Review – Crown Duel

Crown Duel – Sherwood Smith

Firebird, 2002

Originally published as Crown Duel (1997) and Court Duel (1998)

When the nobility of Remalna won’t act against the growing greed and corruption of their king, the penniless young Countess Meliara Astior of Tlanth and her peaceable older brother Branaric decide they must take action themselves – but the king is quick to bring the war to their door. With the mysterious Marquis of Shevraeth leading the royal forces, Meliara’s beloved mountains become a battleground and she is soon embroiled in a perilous game of cat-and-mouse, where the rules are always changing and nothing is as clear-cut as she thought it was.

Though Crown Duel was originally published as two separate novels, it works much better as one divided into two distinct parts. Meliara is an enjoyably spiky, defiant protagonist, but the narrative works against her – she’s sidelined from some of the big events in the story and there’s a constant irritating emphasis on her getting into trouble by misunderstanding situations, even when her reasoning is logical and the fault really lies with others. The world-building is strong, with a distinct sense of a different culture and lovely little references to the history and literature of Remalna. It’s also very refreshing to see a fantasy world where sexism barely exists.

Not Your Moral Metaphors

Trigger warning: references to abuse

Vampirism is a good metaphor for abuse. Vampires, as they are popularly written, are charming and seductive, but they can drain the life out of you. It is in fact a comparison used to describe an unhappy marriage in the 2007BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Vampires are also a staple element in paranormal fantasy, where they are the blood-drinking undead. Herein lies the conflict: in fantasy, what might otherwise be a metaphor becomes a logical plot point. You don’t need psychiatric treatment, there are actually demons in your house. Your estranged parents really are evil. Your boyfriend is not cheating on you, he’s leading the double life of a superhero. To judge a character accurately, you have to take their context into account, and that context might have only the most tangential relationship to the normal world.

I am not remotely qualified for an in-depth discussion about abusive behaviours symptomatic in popular literature. I am a lifelong reader of speculative fiction who thinks psychological analysis of fantasy can be taken too far.

Yesterday, I encountered two articles which break down aspects of Stephenie Meyer’s paranormal romance phenomenon Twilight. I found both well-reasoned, thought-provoking and intelligent. The personal experiences of Ms Mardoll are particularly saddening, and it’s incredibly brave of her to write about them. I can absolutely understand how a book like Twilight might be triggering for her.

But I also disagree with both interpretations. Particularly when Mardoll starts describing Meyer’s readership. Whilst theoretically defending them against the insultingly laughable idea that they all seek abusive relationships, she perpetuates the same idea: this book is bad. People who like it are naïve or in denial.

Longtime readers of this blog will know I’ve talked about my feelings on this subject before, and will realise how annoyed I am now. I like Twilight. I wouldn’t count it as an all-time favourite, but I really enjoyed all four books and was interested enough to locate the draft of Midnight Sun, a reworking of the first book told from Edward’s perspective, posted by Meyer online. Watching the movies introduced me to the music of Linkin Park and Paramore. I have good feelings for Twilight.

I’m also fed up to the back teeth with having to defend myself for that, but as I can, I will. So let’s analyse this series from the angle I see it. Be warned, it will take a while.

Edward Cullen is incredibly fast and strong. He can read minds, even the minds of other vampires, allowing him to glimpse the future through his adoptive sister Alice, which makes him virtually omnipresent. He has been alive for almost a century and has good odds at outlasting modern civilisation as we know it. He has occupied that time by collecting languages like he collects CDs, learning an instrument and going through high school so many times that it’s become a mindless chore. Oh, also, he’s going to remain a stunningly attractive seventeen year old FOREVER.

This is because he is a vampire.

On the flipside, the only interactions he has with human beings are based around maintaining the deception that he’s one of them, he lives with an adoptive family of superpowered recovering blood addicts, and is convinced God hates him. This is the context for his character. How do you expect him to behave?

Like a mind-blowingly arrogant jerk, actually. He’s thoughtless, immature and stuck in an unnaturally extended adolescence, accustomed to thinking he’s better than everyone else (because, superpowers) and that his judgement is infallible (because, omnipresence).

He’s not alone, either. All Meyer’s vampires behave this way. They are carnivorous gods in a world of oblivious mortals; it would be weird if they didn’t. Edward is a different species to Bella, with the alien cultural rules that implies. His first reaction on meeting her is to think: how odd, why can’t I read her mind? The next is: BLOOD. Edward spends the first class of their acquaintance fighting the urge to rip her throat out. He manages to resist, but it’s a close thing. When the situation is explained to them, as seen in Midnight Sun, his family are concerned, not outraged. They are literally a drug addict’s recovery group (Edward describes the lure of blood as being like a heroin addiction), offering ways for him to avoid falling off the wagon but accepting it’s a very real possibility that he might.

Because they are vampires. Even relatively nice vampires have questionable consciences when it comes to human lives. By the standard of his contemporaries, it would be perfectly natural for Edward to abduct, murder and devour Bella within minutes of meeting her. Raised by his pacifistic mentor Carlisle, Edward doesn’t want to do that – but at the same time, he really does.

This does not make it an okay thing. It’s a really, really awful thing! It’s also not a metaphor. To be a vampire means drinking blood; in Meyer’s world, at least, there is no opting out.

This may be the first time in decades that Edward has been confused. He doesn’t handle it well. He convinces himself not to kill Bella, but between her inexplicable unreadability, her mouthwatering scent and the amazing bad luck that dogs her everywhere, he becomes obsessive. His actions are, undeniably, stalkerish and unacceptable. Does it make sense, within his context? I think it does. Edward has a rigid personality. He’s overprotective, judgemental, paternalistic, and completely out of his comfort zone in the modern human world. If Bella finds it hard to relate to people, Edward takes introversion to extraordinary lengths.

Still, being in an unusually enlightened position of knowing just how dangerous the world can be, Edward appoints himself as Bella’s unlikely guardian angel. Is it an excuse to justify the stalking to himself? Probably. Is it useful? Hell, yes. Bella is often in danger. From Edward’s perspective, she is as ephemeral as a butterfly. In consequence, once he decides to risk getting to know her, he wants to know EVERYTHING. She’s the first person he’s had to question in about a century, it’s a bit exciting. He goes absurdly overboard.

As for Bella, he’s this hot supernatural mystery man who frets about her safety and likes the same music. He’s intelligent, generous to a fault, capable and willing to defend her from all harm. She gets on brilliantly with most of his family. Best of all, she could become a superpowered goddess too! She doesn’t actually like being clumsy and disaster-prone; it’s Edward who finds that endearingly unusual. Bella wants to be strong. She wants to be a vampire.

Some people, carrying the Mary Sue metaphor to an extreme, have labelled Bella as religious just because Stephenie Meyer is. They are wrong. Bella is a vague agnostic; she finds magic easier to believe in than hell. Edward is the religious one, and given that he was born in America in 1901, this should not be too surprising.

At the prospect of Bella turning into one of the damned undead, like himself, Edward falls into a flailing mess. He chooses to pretend he was never in love with her at all, hoping she’ll hate him so much she’ll be glad he’s out of her life. Not content with dragging his family away from their home as part of his stupid plan, he then traumatises them by attempting suicide the only way a vampire can, by picking a fight with vampirical law enforcement. He gets it wrong in every single way he could, and goes on getting it wrong when he gets his relationship back together, first by trying to stop Bella seeing her werewolf friends, then by trying to make her abort their baby.

In no possible way are either of those things okay.

It’s important to remember, though, that in both of the latter situations Bella is essentially courting suicide. Teenage werewolves are notoriously volatile, and the most probable explanation for her impossible pregnancy and its unnaturally swift progression is that she’s carrying a monster for which her human body is completely unprepared. Edward, who has lived in the supernatural world a whole lot longer than her, has a set of cast-iron preconceptions that require systematic dismantling before he can believe this thing is not going to kill her. This is a world of extremes. Ordinary human problems, like messy break-ups and unplanned pregnancies, have a tendency to snowball into a carnival of death.

So Bella, who understands that but is willing to take the risk, recruits assistance from her support network to get her through the pregnancy. Edward was right; to all intents and purposes, it does kill her. Edward was wrong; by getting the timing just so, Bella keeps both her baby and her life. She takes that final step she’s been dreaming of pretty much since she met him and becomes a vampire herself.

In Breaking Dawn she’s finally Edward’s physical equal, capable of defending herself against pretty much anything the world has to throw at her. Oh, and she has to fight off an army who come to kill her baby, because disaster follows Bella everywhere. Edward, in his turn, has to learn to trust her, even when her decision-making seems counter-intuitive to him. Time and time again he is struck by the staggering realisation that he is not always right. He has to learn to negotiate, to debate things, to change his mind. He has to grow up.

Did Meyer have to write her vampires this way? No, of course not. Is Edward challenged enough for crossing Bella’s boundaries? Again, I’d say no. Do these negative elements cancel out the positive ones? I don’t believe so.

Analysing problematic aspects in any type of media is valuable. I do it myself with every review I write. Books such as Laurell K. Hamilton’s ‘Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter’ series and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness contain comparable characters – immensely powerful vampires each seeking to control his human love interest, including stalking, drugging and physically threatening her – and I’ve discussed elsewhere how uncomfortable those characters make me.

I feel differently about Twilight. In part that’s because Bella is a slightly directionless teenager, not a grown woman with pre-existing plans for her life – becoming a vampire is a reasoned decision that she makes for herself, not something forced on her by Edward. Quite the opposite, actually. When she really cares about something, she does it regardless of what he thinks (i.e. reconnecting with the werewolves, keeping the baby, maintaining communication with her father even after her transformation). It’s also important to me that he can’t use at least one of his powers on her, and by the end of Breaking Dawn, he has no physical or supernatural advantage over her at all. By then an isolated, insecure girl has developed into a confident, capable woman with a husband who loves, admires and trusts her, and a network of good friends.

I get something very positive out of this story. I understand that not everyone will. Discussing different interpretations of a book is every reader’s right.

But that’s not what’s happening with Twilight. An immensely popular series has been critically degraded to the point where the readers who love it are ridiculed by people who should know better and vastly insulting assumptions are made about them as a result.

The articles that kicked all this off were not, I am sure, intended to be a part of that. They are considered arguments from people who have actually read the books, an approach I appreciate and respect. What I feel both writers failed to do was take into account the fantastical elements of the story, and the ways in which that might affect resulting interactions. They are judging Edward as a human teenager, and he’s not. That doesn’t justify inappropriate behaviour, but it does go some way towards explaining it, and I think most readers instinctively recognise that, particularly pre-existing fans of speculative fiction.

I’m not saying the writer of either article is wrong, either. Everyone who reads a book will get something different out of it. I, for instance, am not a huge fan of William Shakespeare. I find it difficult to see past the misogyny and historical inaccuracies. Charles Dickens is a bit too flowery for my taste. That doesn’t mean I can’t see the immense skill that went into their work, or accept that other people love them in a way I do not.

But of course, they are men. They are classics. It’s much easier to dismiss a woman, a modern writer yet to develop that patina of respectability that only time can provide; it’s easy to belittle a fantasy series about a teenage girl in love. I imagine that a great many people will be outraged by my making the comparison at all. To which I want to say: no one is making you read what’s popular now. No one is taking the classics away – in fact, the authors I refer to are very much respected by modern audiences, if the number of large-scale theatre productions and BBC dramas are anything to go by. But the story you need will not necessarily be the story someone else needs. And their need is every bit as important as yours. If you don’t like the book, for pity’s sake, just put it down.

For those who find Twilight genuinely troubling, it is your right to feel that way, and to talk about it. That’s healthy. But don’t run down other people for not seeing the same thing you did and feeling the same way. It’s unkind and unhelpful. And it’s my right to say so.

Review No.11 – Tallow

Tallow – Karen Brooks
Random House, 2011

I love winning things. Who doesn’t? This is the second book I have won after participating in the giveaways on Rowena Cory Daniells’ blog (the first being Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth, the review of which I posted not so long ago). Karen Brooks may be a familiar name to readers of Queensland newspaper The Courier Mail, in which she has a regular column. Tallow is the first book in her YA trilogy, ‘The Curse of the Bond Riders’.

In the canal-laced city of Serenissima there are legends of the Estrattore, a people once venerated, now all but extinct after a religious purge. Only an impoverished candlemaker and his embittered mother know that the child they call Tallow, raised to be an apprentice in their shop, is one of that outlawed race. Even they, however, cannot imagine what the foundling may become, and at what price the secret must be kept. Because the power of an Estrattore is a prize indeed, and Tallow is being hunted.

Tallow opens very slowly with an overused premise – a remarkable infant, a secret prophecy, a humble peasant in the right place at the right time. It only really hits stride about halfway through when my preferred characters, the enigmatically creepy Giaconda and Ezzelino, emerge to make their mark. In fact, this book’s greatest strength lies in the moral complexity of its characters. Unusual relationships and complicated motives make it difficult to predict what they might do next. Even those that on the surface appear cliched (e.g., the humble peasant) are capable of surprises. The final few chapters build to a dramatic climax that promises a very different twist to the continuing story in book two, Votive. ‘The Curse of the Bond Riders’ concludes in the recently released third book of the trilogy, Illumination.