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REVIEW: The Five Queens of Fantasy in Early 2018

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KEND

There have been a lot of books about queens and royalty making it big this year. There have been so many, in fact, that I won't even begin to cover them all here. I will, however, take a stab at reviewing five of the standouts from early in 2018—which is totally appropriate, given how fond most of these queens, queens-to-be, and members of the court are of using the pointy end of their various weapons to aid their rise. 

A side note: There have been quite a few additions to this list of five already in the second half of the year, but I needed an arbitrary cut-off date in order to write this review in a semi-timely fashion, so you'll have to look for those on my Goodreads page.

*****

When it comes to Bradley Beaulieu's "Song of Shattered Sands" series, of which A Veil of Spears is the third installment, I still don't know how I feel, even though I certainly keep consuming them. I was a garbage fire of a fan of Orientalist literature as a kid, and I snapped up *all* the problematic desert fantasies I could find (and that my parents would allow), a reign of problematic readings that lasted until I picked up Dune and suddenly couldn't ignore everything that torqued me off so hard about that book.

But we're not here to debate the problematicness of bygone books, are we? The relevant questions here are twofold: (1) Is Beaulieu's "Song of Shattered Sands" series Orientalist or otherwise appropriating Middle- and Near-Eastern cultures? And (2) if it is, should I make a point of calling that out in a review, or perhaps change my problematic reading habits? The answers are, in both cases, a soft "yes." There is a lot of cultural appropriation going on in Beaulieu's universe, and much as I'd like to pretend I'm a good person, I really and truly crave richly imagined fantasies set in desert wastes. There's also a lot to love here, and a lot that I'm still torn up over. For example, is Beaulieu's Strong Female Character™ just as emblematic of the Male Gaze™ as those earlier stereotypes of the Madam and the Madonna, the Mother and the Fainting Maiden? Probably.

A Veil of Spears, like its predecessors, walks close to the line—and I *want* to enjoy these books, so I'm an unreliable reviewer. I enjoy these books, tentatively, but I probably wouldn't recommend them for readers whose enjoyment is contingent upon clearer answers to the aforementioned questions.

*****

One of the advantages of reviewing books some four months after you've read them is that only the salient points leap to the fore of your memory. What I remember about Tessa Gratton's The Queens of Innis Lear has more to do with tone and voice than with plot; that said, one of the reasons I picked this book up in the first place is that it features three sisters vying for a father's affection (or at least, his stamp of approval), and I was curious to see if there were any resonances with my own experience as the youngest of three sisters.* 

Spoiler: There were not. (My sisters are neither bloodthirsty nor politically cunning, and I am nobody's sweet-spirited flower. But that's neither here nor there.) Gratton's sisters are studies in exaggerated difference: Elia, with whom we spend perhaps the most time, is kind and gentle, and only comes into her agency after dabbling in the role of undeserving victim for much of the book. Reagan, the middle sister, is a master of the political sphere, and chafes at the gendered restrictions of her world. She's perhaps the cruelest of her sisters, given how well she understands the pain she is capable of inflicting upon others. Gaela, the eldest sister, is the muscle. She dominates in the physical arena, and possesses considerable martial prowess, but she lacks Reagan's cleverness and is therefore often passed over for more interesting conversation. Each sister contains a part of what would be necessary to rule in their father's stead, but not all; together, they would have been unbeatable. It's too bad that such an interesting conclusion is not, ultimately, where Gratton lands—as with many works targeting young readers, it's more profitable to pit women against each other and thus have them fulfill men's lowest expectations than to show them confounding the patriarchy and resolving their differences. Scheming and infighting sells books, I would assume. It also transforms a thick tome into a daunting one. This book is neck-and-neck with Daughters of the Storm in the grimness of its worldview and tone.

*****

I have only very enthusiastic things to say about Makiia Lucier's Isle of Blood and Stone. This was a great book! It has a great map! And it features a whole lot of fantastical geography and cartography and magical mapmaking! In short, it's nerd heaven. And it's also a really fun and nuanced adventure which tackles everything from father-child relationships to royal legacies to how one learns to navigate a sometimes dangerous and troubling world. It's the coming-of-age fantasy we always wanted, and really needed, and the fact that it centers on a young woman is only one strength among many. This book takes its time, and like a good cup of tea, is all the better for the robustness of its development. 

It would be difficult to review Lucier's book without making the fatal error of spoiling each and every pleasurable twist and turn; that said, of all the works dealing with royalty in this somewhat arbitrarily determined collection, Isle of Blood and Stone presents the most relatable and accessible cast, even while allowing for some of the inescapable tropes of young adult literature dealing with royalty. Yes, there's an abnormally young king. But wait! He's grappling with his unexpected and unwanted ascension to power in a complicated and nuanced way! Who'd have thunk? And yes, there's an equally young member of the court who provides commentary upon the social structure of his world! But wait! He's fully three-dimensional! Who'd have thunk? And yes, there's a beautiful young female person who happens to also be royalty, sort of. But wait! There's no love triangle! And Mercedes acquires phenomenal agency as the book goes on! Who'd have thunk?

Well, obviously, Lucier thunk. And I'm incredibly grateful she did; this is definitely in my top three works of young adult literature for the year to date. Lucier's grasp of real-world history lends credibility and authenticity to this fantasy world—and it doesn't hurt that she knows how to utilize the trappings and tropes of fantasy when they suit her purpose. Isle of Blood and Stone is a graceful, immersive read.

*****

Of the five books collected here, Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian seems written for the youngest audience. Which is not to say it's juvenile; there are a lot of confounded royals involved in young adult fantasy these days, but this is a strong contender for the top cut of those books. I found it enjoyable, and its overall direction just unique enough to put a fresh spin on all the tropes we know and love (and some of the ones we don't).

Ash Princess is what you might call "woke YA lit" in that it specifically focuses on subjects of present cultural interest in the West and exaggerates certain situations in order to place teenagers in the midst of those conversations. This is a book that is interested in questions of slavery and war. That there is a prince and a love triangle and the freedom of a subjugated people at stake is perhaps inevitable; that Theodosia must grapple with the ethics of her position is not, and yet Sebastian takes us there. Sebastian brings in the titles and aesthetics of a post-WWI-era Europe, only to mix in a touch of magic, and this makes for a surprisingly smooth pairing.

Yes, there are moments when the tropes are ascendant and my interest dwindled. But by and large, I admired Sebastian's grasp of the form and found myself curious as to Theodosia's eventual allegiance. The magic system is nothing new, but placed at the service of descriptive language it, well, serves a purpose. Unlike several of the other books in this list, which are clearly angling to capture lovers of Game of Thrones, Ash Princess is a much better fit for readers who enjoy Victoria Aveyard and Sabaa Tahir and Somaiya Daud, and worlds where violence manifests but only to highlight the plight of the young and downtrodden.

*****

I have seen Kim Wilkins' Daughters of the Storm compared to the work of Naomi Novik, among others, and I have to admit you could not find two authors writing female protagonists with more different voices than Wilkins and Novik. Which is a little disappointing for me, given how much I love Novik's ferocious optimism and joyous celebration of female sexuality. If you step into this book, as I did, with such misleading advertising looming over you, then you will find Daughters of the Storm a most jarring experience. Yes, it features a full cast of female characters. Yes, it features some romantic thrashing about in the undergrowth. But it's also deeply pessimistic about female friendship, despite doing everything possible to throw its women into close quarters and shared quests born of aligned self-interest.

As other reviewers have pointed out, most if not all of the five royal sisters depicted in Daughters of the Storm operate in moral grey zones if not outright black ones. It was marketed for readers of young adult fantasy, but it has far more in common—in worldview, and depiction of mature content—with Game of Thrones and even the History Channel's Vikings. It is occasionally tedious, but it is never boring.

*****

What conclusions can one draw from this package of princesses, from this rumble of royals? Apart from occasional flashes of brilliance and innovation, it would seem our depictions of royals—most especially royals of a female bent—remain firmly rooted in the same threadbare systems of value and agency as the historical moments they tap into. Why is the default for fantasy a medieval Europe, with occasional inflections of more ancient European cultures? Is it simply the easiest (or laziest) reach, or is there something more at work there? I would take this moment to cough pointedly at the corner of the genre which has been most congenial to America's political Far Right, with its ideal of the Strong Female Character™ who only ever reaches her full potential when she excels in a male-dominated arena or finally submits to the Male Gaze™ (but the right Male Gaze™!).** Setting a fantasy epic about female protagonists in a violently patriarchal period gives authors permission to both place their characters in sexually demoralizing situations and feel good about it, because their females are somehow more special than the average female by dint of ... well, in most cases, the possession of a title or magic. 

Before you cry "Not All Fantasy!" let me beat you to it: not all medievalish fantasies focusing on female protagonists do this, as this collection of five bears out. We are living in an exciting time when more women authors are finding their way through the publishing maze, and a variety of perspectives and manifestations of womanhood are finding their way onto the page as a result. That is the triumph of these books, and despite their flaws, I am thoroughly grateful to have lived long enough to see this messiness swamp my to-read list.***

Which makes it fitting that I would write such a messy review!

 

NOTES:

* How does one talk about one's siblings and childhood as an adult? I am nonbinary and agender, and I use alternative pronouns, but I was assigned female at birth and my family still refers to me with all of the attendant gendered language: daughter, sister, aunt, niece. I was raised as the youngest of three sisters, and it just so happens that I'm not female and that I've never self-identified as such. That my family looks at us siblings as a set of three hasn't bothered my two older sisters, but it has always irked me, even while I struggle to find the language for it.

** It makes sense that this perspective would reach the page; many of the women who I grew up with or studied with have come to the same conclusion. Many women, including the women who read and write fantasy, believe a woman will be at her happiest when her independence is sanctioned by a loving romantic partner who could dominate her if he so chose. This extends to sex, as well: many women who read and write fantasy seem to be of the opinion that sex with a gentle but dominant man is utterly transformative, and there are oodles of weepy women warriors in fantasy beds throughout the genre as a result.

*** I do care a great deal about the subjugation and mistreatment of women, even though I do not identify as one. Just in case you missed that fact.

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