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Sex Isn't a Story, Intelligence Isn't Cute, and Culture Isn't Character

On Friday I borrowed a certain library book. By Saturday night I was bitterly disappointed in the author, the publisher, and humanity as a whole.

This book had the potential to be awesome. It was advertised as a witty genre-mashing paranormal steampunk comedy of manners. The premise: in an alternate Victorian England, werewolves and vampires run amok. A feisty spinster, we'll call her Therese, was born with the power to nullify the supernatural. Her touch will turn any vampire or werewolf back into a harmless human. Therese, armed with an iron will and her trusty parasol, uses her powers to protect the British Empire from various evils.

Awesome, right? But instead of reaching her awesome potential, the author fell into the shallow tropes that too often plague books aimed at female readers.

1. Sex Isn't a Story

From the high-energy screwball premise, I looked forward to a lot of high-energy screwball action. Instead, the book is all about sex.

Therese has villains to confront, mysterious disappearances to solve, and fantastical inventions to play with, but instead she spends 80% of her time making out with hot guys. Or thinking about making out with hot guys. Or worrying that because she has a big nose and dark skin, hot guys won't want to make out with her.

Too many authors seem to think that all books are romances with a few drops of flavoring for genre. They don't write fantasies or mysteries; they write romances with some fantasy or mystery elements in the background. And they seem to believe that if the protagonist is female, she must spend a tiresome amount of time pining for, fighting with, and eventually succumbing to the animal charms of a hot guy.

Whether the story goes anywhere in the meantime is inconsequential. All that rare superpower stuff? Yeah, just decoration. Kidnappings? Murders? Whispers of rogue vampires and mad scientists wreaking havoc in the underworld? Pshaw, who cares? The real question of interest is whether Therese and the hot werewolf policeman are gonna do it or not.

If you are not specifically writing a romance, romantic elements should be at most a spice, like cinnamon. I love cinnamon. But you can't make a dish out of 80% cinnamon. If one is promised a cinnamon roll, one presumes it will be a roll with gooey cinnamon sugar filling, not a solid mass of cinnamon with some bread crumbs sprinkled on top.

If you set out to write a fantasy, or a mystery, or a screwball steampunk historical comedy, and you find that 80% of your prose is about racing hearts and steamy kisses, stop. Figure out what your story really is. If you take out the sex and find there is no story, either make one or write a romance instead.

2. Intelligence Isn't Cute

Therese is supposed to be likeable not only because she's an iron-willed spinster, but because she has a great scientific mind. You can tell she has a great scientific mind because she uses big words and babbles about the latest technological advances while the people around her stare dumbly and/or roll their eyes.

Having a brain makes Therese different and unique because, as everyone knows, most women lack them. Her mother and sisters are incapable of thinking about anything but evening gowns and marriage prospects. Her best friend is a sweet, supportive airhead whose talents are limited to hat-making and eyelash-batting. The only other characters with fully functional neurons are men: the gentle professor, the enthusiastic American scientist, and, of course, the hot werewolf policeman.

Naturally, Therese doesn't use her brain for anything more than tossing out witty lines. The primary purpose of it is to attract hot guys. The scientist and policeman are surprised and intrigued by her superiority of understanding. A woman who can hold a coherent conversation—how novel! How adorable! It even makes up for her big nose and dark skin!

Even in the twenty-first century, many authors treat intelligence as a trait that makes women sexually appealing, but has no use otherwise. And they illustrate how bright their heroines are by giving all other female characters the mental faculties of a goldfish.

3. Culture isn't Character

Therese is assertive and courageous because her father was Italian. Her big nose is Italian, her dark skin is Italian, and her mood swings are Italian. She even does big Italian hand gestures, even though her father died when she was young and there was nobody around to teach her the mannerism.

The hot werewolf policeman is strong, rough, and passionate because he's Scottish. The scientist is congenial but a bit dumb and indelicate because he's American. The vampire leader's maid is gorgeous and seductive because she's French.

The author of this book can't go more than two whole pages without mentioning Therese's Italian blood, or the policeman's Scottish origins, or the barbaric tendencies of anyone who isn't 100% English. Sometimes this is tongue-in-cheek for humor. (Oh, those Victorians. So racist, ha ha.) But much of the time, she is perfectly earnest—Italians are eccentric, Scots are hot-blooded, and Americans are xenophobic Puritans who burn everyone to death.

She seems to see no reason to flesh characters out beyond "he's American" because everyone knows what Americans are like, right? All 300 million of us think and act exactly the same.

There are real cultural differences between peoples, but culture is not character. Relying on stereotypes isn't just offensive, it's lazy.


This book could really have been awesome if it (1) went somewhere other than to the bedroom and (2) featured characters who weren't completely defined by racial profiles and gender roles.

It had so much potential. I mean, you've got werewolves and vampires in steampunkified Victorian London. You could have silly vampire debutantes who faint at the sight of blood. Stiff-lipped vampire gentlemen who consider drinking from the neck of a human as primitive and appalling as sucking milk from the udder of a cow. Werewolf clergymen who keep wooden stakes handy at funerals, just in case the deceased decides to get back up.

And you could have a heroine who does something. But no, ultimately the only goal in an intelligent, powerful woman's life should be to rope in a sexy alpha male who will feed her and house her and make her heart go thumpity thump.


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