My feelings about this book are complicated, to say the least. "My feelings are complicated" is the shortest way for me to write how I feel. Once I start to unpack it, the words do not stop. They keep flowing, like a rampaging river, covering small towns and washing away tons of SUVs and flooding all your Farmville plots. Yet I will soldier through!
This review is about my feelings, friends. Beware.
You may have surmised from my less than gleeful first paragraph that this review isn't going to very many positive places, which is a fair warning to back out while there's still time! I have a problem with this book. It almost upsets me to write it. I wanted to love this book, I wanted to love this book and cherish it and hold it to my chest and write lots of girlslash for it! Yeah! Retelling of Cinderella where girls make out! I was in love with the premise the first time I heard about it. A friend bought this book for me so it's EXTRA GUILT that I didn't set it on fire with the power of my undying devotion to it.
Of course, this book had to face my pulsing love for Ever After in a grudge death match. Ever After was the Cinderella story of my teenage years and the older I get the more I imagine it's going to be the measuring stick forever. Snark! Subversion! Sass! If I had been a contender, Henry would have been out of the picture. But they were pretty awesome together: I GUESS!
Confession time: girls making out and romance between girls and girls having sex and being totally hot and romantic and loving and whatever else they are does not ping me most of the time (unless we want to get TMI about Renay's Sexual Preferences and maybe we can save that for another entry). I feel very guilty writing this and I will be unpacking this more later. I will probably always feel guilty, especially when I weigh my free time and go read about the dudes making out instead of possibly being disappointed (again) by girl-love stories. Fiction about girls kissing doesn't do it for me very often. I can live with that. It is disappointing, but what can you do other than lie to yourself about your preferences (and everyone knows that is not cool)?
Something like Whip It slams into your world and you sit up and go, "wow" when Bliss and Maven are on the screen together. I pinged hard and there's barely any fanwork for it. It's a live-media fandom and my brain balks at even trying to write for it, but seriously? It's asking for it:
Slight derail, sorry, but it's worth it. MAKE OUT ALREADY. Oh my gosh.
When I examined my reaction to Ash and my preferences, I came to a conclusion. The culture I grew up in has conditioned me in ways I am not aware of to skip the tickets to the girls kissing train and maybe that's why my reaction to this book is less "throw it at all my friends and demand they read it" and more "....what?" However, allow me to discuss why the book initially failed for me until I started examining why.
We can talk about the okay things: I liked Ash! I did. I enjoyed her ability to be a snark, which she grew into over the course of the book. There's a section at the end where "oh snap" doesn't even begin to cover it. I loved Ash when she found her voice. Loved her.
The world building was...interesting. WHAT FAINT PRAISE! I am trying really hard here, please don't judge me. Is "interesting" a compliment anymore or what someone says when they're like, "I have to think of something kind to offset all this vitriol I am going to unleash!"? It's all I have, Ash herself and the world building, the weaving of the fairy and Ash's reality: well done! OKAY, okay, I should stop trying to force it. Instead, I will quote Nymeth, who is better at these things than I am:
But let me tell you a little about what makes the world appealing: it has its own customs and traditions; it seems to exist beyond the story. Ash grows up in a remote part of the country, in a forested area where old traditions still live. We're told about the conflicts between older and modern ideas; about rites, festivals and celebrations; about the land's lore and about the truth behind that lore.
Inevitably we come to my biggest issue with this book, which later contradicts something I realized about myself. There is too much cock. HILARITY! I know at least five people keeled over from shock that I wrote that, but stay with me: there's a man in this story and he bores me. He bores me to tears. I was bored by him and his emoface and wah wah wah and oh gosh, can't we just have the girls being awesome together? Every time Ash went back to Sidhean I said, "Please get this het out of my delicious lady time!" It was being used for contrast? I GUESS? Why not have the fairy godmother be the fairy-boyfriend instead, right? Maybe that's where we are with GLBTQ love stories; we have to keep some heterosexual shenanigans in there and not go full-on SAME SEX MAKEOUTS and prove...what? That a romance between two women can't stand on its own, it requires some magical cock?
The longer I struggled with this book, the more I realized what I had expected and wanted was a true girl-meets-girl-cue-the-hearts fairy tale retelling. What I got was half a book about Ash spending lots of time with a dude, or thinking about a dude and a retelling that feels rather pasted on around this inexplicable relationship with a dude who is ME ME ME and oh yeah, ME! It was predictable and not in a good way. Sidhean, I don't like you, at all, and I'm not sorry! On top of the snore-fest of a male love interest (and my confusion on WHY HE EXISTS as a love interest), my dreams were foiled by another love triangle! I could write a book, YA Literature, on your trespasses concerning love triangles. My decision is that most of them suck, they are great big piles of fail and every author in the world thinks they're awesome at them. Meanwhile, back in Reality, most are ill-handled and boring and make whatever romance ends up occurring emotionally unavailable because a lot time was spent doing romantic geometry. I HATED GEOMETRY. That's where I was at the end of this book: picturing myself back in Mr. Norwood's math classroom as he berated me for NOT GETTING IT. Everyone ELSE gets it, Renay. Why are you so dense? You are the only one in the class who does not worship these triangles and formulas! Get with the program. YOU'RE GOING TO MAKE AN F IN YA ROMANCE.
I was happy that the book ended with Ash finding her way, but the journey was heteronormative. A queer character that's not turned into a Gay Plot Point. Awesome. However, when people are going, "GROUNDBREAKING!" and praising a book for taking a different path, I do not open that book expecting Heterosexual Couple Land and for half the book to be defined by straight marriage (regardless of the social commentary) and a dude and that dude's feelings. It's yet another instance of same-sex couples as the special case and girls getting the shaft because of Man Pain, which disappointed me. Blow after blow to my hopes and dreams!
I was disappointed in the romance. There was no spark or life or UST! I am very bitter about the lack of UST. I pined in this book, but it was all wrong. I pined for Sidhean to die in a terrible magical horse riding accident and I pined for more sexual tension between Ash and Kaisa and at some point the pining simply becomes a forest of disappointment, deep and dark and moist with all of my tears.
sob sob sob
I thought about my reaction to this book a long time, because I worried: did I not connect with the romances because my brain doesn't like F/F romance? Am I being overcritical of the ladies...again? A classic case of It's Not You, It's Me? I wonder if I am letting my preferences cloud my judgment on these issues of whether a F/F pairing has enough oopmh and thus is a good pairing, or whether I am simply an unrepentant boyslasher, or if I have internalized a slimy and sexist habit to make me more critical of F/F pairings and stories in general and thus uninterested. Except for some F/F pairings I'm not uninterested and I am left bemused, on my Island of WTF. This book and my failure to love it as I wanted made me consider it. Bring on the guilt!
As I did so, I came to a conlusion that was difficult for me to put into words. The culture I was raised in values heterosexual relationships, and recognizes relationships between two men (whether or not they were accepted although most of the time they were). The one difference I had growing up, while otherwise raised open-minded, was that lesbian relationships weren't generally spoken of. Gay and male? Well, if you have to. Gay and female? Not in polite company! In fact, never reference them at all unless it's a matter of life or death. I have wondered a long time why this was, and what it says about me as a person, and the more I thought about it the last few days, the more I think it's about passion.
One of my issues with Ash is the passion between her and Kaisa I think is sorely lacking. But is it? Or does it only feel that way because it is not a sexual relationship that is defined by penetration? I suppose this is the point where everyone who can't talk about sex without flipping out can turn away, because the more I turned this idea over in my head the more I think this is where my problem with lesbian relationships comes from. A distinct lack of cock to define it!
Relationships between women don't always play into these same power dynamics as M/M or F/M do because often, no one ends up with a cock...anywhere. It is most definitely Not About The Men, in a culture where About the Men is the default gaze for everything and you really have to work to break out of it. This takes it way outside our comfort zones. How do we deal with that? It almost reminds me of how we gender babies with pink and blue — if we can't figure out the gender we tend to get highly uncomfortable double fast and possibly offensive (at least the people around me do). The accepted "normal" of F/M has cock and the "other" of M/M has cock and because of my culture, I have soaked up this "The Almighty Cock!" attitude. Things outside that which do not involve one throw me off, unless those romantic relationships between women follow a specific heterosexual dynamic with a dominant/submissive type (see my Whip It example from above), even if that dynamic changes later. People who write romances between women have to compete not only with heterosexism, but also possibly with the idea that lack of cock equals lack of passion. They have to work extra hard to prove there's some hope for some sexy times later and deal with critics like me being, well, critical over the lack of passion because no one is going to end up with a cock in them somehow! I discussed how relationship dynamics sometimes work with owlmoose a little:
renay: because we are so in the habit of reading pairings in the "TAKEN" (aka penetrating) romance between women doesn't register
owlmoose: i think you are onto something, maybe, because we have this concept of women having deep friendships that are not romantic. whereas if men and women have feeling for each other it's read as romance
renay: so people writing F/F have to overcome that
owlmoose: yeah. when if you compare it to M/M we have less of a concept of emotional male friendship. because men aren't supposed to be emotional about people who aren't either their lovers or their family
Welcome to Horrifying Revelation Time With Renay: Critical of The Girlslash. Next time I see someone who says YA doesn't teach adults anything, I am going to mock them relentlessly on twitter. In one fell swoop, by not loving a book, I have uncovered SEKRITS about myself and my preferences. I am sure I could unpack them even further, but you know, one startling self-revealation at a time. I am exhausted. The patriarchy makes me tired!
eta: I have considered how to approach this from a transgender perspective but I am completely confused on how intersectionality comes into play here. I realize my argument is flawed and I am waving my cisgender privilege everywhere. I welcome being schooled, because it's not that I don't want to learn, it's that I am very confused and how no idea where to go or how to get there.
I think it is important for me to say I enjoyed Ash and Kaisa. I wanted more of everything for them: more time and more feelings and more falling in love and more adventure. Perhaps saying that I wanted more UST/passion is tied up in my skewed view of the world (despite how not-straight I am, clearly it still impacts me) and I have some work to do about my assumptions next time I attempt to read a lesbian romance. Even so, I wanted more of them together and I think this is maybe not an unreasonable expectation based on the flap of the book! This premise was awesome and what was done here for representation of queer characters was necessary, but I expected more somehow, even disregarding their lack of passion (if that's what it was). I am past the need for the heterosexual crutch or foil or whatever it was that happened in the text; even though I am bemused and disappointed in myself, I am still more annoyed about the dude in this book.
In the end, I am cursed by triangles! Math! Always my arch-nemesis, even when it comes to literature.