Showing more minorities, different sexualities, and women in fiction, in non-stereotypical roles is good. But what makes a good, non-stereotypical role? I’ve posted before about what makes a strong female character, and disputes over the merits of colorblind casting. And a couple of books I read recently got me thinking again (though no, still no brilliant answer that will explain it all).
WATSON AND HOLMES: A Study in Black by Karl Bollers, Rick Leonardi and Larry Stroman (cover by Leonardi, all rights to current holder) has a simple premise: Watson and Holmes are black (it’s so simple, I’m surprised nobody’s done it before). Watson is an Afghanistan veteran (man, but it’s depressing that part of John H. Watson’s origin is still current) and an intern at an NYC hospital; Holmes is an eccentric investigator obsessed with finding the truth behind a series of killings. He also takes an interest in a case that’s drawn Watson’s attention — babies dropped into dumpsters all over New York. By the end of the story, Watson’s rooming with Holmes, for fear that the bad guys they’ve crossed will otherwise find him at home with kid.
I liked this a lot. It’s a straight, no-frills detective story, but it’s well done, though Holmes doesn’t seem very Holmesian (none of the eccentricities in Sherlock or Elementary on TV — just being an obsessive detective seems to be enough). But is the fact you could probably whitewash the story and plug in two white guys an issue? Angelica Jade Bastién (at the second link above) seems to think that’s a sign a story isn’t paying enough attention to race. Then again, is having two strong, striking black characters a bad thing? I can’t quite believe that. And of course I have no idea how I’d react to Holmes and Watson if I were black.
But all that said, I really liked it. I look forward to Volume 2.
In EVERY HEART A DOORWAY by Seanan McGuire, the protagonist, Nancy, is asex. She’s recently had a portal-fantasy adventure in the underworld, and now that she’s returned she can’t fit back into her old life. Her parents have sent her to a special boarding school where they treat delusions such as Nancy’s — that is, all the kids have returned from portal worlds. The principal hopes they’ll be able to return some day; if not, she’ll do her best to mainstream them into our world.
Nancy’s asexuality didn’t work for me. Not in itself, but once McGuire brings it up, she emphasizes it enough I expected some sort of payoff. We don’t get one, as I’m pretty sure Nancy returning to the netherworld isn’t meant as a commentary on her orientation. For me that was unsuccessful — but is that just because asex is relatively unusual in fiction? If Nancy had expressed a more conventional sexuality, would I have thought it needed a payoff? I can’t be sure, but I think so. Possibly that’ll come in another book (while the book doesn’t say so, online references indicate it’s part of a series), but I still don’t think it worked here. A passing mention might have worked better — but if I were asex myself, would I think that adequate? Again, no idea.
It may be I’m biased by the fact I didn’t really take to the book. I love the concept and Nancy’s a good character, but McGuire’s efforts to classify Otherworlds — on a spectrum including Nonsense vs. Logic and Virtue vs. Wickedness — is the kind of over-rationalized magic system I dislike (and I think Wonderland would laugh at such an effort). And McGuire doesn’t seem to have any feel for the Wonderland or Oz type worlds — the ones she depicts in detail (through peoples’ recollections) are all dark and Gothic rather than whimsical. Sumi, Nancy’s roommate, is supposed to be all goofy because of coming from a high-nonsense world, but she doesn’t seem any different from the typical wacky roommate comic relief.
I’m not sure this post offers much insight, but for whatever it’s worth ….