oyceter: Stack of books with text "mmm... books!" (mmm books)
[personal profile] oyceter
(Individual books: The Broken Crown and The Uncrowned King)

I am not precisely sure, as this is the type of fantasy series where the books do not stand alone, but the overall plot of this seems to be helping the last member of the Leonne family take back the throne while also thwarting a demon invasion.

The world has two main countries: the Empire, to the north, and the Dominion, to the south. The Leonne family was Tyr'agar (king) to the Dominion. The Dominion is coded as vaguely Asian; the women wear sari and the titled men have harems. However, I can't tell if the people of the Dominion are POC or not. West describes one of the main characters as "ivory" and "white" extremely frequently, but she also notes once or twice that Southerners may be darker than Northerners. And then there is more of the "ivory."

I personally found the world of the Dominion to be fascinating. I was originally very unsure about the inclusion of harems and lesser wives and etc., but I love how West positions it as a space where women feel safer and more comfortable, where they frequently bond with their sister-wives. The Dominion itself is extremely misogynist, but West writes the story mostly from the women's points of view, showing how they wield power in a world where they are frequently stripped of power, and it's fascinating. Diora di'Marano is the main character for most of the first book, and she's supposedly the perfect woman: beautiful, graceful, modest. But she's also extremely smart, and I love that she uses her femininity as her weapon. She's a character type I don't see that often in fantasy: a very feminine woman who is not mocked for being feminine and who gets a lot of agency.

Of course, it also helps that there is a lot of intrigue and things unsaid, which is right up my alley.

I was also extremely excited when the book opened up with four different women influencing the life of the just-born Chosen One, and I was even more excited when the Chosen One was female! I loved what the seer said about the woman who chose to mother the Chosen One, that it would seem like a small and thankless task, but that it could tip the balance when the final decision had to be made. That seemed like a perfect encapsulation of so many women's roles in books and life—underappreciated yet vital.

However. I got less and less enthusiastic about the books the more I saw of the Empire, particularly how the Empire was contrasted with the Dominion.

As I mentioned before, the Dominion is written as a vaguely Asian (is it inclusive or appropriative to count the Middle East as part of Asia?) culture, despite the possible whitewashing of the characters. By itself, I think I wouldn't glance askance at the worldbuilding. Things like the cultural misogyny and harems were dealt with in ways that I found interesting and fairly new, and despite the cultural misogyny, West writes the Dominion largely from the POV of the women. Not only that, the book passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, and I love love love that there are so many female relationships in the books. I also love that even though the culture is misogynistic, the book shows that the women aren't just sitting around oppressed; they actively do as much as they can with what they have, even as the men constantly underestimate them.

And then we get more of the Empire, which feels more Western European to me. It isn't as obviously pseudo-medievaloid as many epic fantasies are, so most of what makes it feel European to me is how it's contrasted with the Dominion. First, people there have more hair and eye colors (Annagarians tend to have dark hair and eyes). Then there's the fact that women can do much more there, the people are rational and believe the god-born aren't demons, and there's no slavery. Obviously these traits don't have to be coded as European, but sadly, when contrasted with a more Asian culture, it reminds me a little too much of the Riftwar saga and other books and movies in which the POC culture is backwards and misogynist and enslaves people, blah blah blah (see: Kushiel series).

Also, I hate the narrative trope of White cultures looking down on POC cultures for carrying on slavery while completely ignoring things like the Atlantic Triangle. But that is a bit of a digression brought to you by assorted white-slavery plots in other books.

Anyway, if anything, the Dominion and the Empire are equals, but because of the European/Asian coding in my head, I assign a different weight to things in the books. Also, because of this, my completely idiosyncratic reaction to Valedan is "Go home! Don't abandon your culture! You are not a Northerner and will never be a Northerner! Never forget your culture!" This brought to you by my own issues re: forgetting Chinese and now having lived longer in the US than I have in Taiwan.

That is a very long way of saying that I find the storylines about the Dominion, particularly the women of the Dominion, about a billionty times more interesting than the storylines set in the Empire. Part of it is race, and part of it is that the tropes in the Empire storylines are far less interesting to me because I've seen them much more often.

Also, Jewel annoys me because she reminds me of the clumsy shoujo/YA heroines who have big hearts, a trope I am much more willing to accept in shoujo than in epic fantasy. I was thinking why I found Jewel more annoying than Diora, who is described as "perfect" every other sentence, and I think it is because I rarely do see "perfectly" feminine women who are three dimensional, whereas there are many fantasy heroines who come from rough backgrounds and rise to prominence with special seer powers. I am glad that Jewel is 30-some in this series; I think I would have thrown something if I read her as 16. The other reason I dislike her is because I assume she played a large role in a previous series, and all the carryover affection in the books from that don't affect me.

So. I loved the first book a lot until the last arc set in the Empire, and the second book bored me to death because it was all Empire all the time. (I love Serra Alina, but sadly she is not in that much of it.) Given this, is it worth it for me to try to finish the series?

Links:
- [personal profile] wistfuljane's review of The Broken Crown

(no subject)

Thu, Oct. 28th, 2010 07:37 am (UTC)
wistfuljane: portrait of mizuki from hanakimi (manga) (mizuki)
Posted by [personal profile] wistfuljane
So. I loved the first book a lot until the last arc set in the Empire, and the second book bored me to death because it was all Empire all the time. (I love Serra Alina, but sadly she is not in that much of it.) Given this, is it worth it for me to try to finish the series?

Heh, I am asking myself the same question too! Except I'm currently trudging to finish the last couple of chapters of The Uncrowned King.

The other thing about the European/Asian coding, which I tend to think as more of a West/East coding in so far as how the West & East are seen by, um, the West, is the contrast between nobility vs. honor. It hasn't outright said so far, but there are a few implications, especially in The Uncrowned King, that the Dominion put too much stock in honor and look at how noble people of the Empire are! How their nobility makes them better people! Good & right. And yea, I think the narrative skirts too close to usual problematic "chromatic culture is backward" trope. (I'm thinking of the portrayals of Valedan and the Lamberto and how they are only noble because of the Empire influences or because they are the Empire people at heart, both of which are rather wtf-y.)

I also have a bunch of problems with how Valedan's role and character development are handled in The Uncrowned King in terms of the West vs. East/Europe vs. Asia dichotomy.

Regarding Jewel, her characterizations and relationships with other characters reminds a lot of that of the main protagonist of the Chronicles of Elantra series, which Michelle West wrote under her Michelle Sagara pen name. I feel like there's a possessiveness to how Jewel feel about her den that is neither wholly maternal/familial nor wholly inspired by love and affection, but more of the desire to have something of one's own and keep it...I don't know how to describe it, but it creeps me out and I find it a detriment to connecting with the character here.

In conclusion: more Diora and Teresa, please.

(no subject)

Sat, Oct. 30th, 2010 04:19 am (UTC)
wistfuljane: portrait of mizuki from hanakimi (manga) (mizuki)
Posted by [personal profile] wistfuljane
*nods* I forgot this, but I don't know if you know that Michelle West is Japanese-Canadian? So I do think the East/West coding is intentional, just I think that the author unconsciously falls back to some of the usual East vs. West tropes which, unfortunately, connects to some of "chromatic cultures are backward" tropes. And I agree that all those "ivory" and "white" descriptions make it hard to decipher whether the characters are intentionally coded as Eastern/Asian or if they're whitewashed.

I feel you on the Valedan thing, because yes, exactly. A lot of the things we're supposed to admire about Valedan -- or rather think will make him be a great leader are portrayed as talents he acquired or are influenced by the Empire, but anything characterized as Southern are only things Valedan need to make the Southerners accept him, not something to which we could or should aspire. Which brings us to another, I think, problematic East vs. West trope, Western qualities = somethings to which we should aspire, Eastern qualities = somethings we can put on and shed like skin for survival. *bitter twist*

It doesn't help, as you've pointed out in the comments, that morally sympathetic characters from the Empire outnumber those from the Dominion so far (something which I've been trying to articulated).
Edited Sat, Oct. 30th, 2010 04:21 am (UTC)

(no subject)

Sat, Oct. 30th, 2010 05:05 pm (UTC)
wistfuljane: portrait of mizuki from hanakimi (manga) (mizuki)
Posted by [personal profile] wistfuljane
Even knowing that there isn't the dominant Empire/colonized Dominion in the books, the East/West dichotomy puts it there in the subtext.

Yes, definitely. I was thinking about how the King's Challenge calls to mind "world" competitions like the Olympics and all the politics that they bring. Like how the Olympics is a Western competition with its Greek origins and core Western sports, and how it's held in Europe and competed by mainly European countries for centuries and decades, but its standards are still held against the rest of the world. That for a country to be seen as equal, competitive and worthy, they must participate in these games and win -- never mind that many of these sports originated in the West and/or styled by Western practices and methods, if that makes sense.

(Also, I was kind of annoyed that the Dominion's god-appointed ruling family was weak and got overthrown while the Empire's god-appointed kings were all good rulers or so it seems so far.)

Yes! I'm annoyed too by how the Empire's god-appointed kings are infallible, but the Dominion's god-appointed ruling family are corrupted.

Like, I think West does try to balance the two, particularly by having so many awesome women in the Dominion, but unfortunately, things like weak rulers and misogyny and slavery are pretty categorically things that most readers are going to disapprove of, no matter how carefully it's written.

*nods* Yes, exactly. I was looking for some reviews of The Broken Crown when I'd finished the book and came across a review that basically disapproves the Dominion as a nation and a culture because of those qualities, though mainly for the misogyny. It made me headdesk, because that POV erases so much, especially how awesome Diora, Teresa and many other women of the Dominion are. It ignores their agency, if that makes sense.
Edited Sat, Oct. 30th, 2010 05:50 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Thu, Oct. 28th, 2010 09:10 am (UTC)
inkstone: Nico Robin of One Piece reading a book (reading & content)
Posted by [personal profile] inkstone
Yes, you should finish the series. But I'm not biased or anything. There is still lots of Jewel though because she's the major player of this entire universe. (The previous duology was actually NOT about her but she was a major player in the second book. Probably skip those because she WAS 16 there. lol)

(no subject)

Thu, Oct. 28th, 2010 08:14 pm (UTC)
inkstone: a woman with a fan (dangerous lady)
Posted by [personal profile] inkstone
Well, IIRC, there's more of a split over the remaining books. Book 3, however, is very Jewel heavy. Although I think book 3 is where the matriarchal society is introduced?

(no subject)

Thu, Oct. 28th, 2010 12:18 pm (UTC)
estara: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] estara
You need to NOT read the House Wars series with which MSW is filling the gaps just now as that is all about Jewel and how she becomes the head of House Terafin - and how she develops her need to take care of others and her seer powers.

She showed up less in the Hunter duology because that was mostly from the point of view of two outsiders to the Empire who had a divine role to fulfill to help out their own country and the Empire, Jewel and her den only show up very late there in any significant role. I like Jewel ^^ and Kaylin.

She has said she plans on continuing the story in the Sun Sword series after filling in those gaps.

(no subject)

Thu, Oct. 28th, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)
morgan_dhu: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] morgan_dhu
I would say that it's worth it to keep going. There is much more awesomeness of the women of the South to come. Mind you, I also like Jewel, but there are so many strong women in this series, and they are all very much their own selves, which means they are all different. And there are some powerful women you haven't even seen much of yet...

I thin that some of what you are reading as "The Empire is better" may just be coming from the need to show the Dominion as currently under stress and influenced by certain outside forces which the empire is more able to resist in some ways, not because it is "better" but because it is different. My reading of the whole series left me feeling that both cultures have institutional virtues and flaws.

(no subject)

Fri, Oct. 29th, 2010 01:33 am (UTC)
starlady: meralonne and kallandras in the wood (in a dark wood)
Posted by [personal profile] starlady
OMG you should totally finish the series. There is more Dominion in all four of the remaining books (the narrative leaves the Empire almost entirely soon, IIRC), and Jewel drops out entirely right in the beginning of the last one.

The country in this universe that reads as ur-European to me is actually Breodanir, which doesn't feature at all in this series. The Empire feels very...fantasy.

And…I don't know. I actually think there's relatively little explicit "the Dominion are so backward" rhetoric in the books--iirc Valedan and Lamberto (and the other good Tyr, what's his name, Ramiro) are characterized as representing the best of the South, and Alesso and the corrupt Tyr'agnati are the South being untrue to itself. The Empire and the Dominion need each other's strengths to fight the demons and prevent the End of the World, and each has different assets and knowledge to bring to the fight, and a lot of the major players in that fight are Southern. Some characters in the books do express views like "I don't approve of slavery", but the narrative itself rarely goes there.

BUT I also have a sentimental attachment to these books that is essentially irrational at this point; I started reading them at 12, and if I were reading them now for the first time I might very well feel differently.

(no subject)

Fri, Oct. 29th, 2010 03:03 am (UTC)
lacewood: (books books books)
Posted by [personal profile] lacewood
My memories are fuzzy, but after this, the majority of the story should happen in the Dominion, or outside the Empire, and a wider cast of Dominion characters come into play. A third society (the Voyani, I think) that's a sort of matriarchal gypsy clan system also takes up a major part of Book 4/5. Valedan's primary journey IS back home to the Dominion, so overall I'd say the series is really far more Dominion-centric than Empire.

For the varying skin tones in the Empire, I don't think it's necessarily whitewashing. I figured it was similar to say, India, where southern Indians are typically believed to be darker/smaller built compared to Northern Indians?

(no subject)

Fri, Oct. 29th, 2010 07:10 am (UTC)
lacewood: (books books books)
Posted by [personal profile] lacewood
Whoops, I meant varying skin tones within the Dominion specifically, though I don't recall exactly how often the author describes fair skin vs dark skin. Yeah, she could mean something more like a lighter-skinned Indian person, or possibly a more East/Southeast Asian appearance. And maybe she didn't want to play up or make a big deal out of the Annagarians having darker skin, so she decided to keep it subtle? Diora on the first book's cover is shown to be fair but her skin tone isn't quite what a white woman's would be. Admittedly that's the artist interpretation rather than the author's word, but it probably contributed to my impression.

(Actually, I vaguely recall that Jewel herself is described as being a little darker skinned, but I can't recall what specifically her roots are said to be. But her roots aren't pure Weston or whatever the majority Empire race is called)

(no subject)

Fri, Oct. 29th, 2010 01:42 pm (UTC)
nagaina: (Default)
Posted by [personal profile] nagaina
Jewel is, iirc, part-Voyani which accounts for both her darker than average skin tone AND her Seer-born abilities.

I admit to having a bit of head-scratchy over how I should picture the differences in skin tone between the Annagarians and the people of Averalaan. The Empire codes western/northern European as do the Breodanir, who come across as a mix of northern/eastern European. I admit I pictured the high-ranking women of the harems as being "white" or "ivory" less because it was their natural skin tone than from assiduous avoidance of exposure excessive amounts of unfiltered sunlight and the application of discreet cosmetics to aid the culturally mandated illusion of a woman who exists solely to emulate a Moon-goddess based standard of beauty. I believe there's even a scene in The Broken crown, during the Festival of the Sun, in which Diora is quietly glad that the "powder" she's wearing is covering up the fact that she was up all night running around the city and looked like crap the morning after. Otherwise I tend to picture most Annagarians as having East/Southeast Asian skin-tones naturally.

(no subject)

Fri, Oct. 29th, 2010 02:24 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] advaitin.livejournal.com
(Hi! new commenter here, had a slightly different view point on the books that I thought I should put it)

I came to the Sun Sword series after reading the House Wars book 1, and I bounced badly off the story. I really like the series with Kaylin, so I was fully expecting to enjoy this one, but I was thrown off by some of the depictions.

The main problem for me was the depiction of saris. Having grown up in a household where my older female relatives all wore saris on a daily basis, the depiction was too far off from what it is like to wear one. It felt like she was extrapolating from the experience of wearing a long skirt - but a sari does not behave like a long skirt. There were two portions (that I recall) that threw me out of the story - one where the sari wraps around the legs (um a modern style of wearing the sari (i.e. post 1950 or so) would have a petticoat under it, and would not have the sari wrapping around the legs (the petticoat could, though). The older style (and still worn but only by specific groups) involves the sari individually wrapped around each leg - you could go horseriding facing forward wearing a sari like that (see for eg. Jhansi ki Rani).
Wearing a sari in the first style without a petticoat, it is _still_ nearly impossible for it to wrap around the legs (saris don't wrap that way!!!)

the second was a scene where one of the ladies chooses a "simple sari". A sari is a rectangle of cloth. To get any simpler than that is a little tough. If she meant a sari with no adornment, it would be a plain sari. If she meant a sari that was not an expensive affair, it would be a cotton sari. Note that in the real world cotton saris tend to have more adornment, but are cheaper, while silk saris tend to be plainer, but are significantly more expensive, so the term "simple sari" is pretty much impossible to decipher.

kneeling and getting up in a sari are _much_ easier than doing the same in any other form of clothing I have ever worn that covers the lower half of the body.

um. sorry about the sari rant... that's probably more than you needed about them :)

Once the sari issues came up (there were others, these stood out), I found it difficult to not treat the rest of the Dominion as a badly researched version of India. I know this is being unfair to the author (I don't think she meant it that way, but ... it stuck). I could make it through book 3, around book 4 or so I gave up and stopped reading.

If you are able to treat it as a completely fantasy land, I think you should be fine with reading the rest. Otherwise... I don't know.


(no subject)

Sun, Oct. 31st, 2010 10:10 pm (UTC)
Posted by [identity profile] advaitin.livejournal.com
*nods* I got the feeling that she was borrowing bits from multiple cultures, just to make sure she didn't cause that issue. There were portions that felt western to me in the dominion, (the skin colour, and some of the relationships, including (if I recall correctly) the god-touched being bad, which reminded me a bit of how witches were treated in the west...) which is why I felt I was being a bit unfair in characterizing it as a badly-researched India.

One thing I _really_ would have liked is for once to see the people of the North be the bad guys... it _always_ seems to be the south :| (I liked N.K. Jemisin's story for not having that issue, but this story had it badly)

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