The Winter Sea, Susanna Kearsley

The Winter Sea, Susanna Kearsley

The Winter Sea, Susanna Kearsley

Just about a month or so ago, Brie was kind enough to give me a copy of Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea for my Kindle. It took me a while to get to it, but when I did, I found myself completely pulled into the story and unable to put it down. I liked it well enough that when three of Kearsley’s other books went on sale a few days after I finished it, I bought them, too.

This is a fairly quiet and understated book but one that is still quite powerful nonetheless.

Author Carrie McClelland comes to Scotland for her agent’s son’s christening and finds herself compelled to drive past a moldering old castle on the sea–and when she finds out that it’s the same castle involved in the book she’s been struggling to write, she packs up her things from her rental in France and rents a cottage in the small village near the castle.

And that’s when things start getting weird for Carrie. She finds herself entering almost a fugue state when she’s writing and as she digs into the history of the area and of her family, she finds out that her novel and what actually happened seem to be converging.

Slains Castle was involved in the Jacobite uprising of 1708 and young Sophia Paterson has just arrived at the invitation of the lady of the castle. Once there, Sophia finds herself slowly becoming aware of the conspiracy and sympathetic to it–and she falls in love with one of the soldiers, a Mr Moray.

I don’t want to say too much more because one of the lovely things about this book is the way the relationship between Sophia and Moray parallels that between Carrie and one of her landlord’s sons–the studious Graham with the rambunctious setter Angus.

This is just a beautifully written book and it definitely isn’t something I’d have picked up on my own, so I’m glad that I was given a bit of a shove and I’m really looking forward to reading the three other books in my TBR pile now.

The Georgetown Trilogy, Barbara Michaels

Ammie, Come Home, Barbara Michaels

Ammie, Come Home, Barbara Michaels

Barbara Michaels is one of my favorite writers and one whose novels I return to over and over again. And my three favorites are the only ones which can be said to form a series: Ammie, Come Home, Shattered Silk, and Stitches in Time. As Barbara Michaels, MPM wrote what used to be called romantic suspense–I’m not sure what it would be called nowadays, supernatural mystery/suspense?

All three of these books are set at least partially in Georgetown in an old historic home. In Ammie, Come Home, the house features as a prominent part of the plot, in the other two books it’s just a house.

Ammie, Come Home is probably the most traditionally gothic of the three books. Ruth Bennet has inherited a distant relative’s home and her niece Sara is currently living with her–and during an otherwise innocuous seance becomes possessed by the ghost of young woman who was murdered in the home 200 years previously.

In addition to Ruth and Sara, there’s also Sara’s beau Bruce and his outspoken professor, Pat McDougal. Both Bruce and Pat also, to a certain extent, become overshadowed as well.  While Sara and Bruce are the younger couple, the real character development and romance in this book is that between Ruth and Pat. They’re both in their forties, Ruth is a widow and Pat’s a lifelong bachelor. Ruth and Pat are one of my all-time favorite fictional couples–I love that they’re older and more settled, I love that they each have a history that affects their relationship with each other. Ruth’s first husband was abusive and likely raped her (this is very subtly alluded to; one needs to read closely to see what’s going on between the lines) and she is skittish like whoa and what with Pat being overshadowed by a murderous British sympathizer, well, they’ve got some things to work out. Pat’s a bit paternalistic but is aware of it and willing to be called on it and it’s absolutely hilarious to watch him apply the scientific method to the haunting.

Obviously, things do end up working out and getting resolved because this is not the kind of book where they don’t.

Shattered Silk, Barbara Michaels

Shattered Silk, Barbara Michaels

Shattered Silk was published 20 years after Ammie, Come Home but in terms of the book timeline, it’s only been maybe a decade. This time, the main character is Karen, Sara’s younger sister. Ruth and Pat, happily married, are going out of the country and Karen is house-sitting for them. She’s been ditched by her emotionally abusive husband and has nowhere else to go, so it’s good that that they need a house-sitter. Karen’s able to get a part-time job with one of her old college friends who now owns a second-hand clothing shop.

Karen is a mealy-mouthed and downtrodden protagonist who is really hard to sympathize with–the charm of this book is watching her emerge from that state and find herself. There is a romance here, with her old college flame Mark, but that’s really secondary to her personal growth.

As Karen works in her friend’s shop, she starts to think that this is a way she can support herself, too, and she starts to accumulate old clothing and one of her most ardent supporters is Pat’s mother, Mrs. MacDougal–known to all as Mrs. Mac. In her day, Mrs. Mac was quite the fashionista and had clothing from all the top designers, which she is willing to sell on consignment through Karen.

While Karen is acquiring stock for her future store, she’s developing a friendship with Mark’s younger sister Cheryl, and this is one of my favorite things about this book, too–the female friendships. There are also a couple of awful socialites, a murder mystery and possibly the ugliest dog in the history of fiction, Alexander.

No supernatural elements here, just a long-ago murder and awful family secrets.

Stitches in Time, Barbara Michaels

Stitches in Time, Barbara Michaels

The last book in the series combines elements of both Ammie, Come Home and Shattered Silk. Stitches in Time has supernatural elements as well as a bit of a mystery and a focus on historical textiles–in this case, quilts instead of clothing.

This one is a bit darker than the other two; in part because Rachel is in many ways more modern than either Ruth or Karen (in this book, she’s changed her name to Kara) and also because the interpersonal relationships are more complicated.

Rachel is a grad student who is doing her thesis on women’s magic as expressed through the medium of textiles and as a consequence, she spends a lot of time in Kara and Cheryl’s used clothing shop and when Cheryl’s husband Tony is shot responding to a domestic disturbance (he wasn’t even on duty), Rachel is promoted from customer to part-time employee while Cheryl takes on nursemaid duties.

The problem is that Rachel has a bit of a crush on Tony–and she knows it’s completely inappropriate and wouldn’t dream of acting on it. Until, that is, the cursed quilt shows up. Yes, there’s a cursed quilt. It’s an album quilt with a bunch of subtly nasty images on it and it’s been filled with graveyard dirt and when Tony throws it over Rachel’s shoulders one evening, she become overshadowed by the woman who made it–very similar to the possessions in Ammie, Come Home.

This is also a Christmas story, as it takes place in December and there is a wonderful sequence that begins in a shopping mall and culminates in Adam, Pat’s former student who is also staying at Cheryl’s over the holiday, showing off all the gifts which he purchased some of which are…unusual. Adam has a child-like glee around giving presents that I find absolutely charming, even more so when his history is taken into account.

I’m also exceedingly fond of a scene between Rachel and Ruth in which Ruth informs that while she feels sorry for Rachel that she had to deal with Pat being possessed once and if she thinks it’s going to happen again she’ll cut Rachel off without another word–I love her ruthlessness here (sorry for the terrible pun).

Just like in the other books, the mystery is resolved satisfactorily and everyone–even the restless spirits–gets a happy ending (or as happy as they can have).

I’m having a really hard time articulating why I love these books so much. They’re more than just comfort reads, although they are certainly that, too. Michaels’s books center women and their experiences–but not just that, they center women who are in a transitional place in their lives. So many of her protagonists are coming out of terrible situations and rebuilding their lives. So many of them have abuse in their past. And yet–they prevail. And in the case of these books, since we see characters years after their happy endings, we know that they endure even if the road is a bit bumpy some times. These books are about perseverance and determination.

I wish there were more books like this being published–MPM stopped writing as Michaels in the late 90’s to concentrate on her series that she writes as Elizabeth Peters (which I also love, but in a different way). This type of romantic suspense is a bit old-fashioned and I suppose that people just aren’t into reading books about spooky houses and haunted quilts and the women who love them. Alas.

Natalie’s Theory of Urban Fantasy

Strong Female Characters by Kate Beaton

Strong Female Characters by Kate Beaton (cropped)

I’ve been reading urban fantasy since the early 1990’s and I’ve been watching it expand like whoa in the years since Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series and Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series were first published.

However, as Hamilton and Harris’s books became increasingly popular, the sub-genre metamorphosed into something very different from what I started reading: books with “strong female characters”, sometimes sympathetic monsters, extended action sequences, and a lot of dodgy worldbuilding.

I can usually tell within a handful of pages if an author I’ve never read before is writing from a SF/F or romance perspective. While it will earn me no love from certain quarters, I’ll say it anyway: The dodgier the worldbuilding and the more supernaturally hot the monsters, the more likely the author either writes romance or has read a lot of romance. And conversely, writers that come from SF/F  often fall short on characterization and emotional development. This isn’t a slur against either genre–I love both–it’s just that the emphasis tends to lead to different kinds of books.

In late 2005, when it came time for the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominations, I requested a new category for urban fantasy. I was seeing more of these books show up–some were quite good and I didn’t want to use up all my nominations on them because I had other fantasy novels I liked, too. After a lot of discussion (I still have the emails), it was agreed that I could have a “modern-day fantasy” category as the general feeling was that the word “urban” was potentially confusing and that “contemporary fantasy” was too likely to be mixed up with “contemporary romance”. I was pretty unhappy about it but I took it–better than nothing, after all.  By late 2006, there was a separate urban fantasy section in the magazine and the “modern-day fantasy” category morphed into the urban fantasy one that we all know and love today.

So. Here’s the thing. Since that moment, that year before urban fantasy really burst onto the scene–damn near fully formed–I have been musing over a half-assed theory of urban fantasy.

See, I think these new style urban fantasies–I am going to call them paranormal fantasies to differentiate them from what came before–have a lot more in common with gothic novels and what I’ve always called romantic suspense–Barbara Michaels, Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, Mary Stewart–than they do with the initial iteration of the genre through the mid-1990’s.

All these type of books have, at their heart, a kind of anxiety about how women fit into the world and I don’t think it’s an accident that here in the United States, in a post-9/11 world, there is suddenly a proliferation of paranormal fantasy.

In all these genres, the protagonists are often women in a transitional phase in their lives. They find themselves with more responsibility–they have inherited property, they have supernatural abilities, they and/or those close to them are in peril. There are unseen and possibly magical enemies and difficulties that must be surmounted and dire consequences if they are not.

However, there is one thing these books are focused on in a way that romantic suspense is not–and that is the Other. The world has either changed or aspects of the world have become known that were hidden and there are monsters. Some of them are allied with the protagonist, but most of them are not. Alliances shift–a friendly monster in the first book may become an enemy by the end of the series and vice versa. You can’t count on what you thought you knew about the world because it is constantly changing. The speed at which things change in our world is, at times, frenetic, and this is reflected in paranormal fantasy. American society has–I am deliberately using a very broad brush here–deemed certain cultures to be monstrous (whether or not they actually are) and that tension is reflected in a lot of paranormal fantasy.

Despite the fact that these books are generally written by and for women and usually have female protagonists (and a headless woman in an unnatural pose wearing leather pants on the cover), these protagonists tend to not have a lot of agency. Their roles are prescribed by the kind of book they’re in and it is the rare book that deviates from the formula of kick-ass woman with a mysterious past and magical abilities.

Once in a while, the protagonist is delighted to be living this kind of life but it is typically portrayed as a duty, something to be gotten through until a heteronormative romantic partnership can be established while the enemy is getting its ass kicked. There is a persistent will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic running through many of these books that I find problematic and reductive and more than a little bit distracting–if the protagonist is trying to save the world from the evil vampires, why is she mooning over the nice vampire’s steely blue eyes and taut ass? I mean, I get that one can’t be all business all the time but does her non-ass-kicking time always have to be taken up with dating? Can’t she do jigsaw puzzles or knit? I hear that decorative gourds are very interesting, too.  If her role in this world is biologically determined by her having magical abilities, must it also be tied to her hormones? Are there any paranormal fantasies where the protagonist is bitten by a radioactive spider (or its equivalent)?  Or do bites from sexy vampires only count?

And while I’m talking about radioactive spiders, what about the responsibility that comes with these magic powers? There is an awful lot of killing of people who, apparently, deserve to die because they are evil due to their inherent abilities or who they are related to. There are rarely any repercussions for these murders and while the protagonist may pay lip service to feeling bad about it, there is rarely any true atonement for these actions. These characters typically live in worlds that are black and white with very little nuance. The minute one discovers one’s magical ass-kicking abilities, one loses whatever moral compass that one may have had previously.  The reader rarely, if ever, sees these characters wrestling with any kind of moral dilemma regarding these actions which they feel they must take. All too often, protagonists descend into moral bankruptcy through the course of a series–they become less human, less relatable, less heroic. And at the end, they’re all used up–and then all they’re good for is making a commitment to their supernatural lover and (if possible) having babies.

There are only so many books I can read about a kick-ass woman with a mysterious past and unexplained magical abilities and her adventures (and possible sexy times) with supernatural creatures while fighting evil before hitting overload. After a while, they all start to feel like the same book. Even making your protagonist a dude doesn’t really help much.

I want to see characters who struggle with the choices they have to make, who know that all their choices are shitty choices, and who have to live with the consequences of the choice. I want them to lose friends and allies and gain enemies. I want them to have to fight for their survival and I don’t want the happy ending to be assured from the get-go. I want unhappy endings and ostracized protagonists whose only consolation is that they did the best they could with the lousy cards they were dealt. Most of all, I want stories that are honestly written by authors who know what kind of fire they’re playing with and who understand that demonizing those that are different from the mainstream hurts actual real people in this world. In a world that is changing so quickly, today’s friendly vampire is potentially tomorrow’s bad vampire, and who gets to make that decision anyhow?  When the world in a book is defined only in shades of black and white, what happens to everyone in between?  And what happens when another Other comes along and redefines everything again?

If the protagonist is going to don leather pants and kick ass in order to save the world, I’d like her to stop and think about what she’s doing and why–because someday she might find herself on the other side of the ass-kicking equation because someone, somewhere, has decided that she is Other.

And I sure would like her to rethink the leather pants and high heels, too.

(Many many many thanks to Donna and Fran for their help hammering this into shape. Without them, this would be a crazy train heading into crazy town with a boring history lesson at the beginning. Fran would also like the record to reflect that she doesn’t know diddlysquat about urban/paranormal fantasy and that her primary role in this was to help me get the train on the tracks, to belabor the metaphor.)