Posts Tagged ‘Fantasy’

So, remember that thing where I’ve written an epic portal fantasy? The cover is finally here, with artwork from the amazing Julie Dillon! BEHOLD THE PRETTY:

AnAccidentOfStars-Cover - large final

Here’s what it’s all about:

When Saffron Coulter stumbles through a hole in reality, she finds herself trapped in Kena, a magical realm on the brink of civil war.

There, her fate becomes intertwined with that of three very different women: Zech, the fast-thinking acolyte of a cunning, powerful exile; Viya, the spoiled, runaway consort of the empire-building ruler, Vex Leoden; and Gwen, an Earth-born worldwalker whose greatest regret is putting Leoden on the throne. But Leoden has allies, too, chief among them the Vex’Mara Kadeja, a dangerous ex-priestess who shares his dreams of conquest.

Pursued by Leoden and aided by the Shavaktiin, a secretive order of storytellers and mystics, the rebels flee to Veksh, a neighboring matriarchy ruled by the fearsome Council of Queens. Saffron is out of her world and out of her depth, but the further she travels, the more she finds herself bound to her friends with ties of blood and magic.

Can one girl—an accidental worldwalker—really be the key to saving Kena? Or will she just die trying?

There’s an official release piece up at – go check it out!

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?




My novella, Coral Bones, the first story in the Shakespearean Monstrous Little Voices anthology from Rebellion Publishing, is out today!

Coral Bones - cover

What’s it about, you ask? Well:

Miranda, daughter to Prospero, the feared sorcerer-Duke of Milan, stifles in her new marriage. Oppressed by her father, unloved by Ferdinand, she seeks freedom; and is granted it, when her childhood friend, the fairy spirit Ariel, returns. Miranda sets out to reach Queen Titania’s court in Illyria, to make a new future…

As much as The Tempest is one of my favourite Shakespearean plays, his treatment of Miranda has always bothered me. Aged sixteen, after being raised alone on an island with only her father and spirits for company, Miranda’s ‘happy ending’ is to marry the first man she ever meets within a day of meeting him. This story is my way of asking: what happens next? Who is Miranda, really? What if Ariel, not Prospero, had the bulk of her raising? What would a girl from an island think of life at court?

What if Ariel had to set her free?

Coral Bones is a story about gender identity, feminism and fairies. I’m hugely honoured that it’s your first chance to explore the Monstrous Little Voices collection, and hope it leaves you eager to read the subsequent stories: The Course of True Love, by Kate Hartfield; The Unkindest Cut, by Emma Newman; Even in the Cannon’s Mouth, by Adrian Tchaikovsky; and On the Twelfth Night, by Jonathan Barnes.

Happy book day, everyone!

Sometimes, the most compelling books to read are also a fascinating mess, in equal parts frustrating and subversive. Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On is such a book, and even having finished it, I’m still not sure which I want more: to fling it against the wall or recommend it.

Much like Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Carry On began life as a metastory, one the author invented and referenced within an earlier novel: Palimpsest in Valente’s case, and Fangirl in Rowell’s. What makes this even more fourth-wall in Rowell’s case is that, in Fangirl, the stars of Carry On – Simon Snow and Basilton ‘Baz’ Grimm-Pitch – are the hero and antagonist, respectively, of a Potteresque series of YA novels about whom Fangirl’s protagonist writes queer romantic fanfic.

And when I say Potteresque, I do mean that quite literally: Simon and Baz are students at a magical boarding school in England (Watford), to which Simon (a magical orphan in the Normal world) was brought at age eleven by its powerful headmaster (the Mage) because his power was prophecied. The parallels are many, obvious and intentional. Even if you haven’t read Fangirl – in which, rather than being a wholesale Potter surrogate, the Simon Snow books are inserted as an equally popular peer series – the native similarities hang a lampshade on the comparison all by themselves. (Almost recursively so, at times: it’s lampshades all the way down!)

While this is understandable, it’s also slightly awkward. No matter how immersed I was, I never quite lost my background awareness that the only reason any of it existed was because Rowell couldn’t slip Harry x Draco into Fangirl without finding herself on the business end of a lawyer. Which is, simultaneously, both Carry On’s strength and weakness: strength, because the story is intended as a subversive take on the Chosen One trope, with specific reference to Harry Potter; weakness, because it never quite develops into anything more original, despite the central queer relationship.

So when I say that Carry On reads like fanfic, I mean that as neither censure nor compliment, but rather as an objective description of narrative style. I happen to love fanfiction – have spent a not inconsiderable portion of the last eighteen months immersed in both writing and reading it, in fact – which is why I feel qualified to make the comparison. By virtue of referencing characters, settings and concepts the readership already knows, in whose central relationship they already feel invested, fanfics have a natural tendency to skip over setting and worldbuilding – not because they’re badly written, but because, more often than not, such information is contextually extraneous. It’s what lends the genre such an addictive, compelling immediacy, like picking up a favourite book at the most exciting chapter – the purest distillation of that much-vaunted piece of Writing Advice, to start the story when something is really happening. Easy to do, when your readership already knows the backstory of even minor characters by heart, but trickier far to execute if you’re simultaneously building a world from scratch.

That Rowell manages to achieve this feeling with original characters is due in part to how heavily she leans on her audience’s peripheral Potter-knowledge, but that’s hardly a bad thing; is rather, I’d argue, a sign of her willingness to treat her audience as intelligent. Given the cultural dominion of Harry Potter, surely only a snobbish or oblivious fantasy writer would assume their readers ignorant of the narrative, and as commentary on said story is half the point of Carry On, it makes sense to assume a trope-literate audience and work from there. Even so, it’s skill that makes it work: Rowell’s writing is clean and comic, buoying the story along at pace, and while the story is flawed – as I’ll soon discuss – it’s certainly never boring.

As you might expect, Carry On’s strongest aspect is the romantic relationship between Baz and Simon, which is executed with humour, warmth and nuance. Forced together as roommates via a magical selection process in their first year at Watford, both boys have spent the majority of that time purporting to despise each other, caught on opposite sides of a magical divide: Baz, the talented scion of an old, prestigious family at odds with the new regime, and Simon, the poor upstart ward of the Mage, apparently destined for greatness but unable to marshal his power. In a literary tradition where, for ostensibly non-homoerotic and visibly sexist reasons, male heroes are often depicted as having more nuanced, complicated relationships with their antagonists than with their apparent female love interests, it’s deeply satisfying – and wholly enjoyable – to see the trope so thoroughly queered up. It calls to mind Kate Beaton’s excellent comic about a pirate and his nemesis: true to the old dictum about love and hate being opposite sides of the same coin, there’s a point at which constantly obsessing about another person’s whereabouts and motives bleeds into caring about their wellbeing, and Rowell hits that junction right in the narrative sweet spot.

Baz and Simon’s relationship is the solid heart of the story; everything else, however, feels either sparse, rushed or both. Where Harry Potter’s story is told in seven novels, Simon Snow’s is crammed into one, as though our familiarity with the layered details of Rowling’s story means we don’t need the other six books of Rowell’s. As such, it works exceedingly well as commentary, but falls somewhat flat on its own account. This is particularly disappointing when it comes to the political complexities of Rowell’s world. Given more scope, the Mage’s actions, motives and betrayal could have cored a devastating punch; instead, the other characters are never given the poisoned catharsis of knowing the whole picture, while the wider consequences of Simon’s existence are conveniently elided at the finale.

Structurally, then, Carry On succeeds or fails depending on how you grade it. By the standards of most comparable original works, it’s undernourished, but still good comic, romantic fantasy fun; by the standards of fanfic, it’s T-rated excellence. As I enjoy both types of writing, that leaves me somewhat stumped for judgement – or would do, if not for the existence of Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona. Released some five months prior to Carry On, Nimona portrays the same sort of complex, antagonistic, morally grey and (ultimately) queer relationship between male nemeses that Carry On does, to poignant effect. Likewise, thanks to the graphic format, it conveys an original setting in brief, but without feeling thin as a consequence – and as it isn’t directly riffing on a specific prominent work, but rather subverts a general knowledge of fairytales, it stands more strongly on its own merits.

And Nimona, unlike Carry On, doesn’t base a central subversive premise – that of queer male romance – on a slew of sexist tropes.

At its most basic level, Carry On has a Women In Refrigerators problem. Both Simon and Baz have conspicuously dead mothers – Lucy and Natasha, respectively – and while both speak from the grave in the course of the story, this is hardly great representation. Natasha barely appears except as motivation for Baz, and though Lucy gets some POV sections, when she actually tries to speak to Simon, who doesn’t know who she is, her visitation comes so hard on the heels of Natasha’s that he naturally confuses her with the other dead ghost mother, a mistake that’s never corrected. The fact that Lucy’s silent narrative is key to the whole story doesn’t quite mitigate the fact that none of the characters hear it, nor does it make her history any less tragic.

And then there’s Agatha, Simon’s ex-girlfriend: blonde and beautiful, longing for Normalcy, and woefully underdeveloped. The problem isn’t that Agatha, with her dreams of escape and travel and her mediocre magic, is an unrealistic character; it’s just that, as she spends the whole book wanting to be somewhere else, her participation in the actual plot is minimal. Which is deeply frustrating, not only on its own account, but because she’s the character who comes closest to figuring out who Lucy is and why she matters, yet never shares her findings with anyone. Given that Agatha is both afraid of dying because of Simon and of being the one to watch him die, the fact that she believes the lie of Lucy’s escape to America – that she identifies with it to the point of going there herself, when Lucy is really dead in a way that would horrify Agatha – is a symmetry I found more ugly than not, yet all over representative of her wasted potential. Yes, there’s something positive in Agatha living when Lucy died, but as Agatha’s escape at the finale is enabled by the death of yet another innocent woman – and one who, for some reason, appears to accept her own murder as justified at the last second, which, what? – any positive parallels are rather grossly ruined.

By contrast, Penelope Bunce, Simon’s best friend, comes across more vividly, if only because she gets so much more stage time; otherwise, she’s decidedly Hermione, but without the activism. That she’s a non-stereotyped person of colour – as is Baz, for that matter – is a significant point in the book’s favour, but at the same time, her POV sections are often so immediate as to deny her vital introspection. She has a boyfriend in America, but though she mentions him, we never really see her think about him, even though he’s clearly significant, and while we’re given a reason why her life is so Simon-centric, I couldn’t help wishing that we got to see more of her own her own terms. It doesn’t help that her relationship with Agatha is largely defined by jealousy over Simon: the only chapter in which the two interact away from the boys is literally described, in text, as a Bechdel pass – “It’s good to have a life that passes the Bechdel test,” her mother says of them, prompting Penelope to respond with a grumbled quip about her mother’s lack of female friends – and in a novel full of gratuitously hung lampshades, this one is arguably the most glaring.

Partly, the problem is one of length: if Rowell had fleshed out Agatha and Penelope, instead of leaning on their underlying archetypes, then we might have a better sense of who they are in relation to themselves and each other, instead of just seeing them next to Baz and Simon. Yet even so, the novel’s comparative shortness didn’t need to be an issue. The problem isn’t that a story about a queer male relationship dared to put a lesser emphasis on its women, but that it opted to do so in ways that reinforce sexism – which is to say, dead mothers, female sacrifice, and girls more rivals than friends because of boys. Penelope’s mother Mitali, Baz’s aunt Fiona and the goatherd Ebb were all good, meaty characters, but their perspectives and roles were limited, rendered less significant in the long run than their seven years of history with the characters could merit. Which, on a practical level, I understand: given the obvious Potter comparisons and the nature of the project, I can’t imagine Rowell would’ve wanted to write a full Simon Snow series instead of just the effective final volume. But as narrative tradeoffs go, it’s hard not to note the downside.

And then there’s the bi erasure.

Look: I am a bisexual person. I exist! There is a word for me! But Carry On, despite being a story wherein words are literal magic, is apparently unwilling to consider this as a concept. Baz, we’re told, is gay: has never been with anyone but Simon, and is unattracted to women. But Simon, who’s dating Agatha at the start of the book – is contemplating being with her forever, in fact – is never allowed to use the word bisexual to describe himself, nor is it applied to him by anyone else, even in passing. Which… look. Being closeted is a thing. Not understanding your own sexuality is a thing. The world is full of people who thought they were straight, or were thought to be straight, who later came out as gay, even after they dated or kissed or slept with or married or had kids with someone – or ones! – of the opposite sex. This is absolutely a valid narrative! What feels decidedly less valid, however, is the fact that bisexuality is never once considered as a possible explanation for Simon being attracted to both Agatha and Baz, even though Simon himself is demonstrably unclear on the subject. Instead, we get this:

“And I don’t think I’m gay,” I say. “I mean, maybe I am, at least partly, the part that seems to be demanding the most attention right now…”

“No one cares whether you’re gay,” Baz says coldly.

And I just… partly gay? As in, attracted to more than one gender? As in fucking bisexual, or pansexual, or literally anything other than the “I don’t like labels/nobody cares/let’s not call it anything” school of weasel-wording bullshit consistently used to enforce the idea that gay and straight are the only options? In the Potteresque language of Carry On, it seems, bisexual has the same impact as Voldemort: the preferred term in both instances is that which shall not be named, the better to render it palatable. Throw in Simon’s bizarre pejorative at the end about dancing being “well gay… even when it isn’t two blokes” – which, why the fuck is there any need to include that line in a supposedly queer-positive novel at all, let alone voiced by a character who hasn’t expressed any homophobia, internalised or otherwise, in 522 pages? – and the death of an underutilised queer woman at the finale – to say nothing of the fact that the only queer female relationship is one that happens off screen, only referenced  when one or other of the characters is complaining about it – and I am moved to look askance at Carry On in its entirety.

Because, here’s the thing: as much as I enjoyed Fangirl – and as refreshing as it was, to see both fanfic and fan culture rendered in such a positive light – it shied away from acknowledging the problematic aspects of the community. Such as, for instance, the fetishising of queer male relationships and the elision of female characters, and while I won’t go so far as to say that Rowell is guilty of this – and as much as I enjoyed the dynamic between Simon and Baz – Carry On reads to me like an outsider take on queerness rather than a heartfelt exploration of it, the subversion born of novelty, not need, and so made superficial.

Which is ultimately what bothers me about the novel’s resolution. As compelling as it is to make the Mage the ultimate villain – or ultimately responsible for what’s gone wrong, at least – his status as a supposedly progressive reformer who secretly broke everything is never really addressed. From the outset, it’s clear that, as in the world of Harry Potter, historical issues of magical privilege and exclusion have lead to Watford’s discrimination against various less powerful groups – biases that the Mage’s reforms, like Dumbledore’s egalitarian attitudes, are meant to try and rectify. Nimona, too, deals with similar themes: as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the institution supported by the apparent hero is an oppressive, abusive state, yet even knowing this, the morality is never rendered as binary. Similarly, and despite the presence of an evil Dark Lord, Rowling makes an effort to show the complexities of her world: Dolores Umbridge is often cited as being more terrifying than Voldemort for being more recognisable, the sort of sadistic bureaucrat we pray is never responsible for our future, while the Lovegoods, for all their faith in Harry, still give credence to any number of clearly false conspiracies.

But in Carry On, the political threads are left hanging, either handwaved at the finale or ignored completely. The fact that the Mage levies taxes on the powerful old families is cited as a negative behaviour equal to his coercive raids on their homes, for instance, yet we never quite see a distinction drawn between them, nor get any sense of how this works in a wider sense. If Rowell was trying to make a distinct point about the hypocritical evils of left-wing revolution – if the characters had actually discussed the politics of it in any depth, or if the consequences were rendered at more than a background level, like the familial crises caused by Penny’s brother serving in the Mage’s Men – then that would be one thing. I might disagree with such politics, but at least it would feel purposeful, consistent. As it stands, however, the novel feels blandly unconcerned with its own implications, and that doesn’t sit well with me.

In that sense, the English setting, as rendered by an American writer, feels like a metaphor for the novel’s failings: seeming ahead of substance. As an Australian who’s been living in the UK for almost five years now, and who was raised with many British cultural staples, there’s something quite jarring about Rowell’s inconsistent use of British idioms and references, like someone who’s so delighted by the novelty of usage that they haven’t stopped to think if it hangs together. Little things, like Simon using both ‘wicked’ and ‘cream-crackered’ while having no visible dialect – with accents never discussed, in fact, despite their clear significance – or Baz joking about Simon having ‘chavvy’ friends, as though ‘chav’ is synonymous with ‘poor white trash’ instead of referring to a specifically garish urban middle-class subset without an obvious American equivalent.  Even the title, Carry On, gives me pause: within the novel, it’s rendered as callback  to the lyrics of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and as such, I’m not sure if Rowell is even aware of the Carry On films and their place in British culture, let alone why her allusion to them, intentionally or otherwise, is somewhat incongruous.

Given the paucity of representation offered to various groups in mainstream narratives, it’s understandable that we sometimes tend to criticise the ones that do appear with disproportionate fervour: with so few comparable offerings, our emotional investment – and thus our corresponding potential to be personally disappointed – is far higher than when watching Hollywood’s latest straight white Chris explode things onscreen (for instance). But then, that’s the paradox of descriptive criticism: the fewer similar stories you have, the more there is to be said of them individually, while the more similar stories you have, the more there is to be said of them collectively. The only way to react to something in general terms, with general ambivalence, is if it’s abundant enough to be common: otherwise, your words and reactions are always going to be, of necessity, specialised, with just a touch of jargon. And while the clear solution is to make more things, that’s often easier said than done – especially if the burden of proof is set so high that none of us can bear to get it wrong, or to risk getting it wrong, and therefore never try at all.

Carry On, then, is something of a mixed bag. It’s messy in some respects and delightful in others – a product of the times, with all the praise and caveats that implies – but as a publicised queer fantasy romance from a bestselling author at a major press, it’s also a rare enough beast to be important. Parts of it annoyed me greatly, but on balance, I enjoyed it: to paraphrase the greatest ever review of Jupiter Ascending, it is my garbage. It is garbage for me,  and given that I’m otherwise capable of squealing over garbage that manifestly isn’t for me, just because I’m halfway resigned to entire genres treating me like an alien thing, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Carry On, despite its flaws, is definitely worth reading.


For a while now, I’ve been hearing chatter about Seth Dickinson’s upcoming debut, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, due for release in September this year. Some of what I’ve heard has been extremely positive; some has been less so. Either way, I was intrigued enough to be interested, and today I finally read the first two chapters, which are currently available online at

My gut reaction thus far: creeping unease.

At a technical level, Dickinson writes extremely well. His prose is clean and sharp and compelling with a good sense of pace, and he has a knack for conveying great scope with few words. He’s also telling a story about queer people, people of colour, women, imperialism, politics and colonialism, which is always going to interest me at a visceral level, and as such, I was never bored.


The thing about writing SFFnal stories is that, no matter how fantastic the setting or distant the future we might write, they’re still ultimately shaped by our very real, very human now: by our cultures, past and present, with all the attendant histories and contexts that entails. Sometimes, the connection is more obvious than others, as when we’re deliberately trying to evoke the shadow of ancient Rome or Renaissance Italy, but however we might invent, dissemble, hybridise, paraphrase or otherwise imagine new worlds, we’re not making anything out of whole cloth. Our fingerprints pattern the weave, reminding us of the reality we’re trying, however briefly, to escape, and whether we do it consciously or not, the process still occurs, as inevitable as sunrise.

Thus: when Dickinson writes about the Empire of Masks, with its paper money, bureaucratic service exam and sterile hatred of unhygienic behaviour, which here means homosexuality in all its permutations, what I think of is a cross between Imperial Britain and Imperial China, the language and bigotry of the former married to the institutions and scale of the latter. Adding to this impression, the denizens of Falcrest, home of this chimerical empire, are described as follows:

“This was the first impression Baru had of the Falcrest people: stubborn jaws, flat noses, deep folded eyes, their skin a paler shade of brown or copper or oat. At the time they hardly seemed so different.” 

Anglophone language and epicanthic folds: it’s not a subtle marriage, and in these two chapters, it feels like Dickinson has smashed imperial China and Britain together without much regard for the consequences of the fit. Which, ordinarily, might raise my eyebrow without stirring complaint – generally speaking, I’m a fan of cultural mashups, especially incongruous or startling ones. But here, given the prominent focus on homophobia and queer persecution, I can’t get past the real world implications; or, more specifically, the real world history.

Because beyond the horrific history between Britain and China, which frequently involves the former exploiting the latter, there’s the inescapable fact that Imperial China didn’t have anything even vaguely resembling the institutional homophobia Dickinson is describing, because in China – as in so many other parts of the world impacted by white colonialism – the sort of scientific, medicalised, systematic homophobia that situated being queer as an illness was a Western import. Nor is this a difficult fact to ascertain, as per the very first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on homosexuality in China:

“The existence of homosexuality in China has been well documented since ancient times. According to one study, homosexuality in China was regarded as a normal facet of life in China, prior to the Western impact of 1840 onwards. However, this has been disputed. Many early Chinese emperors are speculated to have had homosexual relationships, accompanied by heterosexual ones. Opposition to homosexuality, according to the study by Hinsch, did not become firmly established in China until the 19th and 20th centuries, through the Westernization efforts of the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China. On the other hand, Gulik’s influential study argued that the Mongol Yuan dynasty introduced a more ascetic attitude to sexuality in general… Either way, it is indisputable that homosexual sex was banned in the People’s Republic of China from at least the twentieth century, until it was legalized in 1997.”

By comparison, the first British anti-sodomy law was the Buggery Act of 1533, which gave the crown the power to deal with an offence that had previously been handled exclusively by the Christian ecclesiastical courts. Consider this excerpt, for instance, from the Wikipedia article on homosexuality and psychiatry in a Western context:

“The view of homosexuality as a psychological disorder has been seen in literature since research on homosexuality first began. However, psychology as a discipline has evolved over the years in its position on homosexuality. Current attitudes have their roots in religious, legal and cultural underpinnings. In the early Middle Ages the Christian Church tolerated, or at least ignored homosexuality in secular cultures outside the Church. However, by the end of the 12th century hostility towards homosexuality began to emerge and spread through Europe’s secular and religious institutions. There were official expressions condemning the “unnatural” nature of homosexual behavior in the works of Thomas Aquinas and others. Unti the 19th century, homosexual activity was referred to as “unnatural, crimes against nature”, sodomy or buggery and was punishable by law, and even death. As people became more interested in discovering the causes of homosexuality, Medicine and Psychiatry began competing with the law and religion for jurisdiction. In the beginning of the 19th century, people began studying homosexuality scientifically. At this time, most theories regarded homosexuality as a disease, which had a great influence on how it was viewed culturally.”

With these two different narratives in mind, here’s the view of homosexuality held by Dickinson’s fictitious imperial Falcrest, as described in Chapter One:

“She went into the school, with her own uniform and her own bed in the crowded dormitory, and there in her first class on Scientific Society and Incrasticism she learned the words sodomite and tribadist and social crime and sanitary inheritance, and even the mantra of rule: order is preferable to disorder. There were rhymes and syllogisms to learn, the Qualms of revolutionary philosophy, readings from a child’s version of the Falcresti Handbook of Manumission.”

Clearly, then, this is type of homophobia is far more in the British mould than the Chinese. And thus my unease: because while Dickinson’s Masquerade, as his empire is externally known, is a fictional culture, what it evokes, in terms of real world comparisons, is a narrative wherein an undeniably white, colonial, homophobic agenda is being utilised by POC against other POC. Throw in the fact that, post-Western influence, modern China was, for a period, intensely homophobic – something the casual reader is more likely to know about than, say, the passion of the cut sleeve – and you have a narrative that, whether intentionally or not, subtly reinforces the stereotype of homophobia as a predominantly non-Western, non-white problem.

Further complicating matters is the planned trajectory of the titular protagonist – that is, of Baru Cormorant – as a woman from a formerly queer-friendly culture having to repress that part of her identity in order to rise through the Falcresti ranks, the better to one day change their ideology. To be clear: I have absolutely nothing against the idea of a story where a secret outsider strives to change a toxic system from within; that’s good stuff. The problem is that, by the end of Chapter Two, Baru – now eighteen – is set to leave her home island of Taranoke for life in the imperial service, having aged eleven years since the start of Chapter One. And while, as stated, Dickinson writes with great technical skill, for a story that’s being set up to portray Baru as the intended saviour of Taranoke culture, it’s troubling that we see her behaviour almost exclusively through the lens of Falcresti mores.

By which I mean: beyond its queer and polyamorous acceptance, we’re shown very little about Taranoke culture, and thus don’t have the proper sense of what Baru is setting out to avenge or protect beyond a deeply simplistic narrative of Homophobia Is Wrong. Baru’s time at the Falcresti school under the sponsorship of her patron, Cairdine Farrier, is the kind of thing I could easily read books about in its own right, but which in either case demands far more attention than two brief chapters can supply, no matter how well written they might be. Instead, we see far more of Baru’s acceptance of Falcresti logic than we do comparisons or conflicts with what she was taught before then; even the other students seem to have accepted the colonial mandate that the families and family structures they’ve known all their lives are wrong, as per this section in Chapter Two:

“Children began to vanish from the school, sent back out onto the island, into the plague. “Their behaviour was not hygienic,” the teachers said. Social conditions, the students whispered. He was found playing the game of fathers –

The teachers watched them coldly as their puberty came, waiting for unhygienic behaviour to manifest itself. Baru saw why Cairdine Farrier had advised her on her friendships. Some of the students collaborated in the surveillance.”

This level of indoctrination and complicity, presented in the absence of any compelling reason as to why the Taranoke students are so quick to abandon their own culture, is utterly jarring. We don’t get a sense of fear or coercion or other social changes beyond the plague and its impact; the children are seemingly cut off from their parents and families long before then, and it’s all glossed so quickly that what should be a nuanced explanation of cultural change and colonialism – but which is still the apparent heart of the novel, given that Baru is meant to be motivated by her time here to come back and fix everything – is instead rendered in brief, like an unimportant aside before the real story starts.

As a queer reader, the portrait Dickinson paints of Falcresti homophobia is genuinely unsettling, which is why the commensurate lack of attention paid to Taranoke customs feels like such an imbalance. Two chapters in, and all we know of queerness so far is that people suffer for it: Baru loses one of her fathers to the invaders, her cousin is threatened with molestation under the guise of corrective rape, Taranoke is colonised, and Baru’s two external allies both abandon her when they learn what she did to try and protect her cousin.

It’s queer tragedy porn in a fantasy context, and from what I’ve been told about how the book ends, that never really changes; arguably gets worse, in fact. And while I applaud Seth Dickinson for wanting to tell a story about how Homophobia Is Bad, complete with a cast of characters who are queer and female and POC, I can’t applaud his apparent decision to do so by making said characters suffer unbearably because of their orientation, the better to let the audience know that Homophobia Is Wrong.

The problem, then, is that The Traitor Baru Cormorant comes across as being a novel about queer oppression that is – whether intentionally or not – written for a straight audience: that is, for people who can find novelty and drama in stories about unrelenting queer oppression because they’ve never personally experienced it, whereas those of us who have just want, by and large, to read about queer people being people, preferably complex ones who get their fair share of happy endings rather than the traditional tragedy.

So, yeah. I’ll reserve full judgement for when (and if) I make it through the rest of the book, but right now, it doesn’t bode well.

Three days ago, Kameron Hurley wrote an amazing piece on the erasure of women’s stories in particular, but especially their contribution to combat, in the course of which she linked to something I wrote last year about default narrative settings. The response to her article – and, by way of the domino effect, to mine – has been overwhelmingly positive, which is both encouraging and wonderful. This being the internet, however, there’s also been some reactive dissent, some of it outrageously trollish (as per one Redditor’s complaint that “not every book has to appeal to females and you have the entire romance genre if you want to read from a females point of view,” which, AUGH), but also a special type of defensive hostility that manages to completely miss the point – in this case, for instance, by asserting that, as the majority of soldiers are still male, it’s a fantasy to pretend that the female ones matter. And as this is an argument whose variants I’ve encountered a lot – not only in response to my PSA post, but generally elsewhere – it’s one I’d like to properly address.

So: Yes. The majority of soldiers in history have been male – that fact is not in contention. Nor am I arguing that women in history never experienced sexism, or that discrimination on the basis of race, class or sexual orientation never kept anyone down. What I am saying, though, is twofold: firstly, that our popular notions of how historical prejudice worked are not always accurate (or are, at the very least, prone to oversimplification), and that this is worth examining, especially in instances where most of what we think we know about history comes from fictional extrapolations of it which are themselves inspired by earlier fiction; and secondly, that acknowledging the reality of historical prejudice is neither the same thing as saying that nobody ever overcame it, nor as believing that such prejudice is inherent to every possible permutation of sentient society. By which I mean: whatever you believe about history, unless you think that human beings are predestined to perpetrate specific injustices regardless of the setting in which they find themselves (which is incredibly depressing, and also intellectually suspect, when you consider the extent to which culture is shaped by context), then admitting the existence of historical prejudices doesn’t obligate you to incorporate them in your fictional worlds.

But, says my hypothetical interlocutor, what about realism? Aren’t all these examples you’re giving me about lady soldiers and crossdressing spies ultimately just outliers and exceptions to the norm? 

To which I say: if your definition of realism hinges on idea that foregrounding a perceived minority is inherently unrealistic, then firstly, I’m going to question whether you’ve ever actually read a fantasy novel, and secondly, fuck you.

No, seriously: have you ever fucking read a fantasy novel? All the oldest, most beloved tropes of epic fantasy are predicated on the idea of taking some impossible scenario, unusual person and/or mythical creature, and then writing an entire fucking story about them – preferably all at once! You think real history was littered with bastard princes raised in secret by wise monks or noble farmers and then sent off on quests to obtain the Magic Sword of Destiny? You think sexy assassins are ten a penny? Do you even know how many fantasy stories explicitly establish the incredibly rarity of dragons, and then spend the rest of the fucking novel trekking to meet them? Are you even reading the same genre as me?

Fantasy is all about foregrounding outliers – quite often, in fact, it does little else. So when you sit there, straight-faced, and tell me you couldn’t get into Novel X because the main character was a black female pirate and that’s so unrealistic, what you’re actually saying is, the only exceptional people I want to fantasise about are the ones who look like me. Because the thing is,  if you’re making this argument in the first place? Then the chances are astronomically good that you’re either a straight white cisgendered male or someone who checks at least one of those boxes – which is to say, someone who sees themselves so well represented in narrative that it’s downright unusual to encounter the alternative. And thanks to the prevalence of those sorts of stories, it’s easy to slip into justifying their monopoly by assuming that any departure from the norm would be, on some fundamental level, unrealistic. I mean, why else call it normal if it’s not the base state of being, right?

Except, no, it’s not. On a global scale, white people are an ethnic minority. Women make up half the population of Earth. Straight away, that’s two of your apparently immutable majority axes defeated by basic math – and as for the rest? Let me put it this way: of all the people on this planet, two percent are naturally blonde, while one percent are natural redheads (and before you ask, no: that doesn’t correlate directly with having light skin – genetically, you can have pretty much any combination on offer). That might sound like a comparatively small number – and yet, if I were to do a random tally of the number of blonde and redhaired protagonists in SFF novels, I’ll bet you I could hit over a hundred just from the books in my house. Given that there are at least as many QUILTBAG persons as redheads worldwide – if not more than all the blondes and auburns put together, the data being understandably hard to measure – then statistically, they ought to have equal representation in the foreground of SFF novels. That would, after all, be only realistic. And yet, if I were to do a similar sweep of the books in my house, I doubt I’d find even a quarter as many such protagonists. We foreground what seems realistic to us, is what I’m saying – but that doesn’t mean our perception of reality is either all-encompassing or accurate.


So, yes. Sometimes, when we’re talking about amazing women or queer individuals in history, we’re talking about anomalies. Sometimes – but not nearly as often as you’ve been trained to think. And even if they are outliers, who the fuck cares? Stories about determined underdogs overcoming adversity to do awesome things and make their mark on history are some of the best ones out there. But you know what? That doesn’t make them the only stories you can realistically tell about members of perceived or actual minority groups. The fact that there were incredible women in history who took up swords and played at politics doesn’t diminish the narrative potential of those women who managed their families and held the fort instead – in fact, those two groups aren’t even mutually exclusive. Human beings are versatile creatures, and as rich a source of inspiration as history is for SFF stories, it’s not the be-all, end-all of what’s possible. The only limit is your imagination – or rather, the biases with which you’re content to constrain it.


Regardless of what historical epoch their populations and culture are either based on or situated in, epic fantasy landscapes tend to be populated by a very specific subset of animals: big cats, horses, wolves, bears, deer, birds of prey, European livestock (cattle, sheep, chickens), domestic pets, rabbits, and dragons. Though you might occasionally find some ferrets, snakes or crocodiles to spice things up, generally speaking, there’s a profound Eurocentrism to the kind of animals you’ll encounter in fantasy novels, partly because the default fantasy environment is itself Eurocentric; and partly because, once you’re using less common animals, there’s the joint question of how to describe and reference them if their English names are either very clearly colonial or derive their meaning from a clearly real-world scientific canon (Thompson’s gazelle, the red panda, the Pallas cat, for instance); but mostly, I suspect, because we view such creatures as being universally generic, and therefore able to transcend affiliation to any particular country or region. By way of comparison, I can’t think of a single fantasy novel where kangaroos make an appearance: though fascinating creatures, both physically and aesthetically, their inclusion would inevitably make the reader think of Australia regardless of whether such an association would benefit the story, and so we tend not to take the risk. The exception to this rule, of course, is when writers are deliberately trying to evoke a particular sense of place: under those circumstances, the inclusion of certain animals becomes a type of narrative signposting, so that giraffes mean Africa, pandas mean China, yak mean Tibet, pet monkeys mean the Middle East, and so on.

Otherwise, though you don’t get much variety – and under some circumstances, that’s fine. But when we start treating animals as generic, there’s a very real loss of ecosystem: though perhaps unremarkable to the sensibilities and assumptions of urban readers, all those quest-inducing  forests, swamps and mountains tend to be either totally devoid of animal life (except for a plethora of conveniently edible rabbits), or else serve as the backdrop for a single, climactic animal attack (usually from a bear or wolves). And with that loss of ecosystem comes a lack of appreciation for animal behaviour: we start to think of animals as creatures whose only meaningful relationships are with humans. That being done, we lose all sense of subtlety  unless they occupy a background role, like pack-mules and hunting dogs, our fantasy animals are overwhelmingly portrayed in a way that skews heavily towards one of two wildly differing extremes. Either we romanticise and anthropomorphise to an alarming degree (faithful, loyal and freakishly sentient dogs or horses, near-magical wolves, noble and mystical stags), or else we demonise, with the creation of wild animals who exist only to menace humans (like ravenous wolves, child-eating lions, and monstrous bears).

So with all this baggage surrounding the presence and portrayal of animals in epic fantasy, what happens when we start building animalistic shapeshifter societies in urban fantasy?

Nothing good, is the short answer. More specifically, we get the Alpha Problem: endless tracts of sexism, misogyny, female exceptionalism, rigid social hierarchies maintained through a combination of violence and biological determinism, inescapable mating bonds, and a carte blanche excuse for male characters to behave like cavemen (and for female characters to accept it) on the slender justification that, as alphas, it’s both in their nature and what’s expected of them. And the thing is, I love urban fantasy, and I also really love shapeshifters. But it’s not often these days that I get to love the two things in combination, because apart from not being able to deal with the sheer profligacy of the aforementioned problems, I also can’t get past the fact that the logic on which they’re predicated – the logic of wolves – is overwhelmingly inaccurate.

For ages now, werewolves have maintained their status as not only the most widely-known, but easily most popular shapeshifters: as far as the Western mythological and folkloric (and thus Western SFFnal) canon is concerned, our concept of werewolves has set the standard for all subsequent depictions of shapeshifters generally – and, not unsurprisingly, our concept of werewolves has been historically influenced by our view of actual wolves. Though traditionally portrayed as sly, ravening monsters who hunt to kill, as enshrined in endless European stories from Little Red Riding Hood to Peter and the Wolf, our perception of wolves – and consequently, of werewolves – has changed drastically in the past few decades, undergoing something of a 360 degree reversal. Thanks in no small part to the superficial affectations of New Age spiritualism and its cherrypicking appropriation of various Native American cultures, such as the concept of spirit animals, our fantastic depictions of wolves began to change. Instead of being described as slavering, child-stealing beasts, they were instead ascribed a spiritual, near-magical status as guardians, wise warriors and compassionate, social predators, which in turn had an impact on werewolf stories. Instead of being little more than monsters in human skin, more nuanced portrayals of werewolves emerged; first in narratives which contrasted their sympathetic humanity with their unsympathetic and uncontrolled bestial natures, and then, finally, in stories where their animal side was shown as a to be a spiritual, even desirable attribute.

Thus: once our general image of wolves had been rehabilitated to the point where we could have positive, social werewolf stories rather than deploying them purely as horror elements, it was only logical that writers look to actual wolf behaviour for inspiration in writing werewolf culture. And what they found was terminology that could easily have been tailor-made for fantasists, with its Greek words and implications of feudal hierarchy: the language of alpha, beta, gamma and omega. The idea of an alpha mating pair lent itself handily to romance, while the idea of wolves battling for supremacy within rigidly defined family structures was practically a ready-made caste system. Writers took to it with a vengeance – and as a consequence, we now find ourselves in a situation where not only werewolves and other shapeshifters, but purely human romantic pairings both within and outside of fiction, are all discussed in the language of alpha and beta. Under this system, alphas are hypermasculine, aggressive, protective leaders, while betas are their more subdued, less assertive underlings. The terminology has becomes so widespread, even beyond fantasy contexts, that most people have probably heard of it; but in urban fantasy in particular, the logic of wolves has long since become a tailor-made justification for the inclusion and defense of alpha male characters. These alphas, who frequently double as love interests, display violent, controlling behaviour that would otherwise read as naked patriarchal wish-fulfillment: instead, their animal aspect is meant to excuse and normalise their aggression, on the grounds – often tacit, but always implied – that real wolves act that way. 

Except that, no: wolves don’t act that way – and what’s more, we’ve known they haven’t for over a decade;  even the alpha-beta terminology of wolf relationships is falling out of scientific parlance due to its inaccuracy. Which means that all the supposedly biologically-inspired logic underpinning those endless alphahole characters and male-only werewolf clans? That logic is bullshit, and has been practically since it was written. So how, then, did it all get started in the first place? The answer is surprisingly simple. Back in 1947, when wolf behaviour was very poorly understood, a man called Rudolph Schenkel published a monorgaph on wolf interactions based on his observations of what happened when totally unrelated wolves from different zoos were all brought together in the same closed environment – which is, of course, something that would never happen in the wild, and which therefore produced aberrant behaviour. This paper was subsequently cited heavily by wolf researcher L. David Mech in his book The Wolf: Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species, which was first published in the 1970s. This being the first such book of its kind to be released for thirty-odd years, The Wolf became a massive success, was reprinted several times over the next two decades, and subsequently became a primary reference for many other researchers. But in the late 1990s, after studying wolves in the wild firsthand, Mech came to realise that the alpha-beta system was inaccurate; instead, wolves simply lived in family groups that formed in much the same way human families do. He published his new results in two papers in 1999 and 2000, and has been working since then to correct the misinformation his first book helped to spread. But of course, the trickle-down process is slow; though the new knowledge is accepted as accurate, the old terminology is still sometimes used by researchers who aren’t up to date.

So: given how long it’s taken the scientific community, Mech included, to cotton on to the truth of wolves, I’m not about to blame fantasy writers for having failed to know better, sooner. I will, however, fault them for using the alpha-beta system as an excuse to craft shapeshifter societies where female shifters are rare and special for no good reason; where women are expected to both love and excuse the aggressive behaviour of men; where punitive hierarchies are aggressively enforced; and where controlling, coercive, stalkerish actions are pardoned because It’s What Women Really Want. The decision to focus on masculine power and to make such societies male-dominated as a matter of biology was a conscious one, and while I’ve still enjoyed some stories whose shapeshifters operate under such parameters, I’ve always resented the parameters themselves. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least five urban fantasy series where female shifters are rare and male aggression rules their communities, but not a single one where the reverse is true, let alone one that’s simply female-dominated. And in a genre that’s renowned for its female protagonists and ostensible female agenda, I dislike the extent to which many of those women are made exceptional, not only by their lack of female associates, friends and family members, but their success within traditionally masculine environments as lone, acceptable women.

Though the truth of wolves wasn’t widely known when many such series were first begun, it’s certainly known now. While there’s certainly still room for a new interpretation of the alpha-beta system for shapeshifters in a purely fictional sense – perhaps one with an actual gender balance, or even (let’s go crazy) female dominance – I’m going to tear my hair out if I see any more new stories where alpha males are allowed to behave like terrible asshat jocks and never have their idiocy questioned Because Magic Biology. Wolves and werewolves will always have a special place in fantasy literature, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question our portrayals of their sentience – or that we can’t reimagine their societies.