Enjoy fantasy? And female protagonists? Make this your next vacation read.

Sabriel Cover

It took me about 18 months to give in to my boyfriend’s suggestions and read Sabriel, by Garth Nix.

I don’t know why I was so reluctant — he has good taste that’s similar to mine, and I enjoy a good fantasy novel, especially with a female protagonist. (I think actually it took me a while to discern the bust on the cover figure, and so I assumed it was about some medieval version of an ’80s skater boy).

But, thankfully, I eventually relented. And when I mentioned enjoying it on facebook, numerous friends chimed in saying they’d been fans for ages! Apparently I missed the boat back in 1995, but I’m on it now.

The map presented by Nix in Sabriel’s inside cover

Sabriel is actually the first book in a soon-to-be-quartet by Australian author Garth Nix, which takes place in a fantasy world which includes both the magical “Old Kingdom”, and (on the other side of The Wall) a non-magical society called “Ancelstierre”, which seems like early 1900s England. (While the non-magical part of the world has telegraphs, automobiles, and tanks, they lack many other modern-day accoutrements).

In the Old kingdom, magic can still function, but anything machine-made crumbles. It’s a place of monarchy & magic, and it has little to do with the people on the other side of it. To the south, a different government rules, magic doesn’t work, and some people there think all the magic is really just scientifically-explainable phenomena.

Those who live along the wall know otherwise. Soldiers guard it day and night to prevent unauthorized crossing in any direction (you need an official letter from both sides’ governments to cross) — and they use both magical and man-made weapons.

Sabriel, knows all of this — her father is the “Abhorsen”; a title claimed by one woman or man each generation in her family. The Abhorsen is a necromancer who returns the dead to where they belong, instead of raising them for evil & manipulation. He or she is responsible for protecting the people of the Old Kingdom from undead-making necromancers, and for banishing them and their possessed dead back through the seven gates to true Death.

The Abhorsen accomplishes this with 7 bells which can control either the dead or the living — making them walk, speak, be silent, or even go straight past the 7th gate on the river of death. As a necromancer, the Abhorsen must travels through the gates along the river of Death in order to find or fight other necromancers & the dead while avoiding the traps that each gate inherently holds.

Sabriel easily checks off the must-have qualities of a good fantasy novel — it’s well-written, dramatic, suspenseful, and each page leaves you hungry for more. The world is beautifully concocted and rich in detail; I was especially intrigued by the concept of the “Charter”, from which all “good” mages get their power. More power-hungry folks (like other necromancers) will instead try to tap into Free Magic, which the Charter was designed (in part) to constrain. Its power is drawn upon through runes, engraved or visualized, and it relies on the existence of engraved Charter Stones to keep it attainable by the mages. I found this concept to be very creative and distinct from magic in most fantasy novels, which is quite an accomplishment.

Once I got started, I couldn’t put it down — and then I couldn’t wait to get the next two from my local library!

via Flickr user Alastair Crompton: https://flic.kr/p/dqGgt7

via Flickr user Alastair Crompton: https://flic.kr/p/dqGgt7

In a delightful way which reminds me of Tamora Pierce’s books, the character development — especially of the female protagonists — is realistic & interesting. Throughout the series, we get female characters with aspirations and conflicts and problems that are multi-dimensional. And they’re not supposedly thinking about how their breasts feel against their tunics all the time, either (ahem, George R.R. Martin).

But, they’re also teenagers. And, you know what? They act kind of like real teenagers do — they can be short-sighted, ungrateful, grumpy, easily embarrassed, and reluctant to take advice. But they can also be brave & interesting & conflicted & are usually trying to do the right thing.

The comparative literature major in me also enjoyed the revelations over the 3 published books of conflicting moralities, shades of gray between wrong & right, and debates about whether anything can be truly, inherently evil (and whether attempts to restrain something dangerous can go too far).

(Oh, and did I mention there was a talking cat named “Mogget”? Yeah, he’s pretty cynical & awesome).

While the first book centers on Sabriel, the 2nd and 3rd are one long (and addicting) story arc following Lirael, whose life does eventually intertwine with Sabriel’s, though many years after the first book takes place. While this isn’t a common structure for a quartet, the books were so exciting that I didn’t care at all. I was glad I’d picked up #2 and 3 from the library on the same day so that I could move onto Abhorsen as soon as I finished Lirael.

There are elements in Nix’s series which remind me of the Gemma Doyle trilogy (Libba Bray), the Lioness Rampant quartet (Tamora Pierce), and even the Foundation trilogy (Isaac Asimov). (That last one is less obvious of a connection, but I personally got a similar feeling from the two books in how they tell stories of multiple generations & the passage of time).

They’re all quick reads, too (but so exciting that you might pick ’em up just a couple months later for a re-read!). As summer (and hopefully a vacation or two) looms closer, I heartily endorse picking up Sabriel, and seeing if you don’t get pulled along for the rest of the series!

 

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Kamala Khan: Phil Coulson 2014

The two biggest publishing houses in comics, Marvel and DC, have been under a lot of scrutiny in the past few years for how their titles portray women, people of color, and LGBT characters, as well as how many creators they employ who are women, people of color, or LGBT. It started a sort of Race to Diversity in some readers’ eyes, and many thought that “good storytelling” was being compromised for the sake of “unnecessary” or “arbitrary” diversity.

It hasn’t been easy for either Marvel or DC to make and keep the changes that would bring their comics into the year 2014 as far as demographics are concerned – but Marvel seems to be doing a much better job. In many ways I think that’s because Marvel excels at telling stories about how super-heroes affect non-powered humans. The more your stories are about the “average person” the more you’re able to invest in discussing what “average” actually means.

Last month saw the release of Ms. Marvel #1. “Ms. Marvel” was the former super-hero name of Carol Danvers, a lesser-known Avenger known now as “Captain Marvel.” (Trivia: Captain Marvel was previously a DC title featuring the character now known as Shazam until Marvel recently re-acquired the rights.) But in the past year, Carol Danvers has been to deep-space and back with the rest of the extended Avengers team in the Infinity storyline (which is well worth the read, if you haven’t gotten around to it yet).

Anyway, part of including the stories of non-powered humans is telling the stories of fictional fans of the super-hero teams. The Avengers, being the most well-known group, naturally attract a lot of fans. The kind of fans that write fan-fics and blog about their favorite heroes. The kind of fans who act out pretend super-battles in their house while their family roles their eyes. The kind of fans who collect vintage trading cards of with their favorite heroes on them.

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) was the film that pushed the super-hero movie genre fully into the mainstream of entertainment as the third highest grossing film of all time. One of the most memorable scenes in that entire film was the fanboyish fawning that Phil Coulson does over his hero, Captain America. He asks him to sign his vintage collectible cards. Fans took to Phil Coulson right away. Marvel’s newest sensation. He was one of us, a non-powered hero that was prone to hero-worship himself — awkwardly embarrassing himself on a quinjet full of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and superhumans when he tried to explain to Steve Rogers that there were collectible cards with his face on them.

Back to 2014, a new face of comic super-fandom has arrived: Kamala Khan, the star of Ms. Marvel #1.

Kamala is a quirky, nerdy, teenage Avengers superfan. She wears a sweatshirt with Carol Danvers’ trademark lightning-strike logo, she writes fan-fiction comics, and she even talks to an imaginary Carol about how much she’d like to be her! She’s also Muslim, a very under-represented demographic in pop culture.

The dramatic conclusion to Kamala’s fan fiction…

Well, for anyone who loved Coulson before his debut in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tv show, you might have a new fictional best friend. What most of us loved about Coulson was that he was charming in his awkward hero worship, but he was also competent, dangerous, and loyal. Kamala, in this first issue of Ms. Marvel is shown to be awkward, charming, and loyal, and the teaser at the end of the issue indicates she’s going to be competent and dangerous – like any good hero should be. The difference between Coulson and Khan is that where Coulson is a middle-aged white man, Khan is a teenaged, brown-skinned, Muslim girl.

If we take a moment to look back into comics history, Peter Parker was so important  in his time because the original Spider-Man comics tackled not only with street crime and super-villainy, but what it meant to be a contemporary teenager. The X-Men were trying to live the dual life of young Americans whose identities would make them outcasts – a very real feeling for many people, even today.

It represents a lot that Marvel’s newest, most relatable character is a Muslim teenage girl. I hope that Kamala will be for comic fans of all identities what Peter Parker was for previous generations of awkward teens – escapism with a dose of what’s real to them. Nobody has to imagine what it’s like to be a teenager, or even what it’s like to feel like you don’t quite fit in. We’ve all been there. For Kamala Khan, her religious identity and nerdy fandom set her on the fringes of her social scene; for others it might be sexual orientation, gender, age, or skin color. But seeing heroes with whom we can identify coping with “real” problems at the same time as they’re saving the world is the kind of cathartic pop art that, historically, brought comics into their own.

Everybody knows that feel. Well… Except for the boot thing I guess.

Ms. Marvel is in the rising tide of new characters and ideas that will make comics (my favorite pop culture art medium), and all the greatness that’s a part of them, available to people that aren’t white dudes and want to occasionally read a story about someone like them.