Quick Book Review: Darkfever


Just finished reading Darkfever by Karen Moning in about five seconds. It’s easy to see why it has such a following – it’s gripping, fast-paced, and unspools its mystery just enough to leave us dying for more.

Quick summary:

Sunny, carefree MacKayla Lane’s sister is murdered in Ireland, and the police are out of leads. Mac travels to Dublin to find her sister’s killer, but  quickly finds herself in the middle of a power struggle between Earthling underworld ringleaders and the unearthly Fae. On her side (probably?) is the enigmatic Jericho Barrons, helping Mac avoid a gruesome death while using her as a bloodhound to sniff out a Fae book of power.

Things I liked:

Mac is a great lead – sassy, headstrong, and devoid enough of common sense that she manages to land herself in one entertaining (and scary) scrape after another. I liked watching her hold as tightly as she could to her Southern Belle roots as she slowly submerged into the world of Dublin paranormal. Mac’s love for her sister, and need to find out what happened to her, is instantly relatable and made me cheer her on. Moning’s world building is excellent; she introduces us to the Fae at just the right pace, and makes the darkening Ireland terrifyingly believable.

The best part of the book, IMO, is that it is engrossing and an exceptionally fun read. Moning excels at hooking the reader, who just can’t wait to find out what happens next.


All books have flaws; mostly I’m about celebrating what authors are doing right. I do have real concerns, however, about books where women are attracted to abusive men. Within the initial pages of the book, Mac’s presumed eventual love interest, Jericho Barrons, has already bruised her chest from holding her tightly against her will and held her against a wall by her throat, not because she posed a danger to him but in order for him to assert dominance. He spends the remainder of the book belittling her, withholding information from her while putting her in life-threatening danger, and being, in general, horrible. Let me just be clear: the fact that he saves her life, or any potential future changes he might make, does not excuse this. Nothing excuses this. You should never, ever date people like this, whether or not they possess what seem to be this character’s attractive qualities of being rich, handsome and strong. Do not have relationships with people who abuse you, it’s not okay.

It’s worth noting that the author goes to great lengths to separate Mac from anyone who might perform the function of Get A Grip friend. She apparently has no close friends back home; her parents are desolate over her sister’s death; a female employee of Barrons is jealous enough to refuse all of Mac’s conversational overtures; and the lone Irish woman who has the potential to be of help is . . . well, frankly, there’s not a good enough reason that Mac doesn’t turn to her for help. I point this out, though, because separating a potential victim from other human ties is a classic tactic of abusers.

Just to reiterate: it’s not okay for people to treat you the way Barrons treats Mac. Ever.

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Quick Book Review: Steerswoman Series

Steerswoman-cover-199x300Go read these books now. Don’t read reviews first. Trust me!

I’m late to the party on the Steerswoman series. The first book came out the year I graduated high school; but the last installment still isn’t out, so I’m giving myself permission to arrive fashionably late.

I came to this series as one should come to it: with no foreknowledge. I can think of no other book that so purely encapsulates – and translates to the reader – the joy of discovery. Which makes reviewing these practically impossible, because I don’t want to spoil one single thing.

I can tell you the following: the main character is Rowan, a Steerswoman, which is 100% what my career would be if it were a real thing. She basically walks around learning things and then helping people with her knowledge. Steerswomen must truthfully answer any question posed to them; in return, everyone must answer a Steerswoman’s question or be placed under the Ban (no more questions for you). Everyone pretty much adheres to this tradition except for the wizards, who are rotten, hoarding their magical knowledge and pressing people into fighting wars for no apparent reason.

Rowan quickly meets Bel, an Outskirter barbarian warrior who is also a master storyteller. The two become friends, and after that the series luxuriates in one of the best platonic friendships between women that I’ve ever seen in fiction. It’s enough to read it just for that. But the great pleasure comes as Rowan and Bel travel around, figuring things out – and you get to figure it out with them. Who knew applying the scientific method could be so satisfying?

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Quick book review: Mechanica

MechanicaAn exquisite story with bones of real relevance – not unlike a glass slipper with clockwork insides. I was swept away by this Cinderella retelling. Not only does it fulfil most of my feminist reader fantasies (she saves herself! focus on friendship! female competence at cool real-world tasks!); it’s also a lovely coming-of-age story with a relatable, less-than-perfect heroine growing into herself. It manages to incorporate one of my favorite elements unique to the best fantasy books: a tantalizing sense of other just around the corner. Highly recommend.

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Arya As Old-School Disney Princesses


The Mary Sue posted this great pic of what Arya Stark would look like in Disney 1960s animation. They asked the question, how different would Sword in the Stone have been if Arya were Wart?

Well, a lot, obviously – fun to think about. And since I’m on a serious princess kick lately, I bring you:

Arya As Old-School Disney Princesses

ImageSnow White

Scrubbing floors gives a girl plenty of time to plot an evil queen’s downfall. When the huntsman takes her out into the woods to kill her, she grabs his sword and stabs him with the pointy end. Then she storms the castle, dispatches the evil queen, and reclaims her kingdom.

Someday her prince will come . . . visit her as the reigning monarch.






Bluebirds fear her – she hunts them down and wrings their necks for food. Nymeria has eaten all the mice. By the time the Fairy Godmother shows up, she’s been repeating her list and knows it by heart: Stepmother. Anastasia. Drusilla.




ImageSleeping Beauty

She is in no danger of pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel – she hates that domestic bullshit. When Maleficent shows up, she stabs her with the pointy end.

Danerys cries because she likes ladies who can turn into dragons.





Ignores lame Prince Eric; becomes apprentice to the Sea Witch. Learns to change her face and steal other people’s voices. Uses what she learns to free the creepy garden of enslaved mer-people – but pins it on someone else so she and Ursula can still be pals.










Does not agree to voluntary imprisonment on anyone’s behalf. Seizes Lumiere and burns the place down. Regrets it later, thinking the Beast would have made a smashing fur cloak.






Lets Rajah eat Jafar immediately. Parrots make good stew. She’s not interested in marrying Aladdin, but they have street urchin adventures together. She teaches him how to hunt pigeons.








For more delightful princess coverage, see The Mary Sue’s post on Disney Princesses as street fighters.

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Susan Calvin Was Right


I have a chip on my shoulder about scary robot stories that dates to the big-budget movie massacre of Asimov’s I, Robot. I’m just not that interested in the idea that they may all try to kill us some day; I’m much more interested in the idea that things behave according to their programming.

So is Madeleine Ashby. vN delves into deeper waters – What kind of programming do the robots have? And why?

vN follows Amy, a vN who has been raised human-girl-style by a human father and a vN mother. vN means android – in Ashby’s near-future Earth, a von Neumann machine.

Through Amy’s eyes, we’re introduced to a world where vN can be just like humans. Doesn’t Amy’s mother say she loves her father? Doesn’t she mean it? And Amy is so very human.

As our book begins, Amy’s vN grandmother, Portia, shows up to a school recital, kills a little boy, and attacks Amy’s mother. Amy attacks Portia in order to save her mother, and ends up eating Portia whole.

None of this should have happened, we’re told. vN are built with Asimov’s First Law built in. But Portia has found a way to subvert it – and now Amy’s code has absorbed Portia, so that Amy carries her murderous relative around in her head like a sick second personality.

The book follows Amy on the run through a human world that’s searching her out as a threat. On the way, she learns a lot about that human world. Seeing that world – our world – through Amy’s eyes is powerful and disturbing. The best of the book, it turns out, isn’t about robots at all – it’s about the humans who made them and use them.

Much of vN focuses on the idea of the “failsafe” that’s built into each vN unit. It’s the First Law, obviously, but also, more subtly, the second: vN can technically say no to humans; but they are designed not to want to. So if, at the beginning of the book, we’re introduced to the vN as basically human, we’re later forced to confront the idea of people who are basically human who are also slaves. What do we do, Ashby asks us, with other people who can’t tell us no?

Amy, like many people who are easy to love, asks a lot of us. She’s a good person, a hero, who loves strongly and fights to protect those she loves. She also begins the book as essentially a six-year-old child and ends up a grown, sexually mature woman in less than one year’s time. The slight nonhuman squickiness of that is massively trumped by the all-too-human other squickiness that permeates this book. (SPOILER) If you aren’t ready to face the idea of little girl androids named “Loli,” you may not be ready for the punch vN is packing.

This book is well worth a read. It’s full of gorgeous detail and nail-biting action, engaging characters and just plain fun. It’s engrossing and smartly written, and gives the reader excellent fodder for thought and discussion.

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Well Heeled


I hung out with a friend’s 3-year-old this weekend. She was very excited about her new princess shoes – Cinderella slippers that looked like those pictured here.

“Slippers” is a misnomer. Those are straight-up high heels for 3-year-olds. That makes me cranky.

Cinderella was going to a ball, which is, to me, a legitimate reason to put on some serious clodhoppers. When you’re dressing up, wear whatever you want, because it’s fun. But let’s be honest: high heels are basically hobbles. They impair your ability to move the way your body is designed to move.

I have a background in being cranky about little girls’ shoes. Back in the day when I was a day care teacher, little girls often showed up in adorable sandals that were utterly impractical for the playground. While their classmates ran and rode and climbed, these girls sat on the side and picked sand out of their shoes because their feet hurt.

But this blog is about women in spec fic, so let’s get to that, shall we?

It’s no secret that women in speculative fiction are often – usually? – dressed impractically. From Wonder Woman (heels and a bathing suit) to Trek-reboot Uhura (heels and a miniskirt), the majority of them do what they do in outfits I could barely do my legal secretary job in.

My general sense (and let’s not trust my general sense farther than we can throw it) is that we’re moving away from this high-heeled nonsense. Katniss doesn’t wear high heels (she passes the dressing-up exception). Hermione doesn’t. Disney’s Rapunzel doesn’t (though I would argue that traipsing through the forest barefoot is also somewhat impractical).

Oh – and even though I’m pretty sure the evil Disney reboot of Merida did wear high heels, I think we’re winning that one! (But if you haven’t signed the petition, now’s a good time.)

More good and fun reading on how we dress our female characters:





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All Princesses, All The Time

For your Friday viewing pleasure, something completely delightful: Princess, Princess over at StrangelyKatie.

I loved everything about this little gem of a webcomic. The main characters are Amira, a runaway princess who prefers to be a hero; and Sadie, a tower-bound princess bored of the inept princes who keep trying to rescue her. Amira rescues Sadie, and they go on adventures together.

This story has it all: a basic grasp of socioeconomic inequality; body positivity; princesses rescuing a prince; a damn fine sense of humor; and unicorns.

It’s only 44 frames. Just go read it – it will make your day better.

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Princess Toadstool Saves Herself


Yeah! Princess Toadstool saves herself! The Wild Eternal has created a free, downloadable game called Sorry, Mario Bros! that “gives Princess Toadstool the ability to jump, and thereby free herself from King Koopa’s castle.”

I’m not really a gamer, but even I think this is sweet. And wow – go do a Google search for “Princess Peach saves herself.” Apparently Mario Princesses not being lame is a THING. Awesome.

And since this is apparently throwbacks to my childhood week – I’ve been thinking about just how very many fantasy worlds there are that are designed for children and populated almost exclusively by boys. (Having a token girl doesn’t count.) Why is this?

Here’s a list off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are tons more, especially since my knowledge of cartoons peters out around 2003 (tell me in the comments!):

  • Mario
  • Smurfs
  • Thomas the Train
  • Gummi Bears
  • Tale Spin
  • Looney Tunes
  • Muppet Babies
  • Bob the Builder
  • Transformers
  • He-Man
  • Duck Tales
  • Chip N Dale Rescue Rangers (although this one sort of gets a pass because Gadget rules)
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

 Ugh pfft. On the other hand, the Animated Things Club has a great list of cartoons for girls, plus some good discussion about it. Go check it out.

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The Mary Sue has an update on Disney’s upcoming Maleficent. Squee!

Sleeping Beauty has always been one of my favorite Disney movies. I get that Aurora is lame, and that her “gifts” are lame (requirements for being a princess: beauty, ability to sing, and . . . what was the third one going to be? ability to accessorize?), and all that. But Maleficent! Maleficent is the best! She turns into a dragon! And commands the powers of hell! Or at least has the chutzpah to say she does!

So I’m tentatively excited about this Sleeping Beauty reboot featuring Maleficent. Angelina Jolie definitely has the chops to pull it off if they’ll give her good material.

On the other hand . . .

One of the things that’s awesome about Maleficent is that she doesn’t hate Aurora because she’s prettier (like the evil Queen in Snow White). Her stated reason for wanting to wreak havoc is that she wasn’t invited to be one of the fairy godmothers of the princess – ie, she wants power. Power is a good villain motivation that doesn’t have to do with being insipidly female. Insipid, Maleficent is not.

But the synopsis for the new film (via /Film) has Maleficent described as originally a “beautiful, pure-hearted young woman.” I mean. And Aurora holds the key to Maleficent’s chance at “true happiness” at the end, which doesn’t sound promising. I understand that it’s hard to have a movie protagonist be actually super evil, but . . . don’t screw this up for me, guys!

Also, like I talked about yesterday, there’s something inherently problematic in rehashing these old stories without adjusting for gender/race/etc. bias. It sounds like they’re trying, though – at one point “Maleficent rises to be the land’s fiercest protector.”

So, ok. I’m on board for now. Fingers crossed!

Update: Check out Jesus Alfonso Sanchez’s rad picture of Maleficent spanking some other villains at cards. I mean, I assume she’s spanking them, because: Maleficent.


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Women and Fantasy in the Age of Rehash

Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Animation

Philip Cohen over at The Society Pages has a good article out detailing why Smurfette is still problematic.  The basics: “The Smurfs, originating as they did in mid-century Europe, exhibit the quaint sexism in which boys or men are generic people – with their unique qualities and abilities – while girls and women are primarily identified by their femininity.” Oh and also, she’s created by an evil wizard to mess up the menfolk with her devilish womanly ways.

Gross. It’s always been gross, and we’ve known that for a long time. And yet Smurfette and her ilk keep coming back to haunt us. Cohen writes: “Today, a blockbuster children’s movie can invoke 50-year-old gender stereotypes with little fear of a powerful feminist backlash.”

It’s not just children’s movies. We’re living through the Age of Rehash, when anything that was ever popular in the past is worth dredging up and, with a little makeup, running back by us. One of the problems with doing that is that stuff from the past can be chock-full of the very things we’ve worked hard to get better at or get rid of – racism and sexism, for example. They’re right there in older stories, ready to be all racist and sexist again.

Not only that, but somehow things from the past get an automatic hall pass. Probably (but let’s be realistic, not definitely) a new Smurfs-style story would not be a go, today. But because the Smurfs could reasonably be called “classic,” they’re just passed on with all the terrible Smurfette-ness intact.

Why? There’s no reason we shouldn’t hold older stories to new standards. Because fiction has this fun property: it is made up. And it can be re-imagined.

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