For fans of: Graceling, The Library of Fates, Raybearer, enemies to lovers, high stakes fantasy games and tournaments, talking monster companions
A Crown of Wishes is lush, colorful, and delicious. It’s a fast-paced adventure with such rich sensory detail that I feel like I dreamed it, and I want to go back tonight. Plus, it manages to feel fresh and contemporary while also delivering heaps of my favorite tropes:
Enemies to lovers
Spooky animal companions
Monsters with hearts of gold
Soft boys who love prickly girls
Healing, um … kisses …
It’s the story of heirs to rival kingdoms, who have not yet met when are chosen by the Lord of Wealth to compete as partners in the Tournament of Wishes. If they can find a way into the Otherworld of magic and monsters and survive two challenges and a sacrifice, there’s still no guarantee they’ll both be allowed to leave with their lives. But for a chance at a Wish, they’ll have to risk it.
Princess Gauri is the angry girl of my dreams: “A beast. A monster. A myth. A girl. What was the difference?” She’s a princess without a country, desperate to return. To protect her people, she trained as a soldier to fight in her cruel brother’s armies, and eventually to overthrow him. However, her need to protect has made her paranoid and afraid of being vulnerable. Her coup failed, and her brother dropped her over the border in an enemy kingdom with orders for her execution.
On paper, Prince Vikram is the heir to that enemy kingdom, but his father’s council knows he is adopted and has no intention of letting him wield real power when he takes the throne. He’s a good match for Princess Gauri, first as a reluctant ally and eventually as a love interest. Despite her martial prowess, Gauri doesn’t frighten the comparatively peaceful Vikram, who accepts her initial distrust with cockiness that isn’t hiding anything.
Vikram is genuinely confident that their quest is going to make him into a true ruler. As a result, he is almost recklessly kind and trusting with the people they meet on their journey in a way Gauri can’t allow herself to be, yet.
Despite the protagonists’ tragic backstories and desperate circumstances, this is a cheerful book. It was such a relief after–you know, everything, that I almost wish it weren’t such a quick, breezy read. I’m definitely going to pick up the other books in this series as soon as I shrink my TBR pile a bit.
I have a migraine and no idea how to review a book like this, so I’m not going to, except to say that I liked it. A lot of disability memoirs read like the writer is an astronaut all alone in the dark void of Illness, which is probably why they appeal more to readers who don’t think of themselves as sick or disabled. The essays in The Collected Schizophrenias are all in conversation with people and communities. They feel like they were written for us.
Instead of a review, I’m going to give you a list of other personal essays I think you’d like if you liked The Collected Schizophrenias. Which is a sneaky way of saying that if you like these essays, you’ll probably like The Collected Schizophrenias.
Also, my favorite quote, which comes late enough in the book that it would probably be considered a spoiler if you could spoil people’s real lives:
Rebecca Solnit says in The Faraway Nearby, “There is a serenity in illness that takes away all the need to do and makes just being enough,” which has not been my experience. After all, prolonged and chronic illness stitches itself into life in a different way than acute illness does … The absolution from doing more and dreaming big that I experience during surgeries and hospitalization is absent during chronic illness.
After all, until then, my health had always made sense to me. It didn’t occur to me that might change—that my ability to move and work and be outdoors, to live the life I’d built, could dissolve in a week.
Then, as an adult, I actually read the text and discovered that woven into the recipes were tidbits of advice for the 1960s homemaker: The man you marry will know the way he likes his eggs. And chances are he’ll be fussy about them. So it behooves a good wife to know how to make an egg behave in six basic ways.
When life was hard, there was no luxury to wallow. Don’t nobody have time to be depressed! There were children to feed, bodies to bathe, houses to clean. I know there are black women not so strong, but I don’t remember seeing my mother cry.
As I wrote, my perception of the life I’d lived began to shift. I had long thought of myself as living a charmed life, and for the most part, I did. But that perception was contingent on continuing to ignore experiences that were the direct result of anti-fat bias.
We speak of it in whispers, though everyone’s been treated for it at some point, Prozac and Zoloft and Lexapro all the way down the family tree, and yet here I must also admit we’re all just as apt to believe in ghosts as to believe in something like brain chemistry. What is depression, anyway, when you’ve already passed through the fire and returned?
Early in Thorn, Intisar Khanani’s YA fantasy retelling of “Goose Girl,” the protagonist’s talking Horse advises her with the book’s central theme and conflict:
It is rare for someone who wants power to truly deserve it.
Princess Alyrra is patient, gentle, generous, curious, and honest to a fault. After years of abuse at the hands of her mother and brother, she’s almost relieved to have her identity stolen on the road to the neighboring kingdom, where she is to wed the prince. Alyrra has no desire to rule. If only she could be sure the imposter would not harm the prince, Alyrra would be content as a goose girl, trading hard physical labor for freedom from court politics.
Thorn is a deceptively heavy novel. Despite its colorful cover and accessible writing, themes of abuse, injustice, and revenge permeate almost every scene. Intisar Khanani handles these themes with consideration and respect not only for their weight but also for the reader. I particularly appreciated the nuanced discussion of defensive versus offensive violence. And amid the darkness, there are much-needed moments of humor and beauty, including stubborn horses, a sweet found family that loves Alyrra the way her family of origin couldn’t.
Of the retellings I’ve read, Thorn is among the most faithful to its original fairytale. The cast is broader and more developed, and there is a side plot about human trafficking and thieves guilds. However, the primary plot points largely mirror those of “Goose Girl.”
That isn’t necessarily a problem. Based on a quick skim of Goodreads, I’m one of many readers for whom this was our first exposure to “Goose Girl.” Khanani also worked in a few twists that would have surprised me even if I had been familiar with the inspiration. However, there is one event in the original fairytale that doesn’t make much sense to me in that context, and it made even less sense to me in Thorn. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say I kept waiting for something important to happen as Alyrra passed through the gates, and it never did.
I also wish Khanani had done more to develop Alyrra’s world and to push back against the fairytale trope of characters that are either all good or all evil. The primary villain, who orchestrates the theft of Alyrra’s identity, is complicated and sympathetic, but no other antagonist gets the same treatment. However, I enjoyed the quieter, more contemplative scenes immensely,and I’m eager to see what Khanani writes next.
Thorn is most likely to appeal to fans of trauma narratives that are light on romance, like Raybearer and Deerskin. However, it’s also a beautiful found family story, and I think people who prefer the parts of Disney movies where princesses cheerfully clean the house with the help of their animal sidekicks would enjoy it immensely.
This is the first book I finished for the 2021 Asian Readathon. I’m counting it for challenge 1, though it could also fulfill challenge 2 or 3, or all 3 if I only wanted to read 3 books.
Intisar Khanani’s family is Pakistani.
I’m still conflicted about listing these, but apparently it’s a thing I’m doing now.
Thorn by Intisar Khanani contains physical, verbal, and emotional abuse; violence against animals; torture; human trafficking of children; onscreen threats of sexual violence; offscreen sexual violence; and torture.
The Unbroken is the literary equivalent of being kicked in the ribs for 500 pages, and I loved it. Mostly.
Told in alternating perspectives, it’s the story of two women trying to quash an uprising in the Balladairan colony of Qazāl. Touraine is a soldier, Qazāli by birth but conscripted into the colonial army as a toddler, who trusts only her fellow conscripts and the strength of her body. Luca is the future Balladairan queen, an idealistic and book-smart but unproven leader, whose rank and disability estranges her from everyone but her personal guard. When Touraine saves Lucca from an assassination attempt, Lucca sees an opportunity to recruit an ambassador the Qazāli might trust enough to negotiate a peaceful end to the rebellion.
Clark’s world building is immaculate. Both French-inspired Balladaire and Arab-inspired Qazāl feel like real, living countries, with their own geography, culture, history, and approach to magic and religion. Their writing is intense and cinematic. Despite the violence and despair that permeates much of the book, I found myself staying up too late to finish “just one more” chapter and daydreaming about the characters when I was supposed to be working. And I loved the layered, flawed characters, even though most of them only make good decisions by accident.
I only have one critique, and it’s that I found the sexual violence subplot almost unbearable. If I were to describe exactly what happens, on paper, it would seem fairly unremarkable. It’s nowhere near what happens in an episode of Game of Thrones. There are hundreds of YA novels with more detailed depictions of sexual violence that go on for much longer than what happens in The Unbroken, and none of them have gotten under my skin in quite the same way.
To be clear, I don’t think Clark’s use of sexual violence is inappropriate. It’s a way of emphasizing how powerless even respectable, comparatively high ranking Qazāli are against Balladairans. It raises the stakes and underscores the novel’s themes, and it’s treated with the gravity it deserves. I just think there was probably a way to do all of that without exposing what I imagine is an audience of primarily queer women and/or women of color to yet more depictions of sexual violence against queer women of color.
That said, I have recommended The Unbroken to several friends and will continue to do so, with the necessary caveats.
I think it will especially appeal to fans of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series and N. K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology, but anyone who loves political fantasy with meticulous world building should give it a try. It’s ambitious and textured and spectacularly well written. I’m glad I read it, and I look forward to the sequel. I’m just going to make sure I have something fluffy to chase it with.
I’m always torn on whether or not I want to provide detailed content warnings for the books I review. Some people consider them spoilers, some people consider them essential. More importantly, I don’t want anyone who depends on my list to come across an unexpected trigger because I failed to remember or mention it.
Fortunately, C. L. Clark has a list on their website, so I’m just going to quote that here:
depictions of colonial violence, gore, past attempted rape, threats of rape, threats of torture
One problem with checking giant stacks of books out from the library at once is I never remember what those books are about when I get them home or why I checked them out.
After a pair of depressing adult fantasy books (Passing Strange and The Unbroken, review of the latter coming soon), I was craving some lighthearted YA adventure. So I picked up Thorn by Intisar Khanani. The cover’s so pretty! And it has such a nice coming-to-market story! Surely, I thought, this is a book that will cheer me up after reading 600-something pages of violence against women.
I was mistaken.
I did like Thorn. The writing is compulsively readable, and the major twist was both surprising and satisfying. If I decide to read it again in a different headspace, I might even come to love it. I just didn’t enjoy reading it when I did.
Another thing I was mistaken about: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie is partially set in the U.S., so I’m not going to be using that book to fulfill the non-US centric category.
Instead, I’m reading I’ll be the One by Lyla Lee. Somehow, I wasn’t aware of this YA novel about a fat (!) bisexual (!!) girl trying to become a K-Pop star when I created my initial list, so this was a happy accident. I’m stoked.
After Thorn, I took a break to read Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo, because I needed something dependable. Also, my hold had come in and I didn’t want to wait to get to the front of the line again. It has mixed reviews on Goodreads, but I really liked it. Probably because one of the POV characters is a fat bisexual girl.
By then, I was craving something to bring down my average page count. I chose The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang. It’s a collection of personal essays about mental and physical illness, art, science, magic, and legacy.
Surprisingly, it’s also one of the lighter books I’ve read this year. It’s not inspiration porn by any stretch, but it’s also not trauma porn. It’s about how Weijun Wang has sought to make meaning out of her pain.
I’m currently reading A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi, which I hope will turn out to be at least 2 parts Yearning for every 1 part Suffering. So far, so good.
Minor spoilers for the first half of Gods and Jade and Shadow here. I’m not ruining any reveals, but if you’re touchy about spoilers, come back when you’ve read it.
Gods of Jade and Shadow is the first book I’ve read by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and when I said I “read” it, what I mean is that I inhaled it. You know how sometimes you’re in a slump, you have no motivation to read anything, and you can’t seem to even find any books to try to read that you don’t instantly hate? Then you get a book kind of at random, and it takes your breath away and makes you want to stop sleeping and bathing so you can spend more time reading?
Gods of Jade and Shadow was that book for me. It strikes the perfect balance between fairytale and coming-of-age romance, darkness and optimism, quick pacing and deliberateness. Everything about this book feels thoughtful and controlled, but it’s still fun and even pretty light-hearted, which I desperately needed between reading Passing Strangeand The Unbroken.
The story is a Mayan-inspired fantasy about Casiopea Tun, a seventeen-year-old with “a knack for quiet insurrection,” who lives as a servant in her maternal grandfather’s home. Although she lives in the largest house in their small town, Casiopea is an outsider, walled off from her neighbors by her family’s wealth but simultaneously abused and neglected by her family for her father’s indigenous heritage.
She hopes to someday return to the city where she lived with her father. She wants to swim in the ocean at night, to dance to fast music, and to learn to drive a car. Until then, she lives in fear of her cruel older cousin, Martin, and of the Catholic priest, who:
… eyed every woman in town with suspicion. Each diminutive infraction to decency and virtue was catalogued. Women were meant to bear the brunt of inquiries because they descended from Eve, who had been weak and sinned, eating from the juicy, forbidden apple.
Then she accidentally frees the death god Hun-Kame from a box in her grandfather’s bedroom. A bone-shard lodges in her finger, binding her to the god, who draws life from her blood. The connection is dangerous to them both. With every moment he remains dependent upon her, Hun-Kame becomes more mortal, and Casiopea comes closer to death. She must join him on a journey to recover the parts of his body his twin has stolen in order to regain his full power and his godhood.
Casiopea is a delight, well rounded and flawed and just incredibly charming. If you’re tired of Strong Female Character who have to constantly wield their anger as a weapon but don’t long for a return to the Cinderella/Sleeping Beauty/Snow White mold, you’ll love Casiopea. She’s practical but hopeful, kind but with a backbone.
And she has no particular special powers! She’s just curious enough to get herself in trouble and brave enough to get herself back out again.
I loved Moreno-Garcia’s narration. Sometimes, with fairytale retellings that strive to capture a fairytale style, I have a hard time connecting to the characters and the stakes. That was a problem for me with Malinda Lo’s Ash, but it didn’t come up for me here. I think Moreno-Garcia strikes a good balance between didactic asides (“Martin, who had a rather atrophied imagination, incapable of considering for long periods of time anything that was not directly in front of him as worthy of imagination …”) with intensely personal, heartfelt moments and exciting conflicts.
There are a lot of fantasy and fairytale tropes at work here, but Moreno-Garcia uses them with such care that they feel original to Casiopea’s story. Two examples that stand out to me:
Casiopea is Obliviously Beautiful in a way that both makes sense and ties into the themes of the story: colonialism, cultural changes, abuse, trauma, etc. Of course a Mayan death god would see more beauty in her indigenous features than she does, initially.
This book is getting a lot of comparisons to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but I think that only holds up if you’re comparing premises.Gods of Jade and Shadow is both more hopeful and more fun.
I think a better comparison is Kate Elliot’s Cold Magic trilogy. You have a brave, strong girl going to right generational wrongs in the company of a powerful, grumpy man who’s made better, braver, and kinder by knowing her. However, Gods of Jade and Shadow is less focused on romance than Cold Magic, and Hun-Kame is less of an ass than Andevai.
I also wanted to compare it to A Wrinkle in Time, in that Casiopea is an ordinary girl who triumphs over extraordinary obstacles, and her flaws are ultimately her strengths. Then I googled Kamazotz (giant Mayan bat monster) because the name sounded familiar, and it turns out that’s where L’Engle got the name of her dystopian planet, which made me feel a little icky. So, um, forget that comparison, I guess, although I would still recommend this book to anyone who liked A Wrinkle in Time.
Or, honestly, anyone. I can’t think of a single person I would want to recommend books to who wouldn’t like this one. Go read it and then come back and talk to me about it. It’s all I want to talk about.
You can find all the challenges, readalongs, book clubs, giveaways, and other resources, including book recommendations, on the Google Doc Cindy created. To get updates and connect with other participants, follow @asianreadathon on Twitter and use #asianreadathon on all the socials.
(I’m stealing these straight from the Doc, but I’m pretty sure Cindy doesn’t make ad revenue from that so it’s probably fine.)
Read any book written by an Asian author.
Read any book featuring an Asian protagonist.
Read any book written by an Asian author in your favorite genre.
Read any nonfiction book written by an Asian author.
Read any book written by an Asian author that’s not US-centric.
We are allowed to fulfill multiple challenges with the same book.
However, only one book per author/character Asian ethnicity can count towards the challenge. For example, I plan to read Last Night at the Telegraph Clubby Malinda Lo for challenge 2, so I cannot use The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu to fulfill any of the remaining challenges.
Books I Plan to Read
Will I review any of these books? Will I even read them? No one knows!
Challenges 1, 2 & 3 : Any Asian Author, Any Asian Protagonist & Favorite Genre – A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K. S. Villoso Thorn by Intisar Khanani (Click to see my review!)
Challenge 4: Nonfiction – The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang
Challenge 5: Not US-Centric – Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Other Asian Books I Want to Read Eventually
Struggling with your own list? Pick one of these and tell me how it is.
Content Notes: This review contains significant spoilers for the entirety of Passing Strange, including the ending. I don’t think knowing what happens ruins the book, but more importantly, I don’t think it’s possible to discuss my messy, complicated feelings about it without these spoilers.
Speaking of messy and complicated, I’m going to discuss Klages’s depictions of homophobia, anti-Asian racism, sexism, domestic violence, sexual violence, police brutality, and suicide. If you’d rather not read about these subjects, I’d recommend skipping both the review and the book.
Passing Strange is a difficult-to-categorize novella . Google calls it an LGBT fantasy about five women’s interconnected lives in historical San Francisco, which I think is wrong on all counts except the setting, but definitely more marketably pithy than my description. I’m going to call it a lesbian time traveler’s guide to San Francisco in 1940. You, lesbian time traveler, will learn all the best places to eat, drink, and sightsee, along with some helpful tips for dealing with law enforcement.
You’ll also get a cute love story and some lengthy explanations of why two separate magic systems cannot be explained. Which won’t matter to you, as you presumably have your own magic system, unless you’re a science fiction sort of time traveler. If you’re a science fiction sort of time traveler, perhaps you’ll enjoy the late-nineteenth-century-sci-fi-story-style dinner parties in which scientists describe their research at unnecessary length.
I enjoyed the dinner parties, the cute love story, the sightseeing, and many other elements I’ll touch on later. That’s part of what made Passing Strange such a frustrating read.
The frame narrative takes place in 2014. In the beginning, the elderly Japanese-American lawyer Helen Young has just received confirmation that her unspecified illness is terminal, and we follow as she finalizes her estate, revisits her favorite places in the city, and takes her own life at home. Her primary errand is to retrieve a pastel painting from an underground Chinatown labyrinth and sell it to a rare bookstore owner for everything he has.
Strangely, this section of the book is the most fun. Helen clearly has a plan for her last days. She carries it out with self-satisfied precision and without explanation, similar to a criminal mastermind pulling off a heist. It’s not clear how the smug bookstore owner is going to regret his purchase, but it’s clear that Helen’s come out ahead in this transaction.
After Helen’s death, the book jumps back to 1940. Helen attends one of the aforementioned dinner parties with the artist of the pastel painting, a white woman named Haskel who primarily paints pulp magazine covers. Helen sometimes poses as an “inscrutable Asian villain” for Haskel’s covers. Neither woman seems particularly uncomfortable with this arrangement:
Helen let her arm drop to her side, the prop knife dangling. “I like playing dress-up, but Dr. Wu Yang needs some summer-weight clothes.”
“Next time you can be the terrified victim.” Haskel lit a cigarette and leaned against a worktable covered with pastel chalks, jars of paintbrushes and pencils. “But Oriental fiends are harder to find.”
“That’s a relief.”
Also at the dinner party is Emily, a young white woman who makes eyes at Haskel. Haskel brushes her off, but later they run into each other at Mona’s Club 440, where Emily sings in drag. They fall in love almost instantly and spend the rest of the book making love and exploring the city. Helen more-or-less ceases to exist until Haskel and Emily need her help after the climax.
This is my primary problem with Passing Strange: Klages clearly wants to tie the 1940s queer experience to the 1940s Asian-American experience, which makes sense both historically and thematically, but her only Asian-American character exists to facilitate the romance between the white leads.
Frieda Kahlo appears briefly to fulfill a role that is similar to Helen’s, but worse. Worse both because she was an actual, real person, and because at least Helen gets to win sometimes. Frieda just gets to be crazy and tragic and sexy in an exotic, crazy, tragic way. (Haskel slept with her, but only once. Her mustache tickled.)
Like Helen, Emily and Haskel both have to flatten and commodify their identities as marginalized people in order to survive. Emily has a beautiful voice, but as a lesbian, she can’t perform in any respectable club. Instead, she sings in a tux and a mustache as Mona’s, where:
Visitors who’d come to San Francisco for the world’s fair ventured nervously […] to gape at curiosities that would astound the guys at the office, the ladies in the bridge club back in Dubque or Chattanooga.
Haskel, a domestic violence survivor, fills her covers with scantily-clad women in terror, about to be devoured by monsters.
Unlike Helen, however Emily and Haskel actually get the room to have complicated emotions about their experiences. Emily bemoans the pressure to define herself as either and only a butch or a femme. After a confrontation with her husband, who’s been out of the country for “three or four years,” Haskel decides to stop painting images of violence. And in the end, Emily and Haskel get to opt out, escaping to a fantasy world of their own making.
Helen–who is, again, a Japanese-American woman living in San Francisco in 1940–has to stay behind and see to their affairs.
That makes it hard to recommend this book, even though there are parts I love. Klages’s prose is beautiful, detailed, and precise in a way that reminds me of DMing tabletop games. You could draw a map from her descriptions.
Haskel and Emily’s love story is genuinely sweet and swoony. Like, look at this:
“Not quite. A little more–” Haskel set the sketch pad down and knelt by the bed. “–like this.” With one hand, she turned Emily’s head slightly to the side, her fingers entwined, for a moment, in auburn curls. Emily felt her arms go all goosebumps. Their faces were inches apart. She could feel the warmth of Haskel’s breath on her cheek, smell coffee and a drift of smoke.
A moment passed. Neither of them moved. Then she heard Haskel sigh and felt a tickle of hair against her neck, lips brushing her own, lightly at first, and then, when she offered no resistance–none at all–with unmistakable desire.
“Golly,” Emily said, when there was air again.
I died. I died when I read it, and I died again when I sent it to all my friends, and I died a third time typing that up for you. In lieu of flowers, please send nail polish. I need a good green, but I’m not picky.
When Haskel and Emily get into trouble and it seems like there’s no escape, their found family of other lesbians step in to care for them in a way that feels both heartwarming and familiar. “People like us, we help each other,” Helen says. (This theme is part of why I find it so frustrating that they left Helen behind! In 1940!)
There’s so much sweetness and light, it’s not hard to see why people frequently recommend it as a cute, fluffy sapphic romance. Kind of like Passing Strange itself, I see where they’re coming from, and I’m also really frustrated by it.
This is not a fluffy book. I’ve already touched on the racism, homophobia, sexism, and domestic violence, but I want to be clear that these are not just incidental as a result of the setting. They are pervasive and they hit hard. There’s a scene of homophobic violence and sexual assault against a side character that makes me so sick to remember that I can’t honestly say whether or not it furthered the plot or themes or whatever.
This is a heavy book with a cute romance and a more-or-less happy ending, closer to Keeping You a Secret than The Princess Affair.*
I think that if you’re the kind of person who generally enjoys 1990s lesbian fiction, or if you have an interest in queer history and a high tolerance for suffering, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’re more than a year into a global pandemic and feeling helpless about police brutality and anti-Asian racism, maybe check out The Princess Affair instead.
Content note: This blog post discusses domestic violence and abuse, child abuse, grooming, the sexualization of minors, and hetero-allonormativity in the context of the Twilight series.
I finished the Midnight Sun audiobook a little after midnight last Saturday, and a little after midnight-thirty wrote a quickie Goodreads review that was basically:
Liked the narrator, hated the second half. Meyer’s defenses of Edward have gotten more sophisticated since Life and Death. Mostly.
But I’ve slept since then, and I’m not so sure anymore.
About the defenses, I mean. The narrator really committed to growling Edward’s lines. 10/10, I want him to star in the remake.
So I’m doing the YouTuber thing and making a tier list for the ways in which Stephenie Meyer has attempted to justify, excuse, and minimize Edward’s–well, really just his entire character. I’ll be ranking defenses from 3 different sources:
Life and Death
Midnight Sun (specifically the published version, not the leaked version)
Q&As on Meyer’s website and the Twilight Lexicon
I won’t be considering fanworks, film adaptations, or interviews. There’s too much Twilight content to examine it all.
In evaluating the defenses, I’ll only be considering 2 factors: Does it actually justify, excuse, or mitigate Edward’s actions? And if so, how well does it align with book canon?
I’ll describe the different tiers (S through F) in more detail in a second. First …
Why does Edward need defending?
I could touch on the fraught issues of fandom and author-reader relationships here, but this isn’t a three-hour long YouTube video and I don’t enjoy suffering.
Let’s just agree to accept that Stephenie Meyer is really attached to one particular interpretation of her characters. She wants the Twilight series to be read as an epic, overcoming-all-odds, star-crossed love story, and she’s been fighting (on and off, with varying degrees of intensity) against alternate interpretations for the past ten years.
Or, really just one alternate interpretation: that the Twilight series is about a young girl (Bella) with low self esteem and the old man (Edward) who gaslights and abuses her into believing they’re in love.
Some evidence in favor of this second interpretation:
Edward is 104 when he begins a romantic relationship with Bella, who is seventeen.
He stalks her, before and during their relationship, using his ability to mind read in order to observe her when he is not physically able to see her and sneaking into her bedroom to watch her sleep.
He warns her that he (at least partially) wants to kill her, and he regularly reminds her how easy that would be for him, as a vampire.
He consistently demeans her and insists she doesn’t know what she truly wants or what’s best for her.
Edward threatens to leave Bella at regular intervals, keeping her on edge.
He is terrifying and unpredictable.
When Edward does lose control, he blames Bella: for making him want her, for being so fragile, for not following his orders.
He isolates Bella from her human friends. She stops sitting with them at lunch and hanging out with them outside of school in order to spend all of her time with Edward.
He attempts to isolate Bella from her werewolf friend, Jacob, going so far as to disable her truck so that she cannot visit Jacob without Edward’s permission.
Edward uses information and affection as “rewards” for Bella’s “good” behavior.
At other times, he withholds information in order to control Bella’s behavior.
In addition to the above, Edward attempts to control every aspect of Bella’s existence, from the vehicle she drives to her short- and long-term plans for the future.
He even attempts to force Bella to have an abortion against her will.
Interestingly, that last item on the list is the only one Meyer never attempts to defend. (She’s Mormon, and pro-life rhetoric permeates the books.)
S Tier: “Do I dazzle you?”
I don't think I'm going to find anything in this tier, but if we come across any defenses that fully line up with the text and make me think Edward's actions were actually justified, they'll go here.
A Tier: “Without the dark, we’d never see the stars.”
For defenses that are textually supported and make me think yeah, what Edward did wasn't great, but it was necessary.
B Tier: “I am not really breaking any rules.”
You know how sometimes people say things that are technically true but not at all true in spirit? Those kinds of defenses.
C Tier: “… love gave someone the power to break you.”
For defenses that only sort of do what they're supposed to. I'd guess 90% of these will not really match up with what's on the page.
D Tier: “What if I’m not a superhero. What if I’m the bad guy?”
Bad job, insufficient effort, are you referring to a different book?
F Tier: “… as long as I’m going to hell, I might as well do it thoroughly.”
If any of Meyer's defenses actually make me think less of Edward, I'll put them here.
Defense 1: Edward is actually 17.
Source: Midnight Sun, Twilight Lexicon. It’s actually in Twilight as well, which should tell you something about its effectiveness.
Effective?: Sure. If Edward had been cryo-frozen for 87 years, learning and experiencing nothing, his actual date of birth wouldn’t matter. But …
Canon?: This is super weird, because even though Edward claims to be seventeen “in every way that matters,” Meyer says herself:
Edward is emotionally and intellectually more adult than a modern seventeen-year-old, due to the times in which he lived. In his world, he was old enough to be considered a man. People his age were getting married and beginning their lives. He was about to join the military and go fight in the Great War. Developmentally, he was an adult. So he is able to understand and absorb this century he’s lived through, to gain perspective from it.
This perspective is what makes him think of his classmates as children, coupled with the fact that they are so helpless in comparison with himself.
✔ Thinks of his classmates as children. ✔ Remembers at least 87 years of un-life, with some hazy memories of his life before he became a vampire. ✔ Has 2 medical degrees. ✔ Can read the minds of everyone around him, witnessing and learning from their thoughts and experiences. ✔ Has outlived all his human family and friends. ✔ Has a completely different physiology than when he was a human seventeen-year-old. ✔ Is generally very emotionally even keeled (except when it comes to Bella).
In what way, aside from his appearance, is he “really” seventeen, Stephenie?
However, Edward still is a teenage boy in many ways. This is his first experience with romantic love, his first kiss, just as it is for Bella.
Cool, cool, cool. That’s not a fucked up or harmful thing to say at all.
I’m not going to dig into the implications of that statement because this was supposed to be a fun project, and I’m worried that explicitly saying that your maturity is commiserate with your sexual and romantic experience is both -phobic in like 87 ways and also exactly the kind of thing someone grooming a child would say will ruin it for everyone.
Verdict: Tier C
Defense 2: Bella’s really mature for her age.
Source: Twilight Lexicon. It’s part of the answer quoted above, and oh boy, you are not ready for it:
[Edward] thinks of Bella as just one of the “children” until he becomes interested in her. Then he begins to learn how mature she is for her age, just like him …
Effective?: NOPE. This is what literally every predator tells the child he’s grooming.
Canon?: I mean, I don’t want to call a teenager immature for meeting a cute boy and instantly deciding she wants to literally give up her life to be with him forever, but I wouldn’t call that the height of emotional maturity either.
Bella does take on an unusual amount of responsibility at home – cooking, cleaning, protecting, and otherwise caring for her parents – but that isn’t maturity either. It’s parentification.
Verdict: Tier F
Defense 3: Bella’s human friends suck (figuratively).
Source: Midnight Sun, Twilight Lexicon. It’s the part of the answer quoted above, and oh boy, you are not ready for it:
The other girls at school are fairly immature and petty. Their minds are a turn off … 🙂
Canon?: Technically, almost. Edward can hear the thoughts of all his classmates, and the only person in the entire school who’s ever had a single kind, unselfish thought about Bella is Angela. Which is gross, Meyer’s misogyny is definitely showing, but I’m not ranking these based on if they’re effective and canon but I hate them.
Verdict: Tier B
It’s once again midnight thirty, and this post is getting long, so in the tradition of Breaking Dawn, check back for an unnecessary but commercially lucrative part two.
I’ll go over the five blanket excuses Meyer tries to toss over all of Edward’s garbage fire decisions. If you’re good and don’t go anywhere or do anything without me, maybe I’ll also share my absolute favorite apologetic, for which Twilight fans had to wait fifteen years.
Dolly’s book is not at all what I expected. It’s … nice? Which feels weird for the traumatized ex-supersoldier-turned-criminal-weapons-and-vehicles-expert who spent most of the precious books salivating over the prospect of facing off against multiple black ops organizations, but I’m here for it.
For the uninitiated: Run With the Hunted is a cyperpunk novella series about a group of friends (“associates,” Bristol would say) who travel the world, bicker, take care of each other, and sometimes steal literally priceless objects. Each novella is narrated by one of the friends: book one is Bristol’s, book two is Bits’s, and book three is (finally!!!!!) Dolly’s. Also, Dolly is the best.
In Run With the Hunted 3: Standard Operating Procedure, Bristol is still coping with the events of book two, and the rest of her team decides to help her out with that by going along with her very good, very smart, very well considered plan to steal the world’s most expensive dog. Even though none of them know how to take care of a dog. Even though they don’t really know why this particular dog is so valuable or who’s going to be paying them to get her.
This is not important to the plot, but I feel like potential readers should be aware: There are actually two dogs in this book. One is a robot. Both are very good dogs. Neither dies. Like I said, this is a nice book.
In a lot of ways, Standard Operating Procedure feels a prequel. The stakes are lower, and as the most contemplative member of the team, Dolly’s narration is full of flashbacks and character details. We learn what Dolly thinks her life would have looked like if not for the super-solider program, and we learn more about what her life actually has looked like until this point.
The memories of her childhood in the rural south deliver a pitch-perfect blend of nostalgia and despair and yearning. Then someone from her childhood shows up in her present, and that’s perfect too, tense and hopeful and sometimes hilarious.
Other highlights include the incredible action sequence on a bridge that I will be writing fanfiction about until I die and the way Donohue always writes dogs as though she is the world’s foremost dog expert. (She is.)
I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed the previous two, as well as to people who are on the fence. If you wanted book one to deliver more found family feelings and you wanted book two to explain things more clearly, you will love book three. Hell, I love this book and its big, tough, secretly soft narrator so much that I’d recommend reading the first two books just to get this one, and I loved the first two books. The only bad thing I can say about this one is that I’m going to have to wait through two more books to return to Dolly’s narration.