Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Archetypes and Subversions

Now Playing: Chris Cornell - Seasons (Man of Steel soundtrack)

I mentioned I got really mad at Red Rising for how it handled its female characters. I was also, surprisingly, mildly disappointed in the much-better-crafted The Grace of Kings for the same reason.

Because both Grace of Kings and Red Rising were due on the same Saturday at the library, I had to rush that final week to finish the both of them. They're not alike, of course. The Grace of Kings is better written, better plotted, has better characters, is more imaginative, has a better grasp on emotion and complexity. Basically, it's just better. Overall, Ken Liu is a better writer.

I do look forward to upcoming books in his series and how the world and the characters will develop. But. Yeah. I gave it three stars. And inadvertently, because I read it back to back with Red Rising, I ended up thinking a lot about a similar problem I had with them both.

Basically, I always find it weird that we're over a decade into the 21st century and female characters are still just. . .written really, really badly. If they're not boring archetypes, they're insultingly underutilized and/or disgustingly tossed aside for the benefit of the male characters. As harsh as I was with The Grace of Kings, this review pretty much summarized what my problem was with the book--and that reviewer holds nothing back.

A lot of dude-bros will get annoyed that readers like us are angry when books have minimum female characters or stereotypical female characters. And all I gotta say to that is eat a dick, I deserve to be represented in my favorite genre and my favorite adventures, and until there's a gender balance among all storytelling mediums, you're not allowed to pretend we should be content with the bare fucking minimum.

Ahem.

Anyways.

The weird thing is, people are surprisingly hard on Grace of Kings for not doing more with its female characters. Yet Red Rising, at least in my friends' list, got a lot of leeway on the whole Women in Fridges and Rape as Plot Device problems. (Some people argued the rape plot points were handled properly in connection to how brutal it was? But. Uh. I have no idea what they're talking about). People gave it four or five stars while acknowledging that it's utterly misogynistic.

I couldn't do it. I just couldn't forgive it.

In the years that I've become more and more attached to the feminist movement, I've found it impossible to just "turn my brain off" and let sexist narrative choices wash through me. If it's there and it's prominent, I will hone in and hate it. Hate, hate, hate it. It's intrinsic now. And for anyone rolling their eyes--I get daily reminders of prominent sexism in our modern era. If I stay at home, I get those reminders through the good ol' internet. If I leave, hit a cafe, walk around Downtown Miami, I get those reminders just moving around streets. No matter what I'm wearing, how I feel, what time of day it is. I. Get. Reminded.

It's enough to make a girl angry.

And while Grace of Kings has some problems in that department, Red Rising is utterly horrendous. There's no reason for why it treats its female characters the way it treats them. It's just there, a byproduct of our real life fucked up culture overstuffed with fucked up narratives. On occasion it seems to think it's better and more complex than it actually it is and it never quite rectifies this problem.

And weirdly, GoK is almost there too.

Because GoK is a better book, I'm going to discuss it more thoroughly. It bothers me because the book is so good and because I understand, on a thematic level, what Ken Liu was trying to do.

Basically, GoK deals a lot with the expectations of the genre. A lot of books would end after the formidable blue blooded warrior destined for greatness ascends through his cunning eye for warfare and the games of politics to take the throne. That's, at best, the middle point of GoK. It chooses to keep going, really bringing its character through a downward spiral and showcasing the dangers of peoples' actions and the extremes of their personalities and choices.

(Side note: In fact. . .I think it's what Marie Lu's The Young Elites series is currently trying to do. But, as much as I love Marie Lu, TYE seems more concerned with saying that Adelina is entangled in darkness rather than actually showing it.

Tangent, though. I can't say for sure yet.

I will have to revisit this point later on, after the series concludes).

So as established, GoK is really complicated and I'm not going to get into everything that happens. But I am going to talk about one character--particularly her introduction--that is just. . .baffling to me.

Princess Kikomo is introduced about two hundred pages in. While her position in the world and her backstory is explained, a lot of her early chapters are basically veiled by discussions of a familiar archetype: the impossibly beautiful princess at the center of a high fantasy book. The story first spends a lot of time acknowledging that Kikomo is so beautiful and so aware of her beauty that she's witnessed how it's changed people's behavior toward her, and not necessarily for the better. Then, the story has her complain about this to someone, who in turns states that her oh-so-tragic view of her beauty is wrong. Wrong because she can wield her beauty as she should wield any advantageous trait.

There's a ton of back and forth then with Kikomo saying, well, why must beautiful women in stories use their beauty? If they're not going to be pretty damsels in distress, why must they be seductresses and femme fatales? Is there nothing else? Why can't they (we) be more than that?

And then the other character says, you wouldn't give this criticism to a man. If a man was introduced as being impossibly handsome and using his charms to get ahead in life, you wouldn't criticize the way he behaves or how he utilizes his gifts.

The whole time I was reading that section, or really the whole time I came across a Kikomo scene, I swear, I could feel the authoritative stick poking me in the ribs going, "get it get it get it? I'm playing with your expectations. She's not a typical princess archetype."

Except there I was, for that entire middle portion of Grace of Kings, waiting for the subversion to hit.

And it never, ever, ever did.

It kept telling me, through super meta conversations and occasional moments of introspection, that Kikomo was more than that. And she wasn't. She wasn't a bad character. No one's bad in this book. But she was nothing special. In fact, to make matters worse, she's discarded almost as quickly as she's introduced.

The greatest failure in Kikomo as both a literary device and a character is that, ultimately, she's fucking pointless.

Her and Mira. Two women who are introduced as possible archetypes, presented as subversions, and discarded before they can become anything more. Before the so-called depth and subversion could properly manifest.

I don't believe it's unwarranted to think Ken Liu assumed it would be different. Or that there are readers out there who saw the Kikomo and Mira scenes and thought, yes, these are powerful characters with tragic but deserved endings.

I couldn't see it. I couldn't see how the book didn't realize it was talking about all the things Kikomo and Mira weren't (damsels, pawns, beauties of no substance) and yet did nothing with what they were supposed to be (??? fuck if I know. Cunning, I guess?).

There is another female character, Gin Mazoti, who just, like, storms in at the eleventh hour and is about 99% of the reason I'll be reading the sequel. But that's the thing--she's introduced near the last third of the novel. I know next to nothing of who she will become, how she'll play a role in future narratives, or if I can even be certain she'll be a top player in the next book.

I have some ideas, as well as slight reason to believe she'll be a delight to read about. Like many other characters, she seems to be a play on tropes too. While I'm nervous about how she might surprise me, I am excited too. Because I'm hopeful. Hopeful I won't be disappointed again.

We'll see.
~Becky

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