Thursday, January 17, 2013

Thinking On Thursday (1): Beauty As A Theme In Shadow And Bone


Thinking On Thursday is my brand new feature here at I Write, I Read, I Review where I hope to tackle an aspect of YA fiction from both a reader and writer's perspective. Want to get involved? Grab the button at the bottom of this post and create a post of your own, share your opinion in the comments, or let me know if there is a topic you'd like to see covered.

This Week's Topic:
Beauty As A Theme In YA

The Book I'm Talking About:
Shadow And Bone by Leigh Bardugo

I just finished reviewing Shadow And Bone by Leigh Bardugo, and one of the things I noticed myself disagreeing with a lot of bloggers about is the portrayal and value placed on beauty in this book. There seems to be a lot of disdain for beauty's (and to be clear--we are talking about physical appearance here) place as a theme within the pages, and the possible results of this decision when the book is read by its intended audience.

Please be aware that there may be Minor Spoilers ahead, since I do intend to discuss aspects of the book. If you like your reads 100% spoiler free and haven't read Shadow And Bone, you may want to come back to this post later.

There is a lot of talk about how the Grisha, the magic users within this story, tend to be beautiful. And yet its heroine, Alina, is described as being anywhere from average / plain to being outright sickly, with circles under her eyes, a scrawy physique, etc. And she does not like this about herself. It makes her self conscious and uncomfortable.

I felt that made perfect sense. 

I'm going to guestimate that Alina is 17-18 within this book (I could go and do the math between the time we spend in her childhood and the main bulk of the book, but it's irrelevant to my point...) and she has never felt that she fit in anywhere. She already has to deal with not knowing / having her parents, growing up in a strange home, and now being part of the King's Army. Now, she has the added stress that Mal, her best friend since childhood, is being noticed by girls (and is not noticing her).

What regular teen girl has not wished she looked a bit better? 

More importantly, as the story continues and we make our way to the Little Palace, there is beauty everywhere, but this is not always a good thing. We see Genya, who has slept with the King, earned the disfavor of the queen, been used as a servant even though she is Grisha (and therefore should be above this, according to the normal rules of the world Leigh Bardugo made...) and who, despite her appearance, can't seem to get the guy she actually wants (who is rather average looking, according to his description) to notice her.

We have the Queen, who has used magic to enhance her appearance to the point where she doesn't really look natural. Unlike Genya, who is extremely likable despite her past, the queen struck me as being petty and shallow. She didn't seem fully "there". (And to be clear: I wanted to make sure I mentioned Genya's positive personality: I would have a problem if all the beautiful characters were shown to have crap personalities. But this is not so.)

Last, we have Zoya, who wants to earn the Darkling's favor and who is jealous of the fact that he likes Alina so much. Zoya is petty and cruel, picks fights, says nasty things about people, etc. Is she your typical mean girl? Sure. But she ensures that we do not get the misconception that beauty = greatness.

Nor is beauty's importance only relegated to female characters. Ivan, one of the men who first escort Alina to the Little Palace, is said to be (paraphrasing here) "Good looking--and he knows it.". His personality remains relatively annoying through the course of the book.

While we don't really get a glimpse of whether the king is "hot" (he's in his 40s, so to the target audience that would likely be an "ew!" anyway...) we see his obsession with physical perfection, and the lack of his own quality of character, both in his past with Genya (and there is a wonderful parallel to another set of characters, but I'm going to stay mum on that...) and in his initial reaction to Alina (yet again paraphrasing) where he thinks she is kind of plain.

Last, we have David--Genya's love interest--who is both physically average and socially awkward / pretty much the Grisha version of a geek / nerd. When we first meet him he seems kind of callous and indifferent, but by the end of the book we see him very remorseful about the part he had to play in a major event. This caused my whole perception of him to change. I would actually like to see him and Genyya together.

Despite any emphasis on beauty within the world the Grisha inhabit, in the end it doesn't actually matter.

We do eventually find out why Alina is so sickly. But even then, she is not transformed into a stunning beauty. She remains a normal girl throughout her journey. Everything that is extraordinary about Alina--both her fantastical gifts and the traits that make her an interesting, memorable and relatable heroine, come from within.

The Darkling is interested in Alina's abilities.

Mal is (eventually) interested in Alina when he realizes how different life is without her. (He misses Her. Not her hair, makeup, body type, or anything else like that.)

Alina's inner character--her vulnerability and niavete becoming certainty, her transformation from a follower to a leader (or at least someone willing to stand up when leadership fails), her loyalty to Mal, her struggles to determine what's right and wrong, who to trust and who not to trust... None of this hinges on her physical appearance in any way, shape or form.

Alina's physical appearance, and the importance of her appearance, is likely the most stagnant aspect of this book. And considering that Shadow And Bone is all about shifting loyalties, ideals, opportunities, allegiances, etc. that's really saying something.

In short, I feel that the emphasis placed on beauty is meant to parallel the darkness and corruption that is going on behind the scenes. It, like so much of the world of Ravka, is a deception.

So, have you read Shadow And Bone? Did the emphasis on beauty bug you, intrigue you or not matter to you? How about other books you've read? Have any examples where the theme of beauty is used well? Abused horribly? I'd love to know!


thanks for checking out my first Thinking On Thursday post. If you'd like to create a post of your own, I'm including a button you can use. Or, as I said above, feel free to leave a comment with your opinion or suggestions for future topics. Have a great day!


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