Archive for the ‘Critical Hit’ Category

Warning: total spoilers for the Vorkosigan Saga. 

Recently – which is to say, since the last week of March this year – I’ve taken advantage of moving continents, with all the travel, lack of internet access and desire for creature comforts that entails, to reread Lois McMaster Bujold’s complete Vorkosigan Saga in chronological order (though excluding the two stories which take place hundreds of years earlier in the same setting). This decision was chiefly sparked by my initial reading, also in March, of the latest instalment, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, which – apart from being excellent – also reveals that Cordelia and Aral, parents to series star Miles and protagonists in their own right of Shards of Honour and Barrayar, have been in a twenty-year polyamorous relationship with Oliver Jole, Aral’s former aide and current Admiral of the Sergyar fleet. Whether or not you consider this a latestage retcon depends largely on whether you consider Miles Vorkosigan to be a reliable narrator of his mother’s life, and on your parsing of the various updates the Miles-centric novels have provide about his parents prior to now. To me, the reveal felt like a natural one, fully in keeping with the characters as we know them; but then, as ever, your mileage may vary.

That being so, it feels notable that at least one person has been writing polyamorous Aral/Cordelia/Jole fic since 2010, and with what feels now to be a scary degree of prescience; or at least, with such a close understanding of the characters as to successfully pre-empt Bujold’s intentions. It’s actually worth comparing the two, if only because it makes for a fascinating example of exactly how insightful fanwriting can be in its interpretation, not just of the source material, but the specific psychology of the characters.

In their May 2010 fic, As You Tap on Your Glass, writer Dira Sudis attributes the following observation to Cordelia:

 Aral wasn’t often physically demonstrative in such a casual way with men under his command, though he had become quite fond of any number of them. Then, too, many of them–especially his secretaries–were the subjects of his occasional crushes, a phenomenon Cordelia observed with delight and tried never to acknowledge as such out loud, since Aral didn’t seem to quite realize it himself.

Jole was certainly a crush, she thought. Aral’s eyes always lit up when he talked about his latest bright young man, which he did fairly regularly. Any form of shop talk came to include a rather endearing digression on Jole’s virtues, winding down thoughtfully into musings on where best to deploy him when he had outgrown his role as Aral’s protégé, as they all did after a year or two.

So Jole had, somehow, found the knack of setting Aral at ease enough to be playful, and that made Cordelia like him even better than she had a moment before. She kept still, watching to see if she might spy anything else, and then Aral stood and stretched, tilting his head back toward the ceiling. Jole’s intent gaze followed him up like a compass needle to north, like a flower’s face to the sun, and Cordelia realized abruptly that it was not only that Jole liked the man inside the uniform–he liked the body inside the uniform.

Cordelia’s face heated and her heart leapt, and she found herself smiling rather the same way Aral did when he talked about Jole. In that very instant Jole became quite completely her favorite of all Aral’s protégés and all his crushes. She had in a single glance discovered something she had not realized she longed for–rather like the first time she had unexpectedly heard a Betan accent on Barrayar. She wanted, with the sudden intensity of homesickness, to cross the library and take Jole aside, to gossip delightfully about the man at the center of both their lives, to share this particular joy with someone who would appreciate it as she did.

But the impulse popped like a soap bubble as Jole looked quickly away–afraid of being caught in that gaze, because Jole was Barrayaran, of course. And Barrayarans were tediously heteronormative as well as tediously insistent on strict monogamy–on the appearance of strict monogamy, anyway, and for some people merely the appearance of the appearance. Aral was, of course, notoriously sincere in his appearance of strict monogamy. He had no reason not to be, since his crushes tended to be on his irretrievably unavailable bright young men, all determinedly heterosexual and all too aware of Aral’s exalted rank to contemplate any form of intimacy, let alone the sexual variety.

All but Jole, it seemed.

Not only is this excerpt wonderfully written, but it compares quite strikingly to a similar conversation between Cordelia and Jole at the start of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen:

“…Aral talked to me about nearly everything – I was his only safe repository for that part of himself till you came along – but he was always a bit cagey about how you two got started… I go off to visit my mother on Beta Colony leaving him in no worse straits than another of his unrequited silent crushes. I come back to find you two up and running and poor Illyan having a meltdown – it was like talking him in off a ledge.” Aral’s utterly loyal security chief had never come closer to, if not weeping with relief, at least cracking an expression, to find in her not an outraged spouse, but an unruffled ally. I knew Aral was bisexual when I married him. And he knew I was Betan. Melodrama was never an option, Illyan. “The only surprise was how you two ever got past all your Barrayaran inhibitions in the first place.” Not that she and Aral hadn’t discussed Oliver in theory.

A flash of old amusement crossed Jole’s always-expressive face. “Well – I’m afraid you’d think it was all more Barrayaran than Betan. It doubtless involved a lot less talking, which I cannot regret. The standard for declassification is still fifty years, isn’t it? That sounds about right to me.”

Cordelia snickered. “Never mind, then.”

Jole cocked his head in turn. “Did he have that many, er, silent crushes? Before me?”

“I ought to make you trade” – Jole made his own never mind, then, gesture, and Cordelia smiled – “but I’ll have pity. No, for all that the capital was awash with handsome officers, he more appreciated them as a man would a good sunset or a fine horse, abstractly. Intelligent officers, he recruited whenever he could, and if they happened to intersect the first set, well and good. Officers of extraordinary character – were always thinner on the ground. All three in one package -”

…No wonder that Aral had recruited Jole as nearly on the spot as the paperwork and his physicians permitted. The other recruitment had come rather later.

What this comparison says to me – aside from the fact that Dira Sudis is an excellent writer who ought to be recruited to work prominently on a Vorkosigan TV series, assuming we’re ever lucky enough to get such a thing – is that, however surprised some readers were by the events of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, they’re hardly incompatible with Bujold’s established characterisation if an outside observer was able to correctly intuit how such a relationship might play out a good five years before Bujold made it canon.

Which raises the question: exactly when did Bujold, in the privacy of her writer’s mind, establish this background triad?

As a character, Jole first appears in The Vor Game, which was released in 1990 – the sixth book in order of publication, but the fifth – including the novella The Mountains of Mourning, but ignoring the centuries-earlier precursors of Dreamweaver’s Dilemma and Falling Free – in order of chronology. His appearance there is so briefthat, when I first read the Vorkosigan Saga, I barely noticed; this time, however, with later events now firmly in mind, his introduction strikes a very different chord. Indeed, given the brevity of his appearance, the care taken to describe him feels, if not incongruous, then certainly meaningful, not least because Bujold seldom takes the time to give such detail about a character who barely says a word. We first meet Jole at Aral’s side, with Miles – aged twenty – observing him as follows:

He [Aral] was flanked by his aide, a tall blond lieutenant named Jole. Miles had met Jole on his last home leave. Now, there was a perfect officer, brave and brilliant – he’d served in space, been decorated for some courage and quick thinking during a horrendous on-board accident, been rotated through HQ while recovering from his injuries, and promptly been snabbled up as his military secretary by the Prime Minister, who had a sharp eye for hot new talent. Jaw-dropping gorgeous, to boot, he ought to be making recruiting vids. Miles sighed in hopeless jealousy every time he ran across him. Jole was even worse than Ivan, who while darkly handsome had never been accused of brilliance.

“Thanks, Jole,” Count Vorkosigan murmured to his aisde as his eye found Miles. “I’ll see you back at the office.”

“Yes, sir.” So dismissed, Jole ducked back out, glancing back at Miles and his superior with worried eyes, and then the door hissed closed again.

And that, despite an entire paragraph of description – and what, in retrospect, looks suspiciously like a deliberately punning, in-jokely use of the word hot – is all we see of him until the very end, when Miles, having rescued the Emperor and stopped a war, is reunited with his father, accompanied again by Jole:

Lieutenant Jole, suppressing a grin himself, arose from the other side of the comconsole desk and guided Yegorov gently and mercifully back out the door. “Thank you, Lieutenant. The Admiral appreciates your services, that will be all…” Jole glanced back over his shoulder, quirked a pensive brow, and followed Yegorov out. Miles just glimpsed the blond lieutenant drape himself across a chair in the antechamber, head back in the relaxed posture of a man anticipating a long wait, before the door slid closed. Jole could be supernaturally courteous at times.

According to the timeline established in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, he and Aral are already romantically involved during the events of The Vor Game – which is to say, during these scenes. As Bujold goes out of her way to make Jole visible – and to establish his handsomeness; a doubly unusual move, as she’s writing in Miles’s perspective, and young Miles especially is ordinarily too Barrayaran to make such open judgements about other men – it’s not unreasonable to wonder if she had the notion in mind even then, if only at the level of a future possibility. Certainly, it feels noteworthy that, in both of Jole’s brief appearances, he looks back at Aral as he leaves the room, as does the fact the fact that neither appearance contributes anything to the narrative beyond affirming Jole’s presence within it. In both instances, he exits stage left almost instantly: he doesn’t need to be there, except that he is. And Bujold, whatever else can be said of her, is not a writer known for her inclusion of pointless detail.

Barrayar, although the second novel chronologically, is seventh in publication order, having initially been released in 1991, just a year after The Vor Game. Given that it covers the events of Miles’s birth and Vordarian’s pretendership, it nonetheless contains two noteworthy exchanges on the subject of Aral’s relationships.The first is a conversation between Cordelia and Vordarian, wherein the latter attempts to unsettle the former’s faith in her husband:

He paused, watching her watch Aral. One corner of his mouth crooked up, then the quirk vanished in a thoughtful pursing of his lips. “He’s bisexual, you know.” He took a delicate sip of his wine.

“Was bisexual,” she corrected absently, looking fondly across the room. “Now he’s monogamous.”

Vordarian choked, sputtering… “He told you that?” he wheezed in astonishment.

“No, Vorrutyer did. Just before he met his, um, fatal accident.” Vordarian was standing frozen; she felt a certain malicious glee at having at last baffled a Barrayaran as much as they sometimes baffled her. Now, if she could just figure out what she’d said that had thrown him… She went on seriously, “The more I look back on Vorrutyer, the more he seems a tragic figure. Still obsessed with a love affair that was over eighteen years ago. Yet I sometimes wonder, if he could have had what he wanted then – kept Aral – if Aral might have kept that sadistic streak that ultimately consumed Vorrutyer’s sanity under control. It’s as if the two of them were on some kind of weird see-saw, each one’s survival entailing the other’s destruction.”

The second is between Aral and Cordelia, when the former discovers the latter comforting Lieutenant Koudelka and reacts angrily, much to Cordelia’s chagrin:

 “That remark you made in front of Kou was totally out of line.”

“What, I walk in to find my wife… cuddling, with one of my officers, and you expect me to make polite conversation about the weather?” he bit back.

“You know it was nothing of the sort.”

“Fine. Suppose it hadn’t been me? Suppose it had been one of the duty guards, or my father. How would you have explained it then? You know what they think of Betans. They’d jump on it, and the rumours would never be stopped. Next thing I knew, it would be coming back at me as political chaff. Every enemy I have out there is just waiting for a weak spot to pounce on. They’d love one like that.”

“How the devil did we get onto your damned politics? I’m talking about a friend. I doubt you could have come up with a more wounding remark if you’d funded a study project. That was foul, Aral! What’s the matter with you, anyway?”

“I don’t know.” He slowed, and rubbed his face tiredly. “It’s the damn job, I expect. I don’t meant to spill onto you.”

Cordelia supposed that was as near as she could expect of an admission of his being in the wrong, and accepted it with a little nod, letting her own rage evaporate…

“So if you’re having visions of, of playing King Arthur to our Lancelot and Guinevere in that – pig-head of yours, forget it. It won’t wash.”

He laughed a little at that. “My visions were closer to home, I’m afraid, and considerably more sordid. Just an old bad dream.”

“Yeah, I… guess it would hit a nerve, at that.” She wondered if the ghost of his first wife ever hovered by him, breathing cold death in his ear, as Vorrutyer’s ghost sometimes did by her. “But I’m Cordelia, remember? Not… anybody else.”

He leaned his forehead against hers. “Forgive me, dear Captain. I’m just an ugly scared old man, and growing older and uglier and more paranoid every day.”

On the surface, both these sections would seem to moot the idea that Bujold had early designs on the idea of Jole as a future romantic partner, being as how the one invokes the awful notion of bisexuality being negated by monogamy, while the other shows Aral grossly overreacting at the prospect of Cordelia being with someone else. And yet, at the same time, a constant theme of the Vorkosigan Saga is personal growth, and particularly in the context of Cordelia’s Betan attitude to sex and gender creeping into wider Barrayaran society. Aral’s lurid, self-destructive relationship with Ges Vorrutyer takes place eighteen years prior to Miles’s birth, while his affirming relationship with Oliver Jole begins eighteen years after it. Miles – or rather, Cordelia – represents a steadying midpoint in Aral’s romantic life, and as such, I’m disinclined to view that particular piece of symmetry as accidental.

More to the point, I imagine Bujold was intensely aware in writing The Vor Game and Barrayar that the Aral of one was by no means the Aral of the other. From the outset, Aral Vorkosigan has always been a character whose beliefs and behaviour are subject to extraordinary change. Of course the Aral of Barrayar, only just returned to nascent political respectability despite his new Betan wife, carrying significant psychological baggage over both the death of her predecessor and what he did in its aftermath, would react with rage and terror to the prospect of a second infidelity scandal. Cordelia’s line about Aral being monogamous is harder to swallow, though more because it represents an objectively angrifying stereotype than anything else. That Bujold is an overwhelmingly progressive writer doesn’t prevent the odd bias squeaking through, and it’s to her credit that, rather than doubling down on these early gaffes, her subsequent works more often make the effort to explode them. Yet even so, a statement about Aral being monogamous some eighteen years prior to meeting Jole – and more, one made distractedly, in response to a seeming non-sequitur – seems a thin thread on which to hang all later canon.

Having thus appeared in The Vor Game, Jole vanishes again until Cryoburn – fourteenth in publication order, fifteenth in chronological, released in 2010 – where he appears in the epilogue as a pallbearer at Aral’s funeral, having graduated in the intervening years to Admiral of the Sergyar fleet. This is a small but noteworthy appearance, smoothing the way (at the time) for his multiple mentions in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, which book is fifteenth in publication order, but fourteenth chronologically, released in 2012. Aside from being referred to here as Commodore rather than Admiral, that promotion being forthcoming, there’s a tantalising hint of things to come – or things to be subsequently revealed, rather – in the epilogue, where Ivan, discussing a missive from home, says:

“…Thank God, now Aunt Cordelia switches to telling me all about Commodore Jole’s new sailboat – the Sergyaran seas don’t dissolve human skin the way Ylla’s do, happily. He took them all out for a sail, good. And no one drowned. Much better.”

That being so, it seems reasonable to infer that Bujold was planning to reintroduce Jole at least two books ago, and was dropping small hints as to his continued importance. Personally, I’m inclined to think her plans for his starring in a future can be traced the point at which she first introduced him, though not necessarily as a romantic object for either Aral or Cordelia. And yet there’s a rightness to Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen that makes me wonder exactly how long a game Bujold’s been playing. From the very first book – both chronologically and in order of publication, for once – which is to say, from Shards of Honour, released in 1986 – Cordelia is painted as a woman who wants children, plural; who was, in fact, tricked into not applying for a promotion by a former lover who promised offspring in return for letting him take the job. On Beta Colony, having more than one or two children is viewed as antisocial, and in Barrayar, Cordelia’s desire for a large family is clearly stated:

Now, family size: that was the real, secret, wicked fascination of Barrayar. There were no legal limits here, no certificates to be earned, no third-child variances to be scrimped for; no rules, in fact, at all. She’d seen a woman on the street with not three but four children in tow, and no one had even stared. Cordelia had upped her own imaginary brood from two to three, and felt deliciously sinful, till she’d met a woman with ten. Four, maybe? Six? Vorkosigan could afford it. Cordelia wriggled her toes and cuddled into the cushions, afloat on an atavistic cloud of genetic greed.

This desire is railroaded by Miles’s health issues: not wanting to make their first son feel inadequate, neither Cordelia nor Aral hurries to give him siblings. That Miles goes on to have six children himself – or to plan them, anyway; his ambitions in that direction are likewise clearly stated at the start of Diplomatic Immunity, though the last two don’t appear until Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen – could well be seen as a sort of cathartic substitution, both emotionally and narratively, and in the hands of a lesser writer, that’s all we – and, by extension, Cordelia – would ever get.

But Lois McMaster Bujold is not a lesser writer, and among its many other qualities, the Vorkosigan Saga has always been distinguished by the centrality it gives to women’s narratives, women’s voices, even – or perhaps especially – in stories otherwise concerned with traditionally masculine themes. Considering this aspect of the series in its chronological ordering, Shards of Honour sets the tone with its contrasting of Betan and Barrayaran gender norms. Though the sexual violence to which various female characters are subjected, and with which Cordelia is intimately threatened, feels somewhat oldschool-gratuitous in 2016, the fact that Sergeant Bothari is likewise understood to be another of Vorrutyer’s victims is still damnably subversive. More shocking, and of equal modern impact, is the role played by the Betan uterine replicators, forcing Barrayar to take custody of the children conceived by its rapist soldiers – a technology whose introduction to that world becomes a toppling domino of social change. And then, in the epilogue, it’s a female medtech, recovering the bodies of the dead, who offers a poignant lens through which to view war and its losses:

“The Barrayarans are all so army-mad,” she explained. “I always like to put them back in their uniforms. They mean so much to them. I’m sure they’re more comfortable with them on.”

Ferrell frowned uneasily. “I still think he ought to be dumped with the rest of the garbage.”

“Not at all,” said the medtech. “Think of all the work he represents on somebody’s part. Nine months of pregnancy, childbirth, two years of diapering, and that’s just the beginning. Tens of thousands of meals, thousands of bedtime stories, years of school. Dozens of teachers. And all that military training, too. A lot of people went into making him.” She smoothed a strand of the corpse’s hair into place. “That head held the universe, once.”

In Barrayar, it’s Cordelia’s actions which see Vordarian dead and the empire saved, her plot to storm the palace enabled, over and over again, by the male underestimation of women. It’s Drou, Princess Kareen’s former bodyguard, who knows the secret way into the palace, her importance and competence both overlooked by allies and enemies alike on the basis of her gender, just as it’s Kareen’s bravery and reason which sees Vordarian first lose his grip on power. Alys Vorpatril, giving birth in fear and pain amidst the violence of civil war, is no less heroic than Cordelia Vorkosigan, mounting her assault on palace and pretender to save a child whose disabilities render him expendable in all eyes save her own. And then, with the day saved and Aral offered the Regency during Gregor’s minority, it’s once more a gendered oversight that leads to Cordelia having more power over the future of Barrayar than anyone bar her and her husband realise:

Her silent promise to Kareen was made policy when she and Aral, as a couple, were officially appointed Gregor’s guardians by the Council of Counts. This was legally distinct somehow from Aral’s guardianship of the Imperium as Regent. Prime Minister Vortala took time to lecture her and made it clear her new duties involved no political powers. She did have economic functions, including trusteeship of certain Vorbarra holdings that were separate from Imperial properties, appending strictly to Gregor’s title as Count Vorbarra. And by Aral’s delegation, she was given oversight of the Emperor’s household. And education.

“But, Aral,” said Cordelia, stunned. “Vortala emphasised I was to have no power.”

“Vortala… is not all-wise. Let’s just say, he has a little trouble recognising as such some forms of power which are not synonymous with force. Your window of opportunity is narrow, though; at age twelve, Gregor will enter a pre-Academy preparatory school.”

“But do they realise…?”

“I do. And you do. It’s enough.”

This description  – “forms of power which are not synonymous with force” – could well be a tagline for the series. Not only does it encompass Miles’s ferocious intelligence, applied with devastating effect despite his physical limitations, but it also encompasses the emotional, the cultural and – overwhelmingly – the traditionally feminine. In The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles’s desire to solve the mystery of Elena’s origins ultimately results in the death of her father, Sergeant Bothari, at the hands of her furious mother, his victim during the short-lived Escobar War. Yet the plot itself is also underwritten by Elena’s desire for autonomy, and Miles’s various reactions to it: the tension lies in his simultaneous yearning to give her what she doesn’t want (a life on Barrayar, with him) and what she does (a chance to prove her competence), both of which are technically within his power to bestow, yet neither of which he can give her – paradoxically, from his lovelorn perspective – without her say-so.

Similarly, The Mountains of Mourning – one of the most powerful, affecting novellas I’ve ever read –  hinges in its entirety on a woman’s demand for justice. Though Miles is ultimately her instrument, it’s Harra’s voice that matters most: her bravery and courage in seeking redress for the murder of her disabled baby daughter, Raina, whose story becomes the secret heart of Miles’s own:

Miles had sworn his officer’s oath to the Emperor less than two weeks ago, puffed with pride at his achievement. In his secret mind he had imagined himself keeping that oath through blazing battle, enemy torture, what-have-you, even while sharing cynical cracks afterwards with Ivan about archaic dress swords and the sort of people who insisted on wearing them.

But in the dark of subtler temptations, those which hurt without heroism for consolation, he foresaw, the Emperor would no longer be the symbol of Barrayar in his heart.

Peace to you, small lady, he thought to Raina. You’ve won a twisted poor modern knight, to wear your favour on his sleeve. But it’s a twisted poor world we were both born into, that rejects us without mercy and ejects us without consultation. At least I won’t just tilt at windmills for you. I’ll send in sappers to mine the twirling suckers, and blast them into the sky…

He knew who he served now. And why he could not quit. And why he must not fail.

In The Vor Game, it’s the actions of Cavilo – or rather, Metzov’s sexist underestimation of her – that sees an invasion plot fall apart. More prominently, the entire, steady reveal of Cetaganda is that, despite centuries of conflict, the male-dominated Barrayaran military caste has never understood the vital role haut women play in running Cetagandan society, having assumed their public invisibility to be synonymous with political irrelevance. Miles, indeed, initially makes the same error; yet over the course of the novel, as he aids the haut Rian, he stumbled up a steep learning curve to the contrary. Even in Ethan of Athos – a novel about a character from a planet of men, which is itself a delightful subversion of the many historically sexist, fetishistic instances of planets of women in SF – the titular Ethan, in his quest for new ovarian cultures with which to continue the next generation, only emerges unscathed thanks to the intervention of Elli Quinn, causing him to re-evaluate the influence of women on a world devoid of same:

Ethan paused in front of the bathroom mirror before turning out the light, and studied his own face. He thought of Elli Quinn, and EQ-1. In a woman, one saw not charts and graphs and numbers, but the genes of one’s own children personified and made flesh. So, every ovarian culture on Athos cast a woman’s shadow, unacknowledged, ineradicably there.

And what had she been like, Dr. Cynthia Jane Baruch, 200 years dead now, and how much had she secretly shaped Athos, all unbeknownst to the founding fathers who had hired her to create their ovarian cultures? She who had cared enough to put herself in them? The very bones of Athos were molded to her pattern. His bones.

“Salute, Mother,” Ethan whispered, and turned away to bed. Tomorrow began the new world, and the work thereof.

In Labyrinth, which introduces soon-to-be-Sergeant Taura, the central narrative hinges on Miles’s recognition of the humanity and personhood of a girl raised to believe herself inhuman and, as a consequence, unloveable. In The Borders of Infinity, having infiltrated a prisoner of war camp, it’s the women whose discipline and aid allow Miles to effect a rescue, though tragically at the cost of one of their number. Though Brothers in Arms is concerned almost entirely with the appearance of Miles’s clone-brother, Mark, it’s the spectre of Cordelia’s Betan judgement – “What have you done with your baby brother?” – that dictates Miles’s actions. This same question motivates his actions at the start of Mirror Dance, with Cordelia’s frank acceptance of Mark – along with the actions of Elena Bothari-Jesek, Elli Quinn, Sergeant Taura and Kareen Koudelka – ultimately bringing him in from the cold. And parallel to all this action, it’s Cordelia again who delivers one of the most powerful judgements, not just of Barrayar, but of patriarchal cultures generally, in SF:

“There are, as you have just seen, two agendas being pursued here tonight,” the Countess lectured amiably. “The political one of the old men – an annual renewal of the forms of the Vor – and the genetic agenda of the old women. The men imagine theirs is the only one, but that’s just an ego-serving self-delusion. The whole Vor system is founded on the women’s game, underneath. The old men in government councils spend their lives arguing against or scheming to fund this or that bit of off-planet military hardware. Meanwhile, the uterine replicator is creeping in past their guard, and they aren’t even conscious that the debate that will fundamentally alter Barrayar’s future is being carried on right now among their wives and daughters. To use it, or not to use it? Too late to keep it out, it’s already here. The middle classes are picking it up in droves. Every mother who loves her daughter is pressing for it, to spare her the physical dangers of biological childbearing. They’re fighting not the old men, who haven’t got a clue, but an old guard of their sisters who say to their daughters, in effect, ‘We had to suffer, so must you!’ Look around tonight, Mark. You’re witnessing the last generation of men and women who will dance this dance in the old way. The Vor system is about to change on its blindest side, the side that looks to – or fails to look to – its foundation. Another half generation from now, it’s not going to know what hit it.”

As Miles recovers in Memory, he revisits the grave of Raina, his small lady, anchoring himself to the past he almost lost. Komarr, by contrast, introduces Miles to his future – to Ekaterin, whose internal narration of a marriage gone loveless and soul-destroying is painfully raw and honest. Parallel to the romantic elements of A Civil Campaign, the political aspects centre on male efforts to control women, to varying degrees and with varying purposes, but all stemming from the same seed of gendered entitlement. Ranging roughly from least to most offensive, there’s Miles’s bungling attempts to woo Ekaterin, the Koudelka clan’s restriction of Kareen’s movements, Ekaterin’s meddling family members, and, at the more sinister end, a count creating over a hundred daughters using uterine replicators and left-over ovarian cultures to populate his barren district. There’s also Lord Dono Vorrutyer’s transition from his previous incarnation as Lady Donna, and the outrage with which this is initially greeted, to say nothing of the backroom politicking of Lady Alys Vorpatril, wrongly assumed by certain men to have no political power despite her many years at the Emperor’s side.

The follow-up story of Miles and Ekaterin’s marriage, Winterfair Gifts, is something of a Cinderella tale for Taura, and yet of equal importance is her status as a detective; of a woman whose testimony is believed, despite her outsider status. In Diplomatic Immunity, the ultimate reveal is of a Cetagandan genetic agenda being carried out by a rogue servant, ostensibly acting at the behest of their dead Imperial mistress; balancing this concern is the imminent arrival of Miles and Ekaterin’s twins. Indeed, the story opens with Miles, somewhat comically, reviewing a vid of their (scientifically enabled, replicator-based) conception, with the story closing on their birth – but not before a similar event is witnessed on the Cetagandan planet of Rho Ceta, a new generation distributed to their familial constellations as the Vorkosigans look on. (As Aral says in Mirror Dance, “All true wealth is biological.”)

In Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Ivan – a previously womanising character – finds himself in a marriage, initially of convenience, but growing into love. As well as engaging in a nuanced discussion of family – and particularly the relationships between grandmothers, mothers, daughters and sisters – Ivan’s union with Tej provides his mother, Lady Alys, hope of finally laying down a long-standing emotional burden: that of burning hair in offering to her dead husband on the joint anniversary of his death and Ivan’s birth:

“This is a Barrayaran ceremony for remembrance,” said Lady Alys, turning to Tej. “It was always my intention, when Ivan married, to turn this task of remembrance over to him, to continue or not as he willed. Because… memory isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” Her hand reached out and gripped Illyan’s, who gripped it back in a disturbed little shake, though he smiled at her.

“Thirty-five years seems long enough, to me,” Lady Alys went on. “Long enough to mourn, quite long enough to be enraged. It’s time for me to retire from remembering. From the pain and sorrow and anger and attachment, and the smell of burning hair in the fog. For Ivan, it’s not the same, of course. His memories of this place are very different from mine.”

“I never knew,” said Ivan Xav, shifting uncomfortably. “All that.”

In Cryoburn, whose in-depth discussion of death, cryo-revival, family and the value of life provides a masterful narrative leadup to the suckerpunch of Aral’s death, the central political mystery hinges on, quite literally, giving a woman back her voice – Lisa Sato, who speaks for the living and the dead, and whose restoration to life stands in melancholy contrast to the monumental passing of Aral Vorkosigan.

Among male protagonists, Miles is already somewhat unique, in that, while he’s known in the setting primarily as a great man’s son, narratively, by dint of Cordelia being the viewpoint protagonist of Shards of Honour and Barrayar – by virtue of her actions, which we know to be extraordinary – he is also a great woman’s son. Miles himself reflects on this, in, aptly enough, The Vor Game, wondering:

So why do I never think of my ambition as ship command like my mother before me? Captain Cordelia Naismith, Betan Astronomical Survey, had been in the risky business of expanding the wormhole nexus jump by blind jump, for humanity, for pure knowledge, for Beta Colony’s economic advancement, for – what had driven her? She’d commanded a sixty-person survey vessel, far from home and help – there were certain enviable aspects to her former career, to be sure. Chain-of-command, for example, would have been a legal fiction out in the farbeyond, the wishes of Betan HQ a matter for speculation and side bets.

She moved so wavelessly through Barrayaran society, only her most intimate observers realized how detached she was from it, fearing no one, not even the dread Illyan, controlled by no one, not even the Admiral himself. It was the casual fearlessness, Miles decided, that made his mother so unsettling. The Admiral’s Captain. Following in her footsteps would be like firewalking.

Which brings me, at long last, back to Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, and why it matters so much that, all thoughts of continuity aside, Cordelia gets this story – this catharsis – in particular. The Vorkosigan Saga, for all it takes its name from Aral and Miles, was her story first, and as such, it would do her a grave disservice to suggest, whether overtly or through implication, that she fade into the background with Aral’s death, or that her dreams die with him. As unusual as it is to see any story about polyamory, let alone one where two remaining partners negotiate a new relationship following the death of the central person they both loved most, it’s equally unusual to see such a late-life romance – Betan expected lifespan of 120 aside, Cordelia is still in her seventies – written sexually. Throw in the fact that Cordelia is twenty-six years Jole’s senior and her technologically-enabled new bid for motherhood, and Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is very much a unicorn novel.

And that, in every effect, is what Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan deserves. The fact that she has six grandchildren, no matter how dearly beloved, does not moot her own desire to raise six of Aral’s daughters with the man he most loved in the world. The fact of her loss – of hers and Jole’s – does not moot their mutual desire for new love, new beginnings, new recovery. The Barrayar of this sixteenth book is very different from the one first written in 1986, because for thirty years, Cordelia has been shepherding its progress within in parallel to Bujold’s shepherding of their progress without.

In Shards of Honour, Aral Vorkosigan  couldn’t retire from Barrayaran politics to raise a family, no matter his yearning to do just that; but in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Jole is able to step away from the military and become a professor, following his long-buried love of science as he rears his sons – his, Aral’s and Cordelia’s – alongside Cordelia’s daughters on Sergyar, the planet first traversed, discovered and colonised by Captain Naismith and Commander Vorkosigan. These social changes are poignantly referenced in an exchange between Cordelia and her eldest grandson, Alex, who feels uneasy about his own lack of any military enthusiasm:

“Your granda never went to war, you know. War came to him. And he learned to deal with it because he had to. If his older brother hadn’t been killed, if he’d never become the heir, if Mad Yuri’s war had never happened, I suspect he might have gone on to be… possibly not an artist, but I’d bet an architect. Probably one of those men who takes on vast public projects, as complicated and demanding as commanding an army, because all that Vorkosigan energy would have found its path somehow.” Like a river running in flood down from his own Dendarii mountains, bursting its banks. “Building Barrayar in another way.”

Alex’s face had gone still. “But I am the heir.”

“But living, now, in the Barrayar your granda remade, which is not like the one he inherited. You have more choices. You have all the choices you can imagine. It would have pleased him very much to know that was a gift he gave you. That your life didn’t need to be like his.” She hesitated. “Nor like your da’s, or his granda’s, or like anyone’s but your own. To the top of your bent. Whatever that bent turns out to be.”

If the revelation of Aral, Jole and Cordelia’s relationship constitutes a material change in the narrative, that’s only because the narrative of the Vorkosigan Saga has always been concerned with change. Though Bujold’s early writing is ahead of her time in many ways, it’s still evident in later books that she – and her philosophies, her understanding of the world and people – are growing, evolving. Changing. This has never been a static series, and whether or not there are any more books to follow – and I dearly hope there will be; may Lois McMaster Bujold have a Betan lifespan herself, and never lose the urge or ability to write – this solid refusal to confine Cordelia to perpetual mourning is important beyond its continuation of a beloved saga. She has a new life, and a new(ish) partner – one who loved Aral with her, and who therefore understands more intimately than anyone else exactly what he meant to her, without casting her in his shadow.

With his marriage to Ekaterin and the arrival of all his children, Miles has achieved the love and security he’s craved since confusedly proposing to Elena in The Warrior’s Apprentice at age seventeen. Why should Cordelia’s wishes be any less respected by the narrative? Why shouldn’t she, too, have more than one love, and be happier for it?

In Komarr – again, at the ending; Bujold has an enviable talent for endings – Miles shyly tells Ekaterin of his previous loves and lovers: Elena, Elli, Taura, Rowan, Rian. In asking where he found each woman, and where she subsequently ended up, Ekaterin swiftly discerns a pattern to which Miles himself is oblivious: he leaves his women stronger than he found them, better for having known him, which realisation leaves her to pass posthumous judgement on her late husband, Tien:

Tien had protected her proudly, she reflected, in the little Vor-lady fortress of her household. Tien had spent a decade protecting her so hard, especially from anything that resembled growth, she’d felt scarcely larger at thirty than she’d been at twenty. Whatever it was Vorkosigan had offered to this extraordinary list of lovers, it hadn’t been protection.

Say, then, that Aral Vorkosigan had this same knack: that Cordelia and Jole, though grieved by his passing, are stronger for having loved him – strong enough, in his absence, to love each other, not in his memory, but for themselves alone. Say that Cordelia has it, too: that Aral was stronger for loving her – strong enough, in her presence, to love more than one person, not in memory of the man he used to be, but in celebration of the man he became. Say that Jole has it. Say that he and Cordelia have it together. Say that love is not a funeral pyre, but the phoenix that rises from it.

The stories of mothers are not erased by the stories of their sons; the two are intertwined. It’s only habit that lets us fade the one into the background, foregrounding the other, forgetting which came first. Likewise, the stories of wives do not end with the deaths of their husbands; they go on, as they went on before – as Alys and Ekaterin and Cordelia go on – just in a new direction.

At the time of writing this, I am thirty years old; as old as the Vorkosigan Saga, which I have now read twice. And if I am not reading it still in thirty more years – when my own son is nearly as old as Miles; when my husband is in his seventies – I will be very much surprised.

 

Do you like Hayao Miyazaki? If so, then Fran Wilde’s Updraft is the book for you.

That’s a big claim, so let me back up and explain it. The first volume in Wilde’s Bone Universe series, Updraft is narrated by Kirit, a young woman who lives in a city of living bone towers high above the clouds. Eager to past her wingtest and become a trader, Kirit’s dreams are abruptly derailed when she breaks Tower Law and encounters a skymouth, one of the invisible, tentacled monsters that periodically threatens her home. Taken by the Singers, the mysterious order who governs from the Spire, Kirit must struggle to make sense of her city and its secrets in order to survive – and to save the people she loves.

All the way through Updraft, and despite the clear originality of the setting – invisible creatures! bone towers! – I had a niggling sensation of familiarity. And then it struck me: Miyazaki. Across all his many films, certain elements are consistently present, if not always exhibited in the same ways: single-person flying machines, capable young heroines whose primary relationships are platonic or familial rather than romantic, tentacled monsters, lost history. All these elements are central to Updraft, and given the skilful pacing and construction – to say nothing of how neatly everything hangs together at the end while still leaving enough unanswered questions to explore in subsequent novels – the overall effect is like reading a novelized Miyazaki story.

The setting, in particular, is an extremely visual one, and it’s a testament to Wilde’s skill as a writer that she manages to so clearly convey such a unique visual space and its occupying society in such clean, quick prose. Small details like the use of bone scraps in lieu of paper, the breeding of batlike flying creatures and small spidery insects by tower residents, the use of symbols and songs as teaching tools and the construction of the ubiquitous wings used to traverse the city are all incorporated seamlessly into the narrative, fleshing out the environment like a series of accomplished panning shots. It’s exactly the sort of novel that not only deserves, but structurally begs for an adaptation, and were such a thing to happen, I’d be first in line to see it.

Updraft is an amazing first novel, and I highly recommend it. Wilde has created a truly captivating setting, an intriguing culture and a memorable set of characters, and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Content warning: all the spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age: Inqusition. 

Trigger warning: some discussion of slavery and sexual abuse.

Late last year, due in no small part to the visibility of its online fandom, I finally discovered the Dragon Age games. Seeing that there were three of them, I started – as is traditional – with the first one, Dragon Age: Origins. Unsurprisingly, given that both were created by BioWare, the gameplay mechanics reminded me of nothing so much as Knights of the Old Republic – morality engines, dialogue trees and a politically diverse circle of supporting characters engaging with a mute (to the player) protagonist; being attacked in temporary arenas between one map and the next; even the battle menus and combat style felt similar. Though underwhelmed by the ridiculousness of the female body types on offer (NOT EVERY NPC NEEDS THE SAME IMPLAUSIBLY PERFECT BOOBS REGARDLESS OF AGE OR HEIGHT, OH MY GOD), offput by the smattering of bizarre (both contextually and as a narrative choice) misogyny and lukewarm on the general DNDishness of the setting, I nonetheless found myself getting sucked in.

My first Warden was a Dalish elf, Lyna Mahariel. I fell into romancing Alistair with her almost by accident, which is precisely why the relationship was so compelling: it felt natural, a slow-burn progression from comrades to lovers, and despite a brief flirtation with Zevran, Lyna stayed with him. Yet even when the ease of the connection made me think the game was subtly engineered to give Alistair and the Warden a happily ever after, the plot itself proved satisfyingly more complex. Depending on my actions and despite being romanced, Alistair could still become a wandering drunk or the king of Ferelden, assuming he didn’t stay a Grey Warden – and even with that particular outcome, Morrigan’s actions at the finale were an unexpected complication. Though I ultimately stalled out on the final battle – as is typical of me when first playing a game, I’d largely ignored such vital things as weapons upgrades and advanced tactics in favour of the emotional storyline, and thereby left myself critically underpowered – the franchise had won enough of my favour that I moved straight ahead to Dragon Age 2.

And fell instantly, brutally in love with it.

Ordinarily, when given the chance to make a custom game protagonist, I stick to women, not because I dislike male characters, but because I’m so rarely offered the choice to play as anyone else. Years ago, in a deliberate departure from this norm, I rolled a male Jedi in Knights of the Old Republic. Despite having played the game three or more times by that point, I’d never realised Bastila was a potential romance option: I’d only ever played as a woman, and while I’d always found her more compelling than Carth, it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that a male protagonist would get different dialogue options until I saw it mentioned online. But when I tried to play that way, I was shocked by how quickly I became bored. There are so many stories about talented, exceptional men taking command in a crisis that the game itself felt vastly less original than when I played as a woman: those opening scenes, instead of being revelatory, felt utterly cliché. At the time, I’d encountered so few visibly queer narratives in any form of media – and none at all in video games – that I couldn’t even articulate the problem as one of homophobia in KOTOR’s construction. Instead, there was just a nameless sense of frustration, exclusion: why should I have to enjoy the game less in order to access more of it? Why couldn’t I romance Bastila as I was?

Despite winding up in a hetero romance in Origins – I never quite warmed enough to Leliana enough to want to pursue her, though Isabela, in her brief appearance, charmed the hell out of me – I appreciated the visibility of queerness as an option. Going into DA2, however, I knew that Anders was a male romance option, which I hadn’t known initially about Zevran or Leliana. In fact, that was almost all I knew: I’d seen fanart of some other characters online, but for whatever reason, most of what had crossed my path involved Anders. Armed with this knowledge, for the first time in over twenty years of gaming, I chose to play a male character in direct anticipation of the fact that he could – and would – be queer. Like me, I thought, hands gripping the controller. Hawke is queer like me. And what was more, the game itself was going to let me prove it.

An invisible detail, at least at the outset. But knowing I could act on it – knowing it mattered – made the story new for me in a way I hadn’t expected; made it intimate, powerful. My warrior Hawke, who looked like Aragorn and snarked like Sam Vimes – who could’ve passed for any one of dozens of fantasy heroes in films and books and TV shows – was queer, not just because I said he was, but because the game agreed. I had no idea who Anders was, but goddamn, was I ready to find out.

And then it happened. Or rather, Fenris did.

Given a paucity of options, scraps can feel like a banquet. Possibly I knew, in some habitual mental recess, that Anders wasn’t the only queer romance option available to me, but starting the game, that’s certainly how it felt. I never imagined that all four love interests – four, not five; I haven’t yet played with Sebastian – would be accessible regardless of Hawke’s gender, let alone that I’d be tempted by all of them. (Though Morrigan is straightlocked, she and Leliana struck me as having more and better chemistry than either did with my Warden.) But having begun the game with a specific option in mind – an option which already felt revelatory, even before I’d met the mage – I didn’t expect to be so comprehensively swayed by an alternative.

I can’t pinpoint the precise moment I sold my soul to Dragon Age, but it probably involves lyrium tattoos and the voice of Gideon Emery, is what I’m saying.

Fenris, as a character, isn’t easy to woo. By turns, he’s defensive and laconic, prickly and aloof. If I had to pick the single biggest failing of Origins as a game, it would be the Warden’s silence: it’s hard to get a solid read on character reactions when half of every conversation is rendered without body language, inflection, tone. But Hawke, however you play them, is an undeniable presence – a character whose foibles exist, not just in the player’s mind, but on screen. I’d meant to romance Anders, but his intensity soon proved far more unsettling than even his spirit possession. “I would drown us in blood to keep you safe!” he vows, at a point where Hawke has done nothing more than flirt while exhibiting kindness to mages. It was – and is, I believed, intended to be – a red flag, hinting at the tragic events of the game’s finale: a violent, possessive promise whose fervency is utterly disproportionate to the not-even-yet-a-relationship to which it refers. And besides, I was fascinated with Fenris, a character whose trope-riddled construction ought to have undermined him – he is, in every literal particular, a touch-starved amnesiac elven ex-slave with magic tattoos, waifu combat prowess and impossibly white hair; the archetypal broken bird in every way but gender – but which only served to make him more compelling.

Seventeen hours into the game, having bungled all my initial interactions with Fenris, I quit and restarted in order to romance him properly. Even though I was playing through the exact same levels back to back, I never lost my interest.

Right now, I’ve just embarked on my second, also back to back playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition. (I’ve also got a new Origins game on the go – romancing Zevran, this time – but while I’m having fun, I’m enjoying Inquisition more.) The third game confused me when I first tried it, not least because the combat and controls are so markedly different to those of DA2. The jump button is contextually ridiculous, the open world slows the emotional pacing – doubly so in my case, as I’d assumed personal quests would trigger automatically, and so missed many pertinent conversations -and it’s easy to miss the subtleties of the war table. Almost, I gave the whole thing up after the first few hours. But given how much I’d loved DA2, I decided to stick around, if only to give Inquisitor Callum Trevelyan the chance to romance Dorian. (In this new game, I’m Asha Adaar, and flirting with everyone I meet. It’s glorious.)

But the thing is –

The thing is, I meant for this to be a post about Thedas itself: about the politics and problems of the various games, where I stand on mages and templars, and how this all impacts my love of the characters, whose backgrounds and personalities are, with a few notable exceptions, overwhelmingly well-constructed. And we’re still going to get to all that stuff: the real meta is forthcoming. But what I had to say first – what I want to make clear – is how fucking important these games are to me, in their exploration and open acceptance of queerness. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, the extent to which I currently overidentify with Krem Aclassi and Dorian Pavus cannot be measured by your human science. Dragon Age is the first time I’ve ever played as a queer character in video games, at a time when I badly needed exactly that sort of representation, and for that gift, I will love it forever, flaws and all.

Which is why – or one reason why, at least – I feel profoundly irritated by criticism of Dorian’s portrayal in Inquisition: specifically, the idea that his companion quest is badly written because it’s about his queerness. This is a position for which I would maybe have some sympathy if Dorian was the only queer character in Inquisition, instead of – as is actually the case – one of six (or seven, depending on your Hawke). Even if we discount non-romanceable characters – and I’d rather not, frankly; the fact that the Inquisitor can’t sleep with Krem or Hawke or Leliana doesn’t make their presence in the narrative any less important – we’re still left with Sera, Josephine and the Iron Bull, none of whose arcs are contingent on their sexuality.

Nor, despite hinging on Halward’s rejection of Dorian’s queerness, is his quest unrelated to the main plot. In a narrative driven by a Tevinter magister’s misuse of blood magic, Dorian’s arc serves as a poignant microcosm of the whole: where Corypheus attempts to forcibly remake the entire world, Halward Pavus attempts to forcibly remake his son. In a game where the Inquisition allies with the mages at Redcliffe, this comparison is rendered even more devastating by the actions of Alexius, Dorian’s mentor, who similarly abuses magic in an attempt to save his own son, Felix: an awful, inverted parallel to Halward’s actions, but with far greater repercussions. Just as pertinently, the inclusion of what amounts to magical conversion therapy in Thedas – we’re never told exactly what “change” Halward meant to affect, but the implications are universally frightening – is powerful all by itself, not least because it doesn’t end in tragedy. Off the top of my head, I can think of exactly one narrative that engages with queer conversion and still has a happily ever after – the 1999 film But I’m A Cheerleader – and while there are doubtless others, that doesn’t detract from their rarity.

What irks me most about this dismissal of Dorian’s arc, however, is the way in which it implicitly categorises Sera, Bull and Josephine as not queer enough. This might seem paradoxical, given the nature of the original complaint, and yet we have an unfortunate cultural tendency, in our discussions of queerness, to situate gay men as being somehow more queer than anyone else; or at least, more significantly so. In this context, I’m thinking particularly of bi/pan erasure: left to their own romantic devices, Bull and Dorian end up together, and yet every complaint I’ve seen which cites this as part of Dorian being an obviously queer character neglects to complain likewise of Bull.

Oh, but it’s not like that! Dorian is flamboyant, and Bull isn’t! Dorian draws attention to his sexuality, and Bull doesn’t! Listen, I don’t know what game you guys were playing, but it’s Bull who initiates all the early flirting and sexual banter: he’s open about his queerness from the outset, whereas Dorian takes a long time to be anywhere near so comfortable. By the same token, the fact that Dorian is cultured and witty doesn’t make him flamboyant, and even if we’re talking about his clothing choices, Bull’s the one who goes around top-half naked except for a leather harness, joking about his pecs. I’ve often seen Dorian criticised along such lines, but never Bull – even, or perhaps especially, when such observations more rightly apply to him.

It’s like a kind of straw pareidolia: the seeing of stereotypes where none exist, the better to criticise them. Nor is it the only such example of what I’m coming to think of as the DA fandom’s peculiar meta-blindness: a sort of, if not exactly wilful, then stubborn oversimplification of culture and context. Which isn’t to say that I’ve never read any good DA meta, or that the franchise itself is somehow flawless – neither of those things are remotely true. Rather, I suspect, it’s a reflection of confusion in the source material. As a franchise, Dragon Age is intensely invested in discussing the politics and ramifications of fictional axes of oppression (mages, elves) in a setting that borrows heavily from historical axes of oppression (slavery, aristocracy), but which frequently stumbles when it comes to current axes of oppression (race, gender), all of which intersect with each other in various complex ways.

The practical upshot is that, as the creators have a tendency to neglect the current implications of their fictional and the historical elements in unfortunate ways, fans are correspondingly quick to confuse creation with endorsement: that is, to conflate the deliberate inclusion of particular fictional or historical injustices with the unconscious perpetration of current prejudices. This loss of subtlety can be particularly vexing when it comes to historical (or historically inspired, at least) axes, which are most often a synthesis of the fictional and the current, though in one particular instance, I have every sympathy as to why.

I want to tread very carefully here, but given how integral the concept is to the morality problems of DA2 and Inquisition in particular, I don’t think it’s possible to unpick the world of Dragon Age without addressing slavery. And so – carefully, carefully – I’m going to try.

Right off the bat, it needs to be acknowledged: slavery, with all its awful, degrading consequences, is a theme more current than historical, no matter how much some of us pretend otherwise. That being so, the issue – the concept – is vastly more personal to some than others, and for a number of different reasons. Because of my privilege, I’m not one of those people, but that doesn’t make me magically objective on the topic: it just means that, no matter how abhorrent I find the particulars, I’m not going to hurt myself by discussing them, though I may well, despite the best of intentions, hurt others in the attempt. As such, I’m going to try and situate this analysis firmly in the context of Thedas itself, drawing on historical comparisons only if absolutely necessary.

In DA2, the primary conflict is between mages and templars, with Anders and Fenris acting as mirrored exponents for the extreme end of each position. Anders, a human apostate escaped from the Circle, is outraged by the abuse and captivity of mages, seeking to free them by (almost) any means necessary. Fenris, an elven slave escaped from Tevinter, which is run by magisters, doesn’t believe that mages can be trusted without oversight. Anders compares the Circle to slavery; Fenris, who has been a slave – and subject to considerable, horrific abuse in that capacity – disputes the comparison. It’s also pertinent to note that, whereas Anders belongs to a human majority, Fenris is an elf, which makes him both a minority and a member of a race specifically targeted for slavery. Further compounding this from a player’s perspective, although this element isn’t discussed in-game, is the fact that Anders is white, while Fenris is brown.

What’s also deeply relevant, in terms of how magic works in Dragon Age, is the fact that mages are oppressed along a fundamentally fictional axis. By this, I don’t mean to say that mages aren’t hurt in realistic ways, or that their treatment has no real-world parallels: they are, and it does. But as with the various supernatural creatures of True Blood – a show which made overt and frequent comparisons between, for instance, anti-vampire sentiment and the historical persecution of black and Jewish people – the fundamental, inborn quality which sees mages classed as dangerous isn’t just a racist myth of inferiority, but a thing which actually exists in context. Namely: mages have magic, which grants them access to the Fade, where demons live. Mages can be corrupted or possessed by demons, either accidentally or willingly. Mages have the capacity to use blood magic, some of which discipline is merely stigmatised, but much of which involves material hurt to others, and all of which, if mishandled or poorly executed, can result in demonic release or possession.

This being so, all mages, trained or untrained, regardless of their intentions, are at least potentially dangerous by virtue of what they are: the seed of fear used to justify their oppression is, at base, true. In fact, the Dragon Age system of magic is one of the more damning and punitive I’ve ever encountered in fiction. In other settings, for instance, it’s common for mages to be dangerous only when untrained: accidental harm can be clearly distinguished from intentional harm, making rational caution of mages easier to distinguish from irrational fear. But in Dragon Age, whenever mages dream, they have to listen to actual whispering demons. Mages are constantly under siege from malevolent entities seeking to corrupt or control them, and while it’s often said in-world, usually by someone like Anders, that “Tevinter exists, and the world hasn’t ended” – meaning, there is a place where mages live without Circles, and it hasn’t imploded – the fact that Tevinter not only spawns Corypheus, who does almost destroy the world, but is a slave-based empire responsible for centuries of imperialism makes it… not a morally compelling argument.

Elves, by contrast, while similarly fictional, are mistreated solely on the basis of a racist myth of inferiority: they might not actually exist, but the axis of their oppression is certainly real. Which means, returning to the specific setup of DA2, that comparing Fenris with Anders – to say nothing of the two camps they ultimately represent – is an activity rife with pitfalls. Mages are human – or elven, or Qunari – and their magic is inborn. It can’t be repressed and, except at the expense of being made Tranquil, which is abhorrent, it can’t be removed. At the same time, magic itself – the act of having magic at all – is arguably terrifying. Even without the prospect of a child being taken from their parents to be raised in a Circle, Jedi-style but without the galactic kudos, being a mage means a lifetime spent contending with literal demons. Being a mage is like being born with a sword in your hand: the presence of the weapon is no guarantee of aptitude, you’re as likely to cut yourself as do harm to others, and it makes you a visible target of mortal fear and monstrous appetites both.

In short, mages vs templars in Dragon Age is a morality problem with no obvious, easy solutions: the ultimate in quis custodiet ipsos custodes. The potential danger posed by mages doesn’t justify the abuse to which they’re subjected under the Circle system, but nor is the general fear of mages irrational. Contextually, magic is almost like a disease vector, with demonic abuse as the virus: skill and intention won’t necessarily prevent a mage from infecting themselves or others, which leaves vigilance as the only real recourse. It’s zombie apocalypse logic in a fantasy setting, but hard to identify as such because, in most other fantasy settings, which create our collective expectations of the genre’s baseline, magic-users aren’t persecuted with anywhere near so valid a reason.

And for players trying to navigate moral decisions surrounding the use and restriction of magic, the issue is further compounded by the fact that, in all three games, it’s magic that fuels the enemy, and mages from within the protagonist’s camp who ultimately betray their allies. It’s worth analysing this pattern in-depth, if only because the actual gameplay mechanic – which is to say, the handwavy justification for the creation of multiply-spawning, must-be-killed-to-death enemies for the party to encounter – can often serve to obscure exactly how fucked up the situation is when viewed at a remove.

In Origins, on joining the Grey Wardens, the protagonist learns that the Wardens are initiated by drinking darkspawn blood, a ritual which, if it doesn’t kill them outright, will shorten their lives and eventually require them to commit suicide. In Redcliffe, it’s the Arlessa’s decision to keep her son, Connor, away from the Circle that leads to his demon possession and the death of almost an entire town. At the Circle on Lake Calenhad, the rebellion of a cabal of mages leads to the death or possession of almost their whole number, along with every templar bar one – Cullen Rutherford, more of whom later – who was trapped with them. In the Brecilian Forest, the Dalish Keeper, Zathrian, is revealed to have used his magic to create a monstrous werewolf, whose bite has infected hundreds of innocents over a period of decades. In Orzammar, the Paragon Branka becomes so consumed with the need to replicate an ancient magical technology that she allows her friends and lover to be consumed by darkspawn; is even willing to kill other dwarves in order to make new golems. And after all this, there’s the final sacrifice: Morrigan’s magic can help to defeat the archdemon, but at the cost of virginal Alistair, who prizes family connections and romantic fidelity, siring a child he’s never allowed to see with a woman he hates. “Good” magic might beat “evil” on the battlefield when reduced to the status of a tool defined by the hand which wields it, but it’s the callousness of a power-hungry apostate that packs the emotional suckerpunch at the finale, and with everything that’s come before, it’s hard to view it as an isolated incident.

Similarly, in Inquisition, despite the ostensible division between mages and templars when it comes to picking allies, abuse of magic and demonic interference is the root problem in both camps. Corypheus, the long-dead Tevinter magister-turned-demigod, uses both primeval red lyrium – an effectively magical substance – and various mages and demons to try and destroy the world. Demons pour into Thedas from a rip in the Veil, and while, as always, magic is used to combat magic, the emotional betrayal of the finale comes when Solas, the elven apostate, is revealed to be the trickster god Fen’Harel, whose quest to remake a past age anew was ultimately what caused the rise of Corypheus and the near-breaking of the world.

And thus, returning to DA2, the strangeness of the contrast between Fenris and Anders, templars and mages. The city of Kirkwall, where the story unfolds, is also called the City of Chains, having been founded by Tevinter mages and famed, once upon a time, for being a major slave-trading hub. The Gallows, where the Circle mages now live, was formerly reserved for slaves, and in snippets throughout the game, we also learn the city itself is constructed in such a way as to make the Veil thinner. Blood magic is performed more easily, yet goes awry more often, while demons are stronger, more powerful there: the legacy of Tevinter and its magical priorities, or (possibly) something darker, buried underground. While there’s a clear thematic comparison in mages living where magisters once kept slaves – and while it’s clear that the resident templar Knight-Commander, Meredith, has always taken a hard line against her charges – we also learn at the finale that her ultimate descent into madness is the result of infection by red lyrium: by, in essence, the very same magic she feared. And once again, it’s the resident apostate, Anders, who concludes the game with an emotional betrayal, orchestrating a magical explosion that kills hundreds of innocents in a strike against, not the templar order, but the Chantry, which in Kirkwall was run by a moderate.

I don’t know how else to say this but baldly: by game’s end, Anders is a terrorist. Blowing up the Chantry is a literal act of terrorism, being as how it constitutes a military strike on a non-military target, and if it were performed by a character who wasn’t an attractive white guy, I’m guessing that description of him wouldn’t be so rare. And no, before you mention it, in this specific instance, I don’t care that the Chantry is ultimately responsible for creating the templar order: Grand Cleric Elthina appointed Knight-Commander Meredith, but she was also trying to compromise with the mages, blocking Meredith’s call for the Right of Annulment. Anders, in picking the Chantry as his target, specifically states, “There can be no half-measures… there can be no peace. I removed the chance of compromise because there is no compromise.” Only a Sith deals in absolutes, and that is not the language of someone who’s sorry to murder strangers. 

The extent to which the extremity of this stance can be attributed to Anders being possessed by Justice/Vengeance – and therefore the extent of his personal culpability, were the spirit removed- is going to vary depending on who you ask. Personally, I’m inclined to judge him – him meaning Anders/Justice as a single entity – in the context of his actions throughout the game, and in that light, he remains consistent throughout. Romantically, I shied away from Anders because of his violent intensity, and given his claim to Hawke that “Justice disapproves of my obsession with you,” I’m inclined to view his earlier promise – “I would drown us in blood to keep you safe!” – as a sign that, even when acting on his own impulses, Anders is still possessed of some frightening qualities. And Justice, by the magical rules of Dragon Age, was originally a pure spirit. From the examples set by Wynne and Cole, we know it’s possible for benevolent spirits to remain benevolent while possessing humans; similarly, according to Solas, good spirits can become “twisted”, their nature “defiled” by humans who misuse them. Even though it’s Justice who convinces Anders to fight the oppression of mages, therefore, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to argue that Anders himself corrupts the spirit to Vengeance.

But however you attribute Anders’s actions, canonically speaking, it’s hard to argue against his hypocrisy. Speaking to Fenris, he says of the Circle mages, “They’re slaves! You should want to help them.” And yet, despite having made this comparison, Anders is singularly dismissive of Fenris’s actual experience of slavery, saying to Hawke, “He has let one bad experience colour his whole world. Surely you want someone more open-minded?” Worse, in the same conversation – and despite his vehement objection to Cullen’s claim that “Mages cannot be treated like people. They are not like you and me,” – he says of Fenris – to Hawke, but in Fenris’s hearing – “He seems less a man to me than a wild dog.” This is an abominable insult, and quite deliberately so: in fact, it’s a rare, clear instance where the fictional, historical and current axes of oppression all completely align. Fictionally, elves are oppressed in Thedas, with one of the most common slurs – “rabbit” – being animal in nature; by the same token, Anders is also aware that Fenris’s name, given to him by his abusive former master, means “little wolf”. Historically, slaves have often been compared to animals in such derogatory terms; which is why, currently, referring in particular to a brown man as a “wild dog” – especially when the speaker is a white man – is reminiscent of some truly ugly things.

But of course, Anders is an attractive white man presented as a viable romantic option for the protagonist, and so we – culturally conditioned creatures that we are – don’t readily stop to consider that he is simultaneously written as a prejudiced hypocritical terrorist; and more, that he is written this way on purpose. We are meant to be morally conflicted by Anders, just as we are meant to be morally conflicted by Morrigan and Solas – and yet, over and over and over again, in discussions of all three characters, I see their deliberate failings written off as BioWare’s accidental failings, as though the writers are merely including problematic or offensive dialogue for no good reason, and not because it’s serving the purpose of demonstrating bigotry in the characters. Morrigan’s appropriation of elven culture in Inquisition isn’t the result of BioWare failing to consider the negative implications of a human drinking from the Well of Sorrows, but a deliberate choice designed to make the player uncomfortable; hence the clear comparison with Dorian, who understands exactly why he, as a human mage from Tevinter, shouldn’t be the one to steal elven secrets, even if the intention is preservation.

Inarguably, part of the problem is the sheer complexity and length of the games themselves. A single playthrough of Inquisition alone can take upwards of eighty hours, and even then, you’re not going to witness anywhere near the full total of cutscenes and dialogue options. Being a compulsive dork, I tend to play through the first time with a Wiki open on my iPad, just in case I get stuck; the phenomenon I’m observing, that meta-blindness, may simply be the result of multiple players writing from incomplete perspectives. If you don’t take Dorian to the Arbor Wilds and ask him his opinion at the Well of Sorrows, for instance, it won’t be immediately obvious that his counterexample to Morrigan exists – and yet, at the same time, I can’t help thinking that whiteness, beauty and romantic availability go a long way towards fostering the automatic assumption that, regardless of what such a character said, if it makes them look bad or cruel or bigoted, it’s a writing error until proven otherwise. See also: Solas telling a Tal-Vashoth Inquisitor that “Qunari are savage creatures… but you have shown a subtlety in your actions,” which insult has lead someone to ask, without any apparent irony, “Does BioWare not realise what they’re doing?”. Yes, random internet person: yes, they do. They want you to think Solas is an asshole.

There is also, I’ve found, an even more disturbing parallel to this phenomenon of presumed white character innocence: assumed brown character guilt. For every post I’ve seen that criticises BioWare for unintentionally painting Solas or Morrigan in a bigoted light, I’ve seen at least three others castigating Dorian – not the writers, but Dorian himself – for being a former slave owner.

Take a moment for that particular double standard to sink in.

By this toxic, racist logic, if a white character is problematic or bigoted, it’s because BioWare made a mistake and didn’t realise the negative implications – but if a brown character is problematic or bigoted, it was clearly intentional, and the character cops the flak. Consider, for instance, the problem of Vivienne: a black woman whose racial identity, as others have pointed out, is almost an afterthought, unattached as it is to any particular region in Thedas. Vivienne is often criticised for being cold, impersonal or cruel, but while I’ve sometimes seen the more problematic aspects of her characterisation attributed to BioWare, who perhaps didn’t consider the current racial implications of making their lone black female character an advocate for systematic oppression (an unchanged Circle, in this case), more often than not, she’s simply dismissed as unlikeable.

Dorian’s case, I feel, is slightly trickier (see above re: privilege and slavery), and yet his characterisation as a “slavery apologist” niggles at me. Specifically: it niggles because a similar claim isn’t ever made of Cullen Rutherford.

Why Cullen, you ask? Allow me to explain:

In Origins, Cullen is the lone templar survivor of the disaster at the Lake Calenhad Circle, a deeply traumatic experience which – somewhat understandably – leaves him with a vehement fear of mages. As such, when we see him in DA2, he’s Knight-Commander Meredith’s right hand; that he ultimately aids Hawke and the mages against her (if you take that option) doesn’t change the fact that, for the seven year duration of the game’s events, he’s been complicit in some pretty horrific atrocities, including summary executions, regular torture and confinement, mages being unfairly made Tranquil, and their systematic rape and sexual abuse. That Cullen hasn’t necessarily done all these things himself doesn’t absolve him of his role in letting them flourish; certainly, he knows about some of it, and does nothing. But by the events of Inquisition, he’s finally learned to question: though still traumatised, he’s willing to work with mages, and acknowledges them as people. Give the man a cookie!

Particularly in DA2 – which is to say, in with reference to the Kirkwall Circle, supervised by Cullen – we’re encouraged to compare Circle conditions to slavery. And certainly, whatever we might conclude about the innate dangers of mages and the practises of Circles elsewhere, in that time and place, it’s a very apt comparison. Dorian, by contrast, is raised in Tevinter – a place where elves are enslaved by virtue of being elves, but where humans can choose to indenture themselves as an alternative to poverty. This latter option is historically reminiscent of Rome, on which Tevinter is largely based, but at the same time, it’s very clear that Tevinter is its own ecosystem.

Many moons ago, I expressed my irritation with a phenomenon I think of as Sexism Without Sexists: stories where women are oppressed as a narrative default, but where the male heroes are never shown to be overtly sexist, thus enabling the creation of stories where female agency is restricted (and female characters correspondingly minimised) without damaging the likeability of the male protagonists. Since Origins, Tevinter has been established as a slave-owning country, and seldom treated with any moral subtlety as a consequence. Which, yes, on the one hand, if a country is pro-slavery, we can be pretty sure they’re not a bunch of stand-up guys. But on the other hand, one of the most horrific things about slavery is the fact that, for those not enslaved, it becomes a background element: that life goes on around it, facilitated by it, and mostly without critiquing it. And in both DA2 and Inquisition, it’s clear that BioWare is trying to move beyond simplistic, Black Hat notions of Bad Guy cultures, even if they are still using literal evil monsters like Corypheus (because fantasy tropes). Together with the changes to Tevinter, this shift is exemplified by the steady development of the Qunari from ‘conveniently warlike culture of monstrous-looking invaders’ to ‘startlingly original and complex culture of weirdly socialist, polyamorous, non-monogamous philosopher-warriors’, which is definitely a change for the better.

Similarly, in addition to establishing Tevinter and the Qunari as convenient Bad Guys, Origins also set the precedent for both nations being majority dark-skinned, or at least non-white, which… I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s problematic. By the same token, whitewashing both races in future games as a “fix” to this would’ve been equally unpalatable – and so, instead, BioWare has gone about giving their cultures nuance and depth, trying to create something positive from the mess of their early mistakes. If we’d never heard of Tevinter before Inquisition, that would be one thing; but as part of a developing narrative about an established world, it’s vital to look at how portrayals of both Tevinter and the Qunari have become more complex since Origins.

And thus, Dorian Pavus: a character intended to represent a positive scion of Tevinter without making obnoxious use of Slavery Without Slavers. It would’ve been easy in the extreme to paint Dorian as an abolitionist from birth; to make him a convenient exception to everything we hate about his country. Instead, BioWare took the harder option of acknowledging that yes, good people, however we define so perilously nebulous a term, aren’t magically immune to the uglier sides of the cultures which raise them; that questioning has to be learned. Dorian is critical of slavery, but that doesn’t mean he automatically accepts that abject poverty is somehow marvellous, either. Consider, in-game, the treatment of Kirkwall’s Circle mages; the treatment of elves in Ferelden alienages. Whether fictional, historical or current, a system of oppression doesn’t have to be called slavery in order to be morally reprehensible, or to mimic certain of slavery’s abuses.

(By the same token, when Solas says to Dorian, “If you wish to make amends for past transgressions, free the slaves of all races who live in Tevinter today,” the fact that Dorian replies with “I… don’t know that I can do that,” isn’t apologia for slavery, but a literal statement of fact. He, Dorian, physically cannot do this thing, because Dorian is only one person. When Solas says “you” in this conversation, he’s talking about Dorian in the singular, not Tevinters in the plural, as contextualised by their previous remarks: Solas, being a provocative shit, is suggesting Dorian do an impossible thing, and Dorian, being honest, is acknowledging that he can’t, not stating that he shouldn’t.)

The care taken to construct Dorian’s perspective, however, is most obvious when you compare his remarks on slavery to those of Fenris. In DA2, during Fenris’s personal quest, the slave Orana exclaims, “Everything was fine until today!” To which Fenris, quiet and raw, replies, “It wasn’t. You just didn’t know any better.” This remark is a reference to Fenris’s time with the Qunari Fog Warriors on Seheron – people who helped him during his first separation from Danarius, but who he subsequently killed on his master’s orders. (“Are you my master now?” Orana asks next. And then, when Fenris says not, “But… I can cook. I can clean! What else can I do?”) Slavery, as Fenris knows all too well, is a mindset as much as an institution: obedience, even (or perhaps especially) to one’s abusers, is a habit not easily broken.

And Dorian understands this, too. Asked about slavery, he says, “Back home, it’s… how it is. Slaves are everywhere. You don’t question it. I’m not even certain many slaves do.” His subsequent statement – “Some slaves are treated poorly, it’s true. But do you honestly think inescapable poverty is better?” – isn’t exactly a glowing denunciation; at best, it reads as flippant understatement mixed with false equivalence. Yet even so, you’ll have to explain to me, please and thank you, why this is a fundamentally more repugnant, more utterly unforgivable statement than Cullen’s claim, in DA2, that “Mages cannot be treated like people. They are not like you and me.” Dorian, however wrongheadedly, is at least acknowledging that slaves don’t deserve to be mistreated; Cullen’s statement is far more viciously biogted, denying his charges even their basic humanity. And whereas Cullen has personally presided over the monstrous abuse at the Kirkwall Circle, Dorian, we’re told, has never seen his family mistreat their slaves, nor owned any himself. He spends the rest of the game – this comment being made early on – expanding his horizons.

Dorian Pavus has far fewer sins to his name than Cullen Rutherford when it comes to the abuse of powerless people under his control, yet of the two, it’s Dorian who’s more often cast as irredeemable, Dorian’s fans who are asked to justify their affection. The truth is, both men are morally complicated- BioWare, it seems, don’t do anything so dreary as simplex morality if they can help it – and both are offered redemption by the narrative. Cullen wants to find a new way for mages and templars to work together; Dorian wants to reform Tevinter. I’m not going to criticise anyone who draws the line at absolving them for their sins or who fundamentally dislikes either character, but I can and will point out the hypocrisy of fandom, as a collective entity, routinely pardoning the straight white man while demonising the queer brown one.

Returning briefly to the topic of queerness: while I understand the disappointment some fans felt regarding the romance options in Inquisition – specifically the fact that, unlike in DA2, the love interests had static orientations, rather than being protagsexual – I also think there’s value in acknowledging that queerness isn’t amorphous, but is constructed from multiple different identities. A protagsexual Dorian, for instance, by dint of being bi/pan, wouldn’t have had the same conversion therapy arc; or at the very least, it couldn’t have been told the same way. The fact that two people are queer doesn’t mean they have identical experiences of queerness, and as much as I’d love to romance Cassandra as Asha Adaar – and as much as my gleeful bisexual heart will forever love DA2 for making everyone bi/pan, it’s literally canon, fight me – it’s equally important to acknowledge a spectrum of sexual preferences and their potentially different narrative impact. (Dear BioWare, if you’re listening: why not alternate this approach from game to game? Make the next DA protagsexual again, and the one after that more specific. ALL THE QUEER ROMANCEABLES, huzzah!)

Nor is this the only important aspect of Inquisition which, from where I’m sitting, seems to get less praise than it deserves. In many respects, in fact, it’s rather revelatory, not least because the Inquisition itself is driven by women. The Inquisitor is saved from the fade by the spirit of Divine Justinia, then taken into custody by Cassandra and Leliana, the right and left hands of the now-dead Divine, who’ve taken it upon themselves to recruit, among others, Cullen and Josephine. This, too, feels like a correction of early DA errors: Origins in particular is notable for having established an ostensibly egalitarian world – or at least, a world in which women can equally fight and rule and lead in various capacities, and where the primarily religious organisation is female-dominated – while simultaneously making almost all the relevant, authoritative NPCs men. DA2 makes a stab at correcting this, but ultimately, Grand Cleric Elthina, Leandra Hawke, Patrice, Hadriana and Knight-Commander Meredith are either politely ineffectual or wickedly corrupt: it’s First Enchanter Orsino, the Viscount and his son, Commander Cullen, Danarius, Gamlen, the Arishok and a succession of male intermediaries who show a full range of moral complexity while nudging the plot along.

In Inquisition, however, not only does Josephine’s introduction render the Inner Circle predominantly female, but the game’s entire narrative is arguably split, at least in part, along gender lines. This is, of necessity, subtly done; which is to say, the women are neither absent nor saintlike, the men made of sterner, more complex stuff than straw. Rather, we’re shown a series of power struggles in which women are granted a variety of roles, and where male arrogance is largely expressed as a function of contextual male privilege. Grand Enchanter Fiona is pitted against Magister Alexius; Warden-Commander Clarel de Chanson against Lord Erimond; Cassandra against Lord Seeker Lambert (or his demon impersonator); Calpernia against Corypheus; Briala and Empress Celene against Duke Gaspard. Not all these struggles have the same dynamic, and yet, over and over again, Inquisition shows us what happens when women who’ve been manipulated and lied to by powerful men decide to fight back. Like Sera sticking up for the little people and the continual presence of small, domestic quests amidst far bigger crises, there’s a profound, continuous undercurrent of, not just inclusivity, but recognition of the fact that everyone matters when you’re saving the world, especially if you’re planning to remake it as something better when you’re done.

Nor is it irrelevant that, out of all the main characters, the three with the most prestigious, political backgrounds – Josephine, Dorian and Vivienne – are all people of colour. Cassandra, though technically royalty, is a warrior, not a diplomat: the other three are all consummate courtiers and intellectuals (though I wonder if, as a Nevarran, she might not be categorised as white-passing rather than white). Even the Iron Bull, who’s arguably a person of colour depending on how you categorise Qunari, is a spy, incisive, intuitive and literate in addition to being a massive, muscular brawler. And if you recruit the Templars, it’s Delrin Barris who proves the most honourable of his company, one of few brave enough to speak up against the corruption and brutality of his commanders. In a genre which so often exoticises people of colour while simultaneously marking them as Other by the standards of what’s contextually deemed civilised, it’s subversive as hell to take a European-inspired setting like Thedas – and particularly the deeply English/French duo of Ferelden/Orlais – and say that, actually, the people best suited to navigating these waters, out of everyone in the Inquisition, are all immensely competent outsiders: a straight black woman who’s risen to power on the basis of her extraordinary skill and acumen, a queer brown woman, nobly born, who’s managed to do likewise (and who’s bringing her family back into prominence with her), and a queer brown man from an enemy nation who still knows more about social etiquette and alliances than the commander of the Inquisition forces.

The fact that Inquisition gives us Krem, a trans male character whose companions all unhesitatingly accept him as such – and whose friendship with Bull gives me feelings – is another such diverse highlight. In fact, all our escapee Tevinter boys are rather striking, a confluence I’m discinlined to view as coincidental. Taken collectively, I’d contend, the Iron Bull, Fenris, Krem and Dorian represent four different facets of Tevinter society – the embedded Qunari; the elven slaves; the human soldier class; the aristocratic magisters – in an embedded, interrelated narrative that reads as a damning takedown of traditional, toxic masculinity.

The Iron Bull, while raised in the Qun to disregard romantic attachments, can nonetheless fall in love with either the Inquisitor or Dorian. At the same time, his hypermasculine attributes of size and strength aren’t tied, as is so often the case with such characters, to heteronormative ideals, but are rather complimented by a relaxed, comfortable, kinky pansexuality. Fenris, whose relationship with Danarius is strongly coded to imply rape (Danarius laciviously calls him “skilled” when taunting Fenris and Hawke; same sex relations in Tevinter are encouraged with favourite slaves; Fenris is touch-phobic), is one of a vanishingly rare number of male abuse victims shown in games. His arc in DA2 is – or can be; is ideally, I’d argue – one of healing and self-acceptance. Rather than relying on isolation and stoicism, Fenris heals through his friendships, by learning to trust the people he cares about; by talking, however privately, about his trauma. Krem is a trans character whose personal history, while involving flight from his family and betrayal in the army, is nonetheless presented utterly without self-hatred. Krem knows who he is, and while he can acknowledge that his life hasn’t always been easy, he isn’t a tragic character: his friends and romantic partners accept him, he’s great at his job, he’s got a killer wry sense of humour, and he doesn’t take crap from strangers. He’s level-headed, successful and just a little bit shy: a portrait in all respects of the kind of positive, diverse masculinity we so badly need to see more of.

And Dorian? Dorian is a privileged man oppressed by the same strictures of toxic, heteronormative masculinity which ostensibly see him elevated. Rather than opt for a life of misogyny and self-hatred, married to a woman he doesn’t like, love or respect, he asserts his own identity and questions the world that raised him. Conditioned to expect only physical attachment – not, like Bull, due to any cultural mandate against romance, but because his romantic inclinations don’t run in an approved direction – he nonetheless finds love and self-acceptance in the Inquisition, eventually using what remains of his privilege in the service of others. Put together, not only do all four men represent a spectrum of sexuality – Bull is pansexual, Fenris bisexual, Krem straight, Dorian gay – but their narratives engage with maleness in very different ways. None of them is a queer tragedy; all of them are men of colour; and all of them present masculinity as fluid, adaptable, variable.

How many other games can boast as much?

There’s a heartbreaking moment in DA2 when Fenris, hurt and vulnerable, asks – furiously, rhetorically – “What does magic touch that it doesn’t spoil?” (He’s covered in magic lyrium. He’s talking about himself. My heart.) It’s a question few fantasy narratives, buoyed by the genre’s love of magic as novelty, would think to ask with any degree of seriousness, let alone seek to answer with such complexity. Whatever failings can be heaped on the Dragon Age franchise, it’s hard to deny that they’re striving to tell new stories about a wide range of people; that they’re attempting, with each new game, to learn from prior mistakes; that their failures stem more often (now) from enthusiastic ambition than ignorance. In fact, they’ve created such a wealth of rich, detailed material that our critical analysis is still racing to catch up with the content: despite everything I’ve said here, I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I look forward to finding more.

 

 

In news that should come as a shock to exactly no one, I can be kind of an asshole. What may come as a shock, depending on how long you’ve known me, is that I’m arguably less of an asshole now than I used to be. In my teens and early twenties, I said and did a lot of things I now find abhorrent, sometimes out of carelessness and not knowing any better, sometimes as a result of having internalised a bunch of toxic bullshit, but sometimes just because I was being an asshole. And the thing about being an asshole – or one of the things, anyway – is that, even when part of you knows exactly what you’re doing and why, there’s another, louder part that doesn’t give a shit, or which conveniently chooses to reserve your shit-giving capabilities until such time as being an asshole is definitively proven to correlate with Having Fucked Up. Being human is not an exact science, and some things can only be learned the hard way, by making a wrong call and gauging its wrongness in retrospect.

Consider the following small act of assholery, performed when I was sixteen:

During a conversation with a close friend – and for the life of me, I can’t remember the specifics of the conversation; only that we were talking about another, mutual friend who’d been having a hard time – I said, in a somewhat offhand way, as though it were obvious, “See, you’re more sympathetic, and I’m more empathetic. You see what’s happening to [friend], but you don’t really feel it the way I do. We’re just different like that.”

Part of me really believed this; or at least, believed it sufficiently in the moment, in the context of that particularly complex relationship, to have said it out loud. Nonetheless, even had it been an entirely accurate judgement – which, for the record, it wasn’t – saying it like that was still a dick move. I can’t even call it a backhanded compliment, because in my mind, it was very clear that empathy was the more desirable trait. I was rather asserting a form of moral superiority over my friend: my kindness is better than your kindness, my understanding of people more intuitive. The irony of making such a claim in a knowingly hurtful way wasn’t wholly lost on me, but I felt slighted by her, and so couched a negative judgement in language which pretended an objectivity I didn’t remotely feel.

My friend was visibly irritated by the remark; hurt, as I’d secretly wanted her to be, and forced onto the defensive. I don’t remember the rest of the exchange, but that moment has stuck with me. Even though I knew the comparison was an insult prior to speaking, it wasn’t until afterwards that I really understood what it meant to have said it anyway. I’d been an asshole, plain and simple: the opposite of empathetic, at least where she was concerned.

Reading Amy Sterling Casil’s recent SF Signal guest post, Special Needs in Strange Worlds: We Are All Disabled, therefore, this incident sprang instantly to mind. Says Sterling-Casil:

I have a severe, lifelong disability that could have cost my life on several occasions. It’s the reason I write what I do and am who I am. But it also means I can’t write the kind of thing you’re often presented with as reading material.

What’s my disability? I’m 5’6″, pretty much fit, active and healthy. Decent eyesight for an old lady. Okay hearing despite numerous loud concerts and shows during my youth. I don’t even have cancer or heart disease after smoking like a fiend nearly all my life. My liver even functions, although it shouldn’t.

I’m very fortunate.

But I hear you. Even when I don’t want to. I feel you. Even when I don’t want to and shouldn’t. I am empathetic. That isn’t the same as “sympathetic.” Many who are like me don’t make it out of their late teens and early 20s because of associated risky behaviors.

That sound you hear, dear reader, is my gritted teeth grinding together.

Let me put this bluntly: empathy is not a disability. Even if I take Sterling Casil at her notably unsourced word and accept her premise here – that empathy, as a specifically defined condition, is a direct, causative (rather than correlative) factor in the suicide and/or death by misadventure of young people – that does not make it a disability. Depression, along with various other mental health conditions and disorders, can be a form of disability, but whether we define it as such depends largely on who “we” are and our reasons for doing so. According to the UK government, for instance:

A mental health condition is considered a disability if it has a long-term effect on your normal day-to-day activity. This is defined under the Equality Act 2010.

Your condition is ‘long term’ if it lasts, or is likely to last, 12 months.

‘Normal day-to-day activity’ is defined as something you do regularly in a normal day. For example – using a computer, working set times or interacting with people.

By this definition, I am – or have been – disabled, and yet I have never identified as such. Partly, this is because there’s an enormous cultural stigma around the acknowledgement, diagnosis and discussion of mental health problems as, well, actual problems. Even during my worst depressive episodes, it would never have occurred to me to think of myself as disabled. It’s a relative of the same prejudice which biases us towards assuming that disabilities are necessarily visible things, like missing limbs or striped canes: if a stranger can’t tell there’s something wrong with you, this logic goes, you must be totally able-bodied. Note, too, the wording: able-bodied, as though disability doesn’t apply to minds. But while I’m all for a more lucid, open dialogue about mental health stigma – or many such dialogues, even – it would be counter-productive to insist that anyone who fits the above definition (for instance) refer to themselves as disabled, regardless of their own beliefs or preferences.

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, there’s enough anti-disability sentiment in the world that, for many people, being open about an “invisible” disability can have real consequences: the loss of a job or promotion, for instance. Words, too, can have a powerful impact on our sense of self depending on what they mean to us and – crucially – the circumstances of their application. For instance: I identify as queer, both because it’s a useful shorthand for expressing two facets of my personhood (bisexuality and genderqueerness) without requiring that I specify either, and because, growing up, it wasn’t a word I ever heard used as a slur. But for other people, that’s not the case, and the fact that I’m happy to self-identify as queer doesn’t mean I’m going to foist that label on someone who thinks of it as an insult. By the same token, however, I don’t appreciate being told, as happened recently – and by a straight person, no less – that it’s offensive and wrong of me to call myself queer, because it was once an insult. (This person, who was in all other respects a charming, lovely individual, literally fled the room rather than continue the conversation when I suggested that, as I was talking about myself, perhaps I should have some greater say in the word’s applicability than he did.)

All of which is a way of saying: if identifying as disabled is going to cause someone more problems, practical or emotional, than it solves, then I support their right to avoid the term without accepting that the concept of disability must therefore, of necessity, have negative connotations in all cases. The diagnostic applicability of a word is not the same as personal acceptance of it, and in keeping with the vital Hippocratic sentiment of first, do no harm, I’d rather err on the side of the individual.

But, as it happens, I do disagree with Sterling Casil: because while I might, on the basis of personal experience, accept the idea that empathy can be a correlative factor in depression, and is therefore potentially relevant to individual disabilities, I do not for a red hot minute believe that empathy alone, as described by Sterling Casil, is a separate disability. Sadness is not the same as depression, no matter how intensely we feel it, regardless of where it comes from. Sadness can be part of depression, certainly, but on this point, I’m putting my foot down: the two words are not interchangeable.

I first started to think – maybe you’re not just “sensitive,” Amy, maybe you are truly different –when I was at the Denver Worldcon in 2007. Wow, almost 10 years ago! I ended up as the “expert” on a panel on what I’ll call gene therapy…

Afterward, a young man came up to me, as if I was some kind of expert. This scared me; I soon realized it was he who was scared.

“Do you think they’ll come up with a cure for autism?” he asked.

“It’s possible,” I said. “A lot more likely than for something like Down Syndrome even though there is no single cause for autism.”

 My son Anthony was born with Down Syndrome. This young chap would never know that, nor would he care if he knew.

First: the only reason “this young chap would never know” about Sterling Casil’s son – assuming he doesn’t read her post now, of course – is because she didn’t tell him, not because of his autism. I don’t fault Sterling Casil for declining to share such a personal piece of information with a complete stranger, but I fail to see how his ignorance is somehow remarkable when she was the one who opted not to remedy it.

Second, and far more importantly: the assertion that the man “would [not] care if he knew” is, quite frankly, so much offensive, inaccurate bullshit. Dear Amy Sterling Casil: making a snap judgement about a stranger’s capacity for compassion on the basis of their autism doesn’t make you “sensitive” and “different”, especially when you uncritically replicate the assumption in print – it makes you an asshole.

The young man wouldn’t meet my eye. He said, “My wife and I both have autism. We want to have children but we don’t want them to have it.” Uncharacteristically for someone with autism, he touched my arm.

As Jim Hines has already pointed out, not everyone with autism is touch-phobic. This is, again, a bullshit judgement.

He was so very frightened!

And this, right here, is the point where I saw red. Because, look: okay. People have different writing styles. And maybe, if I’m being very charitable, this sort of construction is part of Sterling Casil’s; not having read her before, I wouldn’t know. But to me, everything about this simple statement screams paternalistic condescension, and thereby betrays the awfulness of her assumptions. This isn’t a calm judgement, but an exclamation: he was so very frightened! The use of the double qualifier, so very, instead of just one or the other, and especially when followed by an exclamation mark, is a construction you commonly find in children’s books, not in reference to grown adults. It’s minimising language, the kind of thing you can imagine being said of Tom Kitten or Timmy fallen down the well: he was so very frightened! And then there’s the absolute narrative certainty of it: he was, not he seemed or he looked. Nothing in Sterling Casil’s previous description of the man speaks to visible expressions of fear: contextually, it doesn’t feel like the right word at all.

Maybe it’s just a literary failing: poor sentence construction utterly unaffected by subconscious bias about what autism is and how it functions. But somehow, I doubt it.

“There’s a reason God made autism,” I said. I had already come to believe this was true.

“I don’t believe in God,” he said.

No. Okay? No. This is an asshole thing to say – a dick move of the highest fucking order. It doesn’t matter if Sterling Casil believes it to be true: if she really felt the man was “so very frightened” of his own autism, of the mere prospect of passing it along, why on Earth would she think he’d find that assertion comforting? Never mind the declarative, false assumption that the man shared Sterling Casil’s faith sufficiently to be comforted by it in the first place: he’s asking about a cure, and you’re telling him God doesn’t think he needs one? Wow.

Here’s a thought: if you can’t set aside your personal faith, or lack of same, in order to comfort someone with different beliefs – or worse, if it never even occurs to you that this might be the best approach – then maybe what you’re feeling isn’t empathy, but arrogance.

Some time later, I realized. He came up to me because of who I am, and said what he said, because of who he was. And my response was made for the same reasons.

I’ve read these sentences about forty times now, and I still can’t decide if they’re meant to imply that the entire exchange was preordained in some sense, or if it’s just a pointless acknowledgement of the fact that our personhood necessarily impacts our actions. Either way: um.

Autistic people have massive gifts. They are able to do things, think, and see the world in amazing ways. One of my favorite films, one which we view in some of the classes I share with students, is The Temple Grandin Story, starring Claire Danes. Temple’s wonderful teacher, portrayed in the film by David Strathairn, tells her mother (also wonderful, played by Julia Ormond), that Temple is different from other children. Both mother and teacher agree that Temple is: “Different, not less.”

On the one hand, yes: being autistic doesn’t make you lesser than anyone else, and it sure as hell doesn’t preclude being talented. And certainly, an autistic perspective can have some decided advantages over a neurotypical one, depending on the person and the context. (I say can rather than does, not because neurotypical is better more often – it isn’t – but because different people are always going to have different strengths and weaknesses in different settings, regardless of attribution.) But on the other hand, I can’t quite shake my suspicion, especially given the film comparison and her earlier, stereotypical assumptions, that Sterling Casil is romanticising autism as the diagnosis of savants.

Abed - mildly autistic super detectives everywhere.gif

This conversation with the autistic young man was one of my turning points. It was then that I realized my perceptions really were different from most others. I had the opposite of autism. And even more: we are all different.

Again, as Jim Hines has already pointed out, empathy is not the fucking opposite of autism. That some autistic people might not express their empathy in ways that are easily recognised by neurotypical persons doesn’t mean they don’t feel it, or that autism is somehow defined by a lack of it. The fact that Sterling Casil implies this to be so is doubly concerning when you consider how quick she is to associate an absence of empathy with sociopathy:

I suppose what bothers me most, now that I do understand these things, is that there is so little value in our society to the humane core that is inside nearly all of us. I see clearly, and hate, the sociopath who pulls our strings, making us dance to their wicked puppet rhythms. How many stories, how many films, how many TV shows do they get? It’s exhausting.

Right. So, just to be clear: some people are absent a “humane core”, which Sterling Casil associates with empathy, but which “the sociopath who pulls our strings” presumably lacks.

UM.

A few psychologists call people like me empaths. I brought up “sociopaths” because like empaths, sociopaths also readily perceive the feelings and motives of others. Unlike sociopaths, empaths have no desire to harm others.

I would be deeply interested to know which psychologists Sterling Casil is referencing here, as her sentence construction leans on this vague reference to academic authority in order to support her subsequent claims about sociopaths. Given that sociopathy, contrary to the assertions of Steven Moffat, is itself a highly flawed, disputed and arguably outdated term, I’m inclined to view this whole claim with a suspiciously raised eyebrow.

Some of us experience barriers and risks because we are so easily influenced by the feelings, ideas and emotions of others that we may lack a strong sense of self.  We are also highly susceptible to substance abuse and other forms of risk-taking behavior. There’s little to no scientific research done on us and nobody but we few survivors genuinely understands how difficult it is to be this aware of others and their feelings and motives.

The bolding and italics in that last excerpt are mine. Self-diagnosis of mental health conditions is one thing; inventing an entire condition seemingly out of whole cloth is another. The language Sterling Casil uses to describe empathy in the first half of this paragraph is both vague to the point of uselessness – what the fuck does that mean, “some of us experience barriers and risks”? – and worded to sound like an actual, academic definition; and yet, in the very next sentence, she admits that no such thing exists.

One researcher who has published a significant body of work is Dr. Ron Riggio at Claremont McKenna College. Ron believes that empathy is an essential leadership trait.

A quick Google search about Dr Riggio yields, among other things, a 2011 article whose concluding statement would seem to be the exact opposite of Sterling Casil’s claims about empathy – namely, that it’s a discreet and specific disability. Having spent the rest of the piece discussing the three different types of empathy invented by someone called Mark Davis – Perspective-Taking, Personal Distress and Empathic Concern – Riggio concludes by saying:

In reality, we all have some level of each of the types of empathy. The key is to understand the ways that we are empathic with others, and to realize the strengths and limitations of each type of empathy.

So… not what Sterling Casil is asserting, then. In fact, I can’t find a single piece of Riggio’s that categorises empathy as a disability at all, nor can I find any such claim made by another academic. No, Sterling Casil doesn’t explicitly argue that empathy as disability is Riggio’s thesis, but he’s the only authority she mentions in her entire piece, and as such, I’m inclined to think she’s gone looking for piecemeal opinions to support the idea that her particular brand of empathy makes her special, rather than acknowledging that empathy is a thing that most people have, but which they express in ways not necessarily identical to her own.

It seems to me that assuming strong empathy to be a unique, special and rare quality possessed only by a “few survivors” is a failure of empathy and imagination both.

Even a hundred years ago, those with autism were so isolated and so misunderstood that the chances they would have the freedom and safe lives to build, make and create were slim and none.

Again, where the hell is Sterling Casil getting this from? I’m not denying that many people on the autistic spectrum have both struggled and experienced discrimination at various points in history as a result of their condition, but as the term autism has only been in use since 1911, discrimination against the autistic as a specific group is a very recent phenomenon. More likely, as per the earlier example of different skillsets and perspectives being strengths or weaknesses in different contexts, their treatment was much more contingent on intersectional markers like gender, race and class (as, indeed, is still the case): a wealthy male aristocrat with idiosyncratic behaviour was much more likely to be accepted on his own terms, for instance, than a poor woman who did likewise. This generalised assumption of victimhood is so historically unsophisticated as to be fundamentally inaccurate – just another way in which Sterling-Casil badly misunderstands her subject area.

Our lives have changed and grown because of the FLK’s (Funny-Looking Kids) and FAK’s (Funny-Acting Kids). They are precious, valuable, essential.

What in the actual fuck is this nomenclature doing in a supposedly pro-disability piece? By all means, let me know if I’m missing something – if these are terms affectionately coined and used by those with disabilities in reference to themselves – but on the face of it, situated in the utter mess of this article, my reaction is one of stunned disbelief.

Humanity will deserve to leave this planet and go to the stars, and we’ll be able to survive and thrive—because of people like me.

On the basis of this piece, I beg to differ.

(This is an asshole thing to say. I’m aware of that. Let’s call it a little contextual irony.)

How can I possibly say we are all cripples?

Oh my god.

When a physically able person sees someone in a wheelchair and feels “sorry” for them, they should consider the different perceptions that wheelchair enables them to have. They see and hear things those who stand and walk do not. They get to live a different life. Different, not less.

I am not physically disabled, nor have I ever been. But I’m pretty fucking sure that, however positively or negatively one feels about using a wheelchair – about whether it’s something you “get” to do, as opposed to a thing you have to do – it doesn’t grant you magical powers of intuitive perception. Rather, I’m given to understand, the things one hears in a wheelchair that other people don’t aren’t secret universal truths, but condescending assumptions about their capabilities, ableist slurs and abuse, a whole lot of height-related awkwardness, and patronising platitudes from people who want to use their existence as an inspiration. Everyone lives a different life, but that doesn’t mean there’s any utility in erasing the complications that particular disabilities, and our attitudes towards them, frequently present. Acknowledging the fact that people in wheelchairs can live rich, full lives on their own terms doesn’t mean there aren’t wheelchair-specific problems still to navigate, or that it’s wrong for some people in wheelchairs to wish they didn’t need them.

The opposite of feeling instinctively “sorry” for a disabled person isn’t assuming they’re totally happy with their lot in life and the unique perspective it affords them, but is rather to treat them like a fucking person: that is, to not make judgements about how they might feel about themselves – or anything else, for that matter – on the basis of first appearances and their membership, visible or otherwise, of an enormously diverse group.

I wrote one well-known story called “To Kiss the Star,” about a young woman named Mel Armstrong, wheelchair-bound, blind and spastic with a heart defect. Mel won the lottery to be housed in a hardened spaceship —to get a perfect, near-immortal cyberbody—and travel to the stars. Hot damn! Mel doesn’t want to go. She’s in love with John, a handsome young man who’s been visiting her out of a partially misguided idea of charity. John’s been lying to Mel, as people will do. By the end of the story, it’s clear who the real cripple is. Not Mel – she can and will go to the stars.

The “real cripple”? A minute ago, that was all of us – but now, all of a sudden, the word has acquired a decidedly negative inference. John is the “real cripple” – the person who’s ultimately wrong and defective, despite being able-bodied – and do I really have to explain why that particular construction is still situating disability as a bad thing? UGH.

As Toni Morrison perhaps did not say, but I believe her to have said, so in my world, she has said, “I write in order to find out what I know.”

As Amy Sterling Casil perhaps did not say, but I believe her to have meant, so in my world, she has said, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.”

Now, after writing this, I understand why I am so little satisfied – these days, even disgusted – with fictional stereotypes. These stereotypes are an imposition of a limited, false image or idea on others. I like to think that some day, these falsehoods will no longer be sold as “entertainment.”

Stereotypes like autistic people being bereft of empathy and disabled persons having emotional superpowers, perhaps? DO GO ON.

Differently-abled or abled like the majority on the ability spectrum, we can learn how to use the senses we do have better. Just as those who have lost their sight experience greater perception in other senses, and just as those who use wheelchairs see the world from a different perspective.

Dear Ms Sterling Casil: being blind does not make everyone Daredevil, because not everyone who loses their sight does so in the same way, at the same time, under the same auspices. Also: enough with the wheelchair perspective! It’s starting to feel perilously like a height joke.

Viewed with the strongest perception that we can have at any given time, there is not one of us who is not a “cripple.”

And when everyone’s super, no one will be.

Also, uh. You realise there’s still a need to make specific accommodations for people with specific disabilities, right? That the issue doesn’t magically disappear if you randomly declare everyone disabled?

To overcome our mutual disability, it isn’t about the so-important “I” or “me.” It’s about “we.” It isn’t about what you want, it’s about who and what you are as well as everybody else.

We’ll never get off this planet, much less do the part life has given to us, if we keep on thinking about our isolated selves.

In other words, nobody should talk about their particular problems or specific needs, because treating disability as an amorphous, generalised concept is much more useful than acknowledging those it affects as individuals.

Money’s one thing, Vernor. Getting over our damn selves and feeling what others feel and respecting that: quite another.

YOU DON’T SAY.

Here’s a moral for you: Assholes can still exhibit empathy in other contexts, because being empathetic doesn’t magically stop you from being an asshole – even and especially when discussing your own empathy.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go shove my face in a pillow and scream.

ETA: I’ve gone through and changed Sterling-Casil to Sterling Casil, as I’d evidently been spelling my interlocutor’s name with a hyphen that doesn’t belong there. Just because I think she’s wrong doesn’t mean I can’t get her name right.

Yesterday, after tangentially mentioning Baen Publishing in a Twitter conversation about queer representation in SFF, several Baen aficionados took this as an invitation to harangue both myself and the person to whom I was was speaking about the evils of left-wing politics, both in genre and more generally. Mostly, this involved yelling about how socialism is evil and feminism is cancer, which was equal parts hilarious and horrifying, with a bonus discussion of Christianity in the context of various political systems. My personal highlight: the unironic claim, made by a Christian participant, that Christ was apolitical, which. Um. Yeah. About that:

You Keep Using That Word

Anyway.

While the thread eventually devolved in much the way you’d expect, the actual opening salvo by Patrick Richardson – made in response to the observation that Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, politically speaking, is somewhat at variance with the bulk of Baen’s catalogue – was as follows: “It seems to be only the lefties that care about politics before story.” Which view was quickly seconded by the same woman who later claimed that Christ was apolitical: “Of course! If the story is crap but the author is a nifty socialist, that’s totes awesome!”

Twitter, as anyone who routinely uses it can tell you, is good for many things, but nuanced, lengthy dialogue is seldom one of them. And so, in addition to yesterday’s back and forth, I’m commenting here  – because for all their brevity, these two statements perfectly encapsulate the fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of most anti-diversity arguments.

I’ll deal with the second claim first, as it’s always struck me as being the most wilfully obtuse permutation of the stance. The idea that pro-diversity voices are wasting time, money and effort promoting books we don’t actually like is almost cartoonishly absurd; as though diversity is a naked emperor and we the masters of his empty wardrobe. Listen: I have a toddler, a husband, an active social life, a packed writing schedule, multiple online streaming accounts and a TBR pile that stretches into infinity. If you really think I’m going to waste valuable energy advocating for stories that don’t give me pleasure, then either you’re projecting – which, given the willingness of certain Puppies to thusly waste their own time, is a disturbingly real possibility – or you’re grossly overestimating your knowledge of human nature.

Having already discussed, at length, the dissonance between how recommendations made on the basis of diversity can appear to others and what they actually mean, I won’t revisit the details here. The salient point, however, is this: once you acknowledge that a book recommended on whatever basis is, by virtue of being recommended, a book enjoyed, then it’s virtually impossible to claim that diversity advocates are wilfully dismissive of quality. Nor is the intention to treat “diverse books” as a distinct subgenre, one elevated above its fellows without any regard for category or content otherwise. This is, in fact, exactly the kind of ghettoisation the pro-diversity camp is actively trying to avoid – all the diverse books on one niche shelf at the back, instead of being a normal, integrated part of genre. This accusation likewise ignores the fact that, actually, it’s quite common to group and recommend narratives on the basis of their tropes (friends to lovers, the Chosen One) or thematic elements (classic quest, mythological underpinnings), particularly when we’re speaking to personal preference.

The problem is that, when talking to someone who doesn’t value diversity in narrative – often because they’ve simply never considered it to be a noteworthy factor in their enjoyment of a book, and not because they inherently object to its presence – it can be difficult to explain why it matters at all. Taste is always a murky thing to navigate in such arguments, but it’s an inescapable factor: popularity and obscurity are both unreliable yardsticks where quality is concerned, and given the breadth of the human experience, there’s always going to be entrenched disagreement about what a good story is or should be; whether reading should challenge our comfort zones or confirm them; whether it’s better to read a book that shows us our own experience or a different one. Nobody wants to be told what to like or how to like it, just as we all reserve the right to entertain ourselves on our own terms, and yet, to borrow a phrase, no man is an island. Taken collectively, our individual preferences can and do have an impact at the macro/cultural level that transcends their micro/personal origins, even though the one is invariably a product of the other.

This is why the promotion of diversity is often discussed in moral/representational terms, particularly in connection with children: stories are our first and greatest window into the possible, and if those early adventures consistently exclude a large portion of their audience, or if certain groups are portrayed more complexly than others, then not everyone is learning the same lesson. Even so, the idea is never that diversity should take precedence over quality, as some seem to fear, but rather, that we should aim to create stories – stories in the plural, not the singular, though still bearing in mind the interrelationship between the individual and the collective – which are both diverse and good.

So what, then, of stories that are good, but not diverse? Where do they fit in? Because, on the basis of everything I’ve said here, there’s an argument to be made – and some, indeed, have made it – that you cannot have quality without diversity at all.

While this is a useful shorthand claim to make when looking at the collective end of things as they currently stand – which is to say, when acknowledging the historical lack of diversity and the ongoing need to remedy the imbalance – as a dictum removed from context, it not only ignores the rights of the individual, both as audience and creator, but opens up the question of whether a diverse story is diverse enough. It’s a difficult problem to navigate, and one that gives me a frequent headache. On the one hand, it’s undeniable that white liberal feminism (for instance) has a long and ugly history of ignoring the various racial and homophobic aspects of misogyny as experienced by women of colour and the queer community – that there is, as Kimberle Crenshaw said, an intersectional component to oppression.  As such, praising a novel for its diversity doesn’t mean those aspects of the story are automatically exempt from criticism; far from it, in fact, which is one more reason why I find the accusation that pro-diversity equals anti-quality so laughable. The advocates of diversity are simultaneously its sharpest critics, and always have been, because we’re the ones who care about getting it, by whatever definition, right.

But on the other hand, it’s an inescapable fact that stories are finite: no matter how much detail a given setting might contain, the author can’t focus on everything, or they’ll have no focus at all. By the same token, nothing and no one is perfect, least of all because ‘perfect’ means something different to everyone: the fact that an author drops the ball in one area doesn’t preclude them succeeding in another, and while the function of criticism is to discuss such contrasts – and while every individual reader is perfectly entitled to decide for themselves how such lines are drawn; to make their own decisions about content and execution – declaring imperfection the antithesis of success does all creative efforts a disservice.

Which brings me back to that mercurial element, taste, and the fear, as expressed by Richardson, that even acknowledging diversity as a factor means putting “politics before story”. It’s a telling phrase: by its very construction, it implies that politics are external to stories, instead of being a material component and/or a relevant lens through which to view them. Which, I would contend, they are. It’s not just that the personal is political: it’s that the political is seldom anything else. The only impersonal politics are those which affect other people; which is to say, they’re only ever impersonal to some, not objectively so. The conflation of political questions with abstract concerns can only occur when the decision-makers don’t meaningfully overlap with those their decisions impact. Political apathy is the sole province of the ignorant and the unaffected: everyone else, of necessity, is invested.

Speaking personally, then, and setting aside any other salient, stylistic factors, the point at which my preference for diversity will likely see me jolted from an otherwise good book, such that I may well question its claim to goodness, is the point at which the narrative becomes complicit in dehumanisation, particularly my own. What this means is always going to shift according to context, but broadly speaking, if an author leans on  offensive, simple stereotyping in lieu of characterisation, or if groups that might be realistically present or active within a given context are mysteriously absent, then I’m going to count that a negative. Note that a story which is, in some active sense, about dehumanisation – a misogynist culture; a slave-owning family – is not automatically the same as being complicit in that dehumanisation. This is an important distinction to make: whereas a story about dehumanisation will, by virtue of the attempt, acknowledge what’s going on, even if the characters never question the setting – say, by portraying complex female characters within a restrictive patriarchal system – a complicit story will render these elements as wallpaper: a meaningless background detail, like the number of moons or the price of fish, without ever acknowledging the implications.

It’s not just that, overwhelmingly, complicit stories tend to be dismissive of people like me, though that certainly doesn’t help; it’s that, at the level of worldbuilding and construction, I find them boring. One of my favourite things about genre novels is learning the rules of a new time and place – the customs, language, history and traditions that make up the setting – and as such, I don’t enjoy seeing them treated as irrelevant. For instance: if I’m told that the army of Fictional Country A has always accepted female soldiers, but that women are the legal subjects of their husbands, with no effort made to reconcile the apparent contradiction, then I’m going to consider that a faulty piece of worldbuilding and be jerked out of the story. Doubly so if this is just one of a number of similar elisions, all of which centre on women in a narrative whose complexities are otherwise lovingly considered; triply so if there are no central female characters, or if the ones that do appear are stereotyped in turn. (And yes, I can think of multiple books offhand to which this particular criticism applies.)

Call it the Sex/Hexchequer Test: if an elaborate, invented system of magic or governance is portrayed with greater internal consistency than the gender roles, then the story is probably sexist. Which doesn’t, I hasten to add, mean that it has nothing else to offer and should be shunned at all costs – imperfection, as stated above, is not the antithesis of success. But if someone wants to avoid the book on those grounds, then that’s entirely their business, and at the very least, I’ll likely be cranky about it.

And thus my preference for good diverse stories, which tend not to have this problem. It’s not a question of putting politics ahead of the story: it’s about acknowledging that all stories, regardless of authorial intention, contain politics, because people are political, and people wrote them. In real life, politics only ever seem impersonal if they impact someone else; in fiction, however, that’s what makes them visible. Stories aren’t apolitical just because we happen to agree with them or find them unobjectionable: it just means we’re confusing our own moral, cultural and political preferences with a neutral default. Which doesn’t mean we’re obliged to seek out stories that take us out of our comfort zone this way, or like them if we do: it just means that we can’t gauge their quality on the sole basis that this has, in fact, happened.

And yet, far too often, this is exactly what diversity advocates are criticised for doing: as though acknowledging the political dimensions of narrative and exploring them, in whatever way, deliberately, is somehow intrinsically bad; as though nobody sympathetic to certain dominant groups or ideologies has ever done likewise. Well, they have: you just didn’t think it mattered overmuch, because you agreed.

It’s not about quality, Mr Richardson; it never was. It’s about visibility – who lives, who dies, who tells your story – and whether or not you noticed.

Despite the vast quantities of domestic!AU fanfic that exist to the contrary, there’s still a common misconception in TVlandia that romantic relationships are only really interesting when imminent or imperilled; that any sort of emotional contentment or continuity between the characters will be boring to watch. And yet platonic relationships, in which we’re also meant to invest, are just as frequently treated as rock-solid: inviolable except, potentially, at a few plot-critical junctures. And that’s a big problem for romantic pairings – or rather, for our ability to invest in them, because the plain fact is, you can’t successfully threaten to destroy a thing you’ve never committed to building. Not only will nobody care, but there’s literally nothing to tear down except your own expired eviction notices. When you make it your telegraphed aim, week in, week out, year after year, to perpetuate a will-they, won’t-they dynamic, it becomes increasingly hard to give a shit about the won’t-they episodes, because, just like a child threatening to run away to the circus, it doesn’t matter how loudly you scream And this time, I mean it! – we all know you’re bluffing.

Having gone this route, the writers then wonder why fandom is often far more invested in seeing those platonic (predominantly male/male) relationships become romantic than in their canonical (predominantly male/female) pairings. Which: yes, we want queer representation, and yes, we enjoy our own interpretations of the characters, but at base, the problem – as far as you TV writers are concerned, anyway – is trifold. Firstly, you’re limiting your romantic male/female interactions to fit a preordained narrative, which paradoxically weakens the same relationship they’re meant to promote by shallowing its development. Secondly, because you’re worried portraying a platonic male/female relationship in addition to your romantic one might confuse viewers as to who, in fact, the girl is meant to end up with, you don’t create any extraneous narrative potential between characters of the opposite gender. Which means, third and finally, that your same sex interactions are likely biased towards male-male, as most shows tend to have fewer female characters overall – and when they do appear, as per the first point, you’re usually orienting their participation around a single particular man, instead of letting them talk to each other – which means the most naturally developed, complex relationships portrayed are, overwhelmingly, between men.

Thus: having firmly invested your audience in the importance of a romantic relationship, you then proceed to use all the juiciest romantic foundations – which is to say, shared interests, complex histories, mutual respect, in-jokes, magnetic antagonism, slowly kindled alliances and a dozen other things – in male/male scenes, and then affect gaping surprise when your fanbase not only notices, but expresses a preference for it.

So you start to queerbait in earnest – because hey, you didn’t expect it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t capitalise on it! – but never commit to making anyone queer, because that would constitute a Change in the Narrative, and all your sexual prejudices aside, according to the ancient laws of syndication, changing the formula is bad. (Plus and also, I’m pretty sure at this point that all TV executives sign some of kind of blood oath on being greenlit to never use the word ‘bisexual’ on air, even in those rare instances when it actually fucking applies, oh my GOD.)

And maybe, once upon a time, when you could firmly count on homophobes and sexists being the majority viewership and the narrative had to be static each week so as to remain accessible in the pre-DVD- and online-streaming era, that was true. But here and now, this isn’t that world, and as such, I’m here to let you in on a little secret:

TV audiences aren’t opposed to change. We’re opposed to discontinuity, which is what happens when you contort the narrative into increasingly bizarre shapes in order to maintain a tired dynamic despite the clear potential to do differently. You’re always going to lose some old viewers and gain some new ones as the story progresses – that’s true of everything – but I guarantee you’ll lose more overall by substituting arbitrary, superficial changes for meaningful, complex ones.

Partly, the problem is one of uncertainty. Most TV shows are renewed on a yearly basis, which makes it hard for creators to invest in a long game up front. Stories with high school settings, I feel, are a particular victim of this: unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, most teen shows never anticipate their characters transitioning to college, and so keep them confined to a perpetual Twilight Zone of late adolescence, the actors getting older and older as their eventual graduation date becomes more and more ambiguous. More often, however, the real failing is one of details, devils relevant to: of creators either forgetting or refusing to keep track of developments which, while potentially irrelevant to plot mechanics, constitute a vital form of emotional continuity for viewers. A character whose actor leaves the show, for instance, might suddenly cease to be mentioned by their friends, no matter how vital they were before that point or how shocking their departure, while secondary characters routinely vanish from the narrative without any explanation. Charitably, this is another hangover from the days before box sets and streaming, when too many references to past events might potentially confuse new or casual viewers, but in the year 2016, that seems an increasingly thin excuse. At this point, if you’re constructing a show and not thinking about how it’ll hang together during a binge-watching session, when multiple repeat viewers are easily able to notice the inconsistencies, you’re doing it wrong.

Returning, then, to the problem of romance, why is will-they won’t-they still seen as such a reliable default? I have my suspicions, and once again – somewhat unsurprisingly, at this point – they’re rooted in sexism. While straight romance as endgame is a device common across all genres, and is therefore seen as an acceptable, even mandatory inclusion, writing romance as an ongoing or primary narrative component is consistently coded as feminine, and is therefore devalued. The politics of this distinction are subtle and tricky, but when combined with the gender of the writer, it’s usually the difference between a book being shelved in the romance/chick lit section or being billed as general fiction. Indiana Jones can romance Marian all the way through Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that’s an action classic, but even with all the drug dealers, plane crashes and shootouts, Romancing the Stone is still a romantic comedy. The primary emotional arc of Cloverfield is centred on heterosexual romance – a fact made all the more intimate by the hand-held camera device – but god forbid we call it anything other than a horror/monster movie. Caught between the Scylla of Romantic Girl Cooties on one hand and the Charybdis of No Homo on the other, many creators have evidently deemed the true, Odyssian course to be Unresolved (Hetero)Sexual Tension. (Was that phrasing a thinly-veiled jab at City on Fire? Yes it was, internets. Yes it was. Fight me.)

With detailed romance viewed as a narrative contaminant, then, it seldom seems to occur to such writers that it’s infinitely more satisfying to watch a couple pull together against an external threat, or to navigate their togetherness in a way that isn’t suggestive of imminent breakup, than it is to watch the same two people endlessly circle, clash and fall back again without ever making progress. And oh, god, the number of TV shows that try to spice things up by introducing an unexpected third party, as though we’re not all sick to fucking death of love triangles already! Listen: if your idea of a “threat” to a nascent hetero pairing is to introduce a new straight love interest for one of them, unless you’re willing to actually made good on their potential chemistry – or, let’s go crazy, introduce a queer or poly dynamic – all you’re doing is wasting a character, because the audience already knows they can’t be permanent, and even though your job is to entertain, you’ve decided against any outcomes that might actually be surprising.

You know what is surprising, TV writers? Literally anything else.

So go the fuck forth, and do it.

 

Trigger warning: discussion of rape/sexual assault, spoilers for Uprooted.

Recently, I contributed to a tumblr thread about our unfortunate cultural habit of romanticising abusive behaviour in stories meant primarily for teenage girls, and how this can have a very real, very negative impact on their ability to accurately identify abuse in other contexts. I highly recommend reading the other responses in the thread, as many women shared their own, similar experiences of being confused on this point as teens, while Cora Buhlert also wrote an excellent follow-up post about the conversation. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past year or so, not only because I’m interested in feminism within SFF, but also because of my own personal history.

As a teenager, I didn’t understand consent the way I do now, because nobody ever explained it to me in anything beyond the most basic, Rape-Is-A-Masked-Man-In-The-Bushes way. I watched a lot of TV shows where young women were raped and murdered by men who were, overwhelmingly, strangers, and I read a lot of books – quite a horrifying number, in hindsight – where the abuse and coercion of women was incorporated as a normative aspect of fantasy worldbuilding, but very seldom interrogated. It’s not as if I was consciously expecting these stories to provide me with guidance about my then-fledgling sex life, but at the same time, it’s not as if there was a surplus of knowledgeable, approachable, non-judgemental adults lining up to advise me, either. My brain was a sponge: I learned without meaning to learn, in a vacuum of intention to either teach or critique. Sex ed at school meant a basic knowledge of STDs and contraceptives, a basic knowledge of anatomy, and some truly horrendous Behold Yon Horrible Consequences videos filmed in the 1980s about the dangers of teen pregnancy. I don’t think the word consent was ever used, even when we talked about rape: the binary question, rather, was whether you should say yes or no at a given time, and why drinking at parties was a bad idea because you’d be more likely to say yes and regret it later.

The idea that anyone who coaxed that drunken yes from you might be guilty of rape or assault was never mentioned. If it had been, I might have made some very different choices as a teenager. Or maybe I’d have done the exact same thing, but understood immediately what it meant, instead of locking up for an hour nearly fourteen years later, covered in cold sweat at the belated realisation: oh. Oh. Naively, I’d thought I was done with such bleak epiphanies the first time I backdated my earliest forays into internet chatrooms and realised that actually, yes: those men were, in all probability, paedophiles. The teacher in his thirties who praised my thirteen-year-old “maturity” was not just an adult wanting to be my friend, and the men aged eighteen and over who’d ask for cybersex certainly weren’t.

Culturally, we have a lot of sexist baggage about women turning thirty and what it’s supposed to mean, but nowhere in all that baggage have I ever seen mentioned the likelihood of looking back on my early sexual experiences and realising, all too late, like a brutal, cascading suckerpunch, how fucked-up most of them were. That I would, at twenty-nine, rediscover a poem I wrote at sixteen – a poem I’d read multiple times since then, had showed to multiple adults since then, had always held up internally as an example of my early skill – and almost fucking vomit to realise how clearly it described a sexual assault. I was crying when I wrote it, raw and blank in the aftermath of the event itself, and – I remember this vividly – utterly confused, because I didn’t know what had happened. How can you be nearly thirty before you understand a thing like that?

I am, I’ve come to understand, a peculiarly repressive person. I hide things from myself. For all my ferocious introspection, I can be singularly self-deceptive. I wonder at the trait: was I always that way? Is it learned or innate? What quirk of blood or history encapsulates this appalling, unuseful talent? It feels like such an incongruous thing, especially given the strength of my memories. But perhaps that’s the problem: at the time, the things that appal me now weren’t appalling at all. They might have been unpleasant, even ugly or frightening, but they were also, in the context, normal, and as such, I didn’t question them. I remembered them as acceptable, as things that just happened, and even when the feelings underlying those verdicts were – are – turbulent, a second, more intelligent ruling is nonetheless hard to make. I was depressed as a teenager, and inasmuch as a facet of that depression was situational, I thought I understood the whole, both then and afterwards. Instead, that sadness – that very real, rooted sadness, both temporal and ephemeral – acted as a masking agent for other, more particular injuries. At the time, there was no need to wonder why sex could leave me heartsick; I felt that way often enough as it was to see nothing extraordinary in the confluence.

(Oh, young thing, no. Don’t boast of the bruises you didn’t want. Your loneliness ached, I know, but less than their acquisition.)

The past, as they say, is a foreign country. I did things differently there.

*

Tonight, I started reading Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. It was a novel about which I’d heard only good things from people I trust; a novel I was hoping would break me out of my current reading slump, wherein I’ve started a great many books, but am struggling to finish any of them. To borrow the parlance of memes, cannot tell if too depressed to read or just fed up with exclusionary, derivative bullshit – or, alternatively, if reading so much fanfiction has utterly wrecked my internal yardstick for length, structure and content. Yesterday – partly to test this hypothesis, and partly because I just wanted to – I embarked on my third reading of Katherine Addision’s The Goblin Emperor, a novel which, both stylistically and structurally, is utterly removed from fanfic’s conventions, but which is similarly subversive of genre.

Given that I devoured it, thrilled and rapturous, in a single sitting, I’m inclined to think the problem is other people.

I hate not finishing books, but lately, I’m all out of fucks to give for stories that don’t include me in the narrative. After struggling with Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, I started reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars in parallel, hoping to find enough thematic points to compare and contrast that the one might jumpstart my interest in the other. And part of me wants, really wants, to read them both – not just dutifully, but because I don’t feel fully entitled to discuss them otherwise. But god, god, where are the rest of the women, and why are the few we see surrounded by men? Where is the queerness hiding, and why do I have to sift for it like some unlucky prospector stranded at the ass end of the gold rush? Why, Mr Kay, are you taking me away from your (thus far) single female POV character to show me what her would-be assassin thinks of his attempt on her life, even and especially when he dies at the end of the chapter? All his exposition did was silence hers, and as she’s apparently The Kind Of Woman Other Women Hate, I’m holding out little hope that the next fucktillionty pages are any better.

And thus, Uprooted. I wanted to root for it. (Heh.) Every ten years, Agnieszka’s village has to give a girl to the Dragon, the wizard who protects their valley. After a decade in his service, the girls come back, unharmed but changed, only to be replaced by new apprentice. And this year, everyone thinks that Kasia, Agnieszka’s beautiful, clever best friend, is the one he’ll choose – only for Agnieszka herself to be taken instead. The writing is lovely, the pacing fluid, and we’ve already been reassured that the Dragon doesn’t assault the girls he takes, that he leaves them dowered and educated and self-possessed, and oh, I was so ready for this to be a story I loved –

But it’s not. It can’t be. The Dragon is an abuser – is grossly, violatingly abusive – and yet the narrative blooms with cues that he’s meant to be Agnieszka’s love interest, burning touches and flashing eyes, and of course, of course he’s centuries old and handsome in a young man’s body (you’re so mature for your age!) and no, this is not what I wanted – is, in fact, the exact fucking opposite of what I wanted – but what if I’m the problem? What if the novel is going to interrogate these tropes, this awful problematic idea of abuse as a prelude to romance, and I bow out too early?

I went to the internet, source of my current wisdom and early folly. Internet, I said, speaking as if to a magic mirror (wireless, wireless in the wall, who’s the truthiest of all?) – internet, does Agnieszka end up with the Dragon?

And lo, did the internet answer: pretty much, yeah. Sorry.

Now, I love Naomi Novik, and YA, and romances, though it took me a good long while to really admit the latter, and thanks to the aforementioned years of narrative conditioning, I have a pretty high tolerance for Partner A initially treating Parter B terribly Because Misunderstanding or some other reason, even though it sets my teeth on edge. By which I mean, I hate it intellectually, but there’s still a firmly-established emotional bedrock for pushing through regardless, on the offchance that we eventually get to a half-decent explanation. It’s actually not as weirdly hypocritical as it sounds: a lot of us have grown up feeling conflicted about the toxic tropes of our youth, as compelled by their unhealthy hold on our formative memories as we are repulsed by our subsequent understanding of them, and as such, it’s not uncommon to see them being… de-escalated, seems the best word for it. We know they’re fucked up, but we kinda want to use them anyway, because all the intellectualism in the world can’t make us rip out even the most diseased aortal tissue wholesale; it hurts too much, for one thing, and for another, it won’t grow back. And so, instead, we try our best to manage their perpetuation carefully: to sand off the worst, most unforgivable elements and mitigate the rest through lovingly tailored contexts. You can just about graph it, sometimes, the way those old tropes change from book to book, as newer authors learn their lore from newer permutations. It’s a form of literary evolution not unlike the Belyaev fox experiment: each new generation of readers learns to love the least-aggressive tropes from a litter of mixed novels until, one day, a thing that once bit savagely will whine and roll over for belly rubs.

Uprooted, though – Uprooted retains its teeth. And even knowing why, by this selfsame logic, other readers were able to skritch it happily behind the ears and carry on, I don’t think I can be one of them.

When the Dragon brings Agnieszka to his castle, he doesn’t tell her why he picked her. For the first few days, he barely speaks to her at all. When he touches her, he grabs her, hard. He insults her, viciously and constantly, berating her as stupid and ugly and useless, though he doesn’t stop to explain what it is he wants from her, or why she needs to learn. He forces her to dress in clothes she finds uncomfortable, expects her to cook his meals for him, but insults her efforts. And Agnieszka, right from the outset, is frightened that he’ll rape her – in fact, she doubts the safety of the girls in his care from the very first page:

He doesn’t devour them really; it only feels that way. He takes a girl to his tower, and ten years later he lets her go, but by then she’s someone different. Her clothes are too fine and she talks like a courtier and she’s been living alone with a man for ten years, so of course she’s ruined, even though the girls all say he never puts a hand on them. What else could they say?

We see her doubts again, on page sixteen:

Kasia had always said she believed the women who came back, that the Dragon didn’t put a hand on them. “He’s taken girls for a hundred years now,” she said firmly. “One of them would have admitted it, and word would have got out.”

But a few weeks ago, she’d asked my mother, privately, to tell her how it happened when a girl was married – to tell her what her own mother would have, the night before she was wed. I’d overheard them through the window, while I was coming back from the woods, and I’d stood there next to the window and listened in with hot tears running down my face, angry, so angry for Kasia’s sake.

Now that was going to be me. And I wasn’t brave – I didn’t think that I could take deep breaths, and keep from clenching up tight, like my mother had told Kasia to do so it wouldn’t hurt. I found myself imagining for one terrible moment the Dragon’s face so close to mine, even closer than when he’d inspected me at the choosing – his black eyes cold and glittering like stone, those iron-hard fingers, so strangely warm, drawing my dress away from my skin, while he smiled that sleek satisfied smile down at me. What if all of him was fever-hot like that, so I’d feel him almost glowing like an ember, all over my body, while he lay upon me and – 

I shuddered away from my thoughts and stood up.

This isn’t just a vague fear, but one the narrative makes explicit: Agnieszka is, very graphically and very, very literally, afraid of being raped. And contextually, she has every reason to be! The fact that the Dragon doesn’t take her to bed the second they get to his tower is hardly proof that he has no intention of doing so later; and certainly, it’s within his power to make her do whatever he wants.

As this scene, on page twenty-eight, makes clear:

I froze in surprise and stopped reading, my mouth hanging open. He was furiously angry: his eyes were glittering and terrible… 

He gaped at me and grew even more wildly angry; he stormed across the tiny chamber, while I belatedly tried to scramble up and back, but there was nowhere for me to go. He was on me in an instant, thrusting me flat down against my pillows.

“So,” he said, silkily, his hand pressed down upon my collarbone, pinning me easily to the bed. It felt as though my heart was thumping back and forth between my breastbone and my back…

“Agnieszka,” he murmured, bending low towards me, and I realised he meant to kiss me. I was terrified, and yet half-wanting him to do it and have it over with, so I wouldn’t have to be so afraid, and then he didn’t at all. “Tell me, dear Agnieszka, where are you really from? Did the Falcon send you? Or perhaps even the king himself?”

Listen: at this point, I don’t give a flying fuck that, for whatever reason, the Dragon seems to think Agnieszka is a spy. It doesn’t excuse his behaviour, because whoever she really is, she’s still a girl he’s got pinned to a bed, and he’s still making her feel sexually afraid of him in order to try and intimidate her into answering. The idea that his incredibly intimate rape threat is somehow justified by her potential treachery is, frankly, sickening. Never mind that, after she runs and accidentally spills a potion over herself, he leaves her frozen in stone for half a day without any explanation or apology; never mind that he physically makes her crawl around him, belittling her competence all the while. Agnieszka is so miserable and terrified that she wants to kill the Dragon, even contemplating suicide when she can’t go through with her plan. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment, but to me, it felt like a slap in the face:

…I saw the tray discarded on the floor, the knife lying bare and gleaming. Oh. Oh, what a fool I’d been, even to think about it. He was my lord: if by some horrible chance I had killed him, I would surely be put to death for it, and like as not my parents along with me. Murder was no escape at all; better to just throw myself out the window.

I even turned and looked out the window, miserably…

So, to reiterate: the Dragon is treating Agnieszka in such a monstrous, abusive, bullying fashion that murder and suicide have both crossed her mind as options; she’s frightened he’ll rape her still, and he’s used that fear to try and make her comply with his wishes.

And then Prince Marek arrives, and actually tries to rape her.

To make this even more horrible, up until his assault, Agnieszka had been contemplating going to Marek for help, only keeping quiet because she’s afraid he won’t believe her. She’s heard stories of his exploits, thinks of him as a hero, and apart from anything else, he’s the only other person she’s even seen since the Dragon took her away.

Here is what happens (TW for assault):

He laughed again and kissed my throat. “Don’t worry, he can’t object,” he said, as though that was my only reason to protest…

It’s not that he was taking pleasure in overcoming me. I was still mute and my resistance was more confused batting at him, half-wondering: surely he couldn’t, Prince Marek couldn’t, the hero; surely he couldn’t even really want me. I didn’t scream, I didn’t plead, and I think he scarcely imagined that I would resist. I supposed in an ordinary noble house, some more-than-willing scullery maid would already have crept into his bedchamber and saved him the trouble of going looking. For that matter, I’d probably have been willing myself, if he’d asked me outright and given me enough time to get over my surprise and answer him: I struggled more by reflex than because I wanted to reject him.

But he did overcome me. Then I began to be really afraid, wanting only to get away; I pushed at his hands, and said, “Prince, I don’t, please, wait,” in disjointed bursts. And though he might not have wanted resistance, when he met it, he cared nothing: he only grew impatient.

“There, there; all right,” he said, as though I were a horse to be reined in and made calm, while he pinned my hand by my side. My homespun dress was tied up with a sash in a simple bow; he already had it loose, and then he dragged up my skirts.

I was trying to thrust my skirts back down, push him away, drag myself free: useless. He held me with such casual strength.

At this point, Agnieszka uses one of the few magic spells the Dragon has taught her – a spell to create clothes, the better to look pretty for him – to recover herself. Marek is so stunned that she has a chance to bash him over the head with the abandoned dinner tray, and he goes down hard, unconscious. Agnieszka, not unsurprisingly, is both frightened at the prospect of having killed a prince and shaken at having been nearly raped. So when the Dragon enters and discovers the scene, does he treat her kindly, even dispassionately, while he tries to heal the Prince? Or does he behave like a cruel, abusive, victim-blaming asshat?

Oh, yeah. Welcome to door number three.

I stood hovering anxiously over the bed, over both of them, and finally I blurted, “Will he -“

“No thanks to you,” the Dragon said, but that was good enough: I let myself sink to the ground in my heap of cream velvet, and buried my head on the bed in my arms sheathed in embroidered golden lace.

“And now you’re going to blubber, I suppose,” the Dragon said over my head. “What were you thinking? Why did you put yourself in that ludicrous dress if you didn’t want to seduce him?”

“It was better than staying in the one he tore off me!” I cried, lifting my head: not in tears at all; I had spent all my tears by then, and all I had left was anger. “I didn’t choose to be in this -“

I stopped, a heavy fold of silk caught up in my hands, staring at it. The Dragon had been nowhere near; he hadn’t worked any magic, cast any spell. “What have you done to me?” I whispered. “He said – he called me a witch. You’ve made me a witch.”

The Dragon snorted. “If I could make witches, I certainly wouldn’t choose a half-wit peasant girl as my material. I haven’t done anything to you but try and drum a few miserable cantrips into your nearly impenetrable skull.” He levered himself up off the bed with a hiss of weariness, struggling, not unlike the way I’d struggled in those terrible weeks while he – 

While he taught me magic. Still on my knees, I stared up at him, bewildered and yet unwillingly beginning to believe. “But then why would you teach me?”

“I would have been delighted to leave you moldering in your coin-sized village, but my options were painfully limited.” To my blank look, he scowled. “Those with the gift must be taught: the king’s law requires it. In any case, it would’ve been idiotic of me to leave you sitting there like a ripe plum until something came along out of the Wood and ate you, and made itself into a truly remarkable horror.”

While I flinched away appalled from this idea, he turned his scowl on the prince…

“Here,” said the Dragon. “Kalikual. It’s better than beating paramours into insensibility.”

So, to be clear: not only does the Dragon neglect, at any point, to ask if Agnieszka is all right – not only does he belittle her for defending herself, and continue to bully her intelligence – but he blames the assault on her choice of clothes, and then refers to the prince, not as her assailant or rapist, but as her paramour, a consensual term that utterly minimises what just took place. Their subsequent conversation reveals his belief that Marek, who assumes the Dragon takes women “to force them to whore for me”, would have seen bedding Agnieszka as “cuckolding” him, and therefore a sort of petty revenge. Again, this is desperately minimizing language, even in context: at no point is the attempted rape named as such, and despite the fact that Agnieszka has spent literal weeks in fear of being raped, the rest of the conversation – and, indeed, the events of the following chapter – appear to show her experiencing no emotional consequences at having that fear made manifest. Instead, the Dragon continues to bully her, and badly, when she fails to make her magic work:

He roared at me furiously for ten minutes after he finally managed to put out the sulky and determined fire, calling me a witless muttonheaded spawn of pig farmers – “My father’s a woodcutter,” I said – “Of axe-swinging lummocks!” he snarled. But even so, I wasn’t afraid anymore. He only spluttered himself into exhaustion and then sent me away, and I didn’t mind his shouting at all, now that I knew there were no teeth in it to rend me.

I was almost sorry not to be better, for now I could tell his frustration was that of the lover of beauty and perfection. He hadn’t wanted a student, but, having been saddled with me, he wanted to make a great and skillful witch of me, to teach me his art…

It maddened him to no end, not without some justice. I know I was being foolish.

At this point, it was all I could do not to fling the book at the wall. It’s Agnieszka who’s been sexually assaulted and belittled, but the sympathy here – and worse, given in her voice! – is all for the Dragon: language that tries to excuse his abuse as the understandable frustration of a perfectionist, Agnieszka blaming herself for not being good enough, for daring to have interests and talents beyond what he expects of her, even though he’s done literally nothing to show her kindness at all. Are we meant to find it a sign of progress, that she doesn’t mind his shouting? Are we meant to feel well-disposed towards such a vile abuser, or ought we to be rooting for her escape?

My instincts were telling me one thing, and the narrative another. Which is why I went on Twitter and asked if their relationship becomes a romantic one. Universally, the response came back: they get together, it’s implied they’re still together at the end, and the Dragon’s early mistreatment of Agnieszka is never satisfactorily addressed.

And I just – no. No. I do not want to read nearly four hundred more pages only for this level of vicious cruelty to never be called what it is. I do not want to read about a sexual assault victim falling in love with an abusive rape-apologist and think about how romantic I would’ve found it all, when I was Agnieszka’s age; how romantic some other girl might find it now, who won’t know any better until she’s nearly thirty, too. I do not want to soldier on for the sake of those amazing feminist virtues I’ve been told the rest of the novel somehow, separately, embodies, because if I’m going to read a book that deals with rape and sexual assault, I would like it, please and thank you, to actually call it those things, or at least to behave as though belittling a victim of same in their immediate fucking aftermath isn’t an acceptable gateway to romance.

Fucking hell. I just want to read a book that doesn’t make me feel like I’m being either punched for existing, or treated as though I don’t. We’re SFF writers; we literally make up shit for a living. Why does everything have to be so brutally fucking difficult?