I admit, I’m a sucker for anything Leia related. She’s my favorite character in the entire Star Wars franchise (sorry, Doctor Aphra, but you will always come in second). That being said, Claudia Grays new YA novel Leia: Princess of Alderaan (hereafter PoA) blew me away. And I already loved Bloodline, Gray’s novel about middle-aged Leia set not long before Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I didn’t think Gray could prove to me even more how much she understands Julia’s, Kylie’s, and my perceptions of Dutiful Princess Leia after Bloodline. And then she wrote this.
PoA is stunningly in character, character driven, and rich. I know for a fact that I’ll be reading it again and again, and that’s not something I normally say about YA novels. There are deep, multi-layered relationships between female characters, complicated family dynamics, a shit-ton of pre-A New Hope era worldbuilding, and plenty of easter eggs for more dedicated Star Wars fans (Krennic anyone?). In short, it’s one of the best damn Star Wars novels of New Canon and a must-read for any Leia fan.
A (Brief) Spoiler Free Rundown
Sixteen-year-old Princess Leia Organa faces the most challenging task of her life so far: proving herself in the arena of body, mind, and heart to be formally named heir to the throne of Alderaan. She’s taking rigorous survival courses, practicing politics, and spearheading relief missions to world under Imperial control.
But Leia has worries beyond her claim to the crown. Her parents, Breha and Bail, aren’t acting like themselves lately; they are distant and preoccupied, seeming more concerned with throwing dinner parties for their allies in the Senate than they are with their own daughter. Determined to uncover her parents’ secrets, Leia starts down an increasingly dangerous path that puts her right under the watchful eye of the Empire. And when Leia discovers what her parents and their allies are planning behind closed doors, she finds herself facing an impossible choice: dedicate herself to the people of Alderaan—including the man she loves—or to the galaxy at large, which is in desperate need of a rebel hero…
The Good Stuff
Fair warning, I’m going to gush. A lot. You can tap out of my fangirling whenever you want, but I have so much to say about this book that I couldn’t cut anything. Think of it as more of a book analysis than a strict review, if that helps.
PoA is not a traditional YA novel, though my opinion on that might stem from having mostly read YA dystopian novels in the past few years. For starters, Gray utilizes third person intimate narrative perspective rather than first person. I find the choice not only refreshing but fitting. Third person intimate offers all the benefits of first person—close, visceral engagement with Leia’s feelings and thoughts—without the drawbacks of a potentially boring or annoying headspace. (Not that Leia would have either of those, but still.) We experience Leia’s struggles with her, but we get to see beyond that as well.
Leia’s Character Arc
PoA is almost entirely character driven rather than being a rapid-fire action story like the Abyss duology. Leia’s internal conflict acts as the major motivating factor for the plot rather than the plot itself. The Challenges of Heart, Mind, and Body she must accomplish to be invested as official heir to Alderaan exist to contextualize and further develop Leia’s psychological and emotional struggles with her parents’, and eventually her own, involvement with the budding rebellion against the Empire.
It’s a character study of teenage Leia, a privileged (in the socio-political sense) royal heir on the cusp of adulthood transitioning into a determined, compassionate leader both for planet and the rebellion. Yet rather than give us a silly, pampered, spoiled, or naïve princess learning how to have compassion and look beyond herself as some authors might have done (a rather sexist narrative in itself given the underlying assumptions about teenage girls such a perspective implies), Gray offers something completely different. The Leia we encounter already has much of the character traits we love about her: her sense of duty, her compassion, her instinct for command and leadership, her ability to manipulate other people’s perceptions of her to her advantage in order to accomplish her goals, a dedication to her people and the oppressed of the galaxy at large.
Nor does Gray shy away from honestly representing Leia’s character flaws. Her temper comes up more than once—a flaw Gray also highlights in Bloodline, so A+ marks for consistency in characterization. Leia’s tendency to judge people instinctively and be slow to change her mind about them is a recurring theme. So, too, her action-oriented, impulsive approach to problem-solving that sometimes misses the forest for the trees. In short, she’s the Princess Leia we know from the film franchise, just younger and still figuring some things out.
Thus, Leia grows not by learning compassion or how to take charge; she already has those traits. Rather, she learns what it takes to be the leader she already wants to be, and must choose if she’s willing to accept the sacrifices, and the burden of guilt, loss, and remorse, that such leadership requires. She experiences the consequences of decisions made without all the information. She learns how to form alliances, rely on others, and delegate tasks to those with the best skillsets for the job. She’s not learning that she can lead, but how.
Leadership has burdens, some of which can and ought to be shared, some of which must be borne alone. How to balance the two, as well as how and when to let yourself enjoy life even when the world is full of oppression, is yet another aspect of Leia’s journey. The novel both assumes and proves Leia’s capability even as Leia herself struggles to prove herself to her parents. It’s a delicate balance and Gray manages it deftly.
Moreover, Gray acknowledges Leia’s privilege yet never condemns her for having advantages other people don’t. She can’t help who her adopted parents are or what her home culture is like. She can, however, use those advantages to help shield and lift up others, which is precisely what she does. As a message to teens, I can’t help but marvel at how delicately Gray handles the concept of privilege. Leia’s story is a call to arms for girls (and boys) with systemic advantages to use those advantages for others.
Along similar lines, I cannot overemphasize enough the importance of a story about a 16-year-old princess—and one who is decidedly not Not Like Other Girls—who stands up for herself, for others, and for what’s right. One who believes she can make a difference and acts on it. One who loves her parents, and they love her, and understands that open, honest communication is the key to healthy relationships even if she has to figure out exactly how to do that. One who stares down tyranny and oppression and fights not to be Rebellious™ for it’s own sake, but to do the right thing and right the wrongs of an oppressive society.
I really, really love Princess Leia, okay?
Romance and Relationships
Also unlike many YA stories, the romance takes a back seat to Leia’s complicated dynamic with her parents, which I appreciate. She also gets to have meaningful friendships with other female characters alongside of her love interest. For Gray, no one kind of relationship, being it platonic, romantic, or parental, matters more than any other. They all make up who Leia is as a person and have different roles to play in her story.
I’ve seen some people criticize the love interest, Kier Domadi, for being boring, but I quite liked him. He’s different enough from Han to not be a copy, but not so totally different that it undermines either of them as love interests for the same character. He’s neither a knockoff or a replacement for Han, but Leia’s attraction to him still makes sense. Their relationship also helps contextualize Leia’s resistance to forming lasting attachments in the midst of war and why it was she fell for Han in the first place.
More than anything what I enjoy about Kier and Leia’s relationship is the emphasis placed on friendship, mutuality, and consent. Leia is in control of how far the relationship progresses and never changes herself to gain Kier’s approval.
It must be said that many of the same people I see criticize Kier often argue in favor of a queer relationship between Amilyn Holdo and Leia. While I understand the draw of this ship (it’s pretty fantastic) and am sympathetic to the desire for a queer Leia, I think it’s important to remember two things. One, The chances of Disney and Lucasfilm story group canonizing queer Leia are less than none. I hate to put it so bluntly, but it’s the truth. Gray is not at liberty to inject her own version of Leia into the novel. Even if she wanted to canonize queer Leia (which may or may not be true), given how tightly Disney and Lucasfilm story group control new canon, it would never happen.
But that doesn’t mean they’re close-minded. The team is actively working on expanding the diversity of their representation, including the normalization of diverse gender identity, sexual orientation, racial and species backgrounds, interracial relationships, and women in all levels of society and work. The effort put into building such diversity into the minute fabric of the worldbuilding in the Star Wars comics and novels is quite evident. Part of normalization is working diversity into the background, and it’s everywhere in New Canon.
It’s not just background either. They have okayed protagonists (Aphra) and secondary characters as queer (Amilyn herself) and permitted pretty heavy queer subtext for some iconic characters (Ahsoka). They’re moving in the right direction. While more can definitely be done and pushed for representation-wise, they’ve been pretty clear about Leia’s sexuality. And I’m okay with that. Canonizing their most iconic female character as queer is a lot to ask. It’s fair to be disappointed, but it’s also important to be realistic.
Secondly, such criticism of Kier ignores what makes him interesting and exciting as a love interest. For one, like most other Alderaanians’, he’s non-white; his skin tone is described in exactly the same way as Breha’s and Bail’s, both of whom are played in the films by Latinx actors. This may not sound significant, but it is. Interracial ships are still rare, especially white women with non-white men. There’s a lot of fandom racism about these kinds of ships in particular and Star Wars is no exception. Just scroll through a Tumblr search for Rey x Finn if you don’t believe me.
In that light, giving Leia a canonically non-white love interest is a big deal.
He’s also strongly coded as neurodivergent, which just adds more layers of impressive. While not queer, Gray gave Leia one of the most diverse love interests she possibly could, and that deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated.
I also appreciate how well Gray, and other recent Star Wars novels, have nuanced the Imperial/Rebel Alliance conflict. Or, rather, how well they’ve nuanced the people on both sides of the conflict. Because regardless of what I’ve seen people say, the New Canon Star Wars novels never shy away from calling Palpatine of the Empire tyrannical, evil, and immoral. Nor do they shy away from showing the atrocities that occur under and because of its dominion. PoA is no exception. The Empire as a system of government and Palpatine as the leader of it are evil and oppressive and must be stopped, full stop.
That does not mean the books don’t attempt to put a human face on the people existing within and even supporting that system. People get caught up in pretty awful things for reasons other than “they’re racist bigots”. Sometimes it’s “I need to feed my family” or “I’m loyal to that one person and have a hard time seeing them as anything but the good person they used to be”. Sometimes fear keeps people from acknowledging how bad things are, or a desire for comfort, or a love of home and protecting the things they love. It doesn’t change or excuse their choices, but it’s worth remembering that not everyone who actively or passively supports a tyrannical regime does it to be a huge asshole.
A system can be evil, but that doesn’t mean every single person who either participates in or fails to fight back against it is also 100% evil. True moral complexity is not the same thing as moral equivocation. Nowhere do PoA or any of the other New Canon Star Wars novels seem to imply that the actions of such morally grey characters are anything but reprehensible. However, there’s a difference between saying someone acted immorally and calling that person evil. Star Wars is attempting to walk that line, and for the most part, I think they succeed admirably. That being said, I’ll be the first to tap out if it starts to veer too much into apology.
I know it’s a fine line between excusing and nuancing. And recent events in our social history may lend a less sympathetic eye to the goals of the Star Wars novels in attempting to paint a more nuanced picture of Imperial loyalists. At the same time it’s helpful to remember that these books were written before Charlottesville. Before our president failed to immediately and whole-heartedly condemn white supremacy. Such events may change how we digest these stories, for sure. But if anything, I think remembering the goal of such nuancing is even more important now.
To me, putting a humanizing, sympathetic face on characters who are loyal to the Empire helps us understand them. (Note: understand, not agree with, excuse, or give into.) Comprehending those who think differently, even in ways we find repugnant, helps us to fight back. Knowing how they see the world better arms those of us who resist to engage with them more effectively. Like Leia, we can fight better when we know those on the opposite side and why they act and think as they do. And we may even be able to win some of them over despite their passivity or even outright resistance to our perspective.
One of my favorite things about Bloodline was the canonization of Leia Huttslayer. If you don’t know what I mean, Leia Huttslayer was a fanon creation that sought to reclaim the sexist depiction of Leia in Return of the Jedi while Jabba’s slave. Leia Huttslayer turns an act of objectification (the slave costume) into an act of defiance (killing Jabba with the literal and metaphorical symbols of her slavery). In Bloodline, Leia Huttslayer has become a symbol of underground resistance to the Hutt cartels and a powerful motivator to rise up against them. The focus becomes Leia’s power rather than her exploitation and objectification. Canonizing Leia Huttslayer was a pretty blatant fuck you to one of the most sexist moments in Leia’s scripting.
Gray does something similar in PoA, though much more subtly. In the Original Trilogy, the second most sexist depiction of Leia, to my mind, comes at the end of Return of the Jedi when she’s intentionally softened and sidelined to being more of a traditional female love interest to the more active male protagonists.
Throughout PoA Gray repeatedly points out the importance of hairstyles for the royal women of Alderaan. The intricate patterns of braids Breha and Leia wear symbolize their royal authority. Leia and Breha literally start their days with getting their hair braided and never take them out in public. An Alderaanian woman letting someone take down her braids is one of the most intimate acts she can allow, and even seeing her without her braids denotes vulnerability, intimacy, and trust.
Combined with Gray’s focus on Leia learning how to be ‘just Leia’ and celebrate life even in the midst of immense suffering, you have a powerful matrix for recontexualizing Leia’s scripting in Return of the Jedi. Leia unbraiding her hair now becomes an act of assertion, of Leia choosing to be just herself over her role as princess or rebel leader. Rather than a demure domestication, Leia quite literally letting her hair down is an act of defiance in the face of immanent doom. She’s choosing to “dance now” (as Breha encourages her in PoA) and embrace joy rather than wallow in fear or anxiety.
And that’s a goddamn gift. Just like Leia Huttslayer. In her two books, Gray has taken the two most sexist moments of the OT and turned them in their head. Bravo, Claudia Gray. Bra-fucking-vo.
Speaking of recontextualizing canon, Breha Organa. After having so long been sidelined to barely an appendage to Leia’s history, Breha finally gets to shine as the badass, strong, intelligent queen she is. Like showing off her pulmonodes (her artificial heart and lungs) as a reminder that “[she] cannot be so easily stopped” by near death experiences. Or her being the ruler of Alderaan while Bail works in the Senate. She may be more ‘conventionally feminine,’ but that doesn’t stop her from being awesome. Because honestly, it shouldn’t (despite what some tv shows seem to think). She’s an excellent bookkeeper, throws a mean banquet cum subversive alliance planning meeting, and an equal mastermind behind the rebellion alongside Bail. In short, she’s everything I wanted Breha to be.
Moreover, Claudia Gray finally gave us the Breha-Leia interactions fans have been clamoring for for years. Just as Bloodline was Leia’s book to grapple with her relationship with her adopted father Bail versus her blood father Anakin, PoA is Leia’s book to engage with her mothers. Bail actually takes a huge backseat to Breha. While this may upset some, given how little time has been devoted to Leia and Breha’s relationship, I’m more than pleased.
Via their interactions, we get a better understanding of Breha’s imprint on Leia. Leia often utilizes a calm exterior to defuse and disarm others, a move she must have learned from Breha, as that seems to be her default. Leia’s moral resolve where other’s might equivocate or take longer to decide, her attraction to danger and fierce determination in the face of it, her quick thinking and instinctive sense of what must be done in tense situations—all these come from her mother Breha.
While there’s less space devoted to Padmé, given Leia does not realize she’s her mother, Gray still manages to work in a truly heartbreaking scene of Leia visiting one of the moons of Naboo. There, she meets the current queen (I totally ship Dalné x Leia btw) as well as (Moff) Quarsh Panaka. When it comes to her biological parents, Leia may be more Anakin’s daughter than Padmé’s. But the trip to Naboo’s moon and the interaction with Queen Dalné invites a comparison between Leia’s determination to do what’s right for her people and her mother’s.
This is a damn near perfect novel, and there’s very little for me to find fault with. As noted above, I disagree with those who find Kier uninteresting or boring, and I actually find the ‘slower’ parts of the novel to be some of the most fascinating. That’s where a lot of the internal character work happens, and I love internal character work.
My one criticism of the novel is actually more to do with New Canon as a whole, namely, it’s treatment of Saw Gerrera. I see the point they’re trying to make overall, that good intentions are not enough (see Amilyn’s arc) but that extremist violence can be counterproductive. However, I’m not sure how well or how consistently this is being done across the various media platforms. PoA’s discussion of Saw’s tactics is more nuanced, and we get to see first hand just how unhelpful rash, violent action can be. However, Rogue One didn’t handle his story nearly as well, and I think that’s poisoned the well a bit for me. Though maybe I’m being too much like Leia and relying on poor first impression. Still, it didn’t sit comfortably with me.
Some have pointed out that “Strength through joy”—a phrase Leia utters to encourage herself in a tense situation—was the name of a German government agency in the 1930s. However, despite what some of the discourse going around might say, this is not a “Nazi slogan;” it was the name of the German Labor Front’s leisure and tourist board. It may sound like splitting hairs, but a government organization’s name, even one in the Third Reich, is not a “Nazi slogan”; one is nationalistic, the other is specifically a tool of oppression. Nor was this phrase on an equal level to “work makes you free,” the slogan that topped many of the Nazi concentration camps. I admit, my research has been fairly cursory, focusing primarily on the origins of the phrase rather than its aftereffects, so it may be the phrase evolved after the organization fell apart in 1939.
More importantly, regardless of the origins of the phrase, Claudia Gray herself has said she had no idea it was ever used by the Third Reich and is horrified at the associations readers with that background knowledge of the phrase have pointed out. While it is fair to ask questions about why such a phrase was not recognized by anyone else who prepared the book for publication, it seems most likely to be an extremely unfortunate coincidence rather than intentionally pro-Nazi or anti-Semitic (since Leia was played by a Jewish woman).
Final Score: 10/10
As a YA book, it’s an excellent read and a refreshing break from the much more common first person, romance and plot driven narratives. The messaging for teens about resistance, moral complexity, compassion, using privilege to help the marginalized, and standing up in the face of fear and tyranny could not be more necessary in our current political environment.
As a Star Wars novel, it’s unmissable—a captivating glimpse into Leia herself and the start of the Rebellion with Bail, Breha, and Mon Mothma, as well as another layer of nuance to the Imperial/Rebellion continuum.
As a Leia novel, this highly engaging, intimate exploration of an iconic character and her transition from teenage princess to Heir of Alderaan and Rebel leader is required reading. The only thing I can ask for now is that Disney and Lucasfilm contract Claudia Gray to write as many Leia novels as she can stomach. I’ll devour them all.
Images Courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm
Lucky 7 Is A Queer Cyberpunk Thriller Unlike Any Other
Lucky 7, written by 2016 Rainbow Award Winner Rae D. Magdon and published by Desert Palm Press, is a cyberpunk tale told through the first-person perspectives of its protagonists, and eventual lovers, Elena Nevares, a latinx bisexual hacker from Mexico City, and Sasha Young, a black sapphic handler born in America but naturalized in Russia. They’re joined by a misfit team and ad-hoc family of other specialists that cover just about every other angle of queerness and race under the sun as they unearth a conspiracy that connects far too close to home. Also they fight a virtual dragon.
It is, in short, a cyberpunk narrative unlike any other, though not for the reasons you think. But we’ll circle back to that. Also it’s extremely sexually explicit, so take that into account if it’s not your cup of tea. That being said, every instance of intimacy is wonderfully characterizing for both parties as well as deeply evocative. What I’m saying is that it’s not just shameless smut; there’s a purpose for it, just like pretty much everything else in Lucky 7.
I’m entirely sure if this is common knowledge about me, but I love cyberpunk as a setting. It combines two of my favorite niche genres: noir and hard sci-fi. Cyberpunk stories typically live and die by the immersiveness of their settings, rather than the characters or even the plot itself. It’s most often a trip into a capitalist hellscape where governments have been rendered obsolete by mega-corporations and quite literally everything has been privatized. It’s an endlessly interesting logical extreme that continues to be explored every day in our lifetime, as it’s really not that far removed from our current reality.
The world’s current wage gap between what remains of the middle class and the hyper-rich is the largest it’s ever been, and you have mega corporations (Amazon, Disney, Comcast, Google…) buying up other companies for a legal monopoly of not only telecoms but content creation itself. While we don’t currently live in an industrial nightmare where most of Southern California has merged into one urban sprawl, it’s not hard to see the multitude of other ways society could evolve (or devolve, depending on your point of view) as corporate superpowers continue to consolidate power.
Which is where the conspiracies come in. The combination of the “hard boiled detective” being smashed together with a reality that is both so similar to and yet so unlike the classic noir tales of the 1940s just makes sense, even if the subsequent haymakers that are Blade Runner and 1995’s Ghost in the Shell hadn’t done the heavy lifting. It’s always about the human condition, what we define as alive, and how corruption and greed can feed on everyone regardless of origin.
Magdon’s Lucky 7 addresses all of those questions, and more, but what’s most remarkable about her book is that it does it in one of the most staunchly colorful cyberpunk settings I think I’ve ever witnessed. And I mean that in terms of both race and literal color. When you consider cyberpunk, you’re normally thinking of the grey, rainy, concrete and steel jungles that seem inescapable to the common citizen. Thanks to its 1940s noir roots, that’s by design. But it apparently doesn’t have to be.
Lucky 7 is set in June of 2065. The basic building blocks of the world are borrowed from the likes of Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell franchise, but the biggest deviations aren’t what you think they are at first glance. Yes, the book is filled to the brim with wonderfully and sincerely written queer characters of just about every color, creed, and identity to an extent that only Ghost in the Shell has toyed with, but there’s just something more to this that I don’t want to get lost in the shuffle.
We start our story in a mostly rural Siberia, where Elena meets Sasha, and then jump to the Amazon rainforest after an explosive prison break. It’s a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment, but in any cyberpunk, post-industrial nightmare you’ve ever heard of…was there ever still undeveloped land? Were there any parts of the world that hadn’t been paved over with concrete, let alone something as delicate and already-dying as the Amazon rainforest? I’m guessing no.
Blade Runner 2049 showed us forms of wilderness and rural areas, yes, but mostly in the form irradiated deserts and dying farmland. For something like the Amazon to even still exist in a world with hyper-population scales and a purely capitalist society isn’t something to be overlooked. It’s a message that lines up perfectly with one of the two main themes of the narrative: it’s not over yet. I don’t want to spoil exactly how deep this runs into the central character arcs and relationships, but let’s just say the inherently cyclical nature of that idea isn’t something that Magdon takes lightly.
The supporting cast of the book are introduced in a rather clever method. It’s something that I’d describe as “Bioware-esque” if it wasn’t so intrinsically tied into the narrative pacing. See, with some older Bioware games—specifically Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age: Origins—the protagonist is dropped into a situation and then chooses what order to recruit the rest of their party. Each quest or mission advances the narrative, regardless of order, and you learn more about a certain aspect of the world as you go.
This inevitably lead to some…strange narrative choices at the behest of player freedom, but here that basic idea is expanded into the context of “putting together a crew” for a heist. Or, rather, reuniting a crew after a job gone bad. Elena is our outsider point of view for the first half of the book, so each introduction to the supporting cast is already thick with complex interpersonal relationships, be it romantic, platonic or familial, with everyone else already belonging to the titular Lucky 7. I recognize it’s not a particularly unique method of introduction, but it’s always the execution that matters, and Magdon does it wonderfully.
Aside from the intentional coloring of the setting to differentiate itself from the pack as I’ve discussed above, this is the most intrinsic aspect of Lucky 7 that makes it work so well. And it’s also what makes the darkness surrounding it feel manageable, almost as if the crew itself is helping the reader cope with the plight and state of the world. The why of “it’s not over yet.” Cyberpunk is a genre that centers obsessively on the lone wolf protagonist. The hard boiled detective gets in over their head, getting shoved into a larger story that rarely has anything to do with them. They either die solving the crime, or get out alive more emotionally broken.
Lucky 7 goes out of its way to show the reader, again and again, that that’s not how this story is going to go. At one point in the book, Sasha reflects that “In this business, lone wolves don’t live long”. This is meant to be in direct contrast to Elena, who has repeatedly declared that she has no intention of bonding with this crew. She’s used to working alone, and she intends to stick to that. But that mentality of hers falls apart piece by piece as she realizes just how empty her life was doing this job alone.
In a world filled with betrayal, uninhibited greed and overwhelming oppression under the mega-corporate boot, a group like the Lucky 7 can still exist and even, to some extent, thrive together. Under a lesser writer, this wouldn’t work. The found family dynamic is a personal favorite of mine, but it’s something that shouldn’t fit within the confines of the cyberpunk genre. It should also go without saying that the corporate concept of “family” being called out like this is especially satisfying.
Not even Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, with its own fleshed out supporting cast, had any intention of connecting the members of Public Security Section 9 as anything other than comrades who could depend on one another. With literally one exception that may or may not be reciprocated (Batou’s feelings for Motoko), that’s all they ever are. Professionals who enjoy working with one another, and protect each other…but the personal relationships were always kept at juuuust enough arm’s length to keep them isolated on a deeper level.
But Magdon managed to make it happen without losing the core of the genre and what makes it so interesting to explore in the first place: the socio-economic structures of the world itself. Sure, the noir aspect was cool and important and it worked seamlessly in the classics, but it wasn’t until reading Lucky 7 that I realized how it may have been more of an expositionary device rather than an intrinsic aspect what defines cyberpunk.
As much as I praise the work Magdon has done here, that shouldn’t be mistaken for believing this to be a perfect story. The first few chapters have a bit of a rocky start to them, but not anywhere near to the point where it stopped me from wanting to see where Magdon went with this.
Her separation between virtual reality and reality is clear, and at times clever, but it’s really the characters that prop up this particular depiction and sell it. As great as those characters are, they can’t cover for everything. It also doesn’t help that the few times I was taken out of the story were due to decisions on Magdon’s part to use questionable language as in-universe slang. Using the words cyberspace, meatspace, and credits unironically in a novel that at no point attempts to dive into nostalgia territory for the classics feels out of place and genuinely confusing. To be frank, it feels antithetical to Magdon’s excellent subversions of other aspects of cyberpunk.
There are a lot of cool concepts brought up during the course of the story that aren’t explored as much as they, in my opinion, could be, and the world itself could use some more fleshing out on quite a few levels. For example, we’re introduced to Mexico City as having a lower-class population large enough to have its own cultural identity, implying that many other megacities have this trait as well. But we barely spend any time exploring that idea, and we don’t spend too much time in any these cities at all. It’s by and large mostly in remote areas that happen to have secret facilities. Again, this is something that the characters, relationships and dialog more than make up for, but it did stick out to me that the root of the cause for the crew’s existence at all, these massive megacities run by megacorps, aren’t as much of a focus.
All of that aside, though, Magdon has created something truly special with Lucky 7. It uproots cyberpunk genre conventions and subverts them masterfully, crafting a narrative where levity and betrayal are equally intrinsic, and the murky grey duplicitous nature of humanity is refracted through a prism, creating a spectrum of morality and color that is just as wide as its queerness.
It’s a world, as you can plainly see, that I want to dive into and learn more about. It’s something I’d love to see expanded upon, and considering how many threads are left untied at the end of the story, I can’t imagine we won’t get a sequel. Or a series. Ideally a series.
Cover art by Rachel George
The Environment and Tolerance in Wolf Speaker
Tamora Pierce’s Wolf Speaker starts with an acknowledgments section. Pierce included a staggering amount of animal behavior theory in this book. While some information is out of date, due to being published in 1994, it’s clear that Pierce cares about accuracy in her work. For a book largely based around various philosophical debates about humanity, showing her sources is important. Pierce spends Wolf Speaker talking about how humans interact with the environment. She also discusses how humans interact with each other and the ugly biases that everyone has. Finally, she talks about how we can change and outgrow those biases.
Spoilers for all of Pierce’s previous work.
What Happened In The Book?
The novel begins with Daine and Numair arriving at Dunlath, a fief in northern Tortall. Brokefang, the head of the Snowsdale wolf pack, summoned them to Dunlath to speak with the humans. King Jonathan allowed them to go, provided they search for a group of Riders and a unit of the army that disappeared near Dunlath. Daine discovers that the nobles are cutting down the forest and mining for opals.
The badger arrives and tells Daine that she can share the mind of an animal. Daine does so several times. When she leaves the animal, some aspect remains shortly with her system, e.g. her ears turn into bat ears. After Daine and Numair meet with Belden and Yolane, the nobles, for the first time, Numair says they have to leave the valley. They met several wizards aligned with Carthak at the castle.
Numair leaves Dunlath, but Daine stays to help Brokefang and the other wolves. They had changed because of her magic, and Daine feels responsible. A magical barrier goes up, separating the valley from everything else. The wolves steal from the logging camp, and Daine panics over their changed behavior. The mages send a Coldfang, an immortal that hunts thieves, after the wolves, and Daine stops it. With help from Tkaa, a basilisk.
Maura, Yolane’s half-sister, flees the castle and tells them that the nobles want to rebel against Jonathan. They’re selling the opals they mine to Carthak, which provides them with soldiers and mages.. Daine, Maura, and various animals and immortals, and villagers rebel against Yolane and Belden.
Daine fights another Coldfang, breaks the barrier, and hunts down Yolane in wolf shape. Maura takes control of the fief, and she promises to take advice from humans, animals, and immortals.
Eco-Feminism and The Environment
Environment and Humans
One of the major issues that Wolf Speaker covers is the relationship between humans and the natural world. The central conflict in this book is revealed because the wolves saw the issues that the humans were causing. As Brokefang says, “this spring men started cutting trees and digging holes without planting anything. He says they brought monsters and more humans there, and they are killing off the game. …they’re driving the deer and elk from the valley. If it isn’t stopped, the pack will starve,” (13). This, and the rest of the story, reads as a fairly stereotypical example of the sort of damage humans cause the environment. Pierce shows how humans take advantage of the environment, and she frames it as explicitly bad.
Pierce addresses the issues of deforestation and strip mining in a children’s novel. While it’s not an incredibly nuanced reading, considering the fact that it’s a young adult novel somewhat justifies that lack of nuance. With her novels, Pierce tries to show by example how we can be better people. But she frames her story around the issues she addresses, so it doesn’t sound too moralizing.
In addition to the initial problem of deforestation, Pierce also addresses pollution in this novel. The mages from Carthak, create a poison called Bloodrain. They plan to dump it in the river in order to defeat Alanna, and her forces. It’s a poison so powerful that one of them got a drop on her hand, and cut it off. It’ll kill everything that uses moisture from the river, and keep it barren for the next seven years. Again, it’s not a particularly nuanced depiction. However, it shows that Belden and Yolane are willing to kill an entire ecosystem for power. Sadly, that’s not incredibly inaccurate.
Humans and Animals
Another aspect that Pierce discusses is the relationship between humans and animals. We see two characters as foils in this regard. Daine, who knows animals though her magic. Maura, on the other hand, knows animals only through what gossip says.
Several times through the book, Maura is terrified of Daine’s animal companions. She flees in terror from bats. She believes the wolves will eat her. And always, she explains that, “Everybody says — ‘Everybody’s wrong.” (158). Daine then proceeds to explain that bats don’t fly into hair, or that wolves only hunt to eat, and they don’t eat humans. Through Maura, Pierce shows the importance of being properly educated about the environment and all it’s inhabitants.
Through the book, Daine is occasionally scared of the wolves. However, her fear comes from how she’s changed the wolves, rather than their natural behavior. The wolves steal axes from the logger and food from the humans for Daine and Maura. Daine panics both times about how they are more intelligent than normal wolves, seeing how her magic has changed their thoughts.
The most pertinent example is Brokefang. He licked a wound Daine received from the bandits while they were in Snowsdale. This changed him more than all the other wolves. “New thoughts came thick and fast now, more every day, and he did not understand them all.” (97). Daine’s magic changed Brokefang, so much that his mind works more like a humans’s than a wolfs. Because of the damage that did, Daine remains behind, to help heal some of it. While animals don’t change to this extent in the actual world, human behavior shapes theirs.
Tolerance and Cooperation
Daine and the Stormwings
A recurring theme in Wolf Speaker is the tense relationship between Daine and any Stormwings in the vicinity. After the events of the last book (and events alluded to between the books), Daine despises the entire species. She aims her crossbow at a group of Stormwings that fly overhead when she and Numair arrived at the valley. Numair stopped her from shooting, and suggested that she learn tolerance.
She proceeds to do so through the rest of the book. Maura proves to be a good influence there. Shortly after Maura joins Daine and the wolves, three Stormwings appear to return her home, because the Stormwings were concerned for her. Maura is friends with a specific Stormwing, Rikash, and he is fond of her in turn. Maura and Daine have several conversations about Stormwings, where Maura slowly convinces her that not all Stormwings are awful.
At the climax of the story, Daine runs into Rikash and more Stormwings again. She thinks:
Once she had wanted to kill every Stormwing she found, but was that still true? It seemed as if, ever since she had come here, someone was telling her that because she didn’t like a creature’s looks, it didn’t mean that creature was bad. She still didn’t like Stormwing looks, but … ‘I’d like to end this bloodshed, I think,’ … We don’t like each other, but you can’t go killing everyone you don’t like.”
Through the rest of the series, Daine never again makes the mistake of hating all creatures of a particular species, just the ones aligned against her. Through Daine’s hatred of Stormwings, and her subsequent change of heart, Pierce advocates for learning tolerance.
The Badger’s Plan
Two thirds of the way through the novel, the badger god reappears. He asks Daine what she thinks of Dunlath. She replies that it’s a nice place, for animals and for humans, and “even immortals, too, if they wanted to just live here and raise families.” (216). The badger then reveals that Brokefang’s call for help had divine inspiration. Daine was summoned to Dunlath for a godly experiment, she is to, “set this whole valley to rights, … shape a bridge between kindreds.” (217-8). The Badger explains that she is supposed to broker peace between humans, animals, and immortals in Dunlath.
This is something that Dunlath desperately needs. At the beginning of the book animals and humans are opposed. The nobles laugh Daine out of the castle when she brings the plight of the wolves up to the nobles. The wolves are preparing a war of attrition against the humans in retribution. The mages imprisoned a whole slew of hurroks (carnivorous winged horses), ogres, and Stormwings. They forced the ogres to mine for opals, and the hurroks and Stormwings to patrol the valley.
Through Daine, all three groups can communicate. She organizes the animals during the battle to reclaim Dunlath. She sends squirrels to free horses, and the wolves and a pack of wolf-hounds go with Maura. Daine and Iakoju (an escaped ogre) help the ogres rise up against their human oppressors. The villagers evacuate and help round up the soldiers employed by Belden and Yolane.
Maura ends up ending the book as the leader of the valley. She vows to listen not just to the humans, but the animals, when their opinions are translated by Tkaa, the basilisk. She gives the ogres half the valley for them to farm. Maura, with Daine’s initial assistance, fulfills the Badger’s plan for Dunlath.
In Wolf Speaker, Pierce tries to do many things. She demonstrates the relationship between the ecosystem and humans. She shows how important it is that we are educated about animals and the effects we have on the environment around us. In addition, she addresses the issue of biases and how we can, and should grow to overcome them. She advocates for different groups of people working together and living together in harmony. It may be idealistic, it may not be incredibly nuanced, but all of the messages she sends are important.
Image Courtesy of Atheneum
A Definitive Guide to ASOIAF Analysis
A friend of mine recently finished George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), and she asked me if I had any recommendations for essays or podcasts focused on analysis/theory. My immediate response was, “OH BOY DO I.” Because that’s the kind of reader I am. I may not watch the show anymore, but I am an avid consumer of ASOIAF analysis.
If you’re brand new to the fandom or the world of ASOIAF analysis, finding a place to start can feel exhausting. There’s so much available, and not all of it may be good or scratch your specific analysis itch. Because of my particular interests and preferences—themes, character analysis, and mythological and/or symbolic interpretation—I’ve had to pick and choose my way through the analysis world. Many other readers have to do the same or give up because they don’t even know what they’re looking for.
So, if you’re as anxious for The Winds of Winter to come out as I am, share my same proclivities, and looking for a way to fill time, I give you my personal, definitive guide to ASOIAF theory and analysis.
7. Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire by BryndonBFish, Militant_Penguin, Nfriel, and SomethingLikeALawyer
This one is hit or miss for me, depending on the author. It was one of my first theory blogs, and one that I only occasionally revisit now because I’ve found others I like more. I also admit that I pretty much only read BryndonBFish’s work because I’m not that big of a fan of the other three contributors for various reasons. They’re not awful, just not my preferred approach or perspective.
Anyway, if you’re looking for essays on military strategy, political maneuverings, and various battlefield commanders, this is the place to go. BryndonBFish’s essay on the early evidence for Roose Bolton’s treachery brought me to the site, and it’s still one of my favorites when it comes Martin’s foreshadowing of the Red Wedding because of how subtle it is. I really like his speculative essays on the upcoming battle of Fire, battle of Ice, Daenerys’s destructive path, and Aegon’s military campaign. He has a couple of great character pieces on Tywin Lannister and Kevan Lannister, and how the latter doesn’t deserve his relatively good reputation. I also highly recommend his essay on Stannis’ flexibility, as it highlights an oft misunderstood characterization that many fans share with in-world characters.
Basically, if it has to do with war and military figures, start here.
6. Meditations on A Song of Ice and Fire by Cantuse
Ah, my first true love. I found Cantuse’ blog via BrendanBFish’s blog years ago and their essays are still some of my all-time favorites. Do you like Stannis Baratheon? I do, and this is the place to go for all things Stannis. Character analysis, plot analysis, predictions for TWOW. Even a thorough, and highly compelling, battle plan for the battle of Ice that puts even BryndonBFish’s series to shame. The whole series on Stannis is called the Mannifesto, and if you have a free weekend, you should read it. It will take you that long—it’s not called a manifesto for nothing—but it’s totally worth it.
There are some fascinating theories and character studies along the way. Like the spearwife Rowan being Mors Umber’s long-lost daughter, a Val/Jon wedding Jon may not even be aware of, or Theon being the author of the pink letter. There are even a couple of really tinfoil-y identity theories, like Mance being a descendent of Duncan Targaryen and Jenny of Oldstones. My favorite piece by far is their one on Robert Arryn’s sweetsleep addiction. I actually have to remind myself this theory isn’t confirmed in canon because it makes so much sense.
One of the other major emphases of the blog is prophecy: how it functions in Martin’s world, the characters most closely associated with it, and interpretation of some of the most famous prophecies. There’s a whole series on Rhaegar and prophecy that also includes a fascinating discussion of Mance, Jenny’s song, and the ghost of High Heart.
Unfortunately, Cantuse hasn’t produced anything new in over a year. However, what is there is analysis gold. I’ve read every essay Cantuse ever wrote. I may not agree with everything they say, but I always enjoy reading it.
5. Reread Projects
Some of the best character driven essays I’ve read about ASOIAF come out of reread projects. There are a lot of whole series rereads (some with online discussion groups or podcasts), but my favorite are single character arc rereads that focus on themes, symbolism, and character development. The Sansa reread project Pawn to Player: Rethinking Sansa is a must read, in my opinion. It’s a lot of information and there are dozens of excellent essays compiled by various Westeros.org users over months of work.
The table of contents on the forum is very well organized, but reading forum threads can still a lot to wade through and seem daunting. The project has its own website now, and I find it easier to navigate. I recommend starting with the sections on motherhood, women in power, courtly love, and the piece on Arya Stark under female influences.
Other rereads worth engaging in are the Quentyn (Prince Mud) and Arianne (Trial by Folly) rereads. Not least of which is because you will get to read our very own Kylie and Julia interacting back in their forum days.
4. ASOIAF Analysis by LadyGwynhyfvar
If you’re into Arthuriana (the fancy name for the legends of King Arthur) and courtly traditions, check out Lady Gwyn’s website. Her “Rethinking Arthurian Influences in ASOIAF” would be the place to start, then her series on different character parallels and inversions. She brings mythology, archetypes, and other literary parallels to bear on the text, so you can see just how complex the interweaving of various sources and inspirations are for Martin. She’s also a great resource for all things ‘Great Northern Conspiracy’ related, and that episode of her podcast is one I’ve listened to multiple times.
Speaking of which, she’s the cohost of the Radio Westeros podcast alongside Yolkboy, and I recommend checking that out as well. It’s not as deep of a dive as some of the other podcasts I listen to, and I don’t always agree with their takeaways for certain characters (like Catelyn), but it’s enjoyable. Most of their episodes are character based, which can be a great way to look a character’s arc across books, as well as theories associated with them, all at once. I really like their ‘myths and legends’ episodes, as well as their one on the Blackfyre conspiracy.
They also have fake ‘ads’ from Westeros, songs from the fandom, and other unique little tidbits scattered in. Their tone is light and non-judgmental, which is fabulous given how divisive this fandom can be. Even if they don’t agree with one of your favorite theories, they will always treat it with respect. All in all, a fun way to re-engage with characters and get caught up on the most relevant theories.
What I love most about this series of YouTube videos is how it draws a lot of book lore into small, easily digestible videos. If you’re not into essays with word counts in the thousands but want to engage with theories about the origin of the White Walkers, Arya’s future, and the power of Melisandre’s ruby, for example, this is a good video series to check out. You can even listen while doing something else, though the pictures accompanying the videos are quite lovely.
This is also a good series to get into if you don’t feel like reading The World of Ice and Fire but want to know what information from it might be pertinent to ASOIAF. He has episodes on the origin of dragons, Asshai, Yi Ti and the Bloodstone Emperor from the Empire of the Dawn (remember this dude, he’ll come up in another podcast/essay series I really like), and more. I may not agree with all of his conclusions, but I always enjoy listening and walk away with something new to think about. There’s also some great Lovecraft lore thrown in, like this joint episode with Lucifer Means Lightbringer on mythical creatures in ASOIAF, or this one on Qohor.
It’s short, accessible, and you don’t need a lot of background or a long attention span to get something out of it. Plus, he has a soothing voice. He also has lots of videos about the Dune series, if you’re into that.
The first two entries represent my early ASOIAF analysis days. I was interested primarily in theories about plot elements and hidden character identities, as well as character arc predictions based on existing material. The middle three represent a middle-of-the-road approach that combines what I’d call more ‘traditional’ ASOIAF analysis with increasing levels of symbolic interpretation. These final two are “my wheel house.” They’re the pinnacle of everything I love about ASOIAF analysis: mythology and symbolism. This is where I live now, and you should join me. (One of us! One of us!)
2. Mythological Weave of A Song of Ice and Fire by SweetIceAndFireSunRay
SweetIceAndFireSunRay is one of the gems I’ve discovered only recently. I’m still working my way through her pieces, and so far, I love them. Her approach incorporates Greek and Norse mythology, parallelism, death and the maiden symbolism, and other forms of symbolic interpretation. The title of her blog comes from the fact that she conceives of the series like looking at a tapestry: at first, only the foreground characters seem to matter, but once you start to look at the background characters and seemingly minor details, you see how they all weave together to tell the main story.
“Once we understand and can make associations the tapestry gains layers of depth that sheds a new light on the whole. It does not change the story, but it makes it so much richer, renders clues, and interconnected.”
Her series on the underworld/cthonic cycle should be standard reading for anyone getting into mythological analysis. I especially love how she draws out just how much Martin likes to play with overlapping and subverting Greek mythological archetypes. Robert, Ned, and Stannis are much like Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon overthrowing a paranoid ruler (Aerys/Chronos) and setting up a new regime. (Robert and Zeus have so much in common it’s not even funny.) But at the same time, Rhaegar acts like Hades when he kidnaps the corn maiden Lyanna/Persephone. Yet instead of being brought back to the world of the living by Robert, Lyanna spends the rest of her (after)life in the underworld/crypts rather than cycling through life and death, as Persephone does.
It’s a unique approach and really lets Martin’s artistry shine because of how playful he is with these stories. He’s aware of the archetypes and myths and our expectations of them when we encounter characters who fit certain types. However, he never lets that familiarity lie. He both uses and subverts them at different times, so we’re always on our toes. SweetIceAndFireSunRay brings that tension out well in her pieces.
She also has a series on the ‘red stallion’ and horse-related scenes, one on bear imagery, and one on the various ‘ragtag teams of misfits’ in the series. I have yet to read those, but I assume they are as excellent as her chthonic cycle.
1. Mythical Astronomy of Ice and Fire by LuciferMeansLightbringer
This is it. This is the big one, my absolute favorite podcast/essay series ever. It’ll blow. your. mind. (At least I hope so.)
A lot of the essays or podcasts I listen to add a lot of unique info or a new perspective on a particular character or plot point. This one offers a completely different way to read the series. I listened to the first one on a whim, and I’m hooked. I can’t stop listening and chomp at the bit every month waiting for a new episode. I will never read the books the same way again. It both changes and makes sense of everything at the same time. It’s glorious.
So what is this podcast? Well, the underlying premise of Lucifer Means Lightbringer’s (LmL) perspective is that Martin is writing modern mythology and can be analyzed the way all mythology is: with a reference to astronomy, nature, and, especially, symbolism. The myths in ‘Planetos’ (like Azor Ahai, the Long Night, etc.) all refer to astronomical or natural phenomena that occurred in the distant past. These mythologized events also refer to human events along a “as above, so below” kind of logic that we frequently see in human mythology. For example, Christianity’s writings about Jesus draw on a lot of morning star mythology, which is based on observations of the planet Venus, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t also a real human being. LmL uses the same approach to Martin’s work. Azor Ahai could be both a real person, or category of people, and a mythologization of astronomical events.
Moreover, these in-universe myths and legends are highly symbolic and can be analyzed using the methods of interpretation one uses for actual human symbolic history found in our own myths. Almost every theorist I read acknowledges the mythological sources Martin draws from—Chinese, Norse, Celtic, Arthurian, Christian, Mithraic, etc. LmL takes it a step further to say that Martin weaves together the similar threads in each of these mythologies in purposeful ways to create an entirely new ‘mythology’ that underlies the entire series. Martin may draw on existing mythological archetypes (like Persephone) but he’s also creating his own, new archetypes and using them as the basis for his characters and events.
Thus, the main character action of the story can be interpreted through the lens of symbolic myth as well. Not just the myths Martin draws on from our world, but the myths he created within ASOIAF itself. Sansa is a very specific kind of moon maiden, for example, and one that corresponds to the symbolic myth/legend that conveys the astronomical event that lies behind the Long Night. I don’t want to give all of LmL’s theories away, because they’re breathtaking to listen to as he develops them. But I can give you the starting point:
“The main pattern of the astronomy theory on which this page is founded is that of the sun destroying the moon with a comet, followed by that moon raining down meteors on Planetos to cause the Long Night.”
And from there, we get weirwood goddesses, green zombies, moons of ice and fire, and a whole (starry) host of other amazing, thrilling, fascinating theories and analysis. Trust me, even if you don’t buy his premise, it will completely change how you read the books in the best possible way. I recommend starting with the above linked piece on modern mythology, then moving on to the Bloodstone Compendium. I listened in podcast order (starting with the oldest), so that’s what I’d recommend, as his analysis builds on itself.
All of LmL’s podcasts also exist as essays on his website, which I really appreciate. I like to listen to the podcast while I’m driving, crafting, or working around the house, but I can look up the essay later if I need to remember something. It’s a great format that I wish more ASOIAF theorists used. He also does monthly livestream Q&A sessions after he releases a podcast episode. Those are a lot of fun, and you get to ask him all the questions you might have after engaging with a new piece of his work, plus anything else you feel like. He also links a lot of related pieces and ones that formed his own theories, which is like bonus reading material if you’re into following how theories develop like I am.
Westeros.org Forum users Blue Tiger and Ravenous Reader interact with him a lot on westeros.org and have a lot of excellent additions, comments, tweaks, and expansions on his theories. They don’t have independent websites that I can find, but their essays on the forums are always stellar. Any time you see them in a forum or on Twitter, they’re worth paying attention to. (Ravenous Reader’s post on the ‘killing word’ is amazing.)
Check out Twitter, too, where you can find TheDragonLML, Blue Tiger, Ravenous Reader, and lots of other awesome theorists—Unchained, Branthebuilder, RustedRevolver, Septa Shaena, Joe Magician (who also has a pretty sweet ASOIAF theory website), and more!—interacting with each other over analysis and theory crafting. It’s a pretty active bunch, and even when I don’t participate, reading the threads is fascinating. And kind of intimidating given how smart and deep they are. But mostly fun and inspiring.
If you get nothing else out of this list, please go read/listen to Lucifer Means Lightbringer. I cannot recommend his work, and the community of amazing people who interact with him and his analysis/theories, enough. It’s so good.
What about you? What are your favorite ASOIAF theorists, essayists, podcasters, and YouTubers? Any good analysis I’m missing out on? Tell me in the comments!