The Artemis Complex

I finally got to reading Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers (which is totally awesome and I’ll post more on that later) and I couldn’t help noticing the cover – another girl with a crossbow (Ismae actually has a larger arsenal than that).  This year with the release of The Hunger Games and Brave, girls with bows and arrows have become the new chic for YA heroines.  In my story, Aerie, my main character is a good archer to fit with the wind theme.  So what’s the deal with this set up?  Well, I think that as we move away from the virgin/whoring bitch dichotomy, we’ve set ourselves a new archetype – Artemis.

Even among writers, there’s a writing subtext and subconscious that we all play into – and the new ideal is the dark Greco-Roman goddess of the moon and the hunt.  Greek mythology was one of my favorite topics in school, and my favorite goddess was Artemis.  Of all the goddesses on Olympus, she was untouchable but unafraid of getting her hands dirty.  I think that’s why so many types are modeled after her now.  Artemis was the virgin goddess of taking names and kicking ass.  While being a virgin isn’t a bad thing, it’s still overused as a hallmark of female noble character.  We still end up with a new rendition of the virgin/whore song we’re trying to stop dancing to.  Most of the girls who sleep around in romance novels are either raped, crazy/evil or turned into props.  If a heroine has sex, then all of a sudden we’re in erotica.  I find this particularly grating when I see it in sci-fi and epic fantasy.  Can’t we have female main characters that aren’t oversexed or overly celibate?  Why are we unable to walk lines in fiction that we seem to live along in modern Western culture?

While I love reading and playing with the Artemis archetype, I hope that it doesn’t become the next version of Mary Sue.  There’s so much more that can be done with girls other than switching one type of bow for another.  I think this is part of the reason why there are so many YA novels aimed at girls – there’s still a lot of coping being done in feminism.  There’s so much conflict in the formation of identity – how much do we go by old rules and how much do we make up on our way?  I adore Margaret Atwood’s books on how to these ideas conflict and that we find ourselves at this turmoil of what we see ourselves as and how much of the past we allow to guide our identity.  Historical novels will always pose an issue because there is a precedent that can’t be ignored easily.  My family came from a fairly conservative culture, and it was obvious to see first hand the amount of hypocrisy and self-flagellation over women’s roles of those espousing those views.  I’m willing to bet  it exists everywhere.

Admittedly, Artemis is a better turn than Hera, and I think we’re moving forward there’s still a long road ahead of us.  Virgins aren’t bad people, nor does being a virgin make someone good.  The same goes for women who have sex.  There just needs to be a greater push away from the fear of female sexuality, especially among female writers.  I say this as I look at “creative choices” that make me not want to let any of my family know about my writing.  Recently, I was at a crossroads when deciding what direction to take the leading lady of Unhexed.  I was basing my character off Rogue from The X-Men, and the idea of Magdalene asylums came up, which was a setting I wanted to explore for some time.  I wanted her to experience living in one, but it was a place for whores — my character wasn’t a whore.  And then this  stupid voice in the back of my head asked, ‘Why not? She’s cursed and her life’s damn horrible and she’s a great character in spite of that.’  The more I thought about it, the more it gave so many different dimensions to her interactions with the other characters.  Also, I remembered so many “other women” that have gotten bad treatment to be the foil for the heroines in romance novel and thought – this was my chance to look at how women who aren’t virgins or wives don’t get taken seriously, how easy it is to write someone off as a “whore.”  It’s still an issue faced by most of the world today.

So girls with crossbows, take aim, you’ve still got a long fight ahead of you.

Welcome back to the Dark Side, YA Genre

In the last few years, I turned away from the YA genre.  I attributed this to two things – 1) I’m now an adult and 2) the YA genre lost quite a bit of its darkness.  When I was younger, the books for YA were much darker in themes and characterizations.  I recall reading R. L. Stine’s Fear Street Sagas and seeing the villains win the day and the gory plot twists penned by Christopher Pike.  Blood, guts, and devilish deals were par for the course.  While fluffier fare has always been dominant in the YA section, the darker stories have been fewer and far between in recent times.  The Hunger Games felt like a throwback to those times.  But recently I decided to pick up the YA fantasy Finnikin of the Rock and its sequel Froi of the Exiles by Melina Marchetta, and I was blown away by the amazing world building and use of language she employs.  She was able to deftly convey through euphemisms and minor specific instances the darkest and most brutal parts of human nature – rape, slavery, subversion, mass murder, and the near destruction of a civilization.  It was nothing short of brilliant.  Unfortunately, the third and final book, Quintana of Charyn, comes out in Australia next month but the American release won’t be until 2013.  Oh well, I should be done working on my novel and doing my homework for three courses until then.

Now on shelves are at least two books featuring teen girl assassins, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas and Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers.  The former is YA fantasy and the latter is historical paranormal fiction.  Also coming soon is the sequel to Cornelia Funke’s novel Reckless (which I think doesn’t belong in YA because everyone in that story is well over 18 years old, and falls into the same nebulous YA/adult borderline fantasy category that Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett often find themselves in), currently listed as Fearless on GoodReads.  Reckless is Supernatural (Seasons 1 & 2) and the Brothers Grimm meets Through the Looking Glass.  I haven’t had the chance to check out Cassandra Clare yet and my reading list is still a mile high.  In general, I’ve noticed a greater shift toward adventurous, epic YA fantasy novels this past year.  I hope this keeps up, because I’m enjoying every minute of it.

Dancing at Midnight

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a huge sucker for fairytale/myth retellings.  Someone online mentioned wanting to read a good version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses a couple of months ago, and to my surprise I stumbled across one.

Jessica Day George’s novel Princess of the Midnight Ball has to be the best retelling of this story I’ve ever encountered.  Of course, it is from Bloomsbury so there’s little surprise about the quality of their fantasy books.  I am usually not easily impressed by books, and I hadn’t planned on reading it until I accidentally glanced at the first page and was hooked in.

The story follows Galen, a young man who returns from war to work at the palace gardens where the princesses mysteriously have their shoes worn away night after night.  The plot thickens when Galen finds himself enchanted by the eldest sister Rose and he becomes determined to discover their secret.  George uses all of the stereotypical fairytale cliches like the invisible cloak, the evil magician, damsels in distress and the like, but she also creates a very realistic and fantastic world for them to play in.  The novel does jump the borders between mundane and epic at different points.  I would have preferred a little more emotion from the characters and for them to be a little more fleshy, but otherwise, it was a definitely worthwhile read.

The pacing was well done.  So often I’ve read novels with the reveals being dragged out, but this story opens itself up.  Rose and Galen are sharp and tragically woven characters though bland at times.  The great problem of The Twelve Dancing Princesses is that there is a large balancing act with so many characters.  I know because as a teen I’d write far too many characters and a simple scene can get complicated when you have to count if you’ve left someone out of too many conversations.  Overall, I have to say I enjoyed the ride.

Leave the wand, take the road less traveled…

The Fairy Godmother by Mercedes Lackey

I stumbled across Mercedes Lackey’s The Fairy Godmother after drafting my own story about a fairy godmother (I’ve been on a side-character to main character kick lately, I’ve also got a story about a bartender in a band).  Curious to see how someone else had handled putting the fairy godmother as the main character rather than the deus ex machina, I picked it up (also to make sure I wasn’t trying to write a story that had already been written).  The reviews on Amazon were enticing too, especially since I can’t stay away from revisionist fairytales.  I’m not sure why, but I’ve come to find that Amazon reviews can be even less useful than the summary on the cover of the book.

The novel follows the trials and tribulations of Elena, a girl who was supposed to be a Cinderella archetype but the story goes awry in the hands of the Tradition, the deus ex machina of the story.  So Elena becomes a fairy godmother instead.  The ideas for a great story were waiting to be woven into a new kind of fairytale.  And every good fairytale needs a good knight in shining armor, this time played by the arrogant Alexander of Kohlstania.

There’s an old adage that goes ‘show, don’t tell.’  One of the 1 star reviewers pointed this out and I think that best sums up the whole failure of this novel.  The narrative constantly tells us what happens in a Reader’s Digest/Cliff Notes style and doesn’t display anything for the reader to figure out on her own.  There is no ‘aha!’ moment anywhere in the story.  Lackey explains how the magical world works, then has it working in favor of whatever Elena needs to do in a less than clever way.

Elena’s growth into the role of fairy godmother loses it’s edge and depth because it is told rather than shown.  The reader is told that she learns from the books in the library all she needs to know from fairy godmothers past.  It was hard to invest in such a two-dimensional character, she just cries about being unable to have sex and that is the extent of her emotional range.  Her relationships with the other characters aren’t developed, she doesn’t think much on the death of her father, the abuse of her stepmother and stepsisters, or Madame Bella; she’s just passive-aggressive in a scene where she’s not just taking up space in the room.  Alexander has a bit more depth because he has to “redeem” himself for being an ass and has some feelings for his younger brother who people think is queer because he’s not callous like his older brothers (spoiler alert: he’s just a flake who’s soft-hearted).

While there were interesting twists on the fairytale world they’re living in, it was more like the story was trying to turn every tale on its head for the sake of, rather than having a set point.  Also, in a post-Shrek (Shrek 2 and Shrek the Third) world, many of these twists become trite in their efforts.  Especially when too many get mentioned.  Instead of streamlining the story and focusing on Elena and Alexander, the narrative gets too caught up in discussing elements of the world they’re in and goes to lengthy explanations for side plots while failing to genuinely develop Elena or Alexander.  If there was anything remotely mysterious, you could count on someone popping in with a paragraph long explanation before the characters could even think about it.

The action scenes requisite for the fairytale genre were also deeply watered down.  Instead of combat, we get Elena slipping past the enemy with no trips or slips whatsoever.  The grand fight scene with the big bad Sorcerer is not shown until the final strike, so there was no pay off there either.  Once again, telling not showing ruined what could have been an impressive scene.

The epilogue was absolutely pointless as well.  It covered characters briefly mentioned (who were also awful rip-offs of Ever After characters) and it made it seem like everything wraps up nicely even though the narrative spent the whole time saying ‘but it doesn’t always end neatly,’ the entire novel is a contradiction of happy endings for every tale involved.

Overall the story had the potential for a wonderful revisionist tale, but instead became a huge ‘Reader’s Digest of the Five Kingdoms and Beyond.’   I was disappointed while reading it, even though I found it to be helpful in pushing my own story forward (not in a plagiarizing way, the plots are quite different much to my relief).  It serves as a good reminder that while background information is nice, it shouldn’t be the backbone of the story.  That’s the plot’s job and while it was clever and interesting from the few glimpses I got from it, it really needed to be developed fully rather than taking a backseat to explanations and anecdotes.  However, since many of the bad reviews cite that this isn’t up to Lackey’s standard (her mentor was Marion Zimmer Bradley), and I’ve heard good things about her other books, I’m willing to give her other books a shot before blacklisting her from my reading list.

All’s Fair in Love, War and Peace

Talyn: A Novel of Korre by Holly Lisle

It had been awhile since I read a high fantasy novel when I came across this one in the Midtown Library.  No, it’s not one of those trashy romance fantasy novels, the material in there is not that graphic either so I’m guessing the cover is to sensationalize it.  The cover of the edition I had was mostly black and doesn’t look like much.

Lisle creates a vivid world for her characters to play in, ripe with magic hierarchy and complex politics and religious undertones, I found it to be quite a worthwhile read.  The lead character Talyn is a Shielder who can wield magic and see into ‘the View’ which is sort of like a different plain of knowledge that only a few can go into.  It’s the primary battleground for an ages old feud between Talyn’s insular, homogeneous country and it’s republican ethnically hodgepodge neighbor.  The war, and consequently an entire war industry and way of life, ceases when foreigners bring peace to the region through alliances and placing their own soldiers on outposts.

The story is a multi-layered tale that begs the large philosophical question of, ‘Is everything about war bad?’ and more over next to nothing is black and white for the characters.  They constantly struggle with the weight of their actions and are conflicted with the paradox of wanting to win the war, yet still living as though they have purpose outside of it.  The history of the war and anecdotes inserted about it truly takes things to a new level.  The characters are sharp, genuinely complex and humanly real.

My criticism of the book is that the prose becomes dry and the plot lags halfway through.  The characters get caught in a sort of limbo as they try to rid their lands of the foreign influence.  Another sticking point for me is that the narrative bounces between first person and third person, which I’ve come to regard as a pet peeve if an author cannot stick to a particular style but I tried to put that aside.  The latter portion of the novel dragged and the end felt too rushed.

Still, it was a great read and I recommend it if you’re looking for how to write a very good fantasy world and multi-dimensional characters.

When Fairytales Go to Liberal Arts College

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Ugh, one would think I had the worst taste in books based on what I’ve been posting as my reading material… then again, is it invalidated by the fact that I know that it’s bad after reading it?

I skipped off to the library to find a new foray into the fantasy realm and Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin caught my eye. I love fairy tale retellings and couldn’t help picking it up, especially after seeing that it was a reprint with a special introduction for the reprint. Seems glamorous, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not.

I knew it was a modern retelling of the Scottish ballad when I walked into it. I knew it was about college students in the 1970s that was originally published in 1991.  (I love Something Wicked This Way Comes and have a deep nostalgia for the pre-tech days of storytelling) . What I didn’t know what that it was an English Lit GRE review guide masquerading as a teen fantasy novel.

As someone who survived the AP exams in both English Language & Composition and English Literature & Composition in high school, then masochistically went on to get a Bachelor of Arts in English Lit, even I was beating my head against the wall for all the excessive literary inside jokes and quotes from Keats (and I adore Keats). There was also an extremely excessive need to list colleges as well — Dartmouth, Grinnell, Harvard, Colgate, University of Pennsylvania, ad nauseum.

It was like the author found a box of her old college essays and decided to write a story about them ten years later. The characters sound more like English PhD students and several professors while lecturing for class, let alone undergraduate students simply hanging out during their freshman year. I have yet to meet anyone who can quote entire Romantic poems verbatim and do it roundrobin with several other folks for fun. Also, what straight twenty-something year old guy in college is willing to give up good sex because the girl he’s dating doesn’t read for leisure?

To add insult to injury, the characters were completely stale and unbelievable (if you couldn’t guess from my previous examples). It was hard to connect to Janet, who is supposed to be experiencing the emotions of moving out of her parents’ home, having her first boyfriend (and sex), and choosing her major. As someone who passed through all of those experiences fairly recently, I was disappointed that all of these situations were handled so poorly. Janet acts more like a weatherworn thirty year old than the naive eighteen year old she’s supposed to be. Instead, Dean takes time to run through a hodgepodge literary survey of Shakespeare performance, the Classics, and the Romantics.

While I understood most of the references (even Dean points out, it’s impossible for English students to have the same set of canon behind them yet continues to assault the reader with at least two per page), it becomes extremely tiring after a while. For example, “The stage was tiny, but Robin had pronounced it large enough for a sword fight, though, he said, you would not wish to try to produce something like Henry V on it, or anything whatsoever by Shaw,” (p. 250) requires the reader to know that Henry V is about war (I got lucky and saw Ethan Hawke while he was performing it at Lincoln Center) and that there are lots of long, extended sword fights throughout. The reader would also have to know that “Shaw” is a reference to “George Bernard Shaw” who enjoyed the swash-buckling defense of a woman’s honor (I think?). Again I have a degree in this and it wears me out, what teenager would know this off the top of her head? I’m all for reading ahead of your level, but this is all gibberish if you don’t know what they’re talking about. Even then it’s gibberish.

Imagine over 450 pages of this. No real action or adventure or real magical mischief. No true insight on the trials of attending college for the first time and growing up that are requisite for the Young Adult genre. There is too much distance from Janet to care about her and she doesn’t really do much of anything worth mentioning and there’s no emotional investment in any of the overly self-absorbed characters. Heck, the romantic portion is done so badly, I think a fourteen year old girl could have written something more genuine.

It isn’t until the last 40 pages that the story comes back and gets dropped on the reader. After over 300 pages of freshman year, the story breezes through to the fall of Janet’s senior year. Little of the story links up, the attempt at social commentary on birth control, abortion and Roe v. Wade that falls absolutely flat by just having her parents simply tell her that they’ll take care of a baby born out of wedlock and she doesn’t have to kill herself. Really? She doesn’t feel worry or shame or guilt (she got knocked up from what was basically a one-night stand with her roommate’s ex/her ex’s roommate). None of it works out to be clever or insightful about anything. It just happens.

I get that it’s supposed to be a college story, but does it have to read like the essay portions of an English anthology for college students?

Well, if nothing else, now you too can pass the English Lit GRE exam after looking up all the references in this book, get a PhD in English Literature, and still not figure out how this fits into the genre of “young adult fantasy.”

(The only reason I gave this book 3 stars instead of 2 stars was because I liked how the story cleverly used The Revenger’s Tragedy and Keats.)

Adapt This!

So I believe that the adaptation of any book into a TV series or movie is the bastardization (is that a real word? if not, it should be) of the source material (see Roswell vs. Roswell High, True Blood vs. The Southern Vampire, the Harry Potter films vs. the books, Legend of the Seeker vs. The Sword of Truth, etc.). The movie/show never lives up to the intensity and creativity of its source material, but is watered down and re-shaped for its new, blander media venue (there’s way more censorship for movies and TV than there are for books). Still, there’s always that urge to see your favorite characters light up the screen and become open to a wider audience. Here’s my list of books I’d like to see get dragged through the Hollywood mud:

The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix — (Movie) I’m a big Garth Nix fan, his stories are very visual and it would be a wonder to watch the characters brought to life. There are only 3 books in the series, so it would be a great movie set to have. Set in one a fairy tale-esque kingdom, it revolves around the daughters of an Abhorsen (necromancer) who fight the forces of darkness that threaten to destroy their world using the tools he and the generations before have left behind. While the stories feature female leads and anthromorphic wise-cracking spirit guides, I’d think this would be a great juxtaposition to the vampire trend. Zombies, betrayal and lots of action I don’t see how this wouldn’t be a smash hit at theaters. (As much as I don’t like Twilight, I am grateful that it’s made the way easier for marketing sci-fi/fantasy which is a small but devoted niche market.)


The Midnighters by Scott Westerfeld — (TV series) Another author I’m a big fan of, there was already talk about making the books into a TV show. I’m partial to agreeing with Westerfeld, Kern diminished the quality of the Charmed series when he took it over. But I’d still like to see what a world in blue without wind would look like. The series follows four friends who were born at midnight and have access to the mysterious 25th hour of the day where creatures from long ago reside, biding their time in the hopes of reclaiming the world. During the 25th hour, each of the friends has a unique power that they use to out maneuver their enemies. Though I doubt that a TV series will do justice to the ideas of child neglect and abuse (because if we don’t see it, it doesn’t happen, right?), I still hope to see this series on the small screen.


The Named Trilogy by Marianne Curley — (TV series) The story traces an ancient prophecy that foretells a universal battle royale for a group of time-travelers and the Queen of Chaos. A mix of sci-fi and fantasy, the series had tons of twists, betrayals, questionable alliances galore, along with ambitious yet flawed characters who safeguard the flow of history in order from those who seek to bend it to suit their own will. Though set in Australia, it wouldn’t be difficult to switch to American back-drops.