by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Books”

Strong Girls for Girl Readers: Part Three

Posted 22 June 2009 in by Catriona

(Part one of this series is here and part two is here.)

For part three in this intermittent series, I’m looking at one of my favourite princesses: Princess Irene in George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (1872).

This is one that I read many, many years ago and keep coming back to—this and, to a much lesser extent, its sequel, The Princess and Curdie (1883). Like Lewis Carroll, Macdonald is one of my formative literary influences.

(On a slightly unrelated note, have I mentioned how much George Macdonald looks like Grigori Rasputin? Because it’s more than a little disturbing, that similarity. Every time I look at the page, I wonder whether someone’s uploaded a picture of Rasputin to Macdonald’s page for a laugh.)

None of that, of course, is relevant to a discussion of Princess Irene.

Part of what’s intriguing about Princess Irene is the fact that she’s the type of sheltered princess we so often deplore in fairy tales and mainstream fantasy: provided with all the good things in life, but locked in the castle away from the dangers of the world, under strict and severe supervision.

But she’s not simply locked away because she’s a princess. Her world actually is dangerous.

When the humans dispossess the goblins and drive the latter underground, we’re left with a world in a state of seething never-quite-actual civil war, and the princess—vulnerable in her age, in her gender, in her privileged position within her family—is the target of those tensions.

She’s at risk in three ways.

She’s at risk because she’s young, and therefore more vulnerable to attack than a grown woman would be—especially since the goblins are themselves of diminutive stature.

She’s at risk because she’s female: without the fact of her gender, the goblins would be unable to plot to marry her to their own prince (assuming that this fantasy kingdom doesn’t have unusually progressive marriage laws, which I think is a fair assumption, given the publication date).

And she’s at risk because she’s a princess: if she weren’t of the royal family, the goblins would have little if anything to gain from forcing her to marry their prince.

For these reasons, she is locked away—for her own safety. But her incarceration simply puts her at greater risk, because now she doesn’t know why the world is dangerous and she doesn’t know why she’s under threat.

So she wanders away at the first opportunity.

As any girl of spirit would do.

The reason Princess Irene is here—when she’s younger and certainly less bold than the other girls I have looked at, and the ones I will look at in future installments—is that she never uses her ignorance or her youth as an excuse for failure to act. (And she is both young and ignorant, neither of which she can help.) When she is in peril, she’s as brave (if less stroppy) than any of the other girls I admired as a girl reader.

Add that to Macdonald’s peculiar brand of whimsy, and I’ll always love this book more than At The Back of the North Wind (1871), no matter how sweet and lovable Diamond is.

Dodgy Detective Fiction From The Lifeline Bookfest

Posted 15 June 2009 in by Catriona

First up, John Dickson Carr’s The Curse of the Bronze Lamp:

Hmm. Am I alone in thinking that this looks less like “John Dickson Carr writing as Carter Dickson” and more like “John Dickson Carr writing as Barbara Cartland”?

It’s not usually a sign that you’ve bought high-quality detective fiction when the heroine/victim (I haven’t read it yet, so she could be either, or both) is in soft focus on the front cover.

Also? That’s not a lamp. At least, I’m fairly sure that’s not a lamp—and I own a lamp shaped like a swan (as well as three-quarters of a lamp shaped like a panther). So I suppose it could be a TV lamp, like, say, some of these.

But the book was first published in 1945, which I believe is a decade or so before the big “TV lamp boom,” so I’m just going to go out on a limb and say, “That’s not a lamp. That’s a mask. You can tell the difference, because masks only light up under special circumstances. Like this. And I’m fairly sure that didn’t happen in 1945, either.”

Still, it’s one better than Earl Derr Biggers’s Charlie Chan: Keeper of the Keys:

My, but that’s an ugly cover!

What?

Oh, yes: it’s also bordering on the highly offensive. But, mostly, it’s just ugly.

Oh, and Earl Derr Biggers? If I have to go the trouble of looking you up on Wikipedia to make sure you’re just one man (and he is), then that suggests there’s something weird about how you’re formatting your name on the cover, here.

I’m also highly bewildered by the great detective’s speech patterns, as showcased in the blurb in the front of the book. (Nope, I haven’t read this one yet, either.)

For example:

Chan intercepted him and laid his hand on the host’s arm. Beyond Ward he saw frightened faces—Romano, Swan, Beaton, Dinsdale, Ireland, Cecile. “You are psychic, Mr. Ward,” Charlie said gravely. “Three days before the crime, you summon detective.”

Is it just me, or does this seem as though Charlie Chan, halfway through his speech, suddenly thought to himself, “Bugger, I forgot my ‘music-hall Oriental of the late nineteenth century’ patter. Best drop an article there, old chap”? Either that, or he’s comfortable with the definite article but has serious reservations about the indefinite article.

And, finally, the prize in my Lifeline Bookfest haul:

Enough said, really.

What I Learned While Reading The First Twenty Pages of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Posted 11 June 2009 in by Catriona

(And, yes: this is spoileriffic. But only in regards to the first twenty pages of the book. And that’s taking into account the fact that the narrative starts on page seven.)

1. Netherfield Park is on the market because the entire “household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead” (7).

2. Mr. Bingley “escaped London in a chaise and four just as the strange plague broke through the Manchester line” (7).

3. Mr. Bennet is reluctant to visit Mr Bingley because of the risk to the horses on the zombie-infested highways (8).

4. Mrs. Bennet’s “nerves” date back to “the first outbreak of the strange plague in her youth.” She’s not quite as silly as she seems; in the wake of the plague of the living dead, “she sought solace in the comfort of the traditions which now seemed mere trifles to others” (8).

5. In other words, “The business of Mr. Bennet’s life was to keep his daughters alive. The business of Mrs. Bennet’s was to get them married” (9).

6. Lydia, though the youngest Bennet sister, is “also the most proficient in the art of tempting the opposite sex” (10), which is blunt but accurate.

7. Mr. Darcy is quite the catch, not just because of his handsome face and handsome fortune, but also because “of his having slaughtered more than a thousand unmentionables since the fall of Cambridge” (12).

8. Mr. Darcy knows only one other woman, apart from Lizzy, “who wielded a dagger with such skill, such grace, and deadly accuracy” (14).

9. Sir William Lucas made his fortune crafting fine burial gowns, until the arrival of the strange plague of zombies: “Few thought it worth the expense to dress the dead in finery when they would only soil it upon crawling out of their graves” (18).

10. Lizzy admires her sister Mary’s skill in battle, but “she had always found her a trifle dull in relaxed company” (19).

Why aren’t you all reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?

Strong Girls for Girl Readers: Part Two

Posted 8 June 2009 in by Catriona

(The first part in this series is here, along with my explanation for why the seemingly sexist title is not, in fact, sexist.)

In the first part, I looked at Laura Chant from The Changeover, but in this one, I want to look at Sophie Hatter, from Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle (1986).

Some disclaimer may be necessary here: I love Diana Wynne Jones. I’ve always loved Diana Wynne Jones. As far as I’m concerned, Diana Wynne Jones can do no wrong.

It’s also a great deal of fun to say “Diana Wynne Jones” over and over again.

And I love Howl’s Moving Castle: while I’ve never been disappointed by one of Diana Wynne Jones’s books—and I savour them, so I haven’t even read the two latest ones—this is one of my favourites.

But one thing that always strikes me about Sophie Hatter is how relatively damaged she is in the beginning of the book. “Damaged” is a word that has the ring of psychobabble about it, but I don’t think it’s too misplaced in a description of Sophie, who becomes paler and more tired across the opening chapters, until she’s even afraid of the crowds in the small market town in which she lives.

Sophie has a coherent worldview in which she is inevitably the least and last—at least, she thinks it’s coherent and plausible, and we are almost seduced into believing her, thanks to the tight third-person narration.

But Sophie’s is a worldview built on self-abnegation—almost martyrdom, though her marginalising of herself brings her no pleasures or benefits.

In the early pages of the novel, Sophie too readily takes on herself the thoughts and opinions of others: even when she trusts what she thinks are her own opinions, she’s drawing them from outside sources.

It’s also a world-view built on a narrow definition of genre. This is a magic kingdom, thinks Sophie, so the old, worn patterns of fairy stories and folk tales must come into play: how can I, as the eldest daughter of three, achieve anything noteworthy?

Sophie’s not the only one whose thinking is constrained by a certain narrow approach to genre—look how readily people believe in the wickedness of Wizard Howl.

But Sophie is the one who wears herself down by thinking in these patterns, and it takes a radical change in status and circumstance to break her of these patterns and show her where her strength lies—where her strength has always lain, though she didn’t know it herself and the first person to recognise it has no intention of sharing the information.

Well, it takes a radical change in status and circumstance—and the involvement of Wizard Howl.

I’ve never identified myself as a romantic (though I probably am) and I’m certainly not going to use this blog as a forum in which to argue that a woman can only really reach her full potential by standing behind and supporting a man.

But neither am I going to insist that all fictional women must stand alone and Sophie—the Sophie who break herself of the damaging patterns of thinking to which she holds in the beginning of the book—is never blind to Howl’s character.

Take this discussion she has with the hapless Abdullah in the sequel, Castle in the Air:

They were so high that the world below was out of sight. Abdullah had no trouble understanding Sophie’s terror. The carpet was sailing through dark emptiness, up and up, and Abdullah knew that if he had been alone he might have been screaming. “You talk, mighty mistress of magics,” he quavered. “Tell me of this Wizard Howl of yours.”

Sophie’s teeth chattered, but she said proudly, “He’s the best wizard in Ingary or anywhere else. If he’d only had time, he would have defeated that djinn. And he’s sly and selfish and vain as a peacock and cowardly and you can’t pin him down to anything.”

“Indeed?” asked Abdullah. “Strange that you should speak so proudly of such a list of vices, most loving of ladies.”

“What do you mean—vices?” Sophie asked angrily. “I was just describing Howl.”

Castle in the Air. London: Methuen, 1990. 155-56.

That’s my girl, Sophie.

Strong Girls for Girl Readers: Part One

Posted 4 June 2009 in by Catriona

I was talking to a friend about this the other day, saying that it was one of the aspects of genre fiction that always appealed to me: that it is in children’s fantasy and science fiction (and by children, I mean what publishers call “young adults,” as well) that I found strong, independent girl protagonists.

And that’s essential for the development of a bookish girl, one who might be a feminist without really knowing at that stage what feminism entails.

Of course, the same is true for boys: if they’re fantasy readers, they need to see characters who aren’t just psychopaths with swords. And readers of both genders need to see strong characters of the opposite gender. So the point I’m trying to make here is not intended to be sexist or exclusive in any way.

But I’m more interested here in the girls of fantasy and science fiction, not least because of the point I’m about to make.

Successful film and television franchises tend to bring these books to new audiences. But when the books are filtered through other forms of media, characters who are or have been socially marginal often suffer. And it’s not just female characters, of course: think of the “whitening” of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

But the books are always there, no matter how manipulated, how poor, or how plain different the films might be.

So I’ve compiled a list, in nor particular order, of some of my favourite strong girls from children’s fantasy and science fiction—and I’ve left out Baum’s Dorothy (about whom I have written elsewhere on this blog) and Carroll’s Alice (about whom cleverer people than I have written).

It was going to be just a bullet-pointed list, but then I started writing more and more about the first girl on the list, and I thought, “Well, I haven’t bored people with a series in a while.”

So now it’s a series, the first part of which looks at Laura Chant, in New Zealand author Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover (1984).

This is the book that started the discussion I mentioned above: I’d never read it—though I have a feeling that I might have read other Mahy books, in my dim and distant childhood—while my friend said that it was for her, as a child, the first book that made her feel she too could be powerful and achieve great things.

All that is centred on Laura Chant.

Laura exists in a world of dangers, but the dangers aren’t all magical or supernatural. Laura moves through a relatively small, relatively new suburb, one that exists in an uneasy state that we are still seeing in newer suburbs: bored teenagers, trapped by their youth and the comparative distance of the city—it’s always so far away, when one has no transport. (Running through this book, for example, is the younger teenager’s admiration for those older students who have access to their parent’s cars. The fact that a boy might be worth going out with just because he has access to his mum’s car is a moment that so effectively captures the spatial limitations of the teenage years.)

So the teens and the young men who can’t find employment despite the city’s growth gather in gangs, which may not intend violence but nevertheless present an implicit threat to those weaker or more liminal than the gangs themselves—especially when the situation does, on occasion, spill over into actual violence.

In one scene early in the book, Laura, walking through the suburbs at night, remembers these acts of violence, and moves along the edges of shadows, anxious not to put herself in plain sight or to step fully into shadow where others may be hiding.

This liminality is echoed in her age: fourteen, and still, she says, unfamiliar with the new body that has recently replaced her childish form.

It’s echoed in her appearance: she’s distinct from her blonde mother and baby brother since her genes, like those of her absent father, are paying homage to a Polynesian ancestor among her great-grandfathers.

It’s echoed in her position between the supernatural and natural worlds: she’s sensitive, but it’s not a power over which she has any control, and its manifestations only makes her feel more separate from everyday life, especially since it’s not an experience she can ever explain to anyone. She tries—unlike so many young girls in fantasies set in the contemporary world, she talks about her abilities. And people listen. But they can’t understand.

When it becomes apparent that her sensitivity could lead to more active powers, the experience of unlocking these is also evoked in terms of liminality: walking through a shadow of the world, she sees brambles that are also herself, and books that are also trees—or are the trees also books?

But her liminality is not weakness: she does walk through the night and she does walk through dangers—and though she says she’s uncertain of her new body, she holds herself intact and she holds her own, whether encounters are implicitly or explicitly threatening.

When, by the end of the book, she grows into the face (and the self) that was promised to her in the beginning, we are none of us surprised.

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