The Tearling series: Book 1 and 2

A couple of years ago, I remember sitting in the lobby of my then-workplace, paging through a copy of The Bookseller. An article caught my eye; it was about a just-released book, part of a series, that had already been tapped for a major movie. It had even snared the attention of Emma Watson, who was already in talks to play the lead character. As far as I remember, the article called this new series (fantasy of course), a ‘female’ Game of Thrones, which basically meant that the main character was a woman (though there are plenty of female ‘main’ characters in Game of Thrones and thousands of women love it, so I have no idea what the writer meant by this rather reductionist statement). The article also mentioned that it was a sureshot bestseller, as things tend to become when Emma Watson is associated with them.

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And why not, because she’s classy as hell.

So finally, three years after reading that article, I picked up the series. They are the Tearling books: The Queen of the Tearling and The Invasion of the Tearling by author Erika Johansen. What were they like? A mixed bag, to be honest, but I can’t deny that I see the cinematic potential and I did enjoy them, more often than not.

The-Queen-of-the-Tearling-Queen-of-the-Tearling-1-Erika-Johansen-681x1024The first book, The Queen of the Tearling, starts off quite dramatically. Kelsea, a lonely foster child, is retrieved from her home with the elderly Barty and Carlin by a posse of Queen’s Guards and taken to the Keep in New London, the capital of the Tear. Now that she is 19, Kelsea  has come of age and must assume her rightful place on the throne left vacant by her mother, that is, if she can live long enough to reach it. Assassination attempts by hawks, mercenaries and sundry others turn out, however, to be the least of Kelsea’s problems. The kingdom she’s inherited is riddled with corruption and violence, and as an idealistic young woman, Kelsea sets out to right its wrongs, but she ends up ruffling more than a few feathers along the way, most notably those of the mysterious and terrible Red Queen of neighbouring Mortmesne.

The series is rather slow to start with. The Queen of the Tearling, indeed, is really just one long journey towards the Throne, and dealing with one specific problem of the kingdom (I won’t spoiler it by telling you what it is), but things really begin to look up in the second book. This might also have to do with Kelsea growing on me as a character. In Book 1, she seemed far too much like the breed of heroine who’s come in vogue since Katniss Everdeen: surly, lonely and with a healthy disrespect for authority. I found it hard to warm to her, especially since it seemed like every second thought of hers was regret for how ‘not pretty’ she was. But she really sinks into your blood in Book 2, and I ended up embracing her. In fact, I disliked the increasing jaunts away from her, into the head of a new character who seems set up as an originating figure, an explanation for the mysterious ‘Crossing’ that brought all these people to this world in the first place.

I won’t deny that the mythology and origin of this world is a little muddled. It’s obvious that the Tearling books are set in our world, or one very much like it. Characters refer to 02 The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansenmedical supplies and equipment being ‘lost’ during this Crossing, they read Rowling and Tolkien and other ‘real world’ books, and the new character quite obviously lives in a dystopic USA. Book 2 seeks to explain the connections and the reason for all these ‘real world’ objects, but it left me feeling more than  a little confused. Apart from that, there is another question: if all these people came from the US, why are most, if not all, the characters white? There is one black man in the Tear, and he is a rarity, as he himself knows. The neighbouring kingdoms of Mortmesne and Cadar are obvious parallels to France and some sort of Orientalist Arab fantasy, which can be explained away as fantasy staples, but again, if you have a bunch of people emigrated from America, a land notorious for its melting-pot-status, why, precisely, are they overwhelmingly white?

That being said, the lack of ‘diversity’ in the manner in which I understand it does not make the books any less enjoyable (as I’ve tried to explain, the fact that I’m mentioning it is only because the origin story for the land left me feeling a little confused). Johansen’s strength is in writing the fantasy segments; when she moves into Atwoodish dystopic territory, my attention began to flag. I hope Book 3 brings a lot more of Tear as it is in the present, and more of the kickass Kelsea that I’ve grown to like. Oh, and I’ll definitely watch Emma Watson play her. She would absolutely slay in this role.

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The ‘more important things’ AKA Why Hermione is an Exemplary Gryffindor

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Reading the Harry Potter books, it is safe to say, changed my life to an extent that only The Lord of the Rings can claim to match. Since I read the first page of ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ all those years ago, they have become an integral part of me, allowing me to define myself during years where self worth and identity were hard to come by, picking me up when I thought I had hit rock bottom emotionally and mentally. Even now, when I need a quick reminder of how to get past something that seems insurmountable, I turn to Harry Potter and the different kinds of bravery enshrined within its covers.

Two of those I’ve already spoken about here, on this blog: Sirius’s sort of heady, crazed defiance, which pays little heed to personal safety; and Harry’s much more quiet, dedicated sort of bravery, that enables him to keep his nose to the grindstone and shoulder on even when people tell him to just stop already. In this post, I’m going to tackle another kind, and one that has become a sort of fascination for me, precisely because it’s the kind I feel the most in need of/have felt at some point in the past: the sheer gutsiness of Hermione Granger.

Hermione is walking encyclopaedia of knowledge in the Potterverse, and makes that obvious right at our first encounter. She’s read nearly everything she could get her hands on within two months of being notified that she is a witch, and reels off names to a stunned Harry and Ron. She has read everything in advance, and is the only person who seems prepared to answer the questions Snape puts to Harry during that calamitous first Potions class.

Hermione-hermione-granger-33203720-1383-2100This is a consistent character trait, for most of the series. Hermione, the character who comes from a world and background utterly alien to the magical one, knows more than most wizards and witches her age, or even older. She over-prepares for every test, and her worst fear is, literally, failing all her exams.

Rowling described Hermione as ‘terrified’, explaining that this terror at being unprepared, at finding herself caught out without an answer, is what drives her manic need to know it all and know it now. What propels Hermione’s academic brilliance is not only her near-idetic memory and inherent gift for the subjects, is the simple thirst for knowledge. And
she doesn’t grab it all up for the sake of competing and emerging ahead of the others—she does it because she is terrified of what would happen to her if she doesn’t know.

Hermione is, in some senses, the ideal student, and the most organized human being in the Potterverse. She is amazingly rational, tackling problems with a combination of logic and skill. Identify the cause, identify the solution (through methods of deduction that even Holmes would approve of) and then proceed to apply. The results will be flawless as all the books tell you they should be.

What keeps Hermione from being the hero, though, is her lack of spontaneity, and her need to follow a path laid down for her by books. This is best exemplified in the first Potions lesson of Half Blood Prince, where Hemione refuses point blank to listen to

When playing by the rules gets you nowhere...

When playing by the rules gets you nowhere…

Harry’s notes (rather, the ‘Prince’s’ notes) and proceeds doggedly according to the trusted book’s instructions. Her inability to veer from the printed matter results in Harry, for once, beating her at the subject and taking the lead from then on.

Rebelling against these rules—Hermione’s one guide to a completely unfamiliar world—happens rarely, and when it does, Hermione’s rebellion is usually quite spectacular. She slaps Malfoy across the face, helps to break a convict out of death row (pretty much), starts an underground Defence league and then, finally, bunks an entire school year to bring down the most feared Dark Wizard for a century, following a friend who, she finds out along the way, has absolutely no idea of what he’s doing.

Given that rule breaking and improvisation is really not her thing, it’s a huge huge HUGE deal that Hermione becomes the irreverent, quick thinking witch she does in ‘Deathly Hallows’. What’s perhaps the biggest indication of this change and maturity is the fact that when they finally realize that Harry has no set plan, it’s Ron, the much more impulsive,
badass hermspontaneous character, who walks out on him. Hermione sticks by his side, and doesn’t even give him grief. She keeps her feelings to herself, and shoulders much more of the burden from then on.

The reason I find Hermione so inspiring is, simply put, this: when you’ve been a model student all your life, when you’ve lived your life, clinging desperately to rules and books to anchor you in a wholly new and unfamiliar world, it’s really hard to throw all that aside and just make a go of it on your brains alone. It indicates an extremely high level of maturity and belief not only in your friends, but in yourself. Hermione, by this point, has hermione wandtruly grown up, no longer hiding behind pure logic and reason to guide her. Of course, those remain her greatest weapons, but she finally brings to bear the words she’d uttered all those years ago in the chamber housing Snape’s riddling potions:

‘Books! And cleverness! There are more important things—friendship and bravery…’

No one utterly refashions themselves and gets over their inner hurdles the way Hermione does. And for that, she’s a bloody amazing character and one hell of a role model.

We need to talk about Jasmine

I grew up quite the Disney kid, as I’ve mentioned before. And so the news that Emma Watson, everyone’s favourite book loving leading lady, is signing on to play Belle in Disney’s revamped Beauty and the Beast was quite exciting. I mentioned this development to my mother, whose response was a world weary sigh and the following question:

‘Why do they want to ruin all the animated movies?’

Being the sassy twenty something I am, I retorted with, ‘Because they have to make the movies more obviously feminist.’

Then I sobered down and added, ‘Also, to make money.’

The conversation made me think, though, about the need for ‘feminist-ifying’ Disney heroines. When I was a kid, watching all those classics like ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Pocahontas’ for the first time, I never really thought about what kind of social codes or behaviours they were prescribing. Now, with all the revamping, they’re coming under some heavy fire and re-examination, so of course I jumped on the bandwagon and went back and rewatched an old favourite: ‘Aladdin’.

I’ve always had a soft spot for this movie. There are two reasons for this, both of which are pretty superficial:

Aladdin was my first crush, and continues to be my favourite Disney prince of all time. 

Someone once told me that I looked like Jasmine.

I warned you—superficial reasons.

Anyway, the rewatch (which took place in September 2014, to be precise, in chilly Chicago, in the company of one of my best friends) made me realize something: Disney already had a fiery, feminist princess, way before Mulan entered the scene. And that princess was Jasmine.


aladdin-disneyscreencaps-com-1391What’s in a name:
‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Little Mermaid’—what do all these classic Disney princess movies have in common? They all include/refer to the female protagonist (the ‘princess’) in their title. Aladdin’s Jasmine is the only one of the original line up to not enjoy that privilege. She is also, notably, the only female character in her movie. Apart from the denizens of a brothel who show up once (during the song ‘One Jump’), and a little girl at the fruit market, Jasmine seems to be the only woman in Agrabah. Or the only woman who’s important enough to be part of the titular hero’s story anyway. She has no female support system, and her only friend is a tiger trained to dismiss troublesome suitors.

Sticking it to the marriage market: When we meet Jasmine, she has just cast off the unwanted advances of yet another conceited princeling. It’s not the first time this has happened—her father has been foisting suitors onto her for a while because the law says she ‘must be married’ to ascend the throne. ‘The law is wrong,’ she says, and all her jasmine pissedactions seem to suit her words. Even when ‘Prince Ali’ shows up, impressing the Sultan with his grand entrance, Jasmine remains unmoved. ‘I am not some prize to be won!’ is her melodramatic exiting line. You go girl.

The existential angst: There’s no question that Jasmine feels ‘trapped’. The movie is full of symbols of her seeking the freedom she lacks—freeing the birds in her garden, jumping over the walls to see what awaits her on the other side, even, at one point, declaring that maybe she doesn’t ‘want to be a princess anymore!’. I suppose you could pin this down to poor-little-rich-girl angst, especially when you contrast it to Aladdin’s desire to find a place/security in his street rat world. Also, when she breaks out of the palace, Jasmine very obviously has no idea how to function in the ‘real world’, nearly losing her hand for her naivety. But she’s a fast learner, and picks up quickly enough.

Smooth playa: Jasmine remains unimpressed by ‘Ali’s’ grandiose display. Jasmine is also a keen observer and can tell quickly that ‘Ali’ is not who he says he is, and is bold enough to confront him about it—‘Why did you lie to me?’, she demands after their romantic ride. Also, look at this bit from ‘A Whole New World’, where Aladdin rolls an apple off his shoulder and Jasmine catches it: it’s obvious she’s figured out who he is.

aladdin and jasmine marketapple

OMG: Remember how Megara is such a big deal in the Disney pantheon because she uses her sexuality unashamedly? Well Jasmine did that LONG before her. Jasmine
jasmineseduces Jafar, distracting him in order to let Aladdin get about his mission of ‘making things right’. Jasmine knows what she’s got and she ain’t ashamed to flaunt it. If you don’t think this is a big deal in a kids’ movie…well. I really don’t know what to say. Of course, it could also be said that, as the only ‘exotic’, Eastern princess in her time, Jasmine was unfairly sexualized in a manner that her fellow ‘white’ princesses like Aurora and Snow White were not. But at least she owns her sexuality, and uses it to achieve her ends on her terms.

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At the end of the movie, Aladdin is promoted to ‘suitable’ status because of his exploits, and Jasmine agrees to abide by age-old conventions and get married, so maybe this is a bit of a cop out. I’m looking forward to the rework that Disney will no doubt get down to making, where Jasmine is the real heroine (let’s face it, she’s a lot more fun than Aladdin) who makes her way in a man’s world, maybe picking up a street rat or two on the way.

But only if she wants it, of course.

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