I read Sean Stewart’s Mockingbird about a year ago, and here is a slightly revised version of some thoughts I posted in my LJ last year. It’s a very good book, female without having any of the annoying chicklitness, such as obsession over men — ok, there’s some. It actually fits nicely into some of the frequent blogosphere discussions about male writers writing female characters and vice versa (even though I would argue that female writers tend to do a better job of it, simply due to the fact that male viewpoint is a cultural default and women are familiar with it. Women, however, are frequently presented as mysterious other â€“ e.g., “what do women want?”). Sean Stewart nonetheless writes his female characters extremely well. The book is excellent for many other reasons, but I will focus on the protagonist just becaue this is what especially impressed me.
The heroine, Toni, is not pretty — moreover, she REALLY is not pretty. None of that coy nonsense which is so irritating in fantasy, where the heroine is said to be not beautiful because her waist is too small, her boobs are too big and there’s a mole on her cheek. Toni has actual flaws. She does obsess over men some — but only after she gets pregnant (artificial insemination); due to her actuarial background she decides to find a guy to marry because kids do better in two-parent households. Stats play a bigger part in her life than emotion; yet, she can be hateful and mean. She tries her best and she is likeable; yet, the relationship with her sister is actually complex. And she is occasionally possessed by gods. So, good stuff.
I liked how Stewart writes her as an individual yet does not discount that being a woman informs her choices and her life; he wallows in the physiological grossness of pregnancy, he does a good job conveying how clueless Toni is about dating and sex. And all of it is believable.
Then there’s Candy, Toni’s sister, who is pretty and happy and rather desperately looking for autonomy from her (dead) mother and older sister, and she finds her liberation in sex. There’s a great scene where she shows Toni her stash of porn mags, some of which depict some heavy BDSM stuff. And she says (I’m paraphrasing) that some men just hate women — enough to really hurt them. And this is where I sat up a bit and thought, oh really? It took BDSM to clue you in? Because really, there are so many more pervasive forms of domination than BDSM. For example, the whole marketing illusion of empowerment, such as wearing a tight pink tanktop that proclaims ‘I hit boys!’ or some other inanity, this pretend strength while still remaining an object. This, after some reflection, is the problem I have with so many fantasy heroines — this repackaging of submission to the oppressive norm as something positive.
Sean Stewart actually does very well in that regard — I’m even willing to play along when Toni goes hunting for a husband with a new $600 jacket. She knows the rules of submission and she is very clear-headed about it — and that’s another thing. Submission can be necessary for a variety of reasons. It’s only when it is disguised as rebellion and freedom that it gets squicky. And doubly so when it is being sold in a shiny packaging that says ‘strong woman!’ on it.