Where Women Rule Group Giveaway

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The Wandering Land Cover and Excerpt

The Maze House. The Fox Woman’s Garden. The Caverns of the Queen. These are the things that await you in the wandering land.

On a summer night in a sunbaked desert city, the wandering land appears. A fairytale village nestled in dense forest, it is a place of ruined castles, abandoned treasures, and strange creatures living in the shadows. Brought together by this impossible place are five visitors: failed painter Eli; art professor Amal; young lovers Darcy and Wes; and mysterious, haunted Coyote. Together they explore their own secret village, an entire world hidden in plain sight.

But there is darkness beneath the magic, a force pulling the visitors deeper and deeper into the place’s mysteries. As the boundaries between the secret land and the outside world begin to collapse, each of the visitors is confronted with visions of an otherworldly child, a child whose existence holds the key to understanding everything about the place that has drawn them together.

Who is this child? Why did she choose them? And will she ever let them go?

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Excerpt:

The moon yawned at Coyote and she yawned back. The taste of distant thunderstorm hit the back of her tongue. It wouldn’t come tonight, but next week the bruise-purple clouds would press down on the city and the dust would be washed from the air.

The night quivered like a plucked harp string. Something had arrived, something big that wasn’t there before. Coyote slung her guitar over her shoulder and made her way along the bank of the dry riverbed. She took a slow, quiet path despite her curiosity; park rangers had chased her away before, speaking nonsense about opening and closing times. A snake glided over the rocks off to her right, too far away to see. She stomped once to send a little vibration through the ground, a vibration that said Keep to yourself.

As she walked, Coyote glanced up over the lip of the riverbank. There should have been a stand of cottonwoods stretching black against the sky, but instead the stars had nothing to hide behind. She paused, cocked her head, listened. The sounds were wrong on this side of the wash, too soft, with none of the cicadas who thought they could drive her mad with their songs but didn’t know she was too clever to fall for that old trick.

Coyote climbed the bank, smooth river rocks shifting under her hands and feet. She whispered an apology for disrupting their sleep.

She felt no confusion about what she saw when she came up over the edge. The moon had come out bright and clear to yawn at her, after all, to show her everything. It was a little graveyard, flat smooth headstones surrounded by a stacked rock wall. Vines and brambles climbed over the outside of the wall, straining to get in, but inside the graveyard looked perfectly kept. No weeds grew, no earth was disturbed, and a single pale lily rested against each headstone.

From beyond the graveyard, the breeze carried the smell of cool, wet leaves where there should have been cactus and dust. Past the rock wall, Coyote saw fields and cottages where there should have been mesquite trees and a paved street leading away from the park. Where there should have been a desert city, there was forest.

Voices chattered at Coyote from all directions. Some told her the place was bad and wrong and she must get away now. Others said it could not be all wrongness if they took such care of their dead. Still others murmured under the rest, saying, You know this place, don’t you, Coyote, you know if you go just past the graveyard you’ll find the church and the statue and the Maze House and the Fox Woman’s Garden and the Caverns of the Queen. You know you know you know you know—

The weight of the voices dragged Coyote to her knees. Her guitar slipped from her fingers. Motion from the ground before her caught her eye. As she watched, two crumpled bits of paper worked their way up through the soil like night-blooming flowers. She unfolded the first, then the second, and held them side-by-side in moonlight bright enough to read by.

The first, in flowing copperplate, read, You and the others should run from this place. If you walk these roads, she’ll never let you leave.

The second, written in an awkward, blocky scrawl, said, You have to lead the others to her. Show them the way. Together you can save her. The first trial is to find each other.

Coyote looked up from the two notes to the graves that had birthed them. The headstones were different shapes, different sizes, but each bore the same single word.

Mother.

Laughter ripped from Coyote’s throat. The notes crumpled as her fists clenched around them. She laughed until her ribs hurt, and when she could laugh no more, she howled.

***

The Wandering Land is coming soon from Solstice Publishing. Stay tuned for trailers and other info.

The Feminism of The Last Jedi

Warning: Spoilers for The Last Jedi abound throughout this post.

Ok, look, there are tons of reasons to love The Last Jedi. The thrilling battle sequences. Filmmaking artful and lived-in enough to make you forget the plasticky CGI nightmare they made of the prequels. Interrogation and upending of established tropes. A sense of humor. But, for me, what really sets this film apart is its unapologetic, bone-deep feminism. And I’m not just talking about badass-lady-swings-a-sword feminism; plenty of films get to that level. No, The Last Jedi digs much, much deeper than that, exposing in the process some of the unspoken assumptions and aggressively misogynist traits of the filmmaking industry as a whole.

More than anything else, I’d like to take a minute to use The Last Jedi as a way of exploring the layered nature of feminist filmmaking, starting with the easiest forms of representation and moving all the way to the truly rare and surprising feats that this film and so few others pull off. Here we go:

Level One: Get beyond tokenism.

The original Star Wars trilogy already had Leia, and she was great. From the get go, she was much more than the damsel the genre so badly wanted her to be. Blunt, handy with a blaster, committed to her politics, she was always a feminist character (gold bikini scenes notwithstanding). But. . . aside from Leia, what other women do you recall from that universe? Luke’s aunt? That one rebel officer with the pixie cut? Even setting aside aliens and androids of indeterminate gender, examining crowd scenes in the original trilogy or the prequels brings to mind a weird dystopian subplot in which a sex-specific plague wiped out nearly all women. This is, of course, not a sin specific to Star Wars or sci-fi in general; numerous studies have shown that women are ridiculously underrepresented in both speaking roles and in non-speaking crowd scenes. Still, the Star Wars movies have, up until this point, been particularly glaring their underrepresentation of women. Even The Force Awakens, with all the fanfare about how great Rey is, took a while before it came close to passing the Bechdel Test.

Now look at The Last Jedi. Apart from the many, many prominent roles accorded to women, they constantly appear in those busy battle station scenes, in the seats of cockpits, and as mechanics. All of which, of course, makes perfect goddamn sense. Aside from the Jedi with their lightsabers, almost nothing about this starfaring society requires any particular upper body strength (the last-gasp, scientifically dubious, final biological argument misogynists and MRA fuckboys everywhere still cling to). On rebel ships, women comprise roughly half the people in any given scene (by my own admittedly rough visual estimate), which is as it fucking should be. Yet how many films can honestly claim to achieve this?

Level Two: You have more than one lady, and they’re not all young, hot, and white.

Congratulations, you got a whopping two women into your movie. But seeing more than one woman in a room at a time makes the dumber men of our species have uncomfortable thoughts that said women might be plotting to poison them and steal their penises (or. . . something. I’ve never been clear on exactly what the fear is, here.), so it’s best to make sure these characters are the least threatening versions of our gender possible: slender, beautiful, white women under the age of twenty-five. Do I actually need to provide examples of how common this problem is?

Now that you’ve had a moment to think back on 95% of the movies you’ve seen in your life, let’s return our attention to The Last Jedi. Our very first major battle scene ends with a heroic sacrifice by a woman of color, performing the kind of selfless final act usually reserved for our male heroes and the end of the film. Her sister, Rose, then takes up the reins, calling Finn on his bullshit and basically propelling the second act. In addition to Rose, women of color are visibly present in small supporting roles and among the extras, creating a world in which they exist as more than isolated tokens.

Then there’s Leia, Vice Admiral Holdo, and Commander D’Acy, all of whom are over forty, have crows’ feet, and command the fuck out of the rebels. None of these characters’ ages would be notable if these were male admirals and commanding officers since, ya know, it takes a while to achieve that rank. But Hollywood’s allergy to female aging very rarely allows for even one part like this, let alone three.

Basically, while it might be painfully obvious to observe that women come in different sizes, shapes, ages, and ethnicities, would you be able to determine that from watching most films? Didn’t think so.

Level Three: Recognize that femininity is an asset, not an obstacle to be overcome.

Here’s where The Last Jedi really exposes Hollywood’s sexist bullshit. Then it douses that bullshit in gasoline and sets it ablaze. It does so in the form of the rivalry between Poe Dameron and Vice Admiral Holdo. You’ve all seen this a million times: the cocky, instinct-driven maverick vs. the stolid, by-the-book authority figure. The trigger-happy detective vs. the chief. In The Last Jedi, the setup is familiar, but the payoff is a shock: Dameron is totally, absolutely, dead fucking wrong about his maverick rogue plan, and his idiocy gets people killed. It’s Holdo, who Dameron frames as a coward and traitor, who has actually been protecting the rebels through calm, solid leadership focused on reaching a safe harbor.

The gender dynamics, however, make this more than just a surprising twist on an old formula. Holdo is feminine in every sense. She’s got a shimmery dress, a stylish wavy bob, and a soft voice that makes her sound more like a kindergarten teacher than a battle-hardened commander. But not one of these things holds her back in any way. On the contrary: every interaction between Holdo and Leia reveals a pragmatic, deeply feminine sense of prudence, responsibility, and concern for the larger community rather than just for immediate glory. When Holdo sacrifices herself to take out an enemy vessel, it isn’t one of Poe Dameron’s devil-may-care impulse moves. It’s a calm, cleareyed calculation, the right decision made at the right time.

And that is precisely where The Last Jedi earns a rare mark of distinction as a piece of feminist sci-fi. These women aren’t heroic despite their gender; they’re heroic because of it. This is a film that looks swaggering proponents of toxic “alpha” masculinity right in the eye and tells them to grow the fuck up.

It’s about time.

Substitutes for “Strong Female Character”

Like many feminist writers, I spend a lot of time thinking about the pitfalls of writing women, and a lot more of my time marveling at the ways (often, but not exclusively) male writers manage to step into the most obvious of traps. There’s good old women-in-refrigerators, in which pain and horror is inflicted on female characters for the sole purpose of motivating a man. There’s failing a simple Bechdel test. That’s not to mention flat-out useless or sidelined female characters or women who exist solely as a prize (ahem, Kingsmen).

Those pitfalls are so obvious and long-discussed that I have to think all except the most novice writers make a conscious choice to not give a shit, particularly if it makes for a more marketable story. In which case, you’ve picked your side and I have no reason to continue the discussion with you. But this still leaves one of the more frustrating female character fails, and the one that I think is most often born of good intentions: the Strong Female Character.

Writers who seek to produce a Strong Female Character often seem to be trying hard. They often get pretty damn close to something good. Butt-kicking women fighting the good fight, staring danger in the eye, and participating in badass capers? What’s not to love?

If done correctly, all of the above can be fantastic. Yet it so often results in a problematic or even overtly anti-feminist message. Why?

To answer this, I’d like to focus on an example from anime: Attack on Titan‘s Mikasa Ackerman (note: spoilers abound from this point on). Mikasa appears at first glance to be an ideal Strong Woman: she’s the best fighter in her unit. She’s calm, cool under pressure, smart, and she’s the one who most often fights to protect her friends. Yet, the more time we spend with Mikasa, the more apparent it becomes that every single aspect of her character is defined entirely in relation to her best friend/surrogate brother/unrequited love, Eren. She risks life and limb to rescue him, repeatedly fights to protect him, and defies orders to keep him safe even after it is revealed that he is secretly a big, vicious Titan. Flashbacks don’t do anything to fix the problem. Instead, we see that her identity was bound to his from the moment they met during a violent encounter as small children. Two seasons in, I can name absolutely nothing about her character that isn’t in some way bound up with her male companion. Even her trademark red scarf comes from him.

This brings me to what I view as the central issue with the Strong Female Character: Female strength is only interesting when it is in support of the interests of a male character. Female strength employed in that woman’s personal interest or in the interests of other women is rarely viewed as anything other than unhinged psychosis or as a feature of a supporting character far removed from the central plot.

Think of how many examples of this we can see in pop culture: nearly every Doctor Who companion until Bill, Harley Quinn, every tough Bond girl ever, Gamora, even Sarah Connor. All have badass qualities that exist in direct service to the goals and journey of a male character, and that’s it. This is, of course, not a new observation, and it’s bound up with the representation issues identified by the Bechdel Test and the Mako Mori test. Still, I think it’s worth considering why this problem seems so intractable even among well-intentioned writers who want to do better.

So what actually makes a good, strong (as in strongly-written) female character? Here I’d like to turn to Furiosa. I think a lot of people misunderstand what makes Furiosa a feminist character. They look at her fighting skills, her shaved head, her stoic demeanor, and think that’s what defines her as “strong.” But there’s something else, far more important: her entire character arc and every aspect of combat is in service to her own interests and the interests of other women. The unique feature of Fury Road isn’t that it features a tough woman, but that her interests are supported by a badass man rather than vice versa.

This, I think, is the key to understanding why attempts at feminist writing fail. I think, quite simply, we are using the wrong word. “Strong” is too associated with physical qualities or certain types of combat. A “Strong” woman can still fail as a feminist character, and those fails happen more often than not.

So what should we say instead? I don’t know that I necessarily have a good answer to this. There’s “independent”, except that it implies that female characters should always be lone wolves rather than existing in the context of equitable or interesting power dynamics. “Well-rounded” is too vague, as is “complex”. My preference, for now? “Self-contained Female Characters.” Not an elegant phrase, I know, but it’s the only thing I can think of that specifically addresses this compulsive need to attach female efforts and achievement to a male character’s, and it doesn’t frame female strength strictly in terms of physical prowess. It also allows for female villainy, deeply flawed personalities, and other complexities that avoid the central problem of not allowing women to exist as fully realized individuals. It also doesn’t preclude the possibility of complex relationships with other characters, it just insists that these characters must be explainable and understandable without reference to the goals of a male character.

I doubt the phrase “Strong Female Character” is going anywhere anytime soon, and maybe it should stick around. Personally, though, I’ll be avoiding it for a while. Instead of viewing characters through the lens of “strength” and “weakness”, I’m focusing on whether or not they stand on their own two feet.

Graham Joyce Retrospective, Part VII: How to Make Friends with Demons

This review is also up at Goodreads.

How to Make Friends with Demons (published in the UK as Memoirs of Master Forger) features lost love, terminal cancer, and the daily presence of malevolent demons. It’s also Graham Joyce’s lightest and breeziest book by far. Told in the first person, Demons alternates between a few days in the life of middle-aged antiquarian book forger William Heaney on the one hand, and the darker tale of how college-aged William developed his ability to see demons on the other.

The present-day storyline offers little in the way of conventional plot, but William and his acquaintances are likeable enough I barely cared. William’s days are taken up with a new book forgery project, an endeavor based more on boredom and his friendships with partners-in-crime Jaz and Stinx than on any financial desperation. The rest of his time is taken up with two very different relationships with two very different women. There is his platonic, longstanding bond with the saintly homeless-rights activist Antonia, but there is also a sudden romance with a mysterious young woman named Yasmin. Oh, and he sees demons everywhere.

The second storyline offers more familiar territory for Joyce readers. Young William enjoys a passionate romance with his college love, but that romance is threatened when he and a friend dabble in the occult and realize they have touched the supernatural realm. The dual timelines mean that the outcome of this second plot is never in doubt; we know William does not end up with his college lover, and we know he continues to see demons well into middle age. The pleasures of this storyline come not from any twists or turns, but rather in the melancholy, thoughtful treatment of young love and bad luck.

As in so many of Joyce’s books, the story is rife with potential pitfalls that he avoids through sheer strength of characterization. The fantasy of a middle-aged man being pursued by a gorgeous younger woman is an eye-roll-inducing cliché (ahem, Stieg Larsson), but by making William and Yasmin appear as well-rounded people, her desires and his desirability both make sense. His interactions with Stinx and Jaz, similarly, could easily devolve into the kind of Guy Ritchie caper we’ve all seen in roughly 10,000 British crime films, but Joyce persuasively frames the forgery project as just another part of a longstanding friendship.

Oddly enough, the titular demons barely matter to the story. William sees them, and we are as certain as one can be when dealing with a Graham Joyce story that they are real, but they never drive the present-day plot in any meaningful way. They serve instead as markers of personal suffering, grief, and depression, which William uses to better understand those around him. Even the earlier plotline is driven less by the demons than by stranger byproducts of William’s occult rituals. As in all of Joyce’s works, the characters simply experience the supernatural as part of their day-to-day lives.

I doubt anyone would rank this as Joyce’s finest or most ambitious work, but I don’t think he meant it to be. This was never intended to convey the horror of Dreamside, the poignancy of The Facts of Life, or the historical specificity of The Limits of Enchantment. This is an altogether jauntier piece of work. I can almost imagine Joyce viewing the writing of this work as a kind of vacation. Of course, since this is Graham Joyce we’re talking about, even that easygoing break has to include some demons.

Graham Joyce Retrospective, Part VI: Some Kind of Fairy Tale

This review is also up at Goodreads.

Twenty years after fifteen-year-old Tara Martin disappeared without a trace, she turns up on her parents’ doorstep. She’s unscathed and appears not to have aged a day since her disappearance. Most unsettling of all, Tara tells her bewildered family that she has only been gone six months, and that she spent that time in a magical fairy realm.

The bulk of Some Kind of Fairy Tale’s narrative centers on the reactions of the people she left behind. Her parents, Mary and Dell, believe her to be mentally ill but don’t want to risk confronting her about the story. Her brother, Peter, responds angrily to Tara’s evasiveness, attempting to catch her in a lie and expose the truth about what happened. Her ex-boyfriend, Richie, who was investigated in connection with her disappearance, sees Tara’s vanishing as the moment his life derailed and her reappearance as his second chance. Also in the mix are Peter’s wife, Genevieve, and their four children, along with a curious neighbor lady and an eccentric psychiatrist who interviews Tara about her experience. All of these characters become tangled in the book’s central dilemma: what do you do when you are confronted irrefutable evidence of something you cannot possibly believe?

Note that the dilemma is not “what really happened to Tara.” Given that this is a Graham Joyce novel, it probably won’t come as a shock to anyone that he is largely uninterested with pinning down the boundaries between fantasy and reality. As in all of his work, he prefers to examine the consequences of the fantastical through character interaction. How much really happened or where Tara went is, through that lens, largely inconsequential.

The strengths of Some Kind of Fairy Tale are those common to all of Joyce’s work. Joyce had uncommonly acute insights into all kinds of human relationships. Here, in the form of Peter and Genevieve, we get an authentically rendered depiction of one of those married couples that have settled into a contented, quietly happy partnership. In Peter and Richie we see the fumbling awkwardness of an old male friendship damaged by past scars and conflicts. In Jack, we are given a teenage boy who is neither the quipping, smart, quasi-adult kid of so much TV nor the insufferable idiot that adults often see when they observe the young. Every one of these characters is believable and sympathetic in their strengths and imperfections, to the point where I could easily imagine meeting any one of these people in real life.

The major weakness of the book is, oddly enough, the woman at its center: Tara. Even though a considerable portion of the narrative is told in the first person from her perspective, she remains something of a beautiful cipher. This is partly by design; Joyce clearly wants her to remain inscrutable to the surrounding characters. While that might have been a wise choice if the point of view remained restricted to the other characters, however, Tara’s sections suffer from her depiction as a reactive figure rather than one with agency and clear desires. Even when Tara does make a pivotal decision late in the book, it feels inevitable and manufactured by the plot.

Along with the sketchy rendering of Tara, the fairyland she recounts is surprisingly dull. For all the images we get of ritualized combat, sexual free-for-alls, and sentient lakes, little happens and the entire scene feels distant in a way that the main “real world” narrative does not. Again, part of this is by design. Tara’s memories are presented as recounted to a psychiatrist or to Peter, so the reader is supposed to wonder about their authenticity. While I understand Joyce’s approach in theory, I found myself comparing this unremarkable fairyland to the rich, fantastically alien scenes of The Limits of Enchantment or Smoking Poppy.

All in all, though, the fairyland is not the point of Some Kind of Fairy Tale. This is, like all of Joyce’s work, a book about men and women, family bonds, sex, and the ways in which choices echo throughout one’s lifetime. On that level, it is a successful and well-rendered depiction of one family faced with the impossible.