefully if it doesn’t, it’s because I don’t need it yet, and it’ll come back when I do.

Mostly I’ve learnt that I don’t know who I am or who I want to be, and that the habit of insisting that I do is really hard to shake. And to make sure you remember what your automatic payments are so you’re not paying for random crap. And I have learnt that, no matter how much you discover about yourself, the important thing is that you’re doing what you can in the moment, because memory is a fickle thing. We don’t remember things that seem like priorities; we cling to unhealthy half-truths that only look convincing because we don’t see the scaffolding holding them up at the back. And yet we also remember that we were happy Then, what happens to us for the next few years, all the lines to The Fellowship of the Ring (extended edition). We remember. It’s a function. There isn’t much we can do about it either way. And, well, that’s just how it is.

So live in the moment, because it never ends. Do what’s right to do now. Be aware of the worst, hope for the best, and just be here. It is, in the end, the only thing that’s certain, whether we like it or not. May as well do it as well as we can.

May your days be merry and bright, and may you discover all, and then discover it all over again.