25 Jun

Reading Challenge: June 2019

I wasn’t kidding last month about bingeing (binging? I feel like the “e” is necessary for pronunciation, but every reader would probably get it in context without…) on T. Kingfisher and Kelly Barnhill. Despite favorable conditions book-wise, though, I didn’t get a ton of reading done thanks to lots of 16-hour workdays.

I’m not linking to Amazon going forward, since the ~$20/year in affiliate money isn’t worth the stinkface I make every time I run up against their bullshit. (My ad blocker recently began blocking the Amazon-linked book covers and stripped the images from the posts, too, so I took that as a further sign it’s time to sever ties.) Now everybody will be equally inconvenienced having to manually search for books at their preferred stores!

Cover of Kelly Barnhill's The Witch's BoyTHE WITCH’S BOY by Kelly Barnhill: Sister Witch had twin sons who fell into a river. Only one of them could be saved from drowning. The one who survived fell ill with fever. Because she couldn’t bear to lose both of them, she caught the dead twin’s soul and stitched it with magic thread to the ailing twin to strengthen him. That twin, Ned, recovered, but it became difficult for him to speak or read or be around people. His father can’t even look at him, and the villagers call him “the wrong boy”—as in, the wrong boy survived. (Fuck them all very much.)

After Áine’s mother died, her father fell into a deep depression, which breaks only after they’re penniless and facing eviction and he realizes there’s nothing left to lose. He reverts to his premarital banditing ways, stocks up on stolen supplies, and returns to his childhood home in the scary forest with Áine. Then he gets high on a magic amulet and decides to steal the witch’s power, at which point the lives of these children collide. Áine has to help Ned escape from her father, not because she gives a damn about Ned but because if her father gets his hands on that magic, he’ll be further corrupted and she’ll lose him entirely.

The effects of death, loss, and loneliness were no darker than in THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, which I read last month, but there was less of a brightening whimsy factor (which I referred to elsewhere as “glitter nail polish on the poisoned talons of darkness”). This time, the magic is hostile, manipulative, and excruciatingly painful to the user. The wolf companion is extraordinarily helpful but doesn’t talk. Most of the problems are caused by mundane human greed not even dressed up with allegory. Nothing wrong with any of these things, but it wasn’t the mood I’m craving at the moment. If I remember correctly, this was Barnhill’s first book, so it’ll be interesting to see if the things that delighted me about TGWDTM represent evolution of her writer’s voice or if they were a one-off.

Cover of T. Kingfisher's SwordheartSWORDHEART by T. Kingfisher: Content warning for suicidal plan (it doesn’t stem from depression and it’s not dark, but the fact that it’s treated lightly might be more offensive/hurtful to someone with that trigger) and suicidal act (by an immortal, so it’s not going to stick, which might also be too light a treatment for some).

Halla’s great uncle-in-law, who took her in after her husband’s death, is newly deceased and left everything to her in his will. The rest of his family, predictably, is not thrilled with this turn of events and locks Halla in her room until she agrees to marry an objectionable nephew and produce heirs to keep the money in the family. Fearing they’ll drug her food to hurry her into this unwanted arrangement, she resolves to kill herself with an old sword her uncle decorated the room with. While she’s trying to work out the logistics of impaling oneself on a sword fatally (since it wouldn’t do to merely injure herself and be even more at the family’s mercy, obviously), she unsheathes the sword, which summons Sarkis, a semi-immortal warrior sworn to defend the owner of the sword. Once apprised of the situation, he busts her out of the house. The plan is to get help in securing Halla’s inheritance, from an old friend of the deceased and a nonbinary lawyer-priest from the Temple of the Rat. That journey is, naturally, fraught with bandits, a monster-infested enchanted forest, and parties with a great deal of interest in acquiring an enchanted sword.

This is straight-up a romance novel, 90% about the heart-and-pants feels between Halla and Sarkis. Lots of pining. Lots of scolding oneself that “this could never work.” In standard romance format, there’s a third act “breakup” for (as is too often the case) what I thought was a stupid reason.

Non-detailed spoiler

Sarkis had been putting off telling Halla something bad about his past. It came out after they became all lovey-dovey, and she threw him away for a bad decision he made for a good reason FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AGO.

He’s been punished. He’s swimming in remorse. The consequences at the time really seemed worse for Sarkis than for the people he wronged. Halla’s “be gone” reaction to the revelation seemed out of proportion to his crime as written and out of character for someone who had been unwaveringly understanding and pragmatic up to that point.

It’s a pretty healthy relationship (she technically owns him, he’s a scary dude she’s relying on for protection, and they’re both cognizant of the potential ickyness of their relative power positions), as far as the romance goes, but I need a much longer break from romance than I’ve had and wasn’t expecting to find one here.

This story is set in the same world as THE CLOCKTUAR WARS duology (THE CLOCKWORK BOYS and THE WONDER ENGINE discussed here) but a while after the events of those books, which are briefly mentioned as kind of an Easter egg for fans but not plot relevant here.

IRON HEARTED VIOLET by Kelly Barnhill: Content warning for miscarriages/stillbirths.

Princess Violet is an only child with no noble peers near her age, so her only friend is the stablemaster’s son Demetrius. Together, they explore a castle with as many mobile corridors and hidden rooms as Hogwarts. In one dusty old room, they find a book written in an unreadable language and a painting of a creepy dude with a pile of dragon hearts and a bunch of zombie-eyed dragons. Demetrius senses all kinds of bad vibes and drags Violet away, but she can’t stop thinking about the book and the painting.

Her father, the king, goes on a dragon-“hunting” expedition (for research, not killing) and takes Demetrius along to manage the party’s animals, leaving Violet behind, much to her displeasure. When they find the dragon, it telepathically tells Demetrius they all need to go home, now, before it’s too late. They don’t listen, and the party gets captured by a rival kingdom. Meanwhile, back at the castle, the queen has another tragic pregnancy, becomes direly ill, and dies.

Violet blames her father for leaving, and the dragon for drawing her father away, and Demetrius for not being there, and finally herself for not being a “proper princess” (everybody knows that proper princess are beautiful, which she is repeatedly described as not). The creepy dude in the painting with the zombie-eyed dragons takes advantage of her emotionally fragile state and loneliness and convinces her everything can be righted if she becomes a proper princess, which is a service he can provide. Violet wishes to be made beautiful, without considering the inherent problems of looking like a stranger claiming to be the princess when the princess is nowhere to be found. When she’s thrown in the dungeon, she quickly (too quickly) realizes she’s been scammed and must use her wits to get out of the bad bargain she made.

I greatly appreciate that although evil is  vanquished in the end, the cost of victory is tremendous. They’ll live—and surely thrive, given what they’ve become during this adventure—but the road ahead will be long and fraught with peril.

Other than the speed with which she realizes her mistake, my only complaint is with the illustrations. Violet is pointedly described as not-beautiful. Her eyes are mismatched in size and color. Her skin is blotchy. Her hair is a frizzy mess. Here she is as depicted on the cover and in the first illustration, before her “make me a beautiful princess” phase:

Portion of the cover of Iron Hearted Violet, showing an average-looking girl with wavy auburn hair

Internal illustration from Iron Hearted Violet, showing an average-looking girl with wavy hair

I’d consider that strikingly not-unattractive. The incongruity felt similar to reading the first few Harry Potter books and then seeing the casting for the first movie with Emma Watson, who was as far from Hermione’s frizzy hair and beaver teeth as a kid could get (her ball makeover a few movies later really didn’t have anywhere to go—ooh, broke out the flat iron, how magical). If the text makes an issue of someone being unattractive by conventional standards, I expect the visuals to reflect that. If that kid as drawn is supposed to be considered below average, whoadamn does that raise the bar to impossible heights. Shame on anybody involved who said, “No, we can’t have an ugly princess, make her prettier,” WHICH IS A MAJOR SOURCE OF STRIFE IN THE STORY.

4 comments on “Reading Challenge: June 2019

    • So much of the genre is based on gross relationship dynamics, and I’m currently having a violent reaction to the portrayal of gross relationship dynamics as something that work out great for women if they just tolerate abuse long enough. I don’t have the time or patience to slog through a thousand descriptions that disgust me in search of one that doesn’t make me want to scream, only to crack open the sample and find writing I don’t want to read (because I am a picky, pedantic bitch). Other genres that aren’t focused on the “joy” to be found in poisonous romantic relationships are just easier for me to stomach right now.

        • That would be cool. Sadly, writing on spec doesn’t pay my bills, and working 16-hour days 7 days a week for people who pay for work as I do it leaves me no time/energy for unpaid labor. If some wealthy benefactor wants to give me *does maths for bills + self-employment taxes* $80,000 up front, I’ll be happy to drop everything else and devote the next 12 months to writing a nontoxic romance novel (in which they have no creative input). Barring that entirely unlikely event, I’ve been forced into permanent retirement. *double shrug*

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