Trigger warning: discussion of rape/sexual assault, spoilers for Uprooted.
Recently, I contributed to a tumblr thread about our unfortunate cultural habit of romanticising abusive behaviour in stories meant primarily for teenage girls, and how this can have a very real, very negative impact on their ability to accurately identify abuse in other contexts. I highly recommend reading the other responses in the thread, as many women shared their own, similar experiences of being confused on this point as teens, while Cora Buhlert also wrote an excellent follow-up post about the conversation. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past year or so, not only because I’m interested in feminism within SFF, but also because of my own personal history.
As a teenager, I didn’t understand consent the way I do now, because nobody ever explained it to me in anything beyond the most basic, Rape-Is-A-Masked-Man-In-The-Bushes way. I watched a lot of TV shows where young women were raped and murdered by men who were, overwhelmingly, strangers, and I read a lot of books – quite a horrifying number, in hindsight – where the abuse and coercion of women was incorporated as a normative aspect of fantasy worldbuilding, but very seldom interrogated. It’s not as if I was consciously expecting these stories to provide me with guidance about my then-fledgling sex life, but at the same time, it’s not as if there was a surplus of knowledgeable, approachable, non-judgemental adults lining up to advise me, either. My brain was a sponge: I learned without meaning to learn, in a vacuum of intention to either teach or critique. Sex ed at school meant a basic knowledge of STDs and contraceptives, a basic knowledge of anatomy, and some truly horrendous Behold Yon Horrible Consequences videos filmed in the 1980s about the dangers of teen pregnancy. I don’t think the word consent was ever used, even when we talked about rape: the binary question, rather, was whether you should say yes or no at a given time, and why drinking at parties was a bad idea because you’d be more likely to say yes and regret it later.
The idea that anyone who coaxed that drunken yes from you might be guilty of rape or assault was never mentioned. If it had been, I might have made some very different choices as a teenager. Or maybe I’d have done the exact same thing, but understood immediately what it meant, instead of locking up for an hour nearly fourteen years later, covered in cold sweat at the belated realisation: oh. Oh. Naively, I’d thought I was done with such bleak epiphanies the first time I backdated my earliest forays into internet chatrooms and realised that actually, yes: those men were, in all probability, paedophiles. The teacher in his thirties who praised my thirteen-year-old “maturity” was not just an adult wanting to be my friend, and the men aged eighteen and over who’d ask for cybersex certainly weren’t.
Culturally, we have a lot of sexist baggage about women turning thirty and what it’s supposed to mean, but nowhere in all that baggage have I ever seen mentioned the likelihood of looking back on my early sexual experiences and realising, all too late, like a brutal, cascading suckerpunch, how fucked-up most of them were. That I would, at twenty-nine, rediscover a poem I wrote at sixteen – a poem I’d read multiple times since then, had showed to multiple adults since then, had always held up internally as an example of my early skill – and almost fucking vomit to realise how clearly it described a sexual assault. I was crying when I wrote it, raw and blank in the aftermath of the event itself, and – I remember this vividly – utterly confused, because I didn’t know what had happened. How can you be nearly thirty before you understand a thing like that?
I am, I’ve come to understand, a peculiarly repressive person. I hide things from myself. For all my ferocious introspection, I can be singularly self-deceptive. I wonder at the trait: was I always that way? Is it learned or innate? What quirk of blood or history encapsulates this appalling, unuseful talent? It feels like such an incongruous thing, especially given the strength of my memories. But perhaps that’s the problem: at the time, the things that appal me now weren’t appalling at all. They might have been unpleasant, even ugly or frightening, but they were also, in the context, normal, and as such, I didn’t question them. I remembered them as acceptable, as things that just happened, and even when the feelings underlying those verdicts were – are – turbulent, a second, more intelligent ruling is nonetheless hard to make. I was depressed as a teenager, and inasmuch as a facet of that depression was situational, I thought I understood the whole, both then and afterwards. Instead, that sadness – that very real, rooted sadness, both temporal and ephemeral – acted as a masking agent for other, more particular injuries. At the time, there was no need to wonder why sex could leave me heartsick; I felt that way often enough as it was to see nothing extraordinary in the confluence.
(Oh, young thing, no. Don’t boast of the bruises you didn’t want. Your loneliness ached, I know, but less than their acquisition.)
The past, as they say, is a foreign country. I did things differently there.
Tonight, I started reading Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. It was a novel about which I’d heard only good things from people I trust; a novel I was hoping would break me out of my current reading slump, wherein I’ve started a great many books, but am struggling to finish any of them. To borrow the parlance of memes, cannot tell if too depressed to read or just fed up with exclusionary, derivative bullshit – or, alternatively, if reading so much fanfiction has utterly wrecked my internal yardstick for length, structure and content. Yesterday – partly to test this hypothesis, and partly because I just wanted to – I embarked on my third reading of Katherine Addision’s The Goblin Emperor, a novel which, both stylistically and structurally, is utterly removed from fanfic’s conventions, but which is similarly subversive of genre.
Given that I devoured it, thrilled and rapturous, in a single sitting, I’m inclined to think the problem is other people.
I hate not finishing books, but lately, I’m all out of fucks to give for stories that don’t include me in the narrative. After struggling with Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, I started reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars in parallel, hoping to find enough thematic points to compare and contrast that the one might jumpstart my interest in the other. And part of me wants, really wants, to read them both – not just dutifully, but because I don’t feel fully entitled to discuss them otherwise. But god, god, where are the rest of the women, and why are the few we see surrounded by men? Where is the queerness hiding, and why do I have to sift for it like some unlucky prospector stranded at the ass end of the gold rush? Why, Mr Kay, are you taking me away from your (thus far) single female POV character to show me what her would-be assassin thinks of his attempt on her life, even and especially when he dies at the end of the chapter? All his exposition did was silence hers, and as she’s apparently The Kind Of Woman Other Women Hate, I’m holding out little hope that the next fucktillionty pages are any better.
And thus, Uprooted. I wanted to root for it. (Heh.) Every ten years, Agnieszka’s village has to give a girl to the Dragon, the wizard who protects their valley. After a decade in his service, the girls come back, unharmed but changed, only to be replaced by a new apprentice. And this year, everyone thinks that Kasia, Agnieszka’s beautiful, clever best friend, is the one he’ll choose – only for Agnieszka herself to be taken instead. The writing is lovely, the pacing fluid, and we’ve already been reassured that the Dragon doesn’t assault the girls he takes, that he leaves them dowered and educated and self-possessed, and oh, I was so ready for this to be a story I loved –
But it’s not. It can’t be. The Dragon is an abuser – is grossly, violatingly abusive – and yet the narrative blooms with cues that he’s meant to be Agnieszka’s love interest, burning touches and flashing eyes, and of course, of course he’s centuries old and handsome in a young man’s body (you’re so mature for your age!) and no, this is not what I wanted – is, in fact, the exact fucking opposite of what I wanted – but what if I’m the problem? What if the novel is going to interrogate these tropes, this awful problematic idea of abuse as a prelude to romance, and I bow out too early?
I went to the internet, source of my current wisdom and early folly. Internet, I said, speaking as if to a magic mirror (wireless, wireless in the wall, who’s the truthiest of all?) – internet, does Agnieszka end up with the Dragon?
And lo, did the internet answer: pretty much, yeah. Sorry.
Now, I love Naomi Novik, and YA, and romances, though it took me a good long while to really admit the latter, and thanks to the aforementioned years of narrative conditioning, I have a pretty high tolerance for Partner A initially treating Parter B terribly Because Misunderstanding or some other reason, even though it sets my teeth on edge. By which I mean, I hate it intellectually, but there’s still a firmly-established emotional bedrock for pushing through regardless, on the offchance that we eventually get to a half-decent explanation. It’s actually not as weirdly hypocritical as it sounds: a lot of us have grown up feeling conflicted about the toxic tropes of our youth, as compelled by their unhealthy hold on our formative memories as we are repulsed by our subsequent understanding of them, and as such, it’s not uncommon to see them being… de-escalated, seems the best word for it. We know they’re fucked up, but we kinda want to use them anyway, because all the intellectualism in the world can’t make us rip out even the most diseased aortal tissue wholesale; it hurts too much, for one thing, and for another, it won’t grow back. And so, instead, we try our best to manage their perpetuation carefully: to sand off the worst, most unforgivable elements and mitigate the rest through lovingly tailored contexts. You can just about graph it, sometimes, the way those old tropes change from book to book, as newer authors learn their lore from newer permutations. It’s a form of literary evolution not unlike the Belyaev fox experiment: each new generation of readers learns to love the least-aggressive tropes from a litter of mixed novels until, one day, a thing that once bit savagely will whine and roll over for belly rubs.
Uprooted, though – Uprooted retains its teeth. And even knowing why, by this selfsame logic, other readers were able to skritch it happily behind the ears and carry on, I don’t think I can be one of them.
When the Dragon brings Agnieszka to his castle, he doesn’t tell her why he picked her. For the first few days, he barely speaks to her at all. When he touches her, he grabs her, hard. He insults her, viciously and constantly, berating her as stupid and ugly and useless, though he doesn’t stop to explain what it is he wants from her, or why she needs to learn. He forces her to dress in clothes she finds uncomfortable, expects her to cook his meals for him, but insults her efforts. And Agnieszka, right from the outset, is frightened that he’ll rape her – in fact, she doubts the safety of the girls in his care from the very first page:
He doesn’t devour them really; it only feels that way. He takes a girl to his tower, and ten years later he lets her go, but by then she’s someone different. Her clothes are too fine and she talks like a courtier and she’s been living alone with a man for ten years, so of course she’s ruined, even though the girls all say he never puts a hand on them. What else could they say?
We see her doubts again, on page sixteen:
Kasia had always said she believed the women who came back, that the Dragon didn’t put a hand on them. “He’s taken girls for a hundred years now,” she said firmly. “One of them would have admitted it, and word would have got out.”
But a few weeks ago, she’d asked my mother, privately, to tell her how it happened when a girl was married – to tell her what her own mother would have, the night before she was wed. I’d overheard them through the window, while I was coming back from the woods, and I’d stood there next to the window and listened in with hot tears running down my face, angry, so angry for Kasia’s sake.
Now that was going to be me. And I wasn’t brave – I didn’t think that I could take deep breaths, and keep from clenching up tight, like my mother had told Kasia to do so it wouldn’t hurt. I found myself imagining for one terrible moment the Dragon’s face so close to mine, even closer than when he’d inspected me at the choosing – his black eyes cold and glittering like stone, those iron-hard fingers, so strangely warm, drawing my dress away from my skin, while he smiled that sleek satisfied smile down at me. What if all of him was fever-hot like that, so I’d feel him almost glowing like an ember, all over my body, while he lay upon me and –
I shuddered away from my thoughts and stood up.
This isn’t just a vague fear, but one the narrative makes explicit: Agnieszka is, very graphically and very, very literally, afraid of being raped. And contextually, she has every reason to be! The fact that the Dragon doesn’t take her to bed the second they get to his tower is hardly proof that he has no intention of doing so later; and certainly, it’s within his power to make her do whatever he wants.
As this scene, on page twenty-eight, makes clear:
I froze in surprise and stopped reading, my mouth hanging open. He was furiously angry: his eyes were glittering and terrible…
He gaped at me and grew even more wildly angry; he stormed across the tiny chamber, while I belatedly tried to scramble up and back, but there was nowhere for me to go. He was on me in an instant, thrusting me flat down against my pillows.
“So,” he said, silkily, his hand pressed down upon my collarbone, pinning me easily to the bed. It felt as though my heart was thumping back and forth between my breastbone and my back…
“Agnieszka,” he murmured, bending low towards me, and I realised he meant to kiss me. I was terrified, and yet half-wanting him to do it and have it over with, so I wouldn’t have to be so afraid, and then he didn’t at all. “Tell me, dear Agnieszka, where are you really from? Did the Falcon send you? Or perhaps even the king himself?”
Listen: at this point, I don’t give a flying fuck that, for whatever reason, the Dragon seems to think Agnieszka is a spy. It doesn’t excuse his behaviour, because whoever she really is, she’s still a girl he’s got pinned to a bed, and he’s still making her feel sexually afraid of him in order to try and intimidate her into answering. The idea that his incredibly intimate rape threat is somehow justified by her potential treachery is, frankly, sickening. Never mind that, after she runs and accidentally spills a potion over herself, he leaves her frozen in stone for half a day without any explanation or apology; never mind that he physically makes her crawl around him, belittling her competence all the while. Agnieszka is so miserable and terrified that she wants to kill the Dragon, even contemplating suicide when she can’t go through with her plan. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment, but to me, it felt like a slap in the face:
…I saw the tray discarded on the floor, the knife lying bare and gleaming. Oh. Oh, what a fool I’d been, even to think about it. He was my lord: if by some horrible chance I had killed him, I would surely be put to death for it, and like as not my parents along with me. Murder was no escape at all; better to just throw myself out the window.
I even turned and looked out the window, miserably…
So, to reiterate: the Dragon is treating Agnieszka in such a monstrous, abusive, bullying fashion that murder and suicide have both crossed her mind as options; she’s frightened he’ll rape her still, and he’s used that fear to try and make her comply with his wishes.
And then Prince Marek arrives, and actually tries to rape her.
To make this even more horrible, up until his assault, Agnieszka had been contemplating going to Marek for help, only keeping quiet because she’s afraid he won’t believe her. She’s heard stories of his exploits, thinks of him as a hero, and apart from anything else, he’s the only other person she’s even seen since the Dragon took her away.
Here is what happens (TW for assault):
He laughed again and kissed my throat. “Don’t worry, he can’t object,” he said, as though that was my only reason to protest…
It’s not that he was taking pleasure in overcoming me. I was still mute and my resistance was more confused batting at him, half-wondering: surely he couldn’t, Prince Marek couldn’t, the hero; surely he couldn’t even really want me. I didn’t scream, I didn’t plead, and I think he scarcely imagined that I would resist. I supposed in an ordinary noble house, some more-than-willing scullery maid would already have crept into his bedchamber and saved him the trouble of going looking. For that matter, I’d probably have been willing myself, if he’d asked me outright and given me enough time to get over my surprise and answer him: I struggled more by reflex than because I wanted to reject him.
But he did overcome me. Then I began to be really afraid, wanting only to get away; I pushed at his hands, and said, “Prince, I don’t, please, wait,” in disjointed bursts. And though he might not have wanted resistance, when he met it, he cared nothing: he only grew impatient.
“There, there; all right,” he said, as though I were a horse to be reined in and made calm, while he pinned my hand by my side. My homespun dress was tied up with a sash in a simple bow; he already had it loose, and then he dragged up my skirts.
I was trying to thrust my skirts back down, push him away, drag myself free: useless. He held me with such casual strength.
At this point, Agnieszka uses one of the few magic spells the Dragon has taught her – a spell to create clothes, the better to look pretty for him – to recover herself. Marek is so stunned that she has a chance to bash him over the head with the abandoned dinner tray, and he goes down hard, unconscious. Agnieszka, not unsurprisingly, is both frightened at the prospect of having killed a prince and shaken at having been nearly raped. So when the Dragon enters and discovers the scene, does he treat her kindly, even dispassionately, while he tries to heal the Prince? Or does he behave like a cruel, abusive, victim-blaming asshat?
Oh, yeah. Welcome to door number three.
I stood hovering anxiously over the bed, over both of them, and finally I blurted, “Will he -“
“No thanks to you,” the Dragon said, but that was good enough: I let myself sink to the ground in my heap of cream velvet, and buried my head on the bed in my arms sheathed in embroidered golden lace.
“And now you’re going to blubber, I suppose,” the Dragon said over my head. “What were you thinking? Why did you put yourself in that ludicrous dress if you didn’t want to seduce him?”
“It was better than staying in the one he tore off me!” I cried, lifting my head: not in tears at all; I had spent all my tears by then, and all I had left was anger. “I didn’t choose to be in this -“
I stopped, a heavy fold of silk caught up in my hands, staring at it. The Dragon had been nowhere near; he hadn’t worked any magic, cast any spell. “What have you done to me?” I whispered. “He said – he called me a witch. You’ve made me a witch.”
The Dragon snorted. “If I could make witches, I certainly wouldn’t choose a half-wit peasant girl as my material. I haven’t done anything to you but try and drum a few miserable cantrips into your nearly impenetrable skull.” He levered himself up off the bed with a hiss of weariness, struggling, not unlike the way I’d struggled in those terrible weeks while he –
While he taught me magic. Still on my knees, I stared up at him, bewildered and yet unwillingly beginning to believe. “But then why would you teach me?”
“I would have been delighted to leave you moldering in your coin-sized village, but my options were painfully limited.” To my blank look, he scowled. “Those with the gift must be taught: the king’s law requires it. In any case, it would’ve been idiotic of me to leave you sitting there like a ripe plum until something came along out of the Wood and ate you, and made itself into a truly remarkable horror.”
While I flinched away appalled from this idea, he turned his scowl on the prince…
“Here,” said the Dragon. “Kalikual. It’s better than beating paramours into insensibility.”
So, to be clear: not only does the Dragon neglect, at any point, to ask if Agnieszka is all right – not only does he belittle her for defending herself, and continue to bully her intelligence – but he blames the assault on her choice of clothes, and then refers to the prince, not as her assailant or rapist, but as her paramour, a consensual term that utterly minimises what just took place. Their subsequent conversation reveals his belief that Marek, who assumes the Dragon takes women “to force them to whore for me”, would have seen bedding Agnieszka as “cuckolding” him, and therefore a sort of petty revenge. Again, this is desperately minimizing language, even in context: at no point is the attempted rape named as such, and despite the fact that Agnieszka has spent literal weeks in fear of being raped, the rest of the conversation – and, indeed, the events of the following chapter – appear to show her experiencing no emotional consequences at having that fear made manifest. Instead, the Dragon continues to bully her, and badly, when she fails to make her magic work:
He roared at me furiously for ten minutes after he finally managed to put out the sulky and determined fire, calling me a witless muttonheaded spawn of pig farmers – “My father’s a woodcutter,” I said – “Of axe-swinging lummocks!” he snarled. But even so, I wasn’t afraid anymore. He only spluttered himself into exhaustion and then sent me away, and I didn’t mind his shouting at all, now that I knew there were no teeth in it to rend me.
I was almost sorry not to be better, for now I could tell his frustration was that of the lover of beauty and perfection. He hadn’t wanted a student, but, having been saddled with me, he wanted to make a great and skillful witch of me, to teach me his art…
It maddened him to no end, not without some justice. I know I was being foolish.
At this point, it was all I could do not to fling the book at the wall. It’s Agnieszka who’s been sexually assaulted and belittled, but the sympathy here – and worse, given in her voice! – is all for the Dragon: language that tries to excuse his abuse as the understandable frustration of a perfectionist, Agnieszka blaming herself for not being good enough, for daring to have interests and talents beyond what he expects of her, even though he’s done literally nothing to show her kindness at all. Are we meant to find it a sign of progress, that she doesn’t mind his shouting? Are we meant to feel well-disposed towards such a vile abuser, or ought we to be rooting for her escape?
My instincts were telling me one thing, and the narrative another. Which is why I went on Twitter and asked if their relationship becomes a romantic one. Universally, the response came back: they get together, it’s implied they’re still together at the end, and the Dragon’s early mistreatment of Agnieszka is never satisfactorily addressed.
And I just – no. No. I do not want to read nearly four hundred more pages only for this level of vicious cruelty to never be called what it is. I do not want to read about a sexual assault victim falling in love with an abusive rape-apologist and think about how romantic I would’ve found it all, when I was Agnieszka’s age; how romantic some other girl might find it now, who won’t know any better until she’s nearly thirty, too. I do not want to soldier on for the sake of those amazing feminist virtues I’ve been told the rest of the novel somehow, separately, embodies, because if I’m going to read a book that deals with rape and sexual assault, I would like it, please and thank you, to actually call it those things, or at least to behave as though belittling a victim of same in their immediate fucking aftermath isn’t an acceptable gateway to romance.
Fucking hell. I just want to read a book that doesn’t make me feel like I’m being either punched for existing, or treated as though I don’t. We’re SFF writers; we literally make up shit for a living. Why does everything have to be so brutally fucking difficult?