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The Golden Compass Can’t Find its Soul

Julia

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In 2001 there was a little movie released, you may have heard of it…it was called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It made a shit-ton of money, and spawned a still expanding franchise. As always, when the film industry makes a successful movie, everyone else tries to decipher the formula so that they can have a juggernaut too. In this case, the thought process was: “Harry Potter is based off of a children’s novel. If I make an adaptation of a children’s novel, I will also become more rich.”

Unfortunately for the financiers of Hollywood, none of these attempts to ride the Children’s Literature Film bandwagon was especially successful. The Narnia movies probably did the best, but even those didn’t make much of an impact. Most were total disasters, like the Series of Unfortunate Events movie, or the horrible slew of live-action Dr. Seuss movies. (Let’s never talk about those…) Unfortunately for me, one of these attempts was based on a book series very near and dear to me, His Dark Materials.

Yes, I speak of 2007’s The Golden Compass, the film that pleased no one, but managed to piss quite a few people off. It didn’t piss me off, though, I must confess. (And I’m no stranger to rage at the horrible-ness of adaptations.) It probably did worse than that… It made me feel nothing. I guess there was some confusion. 

As an adaptation, The Golden Compass hit all the checkboxes of plot, but, somewhere along the way, it was separated from its soul and spent two hours wandering the multiverse trying to find it.

I’ve never been one to research all the drama behind the scenes of productions. Even if that drama made them what they are, I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that you can only judge what’s on the screen in front of you. But even a cursory glance at the film’s Wikipedia page makes it quite clear that it went through a good deal of both Development Hell and Executive Meddling. And the seams really show.

Case in point, The Magisterium. Also known as “The Church,” though you would never know that from watching this movie. This very, very thinly veiled take on the Roman Catholic Church (the veil is made out of saran wrap) has always been the one thing that has made the book series controversial. No doubt the powers that be were aware of this and, well, they seemed to have chickened out—and midway through the production, too. They studiously purged all explicit mentions of religion, or god, and made damn sure none of the imagery looked remotely Catholic, or even Christian, except when it did. For example, the “district office of the Magisterium” in Trollesund is clearly and unambiguously a church.

Subtle?

There were no reference to sin, but they apparently couldn’t avoid the term “heresy”. I counted one reference to The Authority, but if you don’t know HDM, it could easily just have been “the authority” of the Magisterium that was being disobeyed.

So the Magisterium just seem like a bunch of old dudes who like to harm children because, like… vague science reasons? Dust means that people will think to disobey, which okay. But there’s not any clear sense that their legitimacy is based on anything other than control freak-ness and the fact that Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee are there looking EVHUL. More evil in many ways than the Church of the books, because we have scenes of these old dudes sitting in dark rooms and plotting and stuff. 

Yeah, Christopher Lee is in this film for a hot minute, sitting in a chair and looking evil. There’s some serious thespian cred here. They got Kathy Bates to be the voice of a jackrabbit for two lines.

The end result is that the religious themes are too whitewashed to please the fanbase of the book series, who tend to be the secularist type, but is vaguely anti-religious enough to upset those of the religious, especially the Catholic, persuasion.

Definitely not a church.

Book snobs were also less than impressed with some of the major structural changes that were made to the plot. And I’m not talking about the fact that Mrs. Coulter is blonde. No one gave a fuck about that. I’m talking about the truncated ending, and the willy-nilly flop of the order of events in the final act.

Famously, the movie ends just before the climax of the novel, where Lyra finds her father in the north only to have him betray her by murdering her friend Roger to open a way between the universes. It’s kind of heavy. And it also contains the culmination of Lyra’s character arc in this novel. I imagine it was thought best to avoid such a downer ending, so the film cuts off just as Lyra is flying off in the airship with a speech full of smiles and hope.

Is it just me, or does that seem a little cruel?

There was also a major change made to the order of two major plot events; the attack on Bolvangar by the coalition Lyra put together, and the events in Svalbard where she helps Iorek Byrnison reclaim the throne of the Ice Bears. The only motive I can think of is that they wanted the climactic battle to be closer to the end. (Oh course, they wouldn’t have this problem if they kept the original climax from the source material, but whatever….) While it always annoys me when adaptations make these kinds of massive structural changes, it didn’t need to necessarily break the movie like it did. There’s no reason the events couldn’t have happened in the opposite order; one didn’t cause the other or anything, but the story as it is in Northern Lights followed in an organic and clear manner, while the one in The Golden Compass did not.

This is ultimately an effect of the devotion to the checkboxes. Combined with a devotion to a sub 2-hour run-time, I suppose. Every plot point and twist has to be hit, but there’s no time to allow them to develop or breathe, so you end up with little more than a sequence of stuff happening. Mrs. Coulter takes Lyra to London and they get their hair did, but then, suddenly, and with no progression, Mrs. Coulter becomes terrifying and Lyra decides to run away. Then the Gyptians rescue her and they’re off to the North because that’s where the missing kids are. Oh look, it’s Serafina Pekkala, and she comes bearing exposition.

Hey, Lyra. What’s good?

The interlude in the Ice Bear Kingdom might be the best example of this. Iorek, it must be said, may be the best developed minor character, and it’s easy to root for him in his fight with Ragnar Sturlusson, (they changed the name from the book, but it’s not especially important). But the context,  the significance of this for the bears, is not really discernible. There is a passing mention to how Ragnar wants a daemon, and that he’s a usurper, and he looks sufficiently ridiculous sitting on a throne, but a viewer unfamiliar with the source material would have little reason to appreciate how important it is that he had a throne inside of a palace to sit on  in the first place, or understand how Iorek being restored would change this.

Then, as soon as the single combat is over (did you know you can slap a bear’s jaw off his face and there will be no blood at all?) the plot just drops any follow-up so that Lyra can ride off on Iorek’s back to Bolvangar.

It’s just one thing after another, with very little indication ever about why something is important or how the audience may have earned the information that’s just baldly stated. (Did you know the witches have a prophecy about Lyra?)

The Exposition Train is speeding out of the station at the same clip as an unarmored bear running across the tundra for the whole movie. It begins in the opening narration, where the film rather awkwardly gives away key pieces of world building, like the nature of daemons and the existence of parallel universes. The film, it seems, has little confidence in the world building of the source material, or in its own ability to exposit without resorting to people explaining things to each other that they should already know.

I mentioned a few paragraphs up that I quite liked the character of Iorek Byrnison and how he was introduced, but he was really the only character I was entirely satisfied with. Nicole Kidman’s performance as Mrs. Coulter didn’t exactly do it for me. I can appreciate how difficult a character this would be to portray. She has the otherworldly ability to charm and enchant everyone. Kidman’s performance is trying a little too hard to make this happen. At first I thought it was a bit too sexual, but I’m not sure about that anymore. I think it’s a general lack of subtlety. It’s not entirely her fault either, since the script needs her to be suddenly evil and violent atmore than one point. She slaps her own daemon around. Which… okay. She ends up more creepy than charming. And her voice is weird and breathy.

Lyra’s inconsistency of character is all the writing. She’s alternately kind of a jerk and super empathetic, with nothing happening to justify the transition. Lyra is just a kid, and kids are naturally selfish and impulsive, so when she’s spitting plum stones at people for lolz I guess I can deal, but then she is so full of empathy for Iorek and you’re not sure where the progression is. There is some effort to develop her bullshitting superpower that will one day save free will, but, especially since her time with Mrs. Coulter is reduced to a hair salon montage, we get little sense of the way her arc unfolds: by expanding her experience of the world and providing her with ways of judging people past their superficial qualities and her snobby, rather sexist, lens.

The other performances are nothing to write home about. Sam Elliott was perfectly cast as Lee Scoresby, but was given little to do. Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala didn’t really have a chance because the script just had her randomly appearing at odd moments. I think she was trying to be intense and nice at the same time?

In general, I’m quite glad this movie never spawned a sequel. I cringe at even the thought of The Amber Spyglass getting this treatment. It’s an odd mixture of narrative cowardice and plot overreach that tried to do everything, without seeming to understand what it wanted to say.


Images courtesy of New Line Cinemas

Julia is a Managing Editor at The Fandomentals with far too many hobbies and complex emotions. She may or may not be an actual Martell.

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Book Review: Shattered, by Lee Winter

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I’ve been looking forward to reviewing another book by Lee Winter for a while. Her book, The Red Files, about a May-December relationship between two journalists on the case was an engaging read, and I expected nothing less from this book. This review does contain minor spoilers, but more in regards to craft than content.

Shattered leans into Shattergirl, a first-generation alien/superhero who has gone off the grid. Lena Martin, an alien tracker, is tasked with finding Shattergirl and figuring out where she’s been for the last 18 months. From this premise, we follow Lena to Socotra, otherwise known as the Island of Bliss, to track the missing superhero and figure out how to bring her in.

I expected that this book would take much longer to get to the point. Often, when reading a book where one character must find another, the author labors under building up the mystery character, with the detective character spending chapter after chapter following false leads, missing connections. The tension of the book is contingent on finding the mystery character. What this often leads to is a pacing issue, where the action of the story is backloaded, leading to a tedious start, an arduous middle, and frequently an unsatisfying ending. Winter, however, is far too deft of a writer to do that to us. She instead, comes out in front of the pacing issues, and after setting up the world with only as much detail as the reader would need, makes sure that a quarter of the way in, we’re at the tension of the story.

What works more than anything in this story, is the tension between Shattergirl (who goes by Nyah once she warms up a bit) and Lena. Lena, who poses as a writer so as not to immediately give herself away, begins to interrogate Nyah. And while it is revealed that Nyah knew all along that she was indeed a tracker, the sharp tongues and wit between the two sets the stage for further relational development.

Winter has the ability to profoundly flesh out a character without dropping information. Characteristics are dropped in during moments of suspense, without much staging, allowing for a roundness that I don’t usually see unless I am 5 books into a series. The way characters are painted allows for broad strokes, providing only the most necessary and relevant information first, then going in with finer detail later. This allows for the plot and action to take center stage, and for the characters to be more complimentary.

What struck me most about this book was the angle of looking at celebrity and heroism. The way Lena’s perspective changes through the book, both in response to her job and to Nyah reflects that of the reader. Lena can’t be bothered to have a personal life because she is renowned in her field, leaving her only with the soft reminder of humanity in her apartment neighbor. Nyah, who is adored by the world as a hero, is burdened with the pressure of trying to save everyone, and crushed by the weight of the vulnerable ones she can’t save. Lena, who spent her childhood admiring Nyah for her heroism, is knocked down a peg to the reality of what heroism really looks like.

In a book filled with grace and profound observations, I wish more than anything that this book was longer, or that it had a movie deal or something. Winter has a way of crafting stories that feel real and raw and cut past genre or the obvious direction a book could go in. My only criticism for such a short book is waiting for the other shoe to drop. This book builds itself up to the highest peak, and with thirty pages left, you as the reader are left wondering where exactly all this build up is going. I won’t say that it doesn’t have a satisfying ending, because it does, but the reading experience is certainly unique.

You can find Shattered by Lee Winter by clicking here.

*An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified Lee Winter as Lee Winters. This has been corrected and we regret the error.


Images Courtesy of YLVA Publishing

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Christopher Tolkien, Gil-Estel, Has Retired From Tolkien Estate

Dan

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I amar prestar aen, han mathon ne nen, han mathon ne chae a han noston ned ‘wilith.

It is a busy time in the world of Tolkien. Fresh off the announcement that Amazon will produce a new series based on The Lord of the Rings, a perhaps more significant change has occurred. According to theOneRing.net Christopher Tolkien, for decades the editor of his father’s work and arbiter of the Tolkien legacy, has stepped down from his role at the head of the Tolkien Estate. While not a shock to some, thanks to his statement in the preface of Beren and Lúthien that “this is (preemptively) my last book in the long series of editions of my father’s writings,” it still feels like the end of an era.

There From The Start

Considered the undisputed chief scholar of Tolkien, Christopher has been a part of the creation of Arda since he was a child. As a young boy, he was told the tales of Bilbo Baggins that, after his incessant demand for consistency force his father to write the stories down, became The Hobbit. He served as a sounding board for The Lord of the Rings and, when he was 25, became a member of the Inklings, the Oxford University literary society that also included C.S Lewis, Nevill Coghill, and Charles Williams. And those famous maps of Middle Earth adorning walls, book covers, and body parts? All drawn by “C.J.R.T” a.k.a Christopher John Reuel Tolkien.

Editor and Guiding Hand

But it was his contribution to Tolkien’s lifelong project and arguably magnum opus The Silmarillion that truly ensured Christopher’s importance within his father’s legacy. Gathering up over fifty years of notes, scribbles, and drafts that his father had made over the years, Christopher set out to edit it together into what he hoped would be close to his father’s vision. With character names changing from paragraph to paragraph and an entire legendarium to try to distill into a narrative, it was no easy task. Thanks to editorial decisions that have proved controversial, even ones that he himself later debated, he was able to put the pieces together and release The Silmarillion in 1977, four years after it’s author’s passing.

He followed it up with his edited collections of his father’s writing, Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle Earth-the molten metal from which The Silmarillion was cast. For the first time, fans could see characters like Sauron, Gandalf, and Elrond develop over time. He also released, in the new millennium, more compact and edited works from his father like The Children of Húrin and the aforementioned Beren and Lúthien. He has also helped release some of J.R.R Tolkien’s non-LOTR work like Beowulf The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, and The Fall of Arthur. 

Critic and Fierce Protector

In recent years, he has become known for his tight grip on his father’s legacy in the aftermath of an explosion of interest thanks to the Peter Jackson film trilogy of the Lord of the Rings. When said trilogy was announced, his opinion was that the films would lose the “essence” of the film. In a 2012 interview, he further declared the films to have “gutted” the book, calling them “making an action film for 15 to 25-year-olds.” His views on Jackson’s The Hobbit films was seemingly even lower, raising legal objections with New Line and in the aftermath declaring that The Silmarillion would not be touched for “a very long time.”

What This All Could Mean

The biggest question is all this? Whether the Amazon deal is a direct result of Christopher giving up the reins. The estate still counts among its members Christopher’s younger sister Priscilla Tolkien as well as multiple Tolkien grandchildren. But Christopher was always the chief arbiter and, with his orthodox control gone, will the Amazon deal be the first of many? The Tolkien legendarium is ripe for the very cinematic universes that Hollywood is currently desperate for. For better or worse, the new management may seem more amenable to adaptations and expansions than Christopher ever was.

As it is, it’s important for fans to thank Mr. Tolkien for his service to his father’s legacy and we all wish him a very happy retirement.

Nai tiruvantel ar varyuvantel i Valar tielyanna nu vilya.


Image courtesy of New Line Cinema

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Racism and Some Sexism in Woman Who Rides Like A Man

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Image Courtesy of Athenum Books for Young Readers

The Woman Who Rides Like A Man makes me look at the premise of these articles and cringe. Trying to find the evolution of feminism in a book with a hearty dose of racism and sexism is… hard. Very hard. The fact that it reads like Pierce is trying to be sensitive to these issues and is failing makes it worse. To be  fair, in 1986 when this book was published, it probably would have seemed more progressive. Pierce including characters of another race and being respectful of them was outstanding for that time period. But, time marches on. Things that were once seen as progressive become backward. So you read about racism and sexism in a mostly feminist series from a consistently feminist author.

Nothing exists in a vacuum and we can’t look at anything outside of our current lens. But, this is the one time Pierce makes this mistake so egregiously. She gets better, and actively addresses these issues again in one of her most recent books.

Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers for The Woman Who Rides Like a Man and both of the books covered in previous articles. I am also white, so I may miss several more subtle examples of racism in the text or even in my interpretations of it. If I make mistakes because of this, please let me know so that I can fix them.

Introduction

This is the first book in the series that does not center around Alanna gaining her shield. As such, Pierce breaks the mold a little and then goes on to break it a lot. Woman Who Rides Like a Man starts with Alanna and Coram in the Great Southern Desert. They left the palace after Alanna killed her great enemy, Duke Roger. Alanna’s goal was to become a knight so that she could go and have adventures, so adventure is what they’re looking for. They run into some bandits and defeat them with the help of the local Bazhir tribe.

They eventually join that tribe, although Alanna has some difficulty with the Shaman. Akhnan ibn Nazzir, said Shaman, views Alanna as a witch and demon because of sexism. They quarrel and Alanna winds up killing him in self defense. This means she has to take his place until she can train his replacement. Alanna decides that the replacements will be three young children she befriended who have the magical Gift. Ishak, the one male trainees, overreaches his Gift and dies for it. The other two girls survive and become Shamans in turn.

Jonathan, Myles, and Ali Mukhtab arrive at the tribe’s camp. Jonathan learns from Ali Mukhtab and becomes the religious leader of the Bazhir. Myles adopts Alanna. Jonathan and Alanna quarrel and it ends their romantic entanglement. Alanna goes to visit George in Port Caynn, and the two of them begin a romantic entanglement. George then goes back to Corus and faces rebellion in the Court of the Rogue. Alanna returns to the hill country around the desert and saves documents from a friend of the tribe’s leader.

What this Book did Right:

Alanna’s Character Development

Unfortunately this section is very short. For a book series that is supposed to be centered around Alanna, this does very little to advance her character. Alanna says two things that she has learned, at two points in the story, but I find these hard to believe that these are new to her.

Alanna and Female Friendship

Halef Seif, the leader of the tribe of Bazhir that adopted Alanna talks with her after she returns to the tribe. He says, “you’ve discovered you like your own sex?’ ‘How can I not like other women?’ Alanna inquired. … I don’t feel nearly as odd about being female as I did before I came here.” (265). Alanna, through the positive female interactions that she had during the events of this book, has developed a more positive view of her gender. This is great and ultimately feminist to love and appreciate women for what they do and who they are. Alanna mentions that when she disguised herself as male that she didn’t talk much with other women.

However, I don’t see this as new character development, because we see this happening before in the series. Alanna goes to Eleni Cooper, and Eleni teaches her how to dress in a female manner. The two of them spend a good amount of time together. We also meet Rispah in this book, who is George’s cousin, and well acquainted with Alanna beforehand. Alanna mentions that she’s friends with several sex workers in Corus when discussing whorephobia associated with Bazhir customs of modesty. Because of this we know that Alanna is friends with women, and has been for a while.

There is nothing wrong with Alanna spending time with more female characters. It’s wonderful, having several female characters that can talk to one another and support each other as the women in Woman who Rides Like a Man do. However, when Pierce presents it as something entirely new to the series, that I take issue with.

Alanna and Magic

Another thing that Alanna says she has learned over the course of the year that this book covers, is that she has accepted her magic. She says, shortly before the end. “I was afraid of magic, partly because I was sure it couldn’t be controlled. … I guess I’m not afraid of my Gift anymore. I’m the one who wields it.” (283). Alanna’s Gift, her magic is inborn within her. Being afraid of herself isn’t healthy.

But, as with Alanna’s relationships with other women, this is a beat that has already been covered in the series. In the first book, we see Alanna use her magic after hiding it for a year. She heals Jonathan from the Sweating Sickness, something no other healer has done. Alanna uses her Gift again to heal during the Tusaine war in the second book. Alanna even takes lessons in magic from Duke Roger, uses it to fight in him during their duel. She and Jonathan use magic to be victorious in the Black City at the conclusion of the first book. Alanna learned this lesson years ago.

Yes, Alanna has learned how to use her magic better and more frequently here. But she has conquered these fears before, and it’s a retread of a thread from the first two books, not a revelation as it is made to seem.

When a book series does character development really well it hurts when that strength falters. Compare this book with In the Hand of the Goddess. There we see Alanna conquering three of her deepest fears, Duke Roger, Love, and the Chamber of the Ordeal. It’s fantastic character development wrapped in a coming of age story. But in Woman Who Rides Like a Man Pierce reduces Alanna’s character development to repeating lessons she has already learned.

Alanna and Jonathan

As has been covered before, I did not enjoy the relationship between Alanna and Jonathan. I felt the power dynamics that existed between them made the romance unhealthy. This book informed part of that reading of the text. Jonathan asks Alanna to marry him, and Alanna hesitates. There are several chapters where she ponders the responsibilities that would be hers if she accepted and the freedoms she would lose. Quite reasonably she demands time to think about it, which Jonathan grants.

Alanna’s problem with Jonathan’s proposal is that she cannot separate his proposal to her with his desire to rebel against his family. Or from his desire to rebel against the cultural norms of Tortall. She’s concerned it’s not sincere that he wants to spend the rest of his life with her, and just marrying her as something selfish.

Jonathan proves that fear right after he becomes the Voice of the Tribes. He orders Alanna’s things packed before he gets a solid yes from her. “How dare you take my acceptance for granted?” (202). Jonathan says Alanna kept sleeping with him, so her answer was yes. Alanna brings up affairs he had with other Court Ladies. It ends with, “And they know how to act like women!’ … ‘I refuse to marry you.’ … ‘I think I’m well out of a potential disaster!’ … ‘Find yourself someone more feminine, Jonathan of Conte!” (203-4). This ends the relationship between the two of them.

Jonathan’s romantic relationships in this book are reactive rather than intelligent. He wants to marry Alanna to rebel against his heritage. He then goes on to court Princess Josiane, in a scene from his POV reacting against, “that – female in the south.” (206). This is not a healthy way to court anyone, and Pierce shows that toxicity in the text.

What This Does Wrong

Character Development Ratios

The List of Male Character Development

  • Coram
    • Becomes a member of the Bazhir tribes
    • Enters into a romantic relationship with Rispah
  • Myles
    • Officially adopts Alanna
    • Has a ‘merchant-like’ interest in finance
    • His barony is wealthier than typical
  • Thom
    • Morals more carefully developed as he steals Alanna’s Gift for a major working
    • Enjoys court life an excessive amount and is socializing with Roger’s friends
    • Has been challenged to raise the dead by said associates of Rogers.
  • Duke Roger
    • Made magical weapons in his youth which are scattered all over Tortall
  • Ali Mukhtab
    • In addition to being the Governor of Persopolis, is the Voice of the Tribes, the central Bazhir religious figure
    • Has visions of the future which make him turn that title over to Jonathan
    • Has a terminal illness that means he will die within months
  • Halef Sief
    • Had a past friendship with a Bazhir woman with the Gift, which meant she had to leave the tribe
    • Learns to accept women as shamans
  • Akhnan ibn Nazzir
    • He advocates for Alanna’s death so that he will get a third of her belongings showing his interest in money
    • Selfish and protective of his role to the point where he will not train successors because he does not want any challengers
    • Incredibly sexist
  • Ishak
    • Learns to respect Kara and Kourrem as his fellow shaman trainees and women’s work as important
    • Is conceited about his powers and the fact he had a minor amount of training before Alanna
    • Overreaches himself with his Gift, leading to his death
  • George
    • Enters a romantic relationship with Alanna
    • Learn more about the structure of the Court of the Rogue
    • Learn more about his relationship with his mother, Eleni
  • Jonathan
    • Ends his romantic relationship with Alanna
    • Enters a romantic entanglement with Princess Josiane
    • Becomes Voice of the Tribes and views that as freeing

What Does This Mean?

As I mentioned above, Alanna doesn’t get much new character development in this book. In comparison, every single male character present for a decent period gets at least one new moment of development or meaningful experience.

In addition, Kara and Kourrem are the only other two female characters that get significant development. But their development is both the same, they learn to become shamans and take that place in the tribe. Pierce differentiates their characters, but they are on parallel journeys, as no other characters are. This blends their development together, making them more one development rather than many.

There are several female characters mentioned that do not get development at all. Our view of Eleni doesn’t change, and we don’t even meet Rispah before now. The other Bazhir women serve mostly as a gestalt entity described by Alanna, with one exception. Mari Fahrar is the first Bazhir woman who accepts Alanna, Kara, and Kourrem as shaman and shamans to be. This ‘change’ is facilitated simply by one conversation with them, and there is nothing in the text that suggests she was particularly prejudiced before. Admittedly, after Mari is convinced, she convinces the other Bazhir women to give them a chance, which allows for some development of the Bazhir women as a whole.

However, four female characters that all get minor development in contrast to several major developments to numerous male characters is dodgy. This ratio is difficult to see and not think of sexism. It’s not wrong for an author to develop her characters. But balance, especially in feminist works, is something you should strive for.

Racism, Colonialism and the Coding of the Bazhir

The Bazhir are a group of people loosely organized in tribes with only one major city. They live in the desert south of Tortall and the other civilized lands. Tortall conquered them two generations ago. There are tribes that are at peace with the Tortallans and those that are not. They are notably darker skinned than the civilized people, and the women wear veils that hide their faces. Their religion that loosely ties into that of the civilized nations but which they’ve added on other beliefs to. They have one person that serves as the center of their religion. What does that sound like?

If you answered Islam, the Middle East, or the Colonization of Indigenous people, then you can see the problems inherent with the culture that Pierce has created here.

There are many pieces that need to be addressed here, and it may very well be that I will miss some or misinterpret some. I will not be addressing everything that I caught in the book, only the most egregious things. I know that it will be impossible for some people to see the series as feminist because of the issues endorsed here. The fact that I can see this series as feminist overall despite this book is in some ways an expression of privilege. I hope this discussion will be educational for those who missed things, as I did when I first read this book at 12.

Racism and Colonialism

One of the major events in this book is chronicling Jonathan’s journey to become the Voice of the Tribes. The Voice of the Tribes is the central religious figure of the Bazhir. He gains several magical powers because of this position. The ability to commune with all of his people, to see the past lives of other Voices, and to know the date of his own death are some of them. The Bazhir are a people who are largely fractured into tribes, and the Voice is the one who binds them all as one people despite their division.

Ali Mukhtab knows that he is dying, has known when he would die since he became the Voice. He knows the day is nigh. He also knows that,

“[the northern] king will win if we continue to fight …

[the renegade tribes] will make peace and the Voice will bring

them into Tortall without a fight. We must accept the

King in the North; there is no other way. But we can do it

so that we never forget who we are. Prince Jonathan is the key.” (57).

It is understandable that Ali Mukhtab wants to keep his people safe and whole from a Watsonian perspective. He has future sight, he knows exactly what will happen, what destruction that will be meted out to his people if they fight.

However, a Doylist perspective reveals problems with this situation and this method of resolution. That the only way to save an Indigenous culture is to have a white man take the place as their leader is bad. That said white man will bring their culture in line with his own rather then respecting them is worse.

After Jonathan becomes the Voice he says to Alanna, “for the first time since I was named, I am free.” (197). He complains about his life as a prince being confining with too many responsibilities. Then he takes on responsibility for the saving of an entire other culture and views it as freedom.

It relies on so many racist and colonialist tropes, the White Savior, the idea of the ‘good oppressed person’ who just rolls over and accedes their agency to their oppressor, the idea that colonialism is inevitable.

Jonathan could have helped the Bazhir in a different way. He could have reversed the conquest. He could have brokered a peace treaty so that their peoples wouldn’t fight. Tortall receives next to no resources from the Bazhir anyway. The only thing Tortall gets from having conquered the Bazhir is bragging rights. Tortall just won a war against Tusaine, so giving the desert back to the Bazhir wouldn’t loose Tortall their strong image. Pierce chose to have Jonathan become the new leader of the Bazhir rather than any other options in endorsement of colonizing people of a different race.

Racism, Feminism, and Islamophobia

The Bazhir women wear veils, which codes their society is Islamic. Hijab is an issue that is hotly debated in feminist circles. There are many, many arguments about the nature of it. Is it feminist to wear it of your own free will? Is it just submitting to the will of a patriarchal society? There are a thousand questions and no concrete answers. The best discussion of Western feminism and feminism in the Islamic framework is Saba Mahmoods The Politics of Piety. For general questions about hijab and feminism I suggest you go there, as I cannot cover all the different facets of this question.

In the fictional universe that Pierce presents, we see these issues come up as well. Alanna becomes the first female shaman of the Bazhir, and forces the Bazhir to accept her apprentices into the tribal meetings. In doing this she maps her own notions of feminism onto a different culture. It is not bad that Alanna wants to emancipate other women, to allow them the same freedoms she has. Woman Who Rides Like a Man is a title that the Bazhir give Alanna, which shows that she exerts power amidst them in a masculine coded way.

Alanna refuses to follow the gender norms of the Bazhir, which makes sense because she does not follow all the norms of her own culture. However, the problem with Alanna is how she expects other women to behave. She mentions at several points in the novel that she wants Kara and Kourrem to stop wearing their face veils. The girls are mentioned as crying whenever Alanna brings it up, so she grudgingly stops. Feminism is about allowing women agency and choices of their own. They can choose to act in a traditionally feminine manner or to not. Kara and Kourrem have made their choices, and Alanna and the narrative do not respect that. The reason that they don’t is because feminism, especially second wave feminism, is not always immune to racism and Islamophobia.

Conclusion

Woman Who Rides Like a Man is a book that ultimately makes many mistakes. The balance of character development is askew, focusing overwhelmingly on the men rather than on the main character. There is racism, Islamophobia, and colonialism inherent in every thread of the world-building surrounding the Bazhir. However, there are some of my favorite payoffs in the series. Jonathan and Alanna breaking up, George and Alanna getting together, and Myles adopting her are some of my favorite moments in the series. But they are located in a book that has many problems.

The one comfort that I take from this novel is that after this, when Pierce returns to these issues, she does it right. It takes her almost twenty years, but she fixes her mistakes. So, in some ways I can place this novel as a product of it’s time, and use it as a reminder that change can occur. That feminism has become inter-sectional and more accepting of different viewpoints. That people can get better, because if Pierce was writing this now, I know she’d be looking at it from a different more compassionate perspective. But I also probably won’t re-read this book as often as I do the others in this series and all of Pierce’s other writing.

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