Welcome to Smugglivus 2014! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2014, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2015, and more.
Who: Kate Elliott, prolific author of science fiction and fantasy. Kate’s recent work includes the Cold Magic trilogy and in 2015, we get to have THREE Kate Elliott books: the short story collection The Very Best of Kate Elliott (February), the YA fantasy Court of Fives (August) and finally, The Black Wolves (October). Woohoo!
Please give a warm welcome to Kate, everyone!
In the 1991 British tv show PRIME SUSPECT, police inspector Jane Tennison, played by Helen Mirren, travels from London to a provincial town to interview two women who might have information about a murder case. Prime Suspect is in large part about the prejudice Tennison deals with as a woman in the police force. The two women she interviews are known in the town as women who will sleep with men for money; in several brief exchanges with random men we see the two women treated with the typical disrespect accorded to women labeled as sluts or prostitutes.
Mirren plays a tough and often unsympathetic character; you want to like Tennison more than you actually like her because she is abrasive, curt, and frankly often rather unlikeable (although always fascinating and watchable). However in this particular scene a sense of her deep compassion emerges out of her conversation with the women. She sees them as human beings; she sees how they are treated in ways similar to the way she is treated at her work. She understands how women are crushed beneath prejudices and biases that target them specifically. The women warm up to her because they are perfectly capable of perceiving when another human being responds to them with decency and respect. The three women interact from their place as women in a misogynistic society.
It’s a brilliant and all too rare scene in modern narrative: Women relating to women in their capacity as women.
Their interaction takes place in a space that recognizes them as individuals in their own right, rather than women who function solely within the parameters of their relationship to a man.
In 2014 I worked my way through several television series with an eye on their treatment of women.
It is so easy in our narrative world to watch or read a story in which there are no important women, or a single woman highlighted within a company of men, or a few token women where there is room for more, or multiple women but each one identified according to her relationship to a man or men.
Season 1 of British series Peaky Blinders has all the well acted, well written, and well set-designed and costumed period drama you could ask for in a story about a gang in post-World War I Birmingham. Ultimately, however, the show dissatisfied me. It has several strong women characters (the strong mother, the rebellious sister, the undercover agent) but they never break out of their status as relating to the main male characters; they always support the men’s stories, never their own story. Even their (fairly cursorily drawn) relationships with each other focus on the men.
Years ago I might not have noticed this at all. I might have been thrilled to see three relatively important women characters and some unexpectedly strong secondary women. But I have more experience now. My vision has changed.
This year I inhaled five seasons of The Good Wife. Alicia Florrick (played marvelously by Julianna Margulies) is a fabulous main character in the tale of a politician’s wife who has to build a new life for herself as a lawyer after her husband’s sex scandal. There are many great male characters in TGW whom I love dearly, but I am probably most fond of the attention the show pays to Alicia’s relationships with other women.
The great benefit of the long-haul novelistic show is the time it can take to build and complicate character instead of relying on a few short-hand characteristics to give each character the appearance of roundedness. TGW gives us time to get to know Alicia and to see the small but profound changes her character undergoes across multiple years. Those changes include her interactions with her daughter, mother, and mother-in-law. They include her growing if rather cautious friendship (if it can be called a friendship) with the investigator, Kalinda. Most fascinating to me is Alicia’s developing relationship with Diane, one of the law firm’s founders.
As Diane, Christine Baranski gives a nuanced and I think genuinely important portrayal of a professional, effective, ambitious, and knowledgable woman who also can lead *as a leader* in a way that is believable, not ever caricatured, and unusual in most modern narratives in that she does not imitate the leadership style of men (however that may be defined). She and Alicia do not develop a friendship across the first five seasons–not as I would define friendship–but they build respect (within some episodes of conflict) that stems in part from their shared experience as women in a field and a culture that can be unfriendly to women.
Nashville–a show purportedly about country music although I cannot tell you how accurate it is–is another show that depicts women within and through their lives as women, relating to each other as women. Confession: I am completed addicted to Nashville. It has been years since I have watched a show on a weekly basis, but I rearrange my schedule for Nashville.
I don’t want to talk about Nashville too much here because Mahvesh Murad and I are planning a joint post on the show, which will probably mostly consist of us shrieking “Why did she do that?” and “I can’t believe the writers went there!” and “OMG!!!!!!”
I do want to mention here how the men in the show–and they’re fabulous–have stories that revolve around and exist in relationship to the women’s stories. If you take out Luke Wheeler, the show still exists. If you take out Rayna James, it does not. The core of the show remains singers Rayna and Juliette and how and where they exist in relationship to each other and all those around them.
What a delight it is to feel centered in a show whose interest lies in unfolding the changes in the lives of two ambitious, artistic, actualized women.
Finally I want to mention the 2014 BBC mystery drama Happy Valley, written by Sally Wainwright in a six episode story arc. I didn’t have high expectations for this serial but the story and performances really affected me. Sarah Lancashire plays a smart, tough, and also in so many ways perfectly ordinary police sergeant in a small town in Yorkshire. She lives with her recovering heroin-addict sister, a bedrock relationship that is never played with any stereotypical trappings, and raises the son of her dead daughter.
Setting aside the plot for the moment (TW for rape and violence although never in my opinion done in a titillating fashion), what struck me most was the inclusion of small moments, especially between women, that would normally be deemed too trivial to include or which would not even be thought of by another writer. Women confide in each other secrets they can’t tell anyone else; they help each other in dire circumstances; they let each other down; they lend quiet support; they show courage or fear; they behave in the full measure of humanity. They are who they are as people, not as props for someone else’s story. It’s not a warm-hearted story–it contains shocking moments–but at its heart it asks us to consider the idea that connection to others is what saves us.
These shows remind me of the many stories that can be told within networks of relationships that include men but are not defined solely by men. All roads do not lead to Rome, if Rome is defined as the black-hole-sucking-all else-into-its-gravity-well that is “the male narrative.” It doesn’t matter if characters live in a patriarchal society. Women can still be defined and revealed on their own terms.
When I see women portrayed as if only their relationships with men matter, I see a story that trivializes the deep connections women have made between and among themselves over the generations, often the ones that have sustained them most. These often-hidden narratives matter on so many levels, and that’s why I get excited whenever I run across them.
Looking Ahead to 2015:
Here are some forthcoming books that have caught my eye, in chronological publication order:
Ken Liu, THE GRACE OF KINGS, April 2015 (Simon & Schuster)
An epic fantasy novel drawing from the form and feeling of the Chinese epic tale. I gave this one a quote: Rich in detail, packed with action, and inventive in its blending of epic traditions, Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings is an absolute pleasure to read.
Wesley Chu, TIME SALVAGER, July 2015 (Tor)
A sf novel with thriller elements. The introduction of the love interest really surprised me in this book, and in the best possible way. Oh! I gave this novel a quote too! A clever, cautionary sf tale with cool gadgets, characterization that surprised me in the best possible way, and multiple cunning twists.
I would also like to mention several fantasy novels I’ve not yet had a chance to read but which I’m very much looking forward to:
N. K. Jemisin, THE FIFTH SEASON, August 2015 (Orbit)
This is the way the world ends. Again.
Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze—the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years—collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.
Aliette de Bodard, THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS, August 2015 (Gollancz)
Aliette wrote me with this description: “It’s post-Apocalyptic Paris with Fallen angels and Vietnamese dragons.”
Cindy Pon, SERPENTINE, September 2015 (Month9Books)
Lush with details from Chinese culture and rich with folklore, Serpentine chronicles the conflicts between mortals, demons and gods. Skybright, a handmaid, discovers she is half serpent demon soon after she turns sixteen. Told that she is destined to be a succubus and a murderer, she hides the truth from her mistress, Zhen Ni, as she struggles to learn more about her origins. And the only two who can help her are a young man pledged for a monk’s life and an enigmatic immortal she cannot trust. Serpentine is the first book in a duology.
And I did mention more Nashville?
Thank you, Kate!