June 21, 2012

Review: Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce

Filed under: reviews — Tags: — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 2:36 pm

Sisters RedWhy I read this book
It’s taken me a year and a half to read this book. I originally came across Sisters Red in the context of a recommended reading list by Bitch magazine that went viral after complaints from readers caused the removal of three titles from the list. Different reasons were given for the removal in each case and Sisters Red was charged with victim blaming. The best reasons for the victim-blaming charges relate to a review posted by The Book Smugglers which the author herself took issue with in the comments. (The Book Smugglers also posted an update after the Bitch controversy.)

I decided then to decide for myself about the three contentious books and added two to my reading list. I have finally reached Sisters Red on the pile ‘o doom.

Genre and cover

Sisters Red is a modern retelling of Little Red Riding Hood in a dark urban setting.
Its strong cover (pictured above) is really excellent and speaks of good marketing and a good understanding of the message of the book. However it did lead me to expect that one character would have red hair and the other black – which isn’t true to the text.

What I thought about the book on the first read

This is the author’s second novel and for early work it’s very good but it is missing some subtleties and depth that I’d expect from a more experienced author.

Sisters Scarlet (19) and Rosie (16) are werewolf or “Fenris” hunters as a result of a devastating attack when they were children in which their beloved grandmother died and Scarlet was horrifically scarred: losing an eye and gaining a passionate determination to fight the Fenris at all costs. The novel begins when Scarlet’s old friend and former hunting partner Silas (21) returns from an extended vacation after inheriting property from his “woodsman” family.

There’s a good mix of action and exposition and the device of having the principle characters tell the story in alternating chapters works well. It does mean that we only see Silas from the point of view of the sisters and he tends to seem a bit too perfect. He is patient with Scarlet’s obsession with hunting and tries to encourage Rosie think for herself, he’s rich but not boastful and sad about his bad relationship with his jealous siblings and senile father. Silas is a nice guy and Rosie is a nice girl and love gradually blossoms during the course of the narrative causing inevitable tensions as Scarlet is possessive of her sister and determined that nothing should come between the three and the moral imperative of slaying all the Fenris.

The Fenris are evil predatory male werewolves who are attracted by revealing clothing and the colour red and prey upon young women and girls who Scarlet refers to as “dragonflies” with their iridescent makeup and dazzlingly attire. When a Fenris dies it disappears in a puff of black smoke – conveniently for law enforcement and news media who have no conception of the existence of the Fenris despite there being seemingly hundreds of them around and distinctive pack insignia tattoos.

One of the areas where this novel could use more depth is in the cast. There really only are three characters in this book: Scarlet, Rosie and Silas. I felt there was a missed opportunity to develop the world through interactions with anyone beyond the trio. Scarlet is completely wedded to her “job” but even when Rosie attends classes the only people she meets are walk-on characters or more Fenris. There’s an intriguing homeless man but he’s not developed into more than a one-liner.

At one point Rosie goes shopping and recognises an old friend in the pharmacy. Sarah is now a “dragonfly” girl who talks about makeup and clothes with a gang of other pretty girls, one of whom whispers that Rosie is the sister of “that girl who got torn up”. Rosie then meets up with Silas and the focus of attention changes to their relationship. This reads as a missed opportunity to me. I’d like to see Rosie try to communicate outside her circle and I feel she makes assumptions about Sarah and her friends that are unwarranted given that Rosie dropped out of school two years earlier and hasn’t seen these people since. Perhaps their comment on Rosie’s sister seems harsh but within the context of the narrative this is how Scarlet sees herself: as scarred and undesirable.

Another missed opportunity is the clubs. The Fenris hang out at clubs and prey upon dragonfly girls, this is well established. Scarlet both despises the clubs and believes the bouncers wouldn’t let her in because of her scars. At one point (one of the contentious passages in the victim blaming debate) Scarlet and Silas discuss the dragonflies and Rosie as follows:

“It’s like they’re trying to be eaten, isn’t it? he asks pointedly.
“Can I tell you how glad I am that and Rosie aren’t like them?”
“No kidding.” I grin, relieved. “Rosie could be if she wanted, though. She’s beautiful like they are.”
“Beauty has nothing to do with it. Rosie could never be one of them. Do you really think they’d dress and act like that if they knew it was drawing wolves toward them?”

Having now read the entire book I’m afraid I have to agree that there are problematic passages in Sisters Red although this passage cited by the Book Smugglers is probably the nadir of the victim-blaming. It doesn’t get any worse than this. I think the problem is that the author is trying to work through several ideas at once.

Firstly, the cognoscenti versus the unenlightened (wizards v muggles) plot. The trio know about the Fenris and there’s a metaphor used at several times of Plato’s cave and shadows that indicate a wider truth. Pearce is trying to make a point about innocence and experience.
Secondly, there’s also the sisters dynamic. Scarlet sees Rosie as the self she could have been if not mutilated and scarred. In her eyes Rosie is a potential dragonfly, she is not.
Thirdly, there’s the Silas story. His nice guy mystique compels him to make unflattering comparisons being the hunter sisters and the frivolous dragonflies. Unfortunately, it comes across as judgemental to the feminist reader.

The trouble is because we never enter the clubs (we including author, characters and readers) we don’t get to see the dragonflies as people: as young girls simply enjoying themselves. We don’t see them as individuals with their own fears and doubts and issues. I would have liked to see Rosie dress up in silk and glitter and go clubbing – except that I fear the result would be a Fenris attack – but if she could speak to the dragonflies as people perhaps we’d get the some more nuance to the apparently judgmentalism.

To this feminist reader the dragonfly girls and Scarlet and Rosie and Silas too – should feel free to wear what they like and walk where they like without fear of being eaten by werewolves. But because revealing clothing, pretty dresses and strolls through the urban area inevitably result in such attacks Scarlet and by extension the author appear to take the view that girls should carry hatchets and dress for combat. That’s the victim blaming.

There’s a deeper problem too which I didn’t see cited in other online reviews. At one point Scarlet finds a predatory man menacing a young girl and comes at him with a hatchet only to discover that he’s simply a pedophile, not a Fenris. She then lets him go and doesn’t even consider filing a police report. This is anther missed opportunity. I’d have liked to see Scarlet kill the man – or at any rate question her value system. Because this reads uncomfortably as though human predators are an acceptable hazard and inhuman ones require vigilante justice. I don’t think any of this is intentional but it does detract from the book as a feminist-friendly read.

One final issue with the plot twists. At the point they discover that a potential Fenris has SuperUnusual!Trait that’s extremely close to Unusual!Trait that Silas has, I think it deserves further thought and comment from the trio than effectively ‘so some people have unusual traits, weird huh?’. I’d like a little ‘there but the grace of god, go I’ about it. The niceness of Silas is not expressed in great intellectual gifts and the girls both dropped out of school too young to have much aptitude for research as their hit and miss and jump to conclusions method bears out.

I found the book a quick read and I was completely gripped. There’s a lot to like in the quality of writing and the whole approach to a dark fairytale. I think it could have used a stronger edit and more questioning about the problematic passages. The core of the narrative is one of female strength and choices and more nuanced consideration of the moral questions would have contributed to the power of the eventual conclusion.

If I had to rate this out of 5 I’d give it 2 but that would rise to three with cuts of the problematic bits and to 4 if they were rewritten the way I want them to be in my head. Extra bonus points for giving me cool dramatic Fenris-slaying dreams last night!

July 24, 2011

Review: Iorich by Steven Brust

Filed under: reviews — Tags: , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 2:53 pm

Steven Brust is slowly ploughing his way through a fantasy series that will ultimately have at least 18 titles (not counting backstories and sidestories about other characters). He started in 1983 and has produced 13 so far (again not counting backstories and sidestories) which gives him a productivity of almost one novel every two years. Iorich, published in 2010, is book 12 (counted in order of publication, internal chronology is more complicated).

I’ve been collecting Draegaera books since the 1990s and had almost a complete matching set. Unfortunately the cover design has changed with this latest book and I will have to resign myself to non-matching editions from here on. One reason I didn’t get this book last year was that I was waiting for the paperback. For a time I bought the hardbacks as they came out but I’m trying to fit more books on my shelves and hardbacks take up too much space. Another reason is that I feel this series has severely dropped off in quality. From the puff quote on the back, Cory Doctorow disagrees with me to the extent that I wonder if he was reading a different book.

The problem is that the early books in the series were so very good. In Taltos we met Vlad Taltos, a human assassin working the mean streets of Adrilankha who gets mixed up with the high nobility of Draegaera. In Jhereg we found out more about Vlad’s job and the complicated politics of assassinations. In Yendi we learned about the twisting turning machinations of politicians and sorcerers. In Teckla the scope of the plot expanded to urban unrest and Vlad’s marital troubles. Since then we have followed Vlad through plots involving the highest people in the land, the Enchantress of Dzur Mountain, the Empress, the Gods and other beings who oppose the Gods. Vlad now has a price on his head and a Great Weapon on his belt.

Vlad is no longer the insouciant assassin and sarcastic courtier with no responsibilities and a knack for trouble I first admired. He’s grimmer, glummer, carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and seems to have lost interest in narrating his own adventures. Once he investigated dodgy happenings, created complex spells of courcery and witchcraft, matched wits with his betters and hatched plots of his own. Now the events of his life, world-shaking as they are, have been rendered much more mundane. In Dzur he went out to dinner and annoyed various people. In Jhegaala he tried to find some relations, failed, and annoyed various people along the way.

Now in Iorich, his friend Aliera is in prison for something everyone knows she is guilty of but is almost certainly not the real reason for her arrest. It takes Vlad almost the entire book to establish that this is the case and that although his various noble friends feel sick about it no one is doing anything about it for political reasons. Vlad wanders around Adrilankha easily avoiding the hundreds of people who have cause to wish him ill dead. He drops in on his old friends and makes sarcastic comments. He spends two days following someone and then realises this isn’t a good use of his time and stops. Eventually he comes up with a plan and invites various important people to be involved (their unexciting roles are basically to keep various other people busy at the critical time) but the critical details are not narrated. This is a far cry from the excitement of Jhereg in which Vlad had to ask everyone he knew for help, explained all the details and even then the reader wasn’t sure if it would work.

In Iorich there’s never a sense of danger. Even when Vlad gets beaten up it’s not as exciting as when he was beaten up in Yendi because he doesn’t know why, doesn’t care about it and his life isn’t in danger. If his life had been in danger he could have easily escaped by drawing his sword: one of the 17 Great Weapons which can destroy souls, save you from having your own soul eaten, slay Gods and kill other beings even more powerful than Gods. Despite all these advantages, Vlad isn’t totally happy with his sword because he’d like to have a conversation with it and doesn’t know how. (I can think of at least 5 characters who could teach him how but this option doesn’t appear to have occurred to Vlad.)

The life seems to have gone out of this series. Even the dialogue is flat where once it was sparkling. It may be deeply significant, especially if you’ve read the other books in the series and can guess what some of the people Vlad speaks to are feeling and thinking. But it’s not lively, doesn’t further the plot and doesn’t seem to get Vlad or the reader anywhere. Vlad barely bothers with the Iorich advocate he has hired and when he does he doesn’t say much of significance because he’s wary of the advocate witnessing against him. This does not make for a thrilling plot.

Eventually someone is conveniently stabbed and all the politics get sorted out – at least enough to accomplish the main purpose of Vlad’s mission, although no one is precisely elated about it. Job done. Another Taltos story completed.

These novels are my addiction. I can’t help caring about Vlad, about his ex-wife Cawti, the Enchantress of Dzur Mountain, Kiera the thief, Kragar the Jhereg boss, Daymar the Hawklord, Aliera and her cousin Morrolan, and the host of characters who have passed through the pages of the series so far. I’d have lied to meet The Demon again (who isn’t a Demon) and the Necromancer (who is) and the Demon Goddess Vera (opinions vary) – although I wouldn’t cross the street to meet Telnan after spending far too many hours in his company in Dzur.

But where were these people in Iorich? They all seemed to be drinking wine or eating cheese or off somewhere with Sir Not Appearing in This Book. Where was Mario? Since he’s every inch an assassin and turned up in the last book when we weren’t looking for him and weren’t bothered about him, why wasn’t he in this one when his lover was in danger of execution? What about Khaavren who is expected to show up in the next book, might he be interested in a political conspiracy? Isn’t his job to unravel this kind of stuff? For that matter where are the villains who spent the entire book off stage being sneaky behind the scene?

It’s not too late for this series to pick up again. After all, there are still a number of books to go. But we need to see Vlad fighting for something, or against something, or doing something more than just existing and fretting about his problems. Pull up your socks, Vlad, draw your Great Weapon and do something!

November 9, 2010

Review: Does my head look big in this?

Filed under: reviews — Tags: , , , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 8:37 pm

Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

I was given this book by a close friend of mine who knows I’m interested in books about Muslim women. It’s taken me awhile to get down to it on my to-read pile but I approached it with a lot of positive expectation.

The set up is simple. Sixteen-year-old Amal has decided to give up being a “part-timer” and wear hijab not just for bad hair days and religious observance but all the time. The book launches into this straight away, in what will be a consistant teenage voice. Amal is bubbly and confiding, an average teenager who likes shopping and watching television. She’s attended mainstream and Muslim schools and is about to start her third term at grammar school in Australia.

Early on Amal says that she “does [her] all-time best thinking through making lists” but the first list of the book degenerates into an “essay” and there’s not much use of list-making either in dialogue or narration later. This is a good idea but ultimately it seems like an concept that the author forgot to follow up – unfortunately so, because it could have really tied together some of the events of the plot.

In the first list/essay Amal disposes of the “Religious/Scriptures/Sacred” reasons to wear Hijab in 59 words which boil down to: “God says men and women should act and dress modestly”. This religious theme remains largely unexplored. Amal will later mention that she is now praying five times a day but we don’t see her praying or discover what her prayers are about. In concentrating on the things that make our heroine a ‘typical teenager’, the author seems reluctant to give a sense of how Amal experiences her faith. The intention is clearly to handle the religious subject matter with a light touch but I would have liked some more exploration of how Amal experiences her faith. We edge around this in some consideration of why she intends to save romantic relationships for marriage but it comes down to “being true to what you believe in”. As a reader, I appreciate the fact of Amal’s belief but it seems to exist at one remove from the text.

After the list that becomes an essay we do get a real list in chapter three, dividing people into columns of those who will be okay with hijab and those who will be “not so OK”. Here I had a real problem with the text. Each column has thirteen points and on the “Ok people” side we have Amal’s Mum and Dad; friends Leila, Yasmeen, Eileen and Simone; cousin Samantha; a school teacher, nuns, Orthodox Jewish woman, monks, bald women, hippies, people who appreciate good fabric and nudists because “if they believe in the right to take it all off, surely they believe in the right to keep it all on?”. Why monks and nuns count separately I’m not sure or why nudists get the pass.

Then on the negative side are listed a group of girls who will later turn out to be the popular posse at school, assorted shop keepers, Amal’s uncle and aunt, future university students and staff, neighbours, job interviewers, the school principal, a boy she likes (she hopes she’s wrong about this) and nudists (again) “who are offended by people who keep it all on”. She also lists feminists, or rather “hard core feminists who don’t get that this is me exercising my right to choose”. Nudists get the benefit of the doubt but moderate feminists who support a woman’s right to choose how much of their body to display don’t even get a look-in on the lists? This is a problem for me and something of a danger sign for the rest of the book.

Amal’s story explores themes of identity and individuality and teenagers will find a lot to empathise with. Amal supports her friend Leila against a bullying brother and repressive mother with dramatic results; she supports another friend against the girls who call her fat and the ideals of a diet-conscious mother; she makes friends with a boy named Adam and then wonders if he’d like to be more than a friend. Amal also makes time to forge a relationship with a crochety neighbour and encourage her to bury the hatchet in her own family feud. All of this is believably and realistically handled.

Other elements jar. The school is equipped with a standard-issue mean girl posse, complete with fashionista queen bee who makes fun of hijab-wearing Amal and curvacious Simone. But instead of enfolding Tia Tamos and her crew into the evolving understanding of the class, she is left in the cold and eventually shut down by one of the boys who calls her a slut – to the delight of Amal and her friends. I found this depressing reading on a couple of levels. It’s not feminist-friendly and it’s lazy writing.  From the first Tia has been a straw man antagonist and I’m getting tired of the carbon copy depictings of mean girls in high school stories. I would have liked to have seen Amal engage directly with the racism and stereotyping of the mean girls rather than emulating their tactics – and relying on a guy to speak for her.

One of the best parts of this book is Amal explaining to the leader of the debate team that she doesn’t want to speak for Islam or explain that it doesn’t endorse the Bali bombings because she is not Islam and can speak only for herself and that no one has asked Christian students to explain their religion or that it doesn’t endorse the Ku Klux Klan.

“Muslim is just a label for them. In the end, they’re nutcases who exploded bombs and killed people… And if you want me to talk on their behalf and act as though they’re part of me, what are you telling me you think about me?”

I really like this response. It’s honest, it’s apposite, and it speaks to the experience of thousands of Muslims across the world who have suffered as a result of ignorance and Islamaphobia. It’s also very true to the impression I have of Amal.

At the end the group of friends with Amal at their centre have achieved positive transformations but “Simone is still reading diet magazines” and has stopped smoking because her boyfriend told her to, Leila’s brother is “still a creep”, Amal is blowing kisses to Adam but doesn’t consider that flirting and Tia Tamos appears to have fallen off the planet in the chirpy conclusion of the book. Amal plans to write a list – but then realises it would be very short because she knows what outcome she wants – and this last part would be great if the list-making theme had been a more significant part of the book.

Ultimately I’m torn about whether I’d recommend this book. On the positive side it does what it sets out to do and shows us a young Muslim girl experiencing high school with the same essential concerns and behaviours as any other teenage girl. The first person narrative is variously lively, confiding and thoughtful. The narrative is well-paced and plotted.

But then again, it is perhaps too typical a high school novel. There’s a lack of intersectionality in the identity plot when it comes to the battle between the sexes. The girls’ interests and topics of conversation are limited to fashion, television and boys. The mean girls don’t really add anything to the plot except a background hum of normative and/or racist loose talk. The approval of boys is the social height of the high school world. There’s no engagement with the fact that Leila’s family insist on traditional gendered roles and her brother is unfavourly favoured – the conflict here centers on her mother’s attempts to marry Leila off. There’s also not a lot of engagement beyond banter with the popular obsession with thinness and diets.

It’s founded on strong ecumenical concepts but in feminist or social justice considerations it’s more fragile. Given the identity politics issues that drive the narrative I would have liked much more engagement with issues like traditional gender roles, thinness and diets, sexism and feminism itself – I’d like to know what underpins Amal’s assumption that the only feminists she cares enough to list will disapprove of her wearing hijab. Because without that intersectionality this book sometimes lapses into stereotyped, shadow-puppet and straw-man characters who could have been lifted out of obscurity with a more robust engagement with common assumptions and societal norms.

Reluctantly, because with moderate editing at a few critical points I’d rate it higher, I’m giving this 2 out of 5 stars.

I’d be interested in any recommendations of books with a similar subject matter.

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