Feminist Concepts: Gender Roles Part II

Disclaimer: All contents of the Harry Potter books and related terms, phrases, materials and so forth belong to J.K. Rowling. I’m merely reproducing brief slightly modified extracts from the books here to illustrate a couple of points.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR ALL SEVEN HARRY POTTER BOOKS ARE LIKELY

Key:
Helen Potter – Harry
Deirdre Dursley – Dudley
Veronica Dursley – Vernon Dursley
Peter Dursley – Petunia Dursley
Alberta Dumbledore – Albus Dumbledore
Apollo McGonagall – Minerva McGonagall
Ruby Hagrid – Rubeus Hagrid
Petra – Piers Polkiss
Denise – Dennis
Gerda – Gordon
Melanie – Malcolm

“Mrs. and Mr. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
“[…] Mrs. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. She was a big, beefy woman with hardly any neck, although she did have a very large moustache.* Mr. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which  came in very useful as he spent so much of his time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours. The Dursleys had a small daughter named Deirdre, and in their opinion there was no finer girl anywhere.”

*I kind of just find the idea of mustachioed Veronica Dursley hilarious. What do you want to bet Aunt Marge has a moustache too? Because as far as I can tell, the description of Aunt Marge as a female version of Uncle Vernon is supposed to be hilarious (she’s large, fat, ill tempered, unfeminine, and drinks WAY more than Petunia does). It also goes a long way towards cementing her position as a firmly negative character in the reader’s mind, because we invariably associate these traits in women with a particularly unsatisfactory style of non-conformity.

In the course of my exercise, what really struck me is that when I re-read the modified chapters, many aspects of them appeared jarring to me, when I’d given them barely a second thought when read in the original. A beefy, bullying Director Vernon and his thin, blonde, snoopy and gossipy wife did not evoke comment… but a beefy, bullying Director Veronica and her gossipy husband Peter straightaway falls into our trope of the butch, domineering female and her ‘whipped’ husband. A gossipy Petunia, while evoking mild contempt, generally falls under the radar because she conforms to the expected stereotype of a bored housewife. My knee jerk reaction to gossipy Peter on the other hand was that of extreme contempt.

It was only after I swapped their genders that I even realized just how much the portrayal of Petunia as OCD about cleanliness in her house, and wildly interested in celebrity divorces and neighbourhood goings on contributed to our negative impression of her. On the other hand, a Petunia Dursley who had a steady job, was more business like and didn’t really care about gossip would have evoked, I think, grudging respect even as she was being abusive to Harry.

[…] Mrs. Dursley hummed as she picked out her most boring tie for work, and Mr. Dursley gossiped away happily as he wrestled a screaming Deirdre into her high chair.

This method and line of logic informed my re-read of the series (I got as far as halfway through Chamber of Secrets) by rewriting the chapters. And the jolts and jars kept coming in steady profusion all the while.

  • “They didn’t think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters. Mr. Potter was Mr. Dursley’s brother, but they hadn’t met for several years. In fact, Mr. Dursley pretended he didn’t have a brother, because his brother and his good-for-nothing wife were as unDursleyish as it was possible to be. – Here, I was interrupted in my reading so I could wonder for a miniscule second why the brothers didn’t share a surname, whereas it would not strike one as abnormal for married sisters to have different surnames. 
  • Side note: Would a screaming one year old girl child be affectionately referred to as “little tyke” by someone as Dursleyish as Vernon is?
  • Also consider Deirdre Dursley, school bully, and her little gang of likewise bullies.
    “Helen was glad school was over, but there was no escaping Deirdre’s gang, who visited the house every single day. Petra, Denise, Gerda and Melanie were all big and stupid, but as Deirdre was the biggest and the stupidest of the lot, she was the leader. The rest of them were all quite happy to join in Deirdre’s favourite sport: Helen Hunting.”

This is obviously a nitpicky point – anyone wishing to write a realistic portrayal of our contemporary world will not do differently, and the problematic gender roles and characterizations herein are a reflection of our patriarchal life structures in general. That is to say, they’re not unique to Harry Potter. 

Now check out this introduction of three extremely important characters into the series:

“Nothing like this woman had ever been seen on Privet Drive. She was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of her hair and beard which was long enough to be tuck into her belt. She was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots. Her blue eyes were light, bright and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and her nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice. This woman’s name was Alberta Dumbledore.”

“[…] She turned to smile at the tom(cat), but it had gone. Instead she was smiling at a rather severe-looking man who was wearing square shaped glasses exactly the shape of the markings the cat had around its eyes. His black hair was drawn into a tight bun parted severely down the middle. He looked distinctly ruffled.”

“But how is the girl getting here, Dumbledore?” He eyed her cloak suddenly as though he thought she might be hiding Helen underneath it.
“Hagrid’s bringing her.”
“You think it – wise – to trust Hagrid with something as important as this?”
“I would trust Hagrid with my life,” said Dumbledore.
“I’m not saying her heart isn’t in the right place, […] but you can’t pretend she isn’t careless. She does tend to – what was that?”
[…] If the motorcycle was huge, it was nothing compared to the woman sitting astride it. She was almost twice as tall as a normal woman and at least five times as wide. She looked simply too big to be allowed, and so 
wild – long tangles of bushy black hair and beard hid most of her face, she had hands the size of trash can lids, and her feet in their leather boots were like baby dolphins. In her vast, muscular arms she was holding a bundle of blankets.

McGonagall’s relationship with Dumbledore was one of extreme respect (practically bordering on reverence, as was the case with most of the adults around Dumbledore). While very much her own strong and independent person, there’s no doubt that McGonagall looked to Dumbledore’s lead in all things, and was willing, even if at times irritably so, to accept a great many of his perceived eccentricities on faith alone. This reverent respectfulness and acknowledgement when seen as coming from a distinguished man towards a woman who is possibly the most capable magic user in the world makes their dynamic – and these characters – infinitely more interesting than the original (standard trope) of a very, very distinguished, very well bearded Gandalf-figure looked up to by everybody around him, saving the day in the nick of time, blah blah bleh.

If I could read a story about an Alberta Dumbledore, the most reliable person in the magical world, the one everyone turns to for assurance that the day will be saved and the fight will go on… oh, how happy I’d be.
[But what about those marvellous Dumbledore-is-an-Asshole comics? How would they work for an Alberta instead of an Albus? Would she sound bitchy, like women in power are often perceived to be?]

These comics are done by the awesome http://floccinaucinihilipilificationa.tumblr.com/

Sidenote: An additional benefit of having an Alberta Dumbledore is that Harry’s Helen Potter’s second child wouldn’t have to bear the burden of a name that was probably lame two hundred years ago.

Similarly, the case of Ruby Hagrid, the wild, leather wearing half-giantess who is so the opposite of everything Olympe Maxime stands for. Every time I replaced my mental image of the Hagrid we all know and love with that of Ruby, I felt a thrill of excitement. Careless and excitable and irresponsible and fond of large and unwieldy and severely dangerous monsters… oh Ruby!
I know that a major part of Hagrid’s appeal is that mothering streak he has which is at odds with the fact that he’s male… oh, but think of Ruby wrestling Acromantulas!

Unlike Alberta, Ruby Hagrid and Apollo McGonagall are not perfect creations of the gender swapped method. In this I see not failure, but the influence of the perfection of the original creations. Jo Rowling bent those pesky gender roles quite a bit when it came to Hagrid and Minerva McGonagall, and that shows!

To Be Continued…

Up Next: Feminist Concepts – Gender Roles Part III

Feminist Concepts: Gender Roles I

A few months ago, when the latest edition in the Twilight series (bearing the barely-connected-to-anything-really title Life and Death) was announced, I was intrigued enough to end up conducting an experiment of my own.

twilightandlifeanddeath.jpg

Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last ten years, you’ll know of the enormous amount of criticism the Twilight series has faced. This criticism has been founded on multiple grounds – being severely un-feminist, glorifying abusive relationships, providing impressionable young people with terrible role models, bad grammar and sentence structure, as well as tackiness and general bad taste all around.

Twilight also bears the blame for spawning the severely horrifying Fifty Shades series, which took everything that was bad in Twilight, laminated it, and hung it under a bright spotlight (with a ribbon on it). FSOG was a bald illustration of just how horrible Twilight really was, because it took away the fantasy elements and the teen softness that had served as a buffer between the book’s central and subliminal messages, and the reader’s conscious brain.

fsog.jpeg

If the average reader wasn’t roundly insulted by Twilight (because, SUBTLETY) then they really ought to have been when FSOG came around. Surprisingly (or not, really), the series had the opposite reaction. Women loved it. It hogged the top of the bestseller lists for so long that all the Ian McEwan books came together to plot its gruesome demise. [Citation needed].

The books were hailed as a revolutionary (and positive) expression of female sexuality – finally, we could bring it out into the open and admit that yes, we get turned on sometimes.

Riiight.

Since I’m not here to bitch about FSOG today, I’ll save that for later. Coming back to the criticism faced by Twilight series author Stephenie Meyer, I suppose it’s not entirely surprising that an author should become slightly defensive when her work is burned at stake so thoroughly. But then she went ahead and attempted to have the last laugh – to prove her detractors wrong by showing that there is no sexism in the Twilight books. Her argument was that the only reason Bella Swan is such an incorrigible damsel-in-distress is because she’s dealing with a superpowered family of vampires, around whom, duh, a human would be significantly powerless. She also decided that the best way to prove this would be to swap the female gender for the male and vice versa, and release a new version. This new version would show the female vampire, Edythe Cullen, as powerful and as always rescuing the hapless Beau Swan. Presumably.

It’s not a bad idea, really, assuming that EVERYTHING ELSE in the original book is left as is. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Changes were made, which have been discussed in detail in this video by Youtube vlogger marinashutup:

Stephenie Meyer however, did give me an interesting idea when she made her announcement. I asked myself – how would other books fare if given the same treatment? I chose none other than the most ambitious project for my newly conceived ‘Meyer Test’:

hp17coverafts
YEAH. I WENT THERE.

The results of my little experiment were…

Shocking and creepy.

Yes, you read that right. I was saddened, of course. Jo Rowling is one of the last people you’d name as a symbol/ proponent of misogynistic patriarchy. [I wasn’t really surprised though, I mean, it’s impossible to be surprised if you’ve read her Cormoran Strike series.] And yeah, regardless of all of this, I’ll still be reading HP on my deathbed. Nothing and no one is perfect, but HP comes pretty damn close, I’ll say.

I’ll detail my findings in the next post, but first a few words on gender roles and why they’re problematic.

  1. They traditionally don’t take into account the non-binariness that is the true nature of ‘gender’. We have forever divided all of humankind – and animals and everything except for algae and stuff (and even they’ve had a close shave) into ‘male’ and ‘female’. Primarily distinguished, of course, by the ability of one of these ‘genders’ to produce (in one form or another) the next generation of the species.
    Pure stuff and nonsense, I gotta say, but it’s so deeply ingrained in us that we find it difficult to think outside of these boxes.
    Also thanks to said box, I’m going to limit the rest of my points within the traditional discourse of the gender binary – I just don’t know enough to talk about it more than that.
  2. The ‘males’ are traditionally designated as the protectors, the defenders, the hunters and providers. They’re the warriors, the brave, the powerful and the ones capable of hardness/ strength (used interchangeably, of course).
  3. The ‘females’ are traditionally designated as the weak and defenseless ones that require protection, along with the offspring they produce. They take care of the ‘home’ front – turn the raw material brought in by the ‘males’ into stuff usable for the comfort and utility of everyone in the home. They produce and bring up the children and are considered sensitive, loving, kind, compassionate etc. All these qualities are considered essential for someone who needs to ‘mother’ young ones and safely bring them into adulthood.
  4. I’m already getting a headache talking about this.
  5. These gender roles are now a lot less strictly enforced than they used to – took a couple of world wars to bring that about, by the way. But even in today’s world, they’re quite evident, quite omnipresent. Women do go out to work – but they’re typically paid less, perceived as less competent, and also as a liability because of the dual nature of their responsibilities. This is because even though they now go out of the home front, all home front matters are still firmly placed on their shoulders.
  6. Representation of the genders – in our culture and media, as well as in real life – is skewed in line with these gender roles. More males are portrayed as the main protagonists of extremely popular fiction. More females are portrayed as mere love interests, damsels in distress, and – if they’re lucky – less competent sidekicks. STEM professions, as well as those that require ‘logic’ and ‘hard-headedness’ are typically filled with more males. Conversely, males taking up jobs that are seen as requiring compassion, sensitivity and caring are roundly made fun of. [See male nannies and nurses].

Well… that’s enough talking. Next post reflects on the effect of a gender swap on the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

Until then, here’s another post by marinashutup raising a few questions about the Hogwarts houses that never occurred to me. (Have they occurred to you?)

Up Next: Feminist Analysis of The Effect of A Gender Swap on the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Book Review: Bloodlines #3 – The Indigo Spell

Title: The Indigo Spell
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2013
Series: Bloodlines
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.43
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Spoiler Warning

the indigospell.jpg

Plot Description: Having kissed Adrian once, Sydney is now struggling with the realization that she might perhaps return his feelings, even as she continues to follow up on leads that hint towards corruption within her organization, the Alchemists. She also finds herself in danger thanks to a mysterious serial killer witch who is tracking down young magic users and draining them of life and power.

The Indigo Spell begins on a hilarious note:

This wasn’t the first time I’d been pulled out of bed for a crucial mission. It was, however, the first time I’d been subjected to such a personal line of questioning.

“Are you a virgin?”

“Huh?” I rubbed my sleepy eyes, just in case this was all some sort of bizarre dream that would disappear. An urgent phone call had dragged me out of bed five minutes ago, and I was having a little trouble adjusting.

My history teacher, Ms. Terwilliger, leaned closer and repeated the question in a stage whisper: “I said, are you a virgin?”

“Um, yes. . .”

I was fully awake now and glanced uneasily around my dorm’s lobby, making sure no one was around to witness this crazy exchange.

Sydney’s proficiency in spellwork is improving, as is her willingness to engage with her potential for magic. These are two reasons why Jaclyn Terwilliger pulled her out of bed in the middle of the night to help her with a spell. The third reason is her virginity.

This is possibly due to my own personal hang ups, but I hate the idea of virginity holding any special kind of power. It’s a theme that’s inescapable however, turning up in a wide range of subjects from historical virgin sacrifices to modern society’s obsession with virginity.

For one thing, the concept of virginity is highly subjective. We’re given to understand that the historical definition of virginity centres around the heteronormativity of sex – (i.e. where a man, a woman and their respective private parts are involved). This sucks for a lot of reasons – anything that’s not heterosexual is not included, for starters. Even within this narrow definition of sex, one still runs into problems, because people have been using the hymen as the designated virginity marker. And the hymen often… doesn’t exist. Or is lost in ways other than through sex. Or can remain unbroken despite intercourse due to incredible elasticity. In young women, it even shows remarkable healing qualities.

A theory I like more these days is that virginity is more psychological than physiological. If you feel like you’re a virgin, then you’re a virgin.

Whoa, I’ve gotten slightly off track. Bloodlines is not the first universe to attribute magical qualities to virginity, and I don’t doubt that it won’t be the last. Even Terry Pratchett’s Discworld makes allusions to this trope by contrasting the unmarried and virginal Granny Weatherwax against the thrice married and happily promiscuous Nanny Ogg. But yes, the idea still makes me uncomfortable – partly because of the horrendous mess ‘virginity culture’ has become, and partly because I’m afraid it might be true.

Ms. Terwilliger’s spell reveals the location of a powerful witch – one who she worries is going after young witches for their youth and power. Once again, she’s pushing for Sydney to actively learn more magic – for her own protection if nothing else.

On a much lighter note, Bloodlines provides us with happy Vampire Academy cameos in the form of a Royal Wedding (Sheesh. Does there have to be so many of those?) Queen Vasilisa Dragomir is getting married to longtime boyfriend Christian Ozera, and it’s all very cute. Of course, the Queen is still in college, but when you’re a monarch, I’m guessing such mortal concerns go out the window. Sydney is attending the wedding as part of an Alchemist contingent who are there to ensure that they don’t accidentally insult the Moroi by not turning up. Adrian manages to create quite a lot of controversy by asking her to dance – a proposition that horrifies the Alchemists, and shocks many of the Moroi (including – get this – Abe Mazur).

Ha! Got you, old man.

Sydney’s boss implies that she’s got to take one for the team because they don’t want to look ungracious (or repulsed) by declining. And so we get our first Sydrian dance.

Told you it was cute.

He was unconcerned. “You’ll make it work. You’ll change clothes or something. But I’m telling you, if you want to get a guy to do something that might be difficult, then the best way is to distract him so that he can’t devote his full brainpower to the consequences.”

“You don’t have a lot of faith in your own gender.”

“Hey, I’m telling you the truth. I’ve been distracted by sexy dresses a lot.”

I didn’t really know if that was a valid argument, seeing as Adrian was distracted by a lot of things. Fondue. T-shirts. Kittens. “And so, what then? I show some skin, and the world is mine?”

The Sydrian plotline converges neatly with the rogue witch plotline as Sydney and Adrian go roadtripping. Their objective? Track down young women in the neighbourhood who might be in danger and ask them to be on their guard.

Sydney finally manages to track down Marcus Finch, an ex-Alchemist who rebelled and has been in hiding from his former employees ever since. Marcus is the one that finally reveals the secret behind the golden lily tattoos worn by all the Alchemists. The tattoos are made with Moroi blood and have bits of compulsion infused into them, making it impossible for the Alchemists to reveal the secret of their occupation to anyone not already in the know. It also makes them compliant and unquestioning, and might even promote the revulsion for vampires that they all seem to share. The good news is, Marcus has found a way to break the compulsion in his tattoo by means of an indigo coloured ink.

The teenager subplot drags alongside the main plot, being neither so interesting as to catch my attention, nor so boring that I’d completely skip over those parts (which is what happens to me every time something romantic turns up in a James Patterson novel). A love triangle turns into a love quadrangle and eventually resolves itself to mutual satisfaction. Sort of like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but with gender roles reversed.

Mead’s humour and comic timing is as ever on point, which makes the occasional hiccup in her writing style so much more bearable.

It was hard for me to talk. “It’s instinct. Or something. You’re a Moroi. I’m an Alchemist. Of course I’d have a response. You think I’d be indifferent?”

“Most Alchemist responses would involve disgust, revulsion, and holy water.”

The overarching story line continues to be paced off well, with Sydney and Adrian finally taking their friendship to the level of a tentative relationship, and with the appearance of a new antagonist more powerful than any Sydney has faced up until now.

“Are we going to run off to the Keepers?” he suggested.

“Of course not,” I scoffed. “That’d be cowardly and immature. And you’d never survive without hair gel – though you might like their moonshine.”

The Indigo Spell is a comfortable middle ground for a series – ferocious action combined with cheesy and heart warming romance and serious character development. And my favourite parts about the Bloodlines series are yet to come.

Next Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #3 – Prentice Alvin

Next Review in this Series: Bloodlines #4 – The Fiery Heart

Book Review: Bloodlines #1 – Bloodlines, Richelle Mead

Title: Bloodlines
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2011
Series: Bloodlines (Series sequel to the Vampire Academy series)
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.22
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

Insert the Usual and Mandatory Spoiler Warning Here

bloodlines.jpg

Plot Description: In this series sequel to Mead’s Vampire Academy series, we revisit the world of dhampirs and Moroi – and the much overlooked human component of this world, the Alchemists. We’re following the continued story of Sydney Sage, a minor but favourite VA character who made her first appearance in Blood Promise, the fourth book of that series.
We’re also following complete fan favourite Adrian Ivashkov, who, broken hearted and looking for meaning in life, is drawn to Sydney as the two of them work on a new assignment together.

I have to admit, when I first heard of the idea of Adrian and Sydney getting together, I was skepticalYou cannot imagine two people MORE different than these twoBut I tried to be open minded, and by the time I got to Book 6, I was Team Sydrian all the way.

The main characters from VA – Rose, Lissa, Dimitri, Christian – barely make an appearance in Bloodlines, which is filled with supporting cast members coming forward to take center-stage. And they each bring their share of secrets and problems to the table, which, as everyone knows, is the recipe for a really good book.

Adrian’s broken-hearted following the end of his relationship with Guardian Rose Hathaway. Sydney, on the other hand, is in a LOT of trouble with the Alchemists – the organization she works for – for her involvement in Rose’s adventures from Last Sacrifice. She’s suspected of having colluded with vampires, and of having developed feelings other than disgust or contempt for them. (Yes, this is a really serious accusation that is levelled amongst Alchemists. They’re all insane.) Although there’s no formal inquiry, Sydney manages to dispel the cloud of suspicion in time to be assigned to the latest Alchemist case in Palm Springs. Her biggest reason for taking on the case was to ensure that her sister Zoe doesn’t get caught up in the Alchemist life, which she will if their domineering father has his way.

The rest of the characters in Palm Springs are Jill Mastrano,  along with her dhampir guardians Eddie Castile and Angeline Dawes. While Jill (Lissa’s half sister) and Eddie were very prominent in VA, Angeline barely got a mention for the first time in a subplot involving the reclusive  keepers in Last Sacrifice.

The important subplots are the ones involving possibly magical tattoos being given to humans, of Sydney’s teacher trying to get her to learn human magic (sort of like Wicca), teen drama among the younger set of dhampirs and Moroi, and Sydney’s relationship with Adrian.

My God, Sage. Your eyes. How have I never noticed them? The colour, when you stand in the light. They’re amazing . . . like molten gold. I could paint those . . . They’re beautiful. You’re beautiful.

– Adrian Ivashkov, Bloodlines

Sydney’s character development kickstarted early on in this universe – right from the moment she was introduced, in fact, although there was no way I would have imagined that she’d come to lead her own series. As an alchemist, she’s been indoctrinated to hate, fear and hold in contempt these ‘unnatural’ and ‘unholy’ creatures – vampires, and dhampirs by association. But since there’s always the greater Strigoi threat to be dealt with, Alchemists have an uneasy alliance with the Moroi. Sydney’s bias and bigotry are evident in her behaviour towards Rose, but by the time we come to the end of the series, it’s evident that she’s beginning to think of them as just a different kind of people – not monsters of the night.

Adrian, on the other hand went from alcoholic party boy to good boyfriend who gave up his debauchery in order to impress his girlfriend. Even if personal change is precipitated in you by another person, it should never stay that way. If the only ever reason why you change is another person, that change is going to fall apart the minute that person leaves, or is taken from you. So it’s kind of a one step forward, two steps back kind of situation that Adrian is dealing with. And to cap it all off, he’s now spirit bonded with Jill.

Yes, the reason Jill is incognito in Palm Springs is because there was an attempt on her life, she died as a result, and Adrian brought her back. The concept of a spirit bond was a lot cooler back when it was two teenage girls who were sharing thoughts. Now it’s a high school freshman (or however old Jill is supposed to be) who has access to the thoughts of a highly unstable grown man. Eek. After Jill is punished for being drunk and then having a hangover the next day, Sydney figures out what’s going on and reams Adrian out.

Jill’s guardian is Eddie Castile, long time best friend and sidekick to Rose Hathaway. Eddie was the only guardian to attempt to protect Jill during the attempt on her life, since all the other guardians were busy protecting the Queen, Lissa. The reason for this is because he’s really in love with her, which is the cue to kick off all of the teen drama and love triangles quadrangles that take place in this book.

I would choose this space in order to rant about the impropriety in Eddie falling for a girl whose initial nickname was literally Jailbait (courtesy Adrian, who else), but hello. This is the series that brought us the great Rose-Dimitri love saga, where they could barely wait for her to hit eighteen before ripping each other’s clothes off. And the age gap in that case is a LOT greater than in the case of Eddie and Jill.

Any age-propriety rants in this universe are just going to fall on deaf ears. So it’s one of my blind spots in this fandoms – one of the things I have issue with but choose to ignore in order to continue enjoying the fandom itself. Other examples include all time fan favourite Damon Salvatore engaging in an abusive relationship with Caroline Forbes in early first season The Vampire Diaries and the subject never being brought up after that storyline wrapped up. Till date, the only sign that something like that ever happened is Caroline’s continued dislike of the guy – despite the fact that one of her best friends is soul mates with him, and her other best friend is his best friend too!

But, this is not a review of The Vampire Diaries. Nor is it a review of the Ezria relationship in Pretty Little Liars, which was pretty outrightly illegal at the start. So, coming back to the final main character of the Bloodlines series – Angeline – let me just say this:

Angeline is the most fun. Ever.

Angeline flushed. “It’s not my fault.”

“Even I know you can’t write an entry on Wikipedia and then use it as a source in your essay.” Sydney had been torn between horror and hysterics when she told me.
“I took ‘primary source’ to a whole new level!”
Honestly, it was a wonder we’d gotten by for so long without Angeline. Life must have been so boring before her.”

– Adrian Ivashkov, Fiery Heart

Angeline has trouble adjusting to civilization because she was raised in a moroi-human-dhampir communeity that felt they were keeping to the old ways by staying in contact with (and reproducing with) humans, unlike current Moroi society. The Keepers refuse to submit to the Moroi monarchy, and therefore must do without the little luxuries of life. I.e. Electricity.

Now, I’m pretty sure Mead drew on many, many stereotypes for her portrayal of the Keepers, but… it’s kind of hard to care about considering it’s not a main plot point. And it makes Angeline REALLY funny because of all things she doesn’t know is considered appropriate or inappropriate in society. (Like random violence and sexual harassment: inappropriate; cheating on class tests: inappropriate).

Angeline provides a fresh voiced perspective on society – all of society, not just the parts with vampires and stuff in it – through her constant questioning of everything. She poses a very important lesson for – (and I cannot stress this enough) – each and every one of us:

Question all the facts you’ve been handed since you were born. I mean, you can’t think out of the box without first seeing the box itself, which is a huge problem when it comes to challenging social norms (like their school’s dress codes) and why and how they came to exist in the first place.

In most cases, when asked to explain the rationale behind oppressive norms and customs, those defending them will have the option to either shut you down – which is what schools do when they hand out detentions; or hide behind stupidity and blind faith. [“Because I said so” type arguments brought out by religious leaders come to mind.]

Two more characters that need to be discussed are Keith Darnell and Jaclyn Terwilliger. The latter is a teacher at the school and the leader of a witch coven who’s trying to recruit Sydney. Imagine the kind of conflict an indoctrinated magic and vampire hater faces when they’re told they have the innate ability to do magic flowing through their veins.

Keith is the subject of a more serious topic – and also the reason why Sydney was so deeply obligated to Rose Hathaway’s gangster father Abe Mazur in VA. Sydney was the only person who knew about her father’s Golden Boy Darnell raping her older sister, and her sister made her promise not to tell anyone. So when Sydney grew up and joined the Alchemists, she did what any sane person would do – took a hit out on Darnell, and used Abe Mazur’s contacts to do it. Keith thinks a random Strigoi attack took out one of his eyes with an arrow. Keith can apparently be very gullible.

The first time I read Bloodlines, I wasn’t entirely impressed with the book. Something about it – the style of writing, the editing maybe? – rubbed me up the wrong way. But my second read this year didn’t pose too many problems in that direction, so perhaps it was the crappy pirated pdf version that was the problem.

It’s a great set up book, establishing Sydney as determined to do the right thing and imbued with a great sense for fairness. It also shows us a side to her that goes beyond indoctrination and machine like obedience, both in her affections for her vampire friends and in her dealings with Mrs. Terwilliger.

Containing much of Mead’s hallmark comedy and teen drama, Bloodlines is a light read that touches on bigger and darker issues to be explored as the series progresses. It’s a must read for Vampire Academy fans, but you don’t really need to know the history of the series in order to pick it up and start reading.

Next in this Series: Bloodlines #2 – The Golden Lily by Richelle Mead

Next Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #1 – Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card

Book Review: The Sisters Grimm #7 – 9

Title: The Everafter War; The Inside Story; The Council of Mirrors
Author: Michael Buckley
Year of Publication: 2009; 2010; 2012
Series: The Sisters Grimm
#: 7, 8 & 9
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.31; 4.28; 4.39
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3; 2; 2

SERIOUS AND MAJOR SPOILERS (Especially for Book 9) INCLUDED.
Don’t even think about reading this book unless you don’t care about spoilers. 

Also, REALLY long review. Sorry, but there was a LOT to rant about.

Plot Description: The final three books in this series are darker, edgier, and the plots get more wilder and implausible than ever. To add to this mess, there’s more sexism and problematic plot points, story lines that drag on forever, and TERRIBLE editing and continuity issues.
To summarize, The Everafter War deals with a Civil War between factions led by Charming and the Queen of Hearts respectively. Oh, and the children’s parents are finally awake – which is not the good thing I was hoping it would be. The Big Bad is finally revealed, and while this reveal is impressive at first, I was progressively less impressed and more annoyed by the Master’s plan, motivations, minions… everything.
The Inside Story is a bizarre and completely meta journey through the original book with which the fates of all the Everafters are entwined. Sabrina and Daphne follow the Master through all the fairytale stories as they try to stop the Master from rewriting their story.
The Council of Mirrors features the final showdown/ battles/ curses et cetera et cetera. It also features what was possibly the most random subplot; inserted as the most random plot twist ever, and about which I’m completely conflicted.

While Sabrina and Daphne are finally beginning to show signs of solid character development, the appearance of their parents on the scene kind of sets the whole family back by about ten steps. To be more specific, it turns out the girls’ dad is a controlling idiot who won’t listen to reason, doesn’t consider his daughters’ opinions worth listening to despite everything they’ve achieved so far, and follows a policy of requiring strict obedience. Including from his wife.

Suddenly, the girls’ mother getting involved with the Faerie in NYC is put into greater perspective. She went to great lengths to keep her activities secret even though she was standing up for something she believed in – all because her husband will throw a temper tantrum and ‘forbid’ her from doing things he doesn’t like.

[Full disclosure: The girls’ father is only unreasonable when it comes to Everafters, and that’s because he watched his father die because of them/ at their hands or something else. This, however, does not excuse a grown man for dragging his family out into the woods in the midst of a war, with NO plan, NO money or supplies, and NO agenda except for ‘you’re all supposed to just listen to me’. ]

One of the characters in the book tries a retcon justification for his behaviour by calling him the ‘protector’ of the family. But dude, no.

I think this nonsense about confusing protection (and the affection that comes with it) with the need to control people needs to stop, and it needs to stop NOW. Too many fathers and other kinds of paternalistic figures have justified the most unacceptable kinds of behaviour by claiming that they were acting in the best interests of their dependents. And this is despite the fact that in a LOT of these cases, their behaviour when evaluated from an objective perspective was found to NOT to be in the best interests of their dependents.

Clearly Mr. Grimm isn’t the only person to ever have engaged in such nonsense behaviour, and he certainly won’t be the last… but let’s not confuse protection with control, and let’s not ignore this issue.

From an objective plot perspective, The Inside Story is convoluted and largely unnecessary. It’s clear by this point that the story is being stretched as thin as it can be without it falling apart.

But I won’t deny that The Inside Story was kind of fun to read. It’s every reader’s fantasy to be able to step into their favourite books and get to enact parts of it out – maybe even change stuff around. To suddenly be the star of your favourite show – that’s what this book is all about.

And that brings us to The Council of Mirrors and an end to this whole… experience (for lack of a nicer word). The final scenes of the story involve Snow White – a character who has always been a part of the story without really taking centre stage at any point of it. Her on-off relationship with Charming is one of the running gags throughout the stories. Snow is someone who actively works to shed herself of the damsel in distress tag – she’s a Ferryport self defence instructor, and she refuses to allow Charming’s self absorption to define her or their relationship.

In the final plot, it is revealed that the story of Snow White has been faked – it wasn’t the version included in the original Grimm stories. In the real version, she’s married off to a sadistic and abusive husband, at whose hands she dies. Unable to watch her daughter’s life play out in this manner over and over again, her mother – the Evil Queen – steps in to modify the story and edit the abusive husband out of it (replacing him with herself as the villain instead). Charming, the sadistic Prince’s younger brother, was written into the story as Snow’s love interest, and that was that.

Or it would have been, if Sabrina and Daphne (and the Master) hadn’t crashed through the Fairytale book in which he had been trapped, and freed him. In a final showdown between this man and Charming, (after Snow has been kidnapped and taken away as the guy’s lawful wife – and property), he’s finally overpowered. It took like, a bunch of people to get the job done. And then Snow delivers the killing stroke – and with that action supposedly reclaims her identity and her life.

Heavy stuff, huh. At first I felt it a little inappropriate – introducing such a horrible sub plot into what’s essentially a book for children. But then I remembered that the original tales by the real brothers Grimm had been graphic, gory and ugly.

This evocation of the spirit of the original tales – be it conscious or unconscious – seems to be a theme in the Sisters Grimm series. I was discussing Sleeping Beauty a few days ago, and we were talking about how in the original story, the Prince rapes her in her sleep, causing her to become pregnant and to deliver twins – whilst still asleep. She only woke up when one of the twins accidentally sucked the cursed flax/ needle out of her finger.

At the time, I couldn’t remember where I’d read something similar. At least, not until I began reviewing books 4 – 6 of this series. The girls’ mother, Veronica, is pregnant at the time when she’s kidnapped by the Master along with her husband and put into an enchanted sleep for two years. She delivers the baby while in her sleep – because yes, THAT’S how childbirth works. (I don’t know why he didn’t just throw a stork in there too, just for kicks.)

I mentioned in my review of Books 1 – 3 that I had issues with the subtextual messages being sent by this series. In addition to the conflation of protection and controlling & my issues with this trivializing of subjects like childbirth and murder (remember the juvenile homicidal maniacs from book 2?), I find the way Snow White’s story was resolved extremely problematic.

For one thing, that entire subplot was completely unnecessary to the plot – the homicidal husband was never a part of the Master’s plan – so clearly it was thrown in there because Buckley thought this a masterful retelling of the story on his part. Now, I’ve mentioned that he has managed to that very thing with the story of Little Red Riding Hood earlier.

But whatever worked for that subplot does NOT work for this one. For one thing, trauma is not easily or instantaneously gotten over. If years of training herself hasn’t helped her yet, putting a knife through a man she didn’t even help overpower is not going to do it. Life’s not that easy, and if you’re going to try and make it “realistic” for the kids by including homicidal husband storylines, then you really ought not to pull a last minute cop out and wrap it up neatly in a very unrealistic bow.

The final three books in the Sisters Grimm bring a series that started out promising to a very disappointing (and badly edited) finish. The story was dragged out unnecessarily, and at times, it felt like the only thing keeping Buckley’s universe together was a thin strand of fiction – which is the only thing every character and subplot in this series have in common after all.

Next Review: Bloodlines #1 – Bloodlines by Richelle Mead

Book Review: Aftertaste by Namita Devidayal

Title: Aftertaste
Author: Namita Devidayal
Year of Publication: 2011
Series: N/A
#: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 2.96
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Spoiler Alert

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Might I start off by saying that I cannot believe this book has a average Goodreads rating of below 3, when SO MANY terrible books are rated 4 and 5 out of 5 stars?

Plot Description:  The powerful matriarch of a wealthy business family (they sell sweets) has suffered a str0ke, and lies dying. Aftertaste is the story of how her children and her children-in-law deal with her impending death, while also fending off personal troubles of their own. In addition to metaphorical interpretations, the title also directly refers to the theme of Indian sweets that runs through the book in the form of the Todarmal’s business.

The one word I’d use to describe this book is “stark”. Stark as in “stark reality”. Stark as in “stark truth”. Stark as in “stark naked”.

[Note: This has nothing to do with the well known and generally unfortunate House of Stark, located at Winterfell.]

‘Mummyji’ is what she’s called, and that term itself is SO typically Indian – of the way we’ve managed to blend English customs with customs of our own from all over the country. So far, she’d run the family business with an iron fist and an eagle eye on the accounts. They’ve zillions of rupees stashed away in a Swiss bank account – the details of which are known only to Mummyji. Then there’s also the matter of Mummyji’s extremely valuable jewels (emeralds or diamonds or something. I forget exactly which). These too, have been squirreled away with none of the children the wiser to their location.

Mummyji clearly doesn’t trust her kids, and with good reason, because as it turns out, they’ve kind of been waiting for her to die for quite a while now. Each of them for their own personal reasons – her eldest son, Rajan Papa, is in debt to a local money lender. Her daughter, the beautiful yet indifferently married Suman seems hell bent on finding those jewels or die trying. Her other son Sunny – the spoilt brat who’s cheating on his wife, and her youngest daughter Saroj, who’s been estranged from her husband under the weirdest circumstances ever – they all need money from her for some reason or the other.

Mummyji herself is no saint, and as the story progresses, she’s revealed to be a master manipulator, and the ultimate controlling parent – determined to keep her kids tied to her apron strings way after they’ve grown up, gotten married, and, in some cases, had children of their own.

The story explores numerous sub plots as it switches between narrators, including side characters like the largely overlooked and invisible servants of the house, Sunny’s young mistress, and one of Mummyji’s grandchildren, who’s struggling with issues related to his less than heteronormative sexuality. Not many of these sub plots – if any at all – are boring or annoying. Rather than distracting the reader from the main narrative – which is my main gripe with many multiple narrator stories – the subplots combine to make a perfect whole.

What you end up with is a lazy, comfortable Sunday afternoon read that doesn’t pretend to you that life is any less difficult, messy, ugly or complicated than it really is; but makes you feel like maybe you can deal with it all the same.

As long as you take it slow and relaxed, like the pace of this book itself.

P.S.: I haven’t done a very feminist critique of this book because it represents more than half the types of quintessential Indian women you can ever come across. Reviewing it from a feminist perspective is going to require a scholarly article on Indian Feminism, no less.

Next Review: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

 

Book Review: The Blackcoat Rebellion #1 – Pawn

Title: Pawn
Author: Aimee Carter
Year of Publication: 2013
Series: The Blackcoat Rebellion
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.80
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2

SO MANY SPOILERS

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Plot Description: Kitty Doe lives in a world where everyone takes a test at the age of 17 which evaluates their worth in society. She receives a 3, rather than the average 4 on her test. Just when she thinks she’s doomed to a life of menial work, she’s whisked off to be a doppelganger for the Prime Minister’s dead niece, Lila Hart. As Lila Hart, Kitty is supposed to help stop a rebellion against the current regime – a rebellion Lila had secretly been fostering.

Here’s a disclaimer: I didn’t want to read this book, but it was lying around at home and I was starved for options. Since I was going into this book with no expectations whatsoever, I actually ended up pleasantly surprised at times.

It was only after I started reading YA almost exclusively that I came across the phrase “TSTL” (too stupid to live). And that’s precisely what first comes to mind when we see Kitty Doe stealing an orange and hoping she’ll be shot on sight for theft. The idea gets even more ridiculous when you realize that her boyfriend, Benjy is with her, and she’s putting both of them in danger. The writing is vague and disconnected even here, at the beginning, and this really doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book.

After escaping from the Shields and relinquishing their orange, Kitty and Benjy discuss her options. With that particular brand of clear thinking apparently omnipresent in sixteen year olds, Benjy proposes to Kitty, because this means they won’t be separated. Thankfully, she has the sense to turn him down, because she’s afraid being married to a 3 will hurt his ranking chances when he takes the test.

Kitty decides to go speak to Tabs, a local prostitute who has been trying to recruit her. Benjy is dead set against this. And while Benjy seems to be speaking purely from prejudice, I agree with him because I don’t think Kitty really understands what it means to be a prostitute. The way she talks about it gives me the impression that she thinks the worst thing about prostitution is having to sleep with strange men. She doesn’t sound like she understands the physical danger involved, or the lack of choice that will end up haunting her with every step she takes. She certainly didn’t know Tabs was recruiting her because Tabs would get a cut of her pay.

“You’re my girlfriend,” he said roughly. “I don’t want those pigs touching you.”

Okay, Benjy, I know you’re sixteen, but you can’t build your life around a girl. Like, seriously. Also, possessive much?

Before she leaves, Benjy asks her to sleep with him. I don’t really know what to make of that, but it makes me a little uncomfortable. Kitty tells him that it’s better for her prospects if she’s a virgin, and then he tells her he should be her first.

Why? I know it’s hard for your sixteen year old love-crazed brain to comprehend this, Benjy, but plenty of people who are in love are never each other’s firsts. And you don’t really get to decide who should be someone else’s first. You can want Kitty to be your first, sure. Similarly, she’s the only one who gets to decide who she wants to be her first.

Kitty tells him he’s always going to be her first because sleeping with anyone else won’t count, and she breaks up with him for a month – until he knows what his ranking is going to be.

Prostitution is illegal in Kitty’s country, but since it’s the ‘oldest profession’ in the world, and since many of the highest ranking men in the country frequent these clubs, a blind eye is turned. Since she’s young and still a virgin, her virginity is auctioned off – starting with a thousand gold pieces and ending at thirty thousand. That’s more than she would have made as a sewage worker in ten years, and she’s amazed at the idea that anyone would spend that much for one night with her. Kitty’s naivete is once again starkly obvious, since she doesn’t seem to have understood that what was being bid for wasn’t her – not her as a person, but just the fact of her virginity. She’s very much still a child here, because the idea that prostitution can sometimes dehumanize the people working in that field isn’t something she’s completely recognizing.

This is the point at which I set the book down and momentarily wish that this was what this book was really about – the story of a young girl who begins to gradually understand the world through her life as a sex worker – her journey from innocence and naivete to maturity, if you will. It would definitely have made for a better plot than that of the real Pawn. But I guess that’s not what real YA literature is looking for.

I wished this because, even though prostitution is not the subject matter of Carter’s book, she introduced it all the same, and then trivialized it. In another review I read, the reviewer described the prostitution sub-plot as a gun that wasn’t loaded, and I think this gun shouldn’t have been brought into the picture and then portrayed as inconsequential. Kitty leaves the club not realizing the exact nature of the bullet she just dodged, and I think a lot of younger readers would have ended up doing the same. Prostitution and virginity auctions are not, after all, some myth conceived of in Carter’s precious fictional dystopia. They exist in the real world, and have a lot of real world dangers and connotations attached to them. Treating the subject as a convenient plot device and reducing it to prejudicial stereotypes is not okay at all.

Okay, that was intense. And it’s only now that the real plot kicks off.

To put it in short, Kitty is made to stand in for the PM’s dead niece, as a cover up for her death. Lila is a bit of a Princess Diana figure – she’d been going around saying things that were technically treasonous, and had acquired a vast following among the common people through her charisma and charm. A lot of time is devoted to describing Kitty’s eleven days of training to replace Lila, and in this time, the rest of the family is introduced. There’s Celia, Lila’s mother. Augusta, Daxton’s mother and the matriarch of the Hart family. There’s Knox Creed, Lila’s fiance. And Greyson, Daxton’s younger son and sole surviving heir.
This is where Pawn becomes a confused piece of writing, and having read the sequel – Captive – I can tell you it doesn’t get better. Pawn has a lot of things going against it. For one thing, it’s a chip off the old Hunger Games block, and derivative as such. For another, it suffers from less than sympathetic protagonists. With the exception of Knox and Greyson, even the auteurs of the rebellion are motivated by selfishness. Celia is out for power and revenge. Kitty’s heroism is impulsive and inconsistent. She’s as confused about her motivations as can be – oscillating wildly between sympathizing with the downtrodden and helping the autocrats in order to save Benjy’s life.
The confused storylines don’t help Pawn’s case. Plot twist is piled on top of plot twist, and one ends up disliking all the characters on principle. Carter seems to care more about shocking the reader and keeping them guessing than on good writing. As a result, by the time it is revealed that the real Lila Hart is still alive, one gives up.
Pawn was greatly evocative of a Meg Cabot book on similar lines – the Airhead trilogy, where a smart girl’s brain is transplanted into a supermodels body. (Spoiler: Airhead too revealed that the original owner of the body was still alive.) These books seem eager to appeal to the everygirl reader while reaffirming the idea that a heroine needs to be conventionally beautiful. It’s a sad attempt at having one’s cake and eating it too, and undermines the lesson that physical beauty isn’t the be-all and the end-all.
The book ends with an action filled showdown between Kitty and the matriarch – Augusta Hart. Where she was previously unable to take a life during the assassination attempt on Saxton’s life, Kitty now shows herself capable of killing when Benjy’s life is at stake. With Augusta out of the way and Daxton still in a coma, it seems like the perfect moment for the rebellion to take control. This opportunity is, however, wasted in favour of a set up to a sequel that honestly seems unnecessary.

Next: The Blackcoat Rebellion #2 – Captive