Friday, May 2, 2014

Gender Roles in Fantasy: The Assassin's Curse by Cassandra Rose Clark

A Brief Note on Fantasy Tropes

For a little about my spiel on problems in redundancy regarding fantasy literature, see my book review of Crown of Midnight by Cassandra Lee Rose. Michael Neff wrote has written a good article on the subject as well, click here if you're interested in the subject.

Cassandra Rose Clark's young adult novel The Assassin's Curse is indeed a work of fantasy, and while the story incorporates certain, almost unavoidable tropes common to fantasy, it ultimately stands as a refreshing work of imaginative fiction rather than yet another permutation of the Tolkienesque.

In the world of fantasy and sci-fi readers (composed mainly of huge nerds such as myself) there is a concept called "world building" that refers to how well an author can create and introduce his or her readers to a new, unfamiliar world without getting bogged down in tedium.  The concept also takes into account how original or rich that world is. Clarke's work in  The Assassin's Curse is an example of strong world building.  She manages to forge a truly unique and interesting habitat around which she crafts her story.  While many fantasy novels stick to a flavor resembling Western Europe in the middle ages--you know, with castles and knights and such--Clarke seems to be modeling her world around the middle east of the past. Think deserts instead of enchanted forests, and pirates rather than knights.

The cover featured above is evocative of a more original, and distinctly Arabian backdrop.  Notice the lettering and even the shape of the city-scape connate a more Eastern flavor than your average fantasy.

A Flawed Female Hero

The subject of women in fantasy and science-fiction (a genre usually dominated by male heroes) is explored in an interesting article by Ana Grilo, who points out that "men are constantly more celebrated in Best of Lists" when it comes to what she calls "Speculative" fiction, making men both the subjects and authors of a continuously man dominated cycle.  Interestingly, Cassandra Rose Clarke also refers to herself as a "Speculative" author on her  website.  Of course, Speculative fiction encompasses recent works like the Twilight series and The Hunger Games trilogy, both of which are written by women and feature women as the protagonist.  Hopefully this trend will continue and break into the areas of fantasy that are still male-dominated (ie sword-in-hand stories).

In The Assassin's Curse our hero is a young, fiery teenager; Ananna is the only daughter of a pirate lord and consequently she is used to a ruff-n-tumble lifestyle. The novel opens on the cusp of an arranged marriage engineered by her father to a snide young pirate lord named Tarrin--a marriage she opposes with extreme prejudice. Clarke presents Annana in the first person as an intelligent and strong young women.  Ananna also displays a stark contrast to the average fantasy heroin. She considers herself plain rather than pretty, and displays no interest in looking good for men.  Furthermore, she lacks the lordly language of a run-of-the-mill damsel.  The opening lines from Ananna read "I ain't never been one to trust beautiful people, and Tarrin of the Hariri was the most beautiful man I ever saw." Her rough language doesn't reflect her cunning however, and she escapes the marriage and runs away, incurring the wrath of her would-be-husband who sends an assassin as recompense for the insult. Undaunted, Ananna continues her journey to seek out her own ship, so that she may be her own captain and the master of her own life; a notion eschewed in Clarke's world but still one Ananna fights for.

Interestingly, the assassins in Clarke's world, though greatly feared, operate with a certain code of ethics.  When Ananna inadvertently saves the life of young assassin charged with killing her, he is subjected to a curse that forces him to protect her life.  Together, the two characters soon realize there are worse things after them than assassins, and they are forced to work together to survive.

Fans of fantasy, romance, and speculative fiction will enjoy this novel, it is well-written and avoids the major pitfalls of fantasy cliche.


Fernando Arce said...

I caught myself saying "yes" and nodding my head with the intro to this review. I have a mini collection of fantasy books that I love because the author was able to build a world from scratch and introduce it to me in a way that I was drawn in rather then bored out of it. This book seems to be a great read as it switches things up with what the typical fantasy book looks like: usually modern America or somewhere in Europe from the past. Usually Male figures as protagonists and female supporting characters. I would love to read this book and read on the trope through the link that you provided.

Giovani Toledo said...

I'm glad that you mentioned Twilight. I see this text as one that supports the trope of women being secondary characters. It is true that Isabella, a woman, is the protagonist in the story. However, her whole story is encapsulated in the context of two males. Her story does not stand on its own. Whats more is that she seemed to exhibit obsessive characteristics when encountering other male characters. I'm glad however, that this book strays from that and other notions.