Tropes: Hollywood and Male Protagonists

Recently, I've been reading "A Series of Unfortunate Events" by Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler). The book series is one that I really only became aware of because of the movie adaptation, but I was fairly certain that I would like the books because I enjoyed the movie and because I enjoy bleak stories where terrible things happen to the protagonists over and over again. (I'm not sure what that says about me as a person, but there you have it.)

Metapost: Deconstruction Voting Results

If you're a regular reader of this site (and I sincerely hope you are, because it's a very nice site, even if I do say so myself), you have probably noticed that I like pictures, particularly little thumbnail pictures to go with posts. Now, they aren't always particularly relevant pictures, but in the cases where the relevancy isn't immediately apparent, I do at least try to make sure they are funny pictures.

In posting the deconstruction vote results, I wanted to find a picture that would neatly encapsulate the concept of "protest" or "riot" or "anarchy" to really bring home the point that while I'm terribly worried that at least some of you will hate me for either (a) not choosing the series you voted for or (b) choosing a series that you would have liked to vote against or (c) both, it is at least your right to hate me for those things and I don't want you to feel guilty for having feelings that make me feel guilty. (I come from a family that serves every decision with a nice, thick dollop of guilt, you see. It's like whipped cream, but with more sad.)

Unfortunately, all the pictures I found for "protest" and "riot" and "anarchy" were really quite glum and not light-hearted at all, which in retrospect is not terribly surprising. I briefly considered giving up, but no, my readers deserve a good picture for their metapost. And then I hit paydirt with "dissent" - an adorable kitty cat reared up and captioned very appropriately with a statement encompassing respect, disagreement, and the respectful voicing of disagreement. Perfect!

Then I read further. Oh no, Ana, I said to myself. You can't use that picture on your site! It has a Swear! I was crushed. I considered editing the picture in MS Paint, but it just didn't feel right - someone went to a lot of trouble to insert that Swear on their poster and here I was coming along Photoshopping it off, without even the dignity of actually using Photoshop. No, I decided, I had to either post the picture in its entirety or not at all. And looking into those cute cat eyes (like liquid amber!), I knew what I had to do.

So if you've lost your innocence today at the hands of my metapost picture, I do truly apologize, but I hope the adorableness of a kitty cat standing up for his (her?) deeply-held beliefs makes up for your loss somewhat.

Alright, results time, people!

I was absolutely astounded at how Chronicles of Narnia galloped onto the field and swept all its opponents 'neath its mighty feet, or at least I was until Husband pointed out that it's the only thing on the poll that anyone has ever heard of. That hurt a little - it's always quite shocking for me to realize that not everyone watches anime every week like we do - but I suppose I could just soothe my feelings by calling myself avant garde and hope that no-one disagrees with me.

At any rate, I was pretty thrilled that Chronicles of Narnia was doing so well and I was already planning posts in my head until something like half my regular commenters weighed in to explain what an utterly bad idea that would be, and even Husband was all, "Hasn't that been done before?" Despondency set in and I had to go snuggle Primary Cat for at least five minutes while he relentlessly squeaked to be let go. (Don't feel too bad for Primary Cat - when you do let him go, he squeaks to be picked back up.)

The ultimate answer, really, is that yes the Chronicles of Narnia have been done before. As far as I can tell, they've been done in pieces here and there all over the interwebs, but they have been done. They've been done so much that there is also apparently a Neil Gaiman slash-fic of it, even. (I haven't read it yet; I need to.)

So why do it again? Well, the obvious answer is that in my narcissism, I think I can do it better, or - and this is probably closer to the truth - I think I can add some new insights to the pile. I also think I can do it from a slightly different perspective - a lot of the existing critique of the Chronicles of Narnia is either an attack from people who don't appreciate the viewpoint of the source material (Gaiman, Pullman, etc.), or apologetics from people who very much identify with the material in this series and don't want to hear anything "bad" about.

I feel like I can bring a third point of view: although I don't agree with all the tenets expressed in the books, I used to, and I think that I can respectfully discuss the material presented without arguing from a position of ignorance or anger.

("But, Ana," you are thinking, "did you not clearly state in the poll thread that you were going to be an angry liberal pagan feminist strawman about all the CoN theology?" Well, yes, I did. Because I suspect that at least some of what I write will seem that way to some readers, just as it will seem that way to some readers when someone tallies up a mathematical fact about how many times girls speak in Dr. Seuss books. But whether the subject is Narnia or Twilight, it's not my goal to tear down the literature so much as to take it apart and examine it closely.)

So, based on all this, I've decided to honor the poll as planned and run a Chronicles of Narnia deconstruction series. But! I am also very much aware that at least some of you are not interested in reading about that particular series in the slightest. So we're also going to do a runner-up, but this is one that I'm going to pick myself, and that is: Claymore. (The vote-based runner-up would have been The Path and I still plan to do that one at some point, but Husband pointed out that I need to get some better video capture software for the game sequences, so that's on the back-burner at the moment. Plus, I really want to do Claymore and I'm Chaotic-aligned, so there's that.)

So here's how this will play out:

Twilight posts will continue on a weekly basis as we go through line-by-line. I'm on a cloud right now because we just finished chapter 1 of Twilight and to be honest I wasn't sure if that was going to ever happen, ha. I think the weekly posts have worked out very nicely and though I've had to scramble a bit to make the posts happen on time every week, for the most part it's worked out very well. We'll see how long I can go without missing a week, knock-on-wood, cross-your-fingers, etc. *grins*

Chronicles of Narnia posts will go up on a whenever-I-feel-like-it basis. This will hopefully work out to two posts a month, but I'm not making any promises on that one. But before you get too disappointed, remember that at two chapters a month we're almost guaranteed to finish the entire series before I get to the end of the Twilight saga. How's that for perspective? I will be doing the CoN series in Published Order, not Chronological Order, and you can read more about the difference here. (I'll have a longer post about this later.)

Claymore posts will follow a similar when-I-get-to-it posting schedule but again the plan is two posts a month. Each Claymore post will follow a single episode of the anime series, and if I can find that episode on YouTube, I'll link to the video in the post, but I can't guarantee the link will stay active for any length of time. If you're interested in following along with the deconstruction, I highly recommend either buying the Blu-ray on Amazon that I have (or the DVD, which I think is the same, but haven't verified it) or renting the series from Netflix or Blockbuster.

Probably neither of these new series will start for at least a couple of weeks because I want to re-read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe again before I start gabbing off about it. And also I'm kind of busy with another Super Secret Mystery Project that I hope to inflict on you before the year ends.

In closing, I love all of you readers so very much and if you were here right now I'd totally let you pet Auxiliary Backup Cat. (You can't pet Primary Cat because he bites strangers. Sorry.) I hope that nobody gets fed up and leaves over the new deconstructions and I do hope that everyone can find something to enjoy about the new posts. I'm absolutely thrilled to have 119 people vote in this poll (and I encourage all of you who aren't currently subscribed with Google Reader to do so in order that I might continue to gurgle happily over my subscription numbers), and I hope that you all continue to stick around for the good times ahead.

And - again - I do apologize sincerely for the Swears.

Twilight: Cultural Osmosis, Mind Control, and Shameless Self-Promotion

Twilight Recap: Bella has bravely sat through the Most Creepy Biology Class Ever with her unaccountably hostile new lab partner Edward and has headed off to the safety of gym class.

Twilight, Chapter 1: First Sight

A couple of quick ones before we get into the meat of things today:

   The Gym teacher, Coach Clapp, found me a uniform but didn’t make me dress down for today’s class.

Bella's gym teacher - whose gender goes unrecorded here - is named Coach Clapp. I request that we all have a moment of silence for poor Coach Clapp's undoubtedly very unhappy childhood.

Twilight Themes: Good Girls Tell Lies

This is a repost, for people who don't read the Slactivist blog. (And if you don't - you should! Fred Clark's featured Left Behind posts are very much the inspiration behind my own deconstruction posts, and the one-off posts are incredible as well, including this week's exploration of gender themes in Dr. Seuss' works by The Kidd. Pure poetry.)

Good Girls Tell Lies: Internalized Misogyny in Twilight

There’s a chance you’ve heard of “Twilight” – Stephenie Meyer’s four-book series on sparkly vampires have won multiple awards including the 2008 British Book Award for “Children’s Book of the Year” and the 2009 Kids’ Choice Award for “Favorite Book”. As of this time last year, the series had sold over 100 million copies worldwide, and has resulted in a series of movie spin-offs (1). And if you’re a dedicated book shopper you can also blame the popularity of “Twilight” for the glut of new YA paranormal literature that is now being published by the bucket-load in the hopes that lightning will strike twice.

What’s fascinating about this level of popularity is that the plot in “Twilight” is actually fairly simple – the series revolves around a love triangle between an ordinary teenage girl and the two paranormal men who love her: a pale 104-year-old vampire masquerading as a high school teenager and a swarthy Native American werewolf with fiery skin and a fiery temper.

There’s very little to be had in “Twilight” besides the love triangle – this isn’t an action-packed series like “The Hunger Games”, it’s not a religious commentary like “His Dark Materials”, and it’s not as concerned with the paranormal elements in the story as is, say, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” or “Sisters of the Moon”. Yet, despite the sparse plot and characterization, “Twilight” continues to be massively popular – the books, movies, and spin-off novellas still sell astonishingly well, even six years after the first run in 2005. The fans aren’t all YA girls, either – demographically speaking, women of all ages are ardent fans of the series (including my 60-year-old mother-in-law), and I myself can claim a teenage step-son who attends the movies with only token protests.

Now, I’m particularly fond of literary deconstruction, especially of popular series – I feel that it’s important to take a long look at a phenomenon like “Twilight” and tease apart what the narrative means to us and about us as a society. What’s awkward about deconstructing “Twilight”, though, is that unlike, say, the “Left Behind” series (an example taken completely and totally at random (2)), there’s not a significant body of readers that claims “Twilight” as a life guide to be followed – if evangelical works like “Left Behind” are seen as proscriptive by their readers, then we can safely say that works like “Twilight” are generally seen as descriptive by their readers. Most readers take “Twilight” as fluff literature only – and may actively resent the implication that by enjoying a popular series, they are somehow participating in something Bad.

I’m sympathetic to that viewpoint – a deconstruction of a popular series needn’t be about how the readers are bad for enjoying it. So while I think we have a responsibility to ourselves to look at popular literature as Serious Business and examine what the underlying assumptions and themes in that literature say about society in general, I would never presume to say that enjoying “Twilight” as a series says something about a reader in particular.

And having now said that, there’s a lot to be said about the themes within “Twilight”. The series has been accused of racism, as the lovely heroine wavers indecisively between her two suitors: one calm, cool, controlled, and marble-white; the other testy, aggressive, emotional, and dark-skinned. The series has also been accused of sexism, as almost all of the women in the book have very few interests outside the home – women are defined almost completely in terms of the men around them. These issues become even more complex when taking into account Stephenie Meyer’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – LDS doctrine on the place of women (3) and non-white peoples (4) in the church has historically been complicated, to say the least. All these issues are things that I think can and do deserve to be discussed (and I try to do so to the best of my poor abilities), even if the discussion makes us uncomfortable. Especially if the discussion makes us uncomfortable.

However, one issue that stands out to me more than any other issue in “Twilight” is that of deception. That might not seem very important – deception is a respected staple of YA literature because it allows the scrappy protagonists a chance to duck away from prying adult eyes in order to have adventures. And I would be the last person on earth to tell you that deception is some sort of categorical “sin” – I learned a long time ago that it’s rarely worthwhile to anyone for me to say exactly what’s on my mind. Judicious, thoughtful, and minimal use of deception can prevent strife, defuse arguments, and soothe hurt feelings. By contrast, though, excessive deception can utterly wreck people and relationships, and it is this sort of deception that frustrates and fascinates me as I work through “Twilight”.

The first few pages of “Twilight” are literally covered with deceptions. The novel opens with protagonist Bella Swan as she prepares to leave her mother in Phoenix, Arizona to move in with her father in Forks, Washington. This move represents a major sacrifice for Bella – she has always made it clear that she hates Forks – but she wants to provide space for her newly remarried mother. What’s astonishing about this actually-not-uncommon situation is the way in which is it utterly characterized by silence, lies, and deception. Bella’s mother knows why Bella is moving, and pleads with her to stay, but it’s clear to both Bella and the reader that she doesn’t really mean it. Bella insists, over and over again, that she wants to go, that the experience will be good for her, but both women know this is a lie. Bella’s father – who has been rung up out of the blue and told to air out Bella’s room – doesn’t have the first clue why his emotionally distant daughter would suddenly want to live in a town she has previously refused to even visit… and he doesn’t feel the desire to ask. To paraphrase one of my previous posts:
I find this setup frustrating because neither Bella nor Renee have actually broached the topic in plain English and discussed the situation like adults. What's worse is that Charlie is completely in the dark about Bella's motivations. Charlie doesn't need to be confused about this situation, and if he is to have any kind of meaningful relationship with Bella, he shouldn't be forced into continuing that state of confusion. Charlie's interpretation of Bella's decision will completely color all his interactions with her over the next several months, and thus it's important that he start with the correct interpretation of the situation.

In a healthy family, Bella's sudden and completely uncharacteristic decision to move to a place she openly hates would have triggered an avalanche of discussions within the family from either side: Is she unhappy with school? Does she dislike Phil, or has he hurt her in any way? Has her relationship with her mother become strained as a result of her new marriage? Of course, Bella reassures the reader that none of those things are true, but it's telling that neither of her parents even bother to ask about these things.
This theme of lies and deception doesn’t begin and end as a simple literary device to propel Bella towards the plot as quickly as possible – almost as soon as Bella steps off the plane, she will start lying to her mother, her father, her classmates, and her many, many suitors. From within the preponderance of lies and deceptions, there starts to arise a disturbing trend: the apparent belief within the text that Bella should be doing all this lying.

You see, when Bella lies, it’s almost always in order to get what she wants without having to plainly say what she wants. The fact that Bella’s lies are often burdensome and painful to her makes a degree of sense from a characterization perspective – it may not be the best choice to protect your family from difficult truths with pleasant lies, but it’s certainly a realistic choice. However, that reasoning starts to fracture when non-paranormal boys start pursuing Bella and we see her desperately lying to them in repeated and vain attempts to deflect their unwanted attentions rather than plainly and firmly saying, “No.” She has travel plans! She has to stay home and study! She has to wash her hair that weekend!

What’s noteworthy about this is that Bella has no reason to lie to these boys. She doesn’t care about their feelings, she’s not friends with them in any meaningful way, and she doesn’t even want to be friends with them – she doesn’t anticipate a single consequence to a plain rejection that she wouldn’t otherwise welcome. Furthermore, she’s well aware that her evasions will clearly not solve the issue, so she additionally works tirelessly to try to shift their attentions onto other classmates. Bella isn’t a matchmaker and doesn’t take any pleasure at all in these machinations – she just wants to be left alone and the only apparent route that she can see towards this goal is to work constantly to “avoid” and/or “fix” the situation without ever once so much as hinting at the truth: that she’s just not that into them.

When we see Bella’s lies in this light – as painful and burdensome lies that she feels compelled to tell to near-strangers rather than be honest about her own wants and needs – then all her other lies start to sharply refocus into something disturbing. Maybe Bella doesn’t lie to her parents because she’s a normal girl who doesn’t want them to worry, or because she’s a manipulative girl interested in getting her own way – maybe her lies and silence (as well as her parents’ curious disinterest in talking to her) are indicative of a family environment where “good daughters” don’t express wants beyond what has been planned for them. Maybe Bella doesn’t lie to her paranormal suitors because she fears hurting them or because she’s trying to avoid rejection – maybe she feels shamed into denying that she even has desires and plans. Suddenly, these deceptions aren’t healthy, judicious choices that Bella makes in service to an end-goal – they’re an unhealthy, forced behavior that attempts to somehow reconcile a contradiction between Bella’s internal desires and her “appropriate” external behavior.

Stephenie Meyer has dismissed feminist criticism of “Twilight” by saying that the fact that Bella exercises “choice” throughout the novels reflects the foundation of modern feminism (1). However, it seems to me that the “feminism” that “Twilight” offers us is a very poor one indeed. The Feminism of Twilight is that you CAN have your choice and follow your dreams – as long as your choice is shrouded in subterfuge.

The Feminism of “Twilight” seems to be that you can choose to not date a boy you’re not interested in… but you’d better expend a lot of time and effort into making sure you don’t hurt his feelings with a plain rejection. You can choose a different path from what your parents want for you… but it’s best not to sit down and discuss it with them because that will hurt their fantasy of you as their precious little girl. You can choose to plan ahead for sex, er, vampirism, but you’d better keep those desires and plans to yourself or your boyfriend may think you’re slutty. Choice is great, after all, but you wouldn’t want a reputation as a stuck-up, disobedient, slutty girl… would you?

Of course, the major problem with this is that a worldview that gives girls “choice” but expects them to be secretive and ashamed of exercising it isn’t healthy. It’s exhausting for the girls as they constantly work to maintain the perfect appearance of fulfilling the expectations laid on them by their peers, parents, and lovers. Furthermore, it’s dangerous – when you can’t safely own and express your desires, then you also can’t receive valuable feedback and advice. A system that allows “choice” only when it’s accompanied by deception and shame destroys families, ruins relationships, and tears apart girls – and yet it’s this system that I feel “Twilight” encourages for our young women. I don’t blame Stephenie Meyer for this, but I do blame the environment that raised her (and, for that matter, the rest of us) to believe that the only way she can have her cake is if she eats it after all the guests have left.

-- Ana Mardoll

(1) Source
(2) I may have mentioned before that I’m a huge fan of Fred Clark’s “Left Behind” deconstructions and those posts were a strong inspiration for my starting a “Twilight” series.
(3) Source
(4) Source

Tropes: The Tangled Threads of Series Building

Earlier this year, Work Friend talked me into attending her book club in a desperate attempt to get me away from a computer screen for a few minutes and around people other than the software engineers I'm otherwise almost completely surrounded by. The experience has been fun, but not quite what I was expecting, due to the eclectic nature of the group; the last book club I was in was composed entirely of English-majoring college students, whereas this book club represents quite a large spectrum of "casual" and "serious" readers (here defined purely by "number of books read for pleasure per year", and no other connotation implied).

The eclectic nature of the participants leads to some delightful and entertaining conversations, but it does mean that we end up with a very eclectic reading list, some of which is composed of genres that I'm almost guaranteed not to like, but I've tried to keep an open mind. This month, for instance, we read The Long Fall by Walter Mosley - but it would be more truthful for me to say that the others read The Long Fall by Walter Mosley, whereas I barely managed to get through nine chapters before rage quitting because the mere idea that I might spend more of my time on this book made me seriously question what I was doing with my life. 

And the thing is, by detective-novel-noir standards, "The Long Fall" probably isn't a terribly bad read. The main character, Leonid, is a middle-aged detective with a long history of being willing to take any dirty job and frame up whomever was necessary in order to pay the bills and make ends meet, but by the time we meet him in his shiny new novel, he's determined to turn over a new leaf and be a slightly better person. Not, you know, by giving up the fruits of his labor like his illegally-gained high-rise office. And not by putting himself in any danger of police investigation by coming forward to clear the names of the innocent people he's framed. And not even really by bothering to drop an anonymous note and maybe some exonerating evidence in the mail so that the police can do the hard work of clearing those innocent people for him. No, no, by "turning over a new leaf", he means that from here on out, he won't frame anyone unless they really deserve it. Or if he really has to in order to make ends meet. But not for kicks and giggles.

This is apparently what they call "gritty realism", but which I call "irritating authorial masturbation".

Perhaps it's unfair of me, but I can't help but dislike the heavy-handedness with which the reader seems absolutely ordered to like and trust Leonid. It's not that I have a problem with unlikable main characters - in fact, I think a good, solid, unlikable or unreliable narrator is a true joy to read - but I have an incredibly large bucket of problems with an unlikable character that we're supposed to like - or at least which all the other characters inexplicably love. Women - incredibly beautiful, accomplished, sexy women - fling themselves at Leonid at every possible opportunity, despite the fact that he barely gives them the time of day and he's incessantly rude and emotionally unavailable. Leonid's "children" (most of whom are not his biological children, since he has a habit of sleeping at his office and rarely coming home, so his wife tomcats around looking for love and for her lost youth, and Leonid will remind you once per chapter how So Very Tragic it is that he has to put up with that) absolutely adore him despite the fact that they rarely see him and when he does manage to drag himself home, he barely speaks more than a few sentences to his teenagers. (Everyone knows teenagers idolize fathers who are never there and won't speak to them when they are!) Even the manager of his gym - "one of New York's unsung master trainers" - absolutely fawns over him, telling him that he should have been a boxer, that he would have been great, that with his indisputable raw talent and iron jaw he "coulda cleaned the clock of every light heavy in 1989". Puh-leaze.

As a reader, it's tiresome to keep having new characters drop in - sexy, exciting, interesting, accomplished characters - solely for the purpose of talking up how incredibly awesome our main character is - especially when the main character is a schlumpy middle-aged detective whose mental narrative is a constant stream of whining and self-congratulatory moping and who can only make ends meet as a bottom-feeding detective. Wishing no disrespect to Mr. Mosley, having Jesus Christ and the Buddha pop up in text to gush over your character isn't going to make him automatically awesome. Period.

Or... maybe not. What was interesting to me was that I was actually the only one in my book club to hate Leonid as viscerally as I did - everyone else thought he was an interesting, if fallible, character. They were all terribly nice about it, but everything I didn't like - his aura that instantly caused all women, regardless of established personality, to fling themselves sexually at him; his frequent habit of stereotyping people immediately upon meeting them and then instantly being correct because he's a detective and that apparently makes him a psychic; his wall-banging disconnect between his "repentant" thoughts and his actual actions - they didn't really mind. It's not that they didn't see it, but that they didn't dislike it. (As I said, it's an interesting group with a lot of good discussions.)

One thing stood out at me, though: When I mentioned how frustrated I was with Leonid's unwillingness to revisit and resolve his past frame-up cases, one of the club members pointed out that surely the author was going to do that in another book. Indeed, this became the answer to many, many unresolved plot threads. Why was his relationship with his wife brought up over and over again but never dealt with in any meaningful way? That'll be in another book. Why were fifty or sixty characters introduced in this novel, half of which were never actually used? That'll be in another book. What was up with that one extremely pivotal life event that was mentioned once and then never again? That'll be in another book.

Without irony, several times in the book club meeting, someone would say, Did you notice how X was mentioned but never really went anywhere? I'm betting that will show up in a later book! This was usually said with excitement for what was to come - whereas all I felt was annoyance that it hadn't been dealt with properly in the current book.

Now, I've known for years and years that I don't much like long novel series, but I've never really been able to say why I don't like them. I like Galenorn's Sisters of the Moon (9 books and counting), and I'm a huge fan of Mercedes Lackey, whose Valdemar novels are basically a long series of trilogies. And even as a child, I loved Piers Anthony's Xanth novels, a series of something like 30+ novels (with only the first 17 or so being particularly good to my admittedly pun-hating mind). So it would seem that when I say "I don't like series", I actually mean, "I don't like some series" - and yet I've not before been able to put my finger on precisely why that is.

And yet, it was at this moment that I remembered some of the fan comments that bugged me most on my review of Jim Butcher's Storm Front (as well as the accompanying TV Trope page, although it's been cleaned up quite a bit recently) was the concept that you really couldn't and shouldn't criticize a series until it had completely ended, because any criticism you dealt with might be fixed in a later book. Didn't like the ridiculous and insulting Tsundere characterization of Murphy such that she frequently alternates between trusting Harry completely one moment and cuffing him over ridiculously circumstantial evidence the next? Don't you realize that is dealt with in Book 13 when Butcher finally reveals why Murphy is characterized that way? Didn't like the confusing and whiplash -causing "have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too" world building where the citizens of Chicago blatantly see magic happening in front of them and just 'forget' that it exists five minutes later? Can't you see that is a build-up to Book 47 when the Somebody Else's Problem field will be revealed? Felt like the lesbian-drug-addicted-vampire-prostitute scene added nothing whatsoever to advance the plot and was just a lame attempt at titillation? If you don't realize that's laying the foundation for Book 137, then there's no help for you.

And, you know, maybe these are valid points. Who am I to say how a series should unfold? Maybe it is perfectly valid writing to set up what I personally consider to be insultingly stereotyped characters, unrealistic relationships, and scenes that don't advance or compel the plot in order to have something to talk about in later books. And maybe it's not valid for me to come along behind the author carping about realism and characterization and conservation of detail when I'm basically criticizing a house builder for putting up a frame and a foundation when what I really want is four walls and a roof. But all I know is that I don't like it.

You take a series like Xanth or Sisters of the Moon - neither of which, I freely admit, is highbrow literature - and you won't see that level of delayed gratification within the narrative: almost nothing is introduced in the first book to be hastily dropped until six or seven books later. Each book in the series is almost a stand-alone book that builds off of the characters and situations established in the overall world in general and the previous book in particular. Xanth starts off with the adventures of Bink, before moving to follow his son Dor, then Dor's friend Smash, then Dor's daughter Ivy, and so forth - the series is multi-generational and while each new book generally sets the frame for the next book, they don't set a frame for a book eight or nine books later. In the same vein, Sisters of the Moon introduces a lot of concepts and characters early on who will become important later in the series, but they are introduced in a conservative fashion - if a character doesn't have a point in the existing book, they won't be brought up. Period.

I'll admit that a lot of this "it comes up later" edifying sounds to me like a cover-up for poor writing and sloppy world-building in the early novels before a series really takes off. I suppose it's possible that back when Jim Butcher was a struggling no-name author he deliberately introduced Harry Dresden as a raging misogynist in Book 1 on the off-chance that the series might get picked up and the character could overcome his open disdain for women in a planned Book 19, but it seems more likely to me that Harry was written in a misogynist fashion because Butcher was going for a "traditional" gritty detective noir feel and just plain didn't realize that to modern audiences his female characters would come off as insultingly characterized and his male main character needed some solid diversity training if he was going to be kept on the police force as a regular consultant. To my jaded mind, any later major growth in the character seems more like fixing what had been pointed out as broken rather than some grand chessmaster plan all along.

But even if something like "Harry is a misogynist" was a secret grand chessmaster plan all along, should that shield a series from criticism? I think not! I have hundreds of new books on my shelves just waiting to be read, and perhaps some of those books won't expect me to swallow hatred and intolerance until the author finally decides that his character can officially grow up in a Kirsten Learns A Lesson installation. I don't want to stick with a deliberately homophobic character just so that eighteen books down the line he can learn about tolerance from Tim-from-down-the-hall-who-always-dresses-so-nice-and-holds-the-door-open-when-Harry-brings-home-groceries. I don't want to stay for the long haul with a racist character so that twenty-seven books later he can learn the sad truth about white privilege. I don't want to wade through a series with an openly misogynist character in the hopes that he and his oh-isn't-it-cute-when-she-beats-him-up adorable "strong woman" sidekick can hopefully pull themselves out of the fifties and gain some actual depth and characterization.

To me, personally, authors don't get a pass just because they've announced an intention to milk a series for as long as they possibly can. If an author can't write a good first book to grab a my attention, they (and their fans) can't demand that I withhold judgment and continue to buy and read the series for as long as it's churned out on the off chance that the author might get around to fixing things... someday... if I'm patient and wait quietly. If Harry is going to openly declare that "Women are better at hating than men. They can focus it better, let it go better. Hell, witches are just plain MEANER than wizards," and not get called on it, heck not even reflect on it later when he turns out to be wrong, then I get to call him out for being someone I don't care to read more about, and the fact that he comes around in Book 19 doesn't matter because I am not going to wait around that long to find out.

And yet... and yet... some people do. Wait around to find out, I mean. And that's okay too - I'm not in the business of judging readers and why they read what they do. But I do find it interesting that I can read a book and be so infuriated by dangling plot threads and incomplete characterization and scenes that fail to advance either the plot or the world building narrative, and yet a completely different person can read the same book and see those same things and be excited at all the opportunities available to write more books and tidy it all up. (And presumably when everything from the first book is finally tidied up, the series will end, so the messier the first book, the better!)

So, honestly, I'm curious: Where do you, as a reader, fall on that spectrum? Do you like the "tangled thread" method of series-building where a messy first book fills you with anticipation at all the fun tidying to be done in the future, or do you prefer an orderly progression where details and characters are largely conserved until actually needed?

Review: Brand Failures

Brand Failures: The Truth about the 100 Biggest Branding Mistakes of All TimeBrand Failures
by Matt Haig

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Brand Failures / 9780749444334

Who doesn't love reading about epic failures in marketing and product branding? A good "brand autopsy" can be both fun and educational, and can really help educate amateurs (like me) and marketing savvy experts alike on what pitfalls to avoid and how to properly package and market a new brand.

"Brand Failures" attempts to ambitiously tackle 101 famous branding mistakes and errors, from the classic "New Coke" to the failure of "Betamax" to Kodak's recent efforts to remain relevant in a world where casual consumers are increasingly turning away from film and to digital cameras. If there is a problem with this approach, it is that at 235 pages, each brand failure story is spread distressingly thin - most of the vignettes have less than 2 pages devoted to them. This simply isn't enough time and space to discuss all the factors that went into the failure of Enron, or Crystal Pepsi, or most of the other brands on display here.

The other problem with this approach is that some of the "autopsy analysis" statements seem a little questionable. It's easy, of course, to say when a brand has failed, but it's much harder to say WHY the brand has failed. Did "Earring Ken" really fail because his 'alternative' approach to masculinity alienated homophobic parents, or did he fail for the same reason that Ken sales have traditionally lagged behind Barbie - because little girls care more about the doll they can project upon? Did the leather substitute Corfam really fail because it didn't "feel" as good as real leather, or was it because the company failed to emphasize the animal-cruelty issue (which would still be a failure to correctly market a brand, but a different failure than what is given here)? Did the HotWheels PC and Barbie PC fail because parents didn't appreciate the overt gendered marketing or because parents in 1999 weren't quite ready to invest heavily in personal computers for their children?

In some ways, "Brand Failures" is a failure because the quick overview approach leaves a lot of questions unanswered and aspects unexplored. I would have liked to see this book about twice the length and containing half the products - a solid 10 pages or so per product would have given the reader a much better grasp of each product and a better look at why the brand *might* have failed, with heavier discussion on potential alternatives and competitors and market factors that may have doomed the product. In other ways, however, "Brand Failures" is a success because as a good overview of failed products, there is a lot of information here that probably can't easily be found elsewhere in a similarly compiled form. I think this would be a useful text for an "intro" course as a supplemental material to a meatier book, or an interesting foray into the subject for casual readers who are intrigued by the subject but don't want to get bogged down in a lot of extra details.

NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through NetGalley.

~ Ana Mardoll

View all my reviews

Twilight: Preventing Workplace Violence

Content Note: Violence

Twilight Recap: After lunch, Bella heads to her next class - Biology II - which she finds she shares with Edward Cullen. As soon as she walks into the room, however, Edward's facial expression and body language become extremely hostile and seem to be directed at the confused and startled Bella. 

Twilight, Chapter 1: First Sight

I think I've mentioned before that I am currently employed as a software engineer at a large company. Every year, the employees are required to retake various types of training, including training to recognize and prevent workplace violence. The training isn't difficult - the 'classes' are web videos that the employees can watch from the comfort of their desk. Sometimes there's a quiz at the end, but there's no penalty for getting the answers wrong, and I have to give the company credit for treating us all like adults and not falling prey to the temptation to make the whole thing dreadful and awful.

Metapost: Deconstruction Vote

So while we're still chugging cheerily through Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, Breaking Dawn, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, and Midnight Sun, it's probably about time to start thinking about what deconstruction(s) might be fun to do in conjunction with the Twilight posts. So it's polling time!

Ground rules for the polling should be established first. First, you can pick as many choices as you want, but you can't undo or redo or change your vote after it's been cast. Not because I'm trying to be strict, but because I have no idea how to alter the pollcode code to undo a vote. I don't even think I can trace your votes, so I wouldn't be able to change your votes, because I don't know which are yours. SO CHOOSE WISELY.

Second rule, if there's something you really really really want to see deconstructed but it's not included in the list below, bring it up in comments. If there's a huge groundswell of support for it, we can add it to the decon list.

Third rule, since I've already shown a tendency to abuse my power, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone if I choose to override the democratic process, particularly in the case of any ties. The alternative would be to stage some kind of contest match wherein the "winner" is chosen by whoever can render the best hilarious original drawing of the work in question for a CafePress T-shirt or something. Let this be a lesson that I'm not above cheap theatrics.

Fourth rule, please pick for deconstruction something you would actually like to read. That might sound silly, but it's the comments and the reader discussion that keeps me on track with the posts.

Rules understood now? Let's meet the contestants:

The Chronicles of Narnia
The Chronicles of Narnia and I have a history together, not unlike Ross and Rachel from Friends, but instead of us patching up after years of bad blood and heartbreak, I suspect instead that this particular deconstruction will be largely negative. Unlike my Twilight posts where I try (and usually fail) to be polite and to reign in the snark to acceptable levels, I'll likely show a lot more emotion and less restraint in any CoN deconstruction series. This is partly because the CoN author is long-dead and isn't likely to get his feelings hurt at this point, and partly because CoN was the first literary love that I can honestly remember, and it felt like an epic betrayal when some of the later books started to really delve deep into what I now perceive as racism, religious intolerance, and sexism, but as a child just perceived as very uncomfortable. If you like-or-love CoN and especially if you feel like older works should be judged by the standards of their source time period rather than by our modern standards, you probably won't like anything I have to say about this series.

Tone: Negative.

Pros: Lots of possibilities to discuss racism, sexism, religious intolerance, the psychological breakdown of being an adult in a child's body, betrayal, and a society composed of gigantic animals that don't wear pants.As far as I know, a detailed deconstruction of this series doesn't really exist online, so we'd be breaking new ground.

Cons: Some readers may not appreciate having a cherished childhood series and/or theologian treated poorly by some know-it-all on the internet.

Method: Chapter-by-chapter across the 7 book series.

This is the video series, not the anime graphic novel (which is also good, or so I've heard, but I liked the video series and want to do it first). Husband brought home Claymore earlier in the year and I utterly loved it. I thought it was incredibly fresh, fun, and original - sort of like Dragonball Z (which I also enjoyed - that sucking sound you hear is all my coolness cred being pulled down the drain, I know) but with capable women, a much faster pace, and a lot less farting around between fights. The quick and dirty plot synopsis of the series is that monsters really do exist and a Super Secret Organization has found a way to infuse monster biology into human women in order to create super soldiers capable of fighting the monsters. The super soldiers are strong, fast, capable, and clever, but they're ultimately expendable warriors and almost all of them are doomed to die badly - either in battle or as a monster. The series is incredibly dark, and will utterly wreck you.

Tone: Positive. 

Pros: Lots of possibilities to discuss loss, loneliness, the dangers of devoting yourself mindlessly to a single entity or cause, the fear of becoming what you hate, and all the ways in which this series may or may not get sexuality completely wrong. (Discuss!)

Cons: Will almost certainly be positive in tone (although I promise to stop sounding like a gibbering fangurl), which is very nice for deconstructing interesting themes, but has less possible entertainment-by-snark value. Will be more enjoyable for people who have seen the series, which may be none of you. Probably the series is available on YouTube, but readers may not want to commit to watching the whole thing. Also, the series is remarkably violent - Anyone Can Die.

Method: Episodically across 26 episodes.

We've talked about Deathlands before, and they're still not available in eBook form, but since I'd rather review these from a bird-eye view, I think the quoting will be less necessary (therefore, transcription should be less of a problem). I like the Deathlands series, but I enjoy them ironically and I've been known to screech with rage when the heroes do stupid things for the sake of the plot or in order to maintain macho credibility. Any deconstruction I write will probably be negative in intent, but light-hearted in tone. I'm vaguely concerned that the fun may be diminished for you all if you haven't bothered to read the OMG 100 THAT'S-ONE-PLUS-TWO-PLUS-A-LOT series.

Tone: (Humorously) Negative.

Pros: Lots of possibilities to discuss racism, cliched manliness and womanliness, the assumptions that so often govern "after the end" apocalypse novels and why the men might not automatically rule us all with an iron fist, and the fun of parsing the fine difference between "morally ambiguous" and "being a jerk".

Cons: It's a 100 book series that may start to drag a bit on people who don't feel the need to commit to that level of effort. The writing is decidedly average and the books are almost deliberately derivative, so I don't expect people to follow along and would attempt to bring everyone up to speed such that they don't need to read the book to enjoy the deconstruction humor, but I'm not sure I'll succeed. Also, this will be a book-by-book series, so the time between posts may annoy you guys.

Method: Book-by-book over the 100 book series. Re-evaluation of whether or not to continue may occur every 10 or so books.

Ergo Proxy
This is another anime series that I like, or at least that I want to like. The series is deeply introspective, but (in my opinion) extremely rushed at points and eventually seems rather hastily tied up - either because the show had been canceled or because the writers had completely run out of ideas (or at least, ideas that had a modicum of sense attached to them). As such, any deconstruction that comes out of this will be one part positive exploration of themes and two parts trying to suss out what, precisely, is going on. I think this would be a fun, interesting, thought-provoking challenge, but I also recognize that this may be one of those philosophical wank-fests that only a few people care about. Once again, probably most of you haven't seen this series, but also once again, there are probably YouTube videos of every single episode.

Tone: Positive/Explorative.

Pros: Lots of opportunities to explore philosophical questions of self, how much one's genetics determine one's essential being and personality (i.e., are we more than the sum of our parts), futuristic social dystopias, and the ethical treatment of adorable pet robots.

Cons: Obscure series that may not appeal to all readers, and at least some of the "philosophical" pieces may come off as a little reaching by the author. The last season goes completely off the rails, but potentially in a good way.

Method: Episodically across 23 episodes.

The Hunger Games
I hesitated to offer this one because almost all of you have probably read or at least heard of The Hunger Games already. Deconstructions of the series have already been done before, most notably by Mark of MarkReads and it's very likely that I wouldn't have anything valuable to add to the growing pile of praise and critical commentary building around the series. Furthermore, I realize that not all of you are in total enraptures with the series, and - in fairness - with good points to be made on that side. I am offering it up for this poll, though, because I do jaw on about the series from time to time (so it seems only fair), and I probably could lay down some interesting things to say on the series, especially as it stands in contrast to some other (nameless) popular YA series.

Tone: Positive/Explorative.

Pros: Interesting contrasts provided in terms of survival ethics, humane methods of war, unreliable narration, and love triangles between deeply conflicted characters propelled by very different motives and life views.

Cons: A similar deconstruction / in-depth review has been done before in an extremely competent manner; some of you may be sick of The Hunger Games and might like the internets to take a break from the subject, at least until we get some distance from the whole thing.

Method: Chapter-by-chapter over the three book series, and possibly with excerpts from The Girl Who Was On Fire selection of essays. 

The Path
The Path is an indie video game that takes the "Little Red Riding Hood" fairy tale story and goes completely off the rails with it. It's not a particularly good game in the sense that it's fun, interesting, or exciting to play - almost all of the gameplay involves running around a scary dark empty forest looking for the next item that will trigger a cutscene, but the endings for each of the six sisters are extremely dark, disturbing, and full of hidden meaning just waiting to be sussed out. Fans of the game adore it for its Wild Mass Guessing and Epileptic Trees - and the developers definitely enjoy fan-baiting with their posts that all fan-explanations are correct in their own way. To give you an idea: just one of the endings has been theorized to mean everything from being an oldest child in a large family, to committing suicide over lost artistic ambitions, to frustration with excessive housework, to discovering a budding interest in lesbianism.

Tone: Exploratory.

Pros: Interesting opportunities to explore the hidden meanings within a heavily symbolic framework, including dark coming-of-age themes and a very scary, oppressive architecture to work with.

Cons: The fan theories around this game (and mine in general) will include some pretty graphic violence, rape, death, loss, pain, and so forth. The game is certainly "fun" in the "what the heck does this symbolize" sense, but not "fun" in the light-hearted happy tone sense. Seriously, even one of the paths available has more dark symbolism and scary elements than the entire Twilight series as a whole. Also, some people might be put off by the philosophical navel gazing.

Method: 6 girls, 6 paths, 6 posts.

I'm conflicted about adding this one because (a) it's a currently unfinished trilogy, (b) it's by a brand new author and I try not to criticize new authors too harshly, and (c) I'm not 100% sure how well this will work out as a deconstruction. The plot in a nutshell is that humankind has been ravaged by a plague that causes everyone to drop dead on or before their 25th birthday, and oh-by-the-way only North America exists now. The book is interesting and handles some themes well, but my biggest pet peeve is that the ambitious world-building is never fully explored and doesn't impact the plot in nearly the same way I would expect. This is here by "popular" demand, by which I mean exactly one person asked for it. But that means 10 people wanted it but didn't ask for it - according to my Internet math - so it's here for you to vote on!

Tone: Probably negative.

Pros: A lot of opportunities to discuss world building and how it can and should impact the plot overall, as well as the moral ambiguity implied in a situation where finding a cure for humanity may well mean the survival of the species, plus the sexual and social implications of a polygamous society where the wives are not willing participants.

Cons: The book represents a lot of common ground in YA today including a somewhat anemic love triangle and SPECIAL GLITTERY EYES. I'm not against starting another deconstruction series with that in mind, but the whole thing may end up feeling rather derivative of the Twilight posts. (Which may be precisely what you guys want!)

Method: Chapter-by-chapter over the three book series.


Update 1: Okay, part of my post has been lost. Please wait while I describe The Path and Wither. *sheepish*

Update 2: Alright, everything is up now! Looks like when Blogger had that hiccup last week, they rolled this post back to an earlier version. I'm pretty sure I had something terribly witty and awesome to sum up here, but it's gone forever and you'll all have to be tormented by the fact that you missed out on my incredible wit and wisdom. Hopefully we'll all be able to sleep at night anyway. *grins* Now vote away!

Update 3: The poll is closed! More details here.

Poke the Publisher: Deathlands Series

I don't like romance novels. I don't even really like romance movies, although I've been known to sob my way through a few of them in my day. I would never judge anyone for enjoying the romance genre, of course, but it's just not my thing. Normally I can avoid romance novels fairly easily throughout the course of my year, but in my yearly stints as an ABNA judge (2010, 2011, and - FSM willing - 2012), I almost always have a romance novel or two to judge and it's quite distressing for me. I usually end up writing something completely unhelpful and panicky like, I don't really like Romance as a genre, but this seems really well written in general and probably lots of Romance-genre enjoyers would, ah, enjoy this, 1/2 stars! Good luck! Then I go and angst to Husband for hours because how can I write helpful advice and assign a useful rating to a genre that I intrinsically don't like? How can I meaningfully judge the "creativity" of a piece that belongs to a genre that - to me - is composed of the same plot over and over and over again?

And the thing is, I realize that this point of view is unfair and biased and completely untrue. I realize it because other people - people I respect - like romance as a genre just fine and see a great deal of complexity among the various offerings out there. In fact, some of these people even feel the same way I do about romance, only about other genres that I happen to like! Fantasy movies and novels, for instance, all seem largely ripped from The Chronicles of Narnia to them; and, really, isn't all Science Fiction basically either Star Trek, Star Wars, or something confusing and impenetrable like 2001: A Space Odyssey? Well, not to me, it's not, but it's fair to say that perhaps there's some variance and subtlety within the romance genre that I'm just not picking up for whatever reason.

I also recognize that my all-romance-novels-are-the-same-novel criticism is inherently hypocritical for me to grouse about because I have for many years enjoyed as a guilty pleasure the "Deathlands" series, penned by a number of authors, but generally accredited to nom de plume "James Axler".

"Deathlands" is basically "Mad Max" in literary form, only repeated over a series that is almost 100 novels long at this point. Each book is essentially the same, to the point that the reader almost starts to delight in the similarity of them all - it's like how they tell you in school that sonnets are the bomb because you can do just about anything with them, but in an incredibly rigid format. A small group of Chaotic Good badasses teleport into a new area of post-war America (except in the usually-excretable ones where they teleport to Russia! Japan! Outer Space!), narrowly escape from their overrun-by-mutated-animals teleporting base, ride into the local town to meet a lot of cardboard cut-out stereotypes (New Englanders hunt whales! American Indians wear deerskin and beads! Louisianans are inbred yokels!), encounter a phenomenally evil local boss dude, and then "fix" everything by shooting up the evil local boss dude with lots and lots of bullets.

Along the way, there will be a lot of macho posturing, gun porn, torture porn, threats of rape (sometimes acted upon, but usually not past the first 20-odd books, probably because it was squicking out the fanbase, plus the established female characters in the Scooby Gang were at that point too beloved of the fanbase to keep having to deal with that sort of thing), and an attempt at "moral ambiguity" that is so earnest and strained that it's quite amusing to watch. The "moral ambiguity" comes from the fact that the heroes rarely make anything better, and the post-shooting-up-of-the-local-boss-dude town is probably just as bad or worse off than if the heroes had never rolled into town at all - plus, the heroes are unnecessarily antagonistic to everyone. For me, that's less "moral ambiguity" and more "being a hilariously stupid jerk-off", and I can never quite decide how much the series authors are trying to satire the genre.

As much as I love the books in a very ironic manner, I've never gotten past the 30s in the series, largely because I end up having to come up for air at some point and read something else and by time I return to the series, I've completely forgotten what happened in the last ten books on account of them all being so darn generic, and I resolve to start over at the beginning rather than continue without a clear idea of what's happened recently (because a huge portion of the ironic fun is noting the massive characterization changes from book to book), and thus do I get stuck in a permanent loop between the crappy prequel novel and that one in the 30s where Ryan gets captured by vampires.

In spite of these problems, or perhaps because of them, the series has become sort of a holy grail to me: every time I consider taking an extended vacation or possibly a nice, relaxing surgery, I think, and then I will sit down and read all the Deathlands books. But! But! Lugging around the paper copies of a crappy 100-book series is enough to strain the patience of even the most loving husband, and it doesn't help that I bought most of my copies at a used college book store about a decade ago and time has not been kind to them. I'd like to change over my entire series to eBook format, but the publisher has rather bafflingly chosen to only release eBook versions of the series going forward which means that if you want to start reading the series on your Nook at installation #84, you can, but if you want all the backstory that has come before, then you get to suck on an egg and die, apparently.

I would love, love, love to do the Deathlands series in a series of deconstruction posts - if I exercised restraint and kept to one post per book, that would still give us a delicious 100-post series of satire, snark, and beautiful sardonic wit. But I need your help to help me convince the publisher that publishing a 100-book series in half-paperback / half-eBook format both shows a lack of commitment to the series and is incredibly silly. Now, I'm not going to ask you guys to click "poke the publisher" buttons for every one of the ~60 books missing in the series (how cruel would that be for you guys?), but I figure if we can get the publisher to re-format Book #1, then maybe some clever VP will suggest bridging the gap between the other books in the series.

The link for the first Deathlands book is here.

The Barnes & Noble listing of the same is here.

Bonus points will be awarded for contacting publisher Harlequin directly to politely point out that their non-romance series about guns-and-the-manly-men-who-love-them deserves their all star eBook efforts. Readers may also consider contacting this blog here, assuming it's a legitimate voice for Gold Eagle Books, and assuming that they may be more accessible and friendly than the corporate machine at Harlequin. 

Remember: Readers who post in the comments that they've poked the publisher via any or all of these links will be mentioned in a subsequent "Poke the Publisher" entry, which is at least as valuable as becoming a sparkly vampire doomed to wander the halls of high school for eternity.

Also remember: By poking the publisher, you are not indicating that YOU are waiting to buy this book in eBook format, but rather that your dear friend Ana is waiting to buy this book in eBook format to review, dissect, deconstruct, and otherwise desecrate for your reading pleasure. And buy it I shall, just as soon as it comes available in the U.S. of A., presuming, of course, that the nuclear holocaust hasn't wiped us all out by then.

Credit for last week's poke-the-publisher must go to C. Merced, Matt Smyczynski, J.D. Montague, Gela Delgado, leianajade, and Count Vardulon for helping fight the good fight to bring Scott Pilgrim to the hearts and minds of the next generation of dedicated gamers. It should be obvious to anyone with half a brain that all these good folks are so amazingly awesome that they reach the kill screen in every game they play because even the best programmer on earth isn't prepared for this level of concentrated cool. Way to go, guys!

Update: It has been pointed out to me by the clever people at MobileRead that a major problem with a long-running "abandoned" book series like Deathlands is that the original author is deceased and probably Harlequin doesn't own the publishing rights anymore and would have to renegotiate them in order to publish the back-catalog in e-Book form. I see this as all the more reason to poke the publisher - with the economy the way it is, we definitely need to support an author's surviving relatives. So poke, poke, poke!

Tropes: The Characterization Effects of World-Building

Recently I checked out Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember from my library and I've been trying to read it. I understand the general concept of the book already, because we watched the movie a year or two ago, but the movie wasn't as interesting as I'd been hoping, and indeed I distinctly remember Husband falling asleep during it from sheer lack of interest in either plot or characters. Still, I've always understood perfectly that a book shouldn't be judged by its movie, so I gamely put the book on hold at the library and promptly forgot all about it until it came available to check out this week.

Review: Badlands

by Seleste deLaney

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Badlands / 9781426891250

I was excited to pick up "Badlands" on NetGalley based on the fun and original premise: an exciting American Civil War steampunk novel served with a light romance genre sauce! In the end, though, I was a little disappointed that the romance storyline ended up overpowering the rest of the plot, and the neat steampunk elements that served as the backdrop for the story were never really given a chance to shine through.

After the Civil War, America has been fractured into the northern Union, the southern territories, and the western "Badlands". The badlands are ruled by a race of warrior women who serve as guards and executioners for the prisoners that the Union sends out west as "too dangerous" to serve time in their own prisons. When the Badlands queen is murdered, warrior-woman Ever must seek fast passage to Philadelphia to secure the Princess Laurette and bring her back to restore order to the Badlands.

The premise is exciting, but after the excitement of the first few pages, too much of the premise is immediately dropped to focus on the romance elements. From the first chapter, Ever is literally running around topless (and much emphasis is put on her "tight, high" assets) and a huge part of the "conflict" in the first half of the book is the question of where will Ever get more clothes? Will she wear Henri's clothes? Or will she wear Mahala's clothes? Or will she get new clothes from Brigid? And then there is the "tension" of when Ever - who is, of course, utterly set against marriage - immediately falls in love at first site with Captain Spencer Pierce and they're both tormented by the memory of their first meeting when the ship banked and they fell on top of each other, almost kissing. Something like 65% of the novel is Ever and Spencer yearning after each other but never really acting on it, and for me personally it gets boring very quickly.

Fundamentally, I find the character of Ever to be frustrating. She's set up to be a strong, reliable warrior and a relatively competent commander, but she acts like a hot-headed grunt and picks fights wherever she goes. This wouldn't be so bad, except that she almost inevitably ends up getting seriously injured in her fights so that her love interest can literally carry her back to the infirmary. The romance conflict here centers completely around her being totally opposed to love and yet totally aware that her attraction to the Captain is TRUE LOVE and won't wear off after sating herself with him over a few days/weeks/months/years/what-have-you, so she keeps alternating between throwing herself at him and then immediately running away because she doesn't want to be trapped by the TRUE LOVE.

Overall, I enjoyed "Badlands" for what it is, I guess. The price for the eBook version is extremely reasonable, and the ~100 page length kept the story moving and kept me from getting too frustrated at all the belabored romance. I was extremely disappointed that more wasn't done with the original premise and the steampunk setting, but several people do get mauled by clockwork monsters (usually at the point when I couldn't take another page of yearning), so that definitely held my interest. If you love romances and like steampunk, you wouldn't go wrong with checking this out, but do be aware that you're getting way more "romance" for your buck than "steampunk".

NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through NetGalley.

~ Ana Mardoll

View all my reviews

Twilight: In Defense of Boring Eyes

Twilight Recap: Bella has arrived at her next class to find an openly hostile and visibly distressed Edward Cullen straining away from her in what would appear to be acute disgust.

Twilight, Chapter 1: First Sight

   I’d noticed that his eyes were black — coal black.

I used to like eyes. I come from a family of blue-eyes and on shopping trips and family vacations, I and my father would frequently hear from polite strangers that one or both of us had "the bluest eyes I've ever seen!" This frequent exclamation left quite an impression in my young mind because my eyes do not look anything like my father's; my eyes are an extremely dark blue, whereas his are quite light in color - almost the color of a clear sky. As a child, I often wondered how we could both have "the bluest eyes I've ever seen!" when our blue eyes were obviously so very different.

Metapost: Technical Difficulties

My sincere apologies go out to everyone for all the weirdness that's been happening on the blog in the past 24 hours. Apparently our Blogger host pushed out an update yesterday that then hosed the entire system. All the blogger blogspot blogs (say that three times fast) were set to "Read-Only" (i.e., no new posts, no new comments) for several hours, and then they finally rolled back the entire system to a snapshot of about 2 days ago.

There's no official word yet on the source of the technical problem, but I have it on good authority that a Blogger employee inadvertently angered a wild ocelot god, and it took the engineering staff quite a while to figure out the appropriate sacrifice for appeasement.

Anyway, supposedly the "missing" blog posts and comments from between that rolled-back snapshot and, well, now are being restored from a separate backup, but in the meantime we've lost our "Poke the Publisher: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" post and our "e-Readers: Inkmesh Search Engine" post.

But never fear, delightful readers! I do have copies of both of these posts and I believe Disqus (our comment host) stores all the comments in their own database, so one way or another, we will restore what was lost. In the meantime, I'm suspending the post I had planned for today until Blogger can get everything cleaned up - I don't want to confuse them anymore. (I'm still putting this one up, though, because by gum you guys deserve to know what's going on.)

Supposedly, these kinds of outages from Blogger are rare and this shouldn't be a common occurrence, but just in case, why not take the time to follow me on Facebook or Twitter just in case we ever have this problem again? I was very distressed when the Read-Only wave hit and I wasn't able to warn everyone that Blogger was down.

Update: And it looks like our Inkmesh post is back, with comments. Just a matter of time now until Scott Pilgrim is back in town, hopefully.