Humbled and Amazed

by Dan H

Dan adds to Ferretbrain's growing bank of articles about Kristin Cashore, and takes yet more swipes at Green.
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Let me tell you about My Mighty Penis. It strikes fear into the hearts of men, it makes me an absolute authority on everything I know even the vaguest bit about, it allows me to get paid about twenty percent more that people who don't have one. It also, of course, grants me a tremendous insight into what it is like to be a woman. After all, who or what has a greater and deeper understanding of the mysteries of femininity than My Mighty Penis.

Obviously this is horseshit (except for the pay thing, that actually works) but deep down there's a part of me that genuinely thinks like this.

It was with this patronising sense of self-assurance that I sat down to read Kristin Cashore's debut novel Graceling. I'd just finished reading Green and was on a bit of a Minority Warrior high. Plus it had come highly recommended by pretty much all of my friends. More specifically it had come highly recommended by pretty much all of my female friends, who found it to be a genuine revelation.

I read it. I liked it. I thought it was really good. But I didn't have the same totally-blown-away reaction that, for example, Kyra had.

I consulted my Mighty Penis, and he promptly informed me that my expectations were simply too high, that my friends had overstated the virtues of the book, that it was after all a first novel by a new author so maybe it wasn't all that. Maybe after all the girls were just being silly and hysterical and over-investing in a piece of mediocre quest fantasy. After all the world-building wasn't that great and the pacing was a bit of, and Katsa wasn't particularly hot and didn't seem to behave in a realistic way a lot of the time, and hey, why were all the supporting characters men, huh, miss feminist? Huh, bet you didn't think of that.

I sat down and thought about it a bit more, and it slowly occurred to me that actually, the reason I didn't react as strongly to Graceling as I have to other books is that it was genuinely not about me. Not only that, but I suddenly realised that it was probably the first time in my life that I had ever had to deal with that in a fantasy novel.

I have of course read a lot of fantasy novels written by women, and plenty with female protagonists, and this has allowed me to feel good about how totally-not-sexist I am. I've also read a fair few fantasy novels which try to engage with Being a Woman (tm). Most of them have been written by men. What I have never read is a book which is so utterly unconcerned with me as a man.

Oh, umm, spoilers.

Katsa

Graceling is the story of Katsa, a child “Graced” with a supernatural talent for – well its complicated, but broadly she's supremely awesome in a fight. She starts the book with a power that terrifies her, being used by her uncle as an instrument of violence, and with her self esteem pretty much on the floor. Over the course of the book she gradually comes to terms with the power she has and the world she's in, with the lies she's been told and the things she can do and achieve. She grows from a confused young girl into a strong, capable, determined woman, in command of her own life and destiny. It is a process which is subtle, complex, and with profound emotional realism. She proves courageous, compassionate, resourceful and forgiving. She is in every way awesome.

I didn't fancy her at all.

Now part of the reason for this is that at the start of the book in particular, she's fairly clearly sixteen, and I'm past the stage in my life where I fancy sixteen-year-olds. On the other hand part of the reason for this is that Cashore spends no time whatsoever trying to make Katsa attractive to straight men. There's little or no description of her naked body glistening in the moonlight, or of her bending over to present her buttocks for chastisement. A lot of characters in the book find Katsa attractive but as a man I have no reason to share their infatuation. Nothing about the way Katsa looks, moves, or acts is remotely sexualised and so it's actually faintly jarring to me to find so many men falling over themselves to propose to her. Okay, by “so many” I actually mean “two”.

My Mighty Penis tells me that this is a flaw in the book, that it is Cashore's job to make me believe that these guys will have a reason to find Katsa attractive. Of course it's actually a flaw with my attitude. We don't need to know what specifically Giddon and Po find attractive about Katsa, we only need to know how Katsa feels about them being attracted to her. This is actually fantastically disorienting to read about, because it's a perspective I have no experience with and seldom if ever see represented in fantasy fiction. To be presented with a situation in which a man is attracted to a woman and to be asked to view it exclusively from her perspective is incredibly unusual and actually faintly discomforting. The notion that Giddon's attraction to Katsa simply does not matter, that not only is Katsa under no obligation to validate it, but neither is the text nor the reader, is genuinely alien to me.

A similar issue of unfamiliar perspective arises with Katsa's reluctance to sleep with Po, even though she's clearly into him. She talks for a long time about how she most certainly does not want to get married, and when the notion arises that they could be lovers without Katsa having to make any sort of commitment she agonises for what seems an inordinately long time before deciding to go for it. From a male perspective, this makes no sense whatsoever. It makes Katsa look like kind of a fool. After all, Po has told her quite clearly that he won't try to take away her freedom, why doesn't she just take him at his word? I'm going entirely by what other people have told me here, because once again this is utterly outside my personal experience, but the simple answer is that it really is more complicated than that. I don't want to make generalisations about what it is like To Be A Woman (tm) but purely within the context of the text, Katsa has spent her entire life surrounded by people trying to control her. More than that, she has spent her life surrounded by people trying to control her who genuinely thought it was for her own good.

Again I don't want to make generalisations but I know for a fact that I have, personally, treated women the way that Giddon treats Katsa, and the way Katsa fears that Po will treat her. I have never been in an analogous position myself, and I am never likely to be. My personal autonomy, my right to make my own decisions, is protected by every structure of the society I live in. The fear Katsa has of losing her freedom and her identity by being with Po is something to which I genuinely cannot relate. I do, however, know enough to understand that it is neither foolish, nor unfounded.

Katsa is a sublimely realised female character. So sublimely realised that I can't really relate to her. The experiences that shape her are not my experiences. The issues that concern her are not my concerns. The qualities I look for in a female fantasy figure are not qualities the text shows any interest in. My fantasies are not what the book cares about fulfilling. Katsa is not for me and the fact that I even expected that she should be is evidence of how profoundly important this book actually is.

Men

Cashore has been criticised from a number of directions for her portrayal of men. Some reviews have argued that Katsa's relationship with Po boils down to her being “emotionally rescued” by a man, and there was recently an extremely long discussion on Kyra's article about whether Cashore was wrong to include so many male supporting characters, and whether the book would have been better if one or more of them had been a woman instead.

Both of these things confused the hell out of me, because I found Cashore's portrayal of men to be one of the most positive, most important, and most subtle things about the text.

And in case you're wondering, this is the part of the article where I lay into Green some more.

One of the tropes I find increasingly infuriating in books by men about women is what I've come to think of as the “guys who aren't me” mentality. You know what makes life hard for women? Guys who aren't me. You know what's wrong with society? Guys who aren't me. You know why women do more work for less money, why only three percent of rape cases end in conviction, why women are still routinely excluded from everything from government to the games industry? That's right folks, it's because of guys who aren't me.

It is fantastically comforting for men to decide that all of the problems of a patriarchal society stem exclusively from a particular sub-group of their sex who we can severally refer to as “sexists,” “jerks,” “misogynists” or simply “men” - those of us who use the final descriptor tend to self identify as “lesbians trapped in men's bodies”, a self-diagnosis which manages to be offensive to women, homosexuals, and the transgender all at the same time. By subscribing to this model of gender politics, we can avoid having to analyse our own behaviour, or think about our own privilege, and decide instead that all gender equality issues would be solved if more hot women would have sex with us. Seriously, you think I'm joking, I'm not. We really do think like this.

Green is a classic example. It demonises men to a ludicrous extent. The protagonist is so terrified of male sexuality that she mutilates her face and becomes a lesbian. The book keeps her locked away in all-female environments for most of her life, and every time she does meet a man, they try to enslave her, rape her, kill her or all three. It 's an utterly male-centric view of womanhood, and coming from a male writer, utterly self-serving. It absolves men of any responsibility for the way they treat women, it casts Fear of the Almighty Penis as the driving force in a woman's life, and tells women that their only choices are to let men treat them like shit, or become lesbians.

The worst thing about the Guys Who Aren't Me school of gender studies is that it has an unfortunate veneer of maturity. Compared to Green's cynical portrayal of a world ruled by irredeemably corrupt men who will all rape a woman to death given half a chance, Cashore's cast of kindly grandfathers, gay princes, and Graceling lovers seems positively naive.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Because Cashore never demonises men, because she shows not only men whose power makes them venal and corrupt but also men who are good and kind and virtuous, she shows that men have the power to make real choices about the way they treat people. By allowing Katsa to interact with men who actually enrich her life, Cashore places the responsibility for the way men treat women exactly where it should be, with individual men making individual choices.

Cashore's portrayal of men, and of the relationships between men and women, is profoundly subtle and nuanced. Where many writers opt either for “women good, men bad” or worse, “good men good, bad men bad, women kind of irrelevant” Cashore recognises and explores the notion that even perfectly decent men can still behave towards women in a manner which is destructive (something a great many male writers seem to think literally impossible). Randa is a bad man, and seeks to control Katsa because he's a tyrant. Giddon is a good man and seeks to control Katsa because he loves her. The fact that Giddon is otherwise a nice guy (with or without capitalisation) doesn't change the fact that his relationship with Katsa contains destructive elements. Raffin is also a good man, and his relationship with Katsa is genuinely supportive, but even so there are some things which he simply can't do for Katsa, because there are some things about her life he simply doesn't understand.

Katsa's relationship with Raffin in particular highlights the fact that no matter how nice a man is, a relationship with him can never be literally equivalent to a relationship with another woman. This seems obvious but again I know from experience that there are a lot of men who genuinely don't realise this. A lot of men do really believe that they can expect women to treat them as if they were a woman. They'll keep saying things like “well I've always found that I identify more strongly with women than men” or the aforesaid “well really I think of myself as a lesbian trapped in a man's body” and they'll get genuinely pissy if women choose to spend time with other women instead of with them.

Raffin is in the book for all of thirty seconds (briefly at the beginning, briefly at the end). His relationship with Katsa is significant in its insignificance. It is entirely healthy, and entirely constructive, but nowhere near as important to Katsa's early emotional development as her relationship with Helda, the servant who takes it upon herself to make sure that Katsa grows up with an actual woman in her life. The idea that women do actually need to be around women, and that men – even nice men – are no substitute for that is one which recurs constantly in the text. At the end of the book, when Katsa finally leaves Bitterblue as Queen of Monsea, it is Helda she sends for and trusts with the care of the young Queen. This is a simple concept, but again what struck me about it was how rarely it is expressed. As a man, I am used to the idea that me and my Mighty Penis can achieve anything and the notion that women can get something from other women that they cannot get from me is far more alien and disturbing to me than I care to admit to myself.

Of course the other side of this coin is Po. Katsa starts the book quite broken, convinced that she is nothing but a killer, unable to really trust anybody, terrified of losing what little freedom she has. Her relationship with Po is a big part of her becoming a more complete person. This is totally okay. It is more than okay, it is incredibly important. The notion that it is somehow unfeminist to suggest that women can have relationships with men which are loving, supportive and help them to grow and mature as individuals is frankly mind-boggling. The point is not that her relationship with Po was something that Katsa needed the point was her relationship with Po was something that Katsa wanted and that the way Po treated her, supported her, trusted her and helped her was the way she had the right to be treated.

In short, Cashore's portrayal of the relationships between men and women the most aware, most nuanced, and most flat out sorted that I have ever read. Graceling says that women need the company of other women, but can also enjoy the company of men, that they have the right to interact with men as equals, and without fear. It says that sex is okay, and it's something women are allowed to want. Criticising it because Katsa has several healthy relationships with men, or because her relationship with Po is unambiguously good for her, seems at best to be nitpicking, and at worst to be patronising. Neither I nor any other male reader gets to give Kristin Cashore a “B+ Could Try Harder” for her portrayal of gender issues.

Kristin Cashore, you wrote a book that wasn't about me and wasn't for me, and it's probably one of the most important things I've ever read in the genre. Thank you.

Oh, and thanks for the Week Three NaNoWriMo email. That was awesome too.
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 15:14 on 2009-11-25
Let me tell you about My Mighty Penis. It strikes fear into the hearts of men, it makes me an absolute authority on everything I know even the vaguest bit about, it allows me to get paid about twenty percent more that people who don't have one. It also, of course, grants me a tremendous insight into what it is like to be a woman. After all, who or what has a greater and deeper understanding of the mysteries of femininity than My Mighty Penis.

NO WAY MAN, MY PENIS IS WAY BETTER THAN YOURS, CHECK IT OUT, IT EATS PEOPLE'S HEARTS.

This message was brought to you by the Patriarchy - Making the Conversation About Men Since the Dawn of Time!

Serious comment: I have a real problem with men who say stuff like "I've always found that I identify more strongly with women than men". They don't always do it for the precise reason that you cite, but it's never for a good reason, unless they're actually talking about their experiences as a transgender person.

It's usually a very stupid thing to say because it's usually utter rubbish. I believed that I was Special and Different from all the other men when I was in school. I eventually got over it when I realise that, actually, most of my friends were men, and all I was doing by saying that was distancing myself from a stereotypical image of masculinity which I shouldn't have bought into. By defining masculinity as being active and forceful and, you know, like those jerks who do well in PE, I wasn't just denying myself permission to express those qualities - I was also buying into the belief that women couldn't/shouldn't express those qualities. Not only was I turning myself into a wuss, but I was expecting women to be wusses in the face of men as well. I could very well have read Green in that state of mind and agreed with it thoroughly.

Then I went to university and became the arrogant jerk you all know and love today.
Wardog at 15:30 on 2009-11-25
ALL YOUR PENISES ARE BELONG TO ME!

Errr...that's grim actually. I don't want them.

Then I went to university and became the arrogant jerk you all know and love today.

Well, at least you're not going around expecting women to shag you because you're unique and special *and just like them only with a cock*. As far as I'm concerned, men who claim to "identify more strongly with women than men" are not only trying to manipulate women into sleeping with them but expecting support, validation and applause for it. Am I bitter about someone? surely not!
http://aerodaydreams.livejournal.com/ at 15:57 on 2009-11-25
It's interesting. I didn't like Graceling one bit and didn't make it even halfway through. Maybe I might have made it further if the world-building and politics weren't so mind-numbingly bad, but every time I sort of began enjoying the read, in came more politics.

But it didn't help that I couldn't stand Katsa. And I say this as a woman. She grated on my nerves horribly, but not because she was a strong female. In the beginning she comes across only as a raving bitch who hates the world and to me, that's not a suitable substitute for strength. And I'm not saying my perception of her wouldn't have changed if I'd made it further, but I already mentioned why I didn't.

I think the problem for me is also the reason I sit around scratching my head and wondering why people are dragging their jaws around in amazement over Kristin Cashore...doing the same thing Tamora Pierce did more than a quarter century ago (and did better, in my opinion). And I freely admit, this is a flaw in me. It isn't until I start talking with other fantasy readers that I realize how different my initial reading influences were. While most of my colleagues got started with Tolkien, I got started with writers like Pierce. (Consequently, I have far more trouble finding fantasy novels I'd even want to read, much less ones I like.)

I think maybe I might have liked Katsa better, related to her better, if I hadn't read Tamora Pierce first (and quite a lot of years ago). But while a lot of people seem to find Katsa to be some sort of Holy Grail in fantasy fiction, to me she read like a pale shadow of a character I already knew. Her relationship with Po and the other men in her life wasn't astonishing to me, because it's something I've actually seen before.

Now that I've completely lost track of what the hell I was on about...Oddly, Dan, your article gave me a new sort of appreciation for Cashore. I don't think I'll ever like the book, because I can't get over the fact that the Middluns hasn't been razed to the ground and the peasants haven't revolted even once in hundreds of years, etc. etc. etc. (history books are destroying my enjoyment of fantasy). But if readers really feel like they're finally getting female characters they can relate to, good on her for that. I can appreciate that.
Arthur B at 16:14 on 2009-11-25
As far as I'm concerned, men who claim to "identify more strongly with women than men" are not only trying to manipulate women into sleeping with them but expecting support, validation and applause for it. Am I bitter about someone? surely not!

It's almost as though some men think women will like them if they just say the right things, as though women were telemarketers reading from a pre-determined script and if you can pick the right options sex will inevitably result! But who could possibly be stupid enough to think that?
Dan H at 16:40 on 2009-11-25
In the beginning she comes across only as a raving bitch who hates the world and to me


Fair enough. I can't say I ever got a raving bitch vibe off Katsa. I mean she breaks people's limbs, but she's sort of got no choice about that, and she's perfectly nice to people when she's *not* being forced to slaughter them.

She's certainly very *sixteen* which makes her hard to relate to as an adult, but I don't think that's a bad thing in something which is at least partly marketed at a younger demographic.

The worldbuilding genuinely didn't bug me. I don't actually expect my pseudo-medieval fantasy kingdoms to look anything like real medieval Europe. I had enough of that with A Song of Ice and Fire.
http://aerodaydreams.livejournal.com/ at 16:49 on 2009-11-25
She's certainly very *sixteen* which makes her hard to relate to as an adult, but I don't think that's a bad thing in something which is at least partly marketed at a younger demographic.


Perhaps therein lies the root of the problem. All I got from her was "angry" which isn't so unusual for sixteen. But I don't relate to that anymore either, which may have colored my perceptions.

The worldbuilding genuinely didn't bug me. I don't actually expect my pseudo-medieval fantasy kingdoms to look anything like real medieval Europe. I had enough of that with A Song of Ice and Fire.


Well that's just it. A Song of Ice and Fire doesn't look like real medieval Europe either. And it's not so much that it doesn't look like real medieval Europe as it is that it doesn't look like real society. I was in the middle of research that was really eye-opening on that matter back when I tried reading Graceling, which probably didn't help.

But no, Martin doesn't get it either.
Sister Magpie at 16:50 on 2009-11-25
As far as I'm concerned, men who claim to "identify more strongly with women than men" are not only trying to manipulate women into sleeping with them but expecting support, validation and applause for it. Am I bitter about someone? surely not!


To be fair, it's equally annoying when women do this, and I think they probably do it more often. They claim they identify more with men and often brag about having all guy friends. Which does, frankly, usually translate into telling men they should prefer her over other women, and telling women they're better than them. It always amazes me to hear women claim "I don't have women friends" as an admirable quality.
Dan H at 16:52 on 2009-11-25
And it's not so much that it doesn't look like real medieval Europe as it is that it doesn't look like real society


I'm a bit confused by this, what does "real society" look like?
http://aerodaydreams.livejournal.com/ at 17:15 on 2009-11-25

I'm a bit confused by this, what does "real society" look like?


Well, when's the last time you heard of a real country, sandwiched between 4 other nations, with no natural borders, no abnormally large army, and an utter refusal to ally with any of its extremely angry and greedy neighbors, that could stay standing for even a year let alone hundreds?

And the sheep-like plodding peasants that never ever rebel? Peasants rebel. Slaves rebel. People who are treated poorly rebel (unless they're Americans, much to my eternal shame). Yet in fantasy, one dimensional monarchies and empires run around trampling peasants who never fight back. Mainly so the hero can have something to do chasing the evil king out.

To give a couple of examples without getting into a whole novel.

These are problems I had with Graceling, and, as I said, since I was elbow deep in research at the time, it was at the forefront of my mind. So I found it very difficult to ignore. And well, that goes the same for other fantasy as well.



Dan H at 17:18 on 2009-11-25
To be fair, it's equally annoying when women do this, and I think they probably do it more often


I suspect this is something that you tend to see from one side or the other depending on who you hang out with. After all if you're a guy and mostly hang out with women, you won't know many women who mostly hang out with men.

Or maybe not, it fits nicely with my preconceptions of human nature to imagine a group of friends in which all the women insist that they mostly hang one with men and all the men insist that they mostly hang out with women.
Dan H at 17:45 on 2009-11-25

Well, when's the last time you heard of a real country, sandwiched between 4 other nations, with no natural borders, no abnormally large army, and an utter refusal to ally with any of its extremely angry and greedy neighbors, that could stay standing for even a year let alone hundreds?


Umm, well actually I'm pretty sure that The Kingdom of Mercia lasted for about three hundred years despite being bordered by Northumbria, East Anglia, Essex and Wessex (as well as various Welsh kingdoms). It was finally taken over by Wessex in AD 918 after the death of King Aethelflaed.

Perhaps I'm just more generous than you, but I tend to take as my default assumption that whatever infrastructure a fantasy setting needs, it probably has offpage. To do otherwise seems to me to be like reading a book set in 21st century London, and asking where all the food in the supermarkets comes from.
http://aerodaydreams.livejournal.com/ at 18:19 on 2009-11-25
Umm, well actually I'm pretty sure that The Kingdom of Mercia lasted for about three hundred years despite being bordered by Northumbria, East Anglia, Essex and Wessex (as well as various Welsh kingdoms). It was finally taken over by Wessex in AD 918 after the death of King Aethelflaed.


I don't think that actually matches all the criteria I mentioned above, but oh well.

I don't know. Maybe I'm not very generous. But Dan...while I have a lot of respect for many of your opinions, if you're going to Wiki something in an attempt to counter my points, you might want to read a little more closely.

Æthelflæd was a woman. XD
Dan H at 18:24 on 2009-11-25

I don't know. Maybe I'm not very generous. But Dan...while I have a lot of respect for many of your opinions, if you're going to Wiki something in an attempt to counter my points, you might want to read a little more closely.


Fair point. In all seriousness, though, how does Mercia *not* count?

Rami at 18:28 on 2009-11-25
Well, when's the last time you heard of a real country, sandwiched between 4 other nations, with no natural borders, no abnormally large army, and an utter refusal to ally with any of its extremely angry and greedy neighbors, that could stay standing for even a year let alone hundreds?

I'll grant your point seems unrealistic... assuming said real country actually has any resources that are worth fighting over. If the country is dirt-poor and the peasants have no hope, I don't think it's that outré...
http://aerodaydreams.livejournal.com/ at 18:37 on 2009-11-25

Fair point. In all seriousness, though, how does Mercia *not* count?


It's not just being surrounded by other countries and having no natural borders. Middluns has no allies--they refuse to, a point Cashore makes more than once. They prefer to remain uninvolved (even though a couple events, including the opening, revolve around actions that are contradictions to this).

No where does it say that Mercia refuses to have allies and in fact, the aforementioned lady works to fortify her borders. I also noticed mention of marrying a daughter to the king of another country, and similar such actions. Even as large as it was (if you look at the map you'll see it was fairly more sizable than the surrounding countries) Mercia did eventually fall.

A country that doesn't have those advantages and refuses to make allies isn't in a good position wedged between countries like that. In a world where 5 out of the 7 countries are ruled by greedy kings who hate each other, how would such a country survive?
Arthur B at 18:50 on 2009-11-25
Divide and rule? If 5 out of the 7 kings hate each other, then if you ally with any of them the other 4 will end up hating you by extension. On the other hand, if you have a carefully maintained neutrality policy, then you're not giving a clear advantage to any of them, and as such they're going to spend more time concentrating on their feuds and less time worrying about you. After all, if any one of 'em invaded you, you could expect the other four to stab them in the back whilst their forces were tied up in your territory.

That's just one possibility that springs to mind, having not read the book; it sounds difficult to maintain, but not utterly implausible if the other nation hate each other that much. Possibly the book provides an even better explanation/scuppers this one, I don't know.
Dan H at 18:55 on 2009-11-25
I think you're making too much of the "refuses to have allies" thing. Randa regularly cuts deals with other kings, what he doesn't do is take *sides*. Actively allying with one of its neighbours would be suicide, because it would immediately make the Middluns a target for all the others.

In a world where five out of seven countries are ruled by greedy kings who hate each other, you really *don't* want to ally yourself with one of them, because then the other three will be very likely to jump on you.

Just out of interest, can you name any fantasy novels that you think actually do this sort of thing *right*?
http://aerodaydreams.livejournal.com/ at 18:59 on 2009-11-25
That's just one possibility that springs to mind, having not read the book; it sounds difficult to maintain, but not utterly implausible if the other nation hate each other that much. Possibly the book provides an even better explanation/scuppers this one, I don't know.


Perhaps. That wasn't really my perception of it. I think perhaps because she does mention that occasionally a couple of the other ones will ally up for a little while. So I couldn't help wondering why none of them ever thought to ally up, overrun the Middluns, and then start hating each other again and fighting over it. That's not exactly an unusual thing in our own history.

I'm really not trying to be completely nitpicky, though I know it sounds like it. It was just all so front-and-center that I couldn't miss it. I blame Pernoud!

Arthur B at 19:06 on 2009-11-25
So I couldn't help wondering why none of them ever thought to ally up, overrun the Middluns, and then start hating each other again and fighting over it. That's not exactly an unusual thing in our own history.

Again, those 2 countries would have a problem that the other three countries would all want to exploit the fact that they've committed all those forces to the Middluns. And both the rulers of the Middluns and the 5 kings that hate each other would be watching out like hawks for deals like that, and try to disrupt any that seem to be brewing.

Jumping back to an earlier comment, because I missed it at first...

People who are treated poorly rebel (unless they're Americans, much to my eternal shame).

Sure, that's why you colonials still pay taxes to us...
Melissa G. at 19:08 on 2009-11-25
Something about this didn’t seem right with me when I read it, and I’ve been trying all day to figure out why. I don’t want to speak to Graceling specifically because I haven’t read it and can only go off what Kyra, Dan, and Niall have said in the reviews I read. But I will have to use what you’ve said about the book to explain what my issues are.

I want to speak more to what you were praising Cashore for, which was that she wrote a book that was “not for you” which I assume to mean “not for men”. I feel someone discomfited by this. I think writing a book with a target audience of women is fine, but I don’t know that its laudable that it seems to make men feel alienated from it. Maybe I’m just misunderstanding what you’re saying.

I think that if we expect male writers to try and think about how women will read and interpret their book and appeal to them, then we should expect the same from female writers with regard to men. And while I’m sure you didn’t intend this, I find it a little odd that your article seems to suggest that telling the audience how hot Katsa is is the only way to explain to us why men like her. There are lots of ways to show us why a man would love a woman that has nothing to do with her looks. And I do find it a flaw if the audience can’t understand why these men would fall in love with her. It reduces the love interests to shallow plot-devices, which no character is deserving of and had it been done to a female, we’d be having a shit-fit right about now.

Also (again to reiterate, I’m going off of what was said in reviews so my knowledge of the book is not as detailed as it should be and I feel a bit like an ass saying all this), maybe the issue with the Po and Katsa relationship isn’t that Katsa is emotionally supported and grows as a person but that Po doesn’t seem to. Are there moments in the book where Po is shown to grow from his time with Katsa or where he is emotionally supported by her? If not, I would definitely take issue with that because it’s not an equal relationship and it makes it seem like he’s more important to her than she is to him.

In closing, if these opinions seem completely invalid, please feel free to tell me to STFU and read the book before I comment on it….
http://aerodaydreams.livejournal.com/ at 19:19 on 2009-11-25
I think you're making too much of the "refuses to have allies" thing. Randa regularly cuts deals with other kings, what he doesn't do is take *sides*. Actively allying with one of its neighbours would be suicide, because it would immediately make the Middluns a target for all the others.


I might agree with you in another case. But I don't get much impression that any of the other kings would keep their word simply because Randa occasionally bullies a nobleman into giving up his daughter to one of them.

"The Kings of Wester, Nander, and Estill - they were the source of most of the trouble. They were cast from the same hotheaded mould, all ambitious, all envious. All thoughtless and heartless and inconstant. King Birn of Wester and King Drowden of Nander might form an alliance and pummel Estill's army on the north borders, but Wester and Nander could never work together for long. Suddenly one would offend the other, and Wester and Nander would become enemies again, and Estill would join Nander to pound Wester."

They don't sound to me like people who consistently keep their word, but I guess that's just me. To my mind, Middluns is in a no win situation. If they won't or cannot ally with others, then I can't see how cutting a few deals will keep them from being trampled by these ambitious, envious, thoughtless kings.

Just out of interest, can you name any fantasy novels that you think actually do this sort of thing *right*?


Not very many, no. I never did say others did it better. In fact I'm pretty sure I said the opposite. I suppose, though, if you want a similar situation done in a way that makes sense, you should look to Carol Berg's Lighthouse Duet.
Rami at 19:27 on 2009-11-25
Sure, that's why you colonials still pay taxes to us...
You're kidding, right? The impression I get is that most Americans are well-conditioned to have conniptions at the very thought of something as reprehensibly 'Communist' as taxes.
Dan H at 19:36 on 2009-11-25
To my mind, Middluns is in a no win situation. If they won't or cannot ally with others, then I can't see how cutting a few deals will keep them from being trampled by these ambitious, envious, thoughtless kings.


Fair enough. I read it the exact opposite way. You can't trust these guys to keep their word, so what's the *point* in allying with them? They'll only screw you if they get the chance. There's quite specifically no mention of *defensive* alliances in that passage, only of people teaming up to attack each other. If the Middluns ever joined one of these alliances it would be in big trouble, because it might *actually* piss somebody off enough for them to decide to take the Middluns out entirely.

I don't actually think that the political setup in the Kingdoms is terribly well thought through, I just thought it was so utterly secondary to book that it didn't bother me.
Arthur B at 19:41 on 2009-11-25
You're kidding, right? The impression I get is that most Americans are well-conditioned to have conniptions at the very thought of something as reprehensibly 'Communist' as taxes.

Well, Americans never revolt against their government, no matter how badly they're treated, so clearly they wouldn't do anything silly like declare independence from Britain...
Melissa G. at 20:33 on 2009-11-25
Um, sorry to post again before anyone's really had a chance to respond to what I said earlier, but I think I found out what it was that bothered me.

Katsa is a sublimely realised female character. So sublimely realised that I can't really relate to her.


This really made me uncomfortable. What you seem to be suggesting is that Katsa is such a woman that you as a man are unable to understand her. This is a very dangerous and (in my eyes) offensive idea. While we need to take into account another person's background and experience, including race, religion, gender, orientation, culture, etc, we should be able to all relate to each other on the fact that we are all people, all human beings. Women and men are not separate species, and to suggest that men can't relate to women is like giving them an excuse to not understand why a girl expresses anger by crying or why she gets so upset by all the size 2 women in media. Will a man every truly understand "what a woman's been through because she's a woman"? No, but it doesn't mean that he has no way of empathizing.

I'm not trying to attack you. This is just something I've been talking a lot about recently, which explains my strong reaction.

Also, to fix a typo on my last post: I meant, "I feel somewhat discomfited by this" not "someone". Oops.
Dan H at 20:36 on 2009-11-25
I think writing a book with a target audience of women is fine, but I don’t know that its laudable that it seems to make men feel alienated from it. Maybe I’m just misunderstanding what you’re saying.


I think you are and you aren't.

The point is that I find the mere fact that women are the primary target audience of the book to be alienating, because I am used to being the target audience of everything I have ever read. I am used to every book I read, every TV show I watch and (especially) every video game I play catering *specifically* to my needs as a man, with women allowed grudgingly to tag along for the ride.
Melissa G. at 20:55 on 2009-11-25
The point is that I find the mere fact that women are the primary target audience of the book to be alienating, because I am used to being the target audience of everything I have ever read. I am used to every book I read, every TV show I watch and (especially) every video game I play catering *specifically* to my needs as a man, with women allowed grudgingly to tag along for the ride.


Okay, I see what you mean. I think this might be an "agree to disagree" type of situation unless we feel like getting into a long complicated debate (which I personally don't).
Dan H at 21:13 on 2009-11-25
This really made me uncomfortable. What you seem to be suggesting is that Katsa is such a woman that you as a man are unable to understand her. This is a very dangerous and (in my eyes) offensive idea.


Women and men are not separate species, and to suggest that men can't relate to women is like giving them an excuse to not understand why a girl expresses anger by crying or why she gets so upset by all the size 2 women in media.


Ah, I see where you're coming from.

I think we're using two subtly different definitions of "understand" (and for that matter "relate").

There is a fundamental level on which I *can't* understand why women are offended by size two women in the media. I can *appreciate* it on a rational level, but to claim to genuinely *understand* would - from my perspective - border on appropriation. Letting myself *think* I understand would also be very likely to lead me into a big pit of fail - the most common example of said fail being "that's not what real women are supposed to look like".

Ultimately there are vast swathes of Katsa's story which speak *directly* to the personal experience of several of my female friends (Kyra in her review described it as like somebody "reaching out and taking your hand"). I do not have the same reaction because those elements of the story are not anything I have personally experienced.
Melissa G. at 21:23 on 2009-11-25
There is a fundamental level on which I *can't* understand why women are offended by size two women in the media. I can *appreciate* it on a rational level, but to claim to genuinely *understand* would - from my perspective - border on appropriation. Letting myself *think* I understand would also be very likely to lead me into a big pit of fail - the most common example of said fail being "that's not what real women are supposed to look like".


Yes, I see completely what you mean. Honestly, I think I took something you said and ran off into tangent-ville with it a bit.

I think also that my brain wants to live in a world where equality is the expected norm, and it sadly isn't.
Dan H at 21:39 on 2009-11-25
Yes, I see completely what you mean. Honestly, I think I took something you said and ran off into tangent-ville with it a bit.


Oh that's absolutely fine, I'd absolutely rather you called me out on things you found offensive than let them slide. I do tend to overstate myself for effect.

Basically the whole article was written as a reaction against a bunch of little incidents in which I or other guys had been getting a bit too proud of our ability to Totaly Understand Women, and reading Graceling (and perhaps more to the point talking about it) served to remind me just how much I take for granted.


I think also that my brain wants to live in a world where equality is the expected norm, and it sadly isn't.


Yeah, I can see that. I tend to quite consciously lean the other way out of a paranoid fear of turning into a complacent douchebag.
Niall at 01:25 on 2009-11-26
Are there moments in the book where Po is shown to grow from his time with Katsa or where he is emotionally supported by her?


Just on this point: yes, but not until Po has been knocked sideways by a new thing happening. So he grows back to somewhere near where he is at the start of the book. Which is fine, it just feels a bit ... artificially tidy -- first Po supports Katsa, then Katsa supports Po. In my experience, it's much more likely to be the case that both parties support each other all the time, even if the degree of support fluctuates somewhat.

None of which really negates Dan's point, and is getting us back towards counterfactual criticism. The reason the character relationships are so sorted, I'd argue, is not just that Cashore is an excellent describer of human behaviour, it's that she's (deliberately) presenting a stripped-down version of human relationships. This is not to say that what's going on within the text of Graceling isn't really quite nuanced -- it is -- but it's still more immediately graspable than the real world. And my reservations -- or more accurately, frustrations; I liked what we got, I just wanted something *more* -- about Katsa and Po's relationship spring precisely out of a certain amount of friction with this aspect of the book.

(And as another datapoint, I thought it was perfectly clear why various characters were romantically interested in Katsa.)
Melissa G. at 01:48 on 2009-11-26
(And as another datapoint, I thought it was perfectly clear why various characters were romantically interested in Katsa.)


Good to know.

In my experience, it's much more likely to be the case that both parties support each other all the time, even if the degree of support fluctuates somewhat.


Agreed. That's why I wanted to know. Thanks for speaking to my questions there.

None of which really negates Dan's point, and is getting us back towards counterfactual criticism.


Yes, true, I was just curious after reading the reactions to the book. :-)
Viorica at 04:16 on 2009-11-26
I have nothing to really add to the discussion, but I think I see what Dan's getting at. It's the difference between sympathising with a character and emphasizing with them. You can sympathise with anyone, but to empathize with them, you have to be familiar with what they're experiencing.

For instance, I love Rome, but there's a fundamental disconnect in the way I view it ant the way someone like my dad does. Because the show is primarily seen through the eyes of the male protagonists (and the male showrunner and the male writers) it's essentially written with a male POV in mind. And even though they try (oh, how they try) to show the female characters' perspective, they still fail, because they just don't have an innate knowledge of why certain scenes or lines might make female viewers (i.e. me) want to throw up. And for the same reasons, male viewers don't see the problem- they just don't share the experience.

Sorry, that was off-topic. What I was getting at is, most media is produced through a male lens, so something like Graceling (which I have yet to read- apparently it's along the lines of Tamora Pierce?) is refreshing, because it does speak directly to female experiences.
http://descrime.livejournal.com/ at 05:05 on 2009-11-26
I haven't read Graceling, but I wanted to give major props to Tamora Pierce, because I found her books to be eye opening to me. I read the Alanna series in junior high, and I was shocked that Alanna had her period in the books; literally shocked that someone would put something like that in a novel and describe her first period and Alanna's feelings about in such detail. Now, of course, I realize that I was only shocked because I was used to reading stories from a male gaze. Even though the Alanna series was kind of rough, writing-wise, Tamora Pierce did a lot of things right by Alanna, like letting her show female desire and having her sleep with several people without ever condemning her in the text. This review made me want to give Graceling a try. ^^
Dan H at 11:25 on 2009-11-26
Just on this point: yes, but not until Po has been knocked sideways by a new thing happening. So he grows back to somewhere near where he is at the start of the book.


It's also worth pointing out that this is partly just a viewpoint issue. We never get any scenes from Po's perspective so we have no idea whether he feels emotionally supported by Katsa or not.

She does after all actively support him in his goals, she listens to him, values him and of course physically protects him.

And there's a sense in which Po has as many issues with trust as Katsa does, and his relationship with Katsa does help him to resolve them. It's just that because he's not a viewpoint character, and because he doesn't wear his emotional baggage on his sleeve, it's all less immeditately obvious. Po starts the book more *confident* than Katsa, but in many ways he's in a very similar place to her.

I certainly don't think that Po ends the book where he started it.
Dan H at 11:48 on 2009-11-26
What I was getting at is, most media is produced through a male lens, so something like Graceling (which I have yet to read- apparently it's along the lines of Tamora Pierce?) is refreshing, because it does speak directly to female experiences.


Yeah, that's basically what I was driving at.

It's very easy to get into the habit of viewing a specifically male viewpoint as somehow gender-neutral, which makes a specifically female viewpoint genuinely jarring.
Arthur B at 13:39 on 2009-11-26
So, Tamora Piece fans: any recommendations as to which of her books are her best? I for one am intrigued.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 15:03 on 2009-11-26
This is a very interesting conversation about issues I haven't pondered upon myself, probably because I'm as accustomed as the next person to take my own male point of view for granted. So I guess I'll have to try Graceling sometime.

I don't really have much to contribute to this, but as a related issue, we can see that it is difficult to write opposite genders credibly, but are there male or female authors who succeed in this at any level? I have a feeling that there are, but I don't seem to recollect any right now. And would any such attempt fail if it was subjected to a very gender sensitive analysis. In other words, if we consider an author dead, are there instances where the deceased persons gender can ever be forgot? Or is this more of a genre thing?

Dan H at 15:24 on 2009-11-26
I don't think it's difficult to write the opposite sex credibly, I think you just have to accept that you have to do it from your own perspective, and be careful you don't take a sharp left turn into Appropriation Boulevard.

Much as I like to diss Joss Whedon, a lot of his work actually does this very well indeed. He does a very good line in strong, well observed, individualised female characters with their own individual strengths and flaws. Terry Pratchett similarly has a lot of female viewpoint characters, and I understand that people *do* sometimes think he's a woman (and similarly I assumed that J.V. Jones was a man).

Basically I think people can write about - and talk about - pretty much anything but they have to be honest about where they're coming from. Broadly speaking I reckon you're okay as long as you remain aware that other people's real, lived experiences trump your imagination.

To take an example completely unrelated to gender issues, I understand that part of the reason The Wire was so good was that one of the guys who wrote it really had spent twenty years on the police force. One of the reasons Hammett is recognised as king of hard boiled fiction is that he had real experience of working as a PI. It doesn't mean that people should stop making cop shows or writing about private investigators.
Viorica at 17:41 on 2009-11-26
So, Tamora Piece fans: any recommendations as to which of her books are her best? I for one am intrigued.

My personal favourites are the Immortals books (Wild Magic, Wolf-Speaker, Emperor Mage, and The Realms of the Gods) The Lioness books are, as previously mentioned, a bit rough around the edges writing-wise, but still good fun. I was never able to get into the Protector of the Small books, but a lot of people seem to like them.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 19:19 on 2009-11-26
I didn't ormulate the question well I guess, but I do agree with you that you'll find lots of good fiction written by any sex and credible to most, if not all readers. Actually, to demand that good fiction can only be written by someone who has first hand experience of the material would say some horrid things about murder mystery writers or someone like Richard Harris(if he is considered good).

But I meant to ask are there more examples of fantasy literature, which, while potentiallyappealing to all, would be totally unconcerned with the male point of view, which I gathered was the strongest effect that the book had for you. As you wrote at the start of the article, there are plenty of fantasy writers who do not achieve this, for example J.V. Jones, while a woman, does not seem to achieve this. At least in the Baker's boy trilogy thingie.

Clearly Cashore achieves this, but are there other examples in-genre or out. I think you said something to th effect that you had not encountered before. It would be my bet that some can be found in literature as a whole. I should probably try Virginia Woolf or something. Or Tamora Piece too.

But if a book that is great and a rare thing because it achieves a genuine female lead and a good viewpoint, it alo rases the whole question of missed opportunities in fantasy to depict some unique viewpoints that could be more than just basic adventurous boys stories.

Man I need to write more. I hope that I got something together from my thoughts here.
Viorica at 22:33 on 2009-11-26
to demand that good fiction can only be written by someone who has first hand experience of the material would say some horrid things about murder mystery writers

Well there's always Anne Perry . . .
http://descrime.livejournal.com/ at 00:27 on 2009-11-27
re: Anna Perry

Every day, I learn something new and disturbing. ^^
http://descrime.livejournal.com/ at 00:30 on 2009-11-27
That's a really hard question for me to answer, actually. My favorite quartet is Alanna's, because that was my introduction to the author way back in junior high. But as Pierce's first series, the plot went a little wonky in the fourth book (as I remember it, it's been many years).

Maybe the Circle of Magic quartet? It's written for a little younger audience, but it was written about 15 years later, so it's a lot more polished.

Like Viorica, I’ve heard many times that people like the “Immortals” quartet the best. I've read it, but I can't really remember it. At the time, I think I rushed through it to find the bits with Alanna. Whoops.

It might be helpful to clarify that Tamora Pierce writes a bunch of quartets that all take place on the same world, but the world is divided into two hemispheres that never interact. The Tortall hemisphere stories are a little more mature than the Circle hemisphere stories.

Tortall:
“Song of the Lioness” Alanna quartet
“The Immortals” quartet
“Protector of the Small” quartet
“Trickster” books
“Beka Cooper” trilogy

Circle:
“Circle of Magic” quartet
“The Circle Opens” quartet
“Will of the Empress” book
“Melting Stones” book
Viorica at 03:19 on 2009-11-27
Oh, I forgot to mention Beka Cooper! I like those much better than the Protector or the Trickster books, though the made-up slang makes it a bit difficult to read.
Niall at 11:35 on 2009-11-27
It's also worth pointing out that this is partly just a viewpoint issue.


Yes, and you're right that I'm being too simplistic when saying that Po ends the book exactly where he started. But it's also true that in the early part of the book they talk about Katsa's issues more than Po's issues -- and I'm taking this as a visible metric of supportiveness, if you like, that doesn't depend on viewpoint -- despite the fact they're on a mission to rescue Po's grandfather. To be clear, I'm not saying Po gets short-changed; I'm saying Cashore made life easier for herself by designing Po to be someone who didn't need much support.

All of which is just to say yet again that never mind the viewpoint, there's an extent to which Graceling isn't the *kind* of book that really speaks to me. There's a quote by Frances Hardinge that I really like, that I think describes Graceling really well -- on the purpose of sf and fantasy fiction, she said, "It should allow the reader a moment to step clear of the ordinary clutter of the world, and see everything in an entirely new way. Even if it's escapism, it can be a holiday from which the reader returns with new insights as a souvenir". Which is an approach to fiction I admire without usually being particularly drawn to; I generally like my fiction to retain a bit more of the clutter of the world than Graceling does.
http://baihehua.livejournal.com/ at 16:58 on 2009-11-29
Hi! By way of introduction, I'm Stacie and I've been reading Ferretbrain for a while now along with friend Melissa G. and another friend, but I haven't commented before.

Anyway, I find it rather startling to find so many people surprised at female characters being portrayed well in fantasy. While I know many fantasy books do not portray women well, I have found a number of others where women have well-rounded personalities, are not portrayed specifically for a male audience, and have complex (and often healthy) relationships with men. So I thought I'd chip in with some more book suggestions.

Sheri Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country (Serious gender politics abound in a post-apocalyptic world.)

Juliet Marillier's The Sevenwaters Trilogy (Daughter of the Forest, Son of the Shadows, Child of the Prophecy) (The female protagonists in these books--especially the first two-- struggle with the expectations of a patriarchal society, but are very strong-willed, independent women.)

Lynn Flewelling's Tamir Trilogy (The Bone Doll's Twin, Hidden Warrior, The Oracle's Queen) (This one has the theme of a female character posing as a male one... with a twist.)

Jane Lindskold's Wolf series (Through Wolf's Eyes; Wolf's Head, Wolf's Heart; The Dragon of Despair; Wolf Captured; Wolf Hunting; Wolf's Blood) (The protagonist is definitely female. Whether or not she's human, though...)

For those interested, I hope you enjoy these books!
Viorica at 17:28 on 2009-11-29

Juliet Marillier's The Sevenwaters Trilogy (Daughter of the Forest, Son of the Shadows, Child of the Prophecy) (The female protagonists in these books--especially the first two-- struggle with the expectations of a patriarchal society, but are very strong-willed, independent women.)

Definitely seconding this- they're some of my favourite books.

(Though in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit to frequently wanting to punch Liadan in the teeth.)
Jamie Johnston at 23:45 on 2009-11-29
Argh, another interesting article-plus-discussion that I can't read because I don't want to spoilerate a good book I'd like to read at some point. Evidently I just need to read Graceling immediately so I can become an integrated member of Ferretbrain society again. :)
Wardog at 14:41 on 2009-11-30
Oh come on, don't let not having read the book stop you, it doesn't trouble us =P
http://ibmiller.livejournal.com/ at 23:05 on 2009-11-30
Well, here's the point where I delurk and say things about Tamora Pierce.

1) I love her books.

2) I also happen to disagree with her ideology on pretty much every point.

3) Despite that, Protector of the Small is my favorite of her series because although my particular perspective functions explicitly as the "villainous" ideology, Pierce balances writing quality, worldbuilding, storyline, and most importantly characters most skillfully in my experience of her books (and I think I've read 99 percent of them).

4) I loathe the Alanna books - not because of ideology, but because I think they are so appallingly written. Huge chunks of exposition which elide over emotional development, leaving you gasping for character continuity...not to mention the dialogue (which thankfully was cleaned up quite a bit very quickly).

5) Unfortunately, I think Pierce has devolved into the same general plot since she finished Protector of the Small - spunky grrl moves into corrupt/dirty/generally male-dominated area, kicks some butt, forms a female-dominated community of idealists, and restores relationships and harmony (I'd say order, but that's not quite the right ideology). As much as Beka Cooper is brilliantly conceived (with the patios and societal observations and characters), it's really kind of plot-tired to me. And White Tiger had a really great idea (female comic superheroine by great female protagonist writer and her husband), but the plot was pretty much the same. I enjoyed it a lot (especially the Emma Frost cameo), but it didn't really make me jump up and down like Protector or Circle Opens do.

6) Pierce seems to write like a Marxist - which ordinarily would mean I'd hate her, but in her, means she observes how classes function as well as individuals - which leads to some of the most beautiful world-building (I think) that I've enjoyed.

Finally, oddly enough, I'm with Melissa about male/female identification/sympathy/empathy, even though ideologically I'm probably completely on the other side of the map. Men are not a different species from women.

So I put Graceling on hold and hope to read it over the Christmas vacation - hopefully I'll like it.
http://opheliastorn.livejournal.com/ at 10:13 on 2009-12-03
Descrime - I'm not sure the Emelan and Tortall books are set on the same world/planet, actually. The magic systems are quite different for one thing. I've never actually heard it suggested before - where did you hear this?


Ibmiller - what is it about Pierce's ideology that you disagree with?

Aaand, back on topic, I think that Cashore did give us hints that there was more going on with Po than Katsa could tell - she even realises this herself at one point, remembering that the women they saw shot down was Po's aunt, and yet he's doing well at masking that horror. Po's spent his life hiding his reactions to people('s thoughts), so it makes sense that his psychology is not obtrusive in the book (especially one based around a 16-year-old hardwired to self-preservation, hah). Given that, though, I thought that his commitment not to hide his thoughts and feelings from Katsa was an impressive step for him to make.
http://ibmiller.livejournal.com/ at 15:24 on 2009-12-03
Well, I'm not a feminist. That's kinda my ideological disagreement.

And Emelan and Tortall are most definitely not set in the same world.
Wardog at 15:35 on 2009-12-03
I have to confess I'm a bit bewildered by the Tamora Pierce love. Don't get me wrong, I've read some of them, but I always had them pegged as a fun, not too deep, girly fantasy. I don't think they really think they engage with the same issues as Cashore, nor do they have a similar level of complexity. I'm not down on Pierce ... as I said, I like them but I didn't find them especially remarkable.
http://ibmiller.livejournal.com/ at 23:26 on 2009-12-03
Ah, but I would ask which ones you've read. Because if you only read the Alanna series, or the Circle of Magic series, I can see the issue. But, at least to me, the Immortals series, the Protector of the Small, some of The Circle Opens, The Will of the Empress, and the first of the Trickster series seem to deal with a lot of the issues reportedly (as I said, I'm hoping to read Cashore over Christmas) in Graceling - solid worldbuilding, really excellent female and male characters, dealing with being a female in male professions in a male-dominated world, relationships, religion (very interesting, to me at least, in The Immortals).

And then again, it could be just that I'm not very good at loving good books and very good at loving bad books - Pierce is a midlevel author in terms of popularity, yet I love her intensely (with the caveats mentioned above). And I also liked Twilight (complicated situation). So, feel free to disregard my comments. Hopefully I'll have a more interesting comparison perspective after I read Graceling.
Viorica at 01:41 on 2009-12-04
Well, a big part of my admiration for Pierce is the fact that I read her when I was fairly young. So there's some nostalgia at work. But I'd definitely second what Ibmiller said about the good writing in Immortals, if nothing else.
http://opheliastorn.livejournal.com/ at 02:50 on 2009-12-10
Nostalgia is a big part of my love for Pierce's books, I'll admit it - but I do feel that Graceling is, I don't know, a step up from Pierce's books? More intimate, more psychological. Pierce is good for a fun fantasy read, but I gobbled up Graceling in a way I haven't a new Pierce book in years.
http://orionsnebula.blogspot.com/ at 06:04 on 2009-12-19
Daniel, how are you using the word "identify"? The later discussion revolves around claiming to understand uniquely female social experiences; the arthur's early example involved a male member of a male social group, but one alienated from (one kind of!) traditional masculinity.

I'm wondering how you feel about men who don't consider themselves transgender,or but are more comfortable in female-dominated hobbies and social groups? What are the pitfalls, and how should they present themselves?
Robinson L at 03:00 on 2009-12-30
Woow, this one took a while, too.

Great analysis, Dan, as per usual. I'll have to consider (and probably read/listen to) the book again to see if it applies to me, as well. I could believe that it does, but I think it's possible that my somewhat lukewarm reaction to Graceling was not primarily due to its not being about me as a male.

I thought Melissa was addressing this next point, but I guess not. Thing is, I'm not convinced that just because a book is Not About Me means that I'm necessarily going to find it only “pretty good” rather than “fantastic.”

Viorica, for instance, has said that she “love[s] Rome” even though it is quite clearly Not About Her as a woman. I don't see that the same should necessarily not apply for me (in the other direction) as a man.

I'm also puzzled by your remarks about not “fancying” Katsa. I didn't either, but then I thought that ideally the reader (regardless of gender) is supposed to identify with the main character, regardless of gender. I wouldn't say I fancy Taylor Markham, say, but I loved sharing her story with her, and similarly with most of the other characters, female and male, whose stories I adore.

Or am I also misreading you, perhaps?

Interesting discussion of Katsa's dilemma of whether or not to sleep with Po. I think I kinda wondered about that at the time, but just sort of shrugged it off. I wonder if this could also explain why the idea of sleeping with Po without marrying him never even occurred to Katsa in the first place (until he brought it up, of course).

For whatever it's worth, I largely agree with you about the male characters in Graceling. I probably have my little nitpicks about most of the characters, but on the whole I think Cashore did very, very well with her characterization.

Neither I nor any other male reader gets to give Kristin Cashore a 'B Could Try Harder' for her portrayal of gender issues.

Well, I know I certainly am not qualified to make that call either way, but I also find the idea of even framing the issue in those terms laughably preposterous.

Oh, and thanks for the Week Three NaNoWriMo email. That was awesome too.

And thank you, in turn, for mentioning this, Dan. I wasn't getting the NaNo pep talks for some reason, but my mother was and when I first skimmed this I got her to forward it to me. It was, as you say, awesome.

@aerodaydreams: I had a similar problem with the politics in Graceling, although my chief complaint was, in Niall's words that the book “never doubts that monarchy is just fine as long as there’s a Good Monarch on the throne.”

However, I've learned not to let that stuff get to me as a sort of defense mechanism, as my only other option would be to give up my love of fantasy more-or-less entirely (thank you, Mr. Tolkien).

I was in the middle of research that was really eye-opening on that matter back when I tried reading Graceling, which probably didn't help.

I'd be really interested to know what research material you were using.

People who are treated poorly rebel (unless they're Americans, much to my eternal shame).

You're kidding, right? As some of the others have pointed out, there was the War of Independence in the 1770s, and that's only the most prominent example.

In the previous century alone, I count one worker's movement, one Civil Rights movement, two women's movements, the anti-Vietnam War movement, one gay rights movement (if you count that separate from the second women's movement, I'm no expert) and innumerable smaller rebellions on similar themes and a host of different ones. Historian and activist Howard Zinn (author of A People's History of the United States) has gone so far as to refer to a “permanent oppositional culture,” although admittedly, it doesn't get a whole lot of press attention.

Er, anyways, I'm not going to do this individually, but I just want to thank everybody for the lovely book recommendations, especially Stacie; that's quite a list.

I'm pretty sure my sister and I tried Tamora Pierce when we were a lot younger. I think Ptolly stopped reading because she didn't like Pierce anymore, and I stopped because I couldn't find her on audiobook, and just never found my way back. I'll have to do so now, though, especially after reading this:

ibmiller: Pierce seems to write like a Marxist

She sounds better and better all the time. Thanks again, one and all.
Sister Magpie at 16:15 on 2010-05-07
Continuing my quest to revive the Graceling discussion now that I've read it, I'm really surprised by claims that Katsa has to be "emotionally rescued" by Po. Or maybe not so much surprised as annoyed! She seems to me to be a character with clear strengths and weaknesses, with a personality perfectly formed by her situation and talents. She's the warrior who doesn't think much about feelings--a bit of a cliche, but with the twist that she's the female. Her power, as far as she knows, is killing. That's what she's good at. She has no experience or reason for having developed that much emotional skill, having been scaring people her whole life. Her strengths are more about her sense of justice etc.

So yes, when she meets a guy more emotionally aware for a host of reasons, including having grown up in a loving but complicated family, he's going to be like no one she's ever met before. She can't hide who she is, he's a master at hiding an important part of who he is. Which is how she pretty much does rescue him from his pov, just by seeing through him. I didn't see any rescue of Katsa at all, really. All of her emotional development she wins for herself, even if the catalyst is Po. That's an important difference.
Robinson L at 20:00 on 2010-05-10
Hmm, can't really comment on the “emotionally saving” aspect, one way or another. However

She seems to me to be a character with clear strengths and weaknesses, with a personality perfectly formed by her situation and talents. She's the warrior who doesn't think much about feelings—a bit of a cliché, but with the twist that she's the female.

Funny, I thought that “twist” had been exploited to the point of becoming a cliché in its own right. In fact, if you throw in “optional shallow sexual relationships and promiscuity,” it sounds like upwards of ninety percent of female warrior characters in fantasy and related genres.

Mind you, I do believe Katsa is better characterized than most of them—just that the above description doesn't really reflect her uniqueness.
Sister Magpie at 21:50 on 2010-05-10
Sorry, I didn't really mean to imply that her being female was unique, more that she's the familiar character who's the warrior who's more comfortable with fighting than emotions. I meant "the twist is that..." in sort of a cynical way, because it's a standard twist. The warrior character of either gender is very familiar. It's not unique--but it is, imo, perfectly believable and doesn't add up to emotional rescue.
Robinson L at 05:01 on 2010-05-11
I meant "the twist is that..." in sort of a cynical way, because it's a standard twist.

Ah, I see. I missed the sarcasm there (I seem to do that a lot).
Wardog at 10:18 on 2010-05-11
Just a general noise of agreement, Sister Magpie. I never saw the "emotional rescue" aspect of it either - I like the fact that Po is more emotionally astute that Katsa but not because of Special Powers but simply because of the way he's been brought up because the Men Are Good Fighting and Women Are Good At Emotions thing is annoying :)
Sister Magpie at 17:23 on 2010-05-11
Ah, I see. I missed the sarcasm there (I seem to do that a lot).


Nah, my fault. It wasn't very clear. And it's kind of weak sarcasm. I was just trying to sort of nod to the fact that the original stereotype was that the woman was there to be emotional and the warrior man was unemotional because he was a manly man. I think the author is intentionally turning that on its head with Katsa and Po, even if she knows she's far from the first person to do that, if that makes sense.
Dan H at 21:09 on 2010-05-11
Funny, I thought that “twist” had been exploited to the point of becoming a cliché in its own right. In fact, if you throw in “optional shallow sexual relationships and promiscuity,” it sounds like upwards of ninety percent of female warrior characters in fantasy and related genres.


I'm not sure that's true actually. Most of the female warrior types I can think of in Fantasy are one of the following:

- Warriors who are also emotional, often to the point of being overemotional.
- Warriors who seem unemotional, but are secretly deeply emotional, usually to the point of being overemotional.
- Total Ice queens. Who are generally presented as being ZOMG!Broken. They're also frequently quite emotional, it's just that their emotions tend to be negative.

I actually think there's an important difference between an Unemotional Female Warrior (which is broadly what you get with the Ice Queen steretype), and what you get with Katsa, which is an unemotional warrior who happens to be female.

The Unemotional Female Warrior (TM) tends to be defined by her emotions just as much as the Overemotional Female Warrior, she's seen as fundamentally flawed in a way which an unemotional male warrior wouldn't be.
Arthur B at 23:34 on 2010-05-11
I think there are a few female warrior characters in fantasy fiction who fit Robinson's description - the most striking example I can think of is Teres from Bloodstone, who's basically Conan with tits.

However, I think that sort of female warrior stereotype has become less and less common with the waning of Conan-inspired sword and sorcery (since it's an archetype essentially developed in response to Howard), and the three types you diagnose are essentially the norm these days.
Robinson L at 20:30 on 2010-05-12
You're probably right, Dan, as I've only just recently started thinking about this issue in terms of patterns.

On the other hand, I do feel like I've read a lot of Female Warrior types who if not necessarily "broken" are emotionally very repressed (which I would differentiate from "secretly deeply emotional"), and rarely express even "negative" emotions - but maybe I'm just mistaking examples of types 2 and 3. In any case, I'd agree that a Female Warrior's emotionality (even if it is being largely unemotional) tends to be a defining trait.
Jamie Johnston at 15:29 on 2010-12-16
I've just rambled at some length about Graceling in the comments section of Kyra's review, but since Dan here specifically mentions the relative lack of information about what Katsa looks like (and specifically whether she's hot) I thought I'd do this bit here.

Was it just me, or was there, like, little to no clue in this book about what anyone's complexion or other potentially racial physical characteristics were? I noticed a couple of people having black hair, which doesn't narrow it down at all if you're working with the same ethnic groups we have among real-life humans. I don't recall anything about whether anyone's hair was straight or curly or what. Some gracelings have eyes that are green or blue, but they also have gold and silver eyes and the fact that their eyes are unusual is the whole point. Did I miss anything? I rather suspected that Cashore was leaving it to me to colour the characters however I wanted.
Maybe this betrays some racist stereotyping on my part, but I kept picturing Po, with his ornate tattoos and jewelry, as black. I figure Cashore, as a white American, has "white" as her default, even though she deliberately doesn't give any physical clues about race, and before I knew anything else about Po, I imagined him as white just like I always do when reading fantasy novels. It's nice that I don't really get to do that here, that Cashore seems to be deliberately getting me to think about what Po might look like and why I would picture him that way.
Pear at 19:55 on 2013-01-01
Not that I specially set out to usher in the new year riding on my drama-llama, but someone is/was very upset about this article, Dan. He too appears to be a cis dude from Westernlandia and he is attempting to out-feminist you. It's... I don't know what it is, really, but it's certainly something.
Wardog at 13:58 on 2013-01-02
Urgh, I'm too happy to even dare look at that today :P
Arthur B at 00:31 on 2013-01-03
I don't know who this person is but they are sufficiently proud of this essay where they literally argue that their liberal values require them to hate and despise all traditional cultures everywhere that they put it in their userinfo.

I mean, to be fair to them, it's a good call, because it took one skim of that article to establish that they are a huge dink so hey, if that's what you want to present to the world...
Fishing in the Mud at 18:55 on 2013-01-03
It's always unfortunate when people overreact to being reminded of their privilege by hating and despising themselves for it, and insist that you have to stop reminding them of their privilege so they won't have to hate themselves anymore. I do think this guy is genuinely interested in being a good feminist, but he can't help making it all about him and how terrible he feels about himself.
Wardog at 19:23 on 2013-01-03
ALAS THAT POOR MAN. HOW HE MUST SUFFER.
Fishing in the Mud at 19:36 on 2013-01-03
Well, at least now he can sleep at night knowing that he's BETTER THAN DAN HEMMENS OMG. Nothing better than someone who decides they're going to take their self-loathing out on you.
Pear at 22:42 on 2013-01-03
Mm, if this dude were projecting any harder he'd literally be shitting himself.
Dan H at 22:48 on 2013-01-03
Well, at least now he can sleep at night knowing that he's BETTER THAN DAN HEMMENS OMG. Nothing better than someone who decides they're going to take their self-loathing out on you.


This is pretty much why, for what it's worth, I've not quite managed to bring myself to read this guy's response to this article (that and that I'm just really bad at actually keeping up with the interwebs these days). I just really want to avoid getting into a Who's The Biggest Feminist contest with another hetrosexual dude from Westernlandia.
Fishing in the Mud at 23:42 on 2013-01-03
I remember getting really baffled and frustrated with him a while back when he suggested that the Nice Guy meme is wrong because women do in fact have a moral obligation to sleep with unattractive, lonely men so those men can feel better about themselves and have more social confidence. (To be fair, he also seems to think men should do this for women.) I had him pegged as reasonable until then.
Pear at 23:12 on 2013-01-04
@Fishing in the Mud, that opinion of his does not surprise me in the slightest...

@Dan, yeah, that's understandable. Blobviously you're not obliged to read any shit people chat about you D: Also there's no danger of you missing out on any difficult-yet-vital teaching moment within this dude's utterly self-centred bilge. It is seriously just him screaming 'I AM A BETTER FEMINIST THAN YOU, DAN HEMMENS!!!!!1 p.s. I am ANGRY that you have a GIRLFRIEND when I DON'T.' At the core of it, it's not wholly about whether he is actually more progressive than you or whatever; really he seems largely concerned with centering men in this conversation while using women as accessories which add to a man's value. Hello, objectification, we meet again.

It's sad he doesn't realise that his unironic joy in this imaginary pissing contest is utterly irrelevant to anything slightly important, other than clearly signalling which silly white cis straight dude from Westernlandia I should laugh at today. (This is a vital part of my routine. Keeps me young. MISANDRY 5EVA)

Also, I thought about whether it'd be a low blow to be like, 'oh god his OKcupid page says he's looking for love' but what I am laughing at is the general combination of ALL of the above factors AND the idea that he is looking for love with women. He is just a garden variety fauxgressive straight dude creeper who thinks partaking of Teh Feminisms is going to acquire him A Woman because he has made a gargantuan effort at not being a massively sexist hooting pisshole. All the chest-beating is a part of this feminism, clearly.

tl;dr Dude is so very pressed and can stay that way, is what I'm saying.
Melanie at 00:20 on 2013-01-05
he suggested that the Nice Guy meme is wrong because women do in fact have a moral obligation to sleep with unattractive, lonely men so those men can feel better about themselves and have more social confidence


I hope that if next time he trots that one out in person, everyone in the room projectile vomits all over him.
Fishing in the Mud at 02:08 on 2013-01-05
He is just a garden variety fauxgressive straight dude creeper who thinks partaking of Teh Feminisms is going to acquire him A Woman because he has made a gargantuan effort at not being a massively sexist hooting pisshole.

I think it may be even worse than that. I think he genuinely does think he Totally Understands Women because he's living a crappy life and no one appreciates him, just like a woman, so if he could just find someone to love him they could hate the world and put each other on pedestals together. It's really quite miserable.
Axiomatic at 09:13 on 2013-01-05
Now I certainly want to read Graceling, but I also want to read a Tamora Pierce book.

Is it okay to skip the Lioness books and go directly to The Protector of the Small, which apparently are more interesting?
Fin at 10:42 on 2013-01-05
I dug up some Nice Guy posts of his yesterday and just couldn't roll my eyes fast enough. Actually, I wound up skimming most (it was a six-part series of pretty much the same thing), but the gist of his argument seemed to be that anybody can fall in love with anybody by choice. All it takes is the effort to look past someone's flaws and see the good in them. Awwwww, how sweet. Almost makes me feel like a horrible person for being aromantic. Also I'm acquainted with a few people who basically only present themselves as hateful bigots, and I'm just so awful that I never expend the mental energy to see past that. :C
Ibmiller at 12:13 on 2013-01-05
Well, I say you can skip em. I certainly did, and I was like 13 when I read Protector, so if I could pick it up then, I'm sure anyone can. And I've reread them in the last two years, and loved them then too. Though The Immortals books are reasonably interesting too, if you can work with the rather cliche intersections with 90s culture, and a bit a twee animal-talking stuff. But Protector's definitely the best :)
Wardog at 13:46 on 2013-01-05
I've been trying to get hold of Protector for ages on Ian's recommendation - unfortunately it seems like Pierce does not'do' electronic media and the last time I saw a copy in Waterstones it was like 7 quid. Ouch. Also, now I can't buy it due to RESOLUTION.

I ... feel I ought to say in defence of Alanna. I kind of grew up with her so she actually had a big impact on my life at the time. Although they're problematic in many ways, it was pretty exciting for me to find a character who seemed to basically feel about things, and respond to the world, like I did. Unfortunately I did not have the option of dressing as a boy and becoming a knight - something I regret to this day ;)

I found books 3 and 4 rather troublesome thought for different reasons at the time than I do now.
Fishing in the Mud at 15:30 on 2013-01-05
the gist of his argument seemed to be that anybody can fall in love with anybody by choice. All it takes is the effort to look past someone's flaws and see the good in them.

...Yeah, that was when I gave up on him.

I remember someone recommending Pierce to me when I was around 14, but unfortunately for me I had already decided I was only going to read Literature from then on. I'm glad I grew out of that nonsense.
Ibmiller at 22:08 on 2013-01-05
Sad day! What is it going for on Amazon.co.uk these days?

I don't hate Alanna - I'm just not nearly as big a fan of her as Kel. And the writing does kinda bug me.
Axiomatic at 07:46 on 2013-01-06
Bah, Literature, I'd read Dinosaucers novelizations if they existed.
Arthur B at 14:06 on 2013-01-06
I misread that as "Dinosaucerers" - as in dinosaur sorcerers.

I mean, that cartoon intro is incredible cool and I would watch that show in an entirely non-ironic heartbeat, but a little part of me is mildly disappointed that those dinosaurs are not also wizards.
Fishing in the Mud at 14:43 on 2013-01-06
I should clarify that I grew out of the nonsensical notion that it was good to only read "Literature." Looking back, I can see that comment going either way.
Shim at 15:13 on 2013-01-06
those dinosaurs are not also wizards

Whaaaaaat?!?

Well, this sucks. What do I do with that Series 1-8 Complete DVD I just ordered? Windchimes?
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