It's been a while since I've done a reading update, because it's been awhile since I've done any reading. But I'm quickly reading through the YA I bought for my niece, so I can have it done before I give it to her (in a day or two.)
The Borribles by Michael de Larrabeiti
Gifts by Ursula Le Guin
Voices by Ursula Le Guin
Powers by Ursula Le Guin
The Night Wanderer by Drew Hayden Taylor
I've heard from a few sources about the Borrible Trilogy but couldn't remember where ... until I read the first one. Then I realized it was probably from a discussion of China Miéville's influences: you can totally tell that it is. I enjoyed it, but there were problems. The sheer violence of the fight with the Rumbles was pretty offputting. The author was careful to make the Rumbles into large rats that tasted like hay ... both of which put them beyond human respect. But they're still sentient beings whom the Borribles mowed down like, well, hay. Also, if they're that easy to kill (ten Borribles killing hundreds of them with only one casualty) then they're clearly no threat to the Borribles.
Also, the gender dynamic here was pretty annoying. Yes, I know it was written in the seventies, and all the YA of the time followed traditional gender roles. But still: is there any reason to read something with such regressive gender roles if it isn't fantastic in other ways? Out of the ten Boribbles on the Great Rumble Hunt, two are girls. They, of course, are only allowed to fight female Rumbles, and once their female targets are dispatched, they pretty much sit back and allow the male Borribles to save them ... even though one of them is identified as the best shot of all of them.
It's a huge missed opportunity: children who, through being abandoned or ill-treated, become pointy-eared Borribles and remain childlike and wild for eternity--or until their ears are clipped--are a great opportunity to take a new look at gender roles. Because, although there are gender differences before adolescence of course, they're not nearly as pronounced. The difference in strength, speed, agility, and endurance between pre-pubescent boys and girls is nowhere near as great as between men and women ... and in many cases it's nonexistent. Since the Borribles are kept in a prepubescent state forever, they're frozen at that last moment where there's some physical parity between male and female. Differences will be much more nurtured than natured. So it's really too bad the author was too blind to play with these dynamics a bit, but we're all a product of our times, I suppose.
I have the whole trilogy, but don't know if I'll be interested enough to continue reading them.
The Western Shore trilogy by Le Guin was a huge disappointment. It's terribly competently written--she's been writing too long not to know how to do it in her sleep--the stories are too well structured not to demand to be read completely, and the world-building is perfect. But the urgency and excitement of her earlier books is long gone. And ... how do I put this? ... her politics have taken a severe dive.
Interestingly, these three books mirror in structure the original Earthsea trilogy: a young man comes of age, a young woman comes of age aided by the man who was the young man in the first book, and then another young man comes of age in the shadow of the older man who was the young man in the first book. But in the first and third books of this series, unlike in the first and third books of Earthsea, women's roles in this world are studied ... only women have no opportunities to exercise any leadership or break out of their constraints.
It's weird how almost every gender stereotype haunts these books. In Gifts, the girl's talent (women's talent) is to call animals, a sort of Earth Mother type of power. The man's power is to destroy things from the inside, a process that is depicted as unnatural. The hero's power is words and "making" and knowledge, power brought to him by his mother, but that she doesn't share, and that the girl can barely understand, much less share. In Voices, an invading culture imposes its gender dynamics on a subjugated culture, resulting in women being enslaved, raped, or killed if seen out on the streets. The invading culture is clearly modeled on nomadic Semitic cultures; their monotheistic religion clearly modeled on the monotheism of our own deserty Middle East. The subjugated women hate being treated like this, but don't actually complain about their straitened roles ... only about the fact that their entire nation is enslaved by another culture.
In Powers, women and girls are abducted, enslaved, used for breeding, prostituted, raped, and murdered ... and the purpose of all of this in the book is the boy's learning curve. No girls or women escape their roles here, or even try to or seem to want to. In the end, the hero even saves a young girl from forced prostitution; she is unable to save herself.
I'm really disappointed to see that the woman who laid a lot of the groundwork for questioning gender roles--such that my generation of writers could and can create worlds in which women have equal roles and female characters who won't settle for less--has herself reverted to roles similar to those in the Borribles.
SPOILAGE FOLLOWS: The Night Wanderer is a Native vampire story from Canada. So far, so good. It takes place on an Ojibwa rez in ... Ontario? ... where an ordinary sixteen year old girl is experiencing the usual growing pains. Her father, to earn some extra money, takes in a boarder. He turns out to be a 350-year-old Ojibwa vampire, returning to his home for the first time since he left with fur traders to see the great world and was saved from measles in France by a curious vampire. The native vamp is bored with life and returning home to end it all.
He's not really the point of the story, though. This is very much a realistic story of life on the rez, with a single novum thrown in. The vamp is there to keep the girl from killing herself during her long, dark night of the soul ... a job that, in this world, any sympathetic adult who isn't her family could have done. The vamp, while fun, is underutilized. No real argument is made in the book for his inclusion; he could just as easily have been a recovering rapist or child molester, if we really needed someone that dangerous ... only that would have made the book a lot more serious. I guess the point of the vamp is that it injects danger into the book while keep it lighthearted. Now that I think about it, that's fucked up.
While well-written, though, the danger--either from the vamp or from the girl's own self-destructive impulses--is never felt. The girl's character, Tiffany, comes alive, but she never really feels depressed or suicidal, and the climax at the end doesn't feel climactic. That was probably helped by the fact that the final confrontation between girl and vamp happens three times. She runs away from him--rather stupidly, in fact, from both a narrative and a realistic standpoint--three times, and three times he catches up with her and talks to her. There's no need for all of that except to break up the dialogue with action.
But I have to say, it was a smooth read, and very enjoyable.