Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent some time re-reading one of my most favourite series of books. They feature a wisecracking wizard named Harry (no, not that one) who – along with his friends and sidekicks, and an assortment of spirits, ghosts, demons, fallen angels and agents of God’s will – fights evil around his home city of Chicago. I was really enjoying them, not only for what they were but also for the memories that reading them brought back to me – until, that is, I got to the last one I had bought.
I should have remembered that there was a reason I stopped buying these books. I never collected the full series, despite having been a devoted fan, and I guess over the years I just convinced myself I just got lost in a wide world of other books, where shiny distractions abound. However, no. There were reasons why I stopped, and I have now remembered what they were.
Since my last purchase I had entirely forgotten the plot of the final book I own in this series. It starts out very cleverly indeed, narrated from an unexpected and hard to pull off viewpoint (someone, without wishing to give away spoilers, is ‘beyond the mortal coil’ and tells the story from the perspective of their own afterlife, or a version of same) and this means there’s plenty of scope for philosophising and deep thought about what constitutes life, anyway, and how important it seems to be remembered, and remembered well. The characters I love are still there, by and large, and there are even some poignant bits where unexpected people are met on other planes of existence and the truth behind a murder is revealed – but still.
So much about this book let me down, with a major bang. So much of it fell so flat that I never bought another in the series. This is important, and I’d forgotten all about it.
The lead character in the series (who I do love, I must admit) likes to think of himself as an old-fashioned gentleman. Maybe he is. But because the books are all written from inside his perspective, we see what he sees. We, therefore, see all women he encounters through the lens of his hormones, and that can sometimes be a problem. These aren’t books for children or even teenagers (though I’m sure teenagers would enjoy them); these are adult urban fantasy books, and they’re clever and well-plotted and funny and fast-moving and boy, it hurts me to even admit how much I hated the last one I bought. But I did. Because there’s only so much ‘appreciation’ a female reader can take, when it comes to this character’s perspective on female characters. There are only so many descriptions of long, lean legs and fantastic bodies and undulating hips and so on that can be borne before it all gets too much. F’rinstance, there is a character who is much younger than the hero, whom he has known since she was a child – but every single chance he gets, the physical beauty and appeal of this character (who is now, of course, a grown woman) is described. ‘I’m not interested in the kid,’ we’ll be told. ‘But still. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate her beauty.’
Ack. No. No, all right? Tell us once, maybe. Give us a description. And then stop. We do not need to be reminded, all the time. We do not need to imagine the lead character as a lecherous old twit. We do not need it.
Women are assessed primarily by how hot the lead character finds them. If they’re not sexually appealing, he’ll be quietly respectful of them. If they are sexually appealing (and a surprising amount of them are), he’ll let this be the most significant aspect of their character, despite everything else they’ve got going on – and admittedly, these books do have some of the best and most kick-ass female characters I’ve read, including a firebrand cop and an actual Valkyrie, for God’s sake. There is a wide range of female awesomeness on display here – we just have to wade through a curtain of breasts and wiggly walks and well-turned calves to get there, and jeesh, does that get tired after a while.
But the thing that upset me the most about this book, the final one I bought, the one after which I thought: After this, no more? The resolution to one of the most complex and painful and interesting love-situations in the series.
Well. I say ‘resolution’. I mean ‘cop-out’.
We have characters who, due to their complex magical heritage, can’t show one another physical affection without incurring serious injury because they share true love, something which is anathema to the sort of demons they carry in their souls. So far, so brilliantly Buffy-and-Angel, except even better. But then, at the end of this book? It all gets solved. Through a pointless, stupid, utterly male-gazed, borderline misogynistic and completely irritating plot device that – if it was really how the author had intended to solve this painful, complex and interesting issue – could have been utilised at any point during the course of the previous five or six books. But it wasn’t. And so it seemed like a ‘whoops, look, we’ve got to get rid of this thing here, and so here’s how we’ll do it, right, with a gratuitous and pandering scene which will really appeal to the boys. Heh heh!’
Yeah. Not so much.
So. I finished the book. I put it away, sighing regretfully as I did so, among its peers. (It’s a hardback, and it’s pretty, so at least there’s that). And then I picked up The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first in Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy for YA readers, and I started reading that instead.
And you know something? I’m a much happier reader today. That’s the beauty of books, and of having stuffed bookshelves which you can visit at any point – there is always something else there to read, and some new-old stories in which to take shelter, and no bookish injury is ever permanent.
And in five years’ time I’ll probably re-read the problematic series, once again forgetting why I stopped the last time, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy my righteous indignation all over again. Fun!