WoGF Book Review: Ironskin by Tina Connolly

This is my third book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at World Without End.

Ironskin by Tina ConnollyWhen the 2012 Nebula Award nominees were announced, I was pleased to find I had read (and enjoyed) four out of six in the Best Novel category.  The fifth has been on my reading list for a while.  The sixth, the only one I’d never heard of, was Ironskin by Tina Connolly.

I picked it up so quickly in part because of some idiot comments floating around the web about the genre becoming too girly, and it made me happy that books like this are starting to get serious recognition.  Once I read the description, I was curious about what made this book so special that both it and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamour in Glass were included on the shortlist (both being alternate histories in the regency era).

Ironskin is a retelling of Jane Eyre with fey.  Unlike Glamour in Glass, where society is practically unchanged by the addition of magic, Connolly’s world is dramatically different.  Society had become dependent on fey technology, powering everything from lights to motor cars with magical “bluepacks”—until the Great War.  The story starts five years after the war’s end.  The fey are gone, but the country is left devastated, and scrambling to make do with coal and steam.  A generation of young men is slaughtered, and many unlucky survivors are left with fey curses that can only be suppressed by covering the scars with iron.  Jane Eliot is one such ironskin, hiding her deformed face with an iron half-mask.

I thought the language was lovely, and really captured the feeling of Jane Eyre.  The societal consequences were well-thought out, and I loved the references to slightly altered titles and quotes from plays by “Shakspyr.”  The fey were very traditional and satisfyingly malevolent in contrast with the recent abundance of urban fantasy reinterpretations.

Jane’s interactions with the fey-touched child, Dorie, actually bothered me quite a lot through the first half of the book, but I think they were meant to.  It was heartbreaking to watch all the life and spirit drain out of the girl as Jane and her father insisted she deny her fey gifts in favor of acting “human.”  There were strong reasons for her doing so, but rather lightly touched upon, and I can’t help but wish that I could have been made to really believe in those reasons along with Jane.

The other aspect of the story that bothered me was the easy resolution of Jane’s dislike of her scarred face by giving her a new, perfect fey face.  It feels like a cop-out.  I was disappointed in Jane for forcing Edward to make her a new face, and while I loved the horrifying way in which that backfired on her, I hate that she got to be magically beautiful anyway.  It sends a conflicting message.  On one hand, it tries to convince you that fey beauty is deadly and Jane’s scars mark her bravery, but the other hand snatches it all away in the ending with the impression that it can’t be a happy ending if she’s still ugly.  Needless to say, that left a bad taste in my mouth.

If you can overlook that distasteful theme, however, I found Ironskin to be very engaging overall, and the faery queen beats the insane wife in the attic, hands down.  Worth a read for fans of the classic.

WoGF Book Review: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

This is my second book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.  I’m back on schedule—just barely!

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth BearRange of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear is the story of an empire falling apart.  The Old Khagan is dead, and his nephew Temur is left for dead on the battlefield.  However, in a land where each of the Khagan’s living heirs has his own moon in the sky, his survival is no secret, and his uncle is determined to hunt him down.  His first instinct is merely to get away, but when an enemy sends the ghosts of his people to capture his bed-mate, he sets out on a quest to reclaim her.  Along the way, he joins with the wizard and once-princess Samarkar to stand against a hidden cult that seeks to play Temur and his uncle against each other and conquer their people.

The language in this book was beautiful.  Not overly showy, but fluid and graceful, effortlessly leading me through the story.  The love scene early on is one of the most poetic I’ve ever read.

Lots of great female characters: wizards, warriors, horsewomen, grandmothers, princesses, an even a female king.  And horses; Temur’s mare Bansh truly was a character in her own right.  I always love seeing a range of strengths.  Looking back on it now, this book was actually very heavily populated with women.  Given that a lot of the men all killed each other off before the story started, that makes a lot of sense.

My favorite part was the magnificent world building.  The feel of the silk-road fantasy world was very solidly Not European, from the Rasan custom of sticking out your tongue to show respect to the life of the steppe clans, with their horses and white-houses and true names.  The sky changes to reflect the god of whomever holds power in the land, and the gods seem very close.

It was incredibly refreshing to get away from the familiar old tropes, but in some ways it also placed an extra layer of distance between me and the characters. It felt more like watching a grand adventure unfold than being plunged into the midst of one myself.  I enjoyed the story, but I wasn’t emotionally invested.  I wasn’t compelled to keep reading.  I feel bad about saying that, because it really is a great book, and I’m planning to read the sequel when it comes out.  I think it probably says more about me as a reader; the emotion is all very subtly drawn, dipping very shallowly into the characters and letting their feelings come across mainly through their actions and the choice of description.  Quite different from a lot of my other reading fare, and requiring more concentration on my part.

I went into this book thinking it would probably end up on my Hugo nomination ballot.  I’m not sure it makes it into my top five, but Range of Ghosts is definitely in contention.

WoGF Book Review: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

A few weeks ago, I posted about the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge over at Worlds Without End.  As predicted, writing the review is the hard part.  So, more than three weeks after finishing the book, here’s my first: a review of Graceling by Kristin Cashore.

I’ve been hearing good things about Graceling for years, but the description always put me off.  A book about a smart, beautiful teenage girl with a magical talent for killing?  Right.  Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve read perhaps too many urban fantasies in the last few years about hot young women who are deadly with their weapons of choice, and I just wasn’t in the mood for another one, even if it was set in a fairy-tale kingdom.

Turns out I was wrong.  When I finally picked it up from my local library, Graceling upended all my expectations.  Katsa kills, yes, and she’s magically good at it, but that’s not what the book is about.  It’s about Katsa herself, and what it means for her to be forced to act as a thug and a killer when all she wants is to be a good person.

The book opens with Katsa in the midst of a secret rescue.  Secret, not because the kidnappers might manage to stop her, but because she can’t let her uncle, the king, find out.  I love that she doesn’t even know the victim, and she’s saving him just because it’s the right thing to do.  And contrary to my fears, she’s very careful not to kill anybody, not even the one witness who might have recognized her.

Katsa is the very definition of a strong female protagonist.  Not the physical strength, though obviously she has that in abundance, but the strength of character.  She is her own person, and she doesn’t need to hide behind or depend on anyone else; but at the same time, she can accept help with grace.  She doesn’t stupidly insist on doing everything herself and shutting out the world.  When things go wrong, she takes action—and responsibility.

I thought the interactions between her and the two potential love interests were very well done, and thought-provoking in ways you don’t find in most teen books.  When her friend turns out to be in love with her, she has the admittedly cliché reaction of having never seen it coming.  But instead of being flattered by his protectiveness, she feels insulted; after all, she can defend herself better than anyone else in seven kingdoms.  His assumption that she would change her mind about wanting children was particularly condescending, and I loved Katsa’s disgusted reaction.

I think it’s so important for young adult books in particular to show young women that they don’t need to conform to the expectations of a handsome man just because he likes her.  Her life doesn’t need to become about him—even when she does like him back.  When Katsa finally does fall in love, I love that she doesn’t turn to melodrama and decide that she can never be with him without being owned by him, so they must break their hearts and never be together.  But she also doesn’t just jump into the sack with him.  She takes the time to think about the consequences, not only the immediate ones, but whether she can be his lover without feeling owned, whether she’ll be able to leave, and how it will affect his feelings when she does.

The final showdown with the evil king was abrupt, but I realized, reading the denouement afterward, that it fit.  The encounter didn’t deserve any more page time, because it wasn’t actually the focus of the book.  Katsa’s acceptance of herself is the focus, and her relationships with the other characters.  It was only right to spend more time dealing with the consequences of the king’s evil and Katsa’s role in his demise (sorry, hope that didn’t spoil anything…but come on, was he ever going to win?) than with the actual encounter.

Graceling is a thoughtful, imaginative, and thoroughly enjoyable book, which I heartily recommend.  I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge

2013 Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading ChallengeNormally, the last thing I need is encouragement to read more, but when I saw the 2013 Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge, I had to join.  The challenge: 12 books, 12 months, 12 reviews, all by women authors I’ve never read before.  I love the idea, because there’s still an unconscious bias in our society to regard books written by men as being more worthy of merit, and the best way to combat it is through awareness of the bias and exposure to all the great fiction out there by women.  I encourage everyone to join!

Considering my prolific reading habits, 12 books is no challenge, nor that they’re written by women.  (My statistics on this are actually pretty fascinating.  A full 73% of the books I read last year were by women.  However, only 55% of my “favorites” shelf on Goodreads are by women, so it’s possible I still have some of that bias.  It’s also possible that my reading habits have changed, and my favorites haven’t caught up yet.)  The “never read before” restriction may cause slightly more trouble, for the same reason, but that’s the point of the challenge–to discover new women authors.  No matter how many I’ve read, I’m sure there are plenty left to choose from.

No, I expect the challenge for me will be the reviews.  I occasionally review books on Goodreads or Amazon, but they tend to be very short, just a quick description of what I loved about the book (or, very occasionally, disliked).  I’ve never attempted to summarize the plot, or do any sort of deeper analysis.  I want to be more complete with these 12 reviews, and it will be a new sort of writing for me.

I’m considering posting my reviews here, though it’s a little outside my normal scope.  Does anyone have strong feelings about it, one way or another?

Non-Romance in the Rain Wilds

I love a good romantic subplot, but they generally come in only two flavors: the True Love Story, and the Fun Fling (or disastrous, ill-conceived fling, as the case may be).  I’ve seen both done well and poorly, believable and far-fetched, but it occurs to me that there’s a third type of romantic plot that we rarely see, and may be more important than the other two: the Non-Romance.

One of the biggest criticisms of romance in fiction is how unrealistic it often is.  Too-good-to-be-true heroes who act like women wish they would; young people whose first love turns out to be their perfect match; impossibly good-looking suitors lining up to fight over the heroine.  I’m the last person to naysay young love, having married my high school sweetheart, but I think it’s important to show that there doesn’t always have to be a relationship.  Not just through the absence of romance, but through consideration and rejection of it.

To explain what I mean, I’ll need to use an example.  Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I read the first three books of Robin Hobb’s latest series, The Rain Wilds Chronicles.  This may contain some spoilers, so consider yourself warned.

One of the storylines concerns a young Rain Wilder named Thymara (I think she’s sixteen).  She has spent her entire life knowing she’s forbidden to mate, not only because her children would be too monstrous to survive, but also because the pregnancy and birthing might kill her.  When she leaves civilization with a group of other young outsiders, she never even considers breaking that rule.  She’s shocked to discover one of the other girls has been sleeping around, and outraged when the group’s self-appointed leader orders her to pick someone to keep the boys, who vastly outnumber the girls, from fighting over her.

One of the boys, Tats, is her friend from home.  The perfect choice, but she refuses to choose him (or anyone else).  It’s not an easy choice.  She does like him.  But she’s not in love with him, and she knows she’s not ready, and that she can’t afford to get pregnant (and that’s before she witnesses the other girl’s messy miscarriage).

I can’t remember the last time I actually rooted against a romantic attachment, but Hobb pulls it off here, and she does it brilliantly.  Part of it is how she portrays the selfishness of the boys—not enough to make them jerks, but enough to put me off.  Tats keeps pushing, accusing Thymara of teasing, of not being willing to take a small chance for him.

Her second suitor is even worse, giving her magical Elderling memories of a love affair between them (without so much as warning her), and then seducing her.  He obviously thinks of it as a grand romantic gesture, but to me, it reads like date rape.  Afterward, though, Thymara comes to her senses and realizes it shouldn’t happen again.  She doesn’t confuse passion with love, and doesn’t let pleasure circumvent her good sense.  Unfortunately, the book ended without anyone in the story recognizing what a violation it was.  I will be extremely disappointed if his bad behavior gets swept under the rug.

However the story plays out, though, I know Thymara’s not going to go starry-eyed.  If she ends up in a relationship, it will be based on real, lasting feelings, and no teenage boy is going to trick her into it.  She’s too strong to settle for anything less—and that’s an example a lot of teens could learn from, girls and boys alike.