A couple of weeks ago, people on Twitter started acting up again (but what else is new) demanding that authors write complex female characters rather than female characters who simply fell into the archetype of “badass”. This, naturally, was not very well-received, and was also a dumb AF take. If you want to read about complex female characters, I highly suggest you check out the works of POC, queer, and/or disabled writers – you know, someone other than the usual cishet white women books you usually read?
Anyway, there have been some really great responses to this (one of my favorites is Fadwa’s video where she talks about 20 books with complex female characters – and most of them were written by POC!) so I wanted to chime in as well with a quick mini-review of three books I read recently, all of which also have complex female characters!
Title: Gods of Jade and Shadow
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Age Range: Adult
Genre: Magical Realism, Historical Fiction
The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.
Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.
In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.
Content warnings: Mutilation, physical and verbal abuse
This isn’t my first Silvia Moreno-Garcia book (read my review of my first, Untamed Shore, here), but this definitely won’t be the last. I absolutely love her almost poetic writing style, and this book, a great blend of magical realism and historical fiction, is a perfect example of what makes her such a great writer.
Gods of Jade and Shadow is the story of Casiopea Tun, a girl living at the mercy of her cruel relatives. When she discovers the god Hun-Kamé imprisoned in a chest owned by her grandfather, she releases him and is taken on a quest to help him regain his throne in Xibalba, the underworld. As she and Hun-Kamé journey through Mexico and the United States, they are pursued by Vun-Kamé, the usurper, and Casiopea’s bully of a cousin Martín. They end up facing off against each other, brother against brother, cousin against cousin, to determine the rightful ruler of the underworld.
One of the best things about this book was just how much I got to learn about Mayan mythology and legends. This is why I will never understand
white people who say that they can’t get into the world-building inspired by other ethnicities. I was super excited to read about Mayan myths and legends and having to look up stories, terms, and other such practices honestly just made my reading experience that much richer!
I also freaking loved the character of Casiopea. She’s exactly the sort of character that comes to mind when you want a female character who is strong AF but not necessarily a fighter. Even when she’s being beaten down by her cruel relatives, she maintains her dignity and works steadily at her dream of getting out from under their thumb, no need to wait for a Prince Charming! And when Hun-Kamé takes her on his quest, she remains just as poised, dignified, brave, and independent, even when you consider that her companion is a literal god.
I would die for Casiopea Tun, is what I’m saying.
Title: The Deep
Author: Alma Katsu
Age Range: Adult
Genre: Historical Fiction, Horror
Someone, or something, is haunting the Titanic.
This is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the passengers of the ship from the moment they set sail: mysterious disappearances, sudden deaths. Now suspended in an eerie, unsettling twilight zone during the four days of the liner’s illustrious maiden voyage, a number of the passengers – including millionaires Madeleine Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, the maid Annie Hebbley and Mark Fletcher – are convinced that something sinister is going on . . . And then, as the world knows, disaster strikes.
Years later and the world is at war. And a survivor of that fateful night, Annie, is working as a nurse on the sixth voyage of the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic, now refitted as a hospital ship. Plagued by the demons of her doomed first and near fatal journey across the Atlantic, Annie comes across an unconscious soldier she recognises while doing her rounds. It is the young man Mark. And she is convinced that he did not – could not – have survived the sinking of the Titanic . . .
Content warning: Classism, character death
If you know your history, then you already know that neither the Titanic nor its sister ship the Britannic survived their maiden voyages. The Titanic was struck by an iceberg, while the Britannic was torpedoed by a German submarine. This novel by Alma Katsu explores the idea that maybe, a malevolent supernatural presence was behind both sinkings.
Central to this story are the maid Annie Hebbley and the passenger Mark Fletcher, both of whom are far more intertwined than they originally thought. Although Annie is a stewardess on the Titanic and Mark Fletcher is a first-class passenger they are inexplicably drawn to one another. Things get even weirder when, years later in the midst of World War I, Annie finds herself a nurse on the Britannic, while Mark is a wounded soldier. Is it all a coincidence? Or is something haunting them both, dooming both ships to watery graves?
This was one of the creepiest, most atmospheric books I’ve ever read. Quite a few scenes were downright hair-raising and made me regret reading this book while I was by myself in my darkened bedroom (lol). Plotwise, it was actually pretty straightforward with nothing special, but Alma Katsu’s writing is just so dang good that it injected that special something every creepy read needs. And this one hit the mark really, really well.
The overall feeling this book gives you is the sense of being trapped. You’re on a ship surrounded by fathoms of water, with no way to get off, with people you don’t know. There’s something sinister aboard, and there’s nothing you can do and no one who will listen to you. That conveyed sense of helplessness, more than anything else, is what made this book absolutely work.
The portrayal of the main character, Annie, was really excellently done as well. According to the author’s note at the end of this book, The Deep was sort of inspired by the stories of a stewardess called Violet Jessop (who is also a character in the book!) who really did survive both the Titanic and the Britannic sinking. Annie is supposed to be a friend of Violet’s, and through this, we’re given a really intimate view of what life must have been like for those of the serving class. As a narrator, she’s also intensely unreliable, and when you figure out what the truth is, suddenly everything falls into place and you end up having a really deep understanding of what Annie wanted out of life.
Title: The Library of the Unwritten
Author: A.J. Hackwith
Age Range: Adult
Genre: Humor, Fantasy
Many years ago, Claire was named Head Librarian of the Unwritten Wing—a neutral space in Hell where all the stories unfinished by their authors reside. Her job consists mainly of repairing and organizing books, but also of keeping an eye on restless stories that risk materializing as characters and escaping the library. When a Hero escapes from his book and goes in search of his author, Claire must track and capture him with the help of former muse and current assistant Brevity and nervous demon courier Leto.
But what should have been a simple retrieval goes horrifyingly wrong when the terrifyingly angelic Ramiel attacks them, convinced that they hold the Devil’s Bible. The text of the Devil’s Bible is a powerful weapon in the power struggle between Heaven and Hell, so it falls to the librarians to find a book with the power to reshape the boundaries between Heaven, Hell … and Earth.
Content warnings: Death, violence, suicide, panic attacks.
If you like Good Omens or The Good Place, this book is definitely for you. Handling concepts such as Heaven and Hell with hilariously irreverent humor, A.J. Hackwith brings to us the story of Librarian Claire Hadley, who guards the Unwritten Wing where mankind’s unfinished stories lie. One day, Claire comes into possession of a relic known as the Devil’s Bible, and discovers plots between Heaven and Hell to overcome one another using this relic. Of course, as we all know, when Heaven and Hell collide, Earth rarely comes out the better for it – so Claire races to find the Devil’s Bible, stop the war between Heaven and Hell, and save the Library as well.
The thing I liked the most about this book is how it didn’t take itself at all too seriously. Concepts of the afterlife are malleable in real life, depending on who you’re taking to, and this book treated the idea of Heaven, Hell, and even other afterlife realms like Valhalla as similarly semi-permanent things that thrive on worship and remembrance. I really, really, really love the idea of gods being real, but only being able to survive as long as people believe in them.
I also adore the portrayal of Heaven here. Too often we get depictions of Heaven and the angels as self-righteous scumbags, but here, we get something that I feel might be a little more realistic – sentient beings as unsure as we humans are of their place in the universe, who feel fear and doubt the same way we do.
This book also has some cool representation. Claire Hadley and her erstwhile helper, the demon Leto, are both explicitly described to be people of colour; we get a main character that outright identifies themselves as pansexual; and we also get mentions of non-binary characters as well. I for one enjoy representation where their identity has nothing to do with the story just as much as rep where the story revolves around their identity. In fact, I feel like the former really helps contribute to the normalization of the presence of marginalized identities in media!
But the best part of this book was the main character, the librarian Claire Hadley. Eminently practical, witty, and quick-thinking, our heroine is a complex character with depths to her that will take you the entire book to truly and thoroughly plumb. We discover some secrets about her that suddenly make her entire characterization make sense, we learn she has a darkness about her that she keeps locked away so only the righteousness is seen, we see the emotional side of her, and even get to see the stubborn part of her that vows to defeat her enemies or die trying. She’s not a kickass, badass character by any stretch of the imagination – in fact, her mentor even tells her something along the lines of, “I knew I should have taught you swordplay” – but she’s deliciously multi-faceted and in the end, determined to do the right thing.
☕ Read any books lately with complex female characters?
☕ Have you read these books? What did you think?
☕ How are you doing during this lockdown?