Dark Girls and Moral Ambiguity



So, I recently finished reading The Bone Witch, and while it was far from a perfect novel, the…let’s say interesting route the protagonist’s story took crystalized some things I’ve been thinking about for a while with regards to YA novels, the kind of characters I like, and the kind of characters that get written. I think, maybe, that young adult books are starting to be willing to write darker characters? Or a least starting to write darker characters better?

Let me start here by saying that this may honestly just be selection bias on my part. These are often the characters that I like, so I guess it makes sense that those are the books I’m drawn to.

That said, I feel like for the past couple of years those books almost haven’t existed for me to be drawn to. Since around 2012, at least, most of the leads I’ve been seeing have come in one of two flavors. The first: shy mousey girls who can barely interact with their peers and would rather be sitting at home. The second: brave, hard-edged warriors who were tough because of the bad lot life had given them.

And while it’s easy to write the second type with some darkness to it, the way they were written never quite worked for me. For a long time they were like Katsa from Graceling or Rhine from Wither, both of whom did some dark things but were still written as perfectly morally justified in their actions. Usually they were even still the moral centers of their novels, with the characters who react or think differently than them being positioned as completely in the wrong.

Wither, specifically, has always stood out to me on that front. I stopped reading it after the author had Rhine go off about how stupid and useless the suicidally depressed woman and brainwashed twelve-year-old being held captive with her were, with the audience supposed to agree, because Strong Female Characters. And I’m not a person who quits a book halfway through; I may get distracted and wander away, but I can count on one hand the novels I’ve put down without any intent to pick back up.

I think this is why I have such a hard time with novels where the lead seems like they’re written to be a role model. That sort of character writing completely nixes the idea that an opposing viewpoint might have anything valid in it. It completely ignores the role that circumstances have had on any of the characters’ development, especially the lead’s.

Even characters that I like in that style, like Allie from Immortal Rules, have a little of that to them: dark but seen as generally justified. It’s almost as if there was a point where authors thought that, unless they made clear that their characters were always in the right, an audience couldn’t possibly have sympathy for them.

I’m aware that this break I’m seeing in style isn’t entirely fair. Character writing of the kind that I do like, where the morality isn’t placed only in the protagonist, has never really gone away. Holly Black and Catherine Fisher stand out as two authors that are very good at it who have been popular for a while. But when I think back to a couple of years ago, there aren’t many dark leads in the style I want, especially among the girls.

And maybe it’s not even “darkness” that is the crux of what I’m picking up here, maybe it is just that feeling of the main character seen as good regardless of what they do. But it’s easier to explore the things I want to see, namely the lead making mistakes and being in the wrong, with a protagonist that does have a darker gray tinge.

Thankfully, these things have a tendency to go in cycles, though. You see it with villains, in the way they waver between tragically broken and always-evil psychopaths, and you see it with heroes, who range between perfect angels and flawed but trying.

This is why I’m glad to see something like The Bone Witch, which arguably has a straight villain protagonist. It’s a sign that things are swinging back around to the sort of stories I like. You come out of it completely understanding how Tea, the main character, has gotten to the point that she has, but she’s still portrayed as a little frightening, a little wrong, and a little letting her demons get to her.

And it’s not the only book that gives me that hope. The Crown’s Game has dual leads, and you come to understand each of their diametrically different viewpoints. A major theme in Every Heart a Doorway is the bias people have against darker stories, and against people who aren’t like them. And even something sillier, like Red Queen, has Mare questioning whether what’s she’s doing is right fairly often. .

All of this is pointing to a slew of novels that are willing to admit that, sometimes, more than one person can be right in a situation, and to authors who are no longer trying to have it both ways, making their characters do terrible things to add complexity in one breath, while taking that complexity away in the next by expecting the audience to not question it. A lot of the things I’ve been reading recently have been trending more towards my taste and my view on morality, which is that it doesn’t change regardless of whether the person doing something is on the “right” side or not.

Suffice to say, I’m seeing more dark characters, and more among those where their darkness is acknowledged. I’m definitely looking forward to what the next couple of publishing years are going to bring. At the very least, it seems more likely to bring me far less frustration in my entertainment.

Photo by Mallory Johndrow on Unsplash, sourced through Pexels

Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge

crimson bound

Standalone, Balzer+Bray, 2015, 436 pgs.

In the days of old, the Devourer ruled the world, hunting humans in the darkness before Tyr and Zisa stole the sun and moon from him and bound him in his own realm. Not that things are perfectly safe now; The Forest, the dark world that lurks just behind our reality is still there. And the Devourer may be bound, but his servants, the forestborn, still hide in the shadows, waiting to tempt those who would stray off the path and mark them as bloodbound, cursed creatures who must kill to survive and who will eventually lose their human hearts to become forestborn themselves. Rachelle should know, she was trained to protect against them before she became one of them. Now, instead of weaving charms to ward them off, she fights for the king as a bloodbound herself, using her preternatural strength and speed to atone for her crimes in any way she can. Because the Forest is becoming stronger, the forestborn becoming more active, and signs are saying that the Devourer is about to reawaken. And, however much she has given herself to the darkness, Rachelle has still never lost the idealistic girl who deliberately stepped off the path, looking for the information needed to destroy him completely.

I love a good fairytale retelling; I know I’ve said that before when talking about “stories about stories,” but really, there are multiple ways a story about stories can go. A well-done fairytale retelling has a charm all its own, and seeing what an author chooses to keep or change from a particular tale can lead to endless analysis on endless variations.

What can I say? I like thinking about story evolution, and that urge is especially satisfied in a novel where the author is pulling from about five different tales, using and reworking some fairytale ideas that I’ve never even seen brought up in current novels, and mixing in some modern genre tropes to create something that has some of the most nicely layered lore that I’ve ever seen.

And while all that sounds spectacular, I’m going to be frank here and say outright that this only gave me about half of what I was looking for from it. I picked the novel up initially because I’d read a short story by the author and was hoping something long-form could capture the same amount of poetry and drive that did.

Which Crimson Bound does, to a certain extent. The book is split between the main story of our heroine, Rachelle, and little snippets of the world’s backstory with Tyr and Zisa. Those backstory pieces are everything I wanted here: dreamy and fable-like and timeless. The ending of each one felt like a punch to the gut, as each bit of information revealed forced you to reevaluate what was happening and who this world’s heroes really were.

The writing on the bulk of the main plot is a little more prosaic, unfortunately. It’s not bad at all, but in a novel that I picked up for the writing style, the back and forth between the two was a little galling.

The plot, too, plays into some YA tropes that I’m not that fond of. I could have done without the love triangle, even if this one was far less annoying than they usually are, and after the first couple of chapters Rachelle changes from a reckless girl who wants to be a hero, which is exactly the sort of character I like, to a more standard jaded, angry protagonist.

That’s not to say any of this is badly done. It’s all fine, and I don’t know if I would have even noticed it in a novel where the first fifteen pages weren’t so absolutely tailored to me. Once that sort of perfection was established though, the fact that I didn’t get more of it was a little disappointing.

Just a little, though. Minor problems aside, this is generally strong and put together beautifully.

The plot is fun and interesting, and Hodge is, at least in this book, incredibly talented at ending a segment of the story at exactly the right place to make a reader want more. She manages, in this, to give a plot that actually has fairly little action more than enough page-turning tension. Even where there is some padding in the main plotline, the tantalizing little pieces of Tyr and Zisa’s backstory keep things moving.

The mystery and treasure hunt aspects of this are well done, too. I was actually surprised by the ultimate hiding place of the magic sword Rachelle spends most of the book looking for, and being caught off guard that much in a novel is something that’s becoming rarer and rarer in my old age.

And the opening may have skewed my expectations for the characters, but I can’t say they were badly done at all. A large portion of her arc is about Rachelle learning that she doesn’t have to be perfectly pure and innocent to be that reckless girl who wants to save the world, that sometimes understanding darkness can help in defeating it.

So, while I may have wanted a novel about who she was at the beginning, rather than the bitter, almost hopeless person she became after a couple of chapters, I can’t say I came away completely disappointed on that front. The tension between the two states actually adds some nice layers to the character; I can appreciate a lead that sometimes wants to slap people for being blindly happy, even as she wants to protect them.

The rest of the characters follow suit with the same depth. Armand, who plays the stupid dandy at court ends up being the moral center of the novel, and la Fontaine, who comes off as the mean-girl bully at first has a similar arc. Even Erec, who from the get-go is portrayed as despicable is fun in his horribleness; he’s written with the sort of life that means the author didn’t just create him to be a moralistic plot device, and actually enjoyed writing the character.

His awfulness is never used to undercut how personally important he is to Rachelle, either, which is a complexity I like to see a novel balance. That sort of complexity in the relationships carries through, too; Rachelle has realistically mixed feelings about everyone she interacts with, and the romance plot never takes over all of her thoughts, the way it does in so many novels.

The thing that really makes me love the book, though, the thing that almost completely makes up for its only giving me half of what I wanted, was the lore. The little bits and pieces of other stories that are blended together here make for a book just so full of ideas, and I can’t help but love trying to pick them all out.

This starts out reading like it’s going to be a straight “Little Red Riding Hood” retelling, but then Hodge starts pulling from other fairytales, and British myths, and actual fairy lore (which I consider sort of a different category than the other two). There’s even a splash of modern superheroes and urban vampire fantasy, with Rachelle brooding on the rooftops at points.

The fairytales referenced aren’t the ones that you normally see picked up, either. The two major ones are “The Girl Without Hands,” which I’d never heard of before, and “Little Red Riding Hood.” And while I have seen adaptations of the latter, I’ve never seen anything working with its “The Grandmother’s Tale” variation; Hodge’s take on the idea of the “path of needles and the path of pins,” is particularly interesting, and not only because I’ve never seen that concept brought up in a modern retelling.

I also love the idea of the woodwives, country women who are the main force working against the forestborn, using charms made of string and cloth and flowers. It’s a lovely little homage to the people who originally told these tales and the setting in which they were originally told.

Mix in some “Hansel and Gretel,” some “The Juniper Tree,” some Bran the Blessed, and some Unseelie Court, and you have a wonderful, layered mishmash. And that’s not even getting into the things that seem unique to this story. The two swords of bone are perfect for this tone, but I can’t place them and google’s turning up nothing. Ditto the idea of hunger being at the center of fairyland; it fits perfectly into fairy myths, but it’s nothing I’ve ever seen before. Hodge seems to have some innate understanding of classic fables, and it means that this cherry picking from so many sources, which could have seemed random and disjointed, holds together perfectly and works beautifully with the themes and character arcs she wants to create.

Basically, while there are some slip ups, most of this works together so wonderfully that I can forgive all its faults. The themes, plot, and characters all work together here in a way that’s rare for a novel: everything just clicks. And when you add that to the sort of fable-like storytelling I love and toss in a whole lot of mythology nerdery, you have something I can’t resist.

Codex Born by Jim Hines

codex born.jpg

Magic ex Libris Book 2, DAW Books, 2013, 379 pgs.

Having managed to stop an impending war between his group of book-wielding magicians, the Porters, and Michigan’s entire vampire population earlier this year, Isaac’s finally clawed his way out of drudge work and into the research position he’s always wanted. Unfortunately, it’s a research position that involves some rather arduous tasks. Like “working out what the vengeful demons lurking just inside the boundary to magic are.” Or “figuring out how to destroy them when the best minds of several generations have only been able to keep them at bay.” All with an unknown, but crucial, time limit hanging over his head. And even things that should be a break from the stress of that, like solving the mystery of who’s been killing werewolves and wendigoes near his hometown, are having an odd tendency to explode into larger problems. Because that investigation is going to bring Isaac face to face with a long-buried rival organization who hate the Porters, who have magic like he’s never seen, and who are, for some reason, targeting his old partner and new girlfriend, Lena.

I’m going to start by saying that most of this review is predicated on the idea that my thoughts on the first Magic ex Libris book were relatively objective and that the beginning novel in the series was actually as meh as my feelings on it were.

And, well, if you go back to that first review, you’ll see that I don’t think either of those statements are particularly fair, but I also have no other basis for comparison. In spite of the fact that I’m pretty sure my feelings on that book were more to do with my mental state than the novel itself, they were what they were and, outside of a reread, I have no way to pull up anything else.

All that out of the way, I’m happy to say this played out exactly as I had predicted there. Regardless of whether it’s Hines finding his footing with the series or me finding mine with life, I had a hell of a time with this second novel. Everything that I thought was missing in Libriomancer is here in spades: this had the sort of creative, engaging, genre-bending joy that I expect out of a Hines book. The dialogue and action are snappy, the characters’ big personalities shine through, and their crazy schemes in the face of impossible odds have all of the zany vigor you could want.

This if Fun, with a capital F and enough underlying meaning to make the novel more than silly fluff, which has always been this author’s strength.

Again, it’s a little hard to compare with my thoughts on the first novel so uncertain, but even if the problems were with the book itself, it’s all fixed here. This was the sort of light, fast-paced read that I had been looking for.

Working off the assumption that my problems there were on Hines’ head, though, I think I can distill exactly what Codex Born does better than its predecessor down to one word: integration. The mystery, the characters, the action, the themes, all coexist here far more harmoniously than they did in the first, meaning that the fun and the philosophy can work together, rather than being sectioned off into chunks.

If the first book had a plot that was mostly mystery, with bursts of action at key scenes, this has both woven throughout, setting the heavier problem-solving alongside constant little showcases where our magical characters can quip and learn new tricks and show off their powers. This keeps things snappy while allowing more build, making the mystery plot both tenser and far easier to swallow.

The characters, too, feel far more consistent, not in characterization, but in presence. This is probably just down to structure. Libriomancer had Isaac hopping from place to place, trying to figure out what was going on, which meant that, by the nature of the plot, very few characters could be in the entire book. Codex Born has The Porters as an institution preparing for war, which means that everyone is present and together from pretty early on in the book, making it easier to not only build quirks and personalities for characters we barely saw in the first, but to build rapport between all of those different personalities.

And while my harping on how much more fun I’m having in this book might make it sound like this is a sillier, less intelligent novel than its predecessor, that’s really not the case. This keeps all of the things that were strong about Libriomancer, and Hines’ ambitions for the series are still very obvious.

There’s still a crazy amount of things going on here, in the plotting, in the meta, in the morality, in the genre deconstruction. All those heavy ideas about collective media experience, love of narrative, and personal agency? Still here. All the surreal, metaphorical language that seemed like such a departure for this author? Check. All the shades of gray, down to the head of the Porters being the shadiest of the shady? Uh-huh. All the questioning of the tropes of urban fantasy, from simple things like giving our heroes magical therapists so they don’t have to tough it out until they’re broken to something as big as asking whether magic is even a desirable thing to have? Yep.

You’d think those weighty ideas would be the sticking point, too; they certainly were in the first book, for me. Most people don’t find philosophy fun or easy to set alongside action one-liners, but if anything we get more depth on those themes and somehow it works. Hines is a clever enough author to integrate by shading in his world rather than by flattening it, which might have something to do with how well he always thinks his worldbuilding through.

I’m trying to figure out why this flows so much better for me. Maybe it is just the structure; hopping from place to place creates a far more episodic plot by its nature. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re starting to get into the meat of the story, which means that Hines, as an author, is free to exposit less and reveal more.

Or maybe it’s just that I read this is a relatively sensible time period, rather than over two months with weeks-long gaps in between sittings, as I did with the first: that sort of thing can make any novel seem disjointed.

Either way, I’m smiling and laughing at all the neat little genre touches and references again, which is most of what I want from Jim Hines. I can honestly say I’m looking forward to the third in this series on its own merits, rather than as a litmus test for my mental state. And, while I can’t say I doubted that much, that really was what I was hoping for here.

Snack-time Reviews: For When I Don’t Have Enough Ingredients for Dinner

Hello all! So, I’ve been trying to work through my giant back-catalogue of books, some of which are still left over from last year, and, to be frank, there are a couple that I don’t really have that much to say about. So, in the interests of paring down the ever-growing list and not trying to wrack my brain for more commentary than I have, I’m just going to write up three quick reviews to fill out the post. These are in order of least-liked to best-liked, but I do have to say that none of these were particularly terrible. Which, come to think of it, is probably part of the reason I don’t have much to say about any of them.

#1—No Passengers Beyond This Point by Gennifer Choldenko

no passengers

Standalone, Dial Books, 2011, 244 pgs.

Life is falling apart for Finn Tompkins and his siblings: his family is losing their house, meaning he and his sisters are being forced to move away from everything they’ve ever known. Worse yet, their mother can’t come with them on the flight to their crazy Uncle Red’s place, leaving them to deal with the change on their own. So when they land in Falling Bird, a town that appears to give them everything they’ve ever wanted, instead of at Uncle Red’s, it seems like a dream come true. Can they trust this new place, though?

This is by far my least favorite of the three, as well as the hardest for me to talk about. That’s probably because there was nothing actually wrong here, so I’m not sure what turned me so strongly against it. Most of what I remember as my problem was that everything just seemed far too generic. The characters are archetypes that develop a little, but not enough, the plot goes about where you expect it to at the beginning, and even the prose feels like the author just pulled the stereotypical voice for a teenager, tween, and young child. Even the world it creates, while interesting, feels like it needed another draft to add some depth and meaning to it. And while it has its moments of honest emotion and has its ambitions with regards to commenting on family and poverty and the effects of the housing crisis, all those little elements that never move beyond the easy and generic really do get in the way of anything it was trying to do. Like the last on this list, it’s a book meant for pre-teen children, so I doubt most of the intended audience is going to notice, but this just failed at what it was going for, for me.

#2—One Night That Changes Everything by Lauren Barnholdt

one night barnholdt

Standalone, Simon Pulse, 2010, 242 pgs.

Ever since she was little, Eliza has kept a notebook listing all the things she’s scared to do: all the things she’d wear, all the places she’d go, all the boys she’d talk to if she were a braver person than she is. And now that notebook’s disappeared, from out of her locker and into the hands of her lying ex and his ratfink cronies. To get it back, without it being posted for the whole school to see, she’ll have to do everything she wrote down, everything she’s ever been terrified to do. She’ll absolutely have to find the strength, too, because her own secrets aren’t the only ones in that book.

If I had to choose one word to describe this novel, it would be capslocky, both literally and figuratively. This book is set almost entirely in a state of panic, and that colors everything about it, from the stupid decisions the characters make to the almost spastic thought process our lead and narrator has. Even when the text is perfectly normal, you can just see the capslock lurking under it, waiting to be brought out again. I don’t normally want a character that manages to handle all her emotions gracefully, but even I thought Eliza here needed to stop, chill, and think things through. I get why the book does this: it is, in part, supposed to be an over-the-top high school comedy where people act crazy because it’s funny, but that aspect of it is also the book’s main problem. If you, like me, have fond nostalgia over She’s All That and movies like it, you probably won’t hate this, but the execution definitely could have been better. This plot felt like it should have been over before it began because, by the time it had started, I’d already thought of three ways out of the major problem, the characters’ antics were often more annoying than funny, and my main reaction to the lead was wanting to hand her a Xanax, because most of the secrets she was freaking out about were nothing that anyone would bat an eye at. A teenager, nervous about asking a boy out or wearing revealing clothes? No one can ever know! That said, nothing happens here that I wouldn’t have easily accepted in some silly teen movie. If physical comedy and facial expressions had been available to back some of this stuff up, it could have been very funny. Basically, this probably should have been a script instead of a novel. Make of that what you will.

#3—The Disappeared by Gloria Whelan

the disappeared


Standalone, Dial Books, 2008, 136 pgs.

The place is Buenos Aires, and the date is 1977, a time of political upheaval and widespread government oppression. The military junta currently in power tolerates no dissent, leading to Argentine citizens vanishing in the middle of the night, whisked away by the police for their beliefs. These people are known as The Disappeared, most of whom will never be seen again, and Silvia’s brother, Eduardo, has just become one of them.

I was, actually, very impressed with this one, especially because I picked it up for the topic, in spite of knowing that it was geared at a far younger audience. It’s a children’s book, no doubt, but for all the simplifying of complex concepts that entails, it does perfectly right by its heavy subject matter. If it weren’t so simple, plot and character-wise, or so short, in fact, this would probably be getting a proper review. In some ways, that simplicity actually helps the novel, too; the prose, for example, consists of short, plain-spoken sentences and easily understood imagery, but instead of detracting from the emotional appeal of the book, it gives the whole thing a feeling of understated tragedy and despair hidden by a brave face. This also never, surprisingly, pulls its punches on anything it’s talking about. As a children’s novel it never gets graphic, but it doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of a government imprisoning its political dissidents. There are torture scenes, and people being killed secretly by the police, and people’s families being threatened because they were protesting. A lot of the topics Whelan covers, and a lot of the emotional responses the characters have seem almost like they were pulled directly from some of the nonfiction books I’ve read on Argentina’s Disappeared; it’s obvious the author did her research here. It’s not perfect, by any means. The characters don’t really develop over the course of the book, and the prose seems more like it fell out of 1940-something than the late seventies. But in spite of those things, I was pleasantly surprised with this.