Monday, June 3, 2013

Reviews of The Girl of Fire and Thorns and The Darkangel: Here's Your Before....and Here's Your After

In which Sam rants about makeovers in her favorite YA fiction, raves about The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson and The Darkangel by Meredith Ann Pierce, and accuses Meg of reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

No one told me that when I officially became an adult (and no longer able to wander the YA Fiction section at Barnes & Noble without the judgmental stares of thirteen-year-olds) that the only fantasy anyone would try to sell me would be the fantasy of looking “Fantastic in Fifty Shades of Lipstick” – or, more mortifying, the fantasies in Fifty Shades of Grey.[1]

Where were the fantasies I grew up with? The fantasy of an epic adventure across snowcapped mountain peaks! The fantasy of becoming a despotic queen and reigning over a kingdom![2] The fantasy of fighting monumental battles and winning![3] I began to despair that the only fantasy available to adult women was the fantasy of returning to youth somehow: makeovers, makeup, or the magic of plastic surgery. And maybe I bought into that in a small way, because I turned back to youth, too: the young heroines of my favorite YA books. There, I told myself, the knights and spies and mages didn’t care about injecting botulism[4] into their foreheads to freeze them in perpetual, youthful surprise. Instead, the young women I looked up to longed to age, grasped for the power and wisdom that came with every passing year.

Still, upon closer inspection, I realized once again I had placed myself on the lofty shelf of Better-Than-Thou Book Selection, and when I took a hard look at some of my favorites, I discovered lots of them contain the same fantasy Cosmopolitan slaps on its covers every month: the fantasy makeover.[5]

Two makeovers in particular stand out in my mind: Aeriel, from The Darkangel, and Elisa, from The Girl of Fire and Thorns. In case you haven’t read either, these plot points won’t shatter too many surprises.

I know this isn't the most recent cover, but it is the one I remember from discovering the book in one of the back shelves of my middle school library.

The Darkangel, which came out in 1982,[6] features gorgeous sights, several adaptations of classic fantasy creatures, including a dark and perilous vampyre, and one of my favorite magical objects. The story opens on Eoduin, a beautiful young woman, and her slave, Aeriel, wandering through an idyllic moonscape when suddenly, a vampyre swoops down and snatches Eoduin away to make her his bride. Aeriel, being awesome, goes after Eoduin, and when she finally encounters the vampyre, they have this ego-shattering exchange:

Aeriel turned back to him. “I am to be your bride,” she said, not questioning. The certainty of it overwhelmed her.

The darkangel looked at her then and laughed, a long, mocking laugh that sent the gargoyles into a screaming, chattering frenzy. “You?” he cried, and Aeriel’s heart shrank, tightened like a knot beneath the bone of her breast. “You be my bride? By the Fair Witch, no. You’re much too ugly.”

Though the plot meanders and slows, especially just after the story’s startling early events, and the language can grow cloudy in places, Pierce plays cleverly with the power of emotion and the presence of several types of transformation.

I'm a big cover art girl (always judging books by their cover) and this one didn't grab me  - it was the Tamora Pierce rave that got me to open the book jacket.
Almost twenty years later, Rae Carson’s A Girl of Fire and Thorns debuted, featuring Elisa, the first female protagonist that in all my years I can remember being described as fat.[7] Elisa is of course many other things: a strategic genius, a kidnapping victim, and a princess. Still, the story opens with her discomfort at squeezing her body into a wedding gown, and her subsequent reaction to the dress shows readers her deep insecurity:

“I am a sausage,” I gasp. “A big, bloated sausage in a white silk casing.”

The religious element to the storyline was new to me, but Carson blends it seamlessly into the magic of Elisa’s world. There are a multitude of characters as close to flesh-and-blood real as I’ve ever read: multidimensional and flawed and believable. The plot accelerates quickly, and the creativity with which Elisa uses her innate strengths to exploits her enemies’ weaknesses made this one of my favorite YA books in quite a while.

So both heroines begin their stories outside the beauty norm, but Aeriel and Elisa each undergo long journeys (incidentally, both through the desert) and both women become more beautiful as other characters in their world define beauty. Elisa loses weight from the arduous walk across shifting sands. Aeriel’s hair bleaches blonder and her skin becomes darker under the desert sun. These changes should have deflated me, because just like Cosmo instructs, plain girls in YA World simply could not – should not – stay plain.

Yet neither girl set out to change her physical appearance. Instead, Aeriel undertakes a daring quest, and her newfound courage and determination are the most important changes wrought by her journey.[8] Elisa, thrust into a dangerous and uncertain situation, rises to the challenges she must face, and her new physical stamina reflects this inner strength.

The external makeovers themselves generate mixed results – Aeriel’s sudden resemblance to the Beach Boys’ inspiration for “California Girls”[9] draws her even closer to danger, while Elisa’s weight loss seems to earn her respect from those who doubted her ability to withstand physical (and emotional) toil – and 50/50 odds are not exactly the “Guaranteed Gorgeous” that Glamour and Vogue always promise.

After reading both books, I see my mistake in evaluating the success or importance of a makeover by its results. Aeriel and Elisa underwent physical transformations, but not for the sake of the transformation itself. The blonde hair and the leg muscles happened because Elisa and Aeriel went out and took action, and it showed on their bodies and in their faces. Fantasy makeovers in magazines promise action[10] but can’t produce it, because painting a layer of makeup on is not taking initiative. It’s the very opposite. It inhibits action.[11] This is not to say every makeover has no value,[12] but that the fantasy makeovers of YA heroines don’t have much in common with Cosmo, if only because the changes in Aeriel and Elisa began inside first.

I plan to stick with YA-style makeovers, where the heroines happen to be young and transforming oneself on the outside is a side effect of internal transformation, but I plan to steer clear of makeovers that only want me to look young. I hope you reframe how you view the fantasy makeover, too, and stop seeing its occurrence in books as a guilty pleasure. Because the real guilty pleasure is reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Or at least, that’s what Meg tells me.

The Darkangel

Badges: Guilty Pleasure Badge, Fantasy Makeover Badge

A Girl of Fire and Thorns

Badges: Fantasy Makeover Badge, Feminism Forever Badge, Trumps Tropes Badge, I Think I Found My New Best Friend Badge

[1] There is actually a knockoff title now called Dominated by the Billionaire. I am not making that up. But I wish I were.
[2] The only kinds of fantasies I have about becoming royalty involve wild and outrageous abuses of the taxing power.
[3] Let the record reflect that in real life, I have been known to lose even at arm-wrestling.
[4] Which is one of the most toxic substances known to man.
[5] See, as an example, every issue ever.
[6] I know!
[7] I take that back. I just remembered that Margaret from R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH had to start wearing a belt after she lost weight during the course of her adventures. I think I’d classify it more as a kid’s book, though, and hopefully you’ve stopped reading the footnotes by now, so you’ll never know anyway.
[8] The blonde highlights are more of a bonus.
[9] Notably, not Katy Perry’s inspiration.
[10] Let your imagination wander on that one, because you’re probably right.
[11] At minimum, it inhibits me from constantly scratching my nose.
[12] What if a spy needed a makeover to go undercover in a beauty pageant? If you are thinking of Miss Congeniality, I am too.

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