Thursday, May 19, 2016

Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper, by David Barnett

This week I'm reviewing the third full-length novel in the Gideon Smith series, Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper. And I'm going to begin by saying I did not like this book and at one point I became so frustrated and horrified with it that I threw it against the wall. As my readers might remember, I have done this before with another book, albeit for slightly different reasons. However in both cases I felt extremely justified and I'm sure there are other books I've talked about on this blog that have deserved the same treatment.

I'll begin by getting the least-broken bits out of the way. The plot of this novel, opposed to being the globe-trotting adventures we've followed Gideon on before, is confined to the city of London, which proves to be equally capable of giving our intrepid young hero plenty of work to do. The rampage of Jack the Ripper has been going unchecked for over two years and the people of London want something to be done. Gideon and his companions Maria and Aloysius Bent plan to provide aid to the Metropolitan Police to bring this fiend to justice. However, things go awry when Gideon's memory gets erased and disappears into London's underbelly. Meanwhile their good friend, airship pilot Rowena Fanshawe is accused of murder and is in very real danger of being executed. It's up to Bent and Maria to find Gideon and save the day before time runs out.

Overall the main points of the plot are okay. You really have two or three separate plots that sort of intersect at various points but really could be their own story given adequate space and development. Regardless, it makes a very interesting story and you get a strong sense of adventure. I will say for me personally the plot device of Gideon losing his memory feels somewhat hackneyed because it feels like an excuse to get Gideon out of the way so Bent and Maria actually have something to do instead of follow Gideon around. It does lead to some depth of Gideon's character, but I still felt like it could have done better. There's also the creation of an entirely unnecessary love triangle just to mess with Gideon and Maria's relationship, but that's neither here nor there.

The biggest problem I had with this book was its treatment of women. This is something I've kind of noticed in other books and in my review of Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon I lamented the fact Maria spent most of her time as little more than a sexy lamp, as well as really focusing on the fact Annie Crook had been a prostitute. Which felt like a shame because I could see Barnett write well-developed female characters in the same novel. Unfortunately this book takes the bad parts and makes them worse for no good reason.

At the very beginning we discover that the prostitutes of Whitechapel, frustrated by the police's inability to do anything about Jack the Ripper, declare a strike until the police manage to apprehend the killer. And in a way this makes sense. The prostitutes are seen as expendable and as long as Jack the Ripper continues to only kill undesirables, the police don't have a terribly pressing great desire to put in an effort. So really they're acting in their own best interests. However, the police are immediately concerned by this strike because they believe it's only a matter of time before Whitechapel and the entire East End of London will break into riots because the lower classes can't release their energy with sex so they'll resort to violence.

Let's take a minute to talk about how messed up that is. First of all, it plays into this assumption that men are basically little more than giant Ids and if we can't get our jollies in one way, we'll resort to another. Because apparently we men are all psychotic apes with absolutely no self-control whatsoever and will do anything if you dangle sex in front of us. This is a rather harmful stereotype that only perpetuates this "Boys will be boys" attitude which condones a certain amount of violence, physical, emotional, and sexual from men when it shouldn't be tolerated at all. However, there's also the very unfortunate implication that the ensuing violence caused by these beast-men is the prostitutes' fault because they're on strike. Which is a classic case of victim blaming: This violence that has happened against you and your friends is your fault because you wouldn't have sex with the men who committed it, thus leading them to violence. That's a pretty messed up message and while Barnett may not have meant it that way, that's certainly how it came across to me. And this is within the first sixty pages of the book as well.

However, there's something far, far worse than blaming women for being the cause of violence because they're not serving as a sexual release valve. Poor, poor Rowena Fanshawe falls victim to a trope I detest with an absolute passion: strong women are only strong because they were the victims of sexual violence in the past. (Sorry, I don't know if there's a concise way of saying that other than Strong Independent Woman TM, but let me explain.)

There is an unfortunate trend in fiction, which became very prominent in the 1990's and has never really gone away, where you have a female character who is well developed as a character. However, usually this follows a pattern of a woman who's tough, doesn't follow society's conventions, and is determined to do things her own way. This may manifest in a variety of ways, but in more action-oriented series it tends to result in her being a competent fighter, or in other series being very, very competent at what she does. Unfortunately, the motivation behind her being the best at what she does is almost inevitably because she was the victim of some form of sexual violence in her past.

This is a problematic trope for a number of reasons. First of all it greatly cheapens the traumatic experience of sexual violence that far too many women suffer today and can cause long-lasting mental and emotional problems that can severely affect them for the rest of their lives. Sexual violence is a serious issue and needs to be talked about in a responsible manner. But having "strong female characters" be the victims of sexual violence isn't the appropriate way to handle this.

Secondly, it creates this stereotype that the only motivation a woman can have to become the best at whatever she does is because she was the victim of sexual violence in her past. And that's incredibly limiting for female characters, forcing all of them into the same box when they really don't need a tragic past of sexual violence to provide them motivation. Male characters have, for centuries, had a variety of different motivations to do the things that they do, and sometimes they don't have motivation beyond just wanting to be the very best at what they do. And in some cases, making your female character a victim of sexual violence is completely unnecessary. As I talked about in my review of On Basilisk Station, Honor already had plenty of reasons to hate Pavel Young: he was a vain, spoiled aristocrat who was getting shunted onto the fast track for promotion because of his family connections rather than any actual ability. Adding sexual violence to that mix just felt unnecessary and incredibly unfortunate.

So to return to Mask of the Ripper, in this case it is poor Rowena who falls prey to this trope which I hate with a passion. As you may remember in my previous reviews I actually liked Rowena as a character. She's a fairly standard steampunk character, the woman who doesn't abide by society's standards and is involved in something not seen as traditionally ''feminine'' in this case, being an airship pilot. In addition Rowena doesn't mind bedding a hot guy when she gets the chance because airship pilots have a very good chance of dying young so she takes her pleasures when she can. All of this was well and fine and I thought she was a very well-written character. Unfortunately in this novel we learn that Rowena's motivation for becoming the woman we all know and love is because she was the victim of sexual abuse in her past. And this is completely unnecessary because of what else we learn about her in this book.

We learn that Rowena is actually the daughter of a famous airship pilot who actually went missing in the Indian Ocean some twenty years ago. Her mother ended up marrying a rather lackluster businessman who relies on Rowena's mother's fortune to keep his enterprises solvent rather than his actual ability. Rowena does not care for this at all and eventually runs away from home to become an airship pilot. Barnett could have done all of this without the sexual abuse and that would have been a perfectly fine backstory for her, wishing to rebel against her failure of a stepfather and take up her father's profession. In fact, if Rowena was a male character, she probably would have had the same backstory, but without the sexual abuse. But because she's a woman we have this added extra, and extremely unfortunate element.

So overall, this book is really bad. There are some interesting bits but due to how it treats women I ended up throwing the book at the wall. I'm willing to give Barnett the benefit of the doubt and say maybe he didn't intend for it to come across that way, but it only illustrates how insidious these tropes have become and why we need to point them out, challenge them, and try to correct them wherever we go. I would not recommend people read this book and I think I can safely say I'll be stopping this series after this book.

- Kalpar

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