Critique of Kristin Cashore's YA Fantasies

| Friday, December 14, 2012
Today's Tune: Barely Breathing

Now that the BITTERBLUE contest is over (congrats Anna!), I wanted to get back to discussing Cashore's novels. Overall, I found all three to be feminist-leaning and sex-positive, not to mention enjoyable in the same way I enjoyed Tamora Pierce as a teen. Okay, I still enjoy Tamora Pierce. You know what I mean. I'm saying that I liked them. I'm prefacing with this because this is going to be a criticism post, and I want to make it clear that I'm coming from a place of love, since I believe it's possible to really like something and still acknowledge that it's imperfect. Also, SPOILER WARNING for all of Cashore's books.

OKAY? Moving on!

I do have to give Kristin Cashore props for being incredibly classy about criticism of her work. We hear so many stories (which actually aren't THAT common, but make a big impression when they happen) of authors who can't handle criticism of their work AT ALL and throw tantrums or demand that everyone shut up and only say nice things. Cashore, on the other hand, got some flak over disability politics in her first book, GRACELING, and she took it like a champ. She didn't throw a fit or tell anyone that they just didn't get it. She listened, considered the criticism, educated herself about those points, and resolved to try to remedy her missteps in her later work. So she gets a shiny gold star from me for that, because everyone messes up, and if you're able to take criticism and grow from it instead of pouting about it, you're a winner in my book.

The topic of Po's disability and his "magical cure" were definitely points that I took issue with, and have been discussed at length by others who are likely much more qualified to talk about it than I am, so I'll leave it to them. Suffice to say there's kind of a theme in fantasy to "fix" people with a disability through magical means, or otherwise imply that they're not living as full of a life as an able-boded person. Which is crap.

I noticed that Cashore's writing style improved over the course of her novels, which really isn't unusual. GRACELING's prose felt dry and occasionally stilted to me, but I noticed this less and less in the companion novels. Katsa also lost me a bit toward the end of GRACELING when she got pretty epically overpowered and ran through a deadly blizzard with no real ill effects because her super power is survival or whatever you know how it went. It felt like too much to me. I like my protagonists to pay the price for dangerous choices because I'm a rubbing-hands-and-cackling villain that way.

FIRE actually ended up being my favorite of the three novels. While Katsa was very much portrayed as this kind of emotionally distant badass with very specific reproductive decisions, Fire was portrayed in a more traditionally feminine light while still being a badass who makes specific reproductive decisions. Like. I don't know if I can express to you guys how much I appreciate femininity not being treated like something stupid and boring, and being shared jointly with strength of character? I love it a lot. A L O T. Bitterblue shared this, as well. She was very much a "proper" royal lady, but she had her cleverness and awareness, which was fabulous.

I also have to give a nod (and a slight frown) to the sexual positivity of Cashore's novels. I feel like this is one of the few YA series I've read (again, Tamora Pierce comes to mind) that allows for its characters to be sexual beings without making it about morality or purity or anything of that nature. Not only that, she incorporates birth control and reproductive choice. These are subjects I want to see broached MORE in YA, without making it an issue novel about Good Decisions. These topics can and should exist in speculative fiction. My one big qualm is Katsa's first sex scene in GRACELING, mainly because ugh I really hate the first time = blood and pain trope, guys. But, you know, I can get around it in favor of the larger themes of sexual freedom, health, choice, etc.

And speaking of sexual themes, this brings me to my one major sticking point with the books in this series: the rape. You guys. There is a lot of rape in these books. Granted most of it is implied and off-screen, but even so, there's a lot of it. The villains in the novels (both fathers of two of the protagonists) are portrayed as these sort of blanket-evil, born-sociopath dudes who really like raping women. Or making other people rape women through mind control, which is extra fun.

I think by now I've made it abundantly clear that I am incredibly picky about the depictions of rape in my fiction, and one of the tropes I have a really hard time with is this implication that rape is something that is done by obviously evil, sociopathic, mustache-twirling villains. See also: torture is never enough. It has to be rape. Especially if the woman needs to be "broken." Strong female character? Evil male character needs to knock her down several pegs through bodily violation, obviously. The whole thing just rubs me horribly the wrong way. And this is tough, because rape has most definitely been a tactic of abuse and control for as long as humans have been humans, so it's not necessarily unrealistic. Even so, I feel like "villain = rapist" is a trope too often leaned on to prove how really and truly eeeeevil they are, and also neglects to give credence to the fact that many rapists aren't obviously villainous.

I feel like it perhaps adds to the misrepresentation surrounding rape to portray rapists as 100% evil villains. I AM NOT SAYING RAPISTS SHOULD BE SYMPATHETIC. GOD, NO. But rapists can be, and usually are, normal people. Rape culture is extremely pervasive and extremely destructive. The culture itself is what lends otherwise "nice" and "normal" young men into situations where they rape a woman and don't even bat an eye about it because they don't think of it as rape. I don't know. I suppose I feel that girls and women often expect rapists to have obvious "I'm an evil creep" vibes, because the media tends to portray them that way. And then they're assaulted by a friend, or boyfriend, or neutral acquaintance, and it leads to all sorts of feelings of confusion and guilt because why didn't they know he was a bad man? Is he a bad man? Did they make a mistake? He seemed so nice!

Ahem. Yeah. I have problems with many, many, many rape portrayals in many, many, many novels. I accept that it's largely personal for me, but I also feel that we should examine the way we use sexual assault to further storylines. It's important to consider where we're putting the focus -- is it on OMG RAPE! SO HORRIBLE! or is it on the effect the assault has on the victim? Why are we choosing rape, specifically, rather than some other action used to set a character back? Is it entirely necessary to have a male character try to "break" or harm our female characters through sexual assault? Why?

I think sexual violence is an extremely important topic to explore, because it's still so very ingrained in the daily existence of so many people. I'll never be an advocate for a ban on rape in novels, or anything like that. SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson remains a book very close to my heart. I just think it's so important to ask ourselves why, why, why we need it to be a part of our novels.

And... those are my (mostly critical) feelings on Cashore's novels up to this point in time. Again, there are a lot of things I enjoyed about the novels, and overall I think they're wonderful books that I tend to recommend regularly (with some warnings where necessary). As always, I like to explore every part of everything I read.

If you've read Cashore's novels, what do you think? What worked and didn't work for you?



{ Mrs. Silverstein } at: December 14, 2012 at 5:50 AM said...

I hadn't thought about the depiction of rape in those terms before. In this case, I think the rape had the desired effect on me--of making me recoil from the Big Bad Guys--but I appreciate the new angle on it. Your points about rape culture are spot on--see also, the people who [Mad Men spoilers] asked Christina Hendricks about the time her character on Mad Men was "like, kind of raped, or whatever?" just because the character was her character's fiance. I don't know if you've seen it but it was unambiguous and disturbing, and I give Ms. Hendricks a lot of credit for setting people straight

I'm with you on Fire--that book blew me away. I think you nailed the reasons why. Man, I feel like every time I read one of your blog posts, it counteracts a little bit of that day I spent watching a Wife Swap marathon, or the summer I fell in love with the show Farmer Wants a Wife. Thank you for giving me back the little pieces of my brain that I thought had rotted away forever!

{ Eliza Tilton } at: December 14, 2012 at 6:39 AM said...

The reason I love her novels are for the worldbuilding.

FIRE was my least favorite out of the three. Loved the world, not FIRE. I felt her character whined too much and didn't change until the very, very end.

BITTERBLUE was my favorite character. She had the heart of a lion. I loved how she snuck out to understand her kingdom and used her ind to figure out the past.

{ linda } at: December 17, 2012 at 2:03 AM said...

Ooh, fascinating post! Your critiques are awesome. :)

I never managed to finish Graceling, though I did like Fire. (But unfortunately not enough to be enthusiastic about Bitterblue.) So I guess I'm not really a huge fan of her books, but I love the way she owned up to her mistakes in that Q&A you linked to. Gold star for sure.

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: December 17, 2012 at 8:06 AM said...

Ditto 100% what Mrs. Silverstein said. (Well, minus Wife Swap, b/c we don't watch that. :P)

This is a really good discussion post on some of the strengths and weaknesses of Cashore's books. For the record, we love all 3 of them, but of course not everything in them was "perfect." (Nor in Hunger Games. Nor in Harry Potter. Etc. Because, yanno, nothing is perfect!)

Anyway, though our reactions to these elements weren't as strong as yours (except maybe for Kristan...) we appreciate your pointing them out in a new and more critical light. It's really good food for thought for us, both as readers and as writers.

PS: Won't it be so interesting to see what she tackles in her next book?! It's supposedly a contemporary...

{ Zamir Zumar } at: December 18, 2012 at 3:44 PM said...

I think things like rape, genocide and many other despicable acts can be used as a way for people to view another's reaction. Like, do you care who gets killed as long as they're not on your side? Or how some cultures, real and fake would treat a harlot if she were to endure a very violent rape. Like, as long as she gets paid, is that okay?

I haven't read the Graceling series yet, but it sounds pretty cool. Except that whole surviving power, lol. That sounded like a bit of a hack.

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