Wednesday, October 22, 2008

To See Myself Transformed: The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

I haven't had this much fun revisiting a book in quite a while.  The Privilege of the Sword(Actually, The Manny Files was as good the second and third time around, but I digress.) The Privilege of the Sword has been languishing in my review pile, a sad but not lonely place for such an excellent title. After spotting the twelfth copy of a certain chess-piece-bedecked vampire novel being toted around campus, I knew I had to put up some novels with strong, brave heroines that take no shit but still have time to enjoy the finer things in life, like velvet cloaks and voyeurism.

Lady Katherine's mad uncle agreed to erase her family's debt with one simple request: that she move in with him, live and dress as a boy and take up the sword, training to become his personal guard and defender of whatever honor his whim dictates.  When her dear friend is violated, she sets out to avenge Lady Artemisia  on behalf of all the women who cannot defend themselves, subvert the dominant paradigm, and find out what's going on behind her mad uncle's locked doors. Kate is tossed from her genteel poverty into a whirlwind of political intrigue, romantic drama, depravity, decadence, crazy artistic schemes, wonderfully terrible novels, brothels, lecherous theatrical fangirls...I could go on, but it's best to just leap it and let the story carry you away.

We shared [the gingerbread] out, and then went down to the kitchen together looking for more cake. The pastry cook was creating little icing flowers to decorate something. The duke appropriated the flowers and bore them and us off to the library, where we saw the sun down playing a complicated gambling game using them as tokens, joined by a couple of resident scholars. Winners got to eat their own sweets; Marcus occasionally was sent down for more plates of flowers to keep the game going. No one wanted any supper--instead, the scholars started quizzing each other on points so obscure that the joking guesses Marcus and  threw out were sometimes right. Candles were lit. The duke scrambled up and down more ladders fetching volumes to adjudicate between them.

The night went on, the candles burned down and we sent for more, and the kitchen started sending up jellies and syllabubs, along with cakes decorated with the little flowers. The duke's homely friend Flavia came in, looking for a book, but she refused to play. She picked a few flowers off the cakes, listened for a bit, and then said, "I didn't know it was possible to get drunk on sugar, but I think you've managed it," and went off grumbling. She may have been right, though. One moment I was screaming with laughter, and the next it was all I could do to keep from falling asleep on the window seat.

It's just so much fun. The characters are great, loveable or hateable or inscrutable as need be, Katherine especially. She's this wonderful blend of naivity, self-assurance, confusion and cockiness, but with a good, brave heart despite her wild surroundings.  The scandal is delicious, the swordfights exciting--not enough swordfighting in my opinion, but that leaves room for a sequel.

A friend from Livejournal once told me what every fantasy heroine wants is a pretty dress, a sword, and a good romp between the covers. This novel certainly delivers on the above, and while queer sexuality is sort of intolerantly tolerated in Riverside, the heroine (and most of the other characters who matter) is curiously bisexual. There are quite a few strong, sexually expressive females in the novel, which is refreshing in the context of historical/mannerpunk lit.

Here's where I apologize for letting my cranky riot-grrl side come out. Writers, here's a real revolutionary challenge: write me an alternate historical, fantasy or no, where women are on equal footing with men. No arranged marriages, no kowtowing to the fathers and brothers, no rape as a shortcut to character development. Kushner comes closer than most that I've read, and I am grateful for it. It's a riveting, romantic gem of a novel.

*Preview The Privilege of the Sword at Googlebooks

*Spaceholder for Ellen Kushner's website (it's down right now)

*Ellen Kushner's Livejournal

*A beautiful review at Strange Horizons. The first paragraph made me cheer:

It's a man's world. Yes, still. How else could Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword—a vastly entertaining bildungsroman, told as a novel of manners with a judicious amount of swashbuckling—be so easily dismissed by one blogger as "fantasy chick lit"? The main character is a young woman, and there are a couple of references to shoes, it is true. The setting is also largely urban, a generous amount of tears are shed (a girl is raped; this upsets her), and certain characters do indeed fall in love or at any rate have sex (both pastimes being, as I understand it, quite common among human beings). The fact that it is also pacy, witty, filled with politicking and swordfights, and essentially a coming-of-age story, is apparently irrelevant. Men's stories are universal, after all; women's are niche (and fluffy).

Right on.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Straight Out of a Telenovela: Fat Hoochie Prom Queen by Nico Medina

 Speaking of fierce femmes, on the recommendation of Lee Wind I picked this beauty out of my Secret ARC Stash. I'm so glad that I did! Even though I almost tossed it aside as Yet Another Prom Novel (I'd read three in a row), Fat Hoochie Prom Queen turned out to be a fab, funny, raunchy and touching novel about blazing your own trail, living life to the fullest, and finding out what's going on underneath the perfectly bleached roots of your arch-frenemy.

Hey, I usually don't hate people. I love people! And I love myself. I love my big ol' body and I love who I am--and people respond accordingly, which has given me a life full of amazing, astounding, and all-around awesome friends. I might have even been friends with Bridget Benson--if I didn't want to expose her bullshit in all its stinky awfulness to the misinformed student body.

Madge Diaz has a pretty sweet life--if you ignore her micromanaging mother, workaholic dad, dream-deferred big sister, and broken-hearted best friend Lucas who chases all the wrong dudes. All's well till her bitchy rival Bridget Benson announces her campaign for prom queen--and insults everything Madge takes a stand for. After a beautiful retort from Diaz's corner, Madge plots her own prom takeover, complete with anti-prom party. What follows? Road trips fueled by hot dance floor anthems, sassy filthy-mouthed drag queens, amazing outfits, copious junk food, sweet-hearted redneck beaux, endless one-liners from Madge and Lucas, scheming, dirty tricks, and eventual reconciliation, with a happy ending for all involved.

Why weren't my friends smart enough to throw an anti-prom when we were their age? We would have had so much more fun. I digress.

A caveat: Madge and her coterie aren't the most PC of crowds. Some of the lines, not to mention the extensive underage drinking and social drug use, made me want to shake sense into the lot. It's not a book that plays by safe boy-meets-girl-meets-conflict-meets-resolution-and-goofy-dance-scene rules. Fat Hoochie Prom Queen is the love child of Rachel Cohn and John Waters, a slightly twisted teenybopper romp with flash, perversity, good music, bad taste, and heart. So much love.

Oh--if you love this one, get your hands on Freak Show, another prom-queen novel by James St. James, now in paperback. I read and loved it several times; check out the LSL review here. Madge and Billy would be best friends or brilliant rivals--I would kill to see their dance-off. (Or combined fashion line. Oh, the feathers. Oh, the fake facial hair.)

*Read Chapter One, Chapter Two Part One and Part Two

*Nico Medina knows how to do an author website! Tons of info about the man himself, his family, and his books, and a whole page of distractions

*Another reason I love this book? Madge reminds me of an old and true friend, Cat. Not cause she's a fat hoochie prom queen, but because she uses the word breasteses and is always the life of a party. She just turned 23 last week, so happy birthday, Cat!

*Oh, what the heck--have a Fat Hoochie Prom Queen mix, on me!

MixwitMixwit make a mixtapeMixwit mixtapes

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Girl in the Cupboard Comes Out; Or, Where My Sapphists At

Saturday was National Coming Out Day.

As usual, I'm late to the party.

If you haven't guessed already, I'm definitely of the lady-loving lady persuasion. Yep, that's me. I like macarons, I can para-para dance, I want to be a librarian when I grow up and I date girls.

This is para-para dancing, if you were curious. I dare you not to get up and try it.

I'm proud of my heritage, of the strong, brave women who fought for my right to drink tea and type my thoughts without persecution.

Of YA lit? Not so much.

Lots of books are coming out (ha!) about awesome boys that like boys and lead interesting lives beyond that. I'm thinking Totally Joe, How I Paid for College, Boy Meets Boy,
Freak Show...but where my sapphists at?

Where are the books about awesome, strong, empowered young lesbians (or heaven forfend, genderqueer/trans/etc individuals) that aren't about falling in or out of love with a girl and the usually-terrible consequences thereof? Where are the Sassy Femme Companions(tm) to balance out all the Flamboyant Gay Best Friends(tm)? Where are the young lesbians solving mysteries, fighting dragons, time-hopping, swing-dancing, llama-ranching?

Readers, point me the way or I'll be forced to write them myself.

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