First of all, the teaser trailer for the second season of Game of Thrones:
If you haven’t read the books or seen the show, then you should get on that. Game of Thrones is some terribly good storytelling. It’s also kind of hard to summarize other than to say that winter is coming.
Sorry, sorry. Game of Thrones is set in a gritty fantasy world where the seasons can last for years, and where winters are especially harsh; the action centers on a family of nobles in the North called the Starks and their often tense relationship with a fellow noble family called the Lannisters.
I’ve read most of the books and watched all of the show – and I have to say that one of my favorite parts is the handling of the female characters.
This is a somewhat controversial thing to say, as A Song of Ice and Fire (the television show is Game of Thrones, while the book series is titled A Song of Ice and Fire) has sometimes drawn criticism for what are seen as sexist portrayals and/or portrayals of violence against women, namely in a piece written Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown. I do not agree with these criticisms, not at all; in fact, for the most part, they are the exact opposite of how I read the text. Alyssa Rosenberg already gave a point by point response that I agree with wholeheartedly, and this was all a thing some months ago, so I don’t want to dredge up old crud or beat a dead horse.
No, today I want to talk about my undying love for the sisters Arya and Sansa Stark.
These lovely ladies
Graphics art by saltspray
Confession: when I was a kid, I wanted to be a tomboy.
Basically, I wanted to be Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird; later on, I wanted to be Lyra from His Dark Materials.
And if I’d read ASoIaF around this same time? You better believe that I would have been foaming at the mouth to be Arya Stark.
Like Scout and Lyra, Arya is just freaking badass.
Westeros (the continent where most of the action unfolds) is…not a progressive society. Society is divided along class and gender lines. As a female of a noble family, Arya can expect a life better than most, but her primary role is still to marry and produce children. Unfortunately, this does not gel with her vision of her life, and so Arya constantly experiences friction with the narrow roles set to her by her society, a conflict perhaps best exemplified by the following exchange with her father Ned:
Arya: Can I be lord of a holdfast?
Ned: You will marry a high lord and rule his castle, and your sons shall be knights, and princes, and lords.
Arya: No. That’s not me.
I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Arya does break away from this future in some big ways, kicking ass and taking names (oh boy, quite literally taking names) along the way. Her arc is gritty and dark but ultimately empowering, because this waif of a girl transforms herself from someone that everybody underestimates into a legitimate force to be reckoned with.
Fanart by Sue Ann Williams
In many ways, Arya’s character is reminiscent of the trope of the rebellious princess.
Literature is abound with spunky females who give up their higher station in life in order to pursue paths that are a better fit for them, by which I mean paths full of danger and intrigue and scandal. A large part of why these stories are attractive is because they function as a gigantic, collective middle finger to restrictive gender roles.
Why hello there, awesome rebellious princess movie that I cannot WAIT to see!
But what about those princesses who don’t run away? What about the characters who are fine with the gender roles set by their society?
Ladies and gentlemen – meet Sansa Stark.
Sansa is the opposite to her sister Arya in almost every possible way. This girl has a game plan. She will marry a prince – she has the particular one all picked out – and sonnets will be composed of their undying love. Of course, this is a dark dark dark story, chockfull of High Octane Nightmare Fuel, so that’s not quite how things work out.
Sansa is one of those characters much maligned by the fandom. Many people do not like her. Many people passionately do not like her.
I am not here to tell people who they should or should not like. Personally, I love Sansa. I want to have her over for tea to discuss boys and compare pretty dresses. But I understand where the dislike comes from. She spends a large part of the story being helplessly moony, completely oblivious to the fact that her favorite prince is the most unlikable character in the whole story – maybe the most unlikable character ever, period.
Which is why this scene is so satisfying to watch; also, Peter Dinklage
If the rebellious princess is a common trope, then so is the snobbish princess; they often co-exist in the same story, usually to show the rebellious princess what she could become and how she must avoid this at all costs. The snobbish princess is often the metaphorical hand of society, trying to hold down the rebellious princess as she seeks her own path in life.
And this is exactly why I love how George R.R. Martin handled these characters. Because he writes Sansa Stark as so much more than that.
To me, the narrative makes it abundantly clear that while Sansa has no interest in picking up a sword, that does not mean that she is not brave or smart or strong. I don’t want to spoil anyone, but in particular I’m thinking of a moment after Sansa has seen something horrible and she’s given a chance to push someone off a bridge, and she contemplates it very seriously. In addition, it is Sansa, more than anyone else, who comes perilously close to rectifying the entire situation at the end of the first book – something that Arya, while awesome, would never have been able to accomplish with her particularly blunt way of doing things.
Fanart by Sue Ann Williams
Remember how I said I wanted to be a tomboy?
I wanted it so bad that I’d convinced myself I was one – at least until the day that I informed my family of this fact, and they promptly laughed in my face. This is partially because my family is a collection of hapless ingrates, but also because I’m not a tomboy.
Here are a list of things I hated back then (and still do now): a) bugs, b) being outside, c) running around, d) getting dirty, e) touching worms (which I hated so much that when my father took me fishing, I coped by spearing the worm delicately with my fishing hook so that my fingers would not have to touch something so slimy and hideously gross). I’ve always been an effeminate person – it’s just part of how I walk, how I talk, something as ingrained as the color of my eyes. It’s not the right way to be, nor is it the wrong way, it simply is.
But when I was a kid? I’d internalized that being traditionally feminine was not a powerful way of being. I wanted to be Arya, but I was actually Sansa.
Which is why I love ASoIaF: because with Arya and Sansa, the narrative offers two polar-opposite ways of expressing female identity – yet ultimately, both girls are shown as strong and courageous, each in their own way.
I think that’s pretty amazing.
Also, Peter Dinklage.
More books! To see the first round of book recommendations, please check out Part 1.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Books good enough to warrant a gif (with flickering candles) are just on another level – ’nuff said
- Amazon Summary: Reclusive author Vida Winter, famous for her collection of twelve enchanting stories, has spent the past six decades penning a series of alternate lives for herself. Now old and ailing, she is ready to reveal the truth about her extraordinary existence and the violent and tragic past she has kept secret for so long. Calling on Margaret Lea, a young biographer troubled by her own painful history, Vida disinters the life she meant to bury for good. Margaret is mesmerized by the author’s tale of gothic strangeness — featuring the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess,a topiary garden and a devastating fire. Together, Margaret and Vida confront the ghosts that have haunted them while becoming, finally, transformed by the truth themselves.
Um, yeah. If you don’t see what’s attractive about this story, then don’t mind me. I’m just going to hit you over the head with this frying pan. I mean, come on. Feral twins? A ghost? A governess? Topiary gardens? Fires and books and painful histories? It’s like this book was written just for me.
The Thirteenth Tale is also a rare breed, because it’s a story that works on both the sentence and the plot level – too many stories emphasize one over the other. The Thirteenth Tale indulges in beautiful, poetic writing, but also intrigues with a scandalous and suspenseful plot that will have you turning pages while chowing down on popcorn.
Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones
- Amazon Summary: On another world entirely, a harassed Sector Controller gets a letter from a maintenance team apparently trapped in Hexwood. A small boy called Hume encounters a robot and a dragon there. Ann Stavely, lying in bed with a virus in her nearby home, watches person after person disappear into the old farmhouse and not come out again.
- When she feels better, Ann decides to investigate. She goes into the wood, where she meets a tormented sorcerer called Mordion who seems to have arisen from a sleep lasting centuries. Yet Ann knows she has seen him enter the farmhouse that morning. Nothing seems to happen in the right order. Nothing quite makes sense. And things keep getting stranger and stranger until, long before the end, the strangeness has spread from Earth right out to the center of the galaxy.
I’ll admit it, Internet. I’m hesitant about this one. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, because the plot is confusing as hell. I read it very carefully and I’m still not sure that I understand it. Let’s put it this way – those Amazon paragraphs are actually a simplified summary of the plot. (I think it’s also incorrect? Because I’m pretty sure that the people are disappearing into the woods behind the farmhouse, not the farmhouse itself. But I could be wrong, and technically I’m citing it, so I don’t want to change it.)
Hexwood is strange and confusing, but also brilliant. It all comes together at the end, which seems like a miracle considering how muddled things get towards the middle of the book. But more importantly, it’s one of the most romantic love stories I’ve ever read – and you know that Diane Wynne Jones is good at understated, actually romantic romance – considering that she also wrote Howl’s Moving Castle.
Best gif ever? I think so
Let me put it this way – if you’re not cheering for Ann and Mordion at the end of the book, then I just give up. And raise my frying pan.
Oh, yeah. Diane Wynne Jones dedicated the book to Neil Gaiman, which inspired him to write the following thank-you poem:
There’s a kitten curled up in Kilkenny was given a perfect pot of cream,
And a princess asleep in a thornwrapped castle who’s dreaming a perfect dream,
There’s a dog in Alaska who danced with delight on a pile of mastodon bones,
But I got a copy of Hexwood (dedicated to me) by Diana Wynne Jones.
There’s an actress who clutches her oscar (and sobs, with proper impromptu joy),
There’s a machievellian villain who’s hit on a wonderf’lly evil ploy,
There’s wizards in crystal castles and kings on their golden thrones,
But I got a copy of Hexwood – dedicated – to me! – by Diana Wynne Jones.
There are fishermen out on the sea today who just caught the perfect fish,
There’s a child in Luton who opened a genie-filled bottle, and got a wish,
There are people who live in glass houses have managed to outlaw stones -
But I’ve got a copy of Hexwood, dedicated to me by Diana Wynne Jones.
So that’s another wonderful thing about Hexwood.
Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe
- Amazon Summary: Young Wataru Mitani’s life is a mess. His father has abandoned him, and his mother has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Desperately he searches for some way to change his life–a way to alter his fate. To achieve his goal, he must navigate the magical world of Vision, a land filled with creatures both fierce and friendly. And to complicate matters, he must outwit a merciless rival from the real world. Wataru’s ultimate destination is the Tower of Destiny where a goddess of fate awaits. Only when he has finished his journey and collected five elusive gemstones will he possess the Demon’s Bane–the key that will unlock the future.
Brave Story is uniquely structured, in that it’s basically two books pasted together (and I mean this literally; Brave Story is rather long at over 600 pages, making the two halves of the story about 300 pages each). The first half of the story is about Wataru’s life falling apart, while the second half focuses on Vision and the archetypal fantasy quest contained within. Each half is fully realized enough to be its own book, with a detailed world and vibrant cast of characters. Ultimately, the two parts work together to create a meaningful and satisfying whole.
To be honest, I’m extremely fond of the first half, because Miyuki Miyabe writes with incredible incision about the impact of divorce on children; she’s great at getting into the mindset of children witnessing a divorce. For this reason, I found Wataru to be infinitely sympathetic, and my heart broke for him.
Tonally, the second half of the book is quite different. But not in a bad way. In the second half, the story becomes more concerned with the events occurring in Vision; you might have noticed that parts of Vision sound cliche, what with towers of destiny and goddesses of fate and elusive gem stones and all that. In my opinion, Brave Story surmounts the cliches by embracing them so wholeheartedly that the story eventually breaks through to the other side, becoming original simply because most stories don’t dare to be so cliche. Brave Story doesn’t try to dance around the fact that the fantasy elements are a parable for finding inner strength – and behind the fairy dust, there are some dark consequences and raised stakes, not to mention moral dilemmas.
Brave Story is translated from Japanese, and was made into an animated movie in its country of origin. I’ve never seen the animated movie, but I think it’s important to point out that not all books receive their own movie, nor are they translated into other languages. (Especially when you consider the fact that Brave Story is the size of a small tome.)
In other words, Brave Story is good stuff.
Have you read any of these books? If so, what did you think of them? If you haven’t already, would you be interested in reading any of them? Finally, any book recommendations for me?
WARNING: This post contains copious amounts of TV Tropes. Proceed at your own peril. You have been warned.
When I was a kid, I devoured books. This changed when I became an adult, privy to all the distractions of fancy technological distractions. Like blogs! So I’m proud of myself for recently reviving my love of reading, and I’ve realized that part of my problem was that I had a horrible methodology for finding new books. Because all that stuff about cups of tea?
Tea + cups with mustaches = my kind of thing
You see, there are books that aren’t my thing. Good books! Great books, even. I’ve been lucky; I haven’t read that many bad books, but what I have read a lot of are books that were Just Not For Me. For a while, I assumed that I would enjoy all bound collections of paper with printed words, and this worked about as well as one might expect. I’d pick up a book, read about halfway, become despondent, and fret that I was no longer a reader.
But. BUT. I am still a reader. A voracious reader. And there are books – lots of books – that I personally believe the universe wrote Just For Me.
The universe always has time for Annalise!
So how did I find books that were written just for me? Well, I’ve taken to reading blogs. Blogs about books. And I’ve discovered that sometimes, on the Internet, people recommend books that they enjoyed. And there are usually reasons for this, such as: the book is good. And if I trust the blogger, and I know that the blogger likes the kind of things that I like, then I will go out and get these books and devour them with tea.
So! Internet. Here are three books that I enjoyed recently. Maybe they’re your cup of tea, too. (And I would appreciate more book recommendations in the comments. Just sayin’.)
Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham
- Amazon summary: “Max “the Wolf” is a top notch Boy Scout, an expert at orienteering and a master of being prepared. So it is a little odd that he suddenly finds himself, with no recollection of his immediate past, lost in an unfamiliar wood. Even odder still, he encounters a badger named Banderbrock, a black bear named Walden, and McTavish the Monster (who might also be an old barn cat)—all of whom talk—and who are as clueless as Max.”
Bill Willingham is famous for writing Fables, an epic fairy tale comic that I’m sad to say I’m not too familiar with. Down the Mysterly River makes me wish I were familiar, because I’m kind of addicted to his writing.
For me, the charm of the book comes down to three main facets:
The characters. All four main characters are memorable. Especially McTavish the Monster, who I’ve written about. If you’ve forgotten, here’s what I said:
“If Salem just feigns at being evil and/or wicked, McTavish actively IS evil and/or wicked. He’s also, unlike most talking cats, actually a cat and not just some other thing masquerading as a cat, which means that his particular brand of evil cat logic is so catlike that anyone passingly familiar with cats will have to smile (or grimace) and nod. McTavish is also hilarious, largely due to the fact that he’s a bad guy forced to work with good guys, and there are just so many conversations where you can hear the crickets chirping after McTavish suggested a particularly sadistic/evil/wicked/cruel/callous solution to a problem.
McTavish is the fiction character you never knew you needed.”
The second charming thing? Clever references to children’s genres. Part of what makes the characters so charming – and what I think is ultimately the selling point of the book – is that each character is a reference to a particular type of children’s book, and character POVs are written in the style of the books they’re referencing. If you’ve read a lot of children’s books, then Down the Mysterly River should be a nostalgic experience for you.
And the third wonderful, charming thing?
The pictures. They’re drawn by Fables artist Mark Buckingham, and they’re gorgeous. Behold:
Plain Kate by Erin Bow
- Amazon summary: “Plain Kate lives in a world of superstitions and curses, where a song can heal a wound and a shadow can work deep magic. As the wood-carver’s daughter, Kate held a carving knife before a spoon, and her wooden charms are so fine that some even call her “witch-blade” — a dangerous nickname in a town where witches are hunted and burned in the square.”
Few books are as beautifully written as Plain Kate. Erin Bow is a poet and a novelist, and it shows. (Here are some excerpted poems, if you’re interested.) But I’ve read novels by poets before, and sometimes the story suffers. Not so here – in Plain Kate, Erin Bow has crafted a suspenseful, exciting tale. But the attraction of Plain Kate isn’t just that the sentences and plot are good. Plain Kate is essentially a story about grief, and it has a powerful emotional undercurrent.
The Maze Runner by James Dashner
- Amazon summary: “When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. His memory is blank. But he’s not alone. When the lift’s doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade—a large, open expanse surrounded by stone walls.” Annalise’s addendums: “And the Glade is part of a maze. Like, a big maze. A maze that you can run in! And there are gigantic monster-things that attack them, so they have to run fast.”
I used to be able to devour 400 page books in a single day on a regular basis. Nowadays, I have the attention span of a fruit fly that just found ALL THE FRUIT. Therefore, books that I finish in a single day are rare. But The Maze Runner? Yeah, I finished that shit in a single night, a feat previously reserved for Harry-Freaking Potter. The Maze Runner is what scholars commonly refer to as an OMGPAGE-TURNER.
If you’re a writer, I recommend reading this book to help learn about stakes, foreshadowing, cliffhangers, as well as ways to use information and clues to intrigue and entice the reader. If you’re a reader, then I just recommend reading this because do it already.
My only gripe is that for a book called The Maze Runner, there’s actually a minimal amount of running in mazes. At least by the main character.
Anyway, apparently Hollywood agrees with me about the gripping story bit, because a movie is in the works. And I’m pretty okay with that.
Are these books you might want to read? Or have you read any of these books – and if so, what did you think of them?
But most importantly -