The Curse of the Terrible Magician

Ahh, the rubbish hero. When did this become the key trope in YA fantasy? Oh wait, I know. It was Harry Potter.

Look, I understand that there would be little fun in someone discovering they have magic powers and mastering them straightaway. I understand that, for most of the characters I’m going to discuss here, developing the ability to actually use their abilities is a fundamental part of their story. I completely grasp all these things. It is just that, on reading anything taking place in a magical setting, I now groan audibly every time someone who previously had no powers suddenly discovers they do and proceeds to spend the next four hundred pages complaint about how crap they are at using them.

dorothyTake Amy Gumm, from Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die series. First of all, let me
make it clear that I really enjoy these books; I dig the inversion of Oz into a dystopian horror-show and Paige’s writing has really made me re-examine L. Frank Baum’s original novel as well as the film. But there is something ever so slightly tiresome about Amy, who is pretty whingy at the best of times, complaining about how rubbish she is at magic.

How about Alina from Shadow and Bone? She’s grown up in awe of the Grisha, the shadow.jpgmagical people who populate Leigh Bardugo’s writing, and suddenly finds out she’s one of them. She has a reasonably cool power that is something to do with creating light (okay, I’ll admit I can’t completely remember what Alina’s power is all about. I’ll Google it), which is obviously super-important in a world where darkness appears to be taking over. But like Amy, she spends way too much time complaining about her teachers and how completely unreasonable they are to try and, you know, teach her stuff. Seriously, people, just make notes when you’re in a lesson. It’s really not that complicated.

glassswordIf you’ve read Red Queen (and Glass Sword too), you’ve probably been shouting the words “MARE BARROW” for the last five minutes, possibly while rocking back and forwards and shuddering. Yes, Mare is the standard-bearer for being rubbish at magic and being in a mood about it. Elsewhere, I’ve gently suggested that Red Queen is basically The Hunger Games with less appealing characters, but a major point on which it diverts in its use of magic. The world of Norta is divided into Reds (normal people with poorly constructed houses) and Silvers (kings and rich people and stuff) who have a dizzying array of magical powers. Early in Red Queen, Mare discovers she has somehow got magic powers too, involving something that doesn’t actually seem particularly helpful. Mare spends an inordinate amount of time bitching about being taught anything, including how to fight (oh wait, this bit is like The Hunger Games too then) and is too absorbed in moaning about everything to actually learn how to do anything constructive with her powers.

I am going to forgive Simon Snow from Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On for being a bit shit carry on.jpgat magic because, firstly, that’s kind of the point, and secondly, the whole thing is parodying Harry Potter and he is the original crap magician. Also, the other stuff going on in Carry On, principally Simon’s relationship with Baz, is much more interesting anyway. Mercifully, Carry On picks up Simon’s story towards the end of his magical journey, so most of his attempts to master his powers are elided anyway, and we get to see the more interesting aspects of the story, like Simon accepting that he is rubbish at magic.

The thing which, I think, annoys me most about this over-used trope is that, however much these rubbish magicians struggle with their powers, it seems to be the case that, as soon as they are threatened, they suddenly and unaccountably manage to use them effectively. This makes no sense. I recently read a YA fantasy book which will remain nameless to avoid spoilers, and at the exact moment when I thought ‘I am so pleased that this book is avoiding the annoying oh-wait-I-am-magic-now situation,’ that is exactly what happened and I wanted to scream. Also, usually people are not good at things the first time they try them. I, for example, am a horrible snowboarder. The

cheshire.jpg

See, terrible magicians: PRACTICE.

first time I made my daughter’s Cheshire Cat birthday cake, it was a disaster. I do not know the words to Taylor Swift songs the first time I hear them. But I practised these things (except the snowboarding, which I gave up instantly because it was a horrible way to spend time) and I got good at them. I did not complain about having to do this, because I am not a moron.

Please, YA fantasy authors of the world, write a book about a character who discovers they have magic powers and then works really hard in an uncomplaining fashion to master them. Perhaps they use Powerpoint to give useful presentations, or we see them making revision notes on Post-Its or something. But, for the sake of my sanity, can we just have one book in which nobody is shocked to discover they are magic and then moans a lot about not being instantly good at things. Please and thank you.

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Crown of Midnight: Post-reading Thoughts

SPOILER ALERT!
I AM GOING TO TALK ABOUT THE WHOLE OF CROWN OF MIDNIGHT HERE!
SPOILER ALERT!

crownI am now two books into the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas and I urgently need someone to talk to about these books. I have a lot of intense and confusing feelings which I need to get off my chest. Is there such a thing as a reading therapist? Someone you can go and talk to about your feelings for fictional characters? If this doesn’t exist, it should. I might invent it.

I don’t want to write a standard review of Crown of Midnight, because everything I need to say would be a spoiler and that’s very bad review etiquette. So please don’t read this if you haven’t read Crown of Midnight and are planning to. I do not want to ruin your reading life (particularly since, as we have established, there is no psychiatric professional waiting to help you through such a crisis).

Chaol
Firstly, I think Chaol is my favourite thing in this series so far. I like his stoicism and principled nature. I respect that he has taken the more difficult and dangerous option by working as the Captain of the Guards rather than claiming his birthright. His loyalty to Celaena, even after she’s tried to murder him, is very endearing. I wish people still loved me after I tried to murder them.

Nehemia/Archer
I have a really bad habit of rushing through the last 100 pages of books; by that point I’ve usually started thinking about the next thing I want to read, and this is generally when all the action starts happening. Or it is time for me to go to bed so I have to read quickly or fall asleep halfway through a sentence. Anyway, what all this means is that I finished Crown of Midnight still slightly confused about who was double-crossing who. So Nehemia was a baddie? This is all very unsettling. WHO CAN WE TRUST? Shouldn’t Celaena, greatest badass in the kingdom, be a little savvier about this kind of stuff? It was also a little disappointing to me that the book seemed to back up a school of thought I do not care for: that girls who are only friends with boys are better off. What about the sisterhood?

Wyrdmarks/Wyrdness/The whole Wyrd thing
First of all, I think I have been pronouncing this word incorrectly in my head the whole time. Does it rhyme with “word” or “weird”? Aside from this hugely important problem, I realised while all the nonsense about the king having Wyrd or being Wyrd or whatever, that all this stuff about eyes and keys is basically Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Has nobody in Adarlan read this series? Why have they not all been looking for horcuxes or hallows (it has always annoyed me that both of these things were in the same book, reducing the final part of the Harry Potter series to what should have been called Harry Potter and the Hunt for Random Stuff) all along? I don’t know if this a really obvious point because I am desperately trying to avoid internet chat about Throne of Glass while I’m reading the series.

Celaena
Thanks to all the people who refer to Celaena as Aelin in blog posts without spoiler warnings, as soon as the lost heir’s name came up I knew what it took Chaol the whole book to figure out. Which is a bit disappointing. From the ending, I assume Celaena has known this all along, which does make me a bit confused; wouldn’t telling someone this have got her out of Endovier sooner? Equally, I suppose it might have got her killed. Anyway, I felt like a fairly massive piece of information to drop in without further discussion. I assume it gets more focus in Heir of Fire, which I shall be turning my attention to in March. I really like Celaena; I’ve seen her described as arrogant in other blog posts, but I don’t see it as a negative thing that she knows exactly what she’s worth. Although the two books I’ve read so far have strayed into love triangle territory (SOUND THE YA CLICHE KLAXON), it has all been on Celaena’s terms and that’s something I like. I also enjoy the fact that she reads books, sleeps a lot and enjoys a chocolate cake now and then. These are all aspects I can relate to.

I think these are all the pressing issues which have been buzzing around my brain sine finishing Crown of Midnight. I am forcing myself to read everything on my February TBR before I am allowed to read Heir of Fire. I’d also appreciate advice on when’s best to read The Assassin’s Blade; should I now wait until I’ve finished Queen of Shadows, or would it increase my enjoyment of the next two novels (and the one coming out later this year) if I wait to read the novellas?

 

It’s All About the Mice: Rodent Domination in Children’s Books

This is a bit weird, but stay with me. It will make sense in a minute.

mice 1

The mice are even taking over my house. They have already got my daughter: send help.

So, I spend a lot of time reading books with my three-year-old daughter. She does not seem to share my intense bookworm qualities just yet, but this is probably a good thing as maybe it means she will develop social skills and things.  Anyway, I have come to a groundbreaking and possibly world-changing realisation: mice are the rulers of the world.

See, I told you that you’d think it was weird. I’m right though.

Let’s begin with Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s ultimate money-maker, The Gruffalo. The mouse manages to trick three significant predators, all of whom are bigger than him and really hungry. He then appears to conjure up an actual monster, merely through THE POWER OF HIS IMAGINATION, and manages to hoodwink him too. Then he does all this again in the sequel. The mouse is an evil genius.

My small human is also very fond of a particular cute book called Just Like You (by Jan Fearnley), which features a little mouse and his mum walking home, witnessing all the other animal parents telling their babies how much they do for them. It’s a level of competitive parenting which you generally have to go on Facebook to witness. So little mouse gets home and basically says, “mum, you suck. You can’t fly and you aren’t a fox. What is the point of you?” And then she owns him. The moral of the story: don’t question the mothering skills of a mouse.

mice 2.jpg

Representing the ladies in the category of mouse fiction is Posy, the eponymous heroine of the Pip and Posy books by Axel Scheffler. These are probably the simplest stories imaginable, with Pip and Posy enduring many life-changing experiences like falling out with each other over a snowman, and that time Pip did a wee on the floor and Posy gave him a dress to wear (these are very diverse stories, you know). Posy has a can-do attitude which I like, although her inability to sleep without a cuddly frog does suggest some attachment issues which I hope Scheffler will address in a future story.

You know how you suddenly find a book in your house and look at it suspiciously, thinking, “where did you come from?” Marcello Mouse and the Masked Ball (by Julie Monks) is an example of this. I cannot remember how this book found its way into my house, but I do know that my daughter, who cannot even read, knows the whole thing by heart, including voices and varying levels of volume to express the deep levels of emotion conveyed in the story of brave Marcello, desperate to attend a ball full of cats just so he can show off his slick moves.

What is it with mice? Why are they so beloved of children’s authors when, if you found one in your house unexpectedly, you probably wouldn’t invite it for dinner? Is it because they are smaller than children and, consequently, non-threatening? Maybe the stereotypical view that they all squeak endearingly is the reason for their ubiquity in children’s fiction. The only other species to be so widely represented and largely loved are, I think penguins and rabbits. I hereby announce my intention to write a bestselling series of kids’ books about a mouse, a penguin and a bunny, probably all living in a wood and having innocuous adventures. Nobody steal my idea.

Here’s the irony; having written this lengthy post about how all children’s books are about mice, my daughter asked for a book about cows tonight. Ah, the fleeting passions of childhood.

Tie Your Mother Down: Terrible Mums in Literature

Has anyone else noticed that mothers get really bad press in pretty much all forms of literature? From YA to the classics, with plenty of examples in literary fiction, it seems to me that if you’re a character in a book and you decide to have a kid, you are going to end up getting blamed for a lot of crap.

dorothy.jpgLet’s talk about some of the terrible mothers in recent YA fiction. The mothers in Dorothy Must Die and Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls are both drinkers, rendering themselves incapable of caring for their daughters properly; in the case of Danielle Paige’s book, we are two novels and a handful of novellas in, and still unaware of whether Amy Gumm’s mum has noticed that she’s gone. We also have ineffectual mothers, like Mrs Everdeen in The Hunger Games and Jonah’s mum in When We Collided by Emery Lord, both incapacitated by grief for their dead husbands, leaving the childcare and housework to their teenage offspring. Even in my adored Mosquitoland by David Arnold, we see the absent and incapacitated mother, with the extra treat of a hated stepmother. One of the most horrific examples in contemporary YA, for me, is Emma’s mum in Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It: a woman who somehow manages to turn her daughter’s rape and humiliation on social media into her own private trauma, showing no empathy for Emma. This one made me particularly annoyed.

Then there are the mothers who show an insufficient amount of interest in their nesschildren. Mikey’s mum in The Rest of Us Just Live Here is career-focused and thus completely absent; I love Patrick Ness and I understand the need for parents to be neglectful in order for teen characters to get up to anything exciting, but I wish working mums got slightly better press. In Jenn Bennett’s Night Owls (or The Anatomical Shape of a Heart if you’re in the US), Beatrix’s single mother works nights, and this means that she has no idea what either of her kids are up to. To take an example from adult fiction, Eva Khatchadourian from We Need to Talk About Kevin also focuses on her career; Eva had to be persuaded to have a child in the first place, and returns to her career as the founder of a series of travel guides as soon as she is able. Refreshingly, Lionel Shriver doesn’t demonise her for this, but the novel does pose questions about whether psycho killers are born or made, and Eva herself questions the extent to which her mothering influence turned Kevin into a murderer. We Need to Talk About Kevin is, incidentally, one of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read and almost singlehandedly put me off having children. Also on my list of terrible mothers is Marilyn from Everything I Never Told You, who, having given up her own ambitions to become a doctor, goes above and beyond normal levels of parental encouragement, bullying Lydia into achieving what she never did. And if you’ve read Celeste Ng’s book, you’ll know exactly how well that turned out.

Terrible mothers aren’t a new invention; in my beloved Victorian novels, the mothers who manage not to succumb to death in childbirth tend to fall into the category of ‘interfering and overbearing’ or ‘aloof and inattentive.’ So, not much has changed since the 19th century, then. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell features one of literature’s greatest examples of passive-aggression in Mrs Gibson, who loves talking about what a brilliant mother she is, usually after doing something resembling the actions of a rubbish mother. This martyr-ish attitude can be seen earlier, too, in the infamous Mrs Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, although repeated readings of Austen’s book do lead one to wonder whether Mrs Bennet doesn’t just genuinely want the best for her daughters, acknowledging that they don’t have that many options in society and that her husband is literally no use whatsoever.

NotifKilling off a mother is often an essential trope in fiction, with life without her having a formative effect on her children. I’ll Give You the Sun, for example, shows a mother clearly playing favourites and then dying, presumably as some kind of punishment from the literary gods of fairness. Not If I See You First and How Many Letters Are in Goodbye? also utilise the helpful trope of dead mothers, with the protagonists physically and psychologically damaged in the wake of their loss. The Girl from Everywhere takes a dead mother as the central point of the story, with the novel’s time travel plot entirely focused on bringing her back. Rebel of the Sands, so progressive in so many ways, also makes use of a dead mother (even better – se killed the dad too!) to place its heroine in greater peril.

So what conclusions can we draw? Do authors just think that no character can do anything novel-worthy if they have access to motherly heart-to-hearts and Taylor Swift singalongs (my particular brand of brilliant mothering, right there)? Think of fairytales; mothers are usually dead, and stepmothers are all evil, and then adventures happen. I put it to you, the Supreme Court of the Bookish Web, that mothers are the most maligned archetype in fiction and this needs to be addressed. As a mother myself, I would be quite pleased to see my equivalent in a novel actually doing some parenting; perhaps taking care of their child’s physical and spiritual needs, whilst simultaneously being hilarious without also being a crippling embarrassment? I fear for my life in a world where teenagers can apparently only live interesting lives if their mum is dead or unable to get out of bed.

Which fictional mothers have you speed-dialling social services? Did any of these characters particularly annoy you too? And are there fictional mums who make you think, “damn, I wish you were my mother” (to badly paraphrase a ’90s Sophie B. Hawkins song)?

Also, I’m linking up with the Discussion Challenge; you should check out all the posts on Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts at Midnight. It is super-fun.