Saturday, August 22, 2015

Book Review: Born Wicked

Sorry for the delay in all of the reviews this week guys, details tomorrow but it's nothing exciting, just too many things going wrong at once. And speaking of things going wrong....

Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood



Cate Cahill has been scared her whole life. She's a witch in a country where witches are burned and witch hunts terrify every woman of any age and it's not just her she has to worry about. Her two younger sisters are also witches and with no allies it's a constant struggle to keep their powers hidden and deal with Cate's upcoming coming of age birthday where she'll have to declare her future intentions. She doesn't want to leave her father and siblings behind, doesn't want to marry anyone near her home, and certainly doesn't want to join the rigid and terrifying Sisterhood; it seems like it will take more than magic to give her a happy life. 

This book was rather unimpressive, it faithfully followed every story beat that you would expect in a story about a "chosen" young woman with great powers and who did not want them at all. But it's one of several stories I've read recently which have made me really think about why I didn't like them, going beyond the individual plot points into why some stories just rub me the wrong way. So a bit of a digression tonight but I think I've worked out why. The way I see it, there are two general types of plots, proactive and reactive, and I find reactive plots very frustrating.

To define these two, a proactive plot is one where a character goes out and does things. Perhaps they were thrust into a crazy situation unwillingly at first but eventually they go ahead and don't just respond to problems as they come up, they keep moving forward to try and fend off future problems. Reactive plots are roughly the opposite, a character is thrust into an uncomfortable situation and the hits never stop coming long enough for them to gather themselves up and really have a say in how the story continues. That's what happens to Cate, she and her sisters are always trying to hide their magic and generally keep a low profile, ie it's a story device so that they can't do anything very active to start with. Even when Cate thinks that she's finally found a partial solution towards the end of the book, one that gives her some measure of freedom for her and her sisters and the conditions for it are ones that she's fine with, suddenly yet another thing comes up and she can't even make a choice, she has to do something she wanted to avoid for highly understandable reasons. This is a bit of an extreme example but for a character to be relatable they must have some successes and Cate has none in the entire story (except for possibly a romantic subplot and it's sad if that's literally the only happy thing for a character in an entire story), she is continually running into trouble from other characters and the not-so-well-done setting. I ended the book thinking "considering how f*cked over she got in this book and it's part of a series I'm not expecting any happy moments until the last book AND considering there's a 'one will kill the other' prophecy there probably won't be a lot of happiness there either!" which does not make me want to read more of the story. 

I see two, major problems with these "reactive plots" as I have defined them, the first of which being that I see this far more often with a female lead than a male lead. I don't mean "I see this more often in YA novels", I mean across mediums, even the fact that YA is female-lead heavy doesn't mean I see it more here/view this as a YA problem. My definition of a "proactive" plot is very similar to the traditional hero's journey so I do think that it's, in part, due to how we still subconsciously write male and female character's differently, not because of who the individual characters are but because of the kinds of conflicts we still associate with each of them. Secondly, reactive plots tend to be rather negative for an entire book but not an entire series. Series are not series of books, they are series of stories and as such, each plot needs it's own climaxes and quiet moments, successes and failures, and by cutting out part of that the story feels much less satisfying and complete. Ideally a book would be a combination of proactive and reactive events, and that is not what this book is at all.

So no, I do not recommend this book. I'm also grumpy at the setting which feels as if the writer was going to make the story late-1800s New England, started changing a few things and then decided not to change everything and got lazy. She has institutions like the church but it's completely unlike any Christian denomination, she makes it similar enough that the readers will go "oh church, that means X, Y, and Z" and hopefully not notice that it's run completely differently and that having a near-identical belief system to our world (which was shaped by very different, non-magical circumstances) is poppycock.  

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