Hello everyone, and welcome back!
For the last half of March, I’ve been alternately really busy and feeling not great, and I have to admit, my reading habits have suffered. I intended (still intend?) to read 150 books this year, but I am waaay off track. This week, I managed one.
That one book was Queens of Geek, which makes talking about my non-book geekery pretty topical. I grew up into comic books (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men), tabletop roleplaying games (playing in a Pathfinder campaign right now, actually), fanfiction (I was into the Harry Potter fandom in a big way), Buffy the Vampire Slayer—you know. The classics, and then some. I used to browse new books by reading the first chapters of stuff in the sci-fi/fantasy section.
While I didn’t get loads of reading done, I did manage, over the past couple of weeks, to finish Mass Effect and start Mass Effect 2, though. I’m excited to court my future video game boyfriend.
As you might expect based on how much I get into character, setting, and worldbuilding here, I am to some extent BioWare trash. (Other games I’ve spent too long on: Skyrim, Final Fantasy X, Civilization V.) I don’t tend to be too into guns in games, so I initially aligned myself with Dragon Age; Dragon Age: Origins is one of my favourite games, and I maintain that Alistair is the cutest video game boyfriend. (I also had to make a murder-happy male character so I could also end up with Morrigan, but yeah. As in real life, in BioWare, a lot of the ladies I’m into just aren’t queer.)
But dang, over the course of Mass Effect, I got really attached to this dryly witty bird alien cop do-gooder. (And Tali, the mask-faced tech whiz who’s awed by open spaces.) I guess it’s not much of a cognitive leap for an adult who was low-key in love with a ninja turtle as a kid, but that is one dang ugly (and yet somehow attractive…?) alien I’ll be flirting with.
I’ll be real: for the most part, I don’t really like the mechanics of hide behind cover, shoot gun, reload, lots of loud noises. Which is why I hadn’t played this trilogy through for so long. I finally committed to finishing all three when I got really (irrationally?) excited about the idea of picking up Andromeda, but felt weird about doing it without playing the original three, which I could, after all, get during a PSN sale for $5.
But despite the detour outside my fantasy RPG comfort zone, I love sci-fi and all the alien races (the elcor!) and going to new systems of planets, and, to a large extent, hanging out on the ship and talking to my crew. Because if you can make a character compelling to me, if you can give them a goal and motivations and even minor development, then I’m going to read (or play) to the end, even if I have to use the Mako to do it. (And I will always find a way to save you, Wrex.)
So: a not-so-tidy segue from that into why Queens of Geek let me down.
Obviously, my expectations for a book like this were a little high. Geeks are and have always been my people. I have attended big cons. I have friends who are amazing cosplayers. (I cannot sew worth a damn, personally.) I have friends whose jobs are Internet-fame related. So it really appealed to me in the way a lot of contemporary romances don’t, in terms of offering me something actually relatable. Not that I’m a teen anymore anyway, but my teen romances were often accompanied by Dance Dance Revolution, dice rolling, and binge-watching marathons.
But Queens of Geek disappointed me a lot. How? Because the entirety of its story is written on the back-of-book blurb, and that about sums up its characters and their development.
Charlie is dealing with a breakup in the public eye that really hit her self-esteem hard, but now a new YouTube famous actress she has a crush on shows that her feelings are requited. Taylor is on the autistic spectrum and anxious and is afraid of telling her BFF how she feels about him (or of entering a very public fan contest). I’m not going to spoil it, but that spoils it. You know exactly where it goes from there.
There’s really very little conflict in this book for the characters to overcome to get to the endpoint of romance achieved; Charlie’s ex is a jerk, but there’s not much he substantially does. Something private goes public, but people who aren’t trolls are pretty nice about it?
Taylor struggles with her anxiety, but people (including completely random people) are always there to make her feel supported and included, and her love interest is 1000% understanding and patient and perfect.
I mean, there’s something to be said for the diversity in this book; the author clearly wanted to give some happy endings to queer women of colour and neuroatypical folks, which is great! It really is an issue that a lot of media punishes these groups for existing, either through stereotypes or through putting those characters through an inordinate amount of suffering.
But with essentially no conflict, it’s hard for there to be plot. And I have already summed up 90% of what I got to know about Charlie and Taylor, so character? Eh.
Setting? Well, it’s a con. But for a con, it’s not really that richly detailed; the characters walk from one scene to the next without us getting much of the texture and background noise and wild juxtapositions that can happen at cons. No one takes a wrong turn into the steampunk aisle or buys overpriced water or sees a sea of Harley Quinns or gets vaguely disturbed by some of the more hentai merchandise. You know? Part of the coolness of a con setting, especially if it’s your first con, is how much it is, but these characters herd themselves from one small thing to the next seamlessly and without much description. (And they only want to meet one guest? Nah.)
Worldbuilding-wise, Charlie is a vlogger and was in a movie, but we got to know very little about her channel, what’s going on in her fame life, what her goals are, etc. Taylor’s really into Queen Firestone, who we know is…a queen who is strong and cool. She also has a Tumblr she posts to, but we never hear how people respond or react to that, so it kind of just comes off as…her melodramatically recounting her day and her feelings about it at us, the readers, who have already been there once.
I just…no. I really wanted to like this book, and I’m happy the author wanted to write these types of characters and put across the kind of messages they’re conveying, but I think there’s a delicate balance: it’s important for characters with marginalized aspects of identity to be more than those marginalizations, to be able to be part of plots and conflicts as other characters are. Here they were geeks, yeah, but because of flawed worldbuilding, that aspect of them felt more token than organically part of who they were, and most of what they struggled with seemed focused on their marginalized identities, which…yeah. (On one hand, I’m glad they didn’t struggle much with that. On the other hand, there was also little to no other conflict.)
Also, this book did a lot of telling about what the characters go through with their marginalizations and re: what’s wrong/right. Which made its messaging less effective than showing. At one point, for example, a character says something hurtful about Taylor’s body, which a reader can recognize as being mean and bad. But then Taylor goes on a Tumblr rant to explain to us, the reader (since no one else is shown, in the book, to be reading this), how and why it’s not okay to do that. But…show us that, by making us sympathize with the character and feel her pain? Don’t tell us that through an explanatory rant?
Anyway. Back to Mass Effect.
Video games are not altogether unlike books to me: they can be flawed, but as long as you give me some kind of story hook that needs to be resolved and some characters that are worth hearing about, I’ll stick around. It doesn’t matter if those story hooks will end in predictable ways (come on, we all know what’s going to happen when Video Game Protagonist is Chosen to save the known world), and it doesn’t matter if the gameplay is flawed or not what I prefer. Ultimately, I can find my way through something if there’s a narrative aspect that’s interesting, whether it’s setting/worldbuilding, character arcs, plot, even the storytelling framework—whatever.
Mass Effect is stuck with the Mako (which, even when I drive it very well, is more fragile than my FemShep just stepping out with a shotgun) and a lot of barren worlds and a lot more content for the less-interesting human companions. But it’s got Garrus and Tali and meaningful character decisions and one heck of a pilot. And although we must anticipate that Shepard will find a way to save the day, Mass Effect does a good job raising the stakes, giving decisions later consequences and making death possible for some meaningful characters.
Queens of Geek, on the other hand, told me what was going to happen, gave the characters almost nothing to overcome, never made me doubt a positive outcome for all of the protagonists, and gave me unsurprising character arcs that felt kind of unearned, given how little the characters did on the page to get there. (Charlie moves past her breakup; Taylor overcomes her anxiety to do a couple of things she wants to.)
Queens of Geek:
That’s all for now, so. I’m going to try my best to get some real reading done this weekend…though I’m still not 100%, so I might play a lot of Mass Effect 2. Either way, I’ll talk to you Tuesday!