reading recommendations

Literary Influences: Tower of God by SIU

Confession: In the grand scheme of media—print, film, and digital—I actively follow only one series. I used to follow many, but over the years they’ve all gotten the boot, except this One. It must be something extraordinary, right?

Oh yes, my friends, it is.

Tower of God is a Korean webtoon written and illustrated by SIU (a pseudonym that stands for “Slave In Utero,” which is strikingly macabre). It chronicles the adventures of a motley collection of characters as they ascend a sprawling tower in pursuit of ultimate glory.

What, you say?

I came across this webtoon circa 2010 (probably 4-6 months after it started its current incarnation), and I’ve been hooked ever since.

How can you not love such an epic title plate?

How can you not love such an epic title plate?

What Makes This Series Great

#1: The Characters

We’ll start with the main trifecta, Bam, Khun, and Rak.

The Twenty-Fifth Bam (aka Bam, black turtle, et al.): our innocent, enigmatic hero has no clue how the tower works because he has spent most of his life in darkness and isolation. He’s an irregular irregular: although he opens the tower doors himself instead of being chosen to climb, he doesn’t have the monster-like strength or skills of the other irregulars that have forced their way in. Except that he sometimes does, which is superb fun.

Favorite Bam moment: all of ’em. I freaking love this kid.

Khun Aguero Agnes (aka Mr. Khun, blue turtle, A.A., et al.): crafty, cunning, and self-serving, Khun sabotaged his own sister and raided his father’s treasure trove before starting his journey up the tower. He’s determined to win in every situation he encounters, and he’s not above using shady means. In fact, “shady means” is his preferred method.

Favorite Khun moment: pretty much any time he takes control, but his first appearance in Season 2 makes me giddy with joy every time I read it. He owns that ridiculous outfit like no one else could.

Rak Wraithraiser (aka Rak, crocodile, et al.): a giant reptilian warrior who hunts those with strength so he can fight them and get stronger. Rak is, delightfully, the comic relief. He refers to everyone else as “turtles,” and has quite the collection of specific names. He is the “leader” of the Bam/Khun/Rak trifecta (although Khun is usually the orchestrator).

Favorite Rak moment: “This turtle is his wife.” I’m not even going to explain. Imma just leave it at that.

On the powerful, confident female side of the character spectrum, we have the following:

Ha Yuri Jahad: a high-ranker and a princess of the tower’s ruler, Jahad. Yuri encounters Bam on the bottom floor just after he enters, and she ensures that he gets a fair shot at his initial challenge.

Favorite Yuri moment: Her foot-to-the-face greeting makes for a dynamic first entrance; her battle on the Hell Train is pretty epic too.

Androssi Jahad: another princess of Jahad, Androssi enters the Floor of Test at roughly the same time Bam does. Her status makes her a pop-culture icon as she progresses upward.  (Note: she’s “Endorsi Jahad” in the official English translations; I have a soft spot for the fan-translated “Androssi.”)

Favorite Androssi moment: She’s referred to as a “tank” on more than one occasion, and it makes me laugh because she looks like a delicate girl but she’ll legit mess you up.

Hwa Ryun: a one-eyed, redheaded guide; or, well, she doesn’t start off one-eyed, but there’s this incident, and she pretty much rocks her eyepatch in the aftermath.

Favorite Hwa Ryun moment: “Pig, pig, pig, pig, pig, pig, pig, pig, pig.”

Describing all the other great characters would balloon this post to an easy 10K words. Each has their own personality and traits, and as they become more familiar, they become more beloved.

With one exception. There is one character that pretty much every last fan of this series wants to die in a horrible, grisly, face-mangling death. But disclosing who it is would be such a massive spoiler that it would destroy half the fun. Ha ha.

(Like, it takes some serious talent to create someone so universally and violently despised. I’d hate for you to miss out on any of that joy.)

#2: The Themes

Friendship. Loyalty. Ingenuity. Betrayal.

So much betrayal.

And yet, alongside that betrayal run the dual themes of forgiveness and redemption. Characters must constantly choose between honor and self-interest, but even those who make the selfish choice have innate value, and they are worthy of redemption.

(Except the Unnamed Hated One, I mean. Every rule has its exception.)

At some point in the series, I realized that I approach each new chapter with my heart in my hands. Every gut-wrenching cliffhanger sets my brain a-frenzy. And yet, like a masochist, I keep returning.

The good guys don’t always win. Sometimes they suffer horrible, devastating setbacks. They weather physical and mental anguish. They fall in with the bad guys for a season.

And that, ultimately, is why I list Tower of God as a “literary influence.” Right now, it’s my benchmark for high stakes and reader engagement. It makes me ask, “Am I letting my characters suffer enough? What if I twisted my plots just a little bit more?”

It’s wonderful, this literary trauma.

Some Caveats

If you start this series, I will warn you:

  1. The beginning art is a bit shaky. Cut those early chapters some slack, though, because the later visuals are phenomenal.
  2. The plot can feel nebulous. It gets clearer as you go, but in some respects, its nebulousness is a plus, because it makes for some exhilarating revelations.
  3. The text has a lot of grammatical errors. But it was originally written in Korean. Any of us not blessed to read Hangul are lucky for what we get. (Seriously, if you get hung up on the grammar, this series will be wasted on you. Just let it slide.)

As of last Monday, Tower of God is 300 episodes long, with the next one soon to drop. You can find its official English translation HERE.

Enjoy!

The Benefit of Bucking Traditional Values

AverageEverygirl049

There’s this age-old lie in romance novels that truly eligible men are looking for something new, something fresh in the woman of their dreams. Often this translates into a heroine who breaks social boundaries as a sign of her individual merit.

Don’t buy into it. In real life, he might like your sass while you’re dating, but two months into your marriage he’ll start complaining that you’re too outspoken and that your hamburger casserole tastes nothing like his mother’s. To some extent, I think, men are conditioned into assuming they want a woman who breaks boundaries. Then when they get one, they wonder why she can’t tone it down and be normal.

(Or so I’ve observed.)

Regency romances are particularly egregious at perpetuating this stereotype. For example:

Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer: Judith Taverner drives her own curricle through the park in London. She takes snuff like a man (in a variety mixed for her by her love interest, and IMO, if there’s anything more disgusting than a man taking snuff, it’s a woman doing it in the name of fashion). She finally gets a good scolding when she participates in a carriage race through the countryside, but she’s been allowed to run so far off her leash that it doesn’t occur to her before this how extremely improper her actions are.

The Wooing of Miss Masters by Susan Carroll: Audra Leigh Masters swears like a man. She hates fox hunting so much that she’ll put herself in harm’s way to save the creatures, like any modern dedicated PETA member might do—except that she lives in the early 1800s, not in the twenty-first century. (Confession: this book is one of my guilty pleasures, but when you step back and look at Audra and her love interest as human beings, they’re both kind of awful. That might be why I like it so much, though.)

Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson: Marianne Daventry loves to twirl, despite the disasters that happen every time she does it. She also loves to pretend she’s a dairy-maid in training both with her respectable grandmother and with slightly obnoxious gentlemen she meets by chance in country inns. But it’s totally charming of her, of course.

All of these traits make for “different” or “unique” heroines. And, admittedly, I’ve only highlighted their aberrant characteristics (though honestly, Judith and Audra are kind of lost causes when it comes to conforming to social expectations; Marianne at least has a sense of shame and tries to conduct herself with decorum in mixed company). The men who adore these women, though, are completely fictional as well.

So what kind of story would exist if the hero reflected society’s usual reaction toward a heroine with non-traditional behavior?

I present to you Fantomina by Eliza Haywood. (No, no. Don’t thank me. You haven’t even heard what it’s about yet.)

Published in 1725 (still the Georgian era, but almost a century before Regency times), this fascinatingly atrocious novella tells the story of a lady of good birth who, so taken by a fine gentleman, embarks on a course of intrigue to enjoy his intimate company. She disguises herself first as a prostitute who charms him into visiting her house for, oh, like a good two weeks. Then he gets bored and goes to Bath, so she follows him, dresses up like a servant, gets a job where he lives, and continues to enjoy his amorous company there for a month. And he gets bored again and returns to London. But she dresses up like a widow and meets him along the way, and again they share each other’s company. And so it goes. Back in London she plays three different people at once (the prostitute, the widow, and a third mask-wearing mystery woman) to keep his attentions engaged.

And because she’s been performing these illicit activities in disguise with false names, her reputation as a lady of quality remains intact.

Until she goes into labor at a very public ball and gets rushed home to deliver a strapping baby girl.

Disgrace! Ruin!

The ending really takes the cake. Forced on her delivery to confess her sins, she names the baby’s father. He gets dragged there, professing the whole time that he’s never had designs on her much less followed through on them. The full extent of her deceit emerges.

Her mother apologizes to him and sends her off to a convent for the rest of her life.

The End.

Because it’s totally fine that this fashionable gentleman was sleeping around with four or five different women at the same time (who all happened to be the same person, haha). That he unwittingly fathers a child with a lady of quality is nothing to hold against him. Certainly he shouldn’t have to take responsibility for his actions with someone who was acting outside of societal boundaries.

(Even recounting the story makes me want to… Oh, how does the Internet put it? KILL ALL THE THINGS.)

Yes, give me your lies, Regency romance. I’ll take your adorable, aberrant heroines and their dashing amours any day of the week.

I’ve seen the alternative. It’s not pretty.

Bloodstained Hands and a Heart of Gold

AverageEverygirl023

Confession: I instinctively want literary bad boys to be bad. If you go to the trouble of giving a character a horrible reputation, he should merit that reputation in some way. None of this watered-down sop of a conflict resolution: “See, he’s a rogue, but he’s not really bad. He’s just… misunderstood.”

That rationale is how we end up with highwaymen who don’t rob, pirates who don’t plunder, philanderers who don’t womanize, cat burglars who never steal anything, et cetera.

It’s one thing for a character to have a moral compass and quite another for him to use that moral compass to bewildering and incongruent effects. Every class or caste has its rules. Highwaymen rob travelers and shoot the ones who fight back. Pirates plunder and sink ships—it’s their occupation, so if they don’t do it, they’re no longer pirates, see? Philanderers keep mistresses and bounce from one woman to another. Cat burglars scope out art or jewelry collections and lift valuable pieces to hawk on the black market. And anyone joining any these ranks has to accept that, “Yes, I’m going to do these unavoidable things, because this is the path I’ve chosen for my life.”

And, usually, their moral compass matches that choice.

I will point your attention now to Exhibit A: The Princess Bride by William Goldman.

Everyone loves Wesley. He’s handsome and hard-working and loyal, and he absolutely adores Buttercup to a comical fault. He also masquerades as the Dread Pirate Roberts for two years—the Dread Pirate Roberts, “who never leaves survivors” (Goldman, p. 58)—with no detriment whatsoever to Roberts’s ferocious reputation during that time period.

I.e., the much-adored Wesley is a bloodthirsty killer when he’s on the high seas. Of his transition into piracy, he says simply, “[Roberts] agreed to let me assist him in the next few captures and see how I liked it. Which I did.” (Goldman, p. 183, emphasis added)

There’s no apology offered for his behavior. He doesn’t show any remorse. What’s more, no one expects him to. He is the quintessential Dashing Rogue, and to apologize for his path to wealth would undermine his character, who was willing to do anything and everything in his power to merit Buttercup’s love. Including turning pirate to amass a fortune for her.

Which is the exact opposite of so many diluted Rogues that plague literature. “I’m a pirate, yes, but I nobly spare my victims like no logical pirate would, because resources are scarce at sea and we can’t go wasting them on prisoners.”

I think sometimes the author tries to soften a Rogue to make him more palatable to the reader. This treatment, though, can have the unintended side effect of rendering him into flavorless pap. There’s plenty of room for the “misunderstood” hero, but when the build-up makes him out to be a monster and he’s really a kitten in the end, I don’t feel relief. I feel cheated. If you’re writing a ruthless pirate, he had dang well better be chopping at people right and left, not prancing around spouting platitudes about nobly granting his enemies their lives and only killing in self-defense.

Unless he’s an inept pirate, I mean. But in that case he probably won’t last long. His enemies certainly aren’t going to extend him any courtesy.

(Unless they’re inept too, but then the whole story becomes inept unless its a parody or satire. None of these conventions apply if you’re writing parodies or satires.)

Long story short (“Too late!”): If you’re going to write the Dashing Rogue into one of your plots, embrace him in all his Dashing Rogue-ness. His moral compass is skewed to a different angle than society might allow, but that is part of his charm.

 

Citation:

Goldman, W. (2000). The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. New York: Random House

Choices, Choices, Choices

AverageEverygirl010

I’m not going to say that the Love Triangle is a hallmark of sloppy storytelling, per se, but lately it’s been the Hamburger Helper of plot devices. Don’t have time for full plot development? Try the Love Triangle! Just add one more love interest, and voila! Instant romantic tension!

It’s the fallback used to get a romantic subplot moving, an unsubtle impetus to drive the hero and heroine closer together. The reader can typically tell which side of the triangle should prevail, which eliminates any true tension, and if the author dares go another direction, every non-hipster reader feels cheated. So, it’s either predictable or “artsy.”

But rather than harp on how underwhelming this trope has become, I’m going to focus on my favorite examples of the Love Triangle instead. Surprise!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

Plot: Fairies and humans converge in the forest on a midsummer’s night, with much mayhem as a result.

Love Triangle: Demetrius loves Hermia who loves Lysander, with Helena out in the cold; then Lysander and Demetrius both love Helena, who thinks they’re making fun of her, while Hermia is left abandoned and alone. I love that under the fairy-influence each heroine gets a sample of how the other feels, Helena annoyed by unwanted suitors while Hermia is left to solitude.  With four players, this is probably more like a Love Rhombus than a Love Triangle, but there’s only ever love between three of them at the most, so I’m counting it.

Shakespeare is particularly good at the Love Triangle, and he does it without having a fickle character angsting over which dreamboat to choose. When his love triangle motif makes an appearance, it seems more a mechanism of comic relief rather than romantic tension. See, for example, the Viola/Orsino/Olivia entanglement from Twelfth Night. (Also a delightful love triangle, but I like Midsummer Night just a shade more. At least when it’s staged well.)

Inuyasha: A Feudal Fairy Tale by Rumiko Takahashi

Plot: A modern girl goes 500 years back in time to medieval Japan, where she instantly ruins a lot of things and has to go around putting the pieces back together (hahaha, literally).

Love Triangle: Inuyasha, Kagome, and Kagome’s dead-but-resurrected past incarnation, Kikyo. Yeah. The heroine’s love-rival is a zombified version of her former self. The hero’s struggle between the two shows just how committed he was to that earlier incarnation, which is really sweet, considering what a rough character he is. This was the first manga series I read, mostly through transcripts because the English translation was so far behind the Japanese releases. I give it points for ingenuity in the love-triangle department, as I’d never encountered this sort of variation before.

Love triangles are a manga-plot staple. For a well-done standard “A must choose B or C” scenario, where both B and C are viable choices, see Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket.

The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander

Plot: A farm boy escorts his noble crush back to her homeland, where she is promptly kidnapped by a witch.

Love Triangle: Taran loves Eilonwy, who is engaged to Rhun. Rhun is far too innocent and lovable for anyone to hate (though Taran resents him, and then resents himself for resenting someone so harmless). Eilonwy, meanwhile, remains oblivious that she’s the focal point of this triangle, as there’s no question in her mind how things are going to turn out.

I always loved that Eilonwy knew her own mind. I wanted to be her. That is all.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Plot: Cursed by a witch, a young-turned-old woman takes up housekeeping in a moving castle owned by a philandering wizard and powered by a fire demon.

Love Triangle: Sophie fights her growing feelings for Howl, who shamelessly flirts with every woman he encounters. There’s also the whole Michael loves Lettie-Martha issue, as well as Lettie + patchwork Suleman/Justin. It’s not so much a Love Triangle as a Love Scribble-all-over-the-page, and the whole book is entirely delightful.

Skip Beat! by Yoshiki Nakamura

Plot: Spurned by her childhood crush after sacrificing her future to enable his, a young woman joins the entertainment industry to exact her revenge.

Love Hate Triangle: Kyoko loathes Sho and despises Ren. Sho holds Kyoko in contempt, while Ren dismisses her for her vengeful ambitions. Sho hates Ren for being successful. Ren is indifferent to Sho, because he’s beneath notice. As far as I’m concerned, this is the Anti-Love Triangle. All three characters are at odds with one another, and then they grow and the plot twists and turns, and my insides are tied up in knots every time a new chapter is released.

I have laughed and cried over this series. I adore it. But then, it’s the tale of a self-hating Average Everygirl whose only path to success and happiness lies in learning to love herself first of all. It’s beautiful and brilliant and hilarious.

(And Kyoko’s finally getting somewhere, thank the stars.)

So, not all love triangles are bad. Have a favorite? Leave it in the comments!

Got Low Self-Esteem? Meet One Girl Who’s Had It.

AverageEverygirl001

I’ve had more than a usual amount of reading time lately (*coughprocrastinationcoughcough*), which has reminded me of why I previously took a time-out from reading. My mother says I’m a snob when it comes to books. And she’s probably a little right.

Okay, a lot right.

I’ll be blunt: a lot of common literary tropes get under my skin. I’m guilty of some of them. They’re so inborn to our writing culture that they creep into the draft before we even realize it, with their eely assumptions and biased presuppositions oozing all over everything. On one hand, we have archetypes that act as a starting point for characters to grow and develop. On the other, there’s this sinister narrative that some negative traits and quirks are natural, normal, or even desirable.

Women in literature have an exceptionally difficult role, I think. It’s bad enough that a female protagonist hallmarks a “girl book” (but male protagonists are for everyone, amiright?), but I’m increasingly disheartened by how women—especially when written by women—are portrayed. Fellow writers, “The Girl with Low Self-Esteem” stereotype has got to go. We want the reader to relate to the main character, but is this really a characteristic we should encourage? “Look! She feels like crap about herself! She’s just like you!”

How common is this story line: Girl is plain, overlooked, unloved. Girl meets super-spechul hot guy who inexplicably likes her. Girl is suddenly worth something because a man took notice of her.

Pardon me while I rigorously barf up my lunch.

Not every female protagonist fits this stereotype, thank heavens, but there are far too many that do. (I’m giving you the squinty eye, Romance genre. You know exactly why.) There’s a flip-side of this equation, too. Often, the literary woman with self-esteem is a barracuda, seen as aggressive, and ultimately she gets humbled or changed to a more submissive persona by the end of the book. And we, the readers, applaud. Or rather, we’re supposed to.

In the real world, it’s possible to have self-esteem and be normal. In the literary world, that type of character is almost like an ivory-billed woodpecker, elusive and critically endangered. (If you find one, please broadcast her existence to everyone who will listen. We need to protect her habitat with lots of readers.) Instead of “She feels like crap about herself! She’s just like you!” a better message would be, “She’s confident and knows her worth! You could be just like her!” Alas, how rarely this message gets communicated.

I know, even as I express these frustrations, that some people will dismiss me as a feminist. Because this sort of discontent could only be harbored by someone marginalized into an -ism that is as much derided as it is espoused, right? Wrong. Good literature has good female characters. If Elizabeth Bennet had low self-esteem, she would have burst into tears at that first dance and run into a back room to sob over how the rich, handsome hot guy considered her only “tolerable.” If Jane Eyre had low self-esteem, she would have groveled to her abusive aunt and everyone at Lowood. If Cathy Earnshaw had low self-esteem… Well, maybe people wouldn’t have been so miserable. BUT THE BOOK WOULD HAVE BEEN TOTALLY RUBBISH DIFFERENT.

Anyway, long story short, I’ve harbored my feelings on this subject for years. Decades. Ever since the first time I read a book with a simpering heroine and internally thought, “Oh, that’s awkward. Why is she behaving like that?” The harbored feelings grew into conversations with myself. The conversations have now morphed into cartoons—rudimentary in drawing, but the message is more important than the art.

I’m poking fun at my hated literary tropes. “The Girl with Low Self-Esteem” gets the first skewering.

And thus I give you The Adventures of Average Everygirl.

Enjoy! Or not! I don’t really care!

PS—My recent readings did yield a couple of ivory-billed woodpeckers: Polyhymnia from Spindle by W.R. Gingell and Rosemary Mayfield from The Villain by May Nicole Abbey. Click the titles for links. Protect the habitat.