Books like Sins & Shadows are a case in point for why I can’t quit urban fantasy. You got your standard PI with a past (the delightfully stubborn Sylvie Lightner), a whole lotta mystery, and some delicious characterization.
Lightner’s got to find the god of Justice’s lost lover. Lightner’s a delightfully snarky, angry dynamo — the kind of fierce heroine urban fantasies so often promise but don’t deliver. Like Evie of Spiral Hunt, Lightner’s not a hottie. Instead, she’s a battle-weary mercenary who feels genuinely terrified of the monster she feels lurking beneath her conscious mind. Don’t come into this world looking for vampires — Benedict’s world-building is much harder than that, taking as its inspiration the more militaristic aspects of Greek and Christian mythology. Bonus: the explicit inclusion of queer main characters. This is a really promising series.
Next up: Varanger. “Hello, my name is VIKINGS ROCK, what’s yours?” Conn and Raef are cousins, you know, like how Toad and Frog are friends? THEY HAVE ADVENTURES. With DUDES. Normally, this would bore me, since I get a little antsy when there aren’t that many female characters, but the ones that are present are extremely well handled, down to the historical details (including plant life and daily tasks), AND Conn’s douchery (he sometimes can’t tell if he wants to HURT women or HUG women) is canon. As in, when Alla refuses to sleep with him, you’re like, Wise choice, chick, wise choice, and when Rachel DOES, you’re like, holy shit, this woman is DESPERATE. This is really an extended exploration of masculinity, with some hints of the fantastic (Raef might have inherited some MAGIC POWER from his father). But, unlike some other examples of this genre, masculinity here is performative — there are many, many ways to be a dude, and they are all toxic. Anyways, uh, Raef and Conn totally watching Russia get forcibly Christianized as political move by heads of state. There are battles, and rivalries, and power plays, but no true love, no destiny, and no sentimentality. Just how I like my historical fiction. A+, would read again.
Finally: Cory Doctorow’s Makers. Meh. Compelling critique of capitalism, US class divides, conspicuous consumption, alongside a lackluster treatment of female characters. Basically, Kettlewell is a business tycoon who acquires Kodak and Duracell and decides that after laying off tons of employees that he’s going to go into micro-business financing. Basically, he’ll help teeny artisans/inventors get access to financial backing/marketing help. This fosters several years of tech revolution, and is named the “New Work” movement. Its major thinker/inventors are two guys named Lester and Perry, and its chronicler is a reporter named Suzanne. What disappointed me is that about mid-way through Makers, Suzanne went from an interesting character (the only girl in the room, as a technology reporter, part of the death of the print press, and a luminary in the journoblogosphere) to being an accessory to Lester and Perry’s narrative trajectory as two idealist dudes try to change the world. Something similar happens to Hilda, the young activist/fangirl Perry meets while gathering support for a new project. Hilda’s love and passion inspires Perry to break ties with the rest of his friend-set (of which Suzanne’s the only female member), a twist jokingly foretold by Lester repeatedly calling her “Yoko,” in reference to Yoko’s age and role in breaking up the Beatles. This especially bothered me, because I think this emphasized that at this point in the story, every female character was characterized in relation to male characters, much in the same way that Yoko’s frequently mentioned in relation to John Lennon and not in connection to her ongoing work as an avant-garde, pacifist, and feminist artist.
In Makers, women don’t have friends. They have brothers, lovers, and (male) adversaries. They move the story along for these other characters, and are subsumed into these characters’ stories. Makers starts off with an intriguing premise, but ultimately doesn’t include gender in its analysis of class, consumerism, and production. Nancy Kress’ Beggers in Spain series took on similar themes, in a way specifically relevant to welfare states, and featured more dynamic, morally complex characters of both genders.