Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2018, part 3: Tansy Rayner Roberts

Pleasures of Reading, Watching, & Listening
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Something that I really enjoy is an excuse to read a “classic” novel, either for the first time or revisiting an old favorite through new eyes. Not that I need an excuse — but it’s so easy to get hung up on what’s being published right now and forget about anything vintage.

KJ Charles is one of my favorite new discoveries this year, a writer of historical and fantastical queer romance whose work is edgy and thought-provoking as well as passionate escapism.The Henchman of Zenda is a clever retelling of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. Charles has constructed a whole secret romance angle between henchman Jasper Detchard (our new point of view character) and his boss, the scene-stealing villain Rupert of Hentzau. She also beefed up the roles of the women in the story, giving them much stronger characters and motivations.

The Prisoner of Zenda is one of those hugely influential novels that I always thought I had read, but actually hadn’t. I picked it up after Henchman and flew through it, fascinated to see the original threads that KJ Charles picked apart.

The Henchman of Zenda is a smart piece of reinvention that can exist easily alongside the original: all you have to do is accept that the original protagonist, Rudolf Rassendyl, is (a) not nearly as observant or incisive as he thinks he is and (b) often stretching the truth in his “memoir” to make himself look more heroic.

It’s pretty great that while the original ‘not-quite-but-sort-of’ speculative fiction subgenre known as the Ruritanian Romance started with the original Zenda at a time when ‘romance’ meant ‘a fun adventure with swords and some but not a lot of kissing,’ it’s actually the love-conquers-all Romance fiction that has captured it in recent years. Fake European countries abound in novels like Meg Cabot’s classic The Princess Diaries, all the way through to the Netflix Original ‘shinier-than-Hallmark’ royal romance movies like The Christmas Prince and The Christmas Switch, which I find ridiculously enjoyable.

Another big classic re-read I completed this year was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (200 years since it was published!) via the Frankentastic podcast (https://twelfthplanetpress.podbean.com/e/frankentastic-episode-1/) that I signed up to do as a stretch goal for the Mother of Invention Kickstarter last year.

The plan was to read the novel aloud chapter by chapter, changing the gender pronouns but no other aspects of the text. (I did change some but not all of the names) For me, this turned out to be a fascinating way to dig into a book I’ve always had a lot of feelings about, while also teaching myself to rethink a lot of assumptions about gender. I also appreciated how many listeners got in touch to share how this regendering of the classic novel affected them.

I’ve now programmed myself to automatically think of both Dr Frankenstein and her monster as female!

Speaking of classics re-imagined, we need to talk about She-Ra.

Netflix has been making some really interesting choices about rebooting old school “Saturday morning” cartoons from the 80s as sharp, 21st century stories for a new generation of kids. My family has been mildly obsessed with the new Voltron for the last couple of years, even if we have lost faith that the central m/m ‘ship’ will ever become canon. (Sigh, it won’t. But all the kids I know want it to happen, including the 9 year old… does this count as progress?)

I was excited about the new She-Ra because the showrunner, Noelle Stevenson, is one of my creative heroes thanks to her amazing comics, and her fannish contributions (she originated the Hawkeye Initiative!!!).

My daughter insisted on watching a few episodes of the original show with me for context, which swept me back to my Saturday morning nostalgia happy place. I have, apparently, visceral memories of the transforming She-Ra (AKA Super Magic Barbie) and He-Man toys, even if I didn’t remember much of the original story — such as She-Ra’s status as a redeemed villain, a narrative that would be carried off to greater effect with Xena more than a decade later.

Ms9 and I did a lot of shouting at the screen as He-Man took central stage for episode after episode of what was supposed to be the “girl spin-off” from his show… almost like the creators couldn’t quite believe that they were going to effectively sell a female-led quest fantasy to an audience of Skeletor-obsessed children.

Then we watched the new reboot.

And it’s beautiful.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power takes many of the character and visual ideas from the original show and crafts a gorgeous, funny and deeply emotional action comedy around the hearts and minds of mostly female characters (the few male sidekicks in the show are adorable and clearly there to provide emotional support and occasionally set fire to boats).

It’s epic in the same way that shows like Avatar: the Last Airbender and Steven Universe are epic, but with a very different tone to either of those cartoons. Crucially, it places female heroism at the very center of the story, and surrounds it with more female heroism.

Friendship, creativity, diversity… and oh, this show is queer as hell. While there are no outright romances (YET), LGBTQ or otherwise, there are so many great female friendships, many of which border on the kind of intensity that is indistinguishable from romance in G-rated media.

Adora is the newly promoted Force Captain of the Horde, a military organization that is a lot more evil than she realized. When she is chosen to wield the magic sword that transforms her into She-Ra, legendary hero, she has to quickly re-evaluate everything she has ever believed, and changes sides to help her new friends in the Rebellion.

All the side characters are so fabulous, especially Bow, the midriff-baring “I’m in a girl story and I’m happy just to help” male sidekick and all the epic princesses. But it’s important to note that Adora is deeply compelling as a main character: a prickly, angry young woman who isn’t used to having freedom and is only starting to unpack how badly she has been manipulated.

It takes a long time for Adora to trust in her new friends to be there for her, and to build faith in herself that she can be the heroic figure that the Rebellion needs… but that she can also be valued for herself, regardless of She-Ra’s contribution.

Each of the princess characters has a great hook, and the entire show revolves around a reinvention of what ‘princess’ even means… without, crucially, sneering at any expression of traditional femininity. Princesses in this world are bad-ass and creative and terrifying and incredibly powerful and under a lot of pressure to perform. Some of them are super girly. Some of them are much less traditionally gendered. There’s rainbows and glitter and pink and purple throw cushions. There’s robots that are trying to kill you.

I’m completely wrapped up in the tensions of Glimmer’s relationship with her mother, and how she is trying to balance her own desires to save the world and be a hero with her fear of letting everyone down. (Glimmer, TALK TO YOUR MOTHER.) It’s such a fascinating inversion of the Buffy-Joyce relationship, for example, a prime example of ‘teenage girl as hero hides true self from mother’ — but Glimmer’s mother knows that she is a soldier and a magic-user and is conflicted by wanting to protect her (OMG Mom just let me save the world right now) and wanting to unleash her on the Evil Horde.

The villains are also a big part of what makes the story so successful. Sensibly, the ‘lead’ villain Hordak from the original show is kept in the background, with the main focus being on Shadow Weaver (Adora’s former mentor and mother figure) and Catra, Adora’s former best friend who feels deeply betrayed at her changing sides.

The Catra/Adora friendship is heartbreaking and powerful, as the two of them pull further and further away from each other into the camps of Good and Evil. But there’s a lightness there too, a humour that is never entirely lost (Catra turning up to the Princess Prom in a suit with Scorpia on her arm). It’s reminiscent of so many of the great Nemesis Bro combinations such as Sherlock and Moriarty, the Doctor and the Master, or Professor X and Magneto — the sense that these two people could easily be best friends (or in love, totes married) if they weren’t on opposite sides of a pretty major moral divide.

So uh, yes. Watch She-Ra. Then tell me who you’re shipping. Apart from Princess Entrapta/killer robots which is basically canon.

Tansy Rayner Roberts is the author of many SFF novels and short stories including the Creature Court trilogy. She recently co-edited a science fiction anthology about gender and AI: Mother of Invention. Tansy’s new fiction release, “Merry Happy Valkyrie” is a festive fantasy novella blending Norse myth with modern Tasmanian Christmas traditions. Find out more at tansyrr.com.

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