Farla is a blogger who makes it a thing to dissect a lot of shitty books, many of them shitty YA (insofar that such a thing as “non-shitty YA” exists, which I’m not convinced it does in any appreciable quantity). I’ve been reading her take on The Hunger Games and Graceling, both books that curiously feature emotionally broken “strong” female protagonists, both books that (witness here a frothing fanboy defending the lack of homosexuality in The Hunger Games) feature unbelievably atrocious world-building, unbelievably idiotic names, and unbelievably terrible writing.
Even by YA standards (and those standards are so very low to begin with) Kristin Cashore can’t fucking write worth one bird dropping.
Since I’ve been reading along I thought I might as well do the meta thing and comment on the commentary. Farla has this irritating habit of equating “third-world” to places of starvation with no electricity–
The fence is supposed to be electrified, but it only rarely is because they only get a few hours of electricity a day. This is the first suggestion this is more third-world than primitive.
–and I imagine it’d blow her mind to realize that some of us have not only electricity (constantly and reliably!) but also plumbing and Internet access, and this kind of third/first-world thing comes up a whole shitting lot in her analyses. It’s that mindless, casual thing a lot of westerners do and they don’t even think it’s offensive in any way. This is why we want to kick you in the mouths, folks, and laugh as you choke to death on your own teeth. This is also why:
This is all particularly inane given that it’s standard in Western society that you can’t actually force someone into a marriage, there has to be some nominal amount of acceptance
Non-westerners, of course, constantly rape women and marriages aren’t even about nominal amount of acceptance oh fuck you. But, unfortunately for people who like Graceling this doesn’t mean I disagree with her views on Cashore’s steaming pile, so let’s get to that.
“It surprises me, the friends the Council is finding,” Oll said.
Giddon propped himself up onto his elbow. “Did you expect it, Katsa? Did you think your Council would spread as it has?”
What had she expected when she’d started the Council? She’d imagined herself, alone, sneaking through passageways and around corners, an invisible force working against the mindlessness of the kings. “I never even imagined it spreading beyond me.”
“And now we have friends in almost every kingdom,” Giddon said. “People are opening their homes. Did you know one of the Nanderan borderlords brought an entire village behind his walls when the Council learned of a Westeran raiding party? The village was destroyed, but every one of them lived.” He settled down onto his side and yawned again. “It’s heartening. The Council does some good.”
What dogshit is this? I already covered it, but it’s still flabbergasting. This “secret council” thing is open, apparently, to everyone. And yet nobody’s sold them out. Somehow aristocrats loyal to their kings haven’t managed to learn about it in any way or shape or form. None of the kings’ spies has infiltrated it (even though it’s wide open to infiltration). Who wrote this? Who came up with it? A kindergartener? Is Cashore five?
Katsa stepped forward, her eyes and ears finely tuned to the archers. Randa’s archers were good, but they were not Graced. Katsa spared a moment to drily pity the guards at her back, if this encounter came down to arrow dodging.
“Uncle,” she said. “Let me explain what will happen the instant one of your men makes a move toward me. Let’s say, for instance, one of your archers lets an arrow fly. You’ve not come to many of my practices, Uncle. You haven’t seen me dodge arrows; but your archers have. If one of your archers releases an arrow, I’ll drop to the floor. The arrow will doubtless hit one of your guards. The sword and the dagger of that guard will be in my hands before anyone in the room has time to realize what’s happened. A fight will break out with the guards; but only seven or eight of them can surround me at once, Uncle, and seven or eight are nothing to me. As I kill the guards I’ll take their daggers and begin throwing them into the hearts of your archers, who of course will have no sighting on me once the brawl with the guards has broken out. I’ll get out of the room alive, Uncle; but most of the rest of you will be dead. Of course, this is only what will happen if I wait for one of your men to make a move. I could move first. I could attack a guard, steal his dagger, and hurl it into your chest this instant.”
Randa’s mouth was fixed into a sneer, but under this he had begun to tremble. A threat of death, given and received; and Katsa felt it ringing in her fingertips. And she saw that she could do it now, she could kill him right now. The disdain in his eyes would disappear, and his sneer would slide away. Her fingers itched, for she could do it now with the snatch of a dagger.
Oh spare me. It’s dreadful when the author’s darling does this–rattling off a grocery list of how awesome and untouchable she is (and she is! Isn’t it coincidental none of the archers has magic?) and then proceeds to do absolutely fuck-all with it. The running theme in this sad, miserable book is that Katsa has trouble controlling her temper and violence, but the problem is that at no point in the book do we actually see her lose control or cause a bloodbath, she’s not exactly Lucy the Diclonius. It’s a threat without any teeth to it. It also showcases how spineless the author is: Kristin Cashore like Suzanne Collins can’t bear to have her protagonist do anything unethical or even just run-of-the-mill mean, oh no. Protagonists. They must be perfect, and loved by all (even if, or especially if, they harbor deep self-esteem issues, in which case the entire cast will revolve around them in a sycophantic chorus of, “But, oh, you’re awesome, Katniss/Katsa!”) Anyway, she goes on to consider the ramifications of murdering Randa then and there, but entirely fails to consider the possibility of an assassination, i.e. one that doesn’t involve everyone bearing witness to the fact that she killed the king.
Katsa isn’t just emotionally broken, she’s stupid. But everyone in this novel appears to be unbearably stupid, so I guess they’re playing on the same level.
The notion of having a lover was to Katsa something like discovering a limb she’d never noticed before. An extra arm or toe. It was unfamiliar, and she poked and prodded it, as she would have prodded an alien toe unexpectedly her own.
That the lover would be Po reduced her confusion somewhat. It was by thinking of Po, and not of the notion of a lover, that Katsa became comfortable enough to consider what it would mean to lie in his bed but not be his wife.
What WAS the difference between a husband and a lover?
If she took Po as her husband, she would be making promises about a future she couldn’t yet see. For once she became his wife, she would be his wife forever. And, no matter how much freedom Po gave her, she would always know that it was a gift. Her freedom would not be her own; it would be Po’s to give or to withhold. That he never would withhold it made no difference. If it did not come from her, it was not really hers.
Ahhhhhh what the fuck.
Throughout the book, there’s no evidence the culture she lives in values virginity, forbids pre-marital sex, or even that marriage in this society is TOTALLY SOUL-DESTROYING SLAVERY FOR WOMEN and chock-full of marital rape 24/7. So where the fuck did Katsa learn these ideas, to the point that she internalizes them? She barely interacts with other women anyway.
The only grounding for her assumptions we see is this:
And she would be married, and to Giddon. She would be his wife, the lady of his house. She’d be charged with entertaining his wretched guests. Expected to hire and dismiss his servants, based on their skill with a pastry, or some such nonsense. Expected to bear him children, and stay at home to love them. She would go to his bed at night, Giddon’s bed, and lie with a man who considered a scratch to her face an affront to his person. A man who thought himself her protector – her protector when she could outduel him if she used a toothpick to his sword.
“Giddon.” He stood before her, his face even, his eyes warm. So confident. He didn’t imagine she could refuse him. And perhaps that was forgivable, for perhaps no other woman would. “Giddon. You need a wife who will give you children. I’ve never wished children. You must marry a woman who wishes babies.”
“You’re not an unnatural woman, Katsa. You can fight as other women can’t, but you’re not so different from other women. You’ll want babies. I’m certain of it.”
Apart from the fact that everyone talks like robots…
So, er, she’d be expected to entertain guests, have and rear babies (except historically European noblewomen–or hell, female aristocrats anywhere really–had servants to deal with that sort of thing: hey, nursemaids). But this doesn’t indicate women in this culture cannot divorce their husbands, and yes, women throughout history have been able to do that: see parts of Asia, idiot. Nor does it indicate socially approved sex can only happen within the confines of marriage, because Kristin Cashore is a hack and hasn’t bothered to do anything like build up a setting with its own mores and rules. Instead she’s slotting in what she thinks is kinda-sorta faux-medieval Europe… except this isn’t faux-medieval Europe because there’s no Christianity, there’s no culture informed by certain religious lines of thought and philosophies and did I mention Kristin Cashore is a hack? It’s not even hard to set some groundwork for why Katsa would have this terminal fear of marriage–but, again, that’d require that she interacts with more than one single fucking woman in her fucking life. Oh no. Not female characters with their female things! (And Katsa naturally despises all things domestic, because god forbid ahhhh this fucking cliche.)
Katsa couldn’t possibly have pulled this idea out of the ether, anymore than she could have pulled out that squeaky-clean sense of ethics which perfectly gels with what’s considered right and normative in the twenty-first century. Anyone with the most basic grasp of sociology would have been able to tell this, but then again Cashore seems to be aiming for an audience that doesn’t give a shit about socio-political verisimilitude of any sort: a grouping that probably includes herself, because I don’t think she’s so much watering down for a stupid audience as simply being incapable of complicated thought. And here’s the thing: you can’t write about gender issues or parade your feminism without actually involving women. Having a female protagonist like Katsa means precisely a honking NOBODY GIVES A FUCK because she’s that most FEMINIST!1!! of all tropes: the Exceptional Woman. The only girl who rejects girly things because fuck yeah, shooting and fighting and stuff, ewwww domestic sphere. All the women who should’ve been in her life are dead–an absence so pernicious and illogical that even her uncle Randa’s queen is stone dead, and despite having only one heir he hasn’t bothered to remarry (HEY GUYS? THIS IS NOT HOW DYNASTIES WORK, you have an heir and you have some spares!). Katsa’s own mom is likewise dead, and though there are women working in the gracelings’ nursery mysteriously only one of them, Helda, interacts with Katsa or has had any influence on Katsa’s formative experience. Even then, they are influences like:
“Then something has upset you,” Helda said. “It’ll be one of your young men.”
One of her young men. One of her friends. Her list of friends was dwindling, from few to fewer. “I’ve disobeyed the king,” she said. “He’ll be very angry with me.”
“Yes?” Helda said. “But that doesn’t account for the pain in your eyes. That will be the doing of one of your young men.”
Katsa said nothing. Everyone in this castle was a mind reader. Everyone could see through her, and she saw nothing.
“If the king is angry with you,” Helda said, “and if you’re having trouble with one of your young men, then we’ll make you especially beautiful for the evening. You’ll wear your red dress.”
Katsa almost laughed at that bit of Helda logic, but the laugh got caught in her throat. She would leave the court after this night. For she didn’t want to be here any longer, with her uncle’s fury, Giddon’s sarcastic, hurt pride, and, most of all, Po’s betrayal.
“Oh, you’re upset and your uncle the king is upset with you–I know! Let’s dress you up, that’ll fix your problems!” unlike Po the Teletubby, who gives Katsa awesome emotion-developing advice. There’s no context in which Helda’s recommendation can come across as not brain-bleedingly stupid. And why is she so stupid? Because she’s a woman! Interested in dumb woman things and so she can only give advice that’s of the dumb woman girly domestic variety like dresses! Haha! Katsa has no time for your foolish girly things, you useless feminine fool!
You can’t toot your feminist horn when you can’t even be arsed to throw in more than one token woman for the Exceptional Girl to interact with. This also means that she forms her ideas about gender roles in a vacuum, with no in-text evidence to support any of her conclusions. This is unbelievably lazy writing. Yes, she does interact with Bitterblue, the Lienid queen, and the female captain, but those aren’t people who shaped her growing up.
Her thing with Po is, er, really not that groundbreaking (sorry, Larry). The emotionally broken, physically strong woman who finds herself a boyfriend who bows and scrapes to her every whim and whose summation of existence is “exist to tell her how awesome she is” is not exactly an uncommon thing. Now because the reverse usually happens–the woman is a blow-up doll who is there merely to tell her man how great and excellent he is woohoo–I’m not going to complain whether this is a pro-feminist trope, but it doesn’t make Po what you’d call a compelling character seeing that he has no personality. More than that though, the entire cast exists to tell Katsa how awesome she is, a Greek chorus of yes-people who function not unlike Anita Blake’s friends and allies: Katsa mumbles “oh I’m no good” and the nearest person who’s not Katsa rushes pell-mell to say “oh but you’re just wonderful, baby.”
This is my other problem with spineless characterization: it’s fine and even desirable to have a female protagonist who isn’t likable, who does unpleasant things and thinks unpleasant thoughts, but still gets shit done anyway. That’s what happens plenty often with male protagonists, and people around them grudgingly accept their presence because they are hypercompetent and can carry out what needs to be done. Not so here: the only person who honestly thinks Katsa is a psychopathic murder is… er… Katsa and her uncle, who’s evil and just manipulates her into thinking that way for his own gain. Katsa may have no self-esteem, but the moment she opens her mouth about said lack everyone lines up to tell her that she is good, beautiful, excellent, competent, and within the narrative she’s objectively all those things (can’t have a plain-looking female protagonist, oh no!).
Bitterblue laughed at that, and Katsa told her how she and Po had become friends, and how Raffin had nursed Bitterblue’s grandfather back to health; and how Katsa and Po had gone to Sunder to unravel the truth behind the kidnapping and followed the clues into Monsea and to the mountains, the forest, and the girl.
“You aren’t really like the person in the stories,” Bitterblue said. “The stories I heard before I met you.” Katsa braced herself against the flood of memories that never seemed to lose their freshness and always made her ashamed.
“The stories are true,” she said. “I am that person.”
“But how can you be? You wouldn’t break an innocent man’s arm, or cut off his fingers.”
“I did those things for my uncle,” Katsa said, “at a time when he had power over me.”
But of course Bitterblue doesn’t give one shit.
Compare this with Clement from Laurie J. Marks’ Elemental Logic, a set of books written with sensibilities more mature than that of a five-year-old: Clement experiences many moments of self-doubt. Why? BECAUSE SHE’S ACTUALLY DONE AWFUL THINGS. Including kidnapping children to raise as soldiers, killing her first lover (who’s not a great person, but who means a lot to her), participating in the battle that led to the dissolution of Shaftal’s government, and–you know–generally being a lieutenant of an invading army. And Shaftali characters are not going to handwave away all these, even when they espouse the ideals of forgiveness. Nobody is going to tell her “oh, it’s okay you abducted a bunch of children from loving families, that’s fine!” except her fellow soldiers (who we know are being horrifying when they congratulate her for this brilliant plan), because the Shaftali friends she eventually makes are not sociopathic yes-people. But more importantly, we’re shown the consequences of what she does in action, such as a scene where she goes through sick and dying kids to fetch a specific one. We are made to care, because the suffering her army inflicts is done to real people.
By which I mean: as readers, we’re primed to divide characters into Real People and Props. It works like that in real life too–show you an article about how some 500 people died in Asia, nobody will give a shit beyond making some vague noises that it is awful. It’s only when that article gets around to “and by the way a British/American tourist broke a nail” does the average westerner abandon all pretenses of humanity and howl for blood, because only western tourists are Real People. In just such a way narratives operate. The people Clement has hurt are real and they’re shown as hurt (one of them being a protagonist even–see her almost getting Zanja executed); in contrast the people Katsa has hurt or tortured are randomly generated NPCs we have no compelling reason to care about. They are faceless, they barely have names, and their suffering doesn’t matter. No awful thing Katsa has ever done matters. It has no narrative heft, leaves no lasting impression.
Thus, we get her whining that she’s vicious and brutish and evil and we get everyone else congratulating her on being a wonderful human being. I’m not sure why Kristin Cashore thinks she can write, and why people tell her she can write, even if you were to ignore the unreadable prose and dialogue. That’s a huge “if” by the way, because Cashore only knows how to construct sentences one way and everyone speaks like a scripted automaton.
Later on, Katsa goes up against the Evil King Leck, one of whose evil deeds is that he cuts up and tortures small animals.
Oh my god, Cashore, are you five?
He also tortures people, but how do you run a kingdom like this? So, admittedly, he has mind-control powers… but how does his court function if everyone is bleeding or dying all the time? In fact, since his powers turn everyone into a dazed puppet, how do they have a working economy? And since his powers are limitless, why hasn’t he taken over all the other kingdoms already? I know, the world-building is shit and none of the kingdoms makes sense (witness kings impinging on each other’s peasants and lands without causing war!), but it’s difficult to concentrate on golly what an evil psychopath when none of the milieu coheres. Maybe other readers can do it and focus on the awful suffering of the individual Real People characters, but I can’t: if you can’t convince me your world is real, then I’m not going to give one shit about your characters, especially not when they’re sketchy cardboard cut-outs assembled together by instructions phoned in at long distance.
Finally, we learn at one point that the Lienid kingdom is the specialest of them all: the queen gets to do things in her husband’s stead, the gracelings aren’t directly under the king’s thumb, and everything is just better over there. This means that if you aren’t born there you’re fucked as a woman and that Lienid–in addition to being prosperous–is a nicer place to live in in general, so why isn’t it swamped by refugees seeing that everywhere else is a cesspit? And, ultimately–
Queen Bitterblue was very changed from the skittish creature she and Po had cajoled from the inside of a hollow log months ago. Bitterblue would make a good ruler someday. And Raffin a good king; and Ror was strong and capable and would live a long time. That was three of the seven kingdoms in good hands. Three of seven, however inadequate it seemed, would be a vast improvement.
Wow, that’s dumb. Because if the next generation is a shit ruler or an abusive fuck like Leck or graced with easy-to-abuse powers like Leck… are you just that stupid, Katsa? Well, well of course she is: pretty much the only people who matter in this book are all nobility or royalty. Katsa is an aristocrat, Raffin is royalty, Bitterblue is royalty, Po is royalty, and it’s like we are back in Tolkienland because the only folks that matter are the ones with the right kind of blood in them, amirite?
By the way, here’s a partial list of the characters’ names: Katsa, Bitterblue, Skye, Ror, Ashen, Po, Raffin, Leck, Oll. Now is there a single one in there other than Katsa that’s not plain stupid? The capital cities as I suspected are named after the respective current monarch, so this does mean they change the capital’s name every time someone is crowned (so Leck City becomes Bitterblue City: wow, talk about depressing). I’m not sure any city in any region in any period of history has ever worked like this, it’s like Cashore is putting extra effort into making her setting as unbelievable and flimsy as possible. “Look at me!” she crows. “I treat my readers like idiots and get away with it!”
I’m not especially interested in commenting on the feminism aspect because hey, it’s better than Twilight probably, but it doesn’t really hold a candle to… well… Sailor Moon. It doesn’t need to be said of course that it treads no new ground and deals with no real sophisticated point or any particular substance, and this is all very middle-grade stuff unless you’ve never heard of Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson and so on before, in which case get to reading.
Incidentally, Cashore is a paper book fetishist who harbors stupid idea about ebooks:
Now that rant I promised. Here goes. I know there are a lot of people who love to read books electronically, and I’m really happy it works for them, but I have to say, I think e-books have a long, long, LONG way to go. The problem is quite simple, but it’s also enormous: Often, in order to have a complete and satisfying reading experience, a reader wants and needs to be looking at numerous pages of a book at once. Also, often, a reader needs to be able to flip from one part of a book to another instantly, and I mean INSTANTLY, the way many people can do with fingers on paper but still not on any of our electronics. And not just flip from one place to another — flip through one section, sometimes even while having other sections open. I use all ten of my fingers when I read.
E-readers are still too clunky and slow for me, e-readers show me too little of a book at once, e-readers are a hugely limited reading experience compared to what my eyes, hands, and fingers can do with a book made of paper. While I was on tour, I was reading The Night Circus on my e-reader. I cannot tell you how frequently I thought to myself, while reading that book, that this technology isn’t worthy of the art it’s trying to support. My e-reader was an insult to the book. A book like that requires and deserves a support platform that allows you to be perusing many, many sections of the book at once, instantly and easily. My e-reader traps the book too much in space and time (which is particularly ironic with this particular book ^_^). BLECH! BLECH, I SAY!!! The night I got home from my tour, I was SO RELIEVED to switch over to the paper copy of the book. Which paper copy was a gift to me, from one of the independent bookstores on my tour (thank you, Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, IL!) ^_^.