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book lists bookish posts

Not the Chosen One

I’m always interested in tropes and the way authors play with them. At this point, the Chosen One trope has become both a huge cultural force and almost a parody of itself. Sometimes an author will choose to engage with it, but in a way that’s a little bit different. Maybe the story is narrated by someone close to the Chosen One, maybe the person who thought they were chosen isn’t. Because I don’t want to spoil the books below, I’m not saying exactly how they reflect this, but they do in some form. And I’d love to hear if you have a favorite I’ve missed!

White Cat by Holly Black
The Impostor Queen by Sarah Fine
The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge
The Story of Owen/Prairie Fire by E.K. Johnston
Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn
UnLunDun by China Mieville
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

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bookish posts

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston (not a review)

exit pursued by a bear[content warning: both the book and this post contain discussion of sexual assault and rape. Skip this one if you need to. <3]

Continuing this week’s theme, I can’t quite manage to review this one in the normal sense. It’s a book that I loved deeply and that I felt deeply, but which I’m having trouble talking about. I spent the entire time I was reading it on the verge of tears and yet I couldn’t say exactly why. If you want a really good actual review, I’ll point you to Brandy’s, which does a great job of capturing the book’s strengths.

E.K. Johnston is at this point one of my favorite authors and one I’ll pretty much automatically read. This is her fourth published book, and it’s a bit different in that it’s within the contemporary and realistic genre, rather than the fantasy she’s published to date. And yet, as she’s said, this is perhaps the most fantasy book she’s written.

Part of the difficulty of talking about this book for me is that it’s just so complex. How can you do justice to this story when you’re pulling out different threads? Saying that it’s a Shakespearean retelling, or a cheerleading story, or even a story about friendship doesn’t capture it. And while it’s true that this is a book about the aftermath of rape, it’s doing something a little different from books like Speak or All the Rage (which are wonderful!).

Perhaps the reason I kept wanting to cry is the distance between what Johnston shows us and what we normally see, not only in fiction but in real life. Two weeks after this book came out, Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted of all charges and the judge basically put the victims on trial instead. The ongoing legal battle to free Kesha from being forced to work with the man who raped her also reappeared just after this book was published. Every personal story of sexual assault that I’ve been trusted with has had people doubting accounts, dismissing concerns.

Johnston gives us something different here: a story where something terrible happens, and then people react the way they should. By giving us a version of the world where Hermione is believed, where she is treated well by the adults in charge, where she is given space to remain herself, Johnston asks us to consider that our current reality need not be this way. There are certainly unkind people in this book (LEO, UGH) but they are exceptions. And Hermione refuses to lose herself: her love of cheerleading, her friendships, her identity. She refuses to become “that raped girl.” I appreciated that she is level-headed about this, and also that it’s a process that’s slow, hard, and ultimately hopeful.

I read this book feeling, as I’m feeling now, a strange mix of anger, sorrow, hope, and determination. It challenges us to make our world closer to this one, to make our reactions to terrible situations the kind that will foster belief, support, and healing.

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bookish posts reviews

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

a thousand nightsA Thousand Nights is a loose-ish retelling of the Scheherazade story. It’s E.K. Johnston’s third book, and it’s firmly cemented her as a go-to author for me. I got the ARC for this one just before the Cybils started, so I set it aside until now. And while I’m sorry I had to wait this long, I’m happy that I had a chance to really savor this lovely book.

First, I think it’s worth stating upfront that Johnston is really thoughtful about how she changes the Scheherazade story. She resists romance here, which I appreciated. This is not the story of a girl falling in love with her captor, and it so easily could be.

The narrator of A Thousand Nights is never given a name–in fact, many of the characters aren’t. They’re defined in relationship to the narrator, or to the each other, which gives the story an immediacy and intimacy that I think works really well here. In fact, I felt that the narrator’s voice throughout the story, and the authorial choices that Johnston makes in terms of the way language is used, are one of the major strengths of the book.

Despite the fact that she’s not given a name, I found the narrator’s character–the way she experiences the world–worked in a really powerful way. This story is about some big themes and ideas, but it’s driven by the narrator and her choices.

One of the things I most appreciated about the book is the way it centers the relationships between the women in the story. The narrator is motivated by¬† her love for her sister, and she has strong, important connections with her mother, her sister’s mother, and Lo-Melkhiin’s mother. Even more so, the story explicitly honors and talks about women’s stories, women’s secrets, and women’s lives in a way that I found really refreshing. The place of handcrafts and traditional women’s work in the story is also really great; they’re shown with respect for the work and knowledge that goes into them and shown to have power, even if that power is often overlooked or misunderstood by men.

Moreover, the women in the story are not set in competition with each other. The narrator and her sister love each other, and their mothers are dear friends. Even Lo-Melkhiin’s mother and the servants in the qasr are shown to have relationships with each other and with the narrator that are supportive and nurturing, rather than competitive.

There’s also a great exploration of pride in who you are and where you come from. Many of the narrator’s images and similes grow out of her life in the desert, and she’s shown to draw much of her sense of self and her sense of strength from that identity. In the end, the story makes that a bittersweet thing, and yet I found that it really grounded the narrator and gave her a sense of purpose and the readers a sense of who she is. I had a sense of tradition and culture that’s very deep, even if we don’t see all of it.

Finally, this is a book that’s all about choices. The narrator faces hard choices again and again, and she has to choose rightly and see clearly in order to keep herself alive and to keep her family and country safe. The narrative deals really well with this, making it seem natural, while at the same time drawing attention to this theme and to the narrator’s sense of being on a knife’s edge.

In case it’s not clear, I really loved this book–I found it a joy to read and I was consistently surprised and convinced by Johnston’s choices, and by the narrator and her story. It combines a sense of being rooted in a sense of family and history and self, with a strength and purpose that’s shown to be how the narrator saves herself in the end.

Book source: ARC passed on from Brandy

Book information: 2015, Hyperion; YA historical fantasy

Other reviews: Brandy, Kirkus, Kaye, you?