Archive for the ‘Critical Hit’ Category

There is, I’ve come to realise, a certain type of hypocrisy that occurs when eloquent, successful practitioners of reflexive self-defence neglect to consider the consistency of their arguments. It’s a tactic which relies in large part on those arguments not being written down or otherwise recorded: it’s much harder to establish that your interlocutor is contradicting a prior claim if they’ve never made it to your face, or if no handy verbatim record exists, and especially if they deny ever having said it. Your memory must be to blame, or else your comprehension: either way, they’re in the right, and will doubtless continue to be so.

Unless, of course, a transcript is produced.

Lionel Shriver is not an author whose books I’ve ever read for the same reason that I’ve never subjected myself to¬†Jonathan Franzen: the¬†woes of modern day, middle class white people is a genre in which I have little to no interest. It’s nothing personal, except inasmuch as I am myself a modern day, middle class white person – I’d just rather read about literally anything else. So sue me: I’m a fantasist, and always have been, and always will be. But I’m also a writer, and though I have no interest in reading modern literary fiction, its ubiquity and prestige – to say nothing of the many complex issues facing all writers and their communities, regardless of creed or genre – ensures that I still have a dog in its various fights.

Such as, for instance, Lionel Shriver’s recent keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival, the full transcript of which has just been published online.

You see where I’m going with this.

If I wanted to give myself a tension headache, I could waste several hours of my evening going through the dreadful bulk of it line by line and pointing out the various strawmen: the information purposely elided here, the conflation of the trivial and the serious there, the overall privileged rudeness of taking a valuable platform given you for a stated purpose and turning it to another. But what really stands out to me is the utter dissonance between Shriver’s two key arguments, and the bigotry that dissonance reveals: on the one hand, fury at the very idea of “cultural appropriation”, which Shriver sees as a pox on artistic freedom; on the other, her lamentation of particular types of diversity as “tokenistic”.

Early in her speech, Shriver says:

I am hopeful that the concept of ‚Äúcultural appropriation‚ÄĚ is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.

But this latest and little absurd no-no is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible.

And yet, mere paragraphs later, we get this:

My most recent novel The Mandibles was taken to task by one reviewer for addressing an America that is ‚Äústraight and white‚ÄĚ. It happens that this is a multigenerational family saga ‚Äď about a white family. I wasn‚Äôt instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual, with issues that might distract from my central subject matter of apocalyptic economics. Yet the implication of this criticism is that we novelists need to plug in representatives of a variety of groups in our cast of characters, as if filling out the entering class of freshmen at a university with strict diversity requirements.

You do indeed see just this brand of tokenism in television. There was a point in the latter 1990s at which suddenly every sitcom and drama in sight had to have a gay or lesbian character or couple. That was good news as a voucher of the success of the gay rights movement, but it still grew a bit tiresome: look at us, our show is so hip, one of the characters is homosexual!

We’re now going through the same fashionable exercise in relation to the transgender characters in series like Transparent and Orange is the New Black.

Fine. But I still would like to reserve the right as a novelist to use only the characters that pertain to my story.

I’d ask Lionel Shriver to explain to me how the presence of queer characters can “distract from the central subject matter”, but I don’t need to: the answer is right there in the construction of her statement. Queerness can distract from the central subject matter because, to an obliviously straight writer like Shriver, queerness is only ever¬†present as¬†another type of subject matter, never as a background detail or a simple normative human variation. Straightness doesn’t distract her, because it’s held to be thematically neutral, an assumed default. But put a queer character in the story for reasons other than to discuss their queerness – include them for variety, for honesty, because the world just looks like that – and it’s a tiresome, tokenistic attempt to be “hip” or “fashionable”. In Shriver’s world, such non-default characters can only “pertain to [the] story” if the story is, to whatever extent, about their identity. The idea that it might simply be about them does not compute.

And thus does Shriver bring us that most withered chestnut, Damned If You Do And Damned If You Don’t – or, as she puts it:

At the same time that we‚Äôre to write about only the few toys that landed in our playpen, we‚Äôre also upbraided for failing to portray in our fiction a population that is sufficiently various…

We have to tend our own gardens, and only write about ourselves or people just like us because we mustn’t pilfer others’ experience, or we have to people our cast like an I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca-Cola advert?

Listen, Lionel. Let me explain you a thing.

Identity informs personhood, but personhood is not synonymous with identity. By treating particular identities as “subject matter”instead of facets of personhood – by claiming¬†that¬†queer characters can “distract” from a central story, as though queerness is only ever a focus, and not a fact¬†– you’re acting as though the actual living people with those identities have no value, presence or personhood beyond them. But neither can you¬†construct a tangible personhood without giving thought to the character’s identity; without acknowledging that particular identities exist within their own contexts, and that these contexts will shift and change depending on various factors, many of which will likely exceed your personal experience. This is what we in the writing business call doing the¬†fucking research, which concept astonishingly doesn’t apply only to looking up property values, Googling the Large Hadron Collider and working out average summer temperatures in Maine.

To put it simply, what Shriver and others are angry about isn’t the nebulous threat of “restrictions [being placed] on what belongs to us” – it’s the prospect of being fact-checked about details they assumed could be¬†fictionalised entirely, despite being about real things.

If Shriver, in a fit of crass commercialism, were ever to write a forensics-heavy crime procedural without doing any research whatsoever into actual forensic pathology, readers and critics who noticed the lapse would be entirely justified in¬†criticising¬†it. If she took the extra step of marketing the book as a riveting insight into the lives of real forensic pathologists, however – if the validity¬†of what she’d written was held up as a selling point, a definitive glimpse into the lives of real people as expressed through the milieu of fiction – then actual forensic pathologists would certainly be within their rights to heap scorn on her book, to say nothing of feeling insulted. None of which would prevent this hypothetical book from being technically well-written or neatly characterised otherwise, of course; it might well have a cracker of a plot. But when you get a thing wrong – when you misrepresent a concept or experience that actually exists, such that people with greater personal knowledge of or investment in the material can point out why it doesn’t work – you’re going to hear about it.

That is how criticism works. It always has done, and always will do, and I am absolutely baffled that a grown adult like Shriver, who presumably accepts the inevitability of every other aspect of her writing being put under the twin lenses of subjective opinion and objective knowledge, thinks this one specific element should be somehow immune from external judgement.

Except that, somehow, she does – and I’ll come to more of that later. But first, there’s an even bigger problem: namely, that¬†Lionel Shriver doesn’t think¬†identities exist at all.

Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived. I reviewed a novel recently that I had regretfully to give a thumbs-down, though it was terribly well intended; its heart was in the right place. But in relating the Chinese immigrant experience in America, the author put forward characters that were mostly Chinese. That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.

That distant thunking sound you hear is me banging my head repeatedly on the nearest hard surface. Look, I hate to be That Guy and pull the dictionary definition card, not least because I’m not a linguistic prescriptivist: usage comes first, and all that. But there’s a difference between asserting that a word should only be used a particular way and claiming, flat out, that it literally doesn’t mean the thing it (both functionally and definitionally) means. And to quote our good friends at Merriam-Webster, ‘identity’ means, among other things,¬†“the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from others; the relation established by psychological identification”, with ‘identification’ further defined as¬†¬†“psychological orientation of the self in regard to something (as a person or group) with a resulting feeling of close emotional association.”

In other words, being Asian doesn’t magically cease to be an identity just because Lionel Shriver says so. Nor does queerness. Nor does disability. An identity is a thing you claim and feel for yourself, in association with a particular concept or shared bond with others. That being so, what I suspect Shriver is groping after with this blatant misuse of language is the idea that there’s no such thing as a universal identity – that there’s no one way to be female or gay or Armenian, which is correct, and that good characters must, therefore, be more than just a superficial depiction of these things.

Well, yes. Obviously. (Though rather ironically, given her earlier thoughts on queerness.) But saying that there is no universal Chinese experience, and thus no universal Chinese identity, does not ipso facto prove that there is no such thing as any Chinese identity – or identities, as the case may be –¬†at all. Think of it like a Venn diagram: every circle represents the particular experience of belonging to a given group or identity. The point of commonality is that they all overlap; the point of difference is that everyone experiences that overlap differently. You might as well argue that being Christian isn’t an identity because Orthodox Catholics and Southern Baptists both exist. But that’s the macro perspective, where group nomenclature is more taxonomy than experience. Identity is the micro level: the intimacy of self-expression coupled with the immediacy of belonging. And in between those two things, tasked with the perennial balancing act, is the seedy, ever-shifting¬†vagueness problem of group politics: who has authority, who belongs, who doesn’t belong, and why.

But of course, despite her protestations to the contrary, Lionel Shriver does believe in identity. How else can you categorise her prior defence of her own book, The Mandibles, as being¬†“a multigenerational family saga ‚Äď about a white family,” a narrative in which she¬†“wasn‚Äôt instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual [character]”? By her¬†own admission, whiteness is an identity, just as straightness is an identity, distinct from their respective alternatives and made meaningful by the difference. But this is an uncomfortable thing for Shriver to admit in those terms, because it means acknowledging that identity is neither the intrusive hallmark¬†of political correctness nor an exotic coat to be borrowed, but a basic fact of human life that applies equally to everyone. What Shriver views as a neutral default is merely a combination of identities so common that we’ve stopped pretending they matter.

Which they do, by the way. They really, really do.

Returning, then, to the subject of criticism, Shriver says:

Thus in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply. If a character happens to be black, they have to be treated with kid gloves, and never be placed in scenes that, taken out of context, might seem disrespectful. But that’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing. The natural result of that kind of criticism in the Post is that next time I don’t use any black characters, lest they do or say anything that is short of perfectly admirable and lovely.

You heard it here first, folks: the burden and self-examination required to be respectful to others – the same thing we ask of any child who borrows a toy at a birthday party – is simply too great for precocious adult genius to bear.¬†And note, please, the telling differences in Shriver’s response to criticism of different aspects of the same novel, The Mandibles: when one reviewer critiques her portrayal of her lone black character, she threatens to be put off writing black characters for life; but when another reviewer rebukes her for writing an overwhelmingly “straight and white” novel, there is no similar threat to disavow writing white characters. But of course, she could hardly threaten to stop writing both – if she did, there’d be nobody left. (Not least because, in Shriver’s world, ‘Asian’ isn’t a real identity. Perhaps she should let Pauline Hanson know; I’m sure her relief would be palpable.)

When Shriver decries identity, she applies the concept only to those identities she doesn’t share, or which she views facetiously, the better to paint it as an arbitrary barrier between her artistic license and the great, heaving soup of Other People’s Stories to which she, by virtue of her personal rejection of the concept of identity, feels¬†entitled. But ask why her writing focuses predominantly on a particular type of person, and suddenly identity is a rigid defence: the characters had to be this way, could never have had¬†some other, more distracting¬†type of identity, because the story was about this experience in particular. Which is to say, about a fucking identity.

Here is the paradox Shriver cannot reconcile, because¬†it’s no paradox at all: if identity is irrelevant and the full spectrum of humanity is rightfully accessible to every writer at any time, then there’s no earthly reason why a multi-generational family saga shouldn’t have queer people in it, and no intelligent way to argue that it can’t. But if, despite the apparent irrelevance of identity and the presence of a full spectrum of humanity about which to write, you’re still predominantly writing about straight middle class white people, we’re liable¬†to wonder what particular biases of culture or inspiration are skewing you that way. That’s not Damned If You Do And Damned If You Don’t – it’s just common sense.

There’s more to this argument, of course – most pertinently, the fact¬†that certain writers occupy a position of greater cultural and historical privilege than others¬†(something of which Shriver herself is well aware). When such writers decide to speak for and about more marginalised groups, that has a material impact on the ability of those groups to speak for themselves and to be heard, especially if their personal accounts differ, as they invariably do, from those of more prominent outsiders.

To give a particularly pernicious example, consider the case of Arthur Golden’s exploitation and gross misrepresentation of Mineko Iwasaki. One of several geisha interviewed by Golden in the course of research conducted for his bestselling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, Golden not only breached Iwasaki’s confidentiality by naming her as a source, but based a significant portion of his book on her life without permission, misrepresented actual historical details for sensationalist purposes, and generally twisted Iwasaki’s narrative. She sued him for breech of contract in 2001, with Golden settling out of court two years later. While Iwasaki was subsequently moved to¬†write her own bestselling autobiography – Geisha, A Life – to try and ameliorate the damage, his appropriative actions¬†nonetheless caused her material harm. And meanwhile, the¬†film adaptation of Golden’s novel, which celebrated the worst of his changes, was critically acclaimed in the West, further contributing to the exoticisation of Asian women in general and geisha culture in particular. But why should that matter? It’s just a story.

Isn’t it?

In my bookmarks bar is a folder called Narrative Influencing Reality, where I keep track of articles, posts and news items that show a correlation between fictional stories and the real world. The first link is the famous story about how, in the late 1940s, the writers of the Superman radio serial managed to stymie the resurgence of Klu Klux Klan memberships by having Superman fight the Klan. They knew that the story mattered; that people in the real world looked up to Superman, even though he was fictional, and could thus be persuaded to use him as a moral compass. This is a positive example of narrative influencing reality. But there’s also plenty of negative examples, too, such as evidence that the over-the-top “romantic” gestures popularised in romantic comedies can promote social acceptance of stalking, or the real-world racist backlash against Asians provoked by the film¬†Red Dawn.

As writers, we know that stories matter, or we wouldn’t bother to tell them. Narrative is a force that shapes our humanity, our history, and our perception of others – and that is¬†why unresearched, stereotypical and thoughtless portrayals of vulnerable groups can be so very harmful. Writing respectfully about others shouldn’t be such a terrible burden as to be worth angrily hijacking a festival keynote speech; it should just be basic good manners. As actress Jenn Richards recently said, “Artistic freedom is important, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of actual human lives.”¬†And stories are always, in the end, about actual people: what they think, why they matter, and how we relate to them.

To say that stories have power, but to deny their consequences, is a particularly self-deluded form of irresponsibility. And Lionel Shriver, in denying the very real harm done by cultural appropriation, is guilty of it.

With great respect to Joanna Russ

She wasn’t the lead

(but if it’s clear she was)

She was the lead, but she shouldn’t have been

(she was political, unsexualised, funny, feminist)

She was the lead, but look what she starred in

(a chick flick, a reboot, a spin-off, YA)

She was the lead, but the story didn’t rate a sequel

(“A female superhero couldn’t possibly carry a¬†franchise…”)

She was the lead, but she isn’t a plausible character, and her story isn’t realistic

(She was exceptional, powerful, multifaceted, unromantic)

She was the lead, but the male characters were better

(“Men are just more interesting than women…”)

She was the lead, but her success was an anomaly

(“Katniss Everdeen was a one-off…”)

She was the lead, BUT…


Here’s the thing.

If you pan an unreleased film, or film you haven’t actually seen, solely because it¬†has a female protagonist – or, god forbid,¬†protagonists – you’re not being objective or rational. Might the film be genuinely bad? Yes. Of course. That’s always a possibility for any creative work. But will it be bad solely and exclusively because it stars a woman? No. Unless, of course, you’re willing to acknowledge that a film can likewise be solely and exclusively bad because it stars a man. I say this, not because I agree with that argument, but because it’s only logical: if knowing the hero’s gender ahead of time is enough to say a given film is an unequivocal trainwreck, then that can be true regardless of the gender in question.

If you disagree with this reasoning – if you wholeheartedly believe that women are irrevocably and fundamentally less interesting than men – then I’m not going to try and dissuade you: there’s no point wielding rationality against the stubbornly irrational, and I’ve got better things to do with my time. But if you feel that statement paints you into an unfair corner – if you don’t think women are always less interesting, just mostly so; if you’re open to the idea that they¬†can make great characters, and you’re really only sick of seeing them shoehorned into stories where they don’t really fit – then I’d ask that you consider why that is.

Do you feel that many female characters are poorly written? That’s a reasonable complaint to have. But if that’s the issue, ask yourself – who’s responsible for these poorly written women? In 2014, 85% of films had no female directors, while 80% had no female writers, while in 2015, only 29% of TV writers were women. While it’s demonstrably true that many male writers can and do write excellent female characters, there are also many who pay little attention to women’s personalities and motives,¬†being much more concerned with their looks, a phenomenon noted by Hollywood producer Ross Putnam, who now keeps a public record of all the sexist female descriptions he receives in scripts. Perhaps you might be more likely to enjoy a female character written – from experience, as it were – by a female writer, or shaped by a female director.

Do you feel that many female characters are poorly acted? Again, that’s an understandable complaint. But if that’s the issue, ask yourself – why aren’t more talented actresses being cast? Hollywood’s obsession with ranking (a very narrow concept of) beauty ahead of all other considerations means that many terrific actresses miss out on meaty roles, or on any roles at all. There is, for instance, a documented trend of male A-list stars playing leading roles well into their fifties and sixties, but only ever opposite women in their twenties and thirties. This means that,¬†whereas male actors are allowed an extra twenty years in which to hone their craft through more and better roles, women are edged out just as they’re hitting their stride, with actresses often being hired for beauty ahead of talent. This emphasis on¬†looks is also apparent in casting calls for female characters, which – as per the problem with sexist character¬†descriptions noted above – are much more likely to describe the woman’s appearance than her personality or role.

Women of colour are also grossly underrepresented in leading roles, no matter their age or ability. In 2015, even though 22% of key roles in Hollywood films went to women Рtheir largest share since 2002, when the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film began keeping track Рonly 27% of leading female characters were anything other than white, a number that dropped to 13% for female characters overall. All this being so, perhaps you might be more likely to enjoy  a film starring older women, women of colour, and women of any description whose narratives place a greater emphasis on personality than appearance.

Perhaps you feel that too many female protagonists are being unnecessarily forced¬†into narratives these days; that they’re being given¬†unfeminine roles, or parts which – in the case of a reboot – were originally male, and are therefore being misappropriated. Now, your feelings are your feelings, and I can respect that, but feeling something is not the same as knowing it to be objectively true. That being so, if you want to make this a rational, respectable argument,¬†I’d invite you to first consider the following points:

  • How can¬†a character’s gender be unnecessary or forced? All characters¬†have a gender identity, female or male or otherwise. Gender, as a detail, isn’t extraneous – unless, of course, you’re arguing that maleness is a neutral narrative default with no impact on the story, whereas femaleness is a biased narrative alternative that implicitly changes the story. But why should that be so? There are as many women in the world as men, making¬†female characters just as logical a narrative default as men. And as for women being a biased choice compared to male neutrality, this presupposes that gender never dictates how stories about men are told – that masculinity is never mentioned, or that male characters are never given narrative arcs that reaffirm or relate to their gender in any way. Which, if you think about it, is rather implausible, isn’t it? If that were so, we’d never see male heroes talking about what it means to be a man, or a real man, or a good man, or a bad man, or any sort of man at all (for instance). And, just as importantly, if it’s possible to write a story that isn’t about gender in any way, then how can casting a woman instead of a man materially change the subject matter? Either it was never a gender-neutral story in the first place, or else our ability to perceive it as such was dependent on the character being male, which is another way of saying the same thing, and also my point. Namely: that if you see gender – or rather, femaleness – as unnecessary, it’s not an¬†objective flaw in the story, but a subjective opinion of the audience. Of course it’s a choice to cast a woman, just like it’s a choice to cast a man – but as a character has to be something, how can one choice be implicitly forced, and the other not, unless you’re measuring their appropriateness in terms of how well it conforms to a social default?
  • Arguing¬†that a story isn’t “feminine enough” to warrant a female protagonist when you’re simultaneously concerned that women makes stories unnecessarily gendered¬†is… kind of breathtakingly hypocritical, really. I mean: either¬†having a female protagonist is what makes a story feminine, or else you’re acknowledging that stories can, in fact, star women without being wholly about womanhood – a thing you earlier claimed was impossible. What you really mean by this argument, I suspect, is that you’re accustomed to the idea that only certain types of story really merit female protagonists: that there are (domestic, romantic, intimate) stories¬†about women and (political, adventurous, global) stories about men, and if women start starring in the latter kind, then men will start missing out on the type of roles to which they’re both better suited and more naturally entitled. This¬†attitude ignores the idea that domestic, romantic, intimate stories can also be about men while acting as though this division of things¬†is somehow writ in stone, instead of being a constructed form of sexism. I don’t have time to go into the long, complex erasure of women in history that sustains the idea of women being unsuited to particular tasks and stories, but trust me on this: it is bullshit, and always has been.
  • ¬†I’m going to say this once, and clearly: rebooting an ¬†old story¬†with a new¬†female¬†cast is not misappropriation. You haven’t lost the original version, nor has it been somehow altered after the fact; instead, you’re being offered something new in¬†addition, which you’re free to accept or ignore as the fancy takes you. You might be upset that things aren’t being done differently, but that’s not the same as knowing they’re being done badly. There is a world of difference between not wanting to watch the reboot of a beloved story out of loyalty to the original, and trying your hardest to ensure that the reboot fails simply because it’s not the thing you wanted. One is an adult decision; the other is not. It shouldn’t be too hard to tell which is which.

Perhaps you feel that there are now too many female protagonists, period; that their sudden proliferation is a form of tokenism to which you object on moral grounds. Which, okay: how many women is too many? Because as per the statistics cited above, only 22% of¬†key Hollywood roles went to women in 2015, which is a long way shy of half. Even if you think that a perfect 50/50 split is an unreasonable thing to aim for, that’s still not what’s happening here. There are more female roles at the moment, certainly,¬†but more is not synonymous with many, and unless you genuinely think that a twenty percent share in representation is too much, then you’re going to have to acknowledge that¬†your hackles are up, not because women are suddenly dominating the big screen, but because you don’t want to see us there in any number at all.

But either way, proliferation – by definition – is antithetical to tokenism. You cannot argue that an across the board increase in roles for women is a token move precisely because it’s across the board. It is likewise deeply hypocritical to claim that consciously¬†increasing those roles is immoral, but that consciously suppressing them is not. The imbalance that currently exists is not a natural, neutral occurrence, but the result of decades of conscious policies and sexism both overt and ingrained; suggesting that it will go away on its own, without any active change, and that good stories will rise to the top regardless, is naive at best and callous at worst. In any field, in any context, “good” doesn’t happen because you sit back and hope¬†really hard for the best outcome: it takes work and dedication, trial and error, sacrifice and adaptability – and, above all else, the ability to admit fault and change direction when a given thing ceases to work, or is proved to have never really worked at all.

She was the lead, but sexists wished she wasn’t, and were too scared of introspection – and too intellectually dishonest – to bother analysing their knee-jerk, often vitriolic reactions to female protagonists when it was easier to send rape and death threats to female celebrities, hack and share¬†their nudes, and engage in racist, misogynistic abuse of women on the internet.

That’s how you suppress female characters. Or at least, that’s how you try. But no matter how much personal damage these bigots deal along the way, all they’re really proving is the terrified insincerity of their own arguments. Deep down, they know they’re losing – not because of any innate and deeply buried moral compass, but because the one cow they’ve all perpetually held as sacred is the inviolable truth of Profit. So long as nobody ever bothered to look for proof¬†that stories about women – and people of colour, and the queer community, and everyone else long excluded from the Hollywood mainstream – could turn a buck, they could always blame the absence of such stories, not on their own ugly biases, but the flat fact of financial incentive. But now, the market has spoken, and the verdict is in: there’s money to be made in female protagonists – and damn, but the misogynists are bitter about it.


She was the lead

(but you wished she wasn’t)

She was the lead, and she deserved to be

(she was political, unsexualised, funny, feminist)

She was the lead, and look what she starred in

(everything. everything. everything.)


Come in. Sit down. Pull up a chair. We’re going to play a game.

Here’s how it works: I give you a simple¬†character description, and you tell me which particular character I’m talking about, as well as the one specific TV show they’re from. Your only hint: these are all protagonists or ensemble main characters. Ready? Let’s go:

  • straight white male detective, an abrasive maverick with a tragic past
  • straight white male doctor, an arrogant maverick
  • straight white male conman using his powers for good
  • straight white writer, solves crimes and writes novels about it
  • straight white political aide, snarky but beloved
  • straight white female detective, brilliant with a tragic past
  • straight white lawyer who secretly fights crime
  • straight white maverick lawyer, sketchy past
  • straight white¬†male supernatural creature, tragic past
  • straight white male antihero, drives a signature vehicle

Congratulations! We’ve reached the end of round one. Now that you’ve got your eye in, are you ready for round two? I sure hope so! Let’s give it a try:

  • straight black female detective, tragic past
  • bisexual white female leader, survivor and strategist
  • bisexual white male supernatural creature, antihero
  • straight Latino male supernatural creature,¬†hero
  • straight Asian female doctor, solves crimes
  • gay black male detective, brilliant and untragic
  • bisexual black female lawyer, maverick¬†antiheroine
  • gay Latino male action hero, supernatural issues
  • straight black female political maverick

There will not be a round three.

I mean, I could introduce a bonus round about secondary characters, but hopefully, I’m getting the point across: that whereas there are multiple shows whose protagonists answer to the descriptions given in round one, there’s really only one right answer for the equally simple clues provided in round two. Because for all the furore about how shows these days are nothing but an exercise in forced diversity – for all the fear that straight white guys are somehow being banned from stories forever and ever, amen – they’re still the dominant species, and all you need to do to prove it is ask for multiple examples of any one of the types of person supposedly meant to have ousted them.

One of the more common arguments raised by anti-diversity advocates is the futility of tokenism – the idea that giving a single show¬†a black female lead for the sake of filling a quota is both insulting and unnecessary. And I quite agree: tokenism isn’t the answer. What we want is to reach a point where there are so many black female protagonists – and queer protagonists, and protagonists of every other type and variation listed above and a great many more besides, in every permutation – that none of them could ever again be reasonably viewed as a token anything. Because, in this scenario, when writers are considering who could be the protagonist, they’re giving equal consideration to every type of person, and not just forcing themselves to look, however briefly, beyond the narrow, familiar confines of an historical default.

A quick math problem, before we continue: if you have ten¬†apples, and I have three, and we both start shaking the same, communal tree to get¬†more fruit, and the end result is twenty apples each, have you actually lost anything? No, invisible apple friend: you have not. I might have gained more in the short term, but as the end result is a fairly-earned equality, any assertion on your part that my apples were stolen from you – that you are being deprived, somehow, of the all the apples you might’ve had, if¬†only I hadn’t come along – is kind of insincere. And if your response is to try and burn the tree down out of spite, the better to ensure I go hungry next season? Well, then, you really don’t understand how apples work, do you? The ones I’m holding have just as many seeds as yours, and once I’ve gone and planted them,¬†I’ll have access to even more trees than before, and an even greater incentive to make sure they grow big and healthy. Sure, you could spend all your energy trying to sabotage my fledgling orchard, because destruction is far, far easier than creation, but come the next harvest, I’ll still have a crop of shiny, delicious apples to eat – and if you’ve planted nothing in all that time, then brother, I don’t have to burn down anything in order to watch you¬†starve.

Where was I? Oh, right: diversity in narrative.

See, when anti-diversity advocates start talking about¬†the narrative¬†implausibility of particular¬†characters as a means of explaining¬†why, in their opinion, certain types of people just can’t be heroes, they forget the point of stories. We have, quite literally, an entire genre of films, books, comics, games and TV shows dedicated to showing us how¬†normal, mediocre straight white guys – literal everymen, as proudly proclaimed in their blurbs and trailers and other forms of promotional bumpf – can rise up and¬†save the world and the day and get the girl, even when they’ve had absolutely nothing going for them and no pertinent skills before that point. It might happen through luck or hard work, through outside help or unknown possession of a secret destiny, or sometimes a combination of all four, but it does happen, over and over and over again, with the cosmic¬†regularity of sunset, and do you know what? Regardless of whether we love or hate or meh those individual stories, everyone who watches or reads or plays them understands, at base, that a certain degree of implausibility is the fucking point. The idea isn’t to create a hyper-real explanation as to why John Doe is suddenly the only man standing between Earth and alien annihilation, although it’s always nice when the¬†worldbuilding rises to the occasion:¬†the fundamental point of the everyman as hero is to make us, the everyday audience, feel as if¬†we could be heroes, too.

But make that hero queer or female and something other than white, and the same guy who moments ago was cheering on every single everyman ever played by Shia LaBeouf in Transformers¬†and Eagle Eye and Indiana Jones and Constantine¬†is spewing rage on the internet because of the Ghostbusters reboot and Star Wars and who knows what else, because women aren’t funny or interesting and why would you ever try to make them the protagonist? Listen, fucknuts: the only real¬†joke attributable to Adam Sandler is his own career, but I didn’t see you weeping on Reddit when he was inexplicably greenlit for another two hours of cinematic dickslapping in the Year of Our Lord 2016. Leslie Jones could do nothing but read the entirety of¬†Pride and Prejudice aloud on camera while¬†cracking improvised jokes about the characters and drinking champagne,¬†and it would still be a million times funnier than anything that’s ever starred Rob Schneider. Granted, that particular comedic bar is so damn low, you could use it to drag the Marianas Trench, but the point is that the plausibility police were nowhere to be found when James McAvoy learned to be an assassin with the help of a¬†massive sentient loom, a tank full of wax and Angeline Jolie’s collarbones, but are suddenly screeching the heavens down at the prospect of there being More Than One Girl in Star Wars.

I mean, look: it says a whole fucking lot about this debate that the many female characters displaced by¬†Trinity Syndrome¬†– which is to say, female characters who are demonstrably strong and skilled and unique enough to merit protagonist status, but who ultimately play second fiddle to whichever lucky everyman they’ve trained/fallen for – are never subjected to the same level of plausibility-scrutiny as actual female protagonists. Nobody objected to the fact¬†that Trinity was an awesome hacker-leader-fighter in The Matrix, because she was also Neo’s love interest, and hot: they could safely view her through the lens of his success, and thereby rest easy in the knowledge that the story wasn’t really about her. The kind of man who objects to Rey, but not Trinity, isn’t bothered by the contextual implausibility of female competence, no matter what he says: he just wants to know that, whatever prowess the female characters have, they’re still going to come in second to a white guy they later bone down with, or at least kiss. Female exceptionalism therefore becomes allowable only in a context where the various impressive skills a woman has acquired over a lifetime can be first mastered and then improved upon by any moderately talented white guy in a matter of days. But if you take that guy away – or worse still, make him a less adept sidekick or enemy – then suddenly it’s the end of the goddamn world and a blight on plausible storytelling.

So let’s just set the record straight, once and for all: we don’t want an end to stories with straight white male protagonists; we do want¬†to boost the number of stories starring other types of person, and maybe – given the massive historical imbalance between those genres – give them a bit of time in the spotlight, too. We don’t want to promote bad stories over good for the sake of diversity, though we do want them to be judged fairly, which here means allowing us¬†the freedom to create a range of diverse stories without that diversity being automatically dismissed as either tokenism or a pandering irrelevance, or else used as an excuse to put the narrative under a microscope, the results to be read as a harsh pass/fail on the viability of any such future stories. We do want to openly celebrate diversity, in much the same way that farmers celebrate rain after a long drought: we’ve had so little for so long, can you blame us for wanting to shout about it?

Well, I mean. Obviously, if you’re an anti-diversity advocate, you can and will. You’re just not going to have much in the way of moral highground to support you, and maybe – just maybe – it behoves you to consider what you’re really fighting against. If rebooting a franchise with someone other than a straight white guy in the leading role is a¬†purely cosmetic – and therefore, in your estimation, meaningless – change, then why do you feel so personally¬†threatened by the prospect of someone doing¬†it? If your real objection is to tokenism, and not to well-crafted characters from diverse backgrounds, then why aren’t you advocating¬†that writers include more of them, not less? If your selection process for worthy stories is truly wide-ranging and meritocratic, then why does it skew so heavily to only one type of writer and one type of protagonist?¬†Why do you find it so hard to believe that stories can be both diverse and worthy? Why are you so resistant to the idea that well-executed diversity is itself a form of good storytelling?

If narrative representation is such a paltry, meaningless thing ask for, then why are you so terrified of losing it?

We know why, is the thing. The real question is: do you?


I’ve been comparatively quiet on the SFFnal blogging front of late, partly because I’ve been busy with every other aspect of my life, but mostly because I’ve been feeling burned out on the same endless cycle of arguments. Back in high school, I once spent a frantic evening completing a history assignment I’d technically had months to complete: we were meant to cut out daily articles in the newspaper pertaining to the Israel-Palestine conflict and explain how each current event was informed by the history we’d learned. The relevant clippings in hand, I found myself writing paragraph after paragraph explaining the exact same thing in slightly different words. It was an exercise in creative repetition, but it did win me that year’s history prize, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Without wanting to compare the current discourse in SFF to the Israel-Palestine conflict, I’ve started to feel much the same way about engaging with it¬†as I did when writing that history assignment. By this point, surely, all the salient points have already been made by all the key parties, multiple times and in myriad different ways. We know why the debate started, and we know why it’s ongoing. The problem is that, no matter how eloquently we make these same points over again, new offences¬†stemming from the original conflict continue to occur, and merely pointing out why that’s happening isn’t getting us any closer to solving it. Which isn’t to say that making those breakdowns isn’t still important or useful: it is. I just don’t always have the strength for it right now.

Enter the announcement of programming for World Fantasy Con 2016.

There’s a good breakdown of what’s happened here, courtesy of Sarah Pinsker, while the program itself can be found here,¬†but in a nutshell, the issue is this: there are more references to H.P. Lovecraft in the program than to women or POC; there’s a use of offensive language; and there’s little to no acknowledgement of any recent writing in the genre.

This last point is the one I want to address.

By Sarah Pinsker’s count, of the thirty-two separate works cited in the program, only four were written in the last twenty years. Four. Pinsker, who saw an early draft of the proposed programming, raised this particular issue prior to publication with the head of programming, Darrell Schweitzer, in relation to a specific example. Here is Pinsker’s¬†account¬†of that exchange:

The Animal Fantasy panel with the “recent” example of Watership Down? I pointed out that was written before I was born. Kij Johnson and Ursula Vernon have written amazing award-winning animal fantasy in the last few years. He said “Watership Down is recent compared to Aesop and Chaucer.” AESOP AND CHAUCER. The modern field doesn’t stand a chance.

And here, according to the program, is current, full description of the Animal Fantasy panel:

19. Animal Fantasy. The form has been around since ancient times, and in recent years Watership Down, Walter Wagnerin’s The Book of the Dun Cow, Kij Johnson’s The Fox Woman et al. and several other such books did very well. Is this sort of fantasy still being written? What is its appeal?

To break this down, Watership Down was first published in 1972 – which is to say, 44¬†years ago. Wagnerin’s The Book of the Dun Cow came out in 1978, which is 38 years ago. The Fox Woman, by contrast, came out in 1999, a mere 17¬†years ago, but whether viewed individually or as a collective, referring to all these works as the product of¬†“recent years” is blindingly inaccurate. It’s also, quite tellingly, an elision highlighted by the very next question:¬†if the works you’re describing as successful are truly “recent”, asking if they’re “still being written” ought to be redundant.

To truly appreciate the ridiculousness of this, imagine if a major gaming con, like PAX, announced the following panel description in the year 2016:

19. First Person Shooters. This type of game has been around since gaming began, and in recent years¬†Doom, id Software’s¬†Wolfenstein 3D,¬†¬†Rare’s GoldenEye 007¬†et al. and several other such games did very well. Are these sorts of games still being made? What is their appeal?

The only way someone could write such a panel description in good faith is if they know so little about the topic they’re proposing as to be unaware of the genre’s development, which in turn suggests they’re ill-equipped to investigate its output. Can you imagine a bunch of panellists trying to talk intelligently¬†about what’s happening with FPS now – the types of title being released, the reasons people play them, the developments in the industry – while admitting themselves to be¬†largely ignorant and/or dismissive of anything that happened after Quake? Can you imagine a panel about modern FPS¬†whose members looked confused and frustrated when the audience asked about Overwatch, or who¬†didn’t think¬†Counter-Strike¬†had that big an impact on the genre? That’s how out of touch¬†the Animal Fantasy panel – and, indeed, the bulk of WFC’s programming – looks to me.

Of course, I don’t yet know who the panellists are, which is clearly going to inform how the Animal Fantasy panel (among others)¬†is handled: whether the conversation sticks to the era suggested in the outline, or if¬†newer works and developments are actually mentioned. But on the basis of what I saw at WFC in Brighton in 2013, which had a similarly retro bias in the programming, this is a con that’s more than capable of fielding myriad¬†panellists whose¬†genre knowledge doesn’t extend much past the mid-eighties. Indeed, it’s a con whose programming seems increasingly tailored to just that set while simultaneously claiming to be a modern, relevant industry con.

To borrow the gaming example again, the objection isn’t to the presence of panels discussing classic or older games, which can be a lot of fun and very informative for younger congoers wanting a better sense of their history: it’s behaving as if¬†it’s not history at all – as if the genre still only really consists of Pacman, Return to Zork and the original Tomb Raider – while waving a vaguely disparaging hand at everything that’s happened since. Even if you don’t like the newer developments, you need to be able to acknowledge that they’ve happened, and to have some understanding of how they worked and what they did, in order to compare them to your preferences. But acting as though they’re invisible, as though they never really happened at all? That’s not only insulting to the audience, it’s just plain wrong.

And lest anyone take umbrage with the comparison of animal fantasy to FPS, the latter accounting for far more works in its field that the former:¬†I chose that example precisely because FPS is well-known enough for the dissonance to be jarring. But animal fantasy, while a smaller subgenre, has nonetheless developed a lot since the 70s. To take the blindingly obvious example that somehow isn’t mentioned in the programming, I grew up reading Brian Jacques’s Redwall series, which began in 1986 – the year I was born – and only ended with his death, the final book released in 2011. The Duncton Wood¬†series, published between 1980 and 1993,¬†were another big influence, as was¬†the TV show The Animals of Farthing Wood, aired between 1992 and 1995, which was an adaptation of the books of the same name, originally written in the late seventies. There’s also Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series – a staple of Australian literature – whose publication runs from 1958 to 1999, with both a live action film and an animated TV show produced in 1993 and 1994, respectively. None of which is exactly recent (while still managing to be more recent than the panel description), but which contextualises the crucial shift¬†in the genre.

As Pinsker pointed out, Kij Johnson has written multiple works that fall into this category, all more recent than the 1999 example given in the programming, as has Ursula Vernon, notably her award-winning comic, Digger. There’s also Daniel Polansky’s The Builders, released last year with Tor. But in “recent years”, the majority of animal fantasy stories aren’t novels – they’re animated films and shows. Disney’s Zootopia, released in 2016, was an unparalleled critical success, but hardly arrived in a vacuum: all those cartoon adaptations mentioned above – Redwall had one too, along with¬†The Animals of Farthing Wood and The Silver Bumby,¬†to say nothing of the classic Watership Down film¬†¬†helped to pave the way for it, as did countless others. I could sit here all day listing animal-centric animated films¬†from the last thirty years, both literary adaptations and originals (The Secret of Nimh, Happy Feet, Kung-Fu Panda, Cats Don’t Dance, An American Tail, A Bug’s Life, Ice Age), and while I won’t, the fact that I can is exactly the point: unless you want to outlaw 90% of the discussion, you can’t have a sensible panel about animal fantasy as a subgenre without mentioning animation. You literally can’t, because that’s where the bulk of that particular subgenre exists, and that’s where it’s been thriving for twenty years.

Talking about animal fantasy purely in terms of novels makes as much sense as, well, applying the same restriction to a discussion of superheroes: yes, those books exist, and yes, they’re worth mentioning, but you’re kind of missing the main event. But I can already pretty much guarantee that, barring some major behind the scenes changes, you’re not going to get a WFC panel which addresses that fact. Many of you can probably guess why. For those who can’t, however, let’s run with this theme a little longer.

Elsewhere in her Twitter thread on the WFC programming, Sarah Pinsker mentions that seminal author Shirley Jackson, whose centenary this is, rates only a single programming mention compared to H. P. Lovecraft’s ten. On its own, that might not bother you, but compare it to the programming in 2013, which marked what would have been Arthur Machen’s 150’s birthday. An entire programming stream¬†was made in Machen’s honour – Machen @ 150 – celebrating his works, his life and his influences on the genre, which amounted to eight separate panels¬†explicitly invoking him in their premise. Similarly, in 2014, Robert Aickman’s centennial earned him seven different events commemorating his work. But Shirley Jackson’s centennial merits only a single event and a single mention – even though the program itself describes her as having written “much of the greatest and most distinctive horror of the 20th century”.

It’s not a coincidence that Shirley Jackson’s centenary merits only a single panel compared to what was organised for Aicken and Machen, just as it’s not a coincidence that the animal fantasy panel mysteriously makes no reference to the medium in which the bulk of those stories are produced. It’s not just that the programming is manifestly disinterested in the genre’s progress¬†in the last twenty years – it’s that all those earlier, apparently more “definitive”¬†works are only a curated selection of what’s considered classic and acceptable, which definition skews heavily towards male and “serious” and away from anything female, youthful or “frivolous”, like animation or YA.

If the position was, really and truly, that recent works are garbage, and that the only things worth discussing in SFF happened prior to 1996 (or 1986, for preference) then Shirley Jackson would merit at least as many programming items as Aicken or Machen – but she doesn’t, because she’s a woman. If the position was, really and truly, that there hasn’t really been any notable animal fantasy since 1999, then Brian Jacques, Elyne Mitchell and the wealth of early cartoon adaptations should at least rate an acknowledgement in the panel description – but they don’t, because kids’ animation isn’t respectable fantasy, Jacques wrote middle grade books, and Mitchell, assuming the programming team have even heard of her, is a woman. It’s the same logic which said that including a favourite in-joke of Schweitzer’s was more important than not using a racist slur in the programming titles (“Spicy Oriental Zeppelin”, though this, at least, seems to have been changed): they simply didn’t see the offence as a problem.

It’s not that I think Darrell Schweitzer and friends¬†sat down at a table and asked, “Okay, how best can we exclude and minimise the contributions of women, people of colour, queer writers and anyone under fifty in our programming?”, though they could hardly have done a better job of achieving that outcome if they had. It’s that bias is an insidious, often subconscious thing, and where you’ve learned¬†to only view particular things as worthy or important, regardless of the¬†actual worth or importance of what’s on offer, you need to make an active effort to look at the whole picture. If your argument is that genre is an unbiased meritocracy – if that’s what you truly aspire for conventions and awards ceremonies alike to look like, the best works and writers rising to the top regardless of any other consideration – then the presence of homogeneity in your lineup should concern you, because it’s a sign that someone, somewhere is putting their hand on the scales.

Here’s the thing about awards lists and panel slots: they’re exclusive by definition, which means that someone, somewhere is always going to be¬†miss out, whether personally or in terms of their preferences. Unless you’re handing out trophies for participation, then you’re always going to have arguments about how it was a travesty that so-and-so didn’t make the cut, and there’s always going to be both a political and a promotional aspect to whose names get bandied about. There’s no such thing as a perfect, absolutely objective nomination or adjudication process, because those decisions are ultimately based on individual preferences, and everyone has subjective reasons for liking what they like. That’s the nature of the beast, and it applies across the board, whether you’re talking about the Oscars, Crufts or a local primary school science prize. But when there is a massive, visible dissonance between what’s being created and what’s being praised – when that dissonance just so happens to map to wider social bigotry against particular groups and people – then it’s not unreasonable to advocate for a fairer process. There is, after all, a world of difference between the top prize going to the kid with the most awesome baking soda volcano you’ve ever seen, even if you thought the girl with the string beans was better, and watching some grinning lug who turned in a pile of horseshit take the trophy away from both of them.


The WFC 2016 program is frustrating, not just because it’s so manifestly disinterested in the ongoing development of SFF, but because it can’t even pretend with any degree of subtlety that its objections to those developments are anything other than a deep-seated preference for the opinions of straight white men. I’ve harped on the animal fantasy panel because Schweitzer’s response to Pinsker about it perfectly encapsulates the dissonance in his attitude, but it’s the same thing wherever you look. For god’s sake, there are more references to men born in the 1800s than to any women, living or dead. How can that possibly make sense at a convention where people are meant to go to discuss the genre’s future? How can such a convention even have a future, when it’s so hellbent on dismissing the reality of its inheritors?

Which, in a wider sense, is what’s happening right now with the Sad Puppy campaign and the Hugo Awards.¬†Asked to share the¬†playground equally with the other children, the Puppies lasted five minutes before deciding it was better to smash the swings and shit on the slide than let anyone use the shared equipment for games not of their orchestration. My toddler has more reasoned emotional responses, and he’s three.

But we know all that. We’ve said it before. What else is there to say?

Warning: major spoilers for the entire Captive Prince trilogy.

Trigger warning: discussion of rape, slavery, child abuse, paedophilia.

Late last year, a friend recommended I try the Captive Prince trilogy by C. S. Pacat, describing it as an excellent queer fantasy romance series. I made interested noises and then, somewhat typically, forgot about it until it cropped up again on my tumblr dash. I don’t know what alchemical combination of blogs I’m currently following to make this so, but thus far, everything I’ve ever read, watched or played on the basis of hearing about it through tumblr has been something I’ve loved, or at least enjoyed despite whatever criticisms I’ve made of it. That being so, and as it was my birthday that weekend, I shelled out for an ebook of the first volume, Captive Prince, and decided to give it a try before bed.

I stayed up until 5am to finish it, then read the next two volumes – Prince’s Gambit and Kings Rising –¬†in less than a day. They’re not long books, but length aside, I couldn’t put them down, and given how much I’ve recently struggled to stay immersed in any story long enough to finish it, that’s saying something. The series is, as advertised, a queer fantasy romance, but while it’s certainly SFF, it counts as fantasy only inasmuch as it’s set in an original secondary world – there’s no magic or mythical creatures, with the focus instead resting on romance and politics.

These are not, by a long shot, perfect books; in fact, they contain a great many elements I traditionally despise, and which would ordinarily cause me to run a mile in the opposite direction. Which is, in part, why I’ve spent the past three months drafting this review: to get my head around exactly how and why I enjoyed them anyway. Because I did enjoy them, for all that I’m about to launch into a lengthy, detailed criticism of their failings, and as easy as it would be to simply write them off as a guilty pleasure, I feel like they deserve more than that.

Here’s the blurb for Captive Prince, the first volume:

Damen is a warrior hero to his people, and the truthful heir to the throne of Akielos, but when his half brother seizes power, Damen is captured, stripped of his identity and sent to serve the prince of an enemy nation as a pleasure slave.

Beautiful, manipulative and deadly, his new master Prince Laurent epitomizes the worst of the court at Vere. But in the lethal political web of the Veretian court, nothing is as it seems, and when Damen finds himself caught up in a play for the throne, he must work together with Laurent to survive and save his country.

For Damen, there is just one rule: never, ever reveal his true identity. Because the one man Damen needs is the one man who has more reason to hate him than anyone else…

Straight away, then, it needs to be acknowledged: this is a world in which slavery, and especially sexual slavery, is normative, and where the primary romance is between a character who, at the outset, is enslaved by the other. Also salient is the issue of race: Laurent is white, while¬†Damen, who’s described as being olive-skinned and dark-haired, is not. Those are going to be hard limits for some people, and with good reason. It’s not something I want to minimise or elide. As I recently had cause to say elsewhere, the fact that I can discuss these elements at a remove is a consequence of privilege: that I enjoyed – or was, rather, able to enjoy – the books otherwise is both personally disquieting and a concession I’d never expect¬†of anyone else.

That being so, it’s also relevant – to me, at least – that Captive Prince was first published online, as¬†an ongoing original ¬†fanfic/slash story, with the first two volumes serialised between 2008 and 2012: by contrast, the content of Kings Rising, which only came out this year, is entirely new. Online,¬†there’s an explicit culture of tagging and author/reader interaction in digital slash circles, both for fanfic and original works, that serves to contextualise which elements of a story are intended for reader critique, and which are explicitly included as a deliberate kink. It’s why, I’ve discovered, there are tropes and stories I’m happy to read in fanfic that I’ll baulk at elsewhere, and nor am I the only person of whom that’s true. It makes a significant difference to know that the author knows that a particular trope or exchange is problematic, and is writing it that way on purpose, as an exploration of flawed humanity or as a dead dove indulgence, instead of having to wonder if they genuinely think it’s okay.

Thus: while I’ve clearly come late to the party and didn’t see the original discussions surrounding, in particular, the early chapters of Pacat’s work, when they were first posted online, the fact that this engagement took place at all – that the story was written in expectation of such engagement – seems relevant to analysing it now. Master/slave romances are a longstanding staple of both erotica and slash, and while that fact doesn’t magically exempt them from criticism either in terms of individual execution or as a discreet phenomenon, it does situate the device itself as, well – a device, one Pacat recognises as such, and which she likely discussed with readers when the story first went up; a discussion to which I have no access, but which nonetheless impacted how and why the story was told as it was.

Here is the thing¬†I struggle with about erotica/romance: the fact that something is explicitly written as a sexual fantasy doesn’t exempt it from criticism, but nor is a reader who enjoys such fantasies automatically wrong to read them uncritically. The act of writing is always an act of fantasy, of construction, but sexual fantasies, by their very nature, occupy a uniquely personal space. It is quite possible to compartmentalise what one finds acceptable in normal life versus what one finds arousing in fantasy, as fiction, within a controlled narrative space; and yet it’s also possible to confuse the two on both ends, to assume that privately desiring a thing excuses its uncritical replication, or to trust that¬†such uncritical replication means there’s nothing to criticise in the first place. Our kinks are our own, but to a large extent, they’re also socially influenced, and as such, the primacy of particular narratives, uncritically viewed and ubiquitous, can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The issue becomes further muddled if we attempt to draw that salient distinction between sex and romance, particularly in the context of their interrelated tropes. Sexual fantasies are not the same as romantic fantasies, though there may be some overlap. Speaking personally – which, on the ultimate Your Mileage May Vary topic, is really all I can do – I have a deep mistrust of erotica whose romance elements are meant to be inferred from the hotness of the pornography alone, particularly in instances where the sexual fantasy elements either negate or raise serious questions about the healthiness of the corresponding emotional relationship. Which is where we run into something of a unique, arguably moral but certainly critical, conundrum: how, exactly, does one negotiate the intersection of kink with criticism?

On the one hand, it can’t be denied that the idea of sexual slavery is, for many, an arousing fantasy; and more, that their enjoyment of the concept¬†in fiction isn’t contingent on it being portrayed exclusively as a meta-fantasy of the characters. By which I mean: however abhorrent one might find the concept of sexual slavery in real life, such that physically indulging in such¬†play¬†would (one hopes) take place only under the pre-negotiated auspices of safe, sane and consensual or RACK, the very fact of knowing that a story is fictional, and therefore a fantasy constructed for the reader, can void the need for the characters to engage in similar negotiations.¬†Consent is therefore established, not between the protagonists, but between the reader and the work itself: instead of safewording, all we need do is set the book aside, the characters undamaged by virtue of being imaginary. That being so, a story doesn’t need to internally establish the immorality of slavery, sexual or otherwise, in order to scratch the itch of an otherwise deeply consent-oriented kink.

On the other hand, and regardless of whether the presence of slavery is either intended or able to satisfy a kink, we are not wrong to critique it, and especially not when its inclusion is narratively unexamined. Slavery still exists, both sexually and otherwise; its victims are myriad, their stories appalling. Its impact on histories both individual and collective is staggering, indelible, undeniable and ongoing, and even without any personal experience of or connection to such suffering, we have every right to be horrified by narratives or characters which do not unequivocally denounce it, or which feature it at all, for that matter.

Likewise in this instance, given the historical intersection of racism with both slavery and pornography (both straight and queer), it’s impossible to argue that race simply doesn’t matter, or insist that the characters be judged wholly on the basis of the setting. Calling a mandingo¬†portrayal a kink instead of a trope (for instance) doesn’t make it any less racist – but then, the intersection of racism with fandom is something we, meaning white fans, are still notoriously bad at navigating. The “don’t like, don’t read” culture of fanwriting, which is frequently cited as grounds for critical exemption, is a case in point. While fair enough in theory – fans are, after all, working for free, for pleasure – this doesn’t change the fact that the persistent elision of POC characters, coupled with the joint problems of authorial¬†stereotyping and reader pushback when they do appear, can make a space that otherwise prides itself on its inclusiveness both hostile and alienating to fans of colour, who are then further criticised for violating fan¬†etiquette when they react. As ever, it’s a problem of wider social problems converging in fanspace: fanwriters didn’t create racism, but we can certainly bring it with us, and as Captive Prince began in fanfic communities, it’s certainly a relevant aspect of the discussion.

And then, on that perennially metaphoric third hand, there’s the issue of¬†critical narrative immersion: the decision to accept that slavery is part of the worldbuilding, and to separate our judgement of its objective immorality from our judgement of how skilfully (or not) the world and its characters are¬†constructed, and how they work on their own terms. This is a tricky thing to do, inasmuch as it involves embracing a deliberate form of cognitive dissonance: the parallel rendering of two disparate opinions on the same subject, both accepted, yet never quite reconciled. It’s this third path I find myself taking with the Captive Prince trilogy, further contextualised by my awareness of the other two options. Doubtless, there are some who’ll perceive me as drastically overthinking things, while others might assert that I’m thinking too little, or from the wrong perspective. That being so, the best I can attempt is honesty, both emotional and intellectual: to show my working where possible, and to admit the lack of it otherwise.

Here, then, is the short version of my opinion, by way of prefacing the longer one: Pacat is an excellent writer, one whose style and depth both demonstrably improve as the series progresses. That the first book was written online, in the context of fanfiction and that community’s discussion of both kink and sexuality is, as mentioned, salient in examining its portrayal of sexual slavery, particularly in comparison to the third. The abiding impression I have – or instinct, rather¬†– is that, having used the concept of sexual slavery as a kinky premise for a story being updated live, the setup meant as an excuse for¬†Damen to be deposed and enslaved by his half-brother rather than as¬†a nuanced exploration of culture, Pacat was unable to go back and change things¬†once the story took off.¬†This potentially explains why the first book treats sexual slavery as a normative, largely unexamined central focus; why the second moves almost completely away from slavery without ever really addressing it; and why the third attempts, albeit tentatively, to acknowledge it as wrong without ever really probing its initial acceptance and the implications thereof.

All this being so, and with the best¬†will in the world, it’s clear that Pacat is writing from a position of unexamined white privilege. Even if her initial introduction of sexual slavery was meant wholly as a kinky plot device, its wider implications for Damen’s history unconsidered at the outset, there is no such excuse (if we can call it that) for blithely assuming that the image of a brown-skinned man in chained service to a white man would be narratively neutral. That Damen’s race is never considered salient to his slavery within the story¬†doesn’t change what it evokes to the reader.

Or rather, what it can evoke: from my perspective,¬†Damen’s race feels like an unacknowledged elephant in the room of the Captive Prince fandom. I’ve seen it¬†mentioned as a problem online exactly once, while a staggering amount of fanart involves Damen in chains, cuffs and collar. That he wears all these things at one time or another doesn’t change the fact that replicating them in fanart – emphasising them above other options – is a choice, and one made fairly consistently. That Laurent whips Damen nearly to death in the first book, resulting in permanent scarring, likewise invokes a very specific, very ugly history; as do the times¬†when Damen is referred to as a barbarian, cur or savage.¬†That these insults are delivered exclusively in relation to his culture and warrior-status rather than his race doesn’t change their potential, awful resonance for readers to whom these are all deeply personal, lived insults, nor does it justify their inclusion Because Worldbuilding. No matter how perfectly explained and narratively consistent the internal logic of a setting – no matter how many in-book justifications exist to try and soften the parallels¬†– we all, creators and readers both, bring our world and its history with us. That is inescapable.

Paradoxically, it’s Pacat’s utter obliviousness on this front – and, as a consequence, the obliviousness of the narrative – which made it tolerable for me. (Which isn’t, I hasten to add, the same as defensible; see above re: parallel judgements.) If Damen was insulted on the basis of his skin colour or ethnicity, I suspect I would’ve flung my Kindle at the wall; instead, he’s slandered on the basis of being Akelion, with his countrymen¬†casting identical slurs at the Veretians. The comparison of these countries is an interesting one:¬†Akielos is heavily based on ancient Greece, while Vere is more reminiscent of a decadent, pre-revolutionary France, though in this setting, both nations were originally part of a single empire and exist now at an identical technological level. As such, while Damen’s colouring is less common in Vere and Laurent’s less common in Akielos, there’s enough of a shared heritage that Damen isn’t exoticised for his looks. In fact, it’s Laurent who’s more often fetishised on this count, regardless of the observer’s nationality.

That being said, things turn murky again on re-examining the issue of slavery. Like ancient Greece, Akielos is a slave culture, and at the start of the first book, our assumption is that the same is true of Vere. In fact, from Damen’s introductory perspective, Vere’s version of slavery is far more horrifying in its abuses than anything practised in Akielos, and as such, we’re inclined to sympathise with his outrage (which is, note, a different thing to agreeing with his corresponding defence of his homeland’s practices). The problem is that Damen is, in this respect, an unreliable narrator – not intentionally, but by virtue of cultural ignorance. The story is premised on the deposed, imprisoned Damen, along with a contingent of trained slaves, being sent as a gift to Laurent’s uncle, the Regent of Vere; this makes slavery seem normal in Vere, as does the presence of ‘pets’ kept by the nobility for sexual use.

Not unreasonably, Damen assumes the pets are slaves, and so, in turn, does the reader. It’s only later that we discover this isn’t true: pets are more akin to courtesans, occupying contractual, paid positions. With this information in hand, the opening scenes in Vere – which are, to say the least, both violent and debauched – are cast in, if not a redeeming light, then one in which consent isn’t quite so thoroughly disregarded. Damen and the other slaves are still vilely mistreated, but given the slow reveal of the Regent’s particular monstrousness, it’s not initially clear that¬†this abuse is ultimately the Regent’s doing alone, rather than constituting a widespread cultural practice.

As such, once it becomes clear that Vere is not, in fact, a slave culture, our perception of Damen’s outrage – and of him – is necessarily forced to shift. From the outset, we know that he’s slept with slaves before, and that slaves are prized, treated gently, and praised for their submission in Akielos. Indeed, it’s the abuse of this submissiveness that rouses Damen’s ire, to the point where he intercedes with Laurent to have the other slaves gifted¬†to an ambassador from neighbouring Patras, who knows enough of their training and value to treat them kindly. The slaves themselves – or one in particular, Erasmus, whom we take as being a spokesman for the others – are grateful for this opportunity; the question of freeing them is never raised. Which is where, once again, we run up against the intersection of kink and criticism: the¬†‘submissiveness’ in question is described in ways that make it feel highly reminiscent of BDSM, with submission offered as part of a reciprocal relationship involving a duty of care, both emotionally and physically, on the master’s behalf. Erasmus’s new master, for instance, is outraged by his rape in Vere, expressing a heartfelt refusal to sleep with him until or unless the other man is ready.

And yet, for all that we’re meant to be thinking of BDSM – for all that masters under the Akielios/Patras system care greatly about the wellbeing of their slaves – this is still an arrangement without consent. Slaves are taken as captives and trained; the practice is a legitimate source of anger in Vere, whose people suffer in border raids. Damen, raised to view this type of slavery as normative, sees nothing wrong with it, and as this seemingly ‘gentler’ alternative is being contrasted with the violent environs of Vere, the narrative doesn’t encourage us to question his assessment. But¬†Vere, despite the depravity of its Regent, is not a slave culture; Akielos is. Yet even in his captivity,¬†Damen doesn’t engage in any real reflection on the wrongness of of slavery (though Laurent makes some pointed remarks about it before then) until Kings Rising; at which point, now freed and fighting to reclaim his country, he eventually pledges to end the whole institution.

Obviously, this is a positive development, for all that it feels like too little, too late; and yet I can’t help thinking that, once again, the problem lies with Pacat’s inability to edit those early chapters. The first book,¬†Captive Prince, treats sexual slavery as an uncritically examined kink/conceit in a way that the subsequent two volumes do not, but on which their events are nonetheless based. This forces Pacat to walk a very thin line in expanding on her own, unalterable canon: to address slavery as an evil – and to acknowledge¬†the past abuses of the protagonists – without presenting them as wholly irredeemable, at least within the context of her world. That she manages this is a testament to her skill as a writer; nonetheless, I’d be remiss not to point out that the problem is one of her own making. Or, looked at another way, a problem of success: had the stories remained online, contextualised by fanfic’s tagging and commentary system – or had they been less popular, such that editing might have passed unnoticed prior to mainstream publication – my reaction might well have been different. At the very least, it might have been easier to distinguish intention from accident.

As if further complications were required, there’s also¬†Laurent’s early treatment of Damen to consider. At base, the Captive Prince trilogy is an enemies to friends to lovers narrative, with each book representing one of those three stages. However unexamined the wider issues of slavery and consent raised by Pacat’s cultures and worldbuilding might be, it works in the series’ favour that there’s no introduction of romance between Laurent and Damen until the two are eventually placed on an equal footing. And yet – again – the offences of the first book cast a long shadow: in particular, three early offences¬†that set the tone for Damen’s early hatred of Laurent. Namely: Damen is badly whipped at his instruction; is forced to engage in a fight where, if he loses, he’ll be raped by the winner (which involves him being prepped for penetrative sex beforehand); and is given oral sex by a pet, with Laurent instructing said pet on what to do.

Definitionally, these latter two acts – the prep and the oral sex –¬†are forms of rape, but the narrative never acknowledges them as such. Damen wins the rape-fight by knocking out his opponent, and therefore escapes having to either rape or be raped, but that doesn’t change what was done to him beforehand, even if it never comes up again. Similarly, in the instant with the pet – which is orchestrated by people other than Laurent, whose complicity is politically forced – although Damen is initially unwilling and unaroused, ¬†Laurent’s instruction results in his physical enjoyment of the act. While the two later discuss this event, it’s never described as a violation; which, on the one hand, is Damen’s prerogative, and as we’re in his perspective, we’re clear on his lack of trauma. If such a scene were present in a fanfic, I’d expect it to be tagged for dubcon – and perhaps, as per the story’s initial serialisation, it was. It’s exactly the sort of scene I can imagine being written for erotic value, as an explicit kink/fantasy, but as stated earlier, the ambiguity on this point, absent any authorial footnoting, is¬†a source of personal unease.¬†The whipping, however,¬†has a different derivation, and is, somewhat strangely, situated within the narrative as being the most forgiveable of these actions despite being the most violent.

There are three major contextualising reasons for this.

Context the first, which constitutes a major reveal of the final book: that Laurent has known all along that Damen is Damianos, the man who killed his brother Auguste six years ago, ending a war that resulted in Akelios annexing a northern Veretian province, the death of Laurent’s father, the king, and the ascent of his uncle to the regency. Context the second, which a canny reader can intuit from various, increasingly obvious clues from the first book onwards, but which isn’t explicitly confirmed until the third: that Laurent’s uncle, a paedophile, abused him for years after his brother’s death – was able to do so without any threat of discovery or oversight precisely because Auguste was dead, and Laurent was left alone. And context the third, which leads directly to the whipping: after the rape-fight, whose conclusion involves Damen being propositioned by an underage boy, Nicaise (who we later learn is the uncle’s pet), Damen and Laurent have the following exchange:

“So my slave is bashful in the arena. Don’t you fuck boys in Akielos?”

“I’m quite cultured. Before I rape anyone, I first check to see if their voice has broken,” said Damen.

Laurent smiled.

This conversation happens in a bathing room, where Damen is shortly instructed to wash Laurent – not with any sexual overtones, but as a servile chore. Nonetheless, Damen becomes aroused, and when Laurent notices, this happens:

“Don’t be presumptuous,” said Laurent, coldly.

“Too late, sweetheart,” said Damen.

Laurent turned, and with calm precision unleashed a backhanded blow that had easily enough force to bloody a mouth, but Damen had had quite enough of being hit, and he caught Laurent’s hand before the blow connected…

Damen let his gaze wander downwards – wet from chest to taut abdomen – and further. It was really a very, very nice body, but the cold outrage was genuine. Laurent was not even a little amorous, Damen noted; that part of him, quite as sweetly made as the rest, was quiescent.

He felt the tension hit Laurent’s body, though the tone didn’t change overmuch from its usual drawl. “But my voice has broken. That was the only prerequisite, wasn’t it?”

Damen released his grip, as though burned. A moment later, the blow he had thwarted landed, harder than he could have imagined, smashing across his mouth.

Get him out of here,” said Laurent.

From Damen’s perspective – which is to say, the only perspective we’re given – Laurent is capricious, violent and cold: the kind of person who’ll whip a slave bloody for a minor infraction, or enter him in a rape-or-be-raped fight against a violent opponent for fun. He doesn’t introspect about Laurent’s motives, because he doesn’t need to: he only needs to hate him and survive.

From Laurent’s perspective, however, things are rather more complex. His abuser, who is currently engaged in a labyrinthine effort to see him discredited, dead or preferably both before he can take the throne in his own right, has just handed him the man he hates most in the world as a slave and publicly¬†ordered him not to kill or harm him, such that any disobedience will see Laurent suffer. Trying to get around this injunction, Laurent pits Damen in the only kind of fight that won’t violate his uncle’s command – because it’s his uncle who encourages the rape-fights, though usually between willing pets – against one of his uncle’s men, who Damen subsequently defeats.When they then discuss this fight, Damen¬†makes a joke about his own willingness to rape, which Laurent, a rape victim, construes – not unreasonably – as a threat. He reacts accordingly.

And it’s here, at the crux of this context, that we find the real reason I stuck with Captive Prince despite its rape-fixation – a device I find nominally abominable – and other problematic elements: the psychology. The steady reveal of Laurent’s motives and characterisation – accompanied, of necessity, by the similar reveal of his uncle’s monstrousness- is one of the most wrenching portrayals of abuse and gaslighting that I’ve ever seen. Damen and Laurent are both deeply flawed characters, and Pacat, in writing them, is aware of this. The point of their eventual romance isn’t to prove that either man was ever perfect, or to suggest that perfection is a retroactively bestowable state, but to engage with the psychological and emotional complexities their relationship presents, unpicking the reasons for their initial, mutual antipathy.

The fact that Laurent’s abuse remains opaque to Damen for much of the trilogy while becoming increasingly clear to the reader is a neat trick of characterisation and writing both. It simply never occurs to Damen, whose blind trust in the goodness of family is why his half-brother, Kastor, was able to capture and enslave him in the first place, as a possibility. For the same reason, Damen doesn’t understand the combination of tolerance, kindness and brutal honesty with which Laurent treats his uncle’s pets. When Damen rejects Nicaise, for instance, Nicaise becomes hostile to him; dangerously so. When Laurent appears both lenient with Nicase’s actions while criticising his person, it confirms Damen’s belief in Laurent’s cruelty; yet Laurent, in these moments, is speaking from awful¬†experience, his words as cutting to himself as to Nicaise, though only he knows it:

“Do you take wine, or aren’t you old enough yet?”

“I’m thirteen. I drink whenever I like.” Nicaise scorned the tray, pushing at it so hard it almost overbalanced. “I’m not going to drink with you. We don’t need to start pretending politeness.”

“Don’t we? Very well: I think it is fourteen by now, isn’t it?”

Nicaise turned red, under the paint.

“I thought so,” said Laurent. “Have you thought about what you’re going to do, after? If I know your master’s tastes, you have another year, at most. At your age, the body begins to betray itself.” And then, reacting to something in the boy’s face, “Or has it started already?”

The red grew strident. “That isn’t any of your business.

“You’re right, it isn’t,” said Laurent.

Nicaise opened his mouth, but Laurent continued before he could speak.

“I’ll offer for you, if you like. When the time comes. I wouldn’t want you in my bed, but you’d have all the same privileges. You might prefer that. I’d offer.”

Nicaise blinked, and then sneered. “With what?”

A breath of amusement from Laurent…

“I don’t need you. He’s promised. He’s not going to give me up.” Nicaise’s voice was smug and self-satisfied.

“He gives them all up,” said Laurent, “even if you’re more enterprising than the others have been.”

“He likes me better than the others.” A scornful laugh. “You’re jealous.” And then it was Nicaise’s turn to react to something he saw in Laurent’s face, and he said, with a horror Damen didn’t understand, “You’re going to tell him you want me.

“Oh,” said Laurent. “No. Nicaise… no. That would wreck you. I wouldn’t do that.” Then his voice became almost tired. “Maybe it’s better if you think I would. You have quite a good mind for strategy, to have thought of that. Maybe you will hold him longer than the others.” For a moment it seemed as if Laurent would say something else, but in the end he just stood up from the bench and held his hand out to the boy. “Come on. Let’s go. You can watch me get told off by my uncle.”

Reading this scene the first time, it’s easy think that Laurent’s perception of Nicaise is jaded, unconcerned – especially as the reader, like Damen, is still new enough to the fact of Nicaise’s status to be horrified by it. Nor does that final line carry the same resonance as it does on a reread, as the revelation of the Regent’s paedophilia is yet to be made. Knowing what comes later, however, many such early exchanges are rendered chilling. More than once, the Regent criticises Laurent for being “childish“, repeatedly belittling him as someone unfocused, selfish, disloyal. That he still rebukes him like a child is an early warning sign, yet similarly easy to miss on a first pass:

The Regent’s expression changed. “I see you can’t be talked to. I won’t indulge your current mood. Petulance is ugly in a child and worse in a man. If you break your toys, it is no one’s fault but your own.”…

“I heard you killed your horse.” [said Damen]

“It’s just a horse,” said Laurent. “I’ll have my uncle buy me a new one.”

These words seemed savagely to amuse him; there was a jagged, private edge to his voice.

The reveal, when it comes, is a suckerpunch¬†precisely because it’s been so long in building: we know that the Regent is trying to outmanoeuvre Laurent, but not what the history is between them. And then, having backed Laurent into a political corner – enabled, in part, by Laurent’s decision to protect Damen, who just saved his life – in full view of the court, this happens:

“There. It is done. Come,” said the Regent to Laurent, extending his right hand…

Laurent came forward, and knelt before him gracefully, a single kneecap to the floor.

“Kiss,” said the Regent, and Laurent lowered his head in obedience to kiss his uncle’s signet ring…

After a moment, Damen saw the Regent’s hand lift again to rest in Laurent’s hair and stroke it with slow, familiar affection. Laurent remained quite still, head bowed, as strands of fine gold were pushed back from his face by the Regent’s heavy, ringed fingers.

“Laurent. Why must you always defy me? I hate it when we are at odds, yet you force me to chastise you. You seem determined to wreck everything in your path. Blessed with gifts, you squander them. Given opportunities, you waste them. I hate to see you grown up like this,” said the Regent, “when you were such a lovely boy.”

In this moment, Laurent is utterly alone; is revealed to have been alone¬†ever since Damen killed his brother and protector. This doesn’t excuse his mistreatment of Damen, but it does contextualise his rage, and as a reader, there’s something powerfully compelling about telling an abuse survivor’s narrative this way: as a trauma whose¬†consequences, even when witnessed by others, are frequently¬†misunderstood by them. Laurent’s soldiers repeatedly describe him as “frigid“, referring to the fact that he never takes lovers; like Damen, they assume he’s emotionally cold, not that he’s protecting himself. Throughout¬†Prince’s Gambit and Kings Rising, during their scattering of emotionally and/or sexually intimate moments, Damen frequently reflects on the odd gaps in Laurent’s knowledge without ever realising their cause. Or rather, he knows part of the cause – that Laurent, in every aspect of his life, is someone who wants to remain in control, while physical intimacy¬†requires both trust and negotiation – but not the base reason why. It’s an exquisitely consistent piece of characterisation, and one that Pacat writes with absolute believability.

That Pacat is able to take the hostile dynamic between Damen and Laurent presented in the first book and make anything legitimately romantic of it, let alone something quite affectingly so – even to a reader both conscious of her elisions and critical of the premise – is nothing short of astonishing. Though Damen notes¬†Laurent’s physical charms¬†in Captive Prince, there’s no hint of romance or genuine attraction between them until the power imbalance is addressed in Prince’s Gambit, and the two begin to engage in something approaching equality, with no consummation until the two are on an even footing. This is a vital point: whatever blunders Pacat makes with regard to slavery and despite her racefail, she is scrupulous in acknowledging the pitfalls of a power imbalance on a nascent romance.

At the same time, her skill in this respect also serves to cast her failures into stark relief. Returning to the issue of Akeilos being a slave culture while Vere, despite its initial appearances, is not, we’re put in the unfortunate position of reading a narrative in which our primary slave character is a man of colour, with¬†slavery as an institution is predominantly enforced¬†by his own (mostly POC) nation. Particularly given the later reveal – again, in Kings Rising – that Laurent is a secret abolitionist, something which had hitherto only been hinted at, there’s a jarring dissonance in the realisation that Damen, an enslaved character, has been more accepting of slavery throughout the books than his putative (white) master. Which… yeah. To use a technical term, that is super fucked up.

And yet (and yet), for all the series fails to examine slavery as an institution, there’s a very real examination of power imbalances, abuse and self-perception. Even when legally and physically enslaved, Damen always considers himself a¬†prince: he never adopts a servile mindset, nor does he ever become, in the emotional sense, a victim, remaining instead a warrior in enemy territory.¬†After the regent makes a failed¬†attempt on Laurent’s life at the end of¬†Captive Prince,¬† Damen and Laurent are forced into an uneasy alliance: Damen will try to keep Laurent alive in order to prevent a bloody, pointless war between Akielos and Vere, and by the start of Prince’s Gambit, though still technically a slave, Damen is no longer subject to the powerless indignities of the first book, but is treated in all important respects as a soldier and advisor. His servility thus becomes more theoretical than practical, and though he ultimately emerges as someone distressed by and opposed to slavery, the experience doesn’t touch his fundamental confidence.

Whereas Laurent, by contrast, has spent the years since his brother’s death¬†effectively fighting a¬†rearguard action, trying desperately to protect himself¬†from his uncle without any friends or allies. Though perceived as cold and calculating, his position has been a source of fear, not confidence – fear of abuse, of abandonment,¬†of murder. The more Laurent comes to trust Damen, the more his confidence in his own judgement unravels: he can’t believe he’ll be treated kindly, let alone find pleasure in anything they might do, which leaves him more fundamentally¬†vulnerable – both around Damen and otherwise – than Damen ever is, despite his ostensibly greater position of power.

Ultimately, the Captive Prince series is a deeply problematic¬†but nonetheless highly compelling narrative: one in which both protagonists are intrinsically flawed, and where certain of their actions, both independently and towards each other, are morally reprehensible, regardless of whether the narrative always recognises this fact.¬†And yet their characterisation, the contextualising politics and the underlying psychology of their interactions is deft enough to make them both sympathetic; to ¬†transcend their horrific beginning¬†in the service of a romance that is genuinely affecting. Or so it felt to me, at least – as ever, Your Mileage May Vary, and as stated at the outset, I’m not going to argue with anyone who finds the fundamental problems with the story too glaring or painful to like anything else about it.


Though the first book is the weakest of the trilogy,¬†Pacat writes a superb long game, where successive revelations cause our ¬†understanding of the characters and their situations to turn on a dime. She is also, in every technical respect, an extraordinary writer. Her prose has a lyrical, graceful economy that’s utterly enviable, her characterisation ripe with psychological nuance: the same story in lesser hands – the same devices in lesser hands – would have nowhere near the same effect.¬†Indeed, I’m still slightly baffled by how much I enjoyed the books despite my criticisms, and yet whenever I open them, I fall right back into the story. For all their failings, I already know these are books I’m going to read again, and while I can’t recommend them without significant racefail caveats, their success – both in terms of fanwriters moving into the mainstream and as a prominent example of queer romance – is¬†representative of the changes currently overtaking the genre.

I can only hope we continue to do better.

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 prot√©g√©, 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 prot√©g√©s 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:

‚ÄúThe 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‚Äôm sure they‚Äôre 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‚Äôs part. Nine months of pregnancy, childbirth, two years of diapering, and that‚Äôs 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‚Äôs hair into place. “That head held the universe, once.‚ÄĚ

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 Рagain, at the ending; Bujold has an enviable talent for endings РMiles 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 Рstrong 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 Рstrong 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 Рinvisible creatures! bone towers! РI 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 Рto say nothing of how neatly everything hangs together at the end while still leaving enough unanswered questions to explore in subsequent novels Рthe 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.