Don’t Publish Your First Draft! Go Set a Watchman Reviewed

I wasn’t going to read Go Set a Watchman. My interest was piqued enough by the sketchy circumstances surrounding its publication that I read “Atticus Was Always a Racist: Why Go Set a Watchman Is No Surprise” by Catherine Nichols over at Jezebel, which I thought told me everything I needed to know.

Then Harper Lee died, another round of articles came out, and for some reason I thought, “Okay, fine, I’ll read Watchman now.” I do like to be Well Read after all, and I was in need of another book at the time. I guess news as advertising works.

So I read it. And my first impulse was right. It was not worth my time. It is not worth anyone’s time.

It’s a goddamn first draft.

This isn’t news. It’s there in the Wikipedia. Harper Lee wrote Watchman in the 1950s. She used this manuscript to attract a publisher, Tay Hohoff. Hohoff really liked Lee’s work — she described Watchman by saying, “[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line.” But she also noted that it was, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.”

So Hohoff helped Lee through several drafts, until Watchman became To Kill a Mockingbird. Along the way, the focus of the story changed. Watchman is about Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a young woman, coming to grips with the fact that her paragon father Atticus is merely human after all in rather dramatic fashion, against the backdrop of late 1940s southern race relations (which were shockingly bad). Mockingbird, by contrast, features Scout as a child who observes Atticus’s struggles as a white lawyer defending a black man in court in the early twentieth century south (when race relations were even worse).

It is true that at one point there were two sequels planned for Mockingbird, and if Watchman had been edited it might have served as book three of that planned series. But it has not been edited. As a result, there are some big issues. Tom Robinson, the black defendant, is found guilty in Mockingbird, but acquitted in Watchman. There are passages copied from one book to the other. Some characters are more thinly conceived of in Watchman than in Mockingbird, which is weird for something marketed as a sequel.

But the worst offense in my mind is the ending of Watchman. It is completely outdated in a way that no part of Mockingbird is. Jean Louise is dismayed by the overt racism of Atticus, her pseudo-boyfriend Henry “Hank” Clinton, and diverse other characters. She does not remember these characters being so racist during her childhood, and doesn’t understand what has changed. She fights with Atticus, Hank, and her uncle Jack about it, and eventually comes to an understanding with them. And part of that understanding is a good laugh at the notion that most people would ever marry outside of their race.

Maybe that was one of the more centrist positions on the issue in the 1940s and ‘50s, but as the key plank in Atticus’s bridge across the philosophical gap between himself and his daughter it is groan-worthy. This is a book about race published in 2015. It was predestined that people in mixed-race marriages would read it, and they did, including myself.

I don’t know why Lee didn’t edit Watchman, whip it into shape at least a little for its twenty-first century audience. I imagine she must not have been capable — the soundness of her mind was extensively questioned when news of Watchman’s impending publication first surfaced. I can’t imagine she simply didn’t want to expend the effort.

Whatever the reason, Watchman remains a first draft, an early version of a thing that got better. Yes, the focus and plot are substantially different from what it became. That doesn’t make it a stand-alone object, worthy of being contemplated on its own.

And while it could be argued that seeing a Great Novelist’s creative process laid bare is instructive, I argue otherwise. You learn writing by reading a lot of finished texts (both ones that you love and ones that you hate), and then by writing your own. Lee’s process is only meaningful to me because I already know it, and can relate to it. I have learned nothing by seeing Lee in her proverbial underwear, and I don’t even have the benefit of voyeuristic thrill. I just feel mildly embarrassed for her.

Alright. I guess I could have learned that Atticus Finch was a racist all along. But like Nichols said, if you paid attention, Atticus always was.


Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Is a Drag (a Review)

I’ve talked a few times about my reading practice — and considering how easy it is to take all your enter/edu-tainment by screen these days, it is a practice. I’m always reading at least one book. I choose books to fill in gaps — foundational speculative fiction I missed growing up, more current books by female or minority authors, and the odd piece of classic straight fiction.

So when we were sorting through my grandparents’ stuff, I kept a few choice pieces of straight fiction for myself. And one of those books was Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.

If my copy had not once belonged to my dearly departed grandparents, I would have put it down about 100 pages in, because this book is not worth it. Certainly it has its good points — it wasn’t a bestseller in the 80’s for nothing — but it is not worth it. It’s 900+ pages, it’s a friggin’ commitment. What do I expect in 900 pages? I expect an adventure, a transformation, a truly notable series of events, enjoyable characters. What did I get?

A vivid picture of what history looked like on the ground, among the commons, during the late 1800s and early 1900s in the American South. A memorable narrator, plucky Lucy Marsden, the titular widow.

And victims.

Every single character is developed as a tragic victim of circumstance, pushed into a certain mindset and mode of behavior by the intersections of gender, race, age, and the politics of the post-Civil War South. Even the characters who should have been villains — the slave-owning grandmother-in-law, the abusive and neglectful Confederate veteran husband, the parents who force Lucy (fourteen year old) into her burdensome marriage with said husband (who is fifty) — are instead portrayed as victims with their own struggles.

And that’s fine, except no one is held accountable. It’s all just a tragedy embedded in distant, impersonal history.

Don’t get me wrong, I love historical fiction. But Gurganus makes a big mistake. He frames the whole novel as a story told by elderly Lucy to a visitor in her retirement home. So rather than tell the past as if it were present, Lucy/Gurganus keeps reminding us that it’s the past. Everyone’s already dead. Lucy’s story is over, and no, she never left her husband.

And even that would be fine, except Lucy Marsden likes to pretend there was some love in her travesty of a marriage. She reassures us there were good times with Captain William Marsden, but never tells us about them.

And maybe that’s just fine too. There are lots of battered, neglected wives who don’t leave their abusive, self-centered husbands. But to ask me to spend 900+ pages worth of my time in their loveless disaster of a marriage?


But hark — 400 pages in, Lucy hints that she does spend some time on the loose, run away from her old Captain. So that’s what I was banking on for the next 400 pages. When does Lucy run away? How does she handle her nine kids when she does? Is it anything like Carolyn Jessop’s FLDS memoir Escape, only fleeing her bearded husband-patriarch in a Model-T instead of an SUV?

No, it’s nothing like Escape. Lucy doesn’t escape. She leaves for an evening, then creeps back at 4AM filled with guilt for nearly abandoning her kids. She makes plans for a second escape attempt, this time with the kids, only to learn the Captain just had a stroke on a hunting trip.

So she soldiers on, caring for her now disabled, senile husband along with their nine kids.

To add insult to injury, with less than 100 pages to go the book breaks character. The endless, relentless, historical “realism” of victimhood and tragedy lifts for a chapter about baby poop. Baby Marsden (the character’s actual name) swallows Lucy’s wedding ring, and the whole chapter that follows is a weirdly unfunny poop joke.

With the book’s character broken, I couldn’t take the ending seriously. Captain Marsden, intermittently violent throughout the book, has lost his mind to his stroke. So he tries to strangle Lucy. Twice. The second time, Lucy kills him with his own Civil War scabbard in self defense.

It’s a solid ending, but tacked onto 900 pages of poop (literally and figuratively) it’s too little too late.

Sick Time Equals Media Consumption! (a bunch of random reviews)

I started the new year with a cold, so I’ve been consuming a lot of media. Here are my impressions on what I have watched and read both while I was sick, and just in recent memory. Some of my selections are current and trending, some are not. As always, assume spoilers.


The Flash: Season One
I started out really liking this show, and hating it by the end. I liked most of the characters (Mark Hamill’s Trickster being my hands-down fav), and there were some really great fights (especially early on), but the whole thing bogs down when Barry Allen and Co start taking prisoners. It bothers me that they keep people in solitary 24 hours a day, and there was rarely any evidence in the show that the prisoners were being fed, or talked to, or given any room to exercise.

I don’t care if they’re scary meta-humans that no normal prison is equipped to deal with, that’s still torture. And the show never does enough to address this gaping thematic wound to satisfy me.

Then the secret keeping got really tiresome. By mid-season, every time Barry and Iris were on screen together, I started shouting, “JUST TELL HER YOU’RE THE FLASH!”

And then the season finale — oy vey. The few reviews I read were mostly positive, but I thought it was awful. The “science” was especially laughable. Barry talks himself out of time-traveling and then does it anyway, and accomplishes nothing by it. And Eddie kills himself to stop Eobard, who didn’t need to be stopped at that moment, thereby depriving us of two of the show’s main characters AND causing a wormhole to destabilize, endangering the whole world and ending the season on a cheap-looking CG cliffhanger.

The whole point was to get Eddie out of the way so Barry and Iris can be together next season sans any pesky moral qualms, I guess. But then why even create Eddie and his relationship with Iris in the first place?

The season had a lot of promise, a lot of good characters, but it honestly felt like a first-draft script still focused on an end the writers had unknowingly written themselves out of. Despite Grant Gustin’s adorable face and the promise of more crossovers with Arrow (some of the best parts), I’m not all that interested in the further adventures of Barry Allen.

Arrow: Season Two
I’m a season behind in this show — oh well. I’ll keep it short. The overall arc was good, but this season had a lot of padding, and again there were too many characters keeping too many secrets from each other. Writer’s hint — having characters reveal information about each other to each other moves the plot along.

But I thought it ended fabulously (is Dark Thea as much fun in Season 3 as I think she’s going to be?), and I could watch Stephen Amell climb that salmon ladder all damn day.

South Park: Season 19
Wow. Who would have thought that South Park would run for 19 years and still show no sign of stopping? I grew up with this show, and it’s really grown too in a way that The Simpsons and Family Guy haven’t. It still looks sophomoric when I compare it to Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s other big, important work, The Book of Mormon, but compared to where it started with an elephant fucking a pig? Why, it’s positively sophisticated now.

Season 19 is all about how Internet culture affects our lives and how we relate to each other. Like Season 18 (but entirely separate from it, as Randy Marsh doesn’t seem to be Lorde anymore), the narrative continues and builds from episode to episode. We follow the rise and fall of gentrification in South Park, and some surprisingly nuanced points are made about poverty, new trends in marketing, and new trends in media. The town is literally updated, with new minority characters added as well as new locations and amenities. The show actually mocks its old self by having the characters desperately point to Token as their example of a non-white friend to try and prove they are progressive.

I’ve felt kind of “meh” about South Park for awhile, but season 19 is very good. Even that weird episode about yaoi. It is absolutely worth a watch.


Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin
Having only read the first two of Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea books, I grabbed another of her books at random off the library shelf. Changing Planes turned out to be a collection of travel journal articles about imaginary places. Each reads like an entry one might expect from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, only less comedic and more philosophical. Each story presents a new, alien “plane” that stands in insightful juxtaposition to our own. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and I highly recommend it.

The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King
Considering that Stephen King is my writing guru (his On Writing is really, really good), I haven’t read all that much of his stuff. I’ve seen The Mist and The Shining, I finished off The Dark Tower series earlier this year, and I’ve read Cujo and some of his short stories and, of course, On Writing.

So I also picked up something at random from King off the library shelf. The Eyes of the Dragon is a solid YA fantasy novel, good fun on its own but with some surprise appearances of characters and settings from The Dark Tower.

I like King’s penchant for self-crossovers and reimaginings. It fits in with my own understanding that a character, once formed for one story, is going to be re-used and recycled and reimagined by fans, and possibly fit into other “real”, published stories later. Like how the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz has transformed into Elphaba from Wicked. Or how there are dozens of versions of King Arthur between books, movies, and TV shows, from child Arthur of The Once and Future King to jock Arthur of Merlin to comedic Arthur of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

No reason the original author can’t also get in on the reimagination action.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
I’m stretching back in time a bit here (I finished this one last summer), but I just wanted to add this book to my review dump here. While the ending was messy and the world doesn’t make sense if you stop to think about it, the whole thing is super stylish, high energy, and fun. If you’re like me and you think you should probably read more sci-fi to expand your fantasy-oriented reading list, pick this one up.


The Hateful Eight
Oh look, a timely review instead of a totally random one! I saw The Hateful Eight just before I got sick, and it was amazing. Amazing. I don’t want to spoil much because this movie is such a ride, but I will point out that Captain Phasma wasn’t the only “non-traditional” (i.e. not a sexpot) female villain this Holiday Season. I have never seen a woman in a film treated like Daisy Domergue before.

Seriously, this movie is a must-see. Like, go see it! Now!

The Thing
I discovered that Quentin Tarantino was heavily inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing in making The Hateful Eight. So when I got sick, I decided to watch The Thing. And it’s good! I love traditional film effects, and the ooey gooey monsters in this film are tops.

Watching the films nearly back to back, the parallels are pretty obvious. Both take place in snowy isolation (Antarctica vs. late 1800s Wisconsin), and both involve a group of people who start picking each other off because they are infected (by an alien…virus?/by hate, bigotry, and greed). And Ennio Morricone wrote excellent soundtracks for both. Apart from that, the characters and genres are quite different, so the two movies don’t just feel like an echo of each other.

I like The Hateful Eight better. The dialogue is better, the acting is better, it actually passes the Bechdel test for women as well as people of color, and the filmography is so pretty you’ll cry. But if you want to feel like a real film buff, give The Thing a watch too. Those monsters are totally worth it.

Bone Tomahawk
Now that I’ve gotten started, I could keep going. My husband and I watch a lot of movies together, especially horror, because my husband loooooves horror. But I’ll stop for now with the excellent horror/western we watched yesterday; Bone Tomahawk.

Despite the title and the assumptions you can probably draw from it, I don’t think this movie is racist. At first glance the murderous bad guys are “Indians”. But my favorite character, “The Professor”, is played by actual Native American Zahn McClarnon, and he states, “They aren’t Indians. They are Troglodytes.” And while dictionary-troglodytes don’t have tusks, or throat bones that make them sound like a pack of wolves, neither do Native Americans.

Like The Hateful Eight, most of the characters are white men, but like The Hateful Eight there are enough “minority” characters and the film is conscious enough about race and sex that I won’t complain. The acting is great, and the dialogue is superb — I felt like I was watching something new by Shakespeare at times.

The plot is a bit bare-bones, so (unlike Shakespeare, or The Hateful Eight) there isn’t a whole lot to think about after watching it. But it’s a solid film, and I do recommend it to western fans and horror fans alike. Don’t let the title turn you off.

Quentin Coldwater’s a Whiner: The Magicians Trilogy Reviewed

Alas, I still don’t have a new illustration for you. Lately my life has been hectic, and not conducive to creative projects. Happily there is light at the end of this particular tunnel, so maybe next time.

But for now, another book review.

Another trilogy review, actually. This time, I’ve gobbled up Lev Grossman’s The Magicians Trilogy, and it is good. Very good.  But I didn’t think so at first.

The problem was Quentin Coldwater, whose shoulder we perch on throughout The Magicians and for much of The Magician King and The Magician’s Land. Quentin grows up longing for magic, and then finds it while applying for college. Like Harry Potter (whose books are referenced frequently, along with Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, and Discworld), Quentin is whisked out of his ordinary life to join Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Except unlike Harry Potter, magic and friendship don’t solve all his problems.

Which I like. I like Grossman’s more grown-up, sometimes tongue-in-cheek approach that still manages to hold so much whimsy. I like the self-awareness of the characters. They come from our own world, read the same books we’ve probably read, and so know the rules of magical lands and adventures without having actually been on them before. Like how quests just work out if you go with it, or how to assume the role of a King, or a Queen, or a Magician for that matter.

I like the various settings. There aren’t too many fantasy novels whose lands I would actually want to visit — they’re usually too war-torn and scary. But Brakebills is totally a college I would have attended. I would be happy to explore the Narnia-esque kingdom of Fillory, or even the eerie, endless Neitherlands.

And I really like Grossman’s take on the practice of magic. It’s hard. It requires an unbelievable amount of esoteric knowledge and finger dexterity. It requires mind-meltingly difficult calculations regarding the Conditions — time of day and year, latitude, temperature, etc. — to determine just how a spell should be adjusted and cast. To keep up with all this, the Brakebills students are all young geniuses; academic over-achievers, bored, intoxicant-seeking, and generally dissatisfied with their mundane schools and lives.

The result is that the characters are all damaged and self-hating, and none more so than Quentin. That’s usually fun for me. I have my own issues, and so do many of my closest friends. But there’s no obvious reason for Quentin’s deep malaise. Parents still together, no history of abuse, no dead friends, no chronic illness. He’s just aimless, and being aimless, terribly unhappy.

I can empathize, but after awhile it gets old. I got really tired of Quentin after The Magicians, and didn’t plan to go back for more of him.

But after a few months I went back anyway.

Part of it was that — in hindsight — the magical settings and beings and quests were so damn creative, they overshadowed my memories of what a self-destructive whiner Quentin Coldwater was.  Good fantasy is hard to find, and even if I didn’t like Quentin this was the good, pure stuff.

And part of it was solidarity.  Admittedly, Grossman doesn’t need my solidarity; he’s a successful author with books out, and merchandise to match.  And I’m not.  (Yet.)

But I’ve got my own self-loathing magus, Thades Morgan, and I’ve had my own beta readers go every which way on their opinions of him.  Mostly they love him, but one reader detested his melancholy.  So I toned it down, only to have a more savvy beta reader tell me that she wasn’t always convinced by Thades — that I should make him more disgusted with himself again.

You just can’t please everyone, can you?

In any event, I gave Quentin Coldwater another chance, and I’m glad I did.  Quentin matures considerably in The Magician King and The Magician’s Land, and learns to like himself.  The spells get bigger and flashier, more of Fillory is revealed, and the adventures get more creative and intense.  And Grossman does something really smart — as the story gets bigger, he switches from sticking with Quentin to hopping around between his friends.  And they too progress from dysfunction to finding peace with themselves, no matter what transformations they go through.

The Magicians Trilogy is just fantastic, really.  And if you get frustrated with Quentin, as I did, don’t worry.  You’re in the hands of a master here.  Lev Grossman’s the real magician.

The Love Triangle Kingdoms: The Inheritance Trilogy Reviewed

You’ve seen a little of my own project now, and there will be more illustrations, more glimpses into the world of Endrion and the story of Proper Magic. But a writer has to keep reading, and I’ve been reading, so I’d like to share my thoughts on NK Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy.

Let’s face it, fantasy is a genre founded by and dominated by white men. There are a good number of female writers, but most of them are white too. Really, apart from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a full length fantasy novel by a minority writer. (And because she’s Toni Morrison, I’m probably the only person who classifies Beloved, a ghost story, as fantasy.)

I wanted to change that. I wanted to diversify my reading just as I try to diversify my writing. So I poked around online, discovered The Inheritance Trilogy, and devoured all three books.

This is some classy fantasy. The three stories are all tightly woven, each one self contained but progressing from the last. They focus on the three gods of the unnamed world and all their children (both godlings and half-mortal demons), and how their family dramas have shaped their world.

It threatens to get cheesy at times, as so much of the story rests on the relationships between characters who are not remotely human. But Jemisin knows how to depict these godly characters. They are at once fluid in form and rigid in nature, comfortable with taking multiple lovers and yet jealous all the same. They are powerful, and use that power convincingly.

The writing is lush, the tales are epic, and Jemisin is confident and skilled enough to take us to some dark places while still giving us a big helping of whimsy and a happy-ish ending.

I have some niggling issues, the biggest of which is that the title of the first book — The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms — promises a big, varied world.  Instead, the world ends up feeling small. All three books are centered around one city, Sky (later Sky-in-Shadow). About 90% of the trilogy happens in Sky, and about 50% of it happens in one palace in that city. The rest of the world is described from time to time, but we don’t get to ramble and roam there much.

But that’s my biggest complaint; I want more.

So if you like character-driven fantasy that is both sweeping and intimate, powerful and mercurial gods, family and romantic drama, and political intrigue, definitely pick up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods.

And if you know of any other minority fantasy or science fiction writers you think I should check out, let me know in the comments.

Dreaming and Awakening (Two Reviews, Plus Philosophical Meanderings!)

SPOILERS for Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and also for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

The Awakening is an interesting cultural artifact, a proto-feminist novel that was nearly lost.  Written in the early 1900s, forgotten, then picked up again and lauded in the 1960s.

Since then it has been critiqued to death.

Seriously, my edition contains 100 pages of novel, and 200 pages of historical information and literary dissection.

I did not read those 200 pages, so maybe I’m going to say things that have already been said.  But (blog post spoilers) since I do tie this back to speculative fiction, maybe I’ll say something new.

The author, Kate Chopin, was an up-and-coming American writer in the early 1900s.  She was rich — not from writing, but from smart real estate investments — had five kids, liked to go out walking by herself (scandalous!), and for most of her life had no man.  She grew up in a household full of widows, and then later lost her own husband.

At a time in history when women were more or less owned by their husbands, she was something special.

Then Chopin wrote The Awakening.

It’s the story Edna Pontellier, a New Orleans Creole woman who “awakens” to her own emotionality, and discovers that she hates her life.  She does not love her husband, and has no interest in raising her own children.

Edna changes her life as best as she can within the constraints of early 1900s, New Orleans, white, upper class society.  But she can find no solidarity.  Her good friend Adele reminds her, “Oh think of your children!”  And the man she loves, Robert, abandons Edna to spare them both the indignity of Edna’s otherwise inevitable divorce.

That’s not the end of the story, but I have a few thoughts to share before I get there.

The first is that this book is hilariously, offensively old fashioned.  If this was popular in the ‘60s, no wonder feminism got off on the wrong foot with women of color!  A tacit, Southern respect for the Confederacy pervades the novel.  There are an impressive number of brown and black characters, but almost all are minimally described servants.

For example, Edna’s nanny appears at least half-a-dozen times, but is only ever known as “the quadroon”.

Edna’s reliance on visible but largely overlooked black people, while desiring her own freedom, creates a bizarre cognitive dissonance.  I don’t know Chopin well enough to say if this is deliberate on her part or not.  If she meant to say something about race, as well as sex and class, or if the statement made itself without her conscious effort.

The second is that the ending is inevitable within the framework and philosophies of straight fiction.

The ending, if you haven’t guessed, is that Edna kills herself.

It’s not out of the blue.  Edna’s been emotionally unstable the whole time.  (She does mask it well, but that’s easy when you have black people around to cook your meals, clean your house, and raise your children for you.)  She keeps making impulsive decisions, feeling no responsibility toward anyone in her life until Adele and Robert remind her.

Think of your children.  Think of your husband.

Due to the intersection of gender, class, and race, Edna can never have the life she wants, she can never be free.  She’s screwed her life up too much already, having a husband and two children she doesn’t want.  So she kills herself.

The ending fits the book.  Chopin built up to it skillfully, with a familiarity that lets me know she had experienced great sadness herself.  But suicide has its pros and cons as a literary device.  It’s a hard ending.  It’s over for Edna Pontellier, there is no Part II.  There’s no imagining how she’ll get out of her situation.

Much has been felt, even learned, but no solution is presented.

I’m not being fair to Kate Chopin.  This book was radical at the time, so much so that despite positive reviews from women, Chopin’s career ended with Edna’s death.  And reading it helped a lot of people “awaken” to feminism.

But I’d like to compare it to my favorite suicide in fantasy; Dream, AKA Morpheus in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comic books.

Dream is the personification of the concept of dreams, an amalgam of REM cycles, whimsy, and hope.  But at the beginning of the series he is imprisoned by a magic spell.  He escapes 70 years later, but he never gets over it.  Dream has been sullied.

He builds himself a trap, an inevitable end for himself where he must die.  Sometimes he seems like he knows what he’s doing, sometimes he doesn’t, but in the end he dies.

And because this is fantasy, Dream is then reborn.  He gets to try again.

Obviously, these are two very different stories, rendered in different media, with vastly different purposes and themes.  They are both worthy of reading, and of serious consideration.  And I like them both.

But I like Sandman better.  I like that uptick of continuance and hope that so much of fantasy has.  I like the struggle through symbolism towards life, and towards wellness.

I had a friend ask me one time why I was writing fantasy if I was so interested in the psychology of my characters, if I was so interested in gender and race.  Well, I’ll tell you.

It’s because fiction ends with death, and that’s just where fantasy gets started.

Tainted, Kilted Love: Outlander & Dragonfly in Amber Reviewed

Considering that Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series stretches across eight novels (and two novellas, one short story, and one graphic novel), and I’ve only read the first two, maybe I’m about to put my foot in my mouth.  But I did promise my fellow blogger kestrelforaknave some words once I finished Dragonfly in Amber, so here they are.

First, to clarify, I have not seen the Starz Outlander show.  I have no idea how closely it follows the books, or if it has reached the Point of Contention yet.  If you want to read about the show, I’m afraid this isn’t the post for you.

Second, SPOILERS!!!  I will try not to reveal too much about the overall plots of Outlander (Book 1), or Dragonfly in Amber (Book 2), but I will be talking in depth about the relationship between the two main characters.  If you want to start this book series without knowing anything at all, read no further.

Okay, did I chase off all my readers?  Good.  Here we go.

The Outlander series follows the historical, romantic, and marginally sci-fi adventures of Claire Randall/Beauchamp/Fraser, an Englishwoman and World War II nurse.  In Book 1, Claire accidentally leaves her husband, historian Frank Randall, behind in 1945 when she stumbles through some Scottish standing stones that send her back to 1743.  She is first assaulted by one of Frank’s ancestors, Captain Jack Randall, an English dragoon, and then is kidnapped by a band of Scottish cattle rustlers.

The Scots take Claire to Castle Leoch, stronghold of the MacKenzie clan, and far away from the standing stones and her hopes of reuniting with Frank.

Claire looks terribly suspicious to the English as well as the Scots.  (It doesn’t help that the English and the Scots really don’t like each other in the 1740s.)  Claire’s nursing skills give her a chance — armed with germ theory and practice from stitching up WWII wounded, she quickly gains reputation as a healer with uncommon skill.  But she is still assumed to be someone’s spy.  The MacKenzies are ordered to take Claire to an English prison, where she will likely be tortured by Jack Randall himself.  To save herself from this, Claire is forced to marry Jaime Fraser.

This isn’t so terrible — Claire already has the hots for Jaime, red maned Scottish Adonis that he is.  And Claire is a pragmatic woman.  She must remain free and whole if she is ever to return to Frank.

Yet by the end of Book 1, Claire CHOOSES to stay in the very dangerous past with Jaime instead of returning to “modernity” and Frank.  And at first glance, the choice doesn’t make any sense, considering the Point of Contention.

Just what is the Point of Contention?  One time, after Claire acts recklessly and puts her few allies in danger, Jaime beats the crap out of Claire.

Personally, I applaud Gabaldon for having the guts to write this twist into an otherwise perfect relationship — and to write it happening largely on page, in the first person of the victim.  I applaud her for not patronizing her readers with a sanitized version of history — in her 1740s Europe, constant illness and physical and sexual abuse is the norm.  But admittedly, Gabaldon didn’t stick the landing on the Point of Contention.

Jaime gets back in Claire’s good graces within days, and she chooses to happily follow him into outlawry, murder, treason, and mortal peril.

I’ve read a number of reviews on Book 1 where the reader could not get past this.  And that’s fine.  The book is frequently billed as romance, and as I understand it romance is not supposed to be risky — it’s supposed to be safe.  For the more adventurous romance fan, or someone who came for the history, or the sci-fi, the beating is totally icky and deserves a trigger-warning.  If this kind of morally gray place isn’t somewhere you want to be, I can respect that.

But in Gabaldon’s defense, CLAIRE IS NOT OUR CONTEMPORARY!  Book 1 was published in 1991, but Claire is from 1945.  Perhaps a little spousal abuse doesn’t seem like anything to get worked up over to her, especially since Jaime makes a great case for himself (his own self-aware history of beatings at the hands of his father and the English government).  He also promises never to strike her again — a promise he does keep, at least through the end of Book 2.

Still, it’s too perfect.  Except if you read on, it isn’t.  Jaime does respect and adore Claire, but then completely disregards her.  He comes back with apologies, but he does knowingly and willingly betray her first.  Jaime’s a big, strong man, and he does shake Claire and physically intimidate her.  Book 2 reveals another problem — since Claire is a woman (and the first person narrator), she (and we) get left behind sometimes while Jaime carries the plot forward.

And there’s the whole mortal peril thing.

If Claire is as savvy as she seems, why does give up her chance to go back through the standing stones?  Why does she stay in the past with Jaime who abuses, and not return to the “present” and Frank?

Well, there are hints that life with Frank isn’t all that Claire hoped for.  She grew up on archeological digs, roughing it, so the quiet life of a history professor’s wife might look dead dull  to her.  Frank bores her in the few chapters they actually spend together.  And Frank seems to have secrets.  They loved each other before the war, but maybe after it their relationship is heading for a breakup anyway?

Or not.  In Book 2 we learn that Claire does eventually go back to the “present”, and has 20 years with Frank before his death.  But we don’t see this relationship, we can only infer it.   Considering that Frank and Claire were together during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and Claire becomes a doctor, and then chief of staff at a large hospital, I can’t believe they never had any Mad Men era marital strife.  It’s hinted that they stayed together for their daughter (well, Claire and Jaime’s daughter), and to avoid the scandal of the good Professor Frank Randall abandoning the wife who went missing for three years.

Perhaps the other books in the series will explore Frank and Claire’s relationship.  Maybe I’m right about them, maybe not.  But for anyone claiming Gabaldon is a false feminist — you’re wrong.

Sure, the main villain of Book 1 — Jack Randall — is gay.  He displays a consistent choice for men (or boys) over women, although his real turn on is pain and suffering.  He certainly isn’t the effeminate, showy, Disney villain sort of gay, which is a triumph considering this is a ‘90s book.  And I hear there is a prominent gay character later in the series — a good guy this time.  Does that make up for it?  Is a gay villain (or any minority villain) necessarily a bigoted thing to write?

I don’t have any hard and fast answers here.  Feel about Jack Randall as you will.

But Claire and Jaime’s relationship troubles are not grounds for taking away Gabaldon’s feminist card.  For one, Claire may put up with Jaime’s flaws, but she doesn’t make excuses for them ala Bella Swann, or Anastasia Steele.  For another, Gabaldon’s overall thematic thrust is that there are plenty of situations out there with no good choices.  Frank, or Jaime — either is a chance for happiness or misery, and there’s no telling which, if either, will be good for you in the long run.  Sometimes the right choice seems obvious in hindsight — but maybe it wasn’t really the right choice.  Since it wasn’t the choice made, you’ll never know.

It’s Catch-22, but with time-travel, sexy Scots, and spousal abuse.  And no, I guess that’s not necessarily feminist.

What is feminist is that Gabaldon is grappling with women’s issues the whole time.  Marginalization.  Witch hunts (figurative and literal).  Limited resources.  Reliance on men.  Fears about childbirth and childlessness.  And hey, spousal abuse!

There’s a lot more to these books, but I don’t want to spoil any more of them for you if you’re still interested.  And if Outlander’s not your cup of tea, that’s okay too.  But it’s still feminist.