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More Previous Winners, with a Side of Uh-Oh
Two books today, both fantasy. All the Crooked Saints technically belonged in last week’s previous winners cluster, as Stiefvater received an honor for 2012’s The Scorpio Races, but it ran over the word count. And That Inevitable Victorian Thing seemed like a good book to pair with it; Johnston, like Stiefvater, loves to play with old stories in new forms, and has a Morris, making her a previous winner — albeit not a Printz winner. Also, both fall into the problematic books from beloved authors category. So with no further introduction, here goes:
Pre-publication, some controversy swirled around All the Crooked Saints, mostly around questions of authenticity and representation. Stiefvater is a white author, but this is a book deeply steeped in Latinx culture: the main characters are Mexican-American, the style is classic Magic Realism (I found myself thinking especially of Like Water for Chocolate, because the Soria magic is similarly connected to internal emotional states being made manifest). And Stiefvater came under scrutiny for representation in The Raven King quartet (which I loved, just to lay all my cards on the table), so it’s plausible that many readers went into All the Crooked Saints already on high alert.
I went into All the Crooked Saints blind; I had an early ARC so the larger dialogue hadn’t really picked up, and as I had totally missed the concerns about Henry Chen in Blue Lily, Lily Blue I didn’t realize that additional layers of scrutiny would be likely. Of course, I did wonder about the representation in Saints given the discrepancy between the author and the characters — and I didn’t see anything that struck me as problematic, and in fact thought it was genuinely and respectfully written. However, I’m Jewish and white, so the religious, racial, and ethnic aspects of the Sorias lives were all unfamiliar territory in one way or another, making me an imperfect reviewer to address these aspects of the text, and other readers saw significant cause for concern. If you want a snapshot of that conversation, All the Crooked Saints came up in the comments on the Thanksgiving post, and some really incisive points were made.
What did strike me as I read was the astounding imagery, a skillful sense of place and use of magic that seemed very true to the Central and South American roots of Magic Realism, and — less positively — a slight flatness to the book as a whole. The pre-publication buzz was significant (largely rooted in “OMG Maggie Stiefvater new book OMG” and the aforementioned “white author, uh-oh”) but the post publication buzz has been surprisingly nonexistent for a book from such a significant author, especially a book with controversial questions attached, making me wonder how this is being received more widely. I thought this was good — but not astounding, and this is an author who has astounded me (and committee members) in the past. I do know other librarians who thought this was magnificent, yet I don’t have students buzzing around it like they did for The Scorpio Races or The Raven Boys, and only one reviewer starred it. Plus there are the potentially hurtful tropes (for what it’s worth, I do think Stiefvater’s intent was genuine — but intent is much less important that impact). I’d be shocked if this one gets a Printz nod, because what the virtues there are are more than balanced by flaws of pacing and cohesiveness even before the question of whether it’s offensive is on the table, and the arguments for why this is offensive are notable (summing up Mimi’s comments that are linked above): magical brown people, actual disability as magical punishment.
(Incidentally, it’s not the only Mexican-American family-set magic realism YA out this year; McLemore’s Wild Beauty will be an interesting comp to All the Crooked Saints. Comparisons are technically not part of the Printz discussion, but humans use it as a framework naturally so having multiple books with similarities of course means people will consider each one in light of the other; in the end the award is about the best and that does require comparing in some way even if we don’t sit around saying “this magic is better than that magic”. Anyway, I’ve started Wild Beauty, but barely; I’ll hopefully be able to cover it before the season is over.)
That Inevitable Victorian Thing, E.K. Johnston
Dutton, October 2017
Reviewed from ARC; three stars
Oh boy oh boy oh boy. I really wanted this book to be the book that confirmed that I could indeed love Johnston, a fascinating author (I still think A Thousand Nights was robbed and deserved Printz recognition), but I think the queer representation is really not ok, and I’m not sure about the race representation either and oh dear.
So now that I’ve laid all that out there, I confess that I was tempted to not even write this one up, because I don’t love taking down books that I don’t think have a shot at the award, and also because Thumper’s Dad’s advice and Jonathan’s excellent use of that advice always play in the back of my head.
But it’s an excellent book for a dialogue, because for every reviewer on Goodreads that read the problematic book I read, some other reviewer read an amazing, inclusive, mind-blowing book. I read it careening from ouch moment to ouch moment — but it has three stars. In other words, this exactly the kind of book that has a real chance at having been nominated and would be the source of a rowdy and thoughtful conversation.
The only flaw with starting with my concerns is that in the RealCommittee, someone is always able to start with the statement of why a book was nominated, which frames the conversation in the positive. So let’s start with the strengths I saw and some that reviewers noted, in lieu of a strong why statement, and then I’ll get into the counter arguments.
From SLJ: “A clever and self-aware novel set in a fascinating world, this witty and romantic story is a must-read.” From PW: “…vividly imagined alternate history…. the thoughtfulness, attention to detail, and humor in this alternative Earth are rewarding on multiple levels.” And from Booklist: “This slice of speculative summer is an extraordinary feat of world building; Johnston neatly avoids the trap of revisionist history and takes care to acknowledge the effects that this new world would have on countries and cultures beyond Great Britain (most notably China and the First Nations). Within this world, characters soar: Helena and Margaret’s budding romance is sweet, and the trio’s struggles with their respective futures sincere. Compelling and unique—there’s nothing else like it.”
And truly, the conceit is a delight. Imagine a British Empire in which Victoria was incredibly enlightened and married her children off to various significant people of her own empire, rather than significant people of Western Europe. Imagine furthermore that Victoria recognized the importance of the colonized native inhabitants of the various corners of her empire, and so all those strategic marriages were with people of color. And then she left the crown to her eldest child, a daughter, instead of a son. It’s a downright utopic vision of what could have been, and it has great potential (and, again, is built on an edifice of great intent and no small amount of thoughtful consideration of history, and when did the Author’s Note become so critical?).
But (counter arguments start here) instead of using that to build a truly different world, we get a still-rolling empire in which everyone is accepted, sort of, but standards of whiteness still apply. Brown-skinned Margaret, the crown princess, is able to disguise herself effectively JUST BY WEARING HER HAIR NATURALLY, because she and her brown-skinned mother, the queen, usually wear wigs. They aren’t ashamed, the text takes great pains to point out, but “it is only important that we look neat and contained.” The champion for Margaret being her own, natural self, who feels discomfort at this situation? Margaret’s white father. We’re told race doesn’t matter as much as genetic compatibility in this world (which would presumably favor interracial matches to avoid double recessives of all those pesky genetic mutations that tend to crop up in less diverse populations), but then it turns out princess training involves the ability to recognize “ethnicity based on a person’s appearance” except that it’s rude to comment on it. Why, if everyone is multi-racial and no one has their race judged or valued, would this be critical training?
Then there’s the weird religious erasure; all religions have been absorbed by the Church of England, which is also a genetic matchmaker, although people still wear kippot (tasteful kippot for dressy occasions are explicitly mentioned, which made me wonder about the implication for the rest of the time) and turbans; religious diversity by headgear? It’s unclear what the absorption by the church means for the practicioners of other faiths, but it’s implied that they all answer to the Archbishop of Canterbury, which ouch.
Also there’s something strange going on with class. Every wealthy character in the books (and people in this world are apparently either wealthy or servants) has an immense amount of guilt, but they also have any number of servants. Many pages are given to Helena and August’s guilt about their privilege, although it’s not framed in those exact terms, but all their efforts are focused on the individuals who serve them (Helena is sad Fanny can’t attend the ball, which Fanny bravely dismisses) rather than the larger social fabric, and all the servants (mostly Hiram and Fanny) seem very kind and solicitous of the family and it’s all very classist and posits the working class essentially as extensions of their wealthy masters and mistresses and it made me very uncomfortable to read. This isn’t a flaw in terms of the writing, and might even be deliberate, but it’s never resolved or addressed in a larger way so it felt like a dangling thread, but one that (to extend the metaphor) embroidered too much of the character’s internal monologues to be left unresolved — unless this is not actually a standalone and revolution is coming. (If that’s the case, and this is all set up, I might feel very differently about the book, but I’d need to see the rest of the story before I would want to recognize this portion of it.)
And finally, let’s talk about the LBBTQ+ representation. Helena, it turns out, is intersex, something she learns when she uploads her genetic chip to the matchmaking computer. She’s also a lesbian (or maybe bisexual, it’s a little unclear where her feelings and desire for August really land) and a perfect genetic match with the princess, which apparently is destiny (technically the match doesn’t matter since they can’t have children, but it seems to have predicted their great love). What it means to be intersex is glossed over; but the text moves past any identity upheaval pretty quickly, which seems inconsistent with the otherwise introspective Helena (although I don’t know that I ever had a clear sense of Helena; Margaret and even Elizabeth are much better delineated characters). Margaret and Helena fall in love, but although same sex marriages are accepted, there are various indications that they really aren’t; Helena makes a joke that maybe the queen won’t like them dancing together (before she knows the queen is Margaret’s mother and also before she’s figured out she’s attracted to Margaret). Margaret bristles, but really if same sex couples were fully accepted, this wouldn’t even be a question that could be raised, so it was a moment where the text showed something different from what it was telling about the world. And then in the end, they can’t officially be together, because the heir has to have a marriage that can result in children who’s parentage is knowable. The final blow here is the “happy ending”: Margaret gets to go home to England with a fiancé and a secret paramour. Helena gets to be the secret paramour. And poor August is the beard who says yes because he’s in dire straights and also he loves Helena that much. It’s weird. It’s invisibility for Margaret and Helena for the sake of the empire. It leaves a taste of very Victorian “let’s just ignore sex and everything will be fine” attitude, which maybe is the inevitable thing about Victorian books but it’s strangely regressive in a book that is clearly trying to be progressive.
Also, from a purely literary perspective, it’s kind of boring. The plot is slim; it’s the details that pad this out, and those details are in service of building this fascinating world that never coheres, filled as it is with problems. (Those positive reviews all love the world, so I am hoping someone will want to argue back against many of my assertions, but especially that one.)
And yet there are plenty of readers who saw this is a huge win for diversity and inclusion and adored it both as a story and as a model of representation.
Comments are open; I’ve put forth a bunch of reasons these are divisive books; discuss away.
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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