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Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Sci Fi Romance That Will Steal Your Heart.

Unacceptable Risk opens with a kind of electronic poetry that is reminiscent of William Gibson's Neuromancer.

I do not make that comparison lightly. Jeanette Grey grounds this story in a tangible dystopian future world where every aspect of life, even people's bodies, are saturated with technology. Unlike a lot of other sci fi writers Grey allows the reader to experience this futuristic world and new human experience without bogging us down with buckets loads of exposition. Instead she skillful integrates technological terminology into the descriptions of how Plix experiences stimuli in her world and even in her own body. It is subtle, but incredibly effective narrative device that quickly immerses the reader in this world without causing confusion or slowing the pace of the story.

Despite the futuristic setting the heart of this story is the relationship between Plix and Edison. We see this in the very opening of the book, when Plix is at her very worst the first person she goes to is Edison, seeking his help and comfort. In her near unconscious state we get glimpses of Edison's own very telling behavior, in his tenderness while caring for her wounds and frustration with her blind commitment to her mission.

One of the things I love about this story is it takes popular fiction cliches and turns them one their ear. Here we see a gender reversal that is both refreshing and expertly crafted into something entirely new. Plix is the driven hero(ine,) haunted by personal tragedy, on a secret mission to expose a dark conspiracy. Edison is the introverted tech who nurses her back to health and pleads with her to stop her self-destructive mission. In most mainstream sci fi noir stories like this one, the gender roles would be reversed and theses characters wouldn't be half as developed as they are here.

Edison is a compelling in his quiet strength, and determination to keep the woman he loves alive even as she chases her own death. His vulnerability (that is far from weakness) grounds this story in very real emotions. Even though Edison is in a supporting role, to a female lead, he is never reduce to some emasculated stereotype. He is compassionate, earnest and never threatened by Plix. Even when she infuriates him. What I wouldn't give to see more men like Edison in romantic fiction.

In the same right, Plix has been set into a role typically inhabited by men, but never once does the reader forget that she is a woman. Her pain over her past and her struggle to compartmentalize her emotions in order to protect herself and Edison is endearing and heartbreaking to read. She is intelligent, strong, stubborn and extremely endearing in her desperation to do what is right, while protecting Edison.

How very refreshing to see a strong female character that isn't a bitchy cliche or a male character in disguise. THIS is how you write a female protagonist, like a fully fleshed out human being. I wish we had more wonderfully detailed female characters like this in every genre of fiction.

I'm going to be honest, I fell deeply in love with both of these characters, and this story. It kept my heart racing, made her giggle and gasp out loud. I was scared for them and cheered them on every step of the way.

While, it was sad to see the story come to an end, it was a satisfying and believable one. I won't be sad for too long, since I'm sure to reread this book again and again.

I highly recommend this for both readers of science fiction and romance. You get fantastic book or an incredibly reasonable price ($2.66 on Amazon). It is worth every penny and then some.

I would also encourage any reluctant male readers to give this story a chance. It has all the same language and atmosphere of a traditional sci fic novel, AND it features a tech-geek as a romantic lead. Really, geeky guys should be hoisting Jeanette Grey on their shoulders and celebrating her portrayal of a sexy, compassionate, techno-savvy guy.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Blame Game: Romanticizing Abusive Relationships

The tricky thing about abusive relationships is that even the people in them don’t always realize that they are abusive.

It is common for the participants (both abuser and victim) to have been victimized in the past, be it through neglect or active physical, sexual or psychological abuse. So often the dysfunction and abuse in their current relationship doesn’t seem bad or is more acceptable, because it isn’t “as bad” in comparison to what they’ve experienced in the past. The most complicated thing about these kinds of relationships is that sometimes these two very broken and dysfunctional people honestly do love each other, in so much they are capable of love.

All of this is true of both the characters in this romanticized abusive relationship.

Captive in the Dark is a fantastic example of why abusive relationships are so common, by utilizing two very powerful stereotypes about men and women, that are also very popular archetypes in books, movies and various forms media.

Men are violent and domineering, while women are naive and weak. Therefore a man loves through force, and a woman loves through surrender.

In this story the reader is taken on an thrilling and emotional journey of learning how to love an abuser, while disempowering and blaming a victim for her abuse. It’s a pretty simple formula utilized by a lot a similar abuse/abuser fantasies. It is a very popular theme that can be found in almost every genre of romance from Fifty Shades of Grey to Beautiful Disaster, as well as many popular titles aimed at young adults.

It seeks to forgive the abuser for his many sins by giving him a sympathetic back story and a very earnest belief that he loves (or cares deeply for) his victim. Conversely, it casts the victim in the decidedly unsympathetic light, even when she is doing heroic or very understandable things, like resisting the abuser or attempting to leave the abusive situation.

What is the purpose of casting a victim in a negative light? Easy. It diminishes the very real horror of what the 'hero' does to the victim, because “it could be worse” or “it wouldn’t be as bad if she wouldn’t fight him.” Suddenly all of the victim's choices, that in the real world would be applauded as heroic, are cast in a negative light in the story. She is seen as being unreasonable, idiotic and even cruel/hurtful to the abuser’s feelings.

He loves, and needs her. /sarcasm

The story begins when Caleb, a criminal in the sex trafficking industry, kidnaps the heroine with the intention of forcing her into training as a sex slave so that he may sell her to his enemy in an elaborate (aka convoluted) revenge plan. Based on the the set up alone this book screams dark, thriller or horror, not the erotica romance.

However, I don’t blame those who do see it as erotic and romantic, because the entire story is framed and presented as just that. Where an abusive, kidnapper is a reluctant hero and his unwilling victim is his lucky lady love.

Caleb is the protagonist of this story. It is HIS story of redemption and poor little Olivia isn’t even the antagonist. She’s merely the conduit through which he is finds forgiveness and love. Her resistance and reluctance to love her abuser is the obstacle that must be overcome.

If only she would give up her sense of self worth, and freedom to give him that love he so richly deserves. /sarcasm

Captive in the Dark is a actually very well constructed, though the writing isn’t that stellar (epic ellipse abuse, more telling than showing and an overwrought narrative style that made Caleb sound more like an aristocratic poet of a gothic novel opposed to a gritty streetwise criminal). The story pulls the reader in with the taboo titillation of seeing through the eyes of a predator, but it is littered with cut-away flashbacks and carefully worded internal thoughts that attempt to justify his actions and induce the reader to forgive Caleb’s loathsome behavior.

Judging by the glowing reviews and vocal fans of the series, it works. That alone shows that this book/series is worthy of recognition. Though, I withhold my praise, and respect when all of this work is being put forth to paint an abuser as hero, at the expense of his young, female victim.

I’m not going to judge people who like this book, because honestly I’ve loved a ton of books with questionable content. Rather I’m hoping that people who enjoyed this book, and feel affection for Caleb stop the next time they hear a story about a victim of domestic, sexual or any other kind of abuse.

When they wonder “why did she stay,” I want them to consider that maybe that victim loved their abuser as much as Olivia (and the readers) love Caleb.

At the end of the day this is a dark fantasy about female disempowerment, and male control that results in the sexual pleasure too taboo to admit to wanting willingly, aka a rape fantasy. There is nothing wrong with people wanting to explore these dark desires, but I'm very uncomfortable with labeling a rape fantasy as romance. That's a rant for another post.

0.5 star for the skill it takes to sell rape and abuse as romance, but Roberts' has to share credit with rape culture and misogyny.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Warrior Women, Friendship and Asexuality!

Trigger Warning: There are mentions of one of the characters rape that takes place in her past. Nothing too graphic, but there are no warnings for it in any of the blurbs I've seen. It's best for people to be prepared. Note: This books is a bunch of loosely connected short stories collected into one book. It does not contain the story of Tarma and Kethry's first meeting, Sword Sworn published in the Sword and Sorceresses III Anthology. While this book takes place in the same universe as Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar series, it takes place in a different region of the world (the Southern lands). They are just as magical, but we do not encounter any characters from the other series and the tone of these books are different. Review proper: This books is a fantastic fun read. I highly recommend it to any fans of fantasy, especially if they are looking for female centric stories with humor and intricate world building on par of Tolkien and GRRM. Though I would hesitate to call this epic fantasy, because it's really more about the story of two women, who are best friends and warriors. I first read these book as a teenager, after unsuccessfully attempting to slog my way through various high fantasy series. As a teenage girl, and woman of color, I was longing to read about someone like me, while still exploring the concepts and world building of the fantasy genre. In other words, I was bored to death of white man fantasy. Where women were relegated to damsels, canon fodder or sexist jokes. Where there wasn't a single ethnic character, or the supernatural creatures were thinly veiled racist stereotypes ala JarJar Binks. Enter my foster mother who was tired of my bitching. She slapped down her well worn copies of The Oathbound and Oathbreakers, telling me to shut up and read. To this day I'm so grateful to her for giving me the gift of Mercedes Lackey's books. Even though it has been two decades since I first read these books they still stand as some of the most entertaining and endearing of all the books I own. If you're looking for books with a woman of color in a lead role, where a female friendship is set center stage and that has a of cheeky sense of humor these books are for you. This book also has one of the most positive representations of an asexual character I've ever read. The world has gay and lesbian characters who are viewed in a positive light. (In fact, Lackey has a prequel series set in this world, north in the kingdom of Valdemar about a gay man called Valdemar: The Last Herald Mage. Which I highly recommend too). This is fantasy with a female voice, written to entertain and amuse and it does.

Asleep...[insert joke here]

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

I’ve never been so sad to not finish a book, but this was has dragged on for so long and I keep putting it down because the issues repeatedly pulled me out of the story. It wouldn’t be so hard if I didn’t love the premise, and he lead characters, but even that can’t save this story for me. The really sad part is a good editor could have fixed most of the problems.

The dialogue was repetitive, and seemed to flop between a formal and casual modern language. Or as I call it the Keanu Reeves effect. I get this is a fantasy, but the world presented to us is one of royalty and formality. So to have people fall into language that I could hear at my local Starbucks made it really hard to suspend my disbelief and stay engaged in the story.

There was a lot of telling over showing, where characters informed us of every nuance of their feelings, but didn’t really display any of them. I have a real hard time picturing anyone in the story. Scenes were often a few sparse details and big chunk of exposition. This is especially true of the numerous flashbacks we get in Dev’s half of the narrative, which were fun at first, but quickly became tiresome.

The story starts strong with prince Dev being kidnaped on the eve of his wedding to long time love, princess Jessmyn. While Dev struggles to stay conscious to figure out who took him and why, Jess works with their families to search for him. That’s all that happened for several chapters.

It’s like starting a story with a gunshot and spending a week looking for the bullet. Yes, it was interesting to get the back story and slow build of Jess and Dev’s romance, but I also wanted things to fucking happen in the main story. All I got was Dev sleeping, and Jess talking a lot with his brother. ZZZzzzzzzzzz

I’m sure the story picks up eventually, but it lost me so early on that I just can’t stick around to find out. Especially, when I have to wade through a lot of poorly edited writing and rambling narrative that should have been tightened up or cut all together. I am not an editor by any stretch of the imagination, which is why it’s even more frustrating to me that I found myself mentally critiquing this story, instead of enjoying it.

The really sad part is I loved Jess. She was a refreshing balance of strength and subtle femininity. Sure, she was a little cliche with the “I’m so uncomfortable in girl clothes” schtick, but I found it charming. I really liked the scenes between her and her parents, though some of the dialogue was really forced, but you could see how they raised a daughter more comfortable with a sword than a tiara.

Dev, when he was awake, charmed me too. I did enjoy how the flashbacks let us see the evolution of how this humble, loving man was once a spoiled, macho princeling. Seeing them as children was interesting, but again the dialogue was way too mature for kids their ages.

So there you are. I really wish I could have enjoyed this story more, and stuck with it, but it began to feel more like work than fun. Reading a good book should never feel like work.

1.5 stars

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Fandom and Racism: Is it racist to not ship or like a character of color?

Recently, I joined the Sleepy Hollow fandom, and I’m loving it a lot. However, someone pointed out that they recently saw a post on the Sleepy Hollow tag that said the “only reason to not ship Ichabod and Abbie is racism.”

I do NOT believe not liking or shipping a character of color, in and of itself, is racist. However, I do think it’s important to talk about where this idea comes from, because it is indirectly pointing out a very real issue in fandoms and media in general.

This sentiment is nothing new, and as much as it may seem to come out of left field, it has a very real, very palpable basis. Not because fans are racist, but because of the the way people of color are treated in popular media. And how that inequitable treatment and lack of representation can be echoed in fandom.

Similar accusation have been leveled against fans, in the True Blood fandom, who didn’t like the character Tara. In the Iron Man/Avengers fandom there has been accusations of unequal treatment of the Tony/Rhodey ship. I can even remember were heated debates over similar issues in both the Heroes, and Angel fandoms. 

I used to roll my eyes when I saw these kinds of accusations fly around in the past. They didn’t make sense to me because I, like many other fans, didn’t like or ship these characters either. I knew that my choice to ship or not wasn’t based on race, but rather how I felt about the character themselves. I was left, like others in fandom, scratching my head. 

Then, I joined the Twilight fandom. Where the most popular slash pairing was not between the two male leads of the series, Edward Cullen and Jacob Black, but rather Edward Cullen and his vampire sibling Jasper Whitlock. Two white guys. 

The popularity of the Edward/Jasper pairing, confused me, given that Jasper had a smaller role, and very few scenes of interaction with Edward, when compared to Jacob. It was especially inexplicable to me when most popular slash ship I had seen in other fandoms were almost always between the two male leads (especially so if they were romantic rivals). The only difference that I could see between all those popular slash ships and Edward/Jacob was that it is a multicultural relationship.

I have a lot of friends who are Ed/Jasper shippers, who I know are not racist, but I knew there was something else at work, and I had to figure it out. So instead of judging them, I decided to listen to what they had to say about why they liked the ship, but more importantly why they didn’t like or relate to Jacob. 

Once I set aside my own personal feelings (and anger), I realized the fault didn’t lie with fans, but rather with the source material. Many of the Twilight fans don’t like Jacob Black, don’t see him as a desirable, or relatable character because Stephen Meyer didn’t write him to be one.

When you look at the Twilight series, all of the Quileute characters are underdeveloped, undesirable and unsympathetic. Their actions often bordered on racist stereotypes. From Jacob’s attempted sexual assault on Bella, to Paul’s violent temper that resulting in him shifting into wolf form and attempting to attack Bella. Even Leah’s “harpy” stand-offish behavior toward Bella, all set them in opposition of Bella, the lead character and the stand-in for the reader. They are alien to her human nature, but not in the sparkly, desirable way the vampires are, but a violent, animalistic threat to her very safety. I mean, jesus, Meyer even made them smell bad. WTF?

While other media aren’t as overtly racist in they’re portrayals of people of color, often their treatment of characters of color are no less problematic. In other words, fans might be more inclined to love and ship characters of color if there were MORE of them. If people of color were allowed to be complex, layered and most of all relatable to everyone in the audience. 

See, the issue lies within the sever lack of diverse representations of people of color, where we are not only the villains and best friends, but the lovers, heroes and more. The best way to achive this is to expand our presence in all media. Stop the token casting of a few people of color, and fill the cast to bursting with us. Show the diversity that exists in reality, where we are doctors, lawyers, criminals, geeks, and soldiers. Once we are more present, and more accessible in media, than there will be more fans rooting for and falling in love with us. 

Not liking a character of color or not shipping them isn’t racist. However, fans shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the latent racism, and lack of representation of people of color in media. Nor should they ignore how the problematic nature of the media they consume can directly affect how they react to (love, hate, mourn, etc) characters of color. 

Love who you love, ship whomever you want, but don’t ever stop questioning and examining media. We ALL should challenge content creators to do more, to do it better and do it with a more diverse cast of characters to represent EVERYONE in the audience.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Multicultural Tokenism in Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy

Recently, while I've been searching for a good "witchy" book with a non-white lead, I was reminded of one of my most loathed tropes that is still really prevalent in fiction. I found it first in the Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy genres, but it can be found in all genres of fiction. It seems to be popping up in YA a lot lately too. 

The white-passing, multicultural (mixed race) lead. They’re often female character, but the same trope can be applied to male characters too. All of them will fit one or more of the items on the list below.

  • Their non-white ethnicity is tied to or is the source of their powers. 
  • They have a Western European name, or a stereotypically ethnic last name, like Bloodmoon or Akira. Or are named after a well known god/goddess from the non-white culture's pantheon. Bonus points if they share a name with a non-white Disney character.
  • They are the result of their non-white parent raping their white parent.
  • Their non-white culture is a source of personal pain, because their non-white parent is dead, absent, an abuser, and/or the main villain of the series. 
  • They are out of touch or at odds with their non-white culture.
  • They’ve been rejected by their non-white family/culture.
  • They are the only character of color in the story.
  • If they are other characters of color they are all different ethnicity, never more than two people of the same ethnicity appear in the same book. 
  • If there is another character of the same ethnicity, as the lead, in the story they are a minor/one-off character who ends up dying to help, save life of or further complicate the lead character’s story line (aka WiR). Or they are a villain.
  • If a new reader were to pick up a book in the middle of the series they would have no idea the character is not white.
One of the problems with these characters they are not authentically representing their ethnicity or the experience of being multicultural. They are essentially a white character taking on the affectations of another culture. In other words this is just a subtle form of Cultural Appropriation.  

Cultural Appropriation isn’t just taking on the guise of another culture, but reducing the complexity of another culture down to an, often negative or disparaging, stereotype. For example, that men of color are absent parents, abusers and/or rapists. 

Now, this is not to say that all the books with white-passing, multicultural leads fall into this trope. However, even some of the good ones can stray into problematic territory. I think this happens for two reasons. First, because a person’s ethnic and cultural identity (even white characters) isn’t treated with the weight it deserves in fiction. Secondly, authors are not aware of or don’t take the existing racism in our culture into account when they write about characters of color.

Racism is real, and it still heavily influences how people of color are represented in fiction. Any author who wishes to write about them, should understand how racism affects their lives and to make the effort to not contribute to it. Nor should they attempt to avoid dealing with the complexity of the issue by erasing or ignoring a multicultural character’s ethnicity.

Our family, culture, and where we come from is a very significant part of who we are. Even the absence of them has a profound affect on a person’s own identity. The experience of being multicultural is a wonderfully complex way to demonstrate a journey toward that self discovery, but it deserves to be fully represented.

[Special note: Many of the traits of this trope can easily apply to characters who are part human and [insert magical race or species here]. It’s important to remember that even if an author has taken race (in the traditional sense) out of the story, in popular cultural and fiction, white is the default human race. So the supernatural race/species often becomes the “other” and their treatment can be just as much of a reflection of racism in our culture. Where a half human character must seek to purify or be more human to be heroic. As a multicultural person, stories like this read a lot like white supremacist pamphlets than a fantasy story about self discovery.]