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Book Review: Red Queen Series

Red Queen, Cruel Crown, Glass Sword, and King Cage

Author: Victoria Aveyard

Publisher: Harper Teen

Published: 2015 – 2017

Rating:

Red Queen: 3 / 5 Stars

Cruel Crown: 3 / 5 Stars

Glass Sword: 4 /5 Stars

King’s Cage: 4 / 5 Stars

Overall: 3.5 / 5 Stars

For Those Who Enjoyed: The Hunger Games, X Men, The Sineater’s Daughter, Six of Crows, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, The Bone Season

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I’ve had a rather complex relationship with this series, ranging from incensed from its predictability to deeply respecting Aveyard for growing as a writer. It’s fair to say many series openers aren’t always the best representation for the series as a whole, especially for debut authors. The writer is still getting comfortable with their characters and world building and settling in with their token writing style takes some time. Red Queen is one of those books. It reads like a new writer influenced by several classic outside sources, and as a result, her plot is extremely predictable. I could see exactly where the plot was going about 20 pages in, which made for a really boring, formulaic reading experience. On top of this, Red Queen also happens to be one of the closest stories I’ve read to my own YA sci-fi/fantasy series I’m working on. Seeing a “little lightning girl” go up against a thoroughly evil psychologically manipulative queen hit a little too close to home for me and I have to say, I was a little annoyed. Namely, because I knew I could do it so much better.

By Glass Sword, it’s very clear Aveyard’s nice and settled in with her characters. She’s finally gotten her foot in the door in the publishing world, and she can drop the pretence of the tired love triangle trope. In fact, what makes Glass Sword so strong as a sequel is the subtly of the romance between Mare and Cal. Their love story isn’t front and centre, it doesn’t take priority. They’re facing a war, trying to save lives, and going up against an evil kingdom. It’s safe to say they have a lot more on their minds than making out. The dynamic we get instead is one of quiet support. They’re a kick ass battle couple in for the majority of the story, and then they’re there for each other in the moments in between. I was far more eager to get behind them as a couple when their romance wasn’t so in your face. Another aspect I loved about Glass Sword was Mare really coming into her own as a character. And not just as a protagonist, but a morally gray one. She goes to a very dark place of dejection and mistrust and it leads her to do some pretty horrific things, which she feels is 100% justified at the time. This is the exact type of juicy character development I love delving into, and, in fact, is what I strive for my own characters. Again, I see my own protagonist in Mare and by the end of Glass Sword, I’d dropped the annoyed pretence and jumped straight to rooting her on. I’m less worried about writing another female protagonist stereotype, and more thrilled that my own lightning girl has a feisty heroine to follow. My girl will be in good company one day.

The thing about Aveyard is, it takes her 100 to 200 pages to get going in each of her books. Glass Sword doesn’t get really good until halfway through and King’s Cage’s weakness is Mare’s being rendered powerless in captivity for the majority of the book. Cruel Crown suffers from this issue in that it’s a duology of two novellas, 100 pages each. She doesn’t quite have the time to build the tension or rise to her climax properly with “Queen’s Song” and “Steel Scars”. Her strength is in 300-400 plus page novels with that properly build climax. The slow-building rollercoaster is worth the climb to the top because the free fall to the bottom really is something spectacular once Aveyard’s built her momentum.

The nice thing about reading this series, is you can see the layers of awareness in Aveyard’s craft. In Glass Sword, it’s clear her focus in her writing overall is on strong female characters. She adds not only female friendships in Farley and Mare, but characters of colour in Cam. In King’s Cage, she seems to understand her weakness in her slow build-up. Leaving Mare chained up and helpless in Maven’s court leaves very little to play with in terms of narrative. Fortunately, she finds a way around it by offering multiple perspectives. Giving Cam and Evangeline POVs is kind of a genius move. They’re fringe characters at best, with an outsider’s opinion on the main action. It’s refreshing seeing characters give their honest opinions about the protagonist. Cam is critical of Mare, which gives the reader an option to create their own opinion about her, instead of blindly following what Aveyard gives them. We know Mare’s motivations for her actions, and we now see how they are influencing others around her. It’s a very self-aware take on the narrative, and I have a lot of respect for it. You can tell Aveyard’s driven to push herself to be better with each book. She wants to improve in her diversity and she knows how to be a role model for her young readers. If I’m being honest, that’s kind of exactly what I aspire to be. Is it any wonder my urge to leap off the couch and go write something was far stronger than actually finishing my reading sessions with these books?

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Top Ten Gothic Novels from the 1800s

Horror Novel Reviews

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Written by: Drake Morgan

Gothic is a term that has been usurped by our modern world. Goths dress in black, wear a lot of makeup, and listen to Bauhaus. Gothic began as a term to describe architecture. It was a building style popular in the high medieval period. We all know it well. Towering spires that climb to the heavens. Massive, ornate doors. Flying buttresses. In the 1800s, this guy named Lord Byron wrote a few poems. People like Ann Radcliffe, Clara Reeve, Friedrich Schiller, and Mathew Gregory Lewis wrote a few novels. A new literary tradition was born. I make jest of course, as these authors and many others forged a bold new form of literature. They delved into the darkness of the human soul. They explored the sinister, hidden regions of humanity. They exposed those elements of ourselves we begged to remain hidden.

The best Gothic fiction is…

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Sneak Peek Weekends

May Sneak Peek Weekends #1

We’ve finally made it to June again, which means summer is basically here! To celebrate, I’ve got a handful of new YA releases from the past month that give you those vacation vibes!

Grit

Author: Gillian French

Publisher: Harper Teen

Published: May 16, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, Asking For It, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Secret Life of Bees

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I swore I wouldn’t come back here this summer, not to Mrs. Wardwell’s foghorn voice and blisters the size of nickles. But when I went down to Gaudreau’s Take-Out on the last day of school and asked for an application, you know what Mr. Gaudreau said? “Sorry, honey pie, this is a family business.”

I’m kicking this off with a bit of a dud. Unfortunately, this one just doesn’t grab me. I’m afraid the synopsis does far more to intrigue the reader than the actual writing itself does. There’s no buildup of tension to plant the seeds for this mystery/thriller and the first mention that the best friend’s gone missing isn’t a proper reveal moment, it feels more like a throwaway line. Not the best representation of whatever’s to come. As the title semi-cleverly suggests, the novel is set in the South. The sociolect used between the characters is very foreign to me as a result and it’s not a great way to draw me in when I already feel alienated by the completely lack of any hook. Aside from that, the only other thing I can gleen from this opener is that there are boys and small town slut-shaming gossip. Which, if there was any hint that French was really going somewhere profound with it, I’d be all for. Yet it feels more like the usual mean girls plot and I honestly don’t need another one of these in the world. I’m bored and it’s just not doing a single thing for me.

 

Romancing the Throne

Author: Nadine Jolie Courtney

Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books

Published: May 30, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, The Raven Boys, The Princess Diaries, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Rainbow Rowell.

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My serve has been my secret weapon ever since I mastered it at Wimbledon junior tennis camp two summers ago. The moment I arch my back and feel my racket make contact with the ball, I know Libby is done for.

She runs for it, almost tripping over herself in her haste to get to the corner. The ball slices right and smashes into the hedges. She’s not fast enough.

Game, set, match.

I can see exactly where this slots into the market, which is a huge plus whether it’s good or not. It’s another privileged rich white girl prep school plot. It’s tired and again, we don’t need another one of these. But I will say, for what it is, I could easily see this one as a fun, trashy airplane read. Pick it up at the airport during your layover alongside your pack of gum and People Magazine and just switch off for two or three hours. Maybe The Princess Diaries is playing on the plane. I don’t know. But that’s the exact type of book this is. I wouldn’t personally publish it, because it’s a little too vapid. As fluffy chick lit though, it gets the job done.

Girl Out of Water

Author: Laura Silverman

Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire

Published: May 2, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants

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I float in the Pacific Ocean.

As I straddle my longboard, cool water lapping around me, I watch surfers up and down the coast take on baby waves, four-footers that will carry them a short distance before breaking into froth and foam.

I’m waiting for something better.

This is essentially the plot of the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants book where Bridget goes to the South to visit her grandmother and figures out who she is. Again, nothing new, but apparently, that’s what sells in the summer… It’s variations on a theme and they all look like identical slices of Wonderbread. I’m not overly impressed to be honest.

Ramona Blue

Author: Julie Murphy

Publisher: Balzer + Bray

Published: May 9, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: Nina Lacour, The Impossible, The Hate U Give, History is All You Left Me

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This is a memory I want to keep forever: Grace standing at the stove of her parents’ rental cottage in one of her dad’s oversized T-shirts as she makes us a can of SpaghettiOs. Her mom already cleaned out the fridge and cabinets, throwing away anything with an expiration date.

I’m just gonna say it: I think Balzer & Bray have their finger on the pulse on what is not only good literature, but what readers are dying to see in terms of representation these days. They know what’s up. (For those of you who don’t know, they’ve also published The Hate U Give, based on the Black Lives Matter movement and Murphy’s other novel, Dumplin’, featuring a fat-positive message, both of which are acclaimed.) Ramona Blue only clinches my theory because this is another story not only featuring wlw characters (I believe in this instance, at least one of the leads is bi and in a relationship with another girl), but also set to a backdrop of post-Hurricane Katrina America. It’s vivid and real and full of visceral longing and I think of all the May 2017 releases, this is the one I’m most excited to pick up and read from cover to cover.

 

What are your favourite fluffy books set in the summer?

 

Books, Reviews

Book Review: Passenger

Passenger

Author: Alexandra Bracken

Publisher: Hyperion

Published: January 5, 2016

Rating: 4 / 5 Stars

For Those Who Enjoyed: Indiana Jones, Outlander, Back to the Future, A Wrinkle in Time, This Savage Song, Dreamland Burning, The Lie Tree, Code Name Verity, The Diviners

Passenger

This was kind of everything I want in a novel. I may be extremely biased, considering I too have written a time travel series about family blood feuds, but I’m still absolutely here for it all the same. This is my first Alexandra Bracken novel (she’s far better known for her insanely popular The Darkest Minds series) and I somehow imagined a far simpler writing style on par with most YA fantasy series out there. I am, however, delighted to find my assumptions were wrong, and in fact, Bracken weaves together a complex, beautifully written story crossing the boundaries of time.

There were so many things going into this novel that had me absolutely grinning ear to ear giddy. Etta (who has a great, original name vintage flavoured name, which I loved) is an incredibly smart, driven female protagonist. She’s an insanely affluent violinist training to play with the greats. She’s so focused, with her eyes honed right in on the prize, that it all almost works to her detriment. This is something I definitely think is lacking in YA female protagonists lately. So often, they’re drifting and don’t know what they want at the start of the story, and often don’t figure it out until the end of the series. But here, Bracken gives us a different take. Etta knows who she is, what she wants, and how to get it, and Bracken throws her in the deep end of the complete opposite of what she expects. Etta effectively loses the one part of her life she can depend on in being thrown back in time. I gotta say, although I’m upset that the likelihood of Etta’s returning to her life as a sharply-motivated violinist is pretty slim given how her arc progresses, I’m loving this inversion of the YA female stereotype. Etta has to learn to let go and be less of a control freak in her own life and I like that.

There is nothing that makes me more excited in a book than surprise Victorian settings. As with any time travel plot, Etta and Nicholas to a certain amount of bouncing around from one era to the next. Shockingly enough, for a time travel writer, I might not have a good sense of what a typical time travel story is like, but I can’t say I’ve ever read one that uses the jumping from one era to the next so liberally and so effectively. A lot of the time travel novels I’ve read have stuck to a single era, but this one has a very clear goal propelling them through the different time periods. Bracken’s very meticulous about her every choice she makes and no time jump feels out of place or superfluous to the plot. Etta and Nicholas stay as long as they need to in every era, no more, no less. Although this may not be your usual quick YA read, the plot is tight and gets on without any unnecessary waffling.

That being said, I am a little disappointed that we couldn’t linger and properly savour each era. Bracken’s so hyperfocused on Etta’s task at hand, she never gives the reader an opportunity to explore each new setting. In the span of the novel, we see World War 2 London, 19th Century France, 16th century Damascus, and yet it’s a very insular perspective on each era. One that doesn’t fully embody the atmosphere of each place and time. The tight rules of time travel in Bracken’s world seems to work against her in this way. Because Etta and the other time jumpers aren’t allowed to interact with themselves from different timelines, or really interact with big world events, there’s no opportunity to do any fun name drops to give that real sense of place.

Refusing to let her characters interact with the world around them, Bracken effectively strips all meaning of time and place. Both Nicholas and Etta struggle with their sense of belonging. Etta, a modern girl being thrown into the past, and Nicholas, a 19th century boy punished to never jump through time again. The pair of them are essentially blank slates, ones who could redefine that sense of belonging; that sense of home, not applying it to a specific place or time, but in with each other.

Very rarely do time travel romances do the whole “their love defies time and place” without being cheesy and melodramatic, but Passenger definitely succeeds without being overwrought. The romance, when it starts picking up steam, doesn’t overpower Etta’s original mission. She’s determined to find the astrolabe to save her kidnapped mother and Nicholas is 100% there to support her through it. (A trope I’ve also been known to use on a pretty regular basis). That mission is first and foremost a priority and Bracken doesn’t diminish its importance in favour of the central romance, while still making Etta and Nicholas’ romance a sweeping one. And I respect that!

I will say, I read this book on and off within a series of about four months, while getting distracted by other books. I feel like had I read it within a week, I would be far more in love with it than I was. I was fully on board for it in a big way within the first 150 pages, and I think my enthusiasm diminished the longer I left it sitting on my bedside table. So if you like some fantasy, like some history, like some romance, all tied together in a heftier-than-usual YA package, this is that novel. Just expect to really take some time to savour it because I think this is definitely one of those books you have to spend quality time with.

Books, Reviews

Book Review: Long May She Reign

Long May She Reign

Author: Rhiannon Thomas

Publisher: HarperTeen

Published: February 21, 2017

Rating: 4 / 5 Stars

For Those Who Enjoyed: The Sineater’s Daughter, Robin McKinley, A Darker Shade of Magic, Six of Crows, Throne of Glass, The Lie Tree, Uprooted, Lunar Chronicles, Truthwitch, Caraval, The Night Circus, Pantomime, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Princess Bride

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Every so often, I think of this book and smile. It’s not that it’s a perfect book by any means. It has it’s pitfalls. But for what it is, Long May She Reign is a delightful, charming read. The biggest thing that charmed me was the protagonist. Fraya is refreshingly different from the YA fantasy heroine trope. She’s not kickass. She’s not girly. But she’s also not a damsel in distress. Instead, she’s smart and resourceful and fit to take important matters to task. And she’s not afraid to speak her mind and stand up for what is right.

I should, perhaps, preface this with the plot. Right from the first chapter, Thomas places her readers in this lavish, beautiful royal feast. Everyone’s gorgeously dressed in elaborate court outfits, acrobats and contortionists are performing between tables, and doves fly out of a pie. It’s big and bold and she’s making a flashy statement from the get go. What I love about this set up is that it perfectly reflects the greedy conspicuous consumption of this corrupt king and really creates the tone for the remainder of the novel.

Just when you think we’re getting this beautiful, over the top royal aesthetic for the rest of the narrative, the entire court dies of poisoning. And in one fell swoop, Fraya becomes next in line for the throne. What remains is a twisty, turny murder mystery on a large scale, paired with some admirable character development on Fraya’s part. There’s a certain quiet dose of classic Sherlock Holmes in this. Unlike many fantasy novels these days, Long May She Reign is far from action packed. Instead, Thomas brings the excitement back to a more cerebral level as we watch Fraya use her science smarts and cunning to unravel the whodunnit. Effectively, she’s Watson and Holmes all rolled into one and I love that in a female protagonist.

Although this novel is essentially set in a medieval fantasy plot, there’s something about it that feels very Victorian. Fraya’s scientific reasoning harkens back to the early days of forensic science, when doctors were still trying to discover how to detect arsenic in everyday matter. Rarely ever do I see female characters engaging in science in young adult novels and it brings me so much joy to see Fraya really excelling at it and revelling in her work. She’s not ashamed of being a scientist, nor does she bow to anyone’s will if ever they tell her it’s not her place to do such investigations. Her scientific curiosity makes her a very different kind of fantasy queen, and a much needed one at that.

Fraya is not a girl who ever expected to become queen. About a dozen down the line to inherit the throne, she was not meant to become queen. Yet it happens, and at first, she’s reluctant. She has grand plans to make the next great scientific discovery and invent something useful enough so she can gain notoriety and get out of her greedy town. She’s got aspirations beyond the kingdom. She wants to make something of herself.

And at first, becoming queen isn’t going to grant her that.

Of course, in time, she comes to realise how corrupt the court truly is and she starts to realise that she has a voice, and she’s in control. She calls the shots and no one else. People will try to pull her strings and manipulate her into doing what they want, but she wants none of it. The minute she has that epiphany, it’s her way or the highway. No more lavish spending, the poor are going to get their due, she really pulls it together despite the odds.

This is exactly what I need out of female characters! I need girls who get shit done! Because that’s exactly the type of role model young girls need right now more than ever! We need to be teaching them that they can do science. They can be effective leaders.

They have a voice!

I am beyond thrilled to see Rhiannon Thomas sharing such a message, and I’m excited to see what she does in the future because true, self-aware, feminist YA authors are few and far between. And they deserve all the attention we can give them.

Books, Reviews

Book Review: A Court of Mist and Fury

A Court of Mist and Fury

Author: Sarah J. Maas

Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s

Published: May 3, 2016

Rating: 2 / 5 Stars

For Those Who Enjoyed Read These Instead: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, The Passion of New Eve, Fingersmith, Rebel of the Sands, Long May She Reign, A Darker Shade of Magic, Six of Crows, The Lies of Locke Lamora, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Stardust, Uprooted, The Diviners, Robin Mckinley, Kelley Armstrong

This is not a spoiler-free review!

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Look, publishing community. We need to talk.

About ten years ago, you let the Twilight series take over the world, and with it, naive young girls’ belief that overly protective stalker boyfriends were something to strive for. Since the series’ completion, readers and moviegoers alike have vowed to do better. We hoped to put these toxic ideals behind us with every conversation we had about the problematic nature of Stephenie Meyer’s books. We hoped in doing so, we could finally move forward to read and support more wholesome, meaningful content.

Yet somehow, you chose to invest your money in Sarah J. Maas, and unleashed a whole new, far worse beast upon the world.

Why are we still letting toxic romances dominate the YA genre? Have we learned nothing from the likes of Meyer at all?

Let’s take a step back for a moment. As with her first series, Throne of Glass, Sarah J. Maas set out to write another fairy tale retelling in her latest A Court of Thorns and Roses series. By the time Mist and Fury begins, we’ve all but cast the Beauty and the Beast pretence to the wind. In perhaps the most dull first third of any novel, Feyre is suffering extreme depression and PTSD following the trauma incurred at Amarantha’s wrath. I am wholeheartedly here for portrayals of PTSD in YA. In fact, I encourage it. And given how much of a non-entity it is in Throne of Glass following Celaena’s pre-series traumas, this almost seems like an improvement on Maas’ part. But not when it goes on and on and on for 200 pages. Reading about any protagonist moping in self-pity is a 50-page deal at most. I get we’re supposed to see Feyre’s lack of self-worth at the start of this novel. I get that her trajectory is clearly one of her realising her value and gaining empowerment. Fine. But you can tell that story in 150 less pages. Believe me, as someone who has opened a novel with significant scenes of abuse and trauma, I know what it means to cut back. It pays to trust your reader and rein it in sometimes.

Which comes to one of the most blatant transgressions Maas commits: her lack of editing. Sure, at this point, she’s kind of well-known for her signature long sequels. But larger word counts do not good writing make. This novel could have easily been a solid 400 pages without the faffing about she does in the beginning.

There are some books that really excel in being split into distinct acts. Separating segments via setting or plot shifts can really solidify the narrative, but Maas’ acts can be separated out according to isolated moments sliding along a scale of boring, great, horrifying, and dire. Which is not what you want out of a narrative arc.

I actually thoroughly enjoyed the middle of this novel. For 200 pages, it seems like Maas has begun to atone for all her grievous harm done in her previous works. She introduces some interesting female characters for Feyre to befriend. The friend dynamic of Rhysand’s council is easily one of the strengths of the series and I wish she could have introduced them by the end of the first book. Amren in particular is a fascinating character, who, for a hot second, seems like she might kick some ass in a dark, ruthless, gory kind of way. She and Feyre have a great scene where they’re given permission to go out on a mission and be badass. I was excited to see where this would go and I looked forward to seeing these new battle sisters doing some serious damage together. Unfortunately, there are once more, long interludes where Amren keeps herself locked up, decoding things while the others go out and do the exciting stuff. Until the climax of the novel, the best, most dynamic addition to the cast has been shafted. As are all of the female characters in this series.

Here’s the thing.

For the most part, I like the girls in this book. At face value, they’re great. Nesta, Amren, Mor, and Feyre could all hold their own in battle as easily as they could all have a slumber-party style ki-ki over wine together. But the patriarchal world they’re placed in does no favours for them. Maas’ faerie world is build up by patriarchal traditions, where the men are led by their territorial, violent animal instincts:

“What’s normal?” I said.

… “The … frenzy … When a couple accepts the mating bond, it’s … overwhelming. Again, harkening back to the beasts we once were. Probably something about ensuring the female is impregnated. … Some couples don’t leave the house for a week. Males get so volatile that it can be dangerous for them to be in public, anyway. I’ve seen males of reason and education shatter a room because another male looked too long in their mate’s direction too soon after they’ve been mated.”

This hyper-masculine tradition also happens to heavily feature treating women like commodities they can use and throw away whenever they like. Rhysand, a character Maas tries so hard to pass off as a celebrated feminist, even tells Feyre in the heat of passion that, “I want you splayed out on the table like my own personal feast”. Every single one of Maas’ male characters, including, and especially Rhys, is a product of this tradition. But instead of engaging with commentary about how toxic such a worldview is, Maas just lets her characters carry on in this reality without consequence, self-awareness, or rebellion against it, as can be seen by Rhys’ explanation of women’s place in the kitchen, and Feyre’s subsequent acquiescence to that role as Rhys’ partner:

“It’s an … important moment when a female offers her mate food. It goes back to whatever beasts we were a long, long time ago. But it still matters. The first time matters. Some mated pairs will make an occasion of it– throwing a party just so the female can formally offer her mate food … But it means that the female … accepts the bond.”

This old-fashioned, dare I say, archaic misogynistic ideal is just treated as the norm, effectively cementing every other male fantasy writer’s depiction of patriarchal societies as the ultimate world-building feature of the genre.

I don’t know what Maas is thinking, but whatever it is, it’s not cute.

Why are we still putting fantasies set in patriarchal worlds on such a high pedestal? It’s fantasy! What’s more, it’s 2017! You can’t tell me it’s more realistic to write a patriarchal society than literally any other kind in a fantasy world. When Maas, a woman writer creating her own world from scratch, has the chance to do whatever she wants, this is what she gives us?

One of the most horrifying scenes in A Court of Thorns and Roses (which is also shockingly overlooked) is Rhysand drugging Feyre and turning her into his slave whore without her consent. Maas sweeps this under the rug with a quick explanation that is all justified to a.) save Rhys’ fearsome reputation among the other realms, and b.) protect Feyre from the horrors of Amarantha’s kingdom. Just when I thought this particular plot was given its much needed closure (shut it down, Sarah. Shut it down right now!), the slave whore plot rears its ugly head again:

“I had heard the rumours, and I didn’t quite believe him.” [Keir’s] gaze settled on me, on my breasts, peaked through the folds of my dress, of my legs, spread wider than they’d been minutes before, and Rhys’ hand in dangerous territory. “But it seems true: Tamlin’s pet is now owned by another master.”

“You should see how I make her beg,” Rhys murmured, nudging my neck with his nose.

Keir clasped his hands behind his back. “I assume you brought her to make a statement.”

“You know everything I do is a statement.”

The only difference is, Feyre’s aware and consenting this time. Still, the skimpy dress and incredibly graphic touching on Rhys’ part all in the name of creating a diversion isn’t good enough to justify his actions. Rhysand’s created a thinly-veiled excuse to once again, objectify Feyre, touch her inappropriately in front of everyone, and lay claim to her when she’s not his to claim:

“Try not to let it go to your head.”

…I … said with midnight smoothness, “What?”

Rhys’ breath caressed my ear, the twin to the breath he’d brushed against it merely an hour ago in the skies. “That every male in here is contemplating what they’d be willing to give up in order to get that pretty, red mouth of yours on them.”

…His hand slid higher up my thigh, the proprietary touch of a male who knew he owned someone body and soul.

 


His eyes on the Steward, Rhys made vague nods every now and then. While his fingers continued their slow, steady stroking on my thighs, rising higher with every pass.

People were watching. Even as they drank and ate, even as some danced in small circles, people were watching. I was sitting in his lap, his own personal plaything, his every touch visible to them.

This isn’t romantic, this isn’t sexy, and it’s straight up not okay!

At what point did this series just turn into a horrific Princes Leia/Jabba the Hut smutfic? I know the only ones imagining what it might’ve been like had Leia been chained to Sexy McSexMachine instead of a giant blob are usually the pervy weirdos. Meaning no one in their right minds would want that mental image. Absolutely no one. In fact, the moment that image popped into my head, the final implosion of Rhys and Feyre’s sexual tension was made all the more cringe-worthy. There’s a reason Carrie Fisher spoke so strongly against Jabba and the gold bikini. She knew what it meant to be objectified, something Maas does not succeed in exploiting with Rhys’ choice to put Feyre in these skimpy outfits not once, but twice in this series. While yes, putting her in these outfits is ultimately a con-game, why should he be lauded for still playing by patriarchal rules in the first place? Shouldn’t the correct course of action be to break down those gender barriers?

All I have left to say about that is, I’m sorry, Sarah. You wrote that Leia/Jabba fanfiction. You made your bed. Now lie in it.

I suppose it’s about time to address the elephant in the room: Rhys. Oh boy… I don’t know how someone can pull together a character’s development so offensively, but Maas somehow wins the prize. He spends the entire first book as a lackey to the villain, doing the best he can to humiliate and emotionally manipulate Feyre. Now, we’re expected to believe he’s not only Feyre’s true love (oh, sorry… mate), but a feminist icon? I’m sorry. No. Did we already forget that he drugged her and made her dance for him in Leia’s gold bikini? It happened. I’m not about to let people forget it…

Readers fall all over themselves over him for coming to Feyre’s rescue when she begs to be saved from her wedding to Tamlin. On the surface, he’s set up to directly juxtapose Tamlin’s controlling over-protectiveness by letting Feyre do whatever she likes. Yet there’s still an unhealthy amount of Rhys manipulating situations in order to do what he feels is best for her. Not what Feyre thinks is best for herself, but what he thinks is best. Every single decision Feyre makes is based on Rhys’ influence. Nothing she does is for herself. By making Rhysand’s word law, Maas effectively strips Feyre of her agency, ironically, the one thing Rhys has attempted to help her regain in the first place.

What’s more, I don’t know who any of these characters are outside of their relation to Rhysand. They all revolve around him, because in Maas’ paraphrased words, he’s the most beautiful, powerful, strongest male in the kingdom. I honestly don’t need this overcompensation to make up for how toxic he is as a person. Not to mention, his male friends are nothing but carbon copies of him. Cassian and Azriel share his colouring and Ilyrian wings. I’ve seen plenty of fanart out there depicting the full cast of characters and I can never tell one male character from the another, nor one female character from another. The men (Azriel, Cassian, and Rhysand) are handsome and dark haired, the women (Feyre, Nesta, Elain, and Mor), beautiful and blonde. Again, the only stand-out is Amren, who is woefully underrepresented and poorly used in the novel. When you have a white cookie cutter template for every character in your patriarchal world, you’ve gotta step outside your box to deliver some diversity at some point. Otherwise, everything’s just vanilla with a side of racism.

If you think Rhys is the only male character abusing women in this novel, you would be dead wrong. Every single female character in this series has an honestly triggering backstory involving rape, whether emotional or physical. This novel is undoubtedly the sort of thing that should come with a warning. I’ve seen copies with warnings that the series is not suitable for young readers on the back cover, but it’s both irresponsible to then market it as YA, and not discuss rape and abuse responsibly. In fact, given how frequently Maas uses the rape card and how non-existent any discourse concerning the consequences is, I’d say this is a dire case of romanticising rape. And I’m tired of seeing readers obsessing over series like these en masse. It’s doing nothing but perpetuating rape culture.

Mor in particular has a brutal rape backstory. This is made all the more upsetting by how eager her father is to sell her off to the highest bidder, and her desperation to lose her virginity on her own terms:

“I wanted Cassian to be the one who did it. I wanted to choose … Rhys came back the next morning, and when he learned what had happened … He and Cassian … I’ve never seen them fight like that. Hopefully I never will again.I know Rhys wasn’t pissed about my virginity, but rather the danger that losing it had put me in. Azriel was even angrier about it–though he let Rhys do the walloping. They knew what my family would do for debasing myself.”


“I wanted my first time to be with one of the legendary Illyrian warriors. I wanted to lie with the greatest of Illyrian warriors, actually. And I’d taken one look at Cassian and known. … He just wants what he can’t have, and it’s irritated him for centuries that I walked away and never looked back.”

“Oh, it drives him insane,” Rhys said from behind me.

What’s worrying here is that while the men are praised for playing the patriarchal system to protect their women, female characters like Mor aren’t shown the same respect for protecting themselves. Mor’s entire character arc is punishment for her female sexuality, kept completely out of her control. Not once does a female character speak out against her sexual abuse, nor do they seek justice for it.

In a recent interview, Maas has stated that she only writes sex scenes if they further the plot. When literally everyone’s backstory hinges on sex, whether consensual or otherwise, I find that doubtful. If there’s one positive thing I’ll say about Maas, it’s that I’m glad she’s leading the charge for sex-positive female characters. But how empowering are these characters really, when they’re defined by their desirability to men and their past sexual traumas? Sure, Feyre has sexual agency, but what else does she have? Especially in a patriarchal world where this is expected of her, and she doesn’t even use this “power” to her advantage…

Look, I’m glad Feyre’s getting pleasured the way she wants it, when she wants it, and the detailed depiction of her sexual stimulation might help girls become more aware of their own bodies and sexuality. But when this is the highest profile series featuring female sexuality in the YA market right now, what kind of example are we really setting here?

Feminism doesn’t begin and end with sexual expression. It’s more than that and Maas’ characters have to join that fight. Especially given it’s one of the highest selling fantasy series in the market right now. Sarah J. Maas is not the feminist role model we need for this generation of girls.

We need more than this.

In short, I’m absolutely shocked and appalled that so many people blindly gave this book 4 and 5 stars. Even those who acknowledge how problematic Maas’ writing is. Is it really worth overlooking blatant normalised rape culture to call something your favourite series? As I said from the outset, we’ve already been there with Twilight. An entire generation of girls fell head over heels for Edward Cullen, a 100+ year old stalker who dictated Bella Swan’s ever action and motivation. Now, here we are again, encouraging a new generation of teens to swoon over this sexy, emotionally manipulative product of rape culture, without any acknowledgement of the consequences.

We need to do better. Starting with readers. Starting with authors. Starting with publishers.

It’s time to hold ourselves accountable for the content we praise and allow kids to read. Because toxic masculinity and rape culture are not values to uphold. We live in a world where the President of the United States can brag about grabbing women by the pussy without recourse. Where old, white men are constantly dictating women’s reproductive rights. Where women are catcalled in the streets and victim blamed for the clothes they wear. Where girls can’t even go out at night on their own without the threat of sexual assault.

Is this really what we want to teach our daughters, sisters, students, friends? That it’s okay, to allow passing men to objectify us, just because they have power over us?

Listen, girls. This is the thing: men have power over us so long as we give it to them. So long as we keep laying down and accepting that we’re weak and in need of defending, they’ll keep doing it. And people like Sarah J. Maas will keep holding to those gender expectations. They’ll keep defining romantic ideals based on hyper-masculine overprotective, possessive men.

It’s up to us to redefine romantic ideals. To tear down toxic masculinity and uplift healthy, equal relationships based on mutual respect.

Because you’re worth so much more than that. You deserve better than Rhysand. Align yourself with people who value you for who you are and not just your body. Listen to them when they praise you for your talents. Accept their recommendations when they stumble across media showcasing aspirational women rising above the status quo. You are more than just an object holding a man’s attention. You are yourself and you deserve the world.

Look beyond the smokescreen of Sarah J. Maas’ works and aspire to be something more.

Sneak Peek Weekends

March Sneak Peek Previews #2

I’m rounding out the month with some of March’s contemporaries for you guys!

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

Inexplicable Logic

I have a memory that is almost like a dream: the yellow leaves from Mima’s mulberry tree are floating down from the sky like giant snowflakes.

Author: Benjamin Alire Saenz

Publisher: Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Published: March 7, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: History is all You Left Me, At the Edge of the Universe, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, David Leviathan, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, A List of Cages, Perks of Being a Wallflower

As an agent or acquisitions editor, would I select this for publication?

Full disclosure, I have not read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, (not that you’d need to  – this one isn’t the long-awaited sequel), so I’m going in completely blind. I expected Saenz’ writing to be more poetic for some reason. It’s not doing a ton of things any different than the contemporary authors I’ve read lately. But it does feel very true to the teen experience, so I definitely understand why teens are so attached to his writing in that sense. I do like seeing more and more stories written by male authors about boys who cry and feel things. It’s important for boys to see themselves in the stories they read, and be told that they’re allowed to be emotional, to let it all out. Toxic masculinity hurts boys just as much as it hurts girls in the realm of patriarchy and feminism, so it’s nice to see more authors taking on that conversation. The narrative voice also has a lot of character; it’s engaging. The dialogue is so realistic, and so natural, it’s easy to forget you’re even reading.

In terms of if I would personally pick it for publication, it’s a bit unfair of me to say I wouldn’t, simply based on my leaning more toward fantasy, but that’s how publishers/agents are like in real life… And that’s why we have publishers and their imprints specialising in different genres! What doesn’t fancy one agent or publisher would be gold for someone else! That doesn’t make this one a bad read at all. In fact, I would highly recommend it to readers, especially those who already love Saenz’s work. It’s nice that Clarion at Houghton Mifflin picked this one up! (Fun fact: Simon & Schuster have full bragging rights for snapping up Aristotle and Dante, meaning Saenz is published under different houses…)

You’re Welcome, Universe

You're Welcome

Six stencils in and it’s gone. Okay, the tag vanished by Stencil Number Two, but I have a point to prove. I’m not covering up your scribbled slur with just anything, I’m making art here. I’m creating. I’m on fire.

Author: Whitney Gardner

Publisher: Knopf

Published: March 7, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: History is all you left me, Love and First Sight, The Fault in Our Stars

As an agent or acquisitions editor, would I select this for publication?

I’m not terribly interested in a graffiti plot, so I wouldn’t personally publish it, but the hook is both interesting and important. I’m seeing more and more disabled characters in YA lately, which is really nice. I’ve seen a handful of blind protagonists, but I don’t think I’ve seen any deaf protagonists until now. I’m so glad YA authors are starting to write stories about disabled characters doing normal teenage things, getting into trouble, being rebellious, talking back… All these things you’d expect from an able-bodied character. Almost as if they’re ordinary people or something… hmmm…

In any case, good on Knopf for bringing representation where representation is needed. See? Look how easy that was. Publishers, take note!

 

Goodbye Days

Goodbye Days

Depending on who–sorry, whom– you ask, I may have killed my three best friends.

Author: Jeff Zentner

Publisher: Tundra Book

Published: March 7, 2017

For Those Who Enjoyed: A Good Idea, History is All You Left Me, All the Bright Places

As an agent or acquisitions editor, would I select this for publication?

Wow, that opening line gives me chills… This may be because I’ve got morbid interests, but this is the exact kind of contemporary I’m into. I could probably read contemporary YA novels about death forever. I don’t like happy, fluffy novels. That’s why I don’t read contemporaries that often. Which is why I’m so here for all these heart-wrenching contemporaries that really go through the motions in terms of addressing grief and trauma. I will always defend YA novels that deal with real, hard truths of being a teen that go beyond the everyday rabble. People die, and teens struggle with that. It’s important that they have a voice to speak for them, and tell them that they’re not alone. I support that and I will continue supporting that. Also, the consequence of texting while driving is something I rarely see addressed without being condescending. Teens know it’s bad, but there’s that assumption that if it’s going to happen to someone, it’s definitely not going to happen to them. And I think it’s nice to bring it back to them in a shocking way that talks to their level. This is where I might make an exception in my extremely sci-fi/fantasy based imaginary agency/publishing house and choose this one for publication. Or at least pass it on to a more contemporary imprint.