Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Trigger warnings should be mandatory.

In an attempt to broaden my literary horizons, and partially due to incessant friends, I've decided to start reading some YA (young adult, for you old fogeys out there) novels, even though I am nearly thirty and have generally regarded them with a sort of snobbery that I consider at least partly warranted. I cut my teeth on Graceling, which I actually enjoyed, and found myself intrigued with the concepts in The Hunger Games*.

Then I picked up Deerskin.

Now, I'm told that the best way to critique a novel is to start with what you liked and balance criticisms with praise. So, I have definite opinions about all the characters, whose personalities are shown and not told. But I hate them all. Every single last one of them. The queen, "the most beautiful woman in all seven kingdoms**," is an unrepentant narcissist, who apparently has not been told that she is ever by any person because she is just too pretty? Apparently, her dying wish (And she's dying because an illness made her not as beautiful and you know what, whatever. I'm done with you, nameless queen.) was that her husband, the king, who had so valiantly won her hand in marriage, not ever marry again unless it is to a woman that is more beautiful than she was. Her reason? So the king wouldn't resent her for being Ugly Uglyton. 
Oh, and prior to this deathwish, she had a (from what I can tell) giant portrait painted of her to capture the beauty she once had. Because why not.

Anyway, the king is this shell of a man by the time we actually meet him, basically like King Theoden from The Two Towers when he's controlled by Saruman. He was supposedly so incredible and awesome and manly prior to this, but I can't really seem to care. He just floats around while his advisers basically run his country (and how they don't try to just overthrow him is kind of another issue I have, but whatever), sometimes present physically but never emotionally. They even have to tell him to eat, for God's sake. And then he just goes crazy, which I'll get to in a second, but he's pretty much as insufferable as humanly possible, and I kind of wish that he had died with the queen, although the rest of the book could not have been written had this happened. I mean, I get it. He's grieving over the love of his life. And this is a fairy tale, so it kind of has to be this grandiose tale with huge emotions and sweeping allegorical imagery, but ugh. It's been years, bro. 

Then there's the rest of the kingdom, basically summed up by Hurra, the princess' nursemaid. When the queen dies, Hurra basically collapses with grief and all but admits, via third person narrator, that she wouldn't have even cared about the princess if it hadn't been her duty to do so. Everyone else in the kingdom just kind of ... didn't know she existed. Because the king and queen were so fucking radiant (but mostly the queen). It's almost like, "Wait, they had a kid? I thought they were just posing for pictures with some poor sap's child for a photo op." I actually yelled at them while reading the book and had to put it down for about a day before continuing. 

And I kind of lied. I do like Lissar, whose name isn't revealed until, oh, page twenty-eight when she's receiving a gift from an errand boy of Prince Ossin: a puppy named Ash. This herald, because princes don't deliver presents in person, is the only indication that anyone else anywhere is thinking about the princess' feelings at the death of her mother. And what I sort of love about Lissar is that she doesn't really care about her mom. Or that she died. She feels guilty that she has no emotional attachment to the event, but it pretty much comes down to, "Whatevs. On with my life." She's also devoid of any knowledge of traditional procedure, so she kind of does her own thing, raising her dog (the HORROR) instead of letting a servant do it and cultivating a long forgotten garden. She even befriends this old woman whose kind of a crotchety bitch just so she can learn about plants and gardening, in general. 

Oh, and Viaka isn't too bad, either. She's what Lissar considers her only real friend and is a lady-in-waiting. She's plucky and smarter than she looks, but she's not really a major part of the story and is described from the perspective of the princess. 

So yeah, two characters out of the whole bunch, and only one that's really fleshed out. This is starting to look like my aborted attempt at watching "Breaking Bad."

Moving onto my next entry into the Good Job category, Robin McKinley writes beautifully. There's an ease and poetic quality of it that explains things without actually explaining them. 
"About one thing the princess was stubborn. Ash lay under or beside her chair, no matter how lofty and formal the event. Ash developed her own legend, and people began to speak of the grace of the pair of them, the princess entering hall or chamber not on anyone's arm, but with her hand resting gently on the head or back of her tall dog; both move elegantly, and were inclined to silence. The people, who liked a little mystery, began to sigh over the half-orphaned princess, and how it was the loss of her mother that made her so grave."
I can clearly see everything that she describes or infers, from the setup of the scene to the mind-body connection that Ash and Princess Lissar have. More often than not, she paints a picture of loveliness. Except when it's not lovely. Because oh, my God. 

Here's where I'm going to stop and put the obligatory spoiler alert, but I'm also including this: 
Thanks, Natalie Dee!
This should be on the cover of this book. Or, well, something. Because, again, OH, MY GOD.
Remember me saying that the king went crazy? McKinley foreshadows what happens back at the scene where Lissar first gets Ash: 
"There was a pause, and her smile disappeared, and she stared fixedly downward ... As the court began to wonder if the father was seeing something in the daughter that he, like they, had perhaps overlooked, he moved abruptly in his chair, and without any prompting from his ministers, spoke aloud, giving his leave for her to go."
Honestly, I got a queasy feeling in my stomach when I read that. My subconscious was like, "Oh, there's no way she's going to go there. Not in a YA novel." I disregarded my deep loathing for the other characters that McKinley was introducing, like Lady Undgersim who was responsible for dressing Lissar and is kind of a laborious asshole, complaining that the princess looks too plain and high strung, and continued reading the book. 

Anyway, Lissar's seventeenth birthday has come (yay!) and there's a big party planned and the princess is basically all, "Parties? I hate parties," which to be fair, I do, too. She reluctantly gets dressed up, with gold filigree in her hair, and is basically forced to dance with her dad, while everyone is fawning over how gorgeous she is and how much she looks like the dead queen. She has the same queasiness that I got, remembering his expression from what was two years prior. I sigh as the townsfolk (or whoever got invited to this ball; I don't know, I'm not royalty) remark on how lively the king seems and actually say, "My, what a beautiful couple they make!" Lissar is understandably aghast at this notion, as am I. 

Shit, she's going there. Shit. Shitshitshit. 

In the next chapter, the king announces that, in three days, he's going to marry his daughter. 

I'm going to let that sink in. 

Done? Okay. I enjoy a darker tone to some of my fiction. Hell, "Bambi" is one of my favorite movies. Also, I know that, back in the day, people married their cousins and whatnot. Internet dating wasn't available then; I get it. I know that, in mythology, brothers got sisters pregnant and fathers sired their own grandchildren with their daughters. It's gross and icky and always sends off little bells to the tune of that song in "Deliverance." I can't help it. Call it my own cultural bias. I was having a hard time finding the will to read on.

And then the rape scene happened. Now, it's not this terrible play by play, because yeah, if that were the case, the copy of the book would be burning right now, regardless of the fact that it's from the library. The king hurts the dog, for fuck's sake, as she is trying to save her owner. Lissar's struggling was painful to read, and her frantic attempts to fight the king off were so vividly described. The actual act is only a short paragraph long, comprised of one long sentence, which ended like this: "... and Lissar was already so hurt that she could not differentiate the blood running down her face, her throat, her breasts, her body, from the blood that now ran between her legs." Oh, yeah, she was also a virgin. As the chapter came to a close, I just sat there and cried. 

The last time I cried at a book was the ending of Where the Red Fern Grows. The ending of the entire book, not the ending of the first part of three parts. I don't know if I can finish this book, you guys. I just don't know if I can. Thankfully, I've never had the experience of rape, but working at the Department of Human Services put me in contact with women who had. For some, their path to recovery never began; for others, they still saw the scars but were trying to move on. There were plenty of times that I just sat and bawled with them. Deerskin has just brought a lot of those memories, those stories back, and it's a little much. 

I'm probably going to take a break from this book, watch some "Return of the Jedi" or something. Shit, this makes "Bambi" look tame. To be honest, I may never come back to it. But if I do pick it up again, it's going to be so I can read the part where the king gets his fucking skin peeled off of him piece by piece and then is set on fire. Damnit, I really need to get to sleep, but that's probably not going to happen now. 

* I kind of want to see the movie, but that's mainly because I sincerely adore Jennifer Lawrence. We're first name buddies, after all, and it would be awesome to watch stupid 90s movies and fart together. 
** This is repeated God knows how many times. Okay, seriously, we get it, Robin. Let's move on. 
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