At Terrible Minds, Chuck Wendig writes about Mad Max: Fury Road and Game of Thrones. “So, two very popular storyworlds. Two portrayals of a world where women hold dubious power and are seen as ‘things.’ One of these is roundly criticized for it. One of them is roundly celebrated for it. Game of Thrones catches hell for its portrayal of women and this subject. Mad Max is wreathed in a garland of bike chains and hubcabs for it. What, then, is the difference? Let’s try to suss it out.”
Posted July 24, 2014
Stories are important, we all know this. I hasten to add: and they should be fun too, otherwise why bother reading them? Every once in a while, I run across a new author that balances “something to say” and “have fun saying it” in a way that really appeals to me. This year, that author has been Carrie Vaughn.
The Child of Wonder Woman and Superman is a Forensic Accountant Who Loves Her Job
Earlier this year, I ran across the first chapter of a book by an author whose name I didn’t know. I was instantly hooked, as if this was a book written just for me. You can read the first chapter of After the Golden Age yourself on Vaughn’s website but be prepared to really want to keep reading.
Celia is the child of Spark and Captain Olympus, the foremost superheroes of Commerce City (and pretty clear analogues to the superheroes mentioned above). More than anything, she wants to have her own life, and try to pick up the pieces of a childhood shattered by her father’s realization that she doesn’t have any powers. Inevitably, she gets caught up in the latest misfortunes that befall the city; personal consequences include a love triangle, betrayal and treachery, hidden secrets, and a generous dose of freelance forensic accounting (Celia is laid off from her job once all this hits the headlines, but can’t help her urge to fight crime in the only way she knows how).
Celia-as-protagonist provides some much-needed fresh air in a genre filled with muscle-bound doofuses and angsty d-bags. Captain Olympus is like a vision straight from Frank Miller’s id, and like even the briefest examination would reveal, living with that kind of jerkbrain is seriously unpleasant. Celia has her exciting moments, and she is the main driver of quite an interesting plot, but all that is underpinned by an intensely scathing narration of what it’s like to try and become a normal human being as the child of a emotionally deficient “hero.” So this is a story about superheroes, with all the advantages that kind of story provides in making a colourful and entertaining adventure, but put together in a way that skirts around the limitations of said stories.
Once I had finished reading After the Golden Age, I tracked down as many of Vaughn’s other book as I could. The sequel, Dreams of the Golden Age, is pretty good too! She is known for her Kitty series (thirteen books and counting, with a spin-off novel just released), about a werewolf named Kitty who has her own radio show. I read the first three; urban fantasy is not my thing, so I didn’t go any further, but I enjoyed the solid storytelling and interesting subversion of stereotype. Vaughn’s thoughts on the role of women in urban fantasy and the nature of its popularity are worth checking out.Two of her other books, Discord’s Apple (Greek mythology in a terrorist-filled near future) and Voices of Dragons (YA protagonist talks to dragons) were an ambitious expansion of the scope of her books, but again not my personal favourites. That brings me to Vaughn’s other YA novel, Steel.
Lest Pirates Fall (to the Amazing Prowess of My Sword)
Steel is, for lack of a better word, awesome. This is the exact kind of book I loved to read when I was a kid and adventure novels were fresh and funny and dangerous; Steel is like magically finding a new book from that childhood (or one that didn’t get hit by the suck fairy upon re-reading).Jill is a teenage girl and amateur fencer who gets magicked back to the era of pirates. The logic of the sequence is fairly sound (Jill finds a broken piece of a rapier on the beach, something that a non-fencer might not have recognized, and it’s this shard that sends her back), but it’s still pretty convenient in an admirable and plot-efficient way. For the popular destinations of getting booted back in time–the pirate era, ancient Rome, the Jurassic–fencing is a much better skill to have than most of us possess in our specialized modern careers. I like my day-job, but what do I say when I’m stuck on a pirate deck facing a crowd of angry ruffians? I get the feeling that “hey, let me optimize the UI of your small-company database” wouldn’t get me very far (maybe I should strategically take up some different hobbies, just in case?).I like that Steel is a stripped down version of Vaughn’s other books–shorter, simpler–but no less effective. Jill is a fun character, faces adversity, comes out triumphant, and so on; none of this is surprising or shocking stuff, but it’s very skilfully put to use in her books.
Female Characters, Strong and Otherwise
I really appreciate the character arcs for Celia and Jill; it’s refreshing to read an entertaining genre story without wincing about some random sexist bullcrap. This is something I think about more (or at least, more so than I used to) now that I have two daughters myself. It’s true that we are in the Frozen and Maleficent era, an era which is, if not entirely perfect, at least much different than it used to be. A few other links: Vaughn on female characters in “male” roles, The Dissolve on female characters with nothing interesting to do, and New Statesman on lack of variety in so-called strong female characters*.
*On a completely different note, if you would like to hear the “epic 20 track emotional sci fi fantasy adventure based in an expansive world set in an alternate future” (!), here it is: Programma.
James Schellenberg was Science Fiction Editor at the Gutter from 2003-2013. Holy cats, that’s a million years in internet time!