My Top Reads of 2018 – Non-Fiction

Continuing my review of the year in books, here are some of my favourite non-fiction reads from 2018. They didn’t necessarily come out this year, but now is when I found and enjoyed them. If you’ve particularly enjoyed a non-ficiton book this year, tell me about it in the comments – I’m always on the lookout for more.

Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Francesca T Barbini

To say that modern society faces problems with gender and sexuality would be an understatement up there with “King John seems a little bit off.” As half of society tries to adopt a more nuanced, egalitarian attitude, the other half kicks back, desperately clinging to binary divisions and patriarchal structures. Movements like gamergate and the sad puppies have turned geek culture into a battleground on gender issues, spewing angry invectives and threats of violence at people who question the status quo. “How dare they fill speculative fiction with gays and women?” the trolls cry out. “It was fine being all about straight white men!”

In that environment, it was particularly pleasing to see a British Fantasy Award go to Luna Press’s excellent collection of articles on gender and sexuality in speculative fiction. Articles in this book cover a wide range of topics, from the myth of meritocracy in publishing to the remarkable improvement in gender representation in the Magic the Gathering card game. These thought-provoking pieces by smart writers address both the content of our fiction and the process surrounding it, encouraging readers to look at gender and sexuality in geek culture from a dozen different angles.

This is academic writing of a relatively accessible type, aimed at wider readers with an interest in the field. It takes some effort, but if you’re interested in issues of social justice or the state of sf+f then it’s well worth a look. It’s a book whose existence and well-earned plaudits will help shift our culture in a more positive direction.

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

Speaking of gender, I wrote back in June about Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War. Six months later, it still haunts me, one of the most remarkable history books I’ve read in my life, never mind this year.

Researched and written in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this book details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. It reveals a side of the war that fitted poorly with official accounts and heroic re-tellings, showing the vital place of women on the Eastern Front and the awful realities they faced. Despite its huge significance, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war, it’s a powerful testimony to the experiences of soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. But it’s not just about the moments of violent struggle. It’s also about the transformation of civilians into warriors, of women into men’s roles, how that changed them and how it affected their lives once the war ended. It’s also an account of Alexievich’s own mission to uncover these hidden stories, the way she related to the women she interviewed, and the way they viewed the war decades later.

The phrase “we have always fought” has become a rallying cry for the re-examination of women’s place in history and in the fiction influenced by it. The Unwomanly Face of War provides the ultimate evidence of how tragically true that phrase is.

Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton

Another unconventional look at the Second World War, Milton’s book delves into Britain’s covert operations. When Churchill called out for Europe to be set ablaze in resistance to the Nazis, these were the people who built him a bigger match and worked out where best to light it.

The book covers three aspects of their work. First, there were the mad inventors of the weapon’s making division, men like Cecil Clarke and Stuart Macrae who invented the limpet mine using condoms and aniseed balls. Then there were the trainers, men like Eric Sykes and William Fairbairn, the professional sharp-shooter and former police commander who taught men to kill with their bare hands. And finally, there were the operatives themselves, sent on dangerous missions deep in occupied Europe, committing acts of sabotage and assassination in the name of freedom.

Unlike The Unwomanly Face of WarChurchill’s Ministry sometimes glamourises its subjects, both the people and the missions. There’s a sense of boy’s own adventure in places that’s at odds with the true ugliness of events. But the overall tone is one of exploring the extraordinary, from the ingenuity of inventors to the courage and determination of undercover operatives. It’s an unexpected and seldom discussed niche within much larger events, compelling as much for the odd characters as for what they achieved.

Bodies of Water by V. H. Leslie


When I wrote my post about history and horror, I hadn’t yet read V. H. Leslie’s unsettling Bodies of Water. But this book is a great example of how history and horror can collide to great effect.

Two Lives, One Story

Bodies of Water is the story of two women, Evelyn and Kirsten. They live in the same building but in different eras. For the Victorian Evelyn, Wakewater House is a hospital using water to treat women’s ailments. For 21st century Kirsten, it’s a new home, a near-empty building of converted flats in which damp is a constant problem.

Both women are struggling with the harsh events that life has thrown at them. Both become intrigued by the waters lapping at their lives. And both face strange and disturbing events.

The Specifics and Strangeness of History

I was drawn to this book after hearing the author talk about it at Fantasycon. She’d researched the way women were treated by doctors and the police in Victorian England, uncovering some fascinating and deeply troubling practices. It’s an issue that the book explores, an unfamiliar area of history that draws attention to the creeping, socially authorised nature of much abuse. Setting this alongside a modern story helps to draw attention to the dark, strange, and yet somehow too familiar elements of both settings.

The history accentuates the horror, while the horror brings out important themes in the history. Like much of the best historical writing, by implication it also says something about the modern world. The juxtaposition of parallel narratives makes that implication clearer.

A Book for a Specific Audience

This book isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. It combines history, horror, and feminism to explore all three. Leslie’s understated approach means that it lacks the immediate intensity off some writers in all three fields. Like a spreading damp, it eases toward its potentially destructive conclusion. If you’re looking for something that’s thoughtfully, almost gently unsettling, and if you’re interested to see these genres intersect, then It’s well worth reading.

If nothing else, it’s a good lesson in combining genres.

Fridging Weakens Male Characters Too

GreenLantern_02_300_8430The thing growled in the darkness, blood dripping from its claws. Dirk took a step forward, pistol in one hand, lantern in the other. The creature took a step back, turned and raced away. For a moment, Dirk sagged with relief. Then he looked down and realised that he was too late. A body lay in the doorway, slowly turning as cold as the flagstones beneath it. An all too familiar face looked up at him…

I was thinking today about an upcoming scene in the book I’m writing. I’m planning to kill off a minor character to demonstrate a threat and crank up the tension. It’s not exactly a novel tactic – writers use it all the time. When it’s done well, it’s very powerful. When it isn’t, you get tropes like Women in Refrigerators, where significant female characters die just to motivate their male counterparts.

As I pondered this scene, I realised that I was falling into the trap of that trope. I had two characters whose deaths would fit the plot, and I’d defaulted to killing the female one. My protagonist likes her more than the male character. Her death would provide greater motivation.

That was when alarm bells started to ring in my head. It might make a stronger motive to kill this character, but it would also perpetuate a troubling trope, one that contributes to unequal representation in culture, to the positioning of women as less important.

It was only as I stepped back from that thought, considering what would happen if I killed the male character, that I realised something else. Killing off the character my protagonist cared about, making what followed partly about vengeance, didn’t make for a better motive – it made for a shitty one.

If a friend of my protagonist dies and he sets out to avenge her then his motive is personal. It’s about his emotions. But if someone he doesn’t like dies, and he still sets out to deal with the perpetrator because every life matters, then he’s living up to a higher moral standard. He’s protecting everyone, no matter who they are. He cares about all of humanity.

Developing my character’s story through the death of someone he doesn’t like makes a more powerful point about the moral values and strength of character on display. He would be weakened as a character by making it personal.

I don’t know if this has been said elsewhere in relation to women in refrigerators, but it’s the first time it’s really struck me. This vengeance-fuelled trope doesn’t just weaken the representation of women and so the value assigned to them in society. Like so many gendered tropes, it does the same for men. It normalises vengeance and anger as better motivators for them than moral values or making the world a better place, and that’s a terrible message to send. We become better if we can look beyond the personal to do what’s right.

So I’m definitely not killing of that female character. I’ll still get a death in to keep the story going, but it’s the male character who will die. And my story will be more powerful for it.

A Woman in a Man’s World: The Shadow in the North by Philip Pullman

sitnWherever you stand on feminism, it’s hard to argue with the fact that there’s greater gender equality now than throughout most of history, or at least European and British history. The raising of VAT on tampons might be a retrograde step, but women have more rights to economic and political self-determination than they did in the Victorian era.

That doesn’t mean should ignore the inequalities of the past, and for me it’s a great day when I find one of my favourite authors tackling that history.

Step Forward Mr Pullman

I mostly know Philip Pullman’s work through the extraordinary His Dark Materials trilogy, a defiantly anti-establishment and unusual fantasy series that tackles ideas of religious authority and what it means to be human. It’s an amazing series that proves YA fantasy can be deep, smart and beautifully written.

I haven’t read all of his Sally Lockhart books – historical fiction set in Victorian England – but I recently re-read the second one, The Shadow in the North, and was struck by how this book draws attention to inequality while challenging it.

Sally Lockhart is a woman in her early twenties, in an era when the young were expected to respect their elders and women were meant to stay in the kitchen, or if they were wealthy then to stay in the parlour looking dainty. Sally isn’t like that. She is a one woman financial consultancy company, with a sideline in criminal investigation. She refuses to be bowed by the pressures of gender expectation, while recognising when she has to work with them. Her social circumstances affect her, as anyone’s circumstances affect them, but she doesn’t let them define her life. And when she stumbles upon a conspiracy that has left one of her clients a pauper, she doesn’t let the gender, rank or wealth of her opponents stand in the way of justice.

Different Types of Inspiration

Like many fantasy fans who self-identify as feminist, I like to see writers create worlds in which no-one is limited by gender. Those allow female role models who aren’t restricted by the fifty-fifty split of which genitals they’re born with, and who I can proudly hold up as inspiring role models to my nieces.

But that doesn’t mean I want every setting I read to be one of equality. We don’t have that equality in the real world, and the inspiration a character provides, as well as the interest of their story, can come as much from challenging gender expectations as not having to live with them.

This isn’t to say that I love this book purely for Sally Lockhart. It’s an exciting story with a great cast of characters, male and female. You don’t have to have read the first book for it to make sense, though I imagine that adds to its richness. Pullman’s prose is clear and engaging.

If you haven’t read any Philip Pullman already, then I strongly recommend that you go read His Dark Materials. But if you have, or you prefer historical fiction to fantasy, then The Shadow in the North is well worth your time.

Jessica Jones: Is Killgrave the Ultimate Male Villain?

JessJonesPoster-600x791David Tennant has become nightmare fodder. Still suited and smiling, just like when he played Doctor Who, as Killgrave in Jessica Jones he has turned his charm into a thing of menace, digging into the darkest corners of human horror. I think he may have presented us with the ultimate in male villainy, an expression not only of brutal selfishness but of the darkest imbalances in gender relations.

Jessica Jones is the latest addition to the Marvel cinematic universe. Like Daredevil, it’s a Netflix show that explores the murkier corners of Marvel’s superhero comics, full of adult themes and street level vigilantes. The protagonist is a private detective suffering from post traumatic stress, who copes with her life by drinking hard and pushing away her friends. The return of Killgrave, the mind controlling villain who almost destroyed her, forces her to face the worst in herself and in the people around her. It might be her shot at redemption, or it might destroy her utterly.

So why do I consider Killgrave the ultimate male villain? Wouldn’t that be some muscle bound thug running around smacking people with his big fists and bigger guns?

No. As this article eloquently and unsettlingly lays bare, the power of men over women in our society, and the threat we hold, is more subtle and insidious than that. It creates a situation where women constantly hold back from expressing themselves, and live in fear of every dark street, however safe it might seem. Where they retreat from low level intrusions rather than feeling they can make clear how they feel. Where they constantly feel that they have to de-escalate confrontations, even as men push their views and desires forward. It is an insidious, socialised sort of mental control that left me stunned when I read that article, talked to women I knew, and realised that this is very real.

Killgrave isn’t always subtle. He is a rapist, in the most literal and awful sense of that term. But his mind control also acts as a metaphor for rape and the threat of gendered violence. He forces people to participate in activities against their own will. This leaves them feeling violated, traumatised and in many cases unable to tell others about it. Strong willed characters are turned into festering pools of insecurity, while the memory of Killgrave lives within their minds every day of their lives. They can never escape how he used them, because they see constant reminders of him in themselves and in the people around them.

Part of the power of the presence of Killgrave lies in Jessica Jones’s response to him. We get to see her, and others around her, fighting back against this villainy. We also get to see women’s responses to men in other parts of their lives, in particular the moments when those men act in ways that make women uncomfortable, or when they try to take over. The sort of shitty behaviour I hate in Arrow‘s Oliver Queen gets called out here. Killgrave may be a terrifying embodiment of male villainy, but that doesn’t mean that the women opposing him are turned into mere victims. There trauma is there to be seen, but so is their fight back.

In confronting us with Killgrave, Jessica Jones has the opportunity not only to raise awareness among non-geeks of just how powerfully superheroes can explore real issues, but also to raise awareness of harmful inequalities. I hope that it added fuel to both conversations, but I know which is more important. It’s the one that will have David Tennant haunting your nightmares as well as mine.

Should We Write The World We See Or The World We Want?

"I accepted the house with three walls, but boss, your pink face, it's just not believable."
“I accepted the house with three walls, but boss, your pink face, it’s just not believable.”

“Be realistic.” It’s advice we’re often given as people, not just as writers. Be realistic in your expectations. Be realistic in your politics. Be realistic in the way you depict the world.

But is realistic always the best way to go?

A ghost writing client recently told me about changes they’re making to a book I wrote for them. In my version, one of the lead characters smoked. As the book is aimed at teens, and this character is a teen, my client thought it set a bad example, so is editing the cigarettes out. That change is fine with me – if you’re going to get precious over your stories then you shouldn’t write fiction for hire. But it still made me stop and think.

When I was in my teens, I knew plenty of people who smoked. Including that in a story about teens is realistic, and to my mind adds authenticity as well as saying a lot about that particular character. Equally, my client was right. Seeing people smoke, whether in reality or in stories, can influence a teen’s decision to take up the habit. Leaving out smoking made the world of my story a healthier place, and might do the same for the real world, if only in a small way.

This ties into bigger issues. Think of all the discussion about diversity in fiction. One argument against depicting certain groups in positions of power is that they don’t get to those positions, so it’s not realistic. But repeatedly showing the vast majority of influential people as white, male, straight, and so on shapes expectations, and so makes it more likely that such an imbalance will continue.

Of course, your view of realistic may vary from mine. For example, some people see gender as a binary thing, and will find settings full of gender fluidity less convincing as a result. Others see the fluidity of gender as something that has long been unhealthily ignored, and that we need to show to make a better world.

So when should you be realistic, and when should you be idealistic?

I don’t think that’s a clear cut thing. Going back to the example of my smoking teenage character, including the smoking might have made the world more familiar and so appealing to some readers, but might set a bad example for others. Which is the right choice depends a lot on your audience, who you think they are and how they will respond.

Realistically, there are no perfect choices.

What do you think? Do you prefer fiction that seems realistic, or that shows the world as you’d like it to be? Are there certain things where you consider realism more important?

Share your thoughts in the comments – I’m always keen to hear them.

Why is Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters Such an Enduring Favourite?

Past a certain point, my praise for the stories of the late great Terry Pratchett becomes pleasingly repetitive. Humour, humanism, quirky invention and offbeat observations – it’s there in everything from my best loved Pratchett to more recent works that haven’t grabbed me so much. So of course Wyrd Sisters, the sixth Discworld book, is a fabulous read. I loved it just as much re-reading it after his death as I did on first encountering it as a teenager. If you haven’t read it then you should – it’s as good a starting point for Discworld as any, and a fantastic work of fantasy.

All of which got me thinking – why does Wyrd Sisters stand out in the Pratchett mix?

A Favourite Among Favourites

Wyrd Sisters isn’t in my top three Discworld picks (Guards! Guards!, Pyramids and Small Gods, in case anyone cares). But it’s clearly among other people’s. When the Sword and Laser book club were voting on a Discworld book to read, this one came out on top. When someone put on a Discworld play while I was at university, they chose Wyrd Sisters, as well as choosing me for the role of diverse guards and other extras (for the record, I was a terrible actor, and it’s a mercy that I let that ambition go).

Wyrd Sisters is a great book, but so are most of the Discworld novels, so why does this one keep emerging from the pack?

Hitting His Stride

I think one of the answers is that this is about the point where Pratchett really got into the swing of Discworld. Many put that point a book or two earlier, which places this firmly in the comfort zone. That makes it memorable for those who read his books they were released, or who have read them in publication order.

Then there’s the Shakespeare references, and Pratchett riffing on the power of stories. It’s a theme he returned to from time to time, but here he combines it with spoofing The Bard, that bulwark of the English literary canon. Whether you loath or idolise Shakespeare, that probably creates extra associations.

More than anything though, I think it’s the witches. This wasn’t Granny Weatherwax’s first appearance, but it saw her team up with Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. In a move that still remains shockingly unusual in fantasy literature, the book is led not just by a woman but by a group of women, all of them lovable and admirable in their own ways, all very distinctive both from each other and from familiar fantasy tropes. These aren’t a bunch of sexy arse-kicking heroines, but they’re still fascinating people and a hell of a lot of fun to read about. They feel like real people, with all their quirks, strengths and failings, albeit people who cast spells and ride flying brooms.

I expect that Pratchett will be loved for years to come, and I expect that Wyrd Sisters will be too. So if you haven’t read it, please do. And if you have, let me know what you think – is this one of the man’s greats, and what about it stands out for you?

The Making of Meredith Brown – a #FlashFriday story

Menelaeus’s fingers were sore from picking cotton, his back stinging from Mr Stenson’s lash. But he wasn’t going to let that stop him. With one hand he clutched his totem, intertwined figures of man and woman, diviner and spirit. With the other he picked up a handful of corn and scattered it across the skin of the drum.

“What do you see?” Octavia’s expression was serious, making her face appear even more wrinkled in the oil lamp’s light. He had learned much from her wisdom, her strength and her grace, but had still more to learn. With her man’s clothes and her fierce resolve, she embodied the world in between, the place where boundaries fell, where humans and spirits met. She was, in so many ways, the person he wanted to be.

Most of the kernels had bounced away to the floor. He looked carefully at the positions of those that remained, where they lay on a grid that served as both game board and tool of their art. The signs were all too familiar.

“This is Stenson.” Menelaeus pointed at a dark, twisted symbol marked by the corn. “Tomorrow we will suffer his wrath.” He pointed to the signs for suffering and for the field hands, both singled out by his spirit twin through the grain. Another symbol had been marked, one that filled him with even more dread. “There will be a death.”

“Again.” Octavia nodded. “Now tell me anything we can use to lessen the harm.”


“Keep back, boy.” Blood dripped from Stenson’s whip. At his feet, Octavia Brown lay dead beside the cotton buds she had dropped in the dirt – ruined, as Stenson put it.

At least Octavia’s son Saul was not here. His fury would have got him killed. Thanks to Menelaeus and Octavia, the Brown children would not be orphans.

That knowledge did nothing to still Menelaeus’s pounding heart. He wanted to rip out Stenson’s throat with his bare hands. But Stenson and his men had guns, and Menelaeus would not be the only one they would punish.

So he stood still and silent. But now he knew – divining the future was not enough. He had to shape it.


In the stillness of the night, Menelaeus stared at the totem, two carved beings intertwined. He could still feel his spirit twin, but without Octavia he was weaker, and he needed to be stronger than he ever had. He was just a man, and that was not enough.

“Stenson comin’ for you.” Saul stood beside Menelaeus’s bed. “Says you been stirrin’ trouble. You want I should kill him?”

His voice was ragged, torn up by hate.

“No.” Menelaeus rose from the bed. “Ain’t no-one else gonna fight for me. But I’m gonna need some things of your momma’s.”


“Who the hell d’you think you are, boy?” Stenson’s voice was even more menacing coming from the darkness behind the lanterns. His men cackled at his words. “Goddam faggot as well as a nigger now, huh?”

“My name is Meredith.” It felt natural, not just the name but the dress and the shawl. Becoming more than just the man he had been. Becoming both parts of the divination.

As the person who had been Menelaeus placed the corn kernels on the drum, she could feel the power flowing through her, her spirit twin stronger for sharing her change, for breaking a line that defined and divided him.

“Always knew you were an uppity nigger.” Stenson’s gun clicked. “Now we gonna end that.”

“No.” Meredith slid a kernel across the drum skin, from the sign for the overseer to that for death.

A shot rang out.

“Oh shit!” A different voice this time. White, male, scared.

“What the hell you done, Hank?” The lights shifted, illuminating Stenson’s body and casting Meredith back into shadow.

“I don’t know,” the man whimpered. “It just gone off in my hand. I don’t…”

As fear turned to panic and accusation, Meredith picked up her drum. The plantation men would be busy for a good long while.

As she walked away into the night she touched the totem hanging around her neck and remembered Octavia. She felt torn by loss, and yet, more than ever, she felt whole.

Lies banner 2

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This is the latest in a series of stories set in a weird western setting, where magic is (for the most part) achieved through games. I think this one may have given me more insight into how that works. If you enjoyed this then you might also like the previous stories, Straight Poker and Counting Coup. And you can read my other weird western work in my steampunk collection Riding the Mainspring, which is free if you sign up to my mailing list.

This particular story comes about thanks to Ben Moxon, who came up with the idea for connecting games and divination through a decorated drum. He also led me to this fascinating article on divination, around which Menelaeus/Meredith is built.

Cold Magic by Kate Elliott

I haven’t always been a fan of big fantasy books. If a novel comes labelled ‘First in the Epic Saga’ and is heavy enough to kill a charging rhino, odds are I won’t even read the blurb. But over the past year or so, my mind has been changed. Thanks to the excellent recommendations of programmer, folk rocker, horseman and general renaissance man Glenatron, I’ve discovered that some of these hefty tomes aren’t just a perfectly passable way to fill a fortnight’s reading. Some of them are – and I’m overcoming years of prejudice to say this – really worth your time.

Cold Magic by Kate Elliott, despite one central flaw I’ll get to later, is one of those books.

Character, History and Gender

Set in a very different 19th century Europe, Cold Magic is the story of Cat Barahal, a young woman weeks away from adulthood. Taken from her family as part of a long standing magical and political pact, she finds herself in the hands of a powerful house of sorcerers. These cold mages form an alternate aristocracy alongside the traditional lords and princes, their authority entangling in messy, complicated ways. Their political schemes soon threaten Cat’s life, as well as that of her beloved cousin Bee, and it’s up to Cat to… oh, you get the idea.

Cat is a likeable if prickly protagonist. Like Jane Austen’s heroines, she’s written in such a way that the reader realises things she doesn’t, even though the story is written from her point of view. Getting that right takes skill, and it’s a skill Elliott has clearly mastered.

But the biggest appeal for me about this character is the way that she is presented as a woman in a gendered society. Some fantasy authors address the gender inequality of feudal societies by simply ignoring it. That’s fine, you can do what you want with your world, but it means we miss out on exploring the consequences of inequality. Others just take it for granted and provide no female characters with real control over their lives – not a great example to current and future generations. Elliot does something I like far more. She presents an unequal society, and then shows how Cat deals with the consequences of that inequality. From the social order of her school to the prejudice against a scarred female veteran, gender imbalance is in the details as well as the big picture of Cat’s arranged marriage and assumed disposability. But both she and Bee empower themselves despite that, and that makes for a great character in an interesting setting.

A Whole New World

That setting is one of the biggest draws of this book. As Elliott writes in the back, it was inspired by a long world building exercise that she carried out with others, and that attention to detail shows. Climate, geography, politics, economics, social norms – so much is revealed, and it’s all fascinating. There are elements of fantasy, like the feathered trolls, alongside steampunk airships. There are spies and intrigues, wars and treaties, two thousand years of history impinging on the present. It cleverly winds strands from real history into the mix. The classical references are nice, but it was when I realised who the infamous General Camjiata represented that things fell into place for me.

Most interesting to a social lefty like me was the depiction of society beyond that scheming elite. We see the pervasive oppression that comes with a long standing feudal hierarchy, just like the one that dominated in early 19th century Europe. We also see the horrors of factory life, the way that the transformations of the Industrial Revolution led to a whole new kind of oppression for the vast majority of people. And we see the reactions against this – riots and revolutionary plots, the sort of stuff that left me white-knuckled with excitement when studying 19th century history. These aren’t things I’ve seen a lot of fantasy novels, and I look forward to seeing their consequences explored in the rest of the series.

Stop, Exposition Time!

Having said all of that, the loving and detailed world building also leads to this book’s big flaw – exposition. Elliott has built a wonderful world and quite rightly wants to share it, but sometimes the explanations get clunky. The plot will grind to a halt for two pages of background on ancient wars. Sometimes characters will explain things they have no real reason to explain, in a manner usually reserved for the least charismatic university professors, just to get information across to the reader. And much as I loved the world these sections presented, the way they presented it threw me out of the story and made it feel less real.

I’m going to come back to this in a future blog post, because I want to compare it with some other approaches, one of them equally problematic in a very different way. And it may be less of an issue for those accustomed to reading those rhino-slaying fantasy tomes – after all, this is one of the things that puts me off epic series fantasy in general. But if you’re going to have a problem with the book, this will probably be it.

Lessons Learned

By now it should be obvious that as a reader I liked this, and that I’ll be reading more of this series. But what did I learn as a writer?

Learning from others’ mistakes, it was a reminder of the disruption exposition can cause, and just how carefully it has to be handled. There are far worse offenders where this is concerned, but it’s a useful reminder.

As for what Elliott gets right, there’s so very much. How to position a strong-willed female protagonist in an unequal society. How to use hints of history for richer world building. How to reference other things without it becoming smug or putting the reader off. How to weave an intricate tangle of events for the protagonist to fall into.

I’ll be mulling this one over for a while, and that in itself counts as a recommendation.

Female Superhero Movie Franchises: What Would Ellen Ripley Say?

A special treat today – I have a guest post from Sue Archer of the Doorway Between Worlds blog. I’m a fan of the way Sue uses science fiction and fantasy to explore topics around communication, and it’s a pleasure to host her opinions on another topic here today, one that I’ve touched on in the past. So without further ado…

Female Superhero Movie Franchises: What Would Ellen Ripley Say?

When I was eight years old, my parents gave me a copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I devoured the story, identifying with the plucky character of Lucy. I then went on to read A Wrinkle in Time, and got drawn in to the world of Meg Murray, who was geeky (like me) and who saved her brother from evil. And I knew: science fiction and fantasy were written for me. This was a genre where girls could save the world.

When I was ten years old, I played with She-Ra: Princess of Power dolls, because other dolls were downright boring next to ones who could use swords and magic. I watched the various incarnations of the Justice League and Marvel characters on television and pretended that I was a superhero like Wonder Woman.

When I was twelve years old, a movie came out that I wasn’t old enough to see yet. In this movie, an ordinary woman fought against the odds to save humanity from aliens. The movie went on to spawn several sequels, and the female lead became a hugely popular character.

Her name was Ellen Ripley. And the year Aliens came out? 1986.


Fast forward twenty-eight years later. Count ’em: Twenty-eight. We are in 2014, and since Ellen Ripley, I have not seen another adult female character leading a movie franchise in the speculative fiction genre. (The closest thing so far is The Hunger Games, but it’s aimed at more of a teenage audience.) Frankly, I’m tired of waiting for another one. What happened?

The Wonder Woman That Wasn’t

There certainly hasn’t been a lack of trying by those who understand that this genre is for women as well as men. Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame was slated to helm a Wonder Woman film. Joss Whedon and Wonder Woman! Alas, that movie never got off the ground. And now we’re left with DC introducing Wonder Woman as a secondary character to Superman and Batman in their next superhero film. Apparently the studio thinks my favourite Amazon is just not strong enough to have her own movie. Which is ridiculous.

Superheroes Without Superpowers

I love the Marvel movies, but I’m disappointed that they aren’t making definite moves towards a female-led superhero film. Instead, we’ve had female characters who are part of a team: Black Widow, a female assassin in a bodysuit who has no superpowers; and Gamora—wait for it—a female assassin in a bodysuit who has no superpowers. Black Widow was done well, while Gamora had an underused backstory and was upstaged by a sarcastic raccoon and a talking tree. Neither of these women were leads. I’m tired of looking for small victories. When will we get a movie about Captain Marvel? Or another Marvel female character who is just as powerful as the men?

Men as Women

And I don’t mean a female character who is based off of a powerful male one. Marvel’s announcement of a female Thor being introduced in their comics annoyed me. I would have no issue with Sif taking up the hammer of Thor and wielding its powers as herself. But for the woman taking the hammer to be called Thor? This is insulting. Other characters have taken up Mjolnir in the past and gained the powers of Thor, but they kept their names. Why does the woman have to lose hers and be called Thor? It reminds me of Batgirl, Supergirl, and all of those other characters that were derived from male ones. Is Marvel afraid of developing a new standalone female character? That’s just sad.

Superwomen vs. Hollywood

I’ve heard all of the arguments about why a female-led movie franchise is not being made. And none of them make any sense.

Well, look what happened when we made Elektra and Catwoman. No one turned out, so clearly the appetite is not there for female-led movies. (It couldn’t possibly be because they were terrible movies.)

Women don’t go to see these kinds of movies, so we wouldn’t make any money. (Too bad that according to the MPAA, 42% of the domestic audience who came to see Iron Man 3 were women. Superhero movies in general are coming in at around 40% women in the audience. Not to mention you’re assuming men don’t want to see women superheroes. Not true of the men I know.)

We’ve already made plans for other movies, so you’ll need to wait a few years. (So change your plans. You could if you really wanted to.)

And this is the crux of it. The movie industry is made up largely of men who don’t really want to produce movies about female superheroes. So, unfortunately, I think I’ll be waiting for a few more years before I see what I want. (Some possible light at the end of the tunnel: There have been some recent rumours about an unnamed female-led movie in the Spiderman universe for 2017. I’ll believe it when I see it.)

What I’d pay money to see: Ellen Ripley facing down the leaders of The Company, also known as Hollywood movie execs. I can only imagine what she would say.

In the meantime, I’m off to watch my copy of Aliens.

Which female-led shows have you enjoyed? Who would you like to see on the big screen?


Thank you to Sue for the post. If you enjoyed it then please go read more of her views on the Doorway Between Worlds.