Back in 2012, I read Malinda Lo‘s science fiction book, Adaptation, and gave it a four-star rating and a good review. It was good storytelling, had romance both gay and straight, and hey, aliens!
Ever since then, I have meant to go back to her and at least read Ash, her Cinderella retelling with a sapphic twist, and this week I finally did so, as part of my preparation for my “speculative fiction” unit at UCLA for my Young Adult Literature class.
I have to say I was underwhelmed. There are nice things to say about the book: The writing is sometimes lyrical, and the scene-setting imagery (descriptions of forests, countryside, hunting on horseback, etc.) is lovely. Some of the characters are attractive, at least in their physical descriptions. But it seemed like Lo didn’t quite know how to both present/exploit the original fairy tale and then deviate from it effectively (or provocatively, as most readers would be expecting).
The details of the original that were retained were clichéd, with the stepmother being almost a cartoon caricature and the daughters’ personalities left unformed beyond the usual, which is to say, the elder is egocentric, frivolous, and mean, while the younger (less attractive and therefore less valuable?) retains a smidgen of humanity. The father likewise becomes the bum who didn’t pay the bills and left everyone in the lurch. And the prince (central to the original tale) has barely a cameo appearance in this book. The character of Aisling’s absent (dead) mother was so much more fully formed than most of the people in this story who were alive—it was both disconcerting and not ultimately useful.
You would think, against this backdrop, that the main players—Aisling or “Ash” (Cinderella), the King’s Huntress, Kasia, and the mysterious Fae suitor, Sidhean, would shine. They don’t, and nor do their relationships. Although Ash regards Sidhean with awe and wonder and looks forward to his visits and his company, there is little emotional involvement visible from either side (except for one or two extremely brief repressed moments on Sidhean’s part), and the prospect of going away with him does not fill Ash with joy, despite her miserable lifestyle from which one would think she would be desperate to escape.
Likewise, the meetings with the Huntress only hint tentatively and subtly at there being any kind of fascination (on either side), let alone attraction, and are so quietly and decorously handled that you keep wondering if you imagined reading the synopsis of the book in which these two supposedly fall in love. There are moments…but they remain unarticulated until almost the very end, and there is little sense of who the Huntress is, with few glimpses into her past and present and almost no indication of her feelings. There is no love story here, except in the vague dim recesses of the two characters’ minds—no verbalization, no wooing, no physical manifestation.
In effect, this book has an almost totally flat affect. Although there are conflicts (as Ash learns from her rather obsessive reading of fairy tales, it’s a big deal to go away with a fae into his land, where time moves differently and people can become trapped forever), they are not ultimately dealt with as if they are that significant. I don’t want to be a spoiler here, but the resolution with Sidhean was puzzling, abrupt, and unsatisfying.
In this setting/world it also seems that a relationship with a fae prince is so much more scandalous than is a lesbian one—which seems almost completely taken for granted—that the reader is denied even the frisson of forbidden love, and when the two women eventually get together, it verges on mundane. And I mean, we all say we want books in which same-sex relationships are accepted and taken for granted, but…this is a fairy tale retelling in which “Ash” supposedly ends up a princess, married to a prince, so…shouldn’t there be some kind of fireworks when that doesn’t happen?
I was just puzzled by this book—especially all the ways the author chose not to go. It’s not exactly a pan—it’s a pleasant enough read, and has some interesting moments—but it was so much less than I hoped or expected.
I just finished reading two books of a planned trilogy by April Daniels. I would slot them as young adult although, in the area of superheroes, fandom seemingly crosses all borders, including that of age. But since the protagonist is 15 when book #1 opens, and comes with a lot of the issues teens encounter, labeling them YA is plausible, whether or not the author intended that.
Dreadnought (Nemesis #1) follows the adventures of Danny Tozer. When the book opens, Danny is Daniel, an unhappy teen girl trapped in a boy’s body, with parents who adamantly refuse to see her for who she is or even contemplate the possibility of a transgender future. A miracle is shortly to follow, however; while hanging out alone behind the mall, Danny ends up on-scene at the murder of Dreadnought, a powerful superhero, and as he dies he passes the “mantle” of his powers to Danny. What comes with those powers is a transformation so epic that Danny’s life will be forever changed—she is gifted with a girl’s body as part of her new identity. Although becoming a superhero ought to be the most amazing thing that happens to a person, it is the realization of her secret dream of manifesting as female that is the overwhelmingly joyous news.
But Dreadnought was taken down by a “black cape” named Utopia, who shouldn’t have had enough power to faze him, let alone kill him, and now Danielle has to figure out how that happened and foil Utopia in her grand plan for the destruction of humanity. And she will have to do so while confronting the prejudice and paranoia of her parents, whose dearest wish is to find a “cure” that will turn her back into “their son,” a disillusionment regarding her best friend, who turns out to be an objectifyer when Danny turns into a girl (hey, eyes up here, dude) and, of course, her fellow superheroes in New Port, some of whom also have a problem with Dreadnought suddenly being a 15-year-old petite blonde.
This is such a fresh, wonderful, fun, and yet serious discussion of transgender in the context of fiction! The author shares the identity of the underrepresented and marginalized group in question, and in this series, the authenticity shines through. There is something for everyone here: While those who enjoy the cool powers, the fight scenes, and the trope of conflict between good and evil so characteristic of superhero books can revel in those things, there is also a lot of all-too-mundane psychology tied up with the issues of misogyny, abuse, identity, gender vs. sexuality, you name it. In addition to the transgender nature of the protagonist, we have her lesbian love interest, a non-binary superhero colleague, multiple people of color, and a villainous trans-exclusionary “feminist.” But none of these (well, with the possible exception of Graywytch, who turns into kind of a cipher as the plot progresses) is a stereotype: Danny runs the gamut of emotions—brave, terrified, powerful, weak, utterly secure, and totally lacking in self-confidence. The side characters are equally well developed, especially those who are in her inner circle of supporters and colleagues. The world-building is thorough, and especially enjoyable is all the focus on “hypertech” inventions.
I enjoyed the first book a little bit more than the second, simply because I love a good origin story, and Dreadnought dealt much more with the emotions and challenges of a 15-year-old transgender girl who is suddenly in the spotlight as the heroine of the city and has to work through all her personal issues with family and friends while simultaneously maintaining a public image and fighting crime. Sovereign landed more heavily on the superhero role and focused less on the personal, although it almost made up for it with the relationship dynamics among the main characters, including a little romance. And the ongoing question of the wisdom of taking a survivor of childhood abuse with anger issues and encouraging them to beat up on people (well, admittedly bad guys, but still) is also a powerful theme.
Having read these two, I would have felt completely satisfied with a duology; but Daniels is writing a third book to wrap up the secondary plot of Nemesis, and I look forward to reading it. This is a solid recommendation for a positive and delightful treatment of diversity within a fictional shell, not to mention a dynamic story line and an enjoyable read! I would suggest this for teens 14 and up, plus anybody who enjoys a good superhero tale. To discover other diverse books, visit https://diversebooks.org/.
I almost took a pass on The Guncle, by Steven Rowley, after the first 30-some pages. Rowley started out writing Patrick as such a gay cliché (not to mention that he’s an actor, with all that implies), that I couldn’t see a possibility of liking, yet alone identifying with, him as protagonist.
Lest you think this is because I am a “mature” hetero white woman, let me set you straight (pun intended): I worked for more than four years as a typesetter at The Advocate, the national gay and lesbian newsmagazine, during the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis. Believe me when I say that I have met and, in some cases, befriended for life, every gay cliché in the book.
I couldn’t quite see what Rowley was trying to do. He invented Patrick as superficial, pretentious, cynical, and almost completely self-involved; and then put him in charge of a six-year-old boy and his nine-year-old sister and let him play out all those annoying attributes in condescendingly coy conversations with the kids, who are already in shock from the death of their mother and the retreat of their pill-popping dad into rehab, leaving them with Gay Uncle Patrick (GUP) in a strange, otherworldly place (Palm Springs in summer). (They normally live in Connecticut.)
But once Patrick gives up a certain percentage of his showboating and settles into a daily routine parenting Grant and Maisie and seeing them through the beginning stages of their grief, the story shifts. Patrick had suffered a loss of his own several years previous, when his lover, Joe, died in a car crash and, in the process of trying to be authentic and present for the children, he realizes simultaneously what they need now and what he has needed all along—to talk, to feel, to be in the moment no matter how painful, and to come to terms with life as it is now, on the other side of this cataclysmic event that has deprived them all of someone so vital.
The other advantage that kept me reading was that Rowley knew just how to write these two children. He got the fears, the naïveté, the bravado, the scorn, and all the other emotions and personality traits of children at these ages down pat, and the conversations they have with Patrick and with one another are the meat of the book, containing humor, pathos, practicality, banality, and wisdom.
The tone of the book was mostly light, but there were passages and events that packed some punch. It was also nice to see the effect serving in loco parentis had on Patrick’s long-term self and goals, provoking a willingness to assume more responsibility for his life and theirs. By the end of the book I had mostly forgiven Patrick his self-conscious snobbery and fallen for his undeniable charm, and I wanted to pack up the two kids and take them home with me. There were also some nice interludes between Patrick and one of his neighbors, as well as meaningful interactions with his two siblings (his sister, Grace, and his brother, Greg, father to the kids) that raised the tone.
This kind of book is one of the reasons that I object to the term “women’s fiction” and have rechristened it, at least in my own classification system, as “relationship fiction.” This is a prime example of that kind of novel that celebrates the relationships among families, friends, and significant others, and it is neither written by nor primarily read by women. I would say, if you have the same initial reaction that I did, give it another 30 or 40 pages and see if it doesn’t begin to draw you in and give you the experience for which you were hoping when you picked it up.
(Can I just say that the cover is perfection?)