Fantasy Flashback: Analyzing Two 90’s YA Books

I finally set up my writing/music studio in the new house, and while unpacking I discovered several of my favorite childhood YA titles in a neglected box of books. (No, I’m not a book hoarder. I can donate them to the library any time I want. Really.) Around ages 9-12, I gobbled up heroine-centric adventure stories, many in the fantasy genre because so few sci-fi options were available in the 1990s. My love of two particular titles is evident: the cover of Dealing With Dragons (DWD) is frayed white from numerous accidental dunkings in the bath, while Wild Magic (WM) sports a dried-glue fissure down the inner spine.

Both these books were re-read to the point of disintegration. Patricia Wrede had just come up in a conversation with an old friend, so I browsed the first page to jog my memory. I didn’t stop. After devouring that one, I decided to re-read Tamora Pierce’s book as well and analyze them in tandem. These stories enthralled me as a girl. Now, as an author, I wanted to identify what alchemical properties made them so appealing.

Subject #1: “Dealing With Dragons” by Patricia Wrede (1990)

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Check out the frayed cover. Reading in the bath: don’t try this with your Kindle, kids.

Twenty years after I first read this book, the adventures of Princess Cimorene proved no less enjoyable. It’s the literary equivalent of a Bach minuet from Anna Magdalena’s notebook: irresistibly playful and clever in its simplicity. Wrede puts a lightly satirical spin on fairy tale tropes from the very first page. The opening paragraph describes the charming and prosperous kingdom of Linderwall, lulling the reader into a archetypal fantasy environment, before concluding that “Cimorene hated it.” Why? Because she’s not your average fairytale princess. She prefers fencing and Latin to embroidery and etiquette. When her parents arrange for her to marry a handsome-but-dull prince, she abandons royal life and volunteers as domestic help for a dragon.

The writing reminds me of early J.K. Rowling: competent but unsophisticated, employing language purely as a vehicle for storytelling. A few dubious constructions appear throughout the book (such as “Cimorene thought privately”, which is redundant as thinking is an inherently private activity). There is some telling instead of showing, mainly at the beginning, but since it reflects the fairy tale style the book parodies, I didn’t find it overly annoying.

Plucky Cimorene, with her improper talents and self-determination, remains as likeable as ever. The overall lack of character development stands out to me now as a mature reader, but I don’t recall noticing it as a kid. The simple plot is solidly constructed with appropriate foreshadowing and resolution. Overall, the story charmed me at age 30 just as it had at age 10, and still made me giggle aloud.

Subject #2: “Wild Magic” by Tamora Pierce (1992)

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This one was a gift: I remember the cover snared me the minute I tore off the wrapping.

After DWD, I was eager to revisit this book. I remember it as one of my favorites around age 10-12. Daine, a rural orphan girl with a rare magical ability that connects her to animals, finds friendship and adventure in the socially progressive kingdom of Tortall, where women (like Alanna of Pierce’s earlier Lioness Quartet, another old favorite) can be knights and the sudden appearance of long-lost legendary creatures is wreaking havoc.

Sadly, I didn’t think WM held up to adult readership as well as DWD. It seemed as though Pierce hit on a promising idea and figured out the plot as she went; the story meanders like a mountain brook in Daine’s home village, diverting into irrelevant eddies and eventually trickling to its conclusion. She devotes paragraphs to mundane activities like the preparation of campsites, but condenses the climactic battle near the end into a page worth of generalities. When all your characters are embroiled in an epic fight, you can’t sum it up with the sentence “battle raged” and expect readers to find that satisfying. Pierce also switches character perspectives mid-paragraph—somehow this didn’t bother me as a child, but as an adult it drove me crazy.

WM also lacks in the character development department, but with a larger cast and more epic story style, it’s more noticeable here than in DWD. The characters are likeable, but feel somewhat flat. The only one who exhibits any significant internal conflict is Daine, and she is often annoyingly passive. While Cimorene takes initiative and makes things happen, Daine is reactive, letting the narrative carry her along and acting when others prompt her. Granted, she has a traumatic history to overcome and does ultimately come into her own, but I’d have liked more agency. I retain fondness for the book from all the joy it gave me as a kid, but a grown-up reading exposed a lot of technical flaws.

Analysis

After re-reading and comparing these two childhood favorites, I distilled their remarkable qualities to a surprisingly simple conclusion. Both books subvert two narrative themes that have intrigued and infuriated me since the day I learned to read: genre and gender.

  1. Subversion of Genre

DWD and WM take place in fantasy realms with a twist. Their familiar fairytale DNA—castles and kings, damsels and dragons—possesses subtle mutations. Wrede crafts a deliberate parody of such conventions and pokes gentle fun at them. Pierce weaves light feminism into a sociopolitical landscape reminiscent of medieval Europe. Such twists on the Disney-fied  worlds I associated with the fantasy genre in youth piqued my curiosity. As a child, these stories introduced me to the inherent mutability of genre and how authors can employ it skillfully to make a point—in this case, exploration of gender roles.

2. Subversion of Gender

Both Wrede and Pierce use genre conventions as a canvas to explore and subvert gender roles. Cimorene, like many feisty fictional princesses, consciously rejects the stifling role she’s prescribed, marching off to work for a dragon. She faces constant commentary about her atypical behavior, but never allows censure to dissuade her from being true to herself. Daine’s empowerment is more gradual. We first meet her as a shy country girl leery of her magical gifts (although confident in archery and animal husbandry). Through her adventures and the influence of several female mentors, she becomes a more self-assured individual, eager to explore her own potential.

The presence of these mentors is noteworthy in its own right. Feminist critics often bemoan the underrepresentation of women in speculative fiction ensembles. In both DWD and WM, girls run the world. Supporting players in DWD tale include Kazul, the dragon benefactor who eventually assumes leadership of her community, and the sensible witch Morwen. Even Cimorene’s sidekick Alianora, a more conventional princess who suffers bullying from some mean-girl fellow captives, finds her pluck and proves an able companion to the heroine. This story passes the Bechdel test with flying banners.

Daine, meanwhile, benefits from unconventional role models: a pragmatic horse-trader who becomes her guardian; a down-to-earth queen who leads a group of elite equestrian soldiers; and the famed lady knight, Alanna. As a mature reader, I found it interesting that while the latter two women have husbands and young children, wife/mother roles don’t hinder them in the slightest. Instead, WM quietly celebrates egalitarianism. For example, while Alanna rides off on missions, her husband George administers their barony at home and seems perfectly happy with the arrangement. Seeing male characters embrace and enable the success of their female counterparts influence me, as a young reader, almost as strongly as the heroines themselves.

Conclusion

Applying an author’s critical sensibility to my beloved childhood books stung a little at times–sometimes I just want to bask in the nostalgia, not pick apart the prose–but it gave me some new insights into just why those stories left such an impact on me. Both  juxtapose extraordinary women against their cultural landscapes. The heroines’ journeys almost mirror one another. Cimorene knows exactly who she is and shapes the world to suit herself, triumphing over external obstacles of gender expectation. Daine’s new environment forces her to overcome her internal reservations and blossom. The shared message? Accept yourself even if society does not, and employ your unusual talents for the betterment of the world around you.

DWD and WM nourished my self-confidence, a quality that shaped my adult life in myriad positive ways. Examining them helped me understand how they did that, so I can attempt to offer those same gifts to readers my own novels.

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