Archive for the ‘Fly-By-Night’ Category

Trigger warning: rape themes. 

Feminist anger happened today. I am sick of victims being blamed for rape. I am sick of victim-blamers moaning about how unfair it is that rape victims aren’t willing to rationally discuss the possibility that being raped was their fault, thereby forcing the blamer to conclude that it really was their fault, and all because people just won’t explain it properly. GAH.

So instead of screaming at the internet*, I decided to lapse into poetry.

This was the result:

A Woman Speaks

My sexuality is not
a red rag waved at a raging bull,
my breasts are not bread to be pulled apart
by your starving hands;
I am not responsible for the way your gaze
rakes over me like a plough through soil:

I am not here for you.

Being female is not
a challenge
a threat
or an act of lunacy
when committed before some miser of skin
who’d deny me the right
to deny his entry:

I am not meat or an unlocked door;
I am not treasure, I am not silk or porcelain;
I am not the sum of the things you want from me, stranger
who judges my shape like the hooves of livestock:

I owe you nothing.

I do not care
that you saw me pass on street or bridge
and thought that day I was just for you,
the flavour of girl you’d craved all week
like a boutique beer or ice-cream cone:
I am not your sweet; I am not your lost resolve.

My body is not a provocation.
My skin is not
the threat of aggression
that intimates violence, blood-knuckled and raw
as a gutted fish. My naked legs
are not a pair of middle fingers raised
to some vile enemy in whose lands I walk –
my arms, my thighs, my stomach, throat and mons
are all my soverign territory;

my clothes are not mouths that scream abuse
at passers-by, forcing some archaic choice
of redress or dishonour;

nor am I prey, a girl-made-doe
whose life is lived with the threat of jaws,
whose survival is luck, and whose gore-streaked death
is predicted by animal nature, Darwin
or some other magic eight-ball – listen!

My flesh and blood are not the Eucharist:
consuming me will not absolve
the act of consumption.
I am not Andromeda chained to the rock,
a virgin sacrifice sent to placate
the sea-wreathed serpent of demanding lust:

I am not a house
that begs to be broke-and-entered, and if you insist
on using your wants
to extrapolate mine,
then you only succeed
in destroying yourself.

Stranger,
I name you:

bull and beggar,
miser and thief – a covetous, angry,
superstitious fossil:

a self-made beast.

.

.

*There was still some screaming at the internet. Just less of it.

Nothing is perfect. We all loved flawed things, and sometimes we love the flaws themselves as well as the things despite them. This does not stop us from taking personal offence when people not-us find flaws in our things, particularly when these aren’t flaws we’ve ever noticed ourselves, and especially when the flaws are so offensive to our morals and aesthetics that, if we acknowledged their existence, we’d feel obligated to stop liking the thing all together.

Which is, basically, why most people don’t like to be told that a thing they love is sexist or racist or homophobic in a particular way: because it creates an instantaneous and enormous sense of fury and guilt and betrayal. Sometimes, these emotions are rightly directed towards the people who made the things that way, but more often than not, we shoot the messenger. Dammit, I washappy liking my thing, and now you’ve ruined it for me! Or, worst of all, they deny the flaw and attack the flaw-finder, following a rage-logic that works roughly like this:

– I do not like racist/sexist/homophobic things; therefore

– nothing I like is racist/sexist/homophobic; because

– if it was, I’d be forced to stop liking it; but

– I can’t just tell myself to stop loving a thing that I love; which means

– that if someone does tell me a thing I love is racist/sexist/homophobic, I must close my ears and ignore them; because

– if they’re right, I’ll be stuck forever loving a terrible thing, and if that has to happen; then

– I’d rather pretend I never knew it was terrible in the first place; because

– ignorance is bliss.

Which, yeah, no.

Look.

You remember that part where everything is flawed? Everything? Even the things we love most? Does this not suggest to you that we ought to critique those things more than others, even – or perhaps especially – because of how we love them, why we love them, the better to know them better? To see if they deserve our love? To see if we’ve chosen wisely?

Because the fact is that sometimes we won’t choose wisely. And that can hurt to admit. The first time someone makes you realise a thing you love is sexist/racist/homophobic, it’s easy to feel like a terrible person. It’s also good that you do, too. Just for a little. Just a bit. Because sexism, racism and homophobia are far more terrible things than anything a flaw-finder ever did to hurt your aesthetic pride; and that feeling of guilt you have when someone points out what you’ve missed? That feeling is how you acknowledge that up until now, you haven’t been paying attention.

The worst thing you can do after this point is avoid all critical discussion of the things you love for fear that other, unnoticed flaws might be pointed out, and your cosy sense of unflawedness further eroded. That it’s too hard to ask questions of the things you love. That you’d rather just take everything at face value, and assume it’s all meant for the best.

Don’t be that person.

Please. Just, don’t.

Instead, accept that the things you love are flawed. That you can revile one aspect of a thing while praising another. That sometimes broken things are broken in interesting ways. That some broken things can be mended, while others were never truly broken in the first place.

And that sometimes, it’s the things we love that break our hearts, and that when that happens, we have to let them go.

This post also appeared here.

When considering/plotting future UF stories, I strive to be culturally diverse, and not just Eurocentric. I want to have characters from a range of backgrounds, and what’s more, I want to draw my magical inspiration from a range of different sources. My aim is to do this respectfully, without ignorance or appropriation. I am, however, plagued by the following worries:

  • My default setting on magic in the real world is usually some variant of All Magic Everywhere Is Really Part Of The One System, Despite Regional Differences. This is because most world mythologies, at least at the outset, grew up in ignorance of each other, and can therefore only be unified by an amorphous Bigger Picture. I don’t like the idea that only one part of the world got magic (via mythology) right, and inventing new systems that are purely Eurocentric in origin feels like another way of saying that the rest of the world was wrong. But it feels like there’s a difference between rooting around in my own cultural heritage to make new versions of vampires, werewolves and the Greek pantheon, and rooting around in someone else’s to make new versions of celestial dragons, the Egyptian pantheon and djinn.  So I worry that the desire to explain everything as being part of a single system is itself a Western idea, and that there’s no respectful way to get around this.
  • When it comes to choosing the magic of non-Anglo characters, I’m very leery of creating a Captain Ethnic, where someone’s powers are directly linked to their ethnicity. At the same time, I worry that taking a multi-ethnic cast and giving everyone magic that’s derived from Eurocentric mythology, fantasy and folklore is an act of cultural erasure. Neither do I want to invoke the Avatar/Pocahontas plot of a white character inheriting the burden of someone else’s culture. Obviously, these aren’t the only alternatives, but they’re currently the scenarios I worry about the most.

So, internets: any advice?

 

A Softer World: 642

Warning: spoilers for True Blood Season 4

Falling asleep last night, I found myself considering a question that’s been niggling at me for months: why is it that I’m fine with forgiving some True Blood characters who’ve done terrible things in the past, but not others? Despite all the protestations and boundaries of my own ethical system, the distinction seems to have less to do with the type of terrible thing (up to a point) and more about why it was done. By all accounts, I should find Eric Northman to be a more horrific vampire than Bill Compton; his torture and imprisonment of Lafayette alone is one of the more harrowing plots in an already gritty show. And yet, I don’t – and while a reasonable portion of that discrepancy can probably be attributed to the not inconsiderable charms of Alexander Skarsgard, the vast majority of it isn’t.

Looking at Bill’s history, we see an interwoven pattern of love and violence. For love of his maker, Lorena, he committed multiple atrocious murders, their goriness shown to us in a series of flashbacks. For love of Sookie, he took it upon himself to kill both her pedophile Uncle Bartlett and the villainous, violent Rattrays. No matter how deserving of death we might view these characters to be, all their murders were premeditated, placing them well outside the show’s internally acceptable justification of self-defense which. By contrast, his multiple betrayals of Sookie – selling her to Queen Sophie-Anne, returning to Lorena, forcibly draining her blood – are all the worse for being committed against a loved one, even when we can acknowledge the extent to which his hand was forced.

In Eric’s case, however, there’s a sense in which the worst thing he’s done to Sookie personally (as opposed to her friends) is to buy her house and refuse to sell it back. Not only does this give him unprecedented control over her, but the house has such significance to Sookie that the threat of withholding it constitutes emotional blackmail. Compare this to earlier incidents: though Eric both tricked Sookie into drinking his blood and has forcibly bitten her, these crime are nullified – comparatively, if not absolutely – by the fact that Bill has done likewise in a far more awful manner. His history is violent, yes, but nonetheless designed to make us sympathetic: killing Nazis for one thing, and avenging his family’s murder for another. Elsewhere, his devotion to Godric and care for Pam are both used to underscore his benevolence and loyalty, whereas Bill, having first been a spy for Sophie-Anne, has more recently been revealed as a double agent, killing his queen with the aid of Nan Flanagan. Finally, there’s the terrible incident of Tara’s rape and imprisonment to consider. At the time, both Bill and Eric were witnesses to her plight, and it’s a significant mark against both of them that neither one helps her escape. The difference is that whereas Eric remains a relative stranger, his aid neither looked for nor expected, Tara and Bill are friends. When she pleads with Bill to free her, he refuses – and given what comes next, it’s this betrayal which damns him most of all.

Where am I going with this? That love is simultaneously the best and worst justification for committing terrible crimes, and also a leading cause of terribleness when love is the thing betrayed. Acting against a loved one, no matter how pure or necessary the motive, is bad. Acting for a loved one in a terrible way, no matter how pure the motive, is just as bad, but mitigated in cases of extreme necessity. Acting for a loved one in a pure or necessary way is good – which should hardly need to be said, except that distinguishing these latter instances from one another is where we tend to struggle. By this point in True Blood, pretty much every single character has either committed murder, attempted murder, betrayed their friends, run amok or otherwise behaved badly, to the extent that eliding certain events and justifying others is the only way to like anyone. But even then, some crimes stand out as unforgivable – it’s just that we don’t always agree on which these are, and the emotional byplay as the characters argue their respective cases is fascinating.

And that’s where the opening comic comes in: because doing terrible things for love has become the show’s raison d’etre. Whether it’s Sam and Tommy’s relationship with the Migginses, Sookie sheltering a mind-wiped Eric, Tara lying to Naomi about her real identity, Lafayette dealing drugs to pay for Ruby-Jean’s hospice, Crystal imprisoning Jason, Amy betraying Hoyt, Bill imprisoning Marnie or any one of a hundred other scenarios, True Blood has somehow become a show about the intrinsic difficulties of trying to redeem dysfunction. After three seasons of madness and bloodshed, the cast has been left demoralised and broken. Nobody is innocent, and where we once were quick to judge this character or that as being virtuous or villainous, both those terms have now been rendered fundamentally moot.

As to whether that answers my opening question, I’m not sure. Every fandom has arguments against or in favour of particular characters, but in the case of True Blood, it really is impossible to hinge that debate on superior moral fortitude. For my part, the line I draw, however shakily, seems to hinge on love. Killing someone in self-defense is one thing, but killing to show how much you care is a contradiction in terms.

Unless you’re Eric Northman. Then it’s OK.

Sort of.

Standing in what turned out to be an utterly redundant line at Edinburgh Airport this morning (we’re now in Munich!), I overheard the following exchange between a father and his approximately seven-year-old son, who were standing behind us:

Boy: What does ‘suspended’ mean?

Dad: It means to be hung upside down from your ankles. [Long pause.] No it doesn’t. It means that Mike can’t go in to work for a while.

Boy: Why not?

Dad: Because he said there were no hot chicks at the office.

Boy: [Something unintelligible I didn’t catch.]

Dad: I wouldn’t say that, no.

Boy: And then his wife will smack him! SMACK SMACK SMACK! [Proceeds to mime a double-handed face-slap with indecent glee.]

I swear this is verbatim. Internets, it took ALL MY POWERS not to laugh out loud. Or, you know, to turn around and ask, WHAT THE HELL, DUDE.

Two things that are guaranteed to make me cranky:

1: Sexism masquerading as value-added content;

and

2. Racism masquerading as Colour-Coded for Your Convenience.

That is all.

Here is a think I hate about the UK: being carded at the supermarket for daring try and buy wine with my shopping. I hate it with the fiery vengeance of a thousand flaming suns. Not just because my only form of photo ID is my passport, which for obvious reasons I don’t carry with me at all times, and not just because I’m inevitably carded on the basis of what I’m wearing. Work clothes? Never carded. Velvet coat, gothy skirt, geeky t-shirt and/or hooded jacket? Hellooooo, humiliation!

Because that’s what I really hate about the whole experience, and the reason why I am currently furious: being carded is fucking humiliating. No, I do not care that it’s a “compliment” to be told I “look” under 25, because how I look shouldn’t matter, and in any case is such a ludicrously subjective measurement as to be rendered utterly useless – and that’s even before you get to the mind-boggling nannyism of stopping people based on a standard that requires them to look at least eight years older than the legal drinking age.

But look. I get that countries have stupid laws. I really do! And after the first few incidents, I started taking that into account. Either I take my passport shopping, or I choose my line at the checkout based on the age of the person serving (I have never been carded by anyone in their teens or twenties, and was once able to negotiate a purchase from a sympathetic employee in her thirties). If all else fails, I can now accept my circumstances with a graceful laugh and move on.

Or at least, I could. Until I went to Morrisons today, passport in hand, and was still refused service. Why, you ask? Because two weeks ago, Morrisons was apparently handed down a verdict from some trade commission or other – I rang their customer service line for details, and the woman on the other end didn’t seem to understand it either – specifying that, in order to keep their particular kind of licence, they could only accept a UK ID as proof of age. This is because, to paraphrase the bemused service rep, “it’s not possible for Morrisons staff to learn to accurately recognise the passports of the world.” I tried to ask her why this standard seemingly applied only to Morrisons, and not, for instance, to any other supermarket on the planet, but answers were not forthcoming. Thus, I made my complaint, hung up, and went to put away the bottle of wine I bought at Aldi  on the way home (the twentysomething employee didn’t card me), thinking vindictive thoughts about how at least, despite the inconvenience of having to visit two separate supermarkets, I’d managed to save £1.20.

There’s a special humiliation that accompanies being carded in the UK, in that it only ever seems to happen at supermarkets. You’re in there doing your weekly shop, you think of grabbing a bottle of wine – and all of a sudden, you’re overcome by a nagging, uneasy guilt, as though you’ve done something wrong. It’s like that momentary fear you get passing through the theft detectors on your way out of a shop: the everyday paranoia that worries they’re going to go off even though you haven’t stolen anything. Except in this case, it isn’t momentary. It poisons every trip to the shops I take, fearful of the inevitable humiliation. Perhaps if I were still a teenager, or if I was used to being carded, I wouldn’t care. But in the entire time I’ve lived in Australia and bought alcohol there – that is, from ages 17 through 24 – I have been asked for ID exactly once: outside a packed nightclub in the Rocks, on a Saturday night, when I was nineteen. That’s one carding in seven years.

Over here, it’s a different story. Including our visit in 2009, I’ve been in the UK for roughly ten months. In that time, I’ve been carded at least once in every single supermarket I’ve entered more than once. In the past week and a half alone, it’s happened twice. On one occasion when we were shopping together, my husband was carded because I was with him and he was the one paying, despite the fact that he is a fully grown man in his thirties. I cannot even begin to describe how angry this made me. Now, every time we shop together, I’m scared to be the one who pays, just in case the cashier decides to ask for ID. I am a married woman. I am twenty-five years old. I am not a student, though I reserve the right to dress like one without fear of having my age estimated downwards. STOP FUCKING CARDING ME.

And while you’re at it, stop carding my friends, too. A twenty-four-year-old friend was carded recently because she was buying a pair of scissors and was deemed to look under sixteen. (Scissors! WHAT THE FUCK!) Another friend, a PhD student in her late twenties, is repeatedly carded and refused service because her ID is international, even when she isn’t shopping at Morrisons. In fact, I’m starting to think that being female is a handicap all by itself, which is possibly unfair, but as one male friend pointed out, he at least can grow a beard to look older.

At the risk of upsetting the good half of the status quo, why am I never carded in pubs? Are pub servitors simply better at guessing my age? Are they more pragmatic than supermarket servers? Does the law apply differently on pub grounds? Or is it a combination of all three? What bothers me in this is the element of hypocritical absurdity: that right now, I could walk into any pub in the UK and buy a round of double tequila shots without anyone batting an eyelid while being simultaneously unable to purchase a single bottle of cider along with my groceries.

God only knows how I’ll cope if we ever visit America.

I’ve just read this wonderful post by N. K. Jemisin, about – among other things – how she became an epic fantasy fan. Every geek I’ve ever met has a story, not like this, but an origin myth: the Tale of the Turning Point, wherein the first seeds of their fascination were sown. And somehow, just by reading it, a different story has fixed itself in me, and as I can’t think of anything else to do with that story but tell it here, I will.

So:

There is a door in your heart. It wasn’t always there. But when you were a child, you dreamed the door, walking the hallways of your own blood with outstretched hands until suddenly, there it was! You didn’t open it straight away, though. The door is a question, and once asked, it can never lie unanswered. Most of us creep up to our door -contemplating it in odd moments, perhaps, or resting a tentative palm on its wood, daring ourselves to one day turn the handle. And when we finally do, it’s no one thing which prompts us, but a natural act, as familiar a motion as brushing our own hair.

Behind the door is a room – not empty, as we might expect, but heaped with all the loves and lessons of childhood. Though precious, it is also cluttered, and so we set about cleaning house, each of us according to our nature. But whether we cling to some things or discard them all, the end result is an emptier room than there was before, sweet and clean in anticipation of being filled up again. And where before our childhood passions ruled our hearts according to whim, now we have each been given a door, and mastery over the things which pass its threshold.

But even so, who can long resist the lure of an empty room? Flush with the novelty of our newly-opened hearts, we fill them indiscriminately with wild and glorious things, with magpie-treasures and scraps of lore, feathers and thoughts and rags, and if some of these things are perhaps, in truth, not equal to our impression of them, then that is only right, just as any colour in an empty room, no matter how gaudy elsewhere, serves to brighten it. And because of our love for them, these first possessions swell with pride and fill the room near to bursting, until the very door itself strains against its hinges and threatens to break.

Rather than let this happen, we dim our passions, shrinking them back to a manageable size. Our love is not less – in fact, our hearts have grown – but now, we are more judicious in its bestowal. Once again, we consider the furnishings of our secret room, and set about reordering them. Perhaps we only tweak a thing here or there; perhaps we throw everything out and start anew. But either way, we must always remember that the room and its fittings are destined to change from this point on: that what fills it now did not always fill it before, and that this is simply what it means to live. Not without very good reason should we disdain old loves, nor should we take lightly any decision to lock the door, no matter if our purpose is to prevent intrusion or escape. The heart was built to be many things, but a prison is not among them.

The door is a riddle, and one to which we do not know the answer. Not yet. But one day – and that day comes differently for all of us – we will cross its threshold for the last time. We will turn our key in the lock, switch off the lights and gaze out a window that wasn’t there before. And if we are very lucky, the sight of what lies beyond will make us smile.

But that’s another story.      

Back when I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time lurking around Elfwood, drinking in the fantasy geekness vibe. Particularly, and in addition to gawping at all the awesome artwork on offer, I’d check out member profiles for book and author recommendations, partly because I was still new to reading adult (that is, non YA) fantasy and wanted some reassurance that I’d been picking the right sort of books, but mostly to try and find new authors. Time and again, a name that cropped up as a must-read was Katharine Kerr, which puzzled me at first, because I’d already tried to read A Time of Exile, the first book of her Westlands cycle, and not been able to get into it. This was before I implemented a firm policy of never starting a series midway through, a lazy attitude attributable in no small measure to the difficulties of reliably finding first volumes of anything in second-hand shops – which, as a tween and teen limited to a pocket-money budget, is how I bought most of my books. But even though I’d already tried and, by that sloppy standard, failed to read Kerr’s works – a single attempt being the usual limit of my effort – I couldn’t ignore the regularity with which I saw her books recommended. Thus it was that I expended some energy to acquire the very first book of her very first Deverry series, Daggerspell, in the hopes that reading from the beginning would solve whatever problems I’d hitherto had.

It did, of course, and from then on, I was absolutely hooked. But what I didn’t realise, way back in 1999/2000, was that the series itself – because even though you can break the entire Deverry collection up into four discreet acts, the story they tell is one continuous, interlocking narrative – was incomplete. Having powered through the first two quartets, I finally found myself at the end of The Fire Dragon (third book, third act) with nowhere else to go. And yet, I had hope, because at that time, circa 2001, there was a release date circulating for the planned final book, such that I have a surprisingly solid memory of walking into a local book store to check when it was due, and noting with some excitement that, according to their system, it was only a few months away. Alas for my younger self, this turned out to be something of an ambitious overstatement: due to illness on the author’s part, it was 2006 before the next volume eventuated. Still, I reread all the other books in preparation, then dove right in, eagerly anticipating closure, only to find that there were three more volumes still to come. Though I picked up the next of these a year or so later, by then it had been so long since I’d fully immersed myself in the world that I couldn’t keep track of what was happening – or rather, of the detailed web of backstory, past lives and history connecting all the characters. And so I made a decision: I’d wait until the final book was out, and then, in one grand gesture, reread the entire series start to finish.

It’s been two years since The Silver Mage, the final Deverry book, was released. Ever since we started packing up the bookshelves for our UK move, I’ve had it in mind that this would be the year to tackle the series in full. I even set the books aside on a special shelf at our new house, certain I’d be wanting them sooner or later. I’d planned for it to be later – the number of new books I’ve acquired since January is truly staggering – but all the while, Deverry has been calling me. When I saw The Silver Mage on sale this week, it felt like an omen: though still lacking a copy of the penultimate novel, The Shadow Isle, I went to the shelf, pulled down Daggerspell and started to read.

That was on Tuesday. It’s now Sunday afternoon, and I’ve just started A Time of Exile, volume five overall. I’ve been hungry for these books, devouring them, and even though I’ve read the early volumes multiple times before, enough time has passed that the story feels new again. Kerr writes beautifully, with an intelligence I can only envy. A Celtic world, Deverry’s richness comes from its reality: humour and hardship feature equally in the characterisation, while the world itself is so perfectly detailed that it can’t help but make me aware of how important research is to a fantasy writer. Magic, politicking, alliances, duty, culture, the minutiae of daily life, historical resonance, religion and local peculiarities are all so lovingly yet naturally rendered that Kerr makes the culmination of 23 years of work look easy – right up until you contemplate doing the same thing, and realise how fiendishly difficult it must be. Small yet crucial details like local accents, the layout of towns given over to specific industries, the daily domestic consequences of war and the problem of communicating over distance are all slipped in, fleshing out the background of every scene without ever resorting to an infodump. And then there’s the characters, so sparsely yet perfectly drawn that it’s like looking at a piece of Japanese calligraphy, with vocal mannerisms, distinguishing physical characteristics and individual quirks investing even those with walk-on parts.

There’s so much I want to say in praise of Deverry – and doubtless I will, once I’ve finished the series this time – but for now, I wanted to make a particular point that has less to do with the series in its own right and more as a commentary on some of the problems extant in the current crop of YA paranormal romance. When I started my current bookblitz, I was looking only to finish a series that’s been dear to me since my early teens; certainly, my motives had nothing to do with finding fodder for the feminism in fantasy argument. And yet, as I re-immersed myself in the main premise of the first four books – that of the ancient dweomerman and former prince, Nevyn, trying to right the chain of wrongs he set in motion four hundred years ago – I couldn’t help but notice that many of the most crucial plot elements are those so popular in current YA paranormal romance. The love triangle, for instance: the whole dilemma Nevyn faces is due to the fact that, once upon a time, he and two other men, Blaen and Gerraent, were in love with the same girl, Brangwen. After a bad decision on Nevyn’s part tragically resulted in the tragic deaths of all three, he was bound to the world, unable to die until he makes things right in their subsequent lives. The reincarnation of lovers is another big YA theme of the day: as Nevyn physically ages, time and again he encounters the souls of Brangwen, Blaen and Gerraent reborn, always together, and always with Brangwen torn between the two men, one – Blaen – her lover, the other – Gerraent – always chasing dangerously after. It’s worth noting, too, that as Kerr takes her realism seriously, Deverry is a society in which thirty is considered a ripe age for a warrior and marriage frequently takes place at fourteen for girls and only slightly older for boys. This means that, as the key players in the drama meet, love, fight and die across various lives – always guided by Nevyn – they are simultaneously adults and teenagers: adults by the measure of their own society, but still teenagers by the standard of our own. Though these reborn souls carry loves and grudges across lives, they don’t remember their past incarnations at all: that is Nevyn’s burden alone, to try and bring Brangwen, who he has loved for four hundred years, to the dweomer, the study of magic, for which she has a powerful natural aptitude.

So, to recap: we have a love triangle, magic, reincarnated lovers, and a rash vow sworn through the ages. Mix any or all of those elements into any number of YA paranormal romances, and what you have is a recipe for angst: eternal male lovers breaking every vow of magic by falling in love with a teenage girl, or two reborn lovers separated by some past wrong struggling desperately to be together, or some other permutation thereof. And it’s not that I don’t enjoy those stories – I do – but I can’t help but applaud Katharine Kerr for breaking a set of narrative tropes which, while still known when she wrote the first quartet between 1986 and 1990, have gone on to become a backbone of popular YA culture. Perhaps this is just the benefit of telling a story that can show the events of multiple incarnations, but not every instance of the trio meeting plays out the same way. Though the romance is there, it’s far from the sole focus of the plot, and deep, true love – while certainly present – is never used as a justification for immoral, foolish or questionable actions. We are never made to feel, for instance, that either Blaen or Gerraent’s violent, jealous protectiveness of Brangwen is in any way justified: it is bad behaviour that all too often leads to terrible things, and one of the major reasons why they all originally died such tragic deaths. Neither does Brangwen take it lying down:  in one memorable incarnation as a moon-sworn warrior, a sacred position that requires celibacy, she threatens both men with a solid thrashing in the training yards after they nearly come to blows over her, each being open with his lust despite the fact that, in that instance, wanting her is heresy.

Of most importance, however, is the way the first quartet ends. Having had these past incarnations revealed through flashback chapters, the bulk of the narrative concerns the modern incarnations of Brangwen and Blaen, now Jill and Rhodry, and their many adventures together. Rhodry is noble-born; Jill a commoner and, once more, a warrior. Though disinherited and sent into exile by his jealous elder brother at the end of the first installment, by book three, Rhodry has inherited as the sole heir to a significant territory, with Jill poised to become his wife. But Jill, who loves the freedom of the open road, has finally been brought to the dweomer: she wants to study, an impossibility if she marries the man she loves. And so she leaves him – a painful act, but ultimately necessary, and the denouement of the first quartet: Jill becomes Nevyn’s student, her destiny sealed, not by the love of any one man, but by accepting her innate powers and choosing to learn to control them. It’s a wrenching moment, but we know it’s the right decision, because even though we might accept Nevyn as Jill’s real true love, the point of them leaving together at that moment has absolutely nothing to do with romantic destiny, or youth, or beauty, and everything to do with the core of Jill’s soul – her intelligence, talent, compassion, and her desire to learn. And all the while, she’s a character who, for the best part of the series, has been a teenager: seventeen when she first meets Rhodry, and no older than twenty-one or twenty-two by the end.

And so I can’t help asking: why are so many YA fantasy novels, PR or otherwise, geared towards a conclusion where the hero and heroine ending up together is of greater narrative importance than either one mastering their magic, or bringing peace, or learning what they want to do in life? Why do we end up with stories where actually achieving anything at the end is only a real achievement if the protagonist has someone to kiss? I’m not exempting myself from this problem, mind. But reading Deverry again, it makes me realise that there’s more than one sort of story to tell – and more, that I’m glad of it.

If clothes shopping were a boardgame, my copy of the rules would have long since disappeared down the back of the couch, forcing me to play with only my own sartorial proclivities as a guide (warning, warning), issued with loaded dice and assorted mismatched thimbles instead of regulation tokens, with only a broken crayon and an old receipt on which to keep score, although given that I would always loose, this would be a pointless, jaw-grinding exercise in masochism akin to maintaining staunch optimism in the ability of the New South Wales Labour Party to suddenly turn into a quasi-worthwhile amalgam of human beings, as opposed to a ratfaced pack of liars, fraudsters and no-hopers who wouldn’t know common sense if it knocked on their doors, politely introduced itself and then gave them all a lapdance.

Anyway.

The point being, I am not good with clothes. It’s not as if I’m advocating a policy of conscious nudity or anything – it’s just that, faced with the prospect of having to sally forth and choose between innumerable rows of tacky, nylon, probably-made-in-a-sweatshop gimcrackery that I can actually afford and gorgeously intimidating, real-fabrics-but-desperately-overpriced couture, my native response is to decide immediately that I don’t give a rats’ and resort to slouching around the house in a dressing gown and a pair of little woollen socks that look like they were made by somebody’s grandmother. Which, yes, is comfortable, but as my beloved husband has on occasion pointed out, it’s not exactly business casual.

And thus my policy of buying the vast majority of my clothing second-hand. I have never, for instance, been sneered or giggled at by the girl behind the counter in a charity shop for daring to enter her place of business whilst dressed in jeans and an offensively geeky t-shirt. Similarly, I have never examined the price-tag on any article of clothing sold by the Red Cross and had to consider taking out a loan from the bank in order to afford it. I enjoy the act of rummaging through various disorganised racks, setting aside hilarious paisley mumus and PVC lederhosen in my quest for that one nice top I know must be lurking there somewhere. Tragically, however, the Nice Top is all too often a Nice Top Which Would Look Utterly Fabulous With Everything I Already Own If Only It Were A Size Bigger, Instead Of Which It Makes Me Look Like An Improperly Asymmetrical Sausage. Alas!

Which hopefully illustrates the main problem with shopping second-hand, viz: the unpredictability. Many’s the time I’ve been heartbroken after finding a wonderful article of clothing, only to discover that it’s just a weense too big or too small for comfort. (The latter is particularly dangerous, as it tends to lead to fantasies of immediate weight loss in order to jusify the purchase of a ten-year-old dress with a torn hem and ciarette burns on the shoulder straps. Sense, schmense: it’s the principle of the thing.) Which isn’t to say that I’ve never found a perfect bargain treasure (eight dollars for a leather jacket!), but when it comes to hunting down specific items, you might as well be randomly trawling the Pacific Ocean for that message in a bottle your Auntie Agnes set adrift from Bondi Beach in 1937. The cardinal rule of women’s fashion, as related to me by my mother circa age nine, is to Never Walk In Knowing What You Want, because doing so will automatically guarantee every shop within driving radius not to have it, especially if it’s a plain black swimming cozzie that doesn’t make you look like a walrus – and however true this is of normal shopping, it is about a quadrillion times more so of second-handing.

Take, for instance, today’s quest for a plain, brown top with long sleeves that one might wear under various t-shirts or singlety things in a bid to stave off the cold Scottish winds without actually cocooning oneself in a series of anoraks. When nothing was doing at the first three shops, I abandoned reason and ended up in a fourth trying on a pair of what promised to be size 14 bootcut corduroy pants and a greenish, satiny sort of hidden-clasps-that-do-up-at-the-front Raph Lauren shirt purporting to be a ‘medium’, whatever that means, though presumaby not that the shirt possessed an innate ability to commune with the spirits of the deceased. Absconding to the changing cubicle to try on my finds, the following problems soon became immediately apparent:

1. the definition of ‘size 14’ as promised by the pants did not in any way fit with reality, unless you happen to believe that buttocks are optional; and

2. that Ralph Lauren, bless his cotton socks, has apparently only had breasts described to him third-hand, thus precipitating the creation of a garment which, despite featuring the type of curving, low-but-not-too-low-cut neckline favoured by women of average bosom, was categorically too small to accomodate anything larger than a golf ball, or maybe half a lemon.

Now, admittedly, I am no longer the same undernourished sylph I was at the start of university, before a disposable income and close proximity to an all-night pide, pizza and kebab shop wrought their carbohydrate-laden magics upon my person, but neither am I particularly large. And yet, when it comes to finding a pair of pants that can actually accomodate my legs, I might as well be inquiring after the pricing and availability of unicorn steaks at the local butcher. (One has documented the phenomenon of Impossible Pants quite closely this past decade, and does in fact remember the point at which the Pants Conspiracy first reared its head, viz: with the introduction of teeny-tiny pant zippers that are approximately the length of a pinky finger back in 2005,  a trend which has not so much flourished as exercised a lantana-like stranglehold on the fashion industry ever since. Used in conjunction with skinny-leg jeans and bikini-cut everything, those of us with hips wider than the average dinner plate and any sort of padding in the arseular regions have found it nigh on im-bloody-possible to buy a pair of pants that actually fits for any price less than three-hundred and sixty-five trillion dollars and three Faberge eggs, or put another way, to buy any pants AT ALL.) And if you’ve got breasts above an A-cup and want to wear a fitted top? GET RIGHT OUT.

Faced by such impossible circumstances, what else is a sensible author to do but purchase a banana-and-peanut-butter-flavoured cupcake and retire to the internet for solace and ranting?

P.S. Bonus points to any reader who drew a connection between the style and content of this blog and the fact that I’ve recently reread the collected columns of Kaz Cooke, more of whom later. Now there was a lady with sense!