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Coming to The Bone Witch, an elaborate piece of YA epic fantasy, without having read any fantasy for quite some time, was refreshing. This take on the magical-girl-goes-big-time fantasy is pulling from non-North American cultures to flesh out the world and characters, which is sorely needed in fantasy, but there's plenty to find familiar. (Monarchies aren't extinct, don't worry.) The food the characters eat; their clothes and the industry behind those clothes; and the rules of court they have to follow were all excellent touches. It reminded me so much of the thoughtful, nuanced world building of Kate Elliott's fantasy that there was no way I wasn't going to fall hard for it. Someone get Rin Chupeco an adult fantasy trilogy and the word count to go with it so I can jam it all into my brain.

cover of the Bone Witch


I would've written a shorter wrap up of my thoughts about the book last year, but then I happened to come across this thread by S. Jae-Jones last week because I apparently bookmarked it last year to read and then...didn't. Ha! Hashtag 2017!!

I don't want to repeat her work too much so definitely check out her thread. I can't say much about performative reviewing because I have very firmly decided that I'm going to be constantly on DEFCON-1 when it comes to critiquing POC characters/culture, which has worked for me so far. But I am biased in this specific case! Because I also really enjoyed The Bone Witch and the way it handled tough topics, so I'm extra annoyed at what amounts to The Worst Literary Take I Have Seen All Year. So I thought I would analyze the criticism lobbed at The Bone Witch that Jae-Jones spoke about, which could possibly result in someone who might otherwise love it passing because they think the author is perpetuating stereotypes. And at the same time I could talk about why I love it, because I do! I do. It's great.

The author is reinforcing the gender binary and stereotyping gay men.
Oops, nope. This is a deliberate misreading of two characters in a world without a queer context and also, frankly, a shallow critique. There are two explicitly queer characters: Rahim and Likh. They both work in design (clothes and jewelry). My reading obviously isn't superior (AHAHA if only I could impose my will...NYT Bestseller in that alternate universe), but I took away from the narrative that Rahim might fit into the genderqueer category, while Likh is probably trans. In one of the screenshots Jae-Jones uses, the character doesn't know these words. She's not sure how to express what she wants without the language they use in their culture, although she knows the word isn't right. So she uses "man" to refer to Rahim. She has to a) reference the right person for discussion, b) and be clear that the correct word is absent so she's using the nearest one available even though it's flawed.

Important to note again: in this world there's no such thing as misgendering, because there's no queer context yet.

To the other character: Likh is trans but is still using "he" because there's no context for trans people (Likh never asks Tea to use gender neutral pronouns). The tool available to Likh at this time is performing their gender in their current context, which is hard because the culture that they wants to be a part of (ruled by older women) has no concept of transgender people. I also noticed that Likh's storyline in the book is not abusive or overly painful. They go through ups and downs like any character. They have friends and all the people around them with an investment in Likh's happiness care and want them to succeed. Likh has dreams and disappointment. They aren't maimed, abused, or otherwise harmed for their gender identity. There are threats of future harm, but those are because of obligatory military service for certain male asha (the magicians of this world) unrelated to gender identity. The book is clear that there's no queer context for Likh to fit into except imperfect ones, often spaces made for them by their friends.

It'd be one thing if the narrative deliberately had characters misgender Likh or if they suffered unduly after being honest about themselves. But no! In one of my favorite parts of this novel, Likh is well-liked and supported. I was never worried for them or if they were going to get hurt; the narrative is that reassuring about Likh's place. If you take in a lot of queer media you can sometimes tell when a source is about to go Extra Dark on you with the queer characters, and that feeling never happened once for me.

Okay, so maybe a reader not familiar with queer culture except for cisgender politics might not notice this. But The Bone Witch isn't pushing anything harmful except a recognition that there's no queer context. And frankly, the kids are just fine and have the critical capacity to see what the narrative is putting down. The idea that it "doesn't need to be in a book for adolescents" is so ridiculous. Kids are sponges taking in tons of ideas, not rocks. Chupeco isn't playing wizard chess; she's writing a straightforward B-plot about the struggle of queer characters (they wouldn't use that word because they don't have it) to explain themselves and their bodies in a gender essentialist culture without the language to do it. I'm sure The Youths are going to be just fine, but sure, protect them from the narrative where the queer characters are well-liked, encouraged, respected, and loved! Assume they're too ignorant to understand and unpack a story! Very protect. Much danger!

It's easy to forget that we've worked hard to create and integrate a lot of handy words for our queer communities. But we had to invent words! They were niche for a long time. We're still in the year 2018 trying to get many of them into dictionaries so we can stop defining our terms every five seconds and just tell people to google it. We are, if marginalized, immensely blessed to finally have the space, safety, and energy to to create new language and advocate for it. So what happens in communities and cultures without our benefits? How does that look? How does it work? How do you communicate these ideas without the words because they haven't been developed yet? What words might the characters develop for themselves? Are we simply never allowed to write about it without turning into didactic automatons who present a scene in a narrative and then turn around to explain away the "problematic" bits? I've got an easy fix: if you're this touchy, don't read fiction.

Also, if any teacher wants to use this book in a lesson I'm apparently available for creating some guiding questions for classroom discussion!

I've made my point, probably! But seriously, the narrative never comes out and says, "hey these two characters are gay men." It feels weird to lecture an author/publisher about misgendering characters because they're not men, but then also claim that they are gay men to yell about stereotypes? Are we still not over the fact that the reason that queer men do "traditional" women's work and it's a stereotype is because they've shed parts of toxic masculinity and embraced their interests but culture hasn't caught up yet? (The book makes this point several times, too.) If we wanted to split hairs: Rahim could be trans. Rahim could be bigender. We don't know because the narrative doesn't tell us beyond putting Rahim into a queer context. If Likh is trans, they're a trans girl and so obviously not a gay man??? Seriously, this criticism blew my mind, y'all. When White People Weaponize Social Justice Language: The Movie, directed by Jordan Peele.

The author is perpetuating rape culture and victim-blaming.
Bzzzt! Wrong again!

Jae-Jones also shares this screencap and it's a doozy. It fascinated me. It's so blatant! But the critique is in the women's reactions! It's there! I'm 100% convinced this critique is by a dude now because of course we need a man to explain why leaving this scene uncommented on in the narrative is problematic...except it was commented on, just not in a didactic, "This is A Problem" way; it was critiqued by the way the woman talk about it to each other, because there's no way to do it to the perpetrator of behavior without potential escalation. We all know about those men who like to escalate. Surprise! Women speak to each other about the way men behave! You may have noticed it recently in the news, too. Sorry it's not an after school special for you, Dude Critic (I am convinced, the end).

Part of the reason I loved this novel is that so many women in the narrative meant that Chupeco was able to lace the story with easter eggs like that for the people who will spot the tactics we (women) use to deal with different types of situations, ties it to her world building, and works it. The above is only one example; there are definitely more. And with all the women in said story, you'd perhaps expect some of them to fade to the background behind the protagonist. But they don't, at all: they stay vital and interesting until the end.

This book is all about different types of powerful women and it's GR8.
There's Tea, our main character, who learns she's a bone witch when she accidentally raises her brother from the dead. Not only do we get to watch her grow, the whole story is framed by an older Tea telling the story to someone who has tracked her down after things have gone seriously sideways. She has complicated relationships with multiple women, her guardian/mentor, her superior, other witches! In a fantasy novel!!! Also I didn't find the romance too annoying, so that helped. (I'm never a good judge of romances in YA. As long as they don't make me actively mad, live and let live.)

There's also a strong family element, because that raised-from-the-dead-brother? He doesn't go away.

Don't run your mouth about stories by WOC unless you've got the credentials.
Back to the thread that S. Jae-Jones did: performative reviewing for Hip Social Media Points is bad. I know that cancel culture is all the rage now and we've made a hobby of sitting on social media brewing "tea" and waiting to "spill it".

(I feel like such a fraud typing those words. I am so white. Please forgive me; it's in the service of something greater.)

The signal to noise ratio in reviewing in the age of social media is massive. Obviously books by WOC should be reviewed the same as any other book, but as reviewers, the power dynamics are way off, too. Some white reviewer talking out of their butt about SOCIAL JUSTICE!!! and how a WOC's book is HARMING PRECIOUS SNOWFLAKES and WIELDING STEREOTYPES is a fine way to make sure that by a WOC book gets buried. Surprise! It had a hard row to hoe to arrive in the world as a book people could read. It's complicated so be careful! Honesty about books we like is important! Performative reviewing because it's hip to use that kermit gif is lazy and harmful. Reviewing itself has gotten entirely more fraught and difficult (also why I don't do it much anymore). Now if something incorrect or half-baked goes viral, some author of color is popping an entire bottle of wine and drinking it on their own, while people flood their online reviews with charges of X and Y and Z and the algorithms are firing up going, "NEVER SHOW THIS BOOK ANYWHERE."

I don't know. I only want us to be responsible with our social capital within our social networks, especially if we're white (OR MALE) and our audiences know it. You never know where The Claw will strike, and The Claw often benefits white people (ESPECIALLY MALE WHITE PEOPLE) more when we speak with authority.

I'm still a little bummed The Claw didn't choose The Bone Witch because it was one of my favorite fantasy novels of last year. Clearly I need to start a campaign.

This is my launch message: everyone go read the The Bone Witch.
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