For my Diversity Dive book this month, I wanted something specific: a fantasy set in an Asian culture.
I've read many books by and about East Asians, and many fantasies. But it's difficult to find overlap across those categories. When I heard about Alison Goodman's Eon, I got excited.
Set long ago in a mystical China, it tells the tale of Eona, a crippled girl with the power to see the twelve Dragons. Usually only the twelve Dragoneyes gets such visions, and only of their own dragon, whose magic they channel to keep the world in balance. Seeing all the Dragons is unheard of--especially for a girl.
Risking her life and masquerading as a boy, Eona (now Eon) tries out as a Dragoneye apprentice. The path is plagued with difficulties due to her bad leg and low station. But she ends up with more power than she ever wanted, and the fate of the emperor himself resting on her.
At the same time as Eon, I read Gail Carriger's steampunk Finishing School series, starting with Etiquette & Espionage. Set in a dirigible school over Dartmoor, it follows Sophronia Temminnick, a teenage girl who gets in entirely too much trouble and is sent to finishing school to learn how to be a lady.
But while practicing curtsies and how to properly address a vampire, Sophronia also learns about poisoning houseguests, defending herself with a letter opener, and hiding gadgets in her petticoats. This finishing school isn't just turning her into a lady: it's making her a spy.
Naturally, Eon had far more diversity in its pages. It gives a glorious look at Chinese culture, from the food and dress to honor rituals and superstitions. The twelve Dragons are keepers of luck and wisdom, not gold hordes, and they reflect the twelve points of the Chinese zodiac. Their magic, moreover, is the spiritual energy qi, which flows through people's chakras.
The depiction of women's subjugation isn't a shallow Westernized stereotype, but a look at a culture whose narratives about spiritual balance keep women locked in the lower strata. Fighting their place in society would risk upsetting the lives of everyone who depends on them, which in honor-bound China is the worst of sins.
I didn't expect any diversity in an English steampunk novel. (Werewolves and vampires do not count, even if they deal with issues of prejudice and privilege.) But I was pleasantly surprised when I met Soap.
A teen employed as a coal-shoveler in the engine room, Soap is the only black character on an all-white dirigible. His skin color comes up every time he meets someone. Sophronia asks excitedly if he's from Africa (he's from London), and her best friend assumes he knows her parents' stableboy: they're the same color, after all.
While Soap has to put up with the racist assumptions of his white friends, he also faces an upward mobility problem. Being both lower-class and black is the biggest hurdle one could face. Yet he isn't simply put in to add some color, a side character whose desires are small and suited to his station. What I love about Soap is that he has dreams.
He has ideas of what he'd like to do in life, and a very realistic understanding that he will probably never be allowed to get there. He wrestles with that frustration, yet also plans what he can achieve as an uneducated black man--and whether that life will be good enough.
What Kept Me Reading One, and Not the Other
I own the Finishing School books, but I had to check Eon out from the library, and since it was requested, I couldn't renew it. I was therefore on a tight schedule with Eon.
The day I started it, I whizzed through 100 pages. It was an engaging read, filling me with questions about the peoples, cultures, and politics. The wider plot had me intrigued.
So did Eona. I've been telling my husband for ages I want a book where a girl deals with her period--especially while fighting or using magic. Eon begins with Eona fighting painful cramps while trying to execute sword forms and avoid a beating. Girl power.
But the next 100 pages dragged. The story was empty. The vibrant descriptions of life in magical China weren't enough. I wanted to skip to the end.
The problem was I didn't love the protagonist. Fascinated as I was by Eona in the beginning, she has a weak voice and no agency, simply running from fear to fear. She finds no solutions, and when things are resolved, it's because the answers are dropped into her lap by someone else. She isn't introspective, making it impossible for her to complete her internal character arc.
Had the book not been due, I would have finished. I wanted to love Eon: it has everything I'm looking for in fantasy. But instead, I read what I wanted to read. I read the Finishing School series. Twice.
Don't judge me.
I read the three books (the fourth and final comes out in November) and loved them so much that I started them all over again. Gail has a witty style and plots so twisty you wonder if they can be solved. Not that they're perfect, however. Asides are inserted amid the dialogue too often, and there were minor inconsistencies with side characters. Yet I read because I loved the protagonists.
Gail crafted people I wanted to know in real life. That's why I kept reading.
The way a book hits you has to do with the people in it. If you love and relate with them, you will love the book too. That's how I want to write, and it's certainly what I want to read.
Find the bestselling Finishing School series on Amazon:
Word count: 969.