Posts Tagged ‘Review’

Warning: total spoilers for Midsommar, references to suicide, incest and drug use

Midsommar is the second feature-length film directed and written by Ari Aster; the first, Hereditary, I haven’t yet seen, but on the basis of how much I enjoyed Midsommar, I’m strongly inclined to check it out.

On the surface, Midsommar is a film with a simple yet darkly compelling premise: in the wake of a family tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh), joins her long-term boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends, Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper), on a holiday organised by their third friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who has invited them all to his community’s midsummer celebration in Hårga, Sweden. Things are rocky at the outset: not only has Dani’s sister recently committed a horrific murder-suicide, killing both herself and their parents with carbon monoxide poisoning, but Christian is The Worst: a self-absorbed, emotionally neglectful and thoroughly disinterested partner who was planning to break up with Dani prior to her loss. But what Pelle has sold to his friends as a drug-filled festival soon turns from pastoral vacation to sinister ritual: guests start disappearing, and in a haze of horror and hallucinogens, Dani begins to realise that there’s no way to escape.

Right from the outset, Midsommar leans both narratively and thematically on the four-act, seasonal structure of its pagan mythology. Early in their arrival at Hårga, Pelle explains that his community views life as a cyclical series of stages, all marked as periods of twice-nine years: childhood, from birth until age 18, is viewed as spring; 18 to 36 is the summer of young adulthood, a time of exploration; 36 to 54 are your working, adult years, the autumn; and 54 to 72 is old age, winter. At the end of this explanation, Dani asks what happens after 72, and Pelle replies by drawing a finger across this throat, indicating death.

This cyclical, seasonal motif imbues the entire film, as do references to Swedish pagan mythology and pastoral life. In the very first scenes, a kulning – a Swedish herding call used to summon the cows home to pasture, but which can also be sung as a farewell – plays hauntingly over shots of a winter landscape, only to cut out jarringly and be replaced by the ringing of a telephone. The ringing takes us inside Dani’s parents’ house: we hear her leave a worried voice message on their answering machine as the camera pans over their sleeping (and soon to be dead) bodies before cutting back to show us Dani herself. Likewise, when the title card comes up, it does so over a depiction of the seasons – winter, spring, summer and autumn, in that order – rendered in the same traditional, Scandinavian-pagan style used throughout Hårga.

Thus: the film begins with a symbolic winter, marked by the deaths of a young woman and two elders, overlain by a song that acts as both a farewell and – crucially – a means of calling someone home, the “someone” in question being Dani. In early scenes in her apartment, the camera makes sure to show us the paintings on her wall: two different images of women wreathed in summer and autumnal flowers, vibrant yellows and oranges, and a third painting, displayed prominently over a bed where we see Dani sleeping, of a young girl holding out a burning lantern to a bear. Like the kulning, the significance of these images is not immediately apparent, but they mark a pattern of foreshadowing that continues throughout the film.

The same is also true of scenes with Christian’s friends. Prior to the revelation of Dani’s loss, Christian, Mark, Josh and Pelle are all out to dinner, with Mark encouraging Christian to break up with Dani. In retrospect, it’s telling that Pelle alone refrains from contributing to this conversation, while Josh – an anthropology major, like Christian – suggests that his friend is drawing out his relationship with Dani despite his unhappiness as a way to avoid his academic issues, such as his lack of a thesis topic. Christian is annoyed by this, but is easily sidetracked by Mark making a crass joke about all the Swedish women he could be “impregnating” on their trip to Hårga. Later on, during a trip-planning session, Mark makes a similar wish to do some sex tourism in Stockholm on route to Hårga, and is disappointed when Pelle says that they won’t be passing through Stockholm at all, as it’s in the opposite direction.

Though Christian’s lazy selfishness is already evident in his treatment of Dani, it soon becomes clear that this behaviour also extends to his friends: when Dani learns unexpectedly of his plans to go to Sweden in just two weeks, Christian responds by inviting her along, but only tells Pelle and the others of his offer when Dani is literally at the door, so that none of them can argue. While Josh and Mark are clearly bothered by this – Josh because of the awkwardness it creates, Mark because he wants it to be a boys’ trip – Pelle is almost incongruously accepting of it. He alone makes conversation with Dani, who notices him sketching, but when he mentions losing his own parents as a child, the word family becomes a trigger: she gets up abruptly to recover in the bathroom, and in a superb scene transition, the bathroom of the flat becomes the bathroom of the plane, where all of them are now en route to Sweden, the plane shaking in a brief encounter with turbulence.

Arriving in Hårga, the group takes psychedelic mushrooms together in a field with other newcomers: Dani is initially hesitant to join in, wanting to get settled first, but when Mark points out that taking the drugs at a separate times will result in them being on separate trips, Dani caves and participates. The subsequent scene is deliberately and successfully funny: as Pelle talks calmly about being one with nature, Mark freaks out that the sky is still blue at 9pm, while Christian is comically upset at the prospect of meeting new people. Dani, however, is doing just as Pelle says, watching the bark ripple on the trees as blades of grass appear to grow through her hand. It’s only when Josh starts saying that the guys are his real family that the word, once again, proves a trigger: Dani gets up and bolts, taking refuge in a wooden outhouse. There’s a brief flash of horror as she lights a candle and a face seems to appear briefly behind her in the dark, after which she runs into the woods and collapses into sleep, dreaming of her dead sister and parents.

When she wakes up again, it’s still light, and Pelle is leading the group on a hike to the actual homestead. Accompanying them are his “brother,” Ingemar, and Ingemar’s British friends Connie and Simon. There’s a moment of social awkwardness when Ingemar says he dated Connie before Simon did, only for Connie to say that they went on just one date that she didn’t even know was a date at the time. The moment passes, however, and soon the group are being welcomed to Hårga: a pastoral, low-tech setting where all the locals are dressed in white, with most of the women wearing flowers. It’s here that we get a truly fantastic trope subversion in the form of Josh, a black anthropology major, studying a “primitive” white culture: he wants to write his thesis on Hårga, and is excited to take notes on the midsummer festivities, which – we soon learn – are particularly special this year, involving rituals that happen only once every 90 years.

As Pelle – and, by extension, the cinematography – show us around the village, several unsettling things stand out. In one area, a large bear sits in a small cage, its presence deliberately unexplained; in another, the camera takes a slow pan across a tapestry which shows, in successive steps, how a woman can bewitch a man into her bed by carving a rune, feeding him a meal containing her pubic hair, and then making him drink a certain potion. It’s significant that this depiction goes chronologically from right-to-left, which would ordinarily be backwards: it’s a subtle visual cue that the expected narrative for the visitors is being upended, while the tapestry itself is a clue to later events. The same is also true of a dance on the lawn, which Pelle explains is called Skinning the Fool; and it’s here, as she dances past Christian and kicks him to get his attention, that we start to notice the interest Maja, one of Pelle’s “sisters,” has for him.

That evening, sleeping in an open, communal building whose interior walls are covered with storytelling pictures, Pelle explains that tomorrow, they’ll witness an ättestupaOnly Josh recognises the term and is stunned; Christian, despite also being an anthropology major, tries to Google the term, but misspells it and gets no results. The next day, the group participates in a solemn lunch where an older man and woman are seated at the head of a series of tables shaped to form a giant Odal rune: Josh asks Pelle if these are the ones, which Pelle confirms, but neither cues the others in to what’s happening. What follows is a shocking, gruesome scene where, after great ceremony, first the woman and then the man jump to their deaths from a cliff onto a flat rock below. While the woman dies instantly, the man survives with his legs smashed, and is effectively euthenased by three members of the community, who take turns smashing his head with a giant wooden mallet.

Prior to being killed, when the man with the smashed legs starts moaning in pain, all the Hårgans start wailing and screaming along with him, though only the horrified Connie and Simon actually try and help. This communal outpouring of emotion is repeated several times throughout the film, becoming more comprehensible in purpose – to the viewer, at least – as time goes on; but in this first instance, it feels alien and frightening, as though the man’s failure to die on impact means something has gone wrong and the Hårgans are lamenting. Instead, as we can later intuit, this is a way of showing that his pain is shared by the community: he hurts, so everyone screams as if they are hurt, too. Taken in this context, the fact that Christian lets a shaken Dani go off to grieve and process her trauma alone in the aftermath of the ritual shows a fundamental disconnect between Dani’s isolated experience of pain compared to how pain is treated in Hårga. His unconcern for her is also highlighted by the fact that, whereas he forgot her birthday the previous day and only remembered at Pelle’s prompting, Pelle drew Dani a portrait of her wearing a May Queen crown, having noticed her appreciating pictures of May Queens past.

That evening, despite being shaken by the ritual, Christian not only convinces Dani of the need to stay, but informs Josh that he’s going to do his thesis on the Hårga, too, effectively forcing Josh to split his research. That night, Dani has disturbing nightmares about Christian and the others leaving her in Hårga that intertwine with images of her dead family and the dead elders. The next morning, Josh observes Maja putting a carved rune under Christian’s bed and asks Pelle about it; Pelle replies that Maja has evidently set her sights on Christian, but is unconcerned by the implications.

It’s at this point that a true sense of unease begins to settle over the group: as their existing conflicts start to morph into bigger fractures, Dani is also aware of the fact that, according to the elders, Simon has incongruously left without Connie – a claim that Connie doesn’t believe. Dani tries to raise this with Christian, but he’s preoccupied “researching” by asking the Hårgans about their customs. Pointedly, both he and Josh ask different questions of different villagers that relate to incest: where Christian baldly asks if inbreeding is a problem in such a small community and is told no, but that interbreeding with outsiders is sometimes necessary, Josh is told by an elder that the community’s oracle, a deformed, disabled boy named Reuben, is a deliberate product of inbreeding – as are all their oracles. He also takes the time to point out one of their runes, called an affekt, which stands for grief. Later, as Dani is helping the other women in the kitchen, a scream rings out in the distance, but nobody reacts to it.

In the background of events, we see that the dead elders whose bodies were burned the night before – in one earlier shot, their pyre fades out over a shot of Dani sitting on the grass – have had their ashes poured into the roots of a fallen tree. Oblivious to this, Mark chooses this tree to piss on, and is yelled at for his disrespect to the community’s ancestors. During lunch, Dani tries once more to make Christian care about Simon’s disappearance, muttering that she could believe such a departure of him, but not Simon. Annoyed, Christian takes an early bite of his pie and finds a pubic hair in it, which Mark laughs about until a girl he’s been eyeing comes and leads him away. This same day, Pelle confronts Dani about Christian’s thoughtless treatment of her, saying that, out of everyone who came with him to Hårga, he was most excited for her to be there, because the Hårgans became his family after he was orphaned and he thinks she deserves that same sense of family and support in her life, too.

By nighttime, Mark still hasn’t reappeared from his tryst. Assuming he’s still with the girl, the others all go to sleep – all except Josh, who sneaks back out to take photographs of the Hårgan’s religious text after being forbidden to do so earlier. As he wields his camera in the dark, Josh is approached by a half-naked man he thinks at first is Mark; but as a hidden assailant smashes Josh over the head with the same sort of mallet used in the ättestupa ritual, we see that this isn’t Mark at all, but an unknown Hårgan wearing Mark’s skinned face as a mask. This is our second callback to early foreshadowing: just as Maja is steadily enacting the ritual shown on the tapestry to try and bewitch Christian, so has the dance called Skinning the Fool become literal, with hapless Mark the victim.

The next morning, the elders announce that their sacred text has been stolen, and point to the supposed overnight disappearance of Josh and Mark as proof that the pair are culprits. Dani is sceptical, but also increasingly distant from Christian, who eagerly tries to blame Josh for the crime while trying to ingratiate himself with the elders, the better to continue his research. Thus divided, when the Hårgans announce that Dani will go with the women for the day, she makes no protest, and it’s only when Christian is steered towards speaking to one of the female elders instead that he begins to sense that something is off. Even so, he continues down his assigned path, meeting with the elder in a building whose walls are covered with drawings, one of which in particular – that of bear on fire – catches his eye. While Christian sits uncomfortably, the elder informs him that he’s been approved to mate with Maja, as they are a perfect astrological match.

Meanwhile, Dani prepares to participate in the May Queen celebrations, where all the women take a psychedelic tea, then dance until they fall down, with the final woman standing to be crowned queen. Dani doesn’t understand these rules but participates regardless, and during the opening to the dance, she once more sees herself merging with nature, her feet growing roots in the grass. As the dance goes on, Dani temporarily appears able to speak and understand Swedish, conversing happily with her new friend. Pelle and Christian watch from nearby; Christian is offered a special tea by one of the girls, clearly on Maja’s behalf, and while he briefly tries to refuse, he irritably gives in and drinks it. When only eight girls are left, including Dani – a number of penultimate significance within the film, as the midsummer festivities are meant to last nine days – everyone seated cheers for those remaining; everyone except Christian, who ignores Dani’s participation completely. She sees this and is upset by it, but keeps on dancing and ends up being crowned May Queen.

As all the Hårgans cheer for Dani, she is swept up in a crowd of wellwishers while Christian stands on the outside, excluded and unhappy. Pelle, however, rushes forward and kisses Dani happily – she appears dazed but pleased by this – and in a brief moment of confusion, she thinks that one of the older women walking past her is her mother, only for the stranger to vanish back into the crowd. She is then given a massive crown of flowers, carried aloft on a wooden platform and taken to sit at the head of the table during lunch, a shot that mimics the position of honour held by the now-dead elders before their suicide. Christian appears sick and confused during the meal, while Dani sits resplendent on a throne of flowers. As the greenery pulses both in her vision and to the viewer, we see a single yellow flower irising open and shut in her headdress, as though indicating the presence of a third eye. She is then told that, as the May Queen, it is her job to bless the crops and livestock for the year to come. This involves being separated from Christian again, and while she asks if he can come with her, when she’s told no, she doesn’t protest.

As Dani goes to fulfil her duties as May Queen, an increasingly uneasy Christian is led along a path of petals to a barn, where a naked Maja – surrounded by a group of equally naked, singing women – is waiting for him on a bed of flowers. Though alarmed by this pageantry, Christian lies down to have sex with her, and continues to do so despite becoming more and more unnerved by the way the singing women mimic both Maja’s moans and his own laboured breathing. This is another example of the community’s shared expression of feeling: Maja feels pleasure, so they express pleasure, too. It’s also yet another callback to early foreshadowing, as it becomes clear that Christian is being used as breeding stock – an inverted, perverse fulfilment of the joke Mark made in America about impregnating Swedish milkmaids.

Returning from her May Queen duties, Dani hears the singing and moaning coming from the barn and, despite being cautioned not to stay away, goes to investigate. Peeping through the keyhole, she sees everything and spirals into a panic attack, much like the ones she’s experienced multiple times throughout the film. But whereas she’s previously been left to grieve alone on every occasion, this time her May Queen attendants come with her, mirroring her screams and cries while offering physical comfort. This creates a scene of simultaneous wildness and catharsis, the women offering a sympathetic expression of pain that echoes what happened during the suicide ritual: the Hårgans may have helped facilitate Christian’s betrayal of Dani, but they also offer her comfort in the aftermath.

Unaware of having been spied on, Christian finishes with Maja and reels back as she holds her knees to her chest, trying to aid conception. Naked and frightened, he runs from the barn, looking for someplace to go, but is put off by the screaming coming from Dani and her attendants in one direction and scared by the presence of Hårgans in the other. It’s then that he sees Josh’s severed leg sticking up from a garden patch, a rune carved on his foot. In panic, he runs into a chicken coop and finds Simon’s body displayed in a blood eagle for the hens to use as a perch, his eyes replaced with the same type of flower we just saw pulsing in Dani’s crown. Before he can run again, an elder appears and blows dust in Christian’s face, paralyzing him; he then closes Christian’s eyes with his thumb, which is shown as though he were smearing darkness over the camera, so that the audience is now encompassed by Christian’s point of view.

His eyes are opened again in the same fashion moments later, with a woman reaching in to thumb the camera clear. She tells Christian that he can’t move or speak, and as he – and the audience – watch, the final part of the ritual is described aloud to a crowd of onlookers by an elder. Along with four newcomers – Simon, Connie, Mark and Josh – who have been killed, four Hårgans will also die to ensure the prosperity of the community for the next 90 years: two of these latter are already dead, their bodies made into puppets with branches for arms, while one of the living two is Ingemar, who is acknowledged for bringing in two of the outsiders. Pelle, however, is praised for his insight in bringing not only a source of new blood – meaning Maja’s future child by Christian – but the May Queen, Dani, who is now considered a member of their community. All that remains is for the May Queen to choose whether the ninth and final victim will be Christian himself, or a Hårgan selected by lottery.

When Christian – and the viewer – now look at Dani, she is trapped in what is effectively a giant, triangular box-dress covered in flowers, so that only her face is visible beneath her crown. We do not see her make her choice, but we do see her gaze linger on Christian, and as Ingemar and the other live Hårgan sacrifice are taken into a ritual building – along with what remains of the bodies of the four dead outsiders and their two, pre-dead kinsfolk – the camera cuts to the body of the bear we earlier saw in a cage, now dead on a table, as an elder instructs a group of young boys on how to remove its intestines. Christian, still paralyzed, is then sewn into the body of the bear, his face peeking out while the rest of his limbs are hidden, concealing him in the skin just as Dani is concealed by flowers. He is then placed into the ritual room, and as the two other living sacrifices are given yew to stop their pain, an elder proclaims that the bear represents the greatest evil affekt, and that destroying it will cleanse the community.

As Dani and the other Hårgans watch, the building is then set alight. When one of the sacrificial Hårgans begins to scream in pain, the community – as at the suicide ritual (winter), the sex rite (spring) and during Dani’s grief (autumn) – all scream with him, including Dani herself. Unable to really run or move within the confines of her costume, we think at first that Dani is screaming in genuine fear and terror as she watches Christian and the others burn to death, but in the final shot of the film, we see her smiling. She has joined the Hårgans and been a willing participant in this final ritual, and with Christian’s death – the death of her grief, which the bear represented; foreshadowed by the affekt rune for grief, which the elder showed Josh – she is finally free.

And so the movie completes its seasonal, fulfilling what was promised by the kulning in the opening scenes: the herding call was to call Dani home, and in the end, she accepts. The painting hung over her bed in her apartment, showing a blonde girl extending a fiery lantern to a looming bear, not only presaged what was to come between her and Christian, but acknowledged the early imbalance in their roles: the girl was dwarfed by the beast. Yet at the end, Dani takes on the May Queen role and thus becomes representative of the greatest force for good in the Hårgan community, just as Christian is made representative of its greatest evil.

Why does Dani join the Hårgans? Because she’s grieving and vulnerable, mistreated by her partner, isolated from her friends and alone in the world after the recent death of her family – the perfect target, in other words, for recruitment to a cult, which the Hårgans undeniably are. The group may not have gone to Stockholm, as per Mark and Pelle’s early conversation, but Dani’s arc is ultimately one of Stockholm syndrome, a development aided, somewhat ironically, by the fact that Christian systematically ignores her early unease with what’s happening, causing her to accept the comfort of the very people she’s originally afraid of. This is paralleled in his early dismissal of her fears about her sister, who emails Dani about her intent to kill herself and their parents: though Dani is worried to tears, Christian insists that it’s just a ploy for attention and says Dani should ignore it, a misjudgement for which we never see him apologise.

And then there’s Pelle, who has clearly wanted Dani from the beginning. Though this intentions are never stated outright, it’s easy to speculate that he brought the pair along specifically so that Christian would die and Dani would then be available. This motive is paralleled by Ingemar’s unrequited feelings for Connie, who he brought along with Simon: whereas Ingemar, who ends up volunteering as a sacrifice in the wake of his failure, misjudged his targets and their feelings, causing both of them to reject the Hårgan setup and be killed instead, Pelle knew that Christian was disinterested and selfish, and that this made Dani vulnerable to an ideology which, despite its violence, would offer her the comfort and sense of belonging she craved.

And this is why it’s impossible to discuss Midsommar without running through the events of the film as a whole: though we don’t know it at the outset, the entire narrative is geared towards showing us how Dani comes to accept – and be accepted into – a cult. Over and over again, later occurrences are foreshadowed early on, and in keeping with the seasonal motif, they are often repeated in fours. The bear painting in Dani’s apartment, the live bear in the cage and the picture of the burning bear all herald the fourth and final reiteration where Christian burns in the bear-skin, just as the pictures of floral women in Dani’s apartment, the times she hallucinates the landscape of Hårga growing into her skin and Pelle’s drawing of her in a May Queen crown all presage her final capitulation.

Symbolically, Christian is tied to monstrousness while Dani is tied to growth, but while Dani ends the film accepting this imagery, the audience is aware that the two concepts are intertwined, doevetailing like the crux of the Odel rune: Christian is killed to facilitate the growth of the land, making his murderers monstrous, while Dani’s growth is dark and twisted, her final happiness growing out of blood. Likewise, Mark’s early worry about the group being on different trips becomes a different sort of prophecy: while Dani drinks one hallucinogenic tea prior to participating in the May Queen dance, Christian is separated and given a different drink at a later time, marking the point of irrevocable schism between them.

The whole film is superbly acted, scripted and shot, and will doubtless stand up to many successive viewings. I highly recommend Midsommar as both a horror film and as a superlative example of visual storytelling, and look forward to seeing what Aster does next.

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Trigger warning: referenced child abuse

In the land of Uztar, falconry is everything. From the ruling kyrgs in their castles to the commoners who trap and train birds for a living, Uztari culture is centred on birds of prey. Yet one bird is feared and revered above all others: the legendary ghost eagle, a massive raptor whose strange, psychic cry exposes the worst selves of all who hunt it. Many falconers have died in pursuit of the ghost eagle and the glory it represents – including Yzzat, an abusive drunkard whose cruelty has forever scarred his children. Now free from their father, twins Kylee and Brysen are finally close to escaping out from under the debts he left behind – until Brysen’s boyfriend, Dymian, lands in trouble with the Tamir family. To save him, Brysen makes an impulsive promise: a ghost eagle in exchange for Dymian’s life. As the threat of war between the Uztari and the feared Kartami, extremists who revile all falconry, begins to shape wider events, Brysen and Kylee must negotiate their own troubled relationship in order to save their future. But what chance do two teenagers have against the ghost eagle?

Every so often, I find myself drifting away from YA as a genre, until a book comes along that drags me back in and reminds me what I love about it. Black Wings Beating is such a book: beautifully worldbuilt, exceptionally characterised and deftly written, it packs a lot of feeling into a compact, pacey package. It also hits that (for me) perfect sweet-spot of magic fantasy adventure meets queer romantic feelings: though queerness is normative and accepted within the setting, Brysen is still allowed to struggle with romance and identity along a different axis, neatly paralleling Kylee’s quest to accept and understand her gift for the Hollow Tongue, an ancient magical language that bestows control over birds.

Told with alternating third-person focus on Kylee and Brysen and interspersed with glimpses of wider political happenings, Black Wings Beating is, at its heart, a novel about abuse, autonomy and survival. Since childhood, Kylee and Brysen were pitted against each other by their father, Yzzat, who yearned to exploit his daughter’s gifts while reviling his son’s comparative lack of talent. Though furious with and frustrated by Kylee’s disinterest in falconry and her refusal to use her magic to his advantage, Yzzat still dreamed of winning her to his cause and, through her, obtaining prestige. As such, his physical abuse was reserved for Brysen alone: whippings, beatings and worse that left Brysen desperate to prove himself useful. And so the dichotomy between the twins was set: Kylee, reluctant to use her talents and thereby see her brother further diminished, forced to carry the weight of the world along with the care and management of her family; Brysen, rushing headlong into any opportunity to shine without realistic planning, dreaming big to cover how small he feels and the knowledge that, if he stops to think, he’ll remember to hate himself.

It’s an achingly real dynamic, and one that sees the reader rooting for both siblings despite – or perhaps because of – how often their feelings and shared-yet-different experiences put them at odds. London has a nuanced grasp of psychology and characterisation that makes even his minor characters feel fleshed out, and when combined with his vivid portrayal of falconry and its place in Uztari culture, the effect is powerful. Reading Black Wings Beating, in fact, I was finally able to articulate something I’ve been struggling to pin down in terms of YA novels generally: the distinction between a story in which potentially difficult teenage behaviours are excused, and one in which they are explained.

In the former instance, neither the text itself nor the events it depicts make any real judgement or commentary about the characters’ actions: whether they’re being kind or cruel, sensible or impulsive, hesitant or brash, and if this ultimately has a positive or negative effect on those around them. Rather, we’re shown how their motives are justified to them, such that it’s easy to conflate the character’s feelings with the author’s approval of their actions – sometimes correctly, sometimes not, but in either case due to the lack of textual evidence for a different interpretation. In the latter instance, either the text or the events it depicts, or both, are used to make us think critically about the characters, such that, even when we understand their self-justifications, we’re encouraged by the text – and, by extension, the author – to form our own conclusions.

To be clear: I’m not saying that the former type of story is bad, or that this dichotomy between stories that lack or feature authorial commentary exists only in YA. However, in the specific context of the teenage characters in YA SFF, who are often called upon to act in extraordinary ways or participate in world-altering events, and whose youthful impulsiveness is often used to propel them through their adventures, reading Black Wings Beating has confirmed my preference for the latter type of story. Over and over again, both Brysen and Kylee make terrible choices while only sometimes being aware of it. But while London shows us their rationalisations, he doesn’t present them as being objectively rational. Both Kylee and Brysen are trying their best, but their abusive childhood has twisted their relationship, their judgement and their self-perception in different ways, such that, even when they know they’ve made a bad decision, they don’t always know what the right one would’ve been, or even if there was a better choice to be made at all.

Set over the course of a few days, Black Wings Beating uses Kylee and Brysen as an intimate lens through which to view the incipient struggles of Uztar as a whole. Though we only catch glimpses of the power-hungry kyrgs and the coming Kartami threat, these parts of the story all fit neatly together, so that our focus on the twins looks like a convincing telescopic zoom-in on the localised details of a wider landscape. And throughout it all, the influence of falconry – of the eternally unrequited love of a falconer for their birds – is incorporated into the narrative. Just as Brysen’s existing relationship with Dymian, a falcon master, is contrasted with his newfound bond with Jowyn, a bone-white boy who lives with the mysterious Owl Mothers, so is Kylee’s friendship with Vyvian, a spy for the kyrgs, contrasted with her feelings for Nyall, a long-time friend who loves her despite her indifference to romance.

The love a falconer has for their bird will never be reciprocated, the story tells us, and yet that love – the willingness to care for a creature that may only hurt or disdain you – lies at the heart of falconry. It is this love which the Kartami despise as weak, but it is also central to the strength both Kylee and Brysen show: the courage it takes them to love at all – to love themselves, to love others, and to contemplate being loved – despite the abuse they’ve endured.

Though Black Wings Beating is clearly the first volume in a planned trilogy, it nonetheless ends on an emotionally satisfying note. I can’t wait to see what happens in the rest of the series, and I look forward to reading whatever else London writes in the future.

Warning: total spoilers.

Today, a friend and I made the questionable decision to see Jurassic World: The Next One – sorry, Fallen Kingdom – a film whose relentlessly trite and overdone orchestral scoring made my fingers twitch throughout with the urge to mute the music. The only other film to ever provoke a similar tic was Eragon, which frankly does not make for a great comparison. Granted, I aggressively dislike both Jurassic World and the smugly punchable personage of Chris Pratt With Abs, but I loved the original Jurassic Park films (the first two, anyway) and am generally fond of trashy action spectacle. Had Fallen Kingdom been remotely good, these biases would have neatly cancelled each other out; instead, I was forced to sit through a film so bad, it made two hours feel like four.

Fallen Kingdom is, in every respect, an aggressively terrible movie. The music is bad, the direction is bad, the script and acting are terrible, and the plot is recognisable only inasmuch as it constitutes an immeasurably shitty, unfeeling knock-off of Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World. The dinosaurs themselves, which ought to be the sole redeeming feature, are a constant and heinous visual offence: not only are the designs all slightly weird, but their proportions in relation to their environment are constantly, maddeningly inconsistent. A brachiosaurus that looks two stories tall in one shot looks half as big in the next; the carnivores are in constant flux, not only with regard to height, but also in terms of bulk and proportions. The fact that there’s zero sensawunda to their portrayal despite the fact that we’re meant to care about them is one nail of many in the film’s flamboyant coffin: it’s very hard to understand why any of the characters, having spent the whole narrative on the brink of being eaten, trampled or mauled, wants to save the dinosaurs even at the finale.

The film opens with a team of unknown dudes rescuing a bit of indominus rex bone from the bottom of Isla Nubar’s harbour. A massive crocodile-dino-thing eats three of them and escapes in the process, while the bone is taken away to have Evil Science done to it. This serves as a prologue of sorts, as the title card comes up after it.

As the movie proper starts, the premise – and I’m using that word generously – is established thusly: it’s three years after the events of Jurassic World, and now the dinosaurs left on Isla Nubar are in danger of re-extinction because IMMINENT VOLCANO. The logic of this volcano is not overly probed, presumably because this would mean explaining why the original theme park was built on a site that was in potential danger of blowing the fuck up; nor is it explained why the question of whether to rescue the dinosaurs or let them be obliterated was left to the last minute. The possibility that some might, in fact, survive the volcano, on account of how volcanoes aren’t an automatic death-sentence for whole ecosystems, isn’t mentioned either; so now the US government is debating whether to let them live or die. They are aided in this decision by Cameo Jeff Goldblumm, who talks a bit about chaos and genetic power and life correcting itself, thereby convincing the relevant senators to let nature take its course.

Opposed to this belief for reasons that would appear to belie her entire character arc in the first Jurassic World, inasmuch as she had one, is former park director Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). Working with her two Tired Millennial Sidekicks, Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) – both of whom deserved a better movie – Claire is now a lobbyist to save the dinos; so when she’s contacted by Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), an ageing scientist who apparently worked on the original Jurassic Park with John Hammond, she thinks her prayers are answered. Acting as the executor of Lockwood’s estate is the obsequious Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), who promises that the dinosaurs will be rescued and taken to a new island habitat. However, in order to pull off the operation – and specifically to save Blue, the caring velociraptor – they need both Claire and animal behaviourist Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to go to the park in person: Claire because her biometrics are needed to activate trackers in the dinosaurs (and this can only be done on site, for some reason), Owen because he’s the only one who can get close enough to Blue to bring her in.

Also, Lockwood has a young mysterious granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon), whose mother is dead and who lives with him. This will be relevant later, so hang onto that.

So: Claire goes out to where Owen is hand-building a Manly Wilderness Cabin to try and convince him to sign on for the mission, largely by appealing to his feeling for Blue. From this point on, we are treated to a camera-gaze which is – and there’s really no other way to put it – Super Hella Thirsty for Chris Pratt’s Owen, who we are meant to see as the Manliest Toughest Hot Manly Man On Earth. The camera does not just capture Chris Pratt; it models him like a spandex jumpsuit. Barely a minute passes without an intense, brooding close-up of Pratt smirking while staring into the distance, as though he’s still Andy Dwyer of Parks and Rec pretending to be Burt Macklin but without the self-deprecating playfulness. Franklin is the only character not impressed with Owen, and is therefore alone in being remotely tethered to reality: for saying sensible, reasonable things like “Why are we doing this?”, “Do we really have to?” and “No,” he is summarily ignored as the comic relief.

Once everyone is on the dinosaur island, whose soon-to-explode volcano apparently isn’t being tracked or monitored by anyone because honestly, why bother, we’re introduced to Eli’s right-hand man, a game-hunter dude who is butch and sneering and fucks up Blue’s capture by ignoring Owen’s directives, which leads to Blue being shot. There’s a lot of yelling, and Zia is conscripted to try and save Blue because she’s apparently a dinosaur doctor despite never having seen one before. It’s also revealed that the game-hunter and Eli have – shock horror! – lied to Claire about their intentions, and are in fact Bad Guys Who Do Not Value The Sanctity of Dinosaur Life, Not Even A Little Bit. This means they tranq Owen and leave him to the mercy of the oncoming lava while trapping Claire and Franklin in a radio tower, and now everything’s in a rush because the volcano starts exploding.

Listen: I like ridiculous action sequences as much as the next person, but having your characters run from both flaming lavaballs and dinosaurs at the same time is kind of gilding the lily. A bunch of Action happens, Claire makes a lot of breathy vocalisations, Franklin screams because he’s a normal person and Owen saves the day by being cool and manly and also having a knife. There’s a weird transition where Claire, Owen and Franklin go from being bedraggled on a shore to perched on a clifftop overlooking a different beach without any explanation for how they got there while the volcano is still exploding, we’re shown game-hunter guy stealing a dino tooth for a souvenir – this, too, is Important Later – and then, somehow, nobody on Team Evil notices when our heroes steal a truck and jump it onto the back of their fleeing boat, just in time for everyone to watch a brachiosaurus die tragically at the water’s edge.

Stuff happens on the boat, including Claire disguising herself by cunningly wearing a hat. Zia needs blood from the captive T-rex to do a transfusion to save Blue’s life, which Claire and Owen get for her. Zia gives Blue the blood and removes the bullet from her torso, all without stitching or sterilising anything, and then pronounces Blue saved, because that’s obviously how medicine works. Meanwhile, back at the mansion, little Maisie overhears Eli’s plans to sell the dinosaurs to the highest bidder and runs to tell grandpa Lockwood, who claims not to believe her and then sends her to bed. Maisie responds by sneaking down to Eli’s Sekrit Underground Lab, where she sees videos of Owen raising Blue, learns more about Eli’s plans, and encounters an engineered dinosaur called an indoraptor, which is apparently just, like… living there? And nobody upstairs noticed?

Eli finds Maisie and locks her in her room for Knowing Too Much, and is then summoned to see Lockwood, who apparently does believe Maisie, after all. For some reason, Lockwood’s genius plan as an ailing, bedridden man profoundly betrayed by his heir is to order Eli into his room, alone, and tell him to turn himself in to the police. Instead, in a totally unpredictable turn of events, Eli opts to murder Lockwood instead.

At this point, the plot holes in Fallen Kingdom are already gaping wide, while the script is an abominable patchwork of bad dialogue, glitchy logic and poorly-executed transitions. Yet somehow, writers Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly manage to launch their B-grade opus into decidedly C-grade territory with Eli’s decision to have the captive dinosaurs brought to his actual fucking house and stored in his basement lab, oh my actual god. HE LITERALLY HAS ENOUGH ROOM DOWN THERE FOR A FUCKING BRACHIOSAURUS AND SOMEHOW NOBODY NOTICED??? EVERYONE GO DIRECTLY TO WRITING JAIL IN CONTEMPT OF COMMON SENSE. 

ANYWAY.

So like. OBVIOUSLY Eli has to auction off all the dinosaurs IMMEDIATELY to a throng of rich criminal buyers who gather IN PERSON, IN HIS BASEMENT LAB, TOGETHER, to see each dinosaur paraded before them in a cage-on-wheels like the world’s weirdest fashion catwalk. (Apparently every American intelligence agency is, I don’t know, out to lunch or something, because nobody seems worried about surveillance.) Naturally, Owen and Claire, who’ve arrived on the scene, are captured here by Eli, who naturally elects to lock them up rather than kill them. Equally naturally, they escape by getting the neighbouring baby pachycephalosaurus to bash open their cell wall and then the door, whereupon they encounter a fugitive, traumatised Maisie, who has just now learned  that Lockwood is dead and that – DUHN-DUHHHHN – she’s not his granddaughter after all, but a SECRET CLONE OF HIS DEAD DAUGHTER, a reveal that was in no way hella fucking obvious to anyone remotely trope-literate.

fry shocked

Loose in the mansion, Claire, Owen and Maisie get to watch the dino auction happen in real time. LO THE BIG REVEAL OF THE INDORAPTOR, whose existence is why it was so important to capture Blue: it’s a prototype with raptor DNA and something something BD Wong something GENETIC MOTHERHOOD something. The indoraptor has been trained to attack people on command if someone puts a laser-target on them and then hits a sonic trigger, and like? My brain was beginning to liquefy at this point and it makes literally zero sense, but okay: sure, Jan. Naturally, Owen and Claire decide that the indoraptor Must Never Be Released and resolve to act.

They do this by instead releasing the baby pachycephalosaurus into the crowd of important criminal guests, because Eli is apparently super bad at security for his bootlegged dino trafficking empire. This causes all the buyers to flee and a few to get trampled, which means the indoraptor is left alone in its cage. RE-ENTER GAMEHUNTER GUY, who chooses this moment of all moments to come in yelling for his bonus. Spying the indoraptor alone, he decides he’s gotta get him one of them Big Teef for his trophy necklace – LITERALLY FOR HIS FUCKING NECKLACE, EVEN THOUGH THE TOOTH ITSELF IS WORTH WAY MORE AS A SOURCE OF DINO DNA – and shoots it with a tranq gun. The indoraptor plays stunned, game-hunter GOES INTO THE CAGE WITH THE UNRESTRAINED SUPER-INTELLIGENT SUPER-DINOSAUR, BECAUSE THAT’S OBVIOUSLY THE SMART THING TO DO, and gets eaten while trying to take one of its teeth. With its cage door open, the indoraptor promptly escapes and sets about trying to destroy everything.

As the end is nigh, Eli and his cronies try to salvage as much stuff from their lab as possible, which… somehow involves Zia and Franklin ending up in a room with Blue? I’m certain there was some sort of handwavey justification given for their presence, but that terrible knowledge has been purged from my memory in the hours since, like toxins leaving the body. There’s a bit where DB Wong starts yelling at Zia about how he needs Blue’s blood because PURE DNA something something, which Zia ruins by telling him about the blood transfusion she did on the boat, which… ruins Blue’s usefulness, somehow? I don’t know much about DNA or genetics, but I’m pretty sure this is some Science Bullshit that we’re meant to take on faith despite the fact that it doesn’t ultimately matter. But, sure: GASP!

Shit promptly goes down and Zia sets Blue lose in a way that fucks up the Bad Guys while saving her and Franklin. However, some gas cylinders get damaged in the process and this means the underground lab is now filling with poison that will, once again, kill the dinosaurs trapped down there unless they’re set free, as the exhaust system is also conveniently broken Because Reasons. (The fact that the baby pachy was able to break down a supporting wall to escape even though none of the much bigger animals can do likewise is the kind of detail I ought not to care about by this point. And yet.)

This prompts Zia and Franklin try and find the others, who are now being hunted by the indoraptor, also Because Reasons. At one point during this expertly written chase scene, Owen DELIBERATELY TURNS ALL THE LIGHTS OFF.

And I just.

WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT??? YOU LITERALLY JUST HEARD ALL ABOUT HOW THE FUCKING INDORAPTOR HAS AMAZINGLY KEEN SENSES BUT YOUR DUMB ASS WANTS TO RUN FROM IT IN THE DARK, AN ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH IT CAN SEE BETTER THAN YOU???

GOD.

OK, so: protracted dinosaur chase scene through the mansion. Maisie tries to hide in her bed because terrified child whose caregiver has just been murdered by a man she thought of as family: fair enough. This leads to a scene that audibly scared the shit out of every child in the packed session I attended, wherein the indoraptor stalks Maisie, uniquely and specifically, as she cowers under the covers, reaching out to her with a ghoulish clawed hand before Owen barges in to shoot it. The shooting doesn’t work, Maisie leads Owen out the window, and there’s a big showdown on the glass roof of the mansion’s museum where Claire and Blue come to the rescue and the indoraptor gets dropped down and impaled on the spikes of a triceratops skeleton.

Only then do Zia and Franklin catch up to the main party and inform them that it’s now their Solemn Duty to choose what happens to the remaining dinosaurs: press the big red button (literally) to free them into the countryside, or let them all die? Teary-eyed as she watches the bellowing dinos on the security feeds that apparently didn’t fucking exist when she and Owen were escaping earlier, Claire professes that they ought to live, but doesn’t press the button. She steps back to be sad in peace, only for Maisie to zoom in and press it herself – because the dinosaurs are cloned, like her, and if she’s gets to live, then so should they.

Which… given that we already know Maisie loves dinosaurs, we really didn’t need the whole weird sideplot of her being a clone to explain her desire to free them! She’s a traumatised kid whose sole relative was just murdered! She could’ve just been sick of watching things she loves die, and it would’ve made sense! But more to the point, the whole burden of choice about saving the species as represented by the big red button is moot, because THE FILM ALREADY OPENED WITH A GIANT DINOSAUR-CROCODILE ESCAPING INTO THE OCEAN. And some of the dinosaurs sold at auction were already taken for transport! There’s probably still some on the island, including the pterosaurs who were able to fly away from the volcano! All Maisie has done is let these dinosaurs lose on the populated mainland, where they’ll very likely cause more deaths! But NOBODY POINTS THIS OUT IN TIME TO STOP HER, nor do they mention this afterwards, because this movie is terrible! And then there’s a random cut to Jeff Goldblum explaining why something like this was basically inevitable, because CAMEO!

Just to hammer home the point that Maisie’s choice was meaningless, the film immediately shows us all these already-free dinosaurs along with the ones she released herself. The fact that Eli immediately gets eaten by the T-Rex is kinda vindicating, I’ll admit, but it really doesn’t compensate for how wildly detached from reality the reactions of the characters are to everything that’s happened. The film ends with Claire and Owen – who are somehow a couple again, with just as little chemistry as before – driving away with Maisie. We don’t find out what happened to the nanny who raised her – Eli sent her away after killing Lockwood, so I guess she left the house – and Maisie never asks about her again, because, uh…. trauma, I guess? And her legal guardians are both dead anyway, so Claire and Owen get a free kid, kind of? GOD, THIS FILM WAS SO TERRIBLE, I’M OFFENDED BY THE CONSTRUCTION OF IT ON EVERY CONCEIVABLE LEVEL.

Also: this might seem like a comparatively minor nitpick in the scheme of things, but the fact that not a single character tries to call for help at any point in the movie – the total absence of smartphones of any kind – is really, really conspicuous, and has major implications for the shittiness of the plotting. Take, for instance, the early sequence where Eli’s original plan to dispose of Claire and Franklin involves remotely locking them in the radio tower, there to be consumed by lava and dinosaurs. Aside from the fact that they should’ve easily been able to phone a friend about his organisation’s treachery, forewarning people on the mainland to look out for his incoming dinosaurs, his decision to leave them to die there in the first place makes no goddamn sense in a context where he’d reasonably expect them to have phones – which both he and they fucking should, because they’re professionals in twenty fucking eighteen.

Given that huge chunks of plot in the original Jurassic sequel, The Lost World – which was written and filmed in the pre-smartphone era, and on which Fallen Kingdom is shamelessly riffing – revolve around satellite phones and the ability to radio off the island, there’s literally no excuse for the writers to forget that phones exist. Either Trevorrow and Connelly are being lazy as hell, or they’re so dismissive of the intelligence of viewers that they figured it wouldn’t matter. Either way, it’s a problem that crops up again and again. During the period where Claire and Owen were safe on the boat with the rescued dinosaurs and surrounded by enemies, they could’ve called for backup ahead of time, but they didn’t.

The fact that Maisie, a child of the smartphone era who’s clearly familiar with technology and accustomed to wealth, seemingly doesn’t have her own phone handy is weird enough; compare her to tech-savvy Lex from the original Jurassic Park, and the anachronism is even more startling. Armed with a smartphone, Maisie could easily have filmed Eli’s treachery to show her grandfather, or made her own call for help. Possibly there was meant to be some deliberate plot reason why Maisie had no phone, like being raised by an old, somehow tech-averse scientist – it stood out to me that the phone Lockwood tries to foist on Eli for his police-call looked like a goddamn portable landline from the early noughties – but if so, it was never explained. Even when the dinosaurs are set free at the very end, there’s no sign that Owen and Claire have bothered to call and warn the authorities to look out for them, even though a not inconsiderable portion of the early plot hinged on the dinosaurs having individual radio trackers – meaning that there’s a clear-cut way to recover all the escapees instead of letting them vanish into the wilderness.

But none of this happens, because Fallen Kingdom is clearly setting the stage for – god help us – a third shitty film, one where humans have had to adjust to dinosaurs roaming the North American continent. Never mind that this means disregarding everything we just watched in order to make it comprehensible as a premise – look, here’s that cool shot of a T-Rex roaring at a lion from the trailer! Here’s that shot of the dino-crocodile lurking in a wave, also from the trailer! Haha! Isn’t it cool how we implied the film was going to be one thing, and then only introduced those elements in the final minute of screentime? What a gotcha!

Films like Fallen Kingdom are a testament to Hollywood’s obsession with letting mediocre white dudes ruin everything. It’s hysterically bad in every way – even the couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it anti-Trump barbs fell flat – and yet I don’t feel like laughing, because Trevorrow and Connolly will invariably still get trusted with big-ticket gigs after this, while vastly more talented writers who are queer or female or POC or some combination thereof will be asked to prove themselves over and over and over again. Even if you’re only after a quick trashy action fix, don’t waste your money on Fallen Kingdom. Go buy some dinosaur Lego instead, or rewatch one of the earlier films. I promise, you’ll be better off.

And if, in the mean time, Hollywood wants to make a good dinosaur movie – or if HBO wants to make an awesome dinosaur TV show, which would be even better – then I’d humbly submit James Gurney’s Dinotopia as a much more fruitful starting point. I’ve seen enough of mindless dinosaurs knocking things down; let’s have a story where clever dinosaurs help to build things instead.

Warning: total spoilers for The Last Jedi.

After weeks of frantically speed-scrolling through my various social media feeds when anything that looked like a Star Wars spoiler appeared, I’ve finally managed to get out and see The Last Jedi. Despite my diligence, I didn’t go in completely unspoiled: I knew the general shape of the fan discourse surrounding the characterisation, which means I had some context cues and a smatter of details to work with, but not the major plot points. Now that I’ve seen the movie, however, I’m electing to write my own review before catching up on other people’s opinions, so if I touch on something that’s already been dissected at length without referencing said discussion, that’s why.

In broad-brush strokes, I enjoyed The Last Jedi. Assessing it purely on its own merits, there was a lot it did right: the cinematography, special effects and original creature creation were wonderful, I loved Rose Tico, and there was a pleasing balance of drama, emotion and humour, the requisite scenery-chewing deftly subverted by moments of self-aware comedy, especially in the opening exchange between Hux and Poe Dameron. Mostly, it was solid.

Mostly.

But.

The thing is, no Star Wars film is an island. The Last Jedi is the second film in a trilogy of trilogies, one whose core trio were clearly and intentionally mapped to the heroes of the (original by creation-date, second by internal chronology) series in The Force Awakens: Finn to Han, Rey to Luke and Poe to Leia. This being so, it was easy to mark the other narrative similarities between The Force Awakens and A New Hope – most notably, the parallels between the Death Star and Starkiller Base, both of which were destroyed in the respective finales, but not before their destructive power was unleashed. Which makes comparing The Last Jedi to The Empire Strikes Back not only reasonable, but – I would argue – necessary, if only to determine whether the decision to parallel the new with the old has continued beyond the first film.

The short answer to that is: yes, The Last Jedi is structurally akin to Empire, but not always to useful effect. The long answer, however, is rather more complex.

As a writer, there’s nothing that makes me crave a metaphorical red pen quite like a story where, for whatever reason, I can see the authorial handwave of Because Reasons gumming up the mechanics. If The Last Jedi was an original film, detached from the Star Wars universe, I’d be able to tell you that the problem stems from the poorly-forced sexist clash between Poe and Holdo, and that would be that. But because The Last Jedi has borrowed certain key narrative structures from Empire, there’s a clear template against which to measure its narrative choices, which makes it easier to infer the hows and whys of various changers.

A quick refresher in Star Wars, for those who haven’t watched the original trilogy lately. The Empire Strikes back begins with the Rebel forces being ousted from Hoth in a massive battle. After fleeing the planet, Luke goes to Degobah to train with Master Yoda, while Han and Leia spend some time dealing with a broken Millennium Falcon and the pursuit of Boba Fett, kissing and bickering and generally cementing their chemistry before finally going to track down Han’s old buddy, Lando Calrissian, in Cloud City. Frustrated with Yoda, Luke has a premonition of danger and goes to rescue his friends, as Lando, who’s been strong-armed by Darth Vader, hands Han and Leia over to the Empire. Han is frozen in carbonite after Leia declares her love for him, Luke loses a hand and learns Vader is his father, and the film ends with the pair them, plus Lando, escaping as they resolve to rescue Han.

By comparison, The Last Jedi follows a fairly similar arc. The film opens with the Rebellion being ousted from its base and pursued in a space battle. Rey attempts to persuade Luke to help her, while Poe and Finn are left dealing with a fleet that’s low on fuel as they try to outrun Hux and the First Order. As Leia lies injured, Poe clashes with Holdo over command, which results in him sending Finn and Rose on a secret mission to find a codebreaker who can help sabotage the First Order’s ship. Unable to the codebreaker, Rose and Finn return instead with DJ, a stranger who claims he can help them, but who ends up betraying them to the First Order. Unaware of this, Poe mounts a short-lived mutiny against Holdo. Meanwhile, frustrated with Luke and experiencing an odd connection to Kylo Ren, Rey goes to try and turn him to back to the light, only to find that Snoke was the source of their connection. Kylo kills Snoke and his guards with Rey’s help, reveals the truth about her lost parents, then betrays her in turn. In the final battle, Rose is injured and declares her feelings for Finn, and the film ends with the rebellion united but still fleeing.

Based on this, it seems clear that The Last Jedi is intended to parallel The Empire Strikes Back, both structurally and thematically. All the same elements are in play, albeit recontextualised by their place in a new story; but where Empire is a tight, sleek film, The Last Jedi is middle-heavy. The major difference between the two is Poe’s tension-and-mutiny arc, which doesn’t map to anything in Empire.

And this is the part where things get prickly. As stated, I really love Rose Tico, not only because she’s a brilliant, engaging character superbly acted by Kelly Marie Tran, but because she represents another crucial foray into diverse representation, both in Star Wars and on the big screen generally. There’s a lot to recommend Vice-Admiral Holdo, too, especially her touching final scene with Leia: I still want to know more about their relationship. I am not for a moment saying that either character – that either woman – doesn’t belong in the film, or in Star Wars, or that their roles were miscast or badly acted or anything like that. But there is, I suspect, a truly maddening reason why they were paired onscreen with Finn and Poe, and that this logic in turn adversely affected both the deeper plot implications and the film’s overall structure.

Given how closely The Last Jedi parallels the main arc of Empire, it’s narratively incongruous that, rather than Finn and Poe heading out to find the codebreaker together, the pair of them are instead split up, decreasing their screen-time while extending the length of the film. But as was firmly established in The Force Awakens, Finn and Poe map to Han and Leia – which is to say, to a canonical straight couple. Even without the phenomenal on-screen chemistry between John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, that parallel is clear in the writing; and in Empire, Han and Leia’s time alone is what catalyses their on-screen romance.

That being so, I find it impossible to believe that Finn and Poe were split up and paired with new female characters for anything other than a clumsy, godawful attempt to No Homo the narrative. Rose and Finn’s scenes are delightful, and their actors, too, have chemistry, but every time we cut back to Poe and Holdo, the story flounders. Everything that happens during Finn’s absence is demonstrably redundant: not only does it fail to move the plot forward, but in trying to justify the time-split, writer/director Rian Johnson has foisted a truly terrible mini-arc on Poe Dameron.

Specifically: after Leia is incapacitated, Holdo is given command of the rebellion. Seeing Holdo for the first time, Poe looks startled and states that she’s not what he was expecting. When Poe, recently demoted by Leia for ignoring orders, asks Holdo what her plan is, Holdo dismisses him as a hot-headed “flyboy” who isn’t what they need right now. Not only doesn’t she tell him where they’re headed, she apparently doesn’t tell anyone else, either. This failure to communicate her plan to her people is, firstly, why Finn feels he has to light out on his own, which is how he meets Rose, and is secondly why, once Finn and Rose come up with a plan to infiltrate the First Order, Poe decides that they can’t risk involving Holdo.

As we eventually learn, Holdo does have a plan – and a good one. There is literally no reason why, given the steadily escalating fear and anxiety of her crew, who are watching their companion ships get picked off one by one, she doesn’t share the full details with the rebellion. Instead, she leaves it to Poe to figure out that she’s refuelling the transport ships to evacuate – and when he panics, pointing out (correctly) that the transports are neither shielded nor armed, she likewise doesn’t elaborate on the fact that they’ll have a cloaking device to shield them and a destination close by, one where they can land and take shelter while the main ship acts as a decoy.

Because of Holdo’s decision to withhold this information, Poe thinks that she’s given up and is leading them blithely to their deaths, and so stages a mutiny – one in which he’s supported by a number of other, equally worried crewmembers. Happily, Leia recovers from her injuries in time to reclaim control, and only then does she let Poe in on Holdo’s plan. Poe suffers no further consequences for his actions, and even when they talk privately, both Holdo and Leia seem more amused by his mutiny than angry at what he’s done, rendering the whole arc moot. Except, of course, for the fact that Finn and Rose, on their mission from Poe, bring DJ into the mix – and DJ, who knows about the cloaking device, betrays this secret to the First Order, who promptly open fire on the transport ships.

Hundreds of rebellion soldiers die because Poe and Holdo so disliked each other on sight that neither one trusted the other with vital information – and for the rest of the film, this is never addressed. But of course, Johnson can’t address it, not even to hang a fucking lampshade on it, because the entire scenario is manufactured as a way to justify Poe’s protagonist-level screentime while Finn is away – which is also why, contextually, their antagonism doesn’t even make sense. The film begins with the premise that the entire rebellion, who’ve just been flushed out of their single remaining base, is on the run together – so why the fuck haven’t Poe and Holdo met before now? Especially as both are shown to have a close, personal relationship with Leia, it rings utterly false that they’d not only be in the dark about one another, but start out instantly on the wrong foot.

As such, the coding around Poe’s surprise at Holdo – that she’s not what he expected – is a lazy misstep. Traditionally, when hotshot male characters say this about a new female commander, it’s a sexist dogwhistle: oh, I didn’t know we’d be getting a woman. But why would Poe Dameron, son of Shara Bey and devotee of General Leia Organa, be surprised by Holdo’s gender? He wouldn’t, is the answer. Flatly, canonically, he wouldn’t. But if there’s some other aspect of Holdo that’s meant to ping as unusual besides her being female, it’s not obvious. It would’ve made far more sense to write the two as having a pre-existing antagonistic relationship for whatever reason: instead, we get Poe cast as an impatient, know-it-all James Bond to Holdo as Judi Dench’s M, who doesn’t have time for his nonsense when they first meet, but who ends up forgiving it anyway.

It’s like Rian Johnson looked at the Poe Dameron of The Force Awakens – a character universally beloved for being vulnerable, funny, charming, honest, loyal and openly affectionate – and decided, Hey, that guy’s an awesome pilot, which means he’s a COOL GUY, and COOL GUYS don’t play by the RULES, man, especially if it means listening to WOMEN – they just A-Team that shit in secret and to HELL with the bodycount! And anyway he’s HOT, so he’s ALWAYS forgiven.

Dear Rian Johnson, if you’re reading this: I like a lot of what you did with this film, but FUCK YOU FOREVER for making Poe Dameron the kind of guy who gets a bunch of his friends killed, then has a mutiny, then indirectly gets even MORE people killed, and never shows any grief about or cognisance of his actions, all because you wanted to avoid fuelling a homoerotic parallel that you openly queerbaited in promo but never intended to fulfil anyway. GIVE US OUR GODDAMN GAYS IN SPACE, YOU COWARD.

Anyway. 

The point being, the entire plot of The Last Jedi suffers because of a single, seemingly homophobic decision – unnecessarily splitting up Poe and Finn to avoid further Han/Leia comparisons – and the knock-on consequences thereof. Which is where I bring out my metaphorical Red Pen of Plot-Fixing and say, here is what should’ve happened. Namely: Poe and Holdo should’ve had a pre-existing antagonistic relationship, but one that didn’t prevent them from sharing information like grown-ups. Rather than Rose being part of the rebellion, she should’ve been the codebreaker they were sent to retrieve on Holdo’s orders (because two plans are better than one, and why not try both gambits?). This voids the need for DJ, who barely appears before disappearing again, so that Rose-as-codebreaker retains her status as an important, well-fleshed character who interacts with both Finn and Poe, and whose introduction works to map her onto Lando Calrissian. If you really must keep DJ because Benicio del Toro and thematic betrayal parallels (more of which shortly), he can be the dubious guy with First Order secrets that Rose has been trying to recruit for the rebellion, which explains why she’s with him on the casino planet in the first place, and how he’s so easily able to cut a deal with Phasma. BOOM! You’ve just saved a solid 20 minutes of redundant screen-time without degrading Poe’s character or undermining Holdo’s for no good reason and without dumb sexism creeping in. You’re welcome. 

(Also. ALSO. Not to take away from how lovely that Finn/Rose kiss was, but let’s just take a moment to peek into the other timeline, the one where Stormpilot gets to go canon the same way Han and Leia did in Empire. Let’s imagine Finn and Poe bickering in the casino, getting all rumpled during the escape while Rose and BB8 exchange Meaningful Looks and scathing droid-beeps about the two of them. Let’s imagine, during that final battle on Krait, that it’s Poe, not Rose, who stays behind to forcibly knock Finn out of that self-sacrificing dive towards the enemy gun; Poe who grabs Finn and kisses him because they should fight for what they love, not against what they hate, before passing out injured, thus completing the parallel of Han going into carbonite after kissing Leia. Let us gaze upon that world, that glorious thematic act of completion, subversion and queer recontextualisation, and then quietly wish a pox on everything in our cruddy Darkest Timeline that conspired to make it unhappen.)

And now, with all that out of the way, let’s address the Rey/Kylo issue.

As I said at the outset of this piece, I tried my best to avoid spoilers before watching the film, but no matter how quickly I scrolled through feeds or closed my tabs, I still knew that a lot of people had come away rejoicing in the idea that Rey and Kylo were being set up romantically, while an equal number had not.

And I just. Look. While I’m not going to stand here and tell people what to ship or on what basis, both generally and at this historical moment in particular, I find myself with an intense personal dislike of narratives, canonical or otherwise, which take it upon themselves to woobify Nazis, neo-Nazis, or the clearly signposted fictional counterparts thereof, into which category Kylo Ren and the whole First Order falls squarely. I don’t care about how sad he feels that he killed his dad: he still fucking killed his dad, and that’s before you account for the fact that he demonstrably doesn’t give a shit about committing genocide. In the immortal words of Brooklyn Nine Nine’s Jake Peralta: cool motive, still murder. Except for how the motive isn’t actually cool at all, because, you know, actual literal genocide.

From my viewing of the film, I honestly can’t tell if Rian Johnson wants us to think of Kylo as a genuinely sympathetic, redeemable figure, or if he’s just trying to improve on the jarring, horrible botch the prequels made of Anakin’s trip to the Dark Side by showing us his complexity without negating his monstrousness. Or, well: let me rephrase that. In terms of the actual script and what takes place, I’d argue that, even if Kylo is given a final shot at redemption in Episode IX, he’s still not being primed as Rey’s love interest. It’s just that the question of how much Johnson wants us to care about Kylo as a person, regardless of anything that happens with Rey, is a different question, for all that the two are easily conflated.

Yes, Rey and Kylo touched hands. They did! And Kylo killed Snoke instead of Rey! This is what we might call a low fucking bar for romantic compatibility, but hey: it’s not like white dudes in cinema are ever really called upon to jump anything higher. More salient in terms of the Star Wars universe is the fact that, after they defeat Snoke’s guards, Kylo’s appeal to Rey to join him and rule the galaxy together is an almost word-for-word callback to the offer Anakin makes Padme in Revenge of the Sith, right before he force-chokes her into unconsciousness, leaves her pregnant ass for dead and turns into Darth Vader. The fact that Anakin and Padme are also sold as a tragic romance prior to this moment is not, I would contend, the salient hook on which to hang the hopes of canon Reylo. Aside from anything else, Rey is mapped to Luke and Kylo, very clearly, to Darth Vader: with clear precedent, Rey’s desire to turn Kylo back from the Dark Side can be heartfelt without being romantic.

(Also, I mean. The connection that Rey and Kylo had was deliberately forged by Snoke to exploit their weaknesses, which is why they each had a vision of converting the other. Though we’re given a hint that the link remains in the final scenes, it ends with Rey shutting the door – both literally and figuratively – in Kylo’s face. I’m hard-pressed to view that as destiny.)

As for Kylo himself, his characterisation reads to me as deliberate, selfish nihilism. Kylo is conflicted over his murder of Han Solo because it impacts him, but at no point does he hesitate to reign down destruction and death on strangers. His desire to turn Rey to the Dark Side is likewise covetous, possessive: she is powerful, and he wants a powerful companion in the Force, but one who, by virtue of being his apprentice, will be subordinate to him – not a judgemental superior, as Snoke was. This is reflected in the way DJ’s betrayal of Rose and Finn is paralleled with Kylo’s decision to first help Rey when it benefits him, and then to turn on her afterwards. Like DJ, Kylo is mercenary in his allegiances, helping whoever helps him in the moment, then discarding them when the relationship is no longer useful.

The death of Snoke itself, however, is rather anticlimactic. He was a looming, distant figure in The Force Awakens, and while there’s an established tradition of Star Wars villains showing up and looking cool without their origins ever being satisfactorily explained at the time, this is vastly more annoying in Snoke’s case. Unlike General Greivous, Darth Maul or Boba Fett, Snoke isn’t just the random antagonist of a single film, plucked from obscurity to thwart the heroes: he’s the reason Ben Solo turned to the Dark Side and become Kylo Ren. Presumably, the hows and whys of Snoke manipulating the young Ben could still come out in Episode IX, but if it never gets addressed onscreen, I’m going to be deeply irritated.

On a more positive note, I enjoyed what the film did with Luke’s arc, for all that it’s not what I’d expected. To me, one of the most fascinating arguments in Star Wars discourse is the question of the Jedi, their morality, and how it all set Anakin up for failure. The Jedi ideology put forth in the prequels is the kind of thing that sounds superficially deep and meaningful, but which looks increasingly toxic the more closely it’s examined. The ban on children, marriage and close relationships outside the Order; the extreme youth of those taken for training combined with a forcible, protracted separation from their families; the idea that fear necessarily leads to anger, and so on. Luke describing the Force to Rey as something that existed beyond the Jedi, an innate aspect of the world, felt both refreshing and intuitively right, even given the necessity of respecting the balance between light and dark. The appearance of force-ghost Yoda felt a little pat, as did his ability to call lightning, but he still had one of my favourite lines in the whole film, delivered in support of Luke’s choice to step away from the Jedi teachings: as masters, we become the thing they surpass.

There were other, smaller niggles throughout than my issues with Poe and the no-homo restructuring of the plot: the handwaving of distances between Luke’s world and the main fight in a story that hinged on fuel supply; the sudden appearance of trenches and tunnels into the caves on Krait when everyone was meant to be trapped inside; the random appearance of an Evil Ball Droid to play momentary nemesis to BB8; the on-the-nose decision to show a random white slave boy, holding a broom he Force-summoned like a lightsaber, at the very end of the film. And as wonderful as it was to see Billie Lourd on screen, the knowledge that Carrie Fisher will be absent from Episode IX – the film that was meant to have been her movie, just as Harrison Ford had the The Force Awakens and Mark Hamill had The Last Jedi – rendered both her presence and her mother’s all the more bittersweet.

 

Ultimately, The Last Jedi is a successful-but-frustrating mess, which is kind of how you know it’s a Star Wars movie. I’ll be forever angry at the carelessness with which Rian Johnson treated Poe Dameron and Vice-Admiral Holdo, but even if I could’ve wished for a different plot structure, I’m always going to stan hard for Rose Tico, who was warm and kind and intelligent and who stole every scene she was in. LESS REN, MORE ROSE – that’s my new motto.

Here’s hoping that Episode IX delivers.

 

Warning: all the spoilers for The Great Wall.

When I first heard about The Great Wall, I rolled my eyes and dismissed it as yet another exploitative tale of Western exceptionalism where the white guy comes in, either insults or co-opts the local culture, saves the day and gets the girl, all while taking a role originally intended for or grossly better suited to a person of colour. It wasn’t until later that I learned the film was directed by Zhang Yimou, filmed on location in Qingdao, China,  and featuring a predominantly Chinese cast, with Matt Damon – emphasised in Western marketing to attract a Western audience – starring as one of several leads, in a role that was always intended for a Western actor. The film was released in China at the end of 2016 – and is, in fact, the most expensive film ever shot entirely in China – and was meant to be an international release, designed to appeal to both Chinese and Western audiences, from the outset.

Which left me feeling rather more curious and charitable than I had been; enough so that, today, I went out and saw it. Historically, I’m not an enormous fan of Matt Damon, who always strikes me as having two on-screen modes – All-American Hero and Not-Quite-Character Actor, the former being generally more plausible than the latter at the expense of being less interesting – but I’ve always enjoyed Zhang Yimou’s cinematography, especially his flair for colour and battle sequences. The fact that The Great Wall is ultimately an historical action fantasy film – a genre I am predisposed to love – is also a point in its favour; I’ve watched a great deal of Hollywood trash over the years in service to my SFFnal heart, and even with Damon’s involvement, The Great Wall already started out on better footing than most of it by virtue of Zhang’s involvement.

Even so, I was wary about the execution overall, and so went in expecting something along the lines of a more highly polished but still likely disjointed Chinese equivalent to the abysmal 47 Ronin, an American production that floundered thanks to a combination of studio meddling, language issues with the predominantly Japanese-speaking cast being instructed to deliver their lines in English, last-minute changes and a script that couldn’t decide who was writing it. But of course, 47 Ronin’s biggest offence – aside from constituting a criminal waste of Rinko Kikuchi’s talents – was doing what I initially, falsely assumed The Great Wall was doing: unnecessarily centering a white actor playing a non-white role in an Asian setting whose authenticity was systematically bastardised by the Western producers.

Instead, I found myself watching one of the most enjoyable SFF action films I’ve seen since Pacific Rim. (Which did not waste Rinko Kikuchi.)

The premise: William (Matt Damon) and his companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are part of a Western trade mission sent to China to find black powder – gunpowder – for their armies at home. While fleeing Kitan bandits in the mountains, they encounter an unknown monster and, in seeking its origins, are soon taken in by the Nameless Order, an army manning the Great Wall against an expected incursion of the monsters, called Taotie. In charge are General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and his offsider, Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), advised by Strategist Wang (Andy Lau). Every sixty years, the Taotie attack from a nearby mountain, and the next attack is just starting; as such, the Nameless Order and the Great Wall are all that stand between the hoards, controlled by a single Queen, and the nearby capital, Bianliang. While attempting to win Commander Lin’s trust, William makes two alliances: one with Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a Westerner who initially came to China in search of black powder twenty-five years ago; and another with Peng Yong (Lu Han), a young soldier whose life he saves. While Tovar and Ballard are eager to steal the black powder and leave, Commander Lin, General Shao and Strategist Wang are working to counter the evolving strategies of the Taotie: if the Wall is breeched and Bianliang falls, the Taotie will have enough sustenance to overrun the world, a fact which forces William to choose between loyalty to his friends and to a higher cause.

From the outset, I was impressed by the scriptwriting in The Great Wall, which manages the trick of being both deft and playful, fast-paced without any stilted infodumping or obvious plot-holes, aside from a very slight and seemingly genre-requisite degree of handwaving around what the Taotie do when they’re not attacking. The fact that at least half the film is subtitled was another pleasant surprise: of the Chinese characters, both Lin and Wang speak English – their fluency is explained by years of Ballard’s tutelage – and who act as translators for the rest; even so, they still get to deliver plenty of lines in Chinese, and there are numerous scenes where none of the Western characters are present. A clever use is also made of the difference between literal and thematic translations: while the audience sees the literal English translation of the Chinese dialogue in subtitles, there are multiple occasions when, in translating out loud for the benefit of the English-speaking characters, Lin and Wang make subtle adjustments, either politely smoothing over private jokes or tweaking their words for best effect.The scene where Commander Lin’s ability to speak English is revealed made me laugh out loud in a good way: I hadn’t expected the film to be funny, either, but it frequently is, thanks in no small part to the wonderful Pedro Pascal, who plays Tovar so beautifully that he has a tendency to steal every scene he’s in.

Tovar is dry, witty and pragmatic, given to some dark moments, but also loyal, while his establishment as a Spanish character adds another historical dimension to the setting. Aside from calling William amigo, he only gets one real instance of subtitled Spanish dialogue, but the context in which he does this – using it as a private language in Lin’s presence, once her ability to speak English is known – makes for a pleasing gracenote in their collective characterisation. The brief details we’re given of William’s mercenary history, fighting the Danes and Franks and Spaniards, are likewise compelling, a quick acknowledgement of the wider world’s events. It reminded me, in an odd but favourable way, of The 13th Warrior, a film which made the strange decision to cast Antonio Banderas as an Arab protagonist, but whose premise evoked a similar sense of historical intersections not often explored by the action genre.

I also appreciated Tian Jing’s subtle performance as Commander Lin, not only because her leadership of the all-female Crane Corps is objectively awesome – in the opening battle, the women stand on extended platforms beyond the Wall, bungee down on harnesses and spear monsters in the face – but because, refreshingly, not a single person in the film questions either the capabilities or the presence of the female warriors. When General Shao is mortally wounded in battle, it’s Lin he chooses to succeed him, a decision his male Commanders accept absolutely. While there’s a certain inevitable hetero tension between William and Lin, I was pleased beyond measure that this never devolves into forced romance or random kissing: by the film’s end, the Emperor has confirmed Lin as a General, William is on his way back to Europe, and while they’re both enriched by the trust they found in each other, William is not her saviour and Lin is always treated respectfully – both by William, and by the narrative itself.

(Also, The Great Wall passes the Bechdel test, because the female warriors of the Crane Corps talk to each other about something other than men, although they do still, somewhat delightfully, talk shit about William at one point. This is such a low bar to pass that it shouldn’t even merit a mention. And yet.)

Though the action slows a little at the midway point, it remains engaging throughout, while the overall film is structurally solid. As a genre, fantasy action films tend to be overly subject to fridge logic, but the plotting in The Great Wall is consistently… well, consistent. Even small details, like the role of the Kitan raiders, William’s magnet and the arc of Peng Yong’s involvement are consistently shown to be meaningful, lending the film a pleasing all-over symmetry. And visually, it’s spectacular: the Taotie are as convincing as they are terrifying (and boast a refreshingly original monster design), while the real Chinese landscapes are genuinely breathtaking. Zhang Yimou’s trademark use of colour is in full effect with the costuming and direction, lending a visual richness to a concept and setting which, in Western hands, would likely have been rendered in that same flat, drearily gritty sepia palette of greys, browns and blacks that we’ve all come to associate with White Dudes Expressing The Horror Of War, Occasionally Ft. Aliens. Instead of that, we have the Crane Corps resplendent in gorgeous blue lamellar armour, the footsoldiers in black and the archers in red, with other divisions in yellow and purple. Though the ultimate explanation for the Taotie is satisfyingly science fictional rather than magical – which, again, evokes a comparison to another historical SFF film I enjoyed, 2008’s flawed but underrated Outlander – the visual presentation remains wonderfully fantastical.

While I can understand the baseline reluctance of many viewers to engage with a film set in ancient China that nonetheless has Matt Damon as a protagonist – and while I won’t fault anyone who wants to avoid it on those grounds, or just because they dislike Damon himself – the fact that it’s a predominantly Chinese production, and that William’s character isn’t an instance of whitewashing, is very much worth highlighting. While William certainly plays a pivotal role in vanquishing the enemy, the final battle is a cooperative effort, one he achieves on absolute equal terms and through equal participation with Lin. Nor do I want to downplay the significance of Pascal’s Tovar, who represents a three-dimensional, non-stereotyped Latinx character at a point in time when that’s something we badly need more of. Indeed, given the enthusiastic response to Diego Luna’s portrayal of Cassian Andor in Rogue One, particularly the fact that he kept his accent, I feel a great disservice has been done by everyone who’s failed to mention Pascal’s front-and-centre involvement in the project.

I went into The Great Wall expecting to be mildly entertained by an ambitious muddle, and came out feeling engaged, satisfied and happy. As a film, it’s infinitely better than the structural trainwreck that was the recent Assassin’s Creed adaptation, and not just because the latter stars Michael Fassbender, the world’s most smugly punchable man. The Great Wall is colourful, visually spectacular, well-scripted, neatly characterised, engagingly paced and consistently plotted, and while I might’ve wanted to see a little more of General Shao and his offsiders or learn more about the women of the Crane Corps, that wanting is a product of the success of what I did see: the chosen focus didn’t feel narrow by construction, but rather like a glimpse into a wider, more fully-fleshed setting that was carrying on in the background. For Western audiences, William and Tovar are the outsider characters who introduce us to the Chinese setting, but for Chinese audiences, I suspect, the balance of the film feels very different.

The Great Wall is the kind of production I want to see more of: ambitious, coherent, international and fantastical. If we have to sit through the inclusion of Matt Damon this one time to cement the viability of such collaborations, then so be it. With films like La La Land and Fantastic Beasts actively whitewashing their portrayals of America’s Jazz Age, those wanting to support historical diversity could do much worse than see something which represents a seemingly intelligent, respectful collaboration between Western and Chinese storytellers. Maybe the end result won’t be for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself – and really, what more can you ask?

Warning: total spoilers for S1 of Westworld.

Trigger warning: talk of rape, sexual assault and queer death.

Note: Throughout this review, it will be necessary to distinguish between the writers of Westworld the TV show, and the writers employed in the narrative by the titular Westworld theme park. To avoid confusing the two, when I’m referring to the show, Westworld will be italicised; when referring to the park, I’ll use plain text.

*

This will be a somewhat bifurcated review of Westworld – which is, I feel, thematically appropriate, as Westworld itself is something of a bifurcated show. Like so much produced by HBO, it boasts incredible acting, breathtaking production values, intelligent dialogue, great music and an impeccably tight, well-orchestrated series of narrative reveals. Also like much produced by HBO, it takes a liberal, one might even say cartoonishly gratuitous approach to nudity, is saturated with violence in general and violence against women in particular, and has a consistent problem with stereotyping despite its diverse casting. In Westworld’s case, this latter issue is compounded as an offence by its status as a meta-narrative: a story which actively discusses the purpose and structure of stories, but which has seemingly failed to apply those same critiques to key aspects of its own construction.

The practical upshot is that it’s both frustratingly watchable and visibly frustrating. Even when the story pissed me off, I was always compelled to keep going, but I was never quite able to stop criticising it, either. It’s a thematically meaty show, packed with the kind of twists that will, by and large, enhance viewer enjoyment on repeat viewings rather than diminish the appeal. Though there are a few Fridge Logic moments, the whole thing hangs together quite elegantly – no mean feat, given the complexity of the plotting. And yet its virtues have the paradoxical effect of making me angrier about its vices, in much the same way that I’d be more upset about red wine spilled on an expensive party dress than on my favourite t-shirt. Yes, the shirt means more to me despite being cheaper, but a stain won’t stop me from wearing it at home, and even if it did, the item itself is easily replaced. But staining something precious and expensive is frustrating: I’ve invested enough in the cost of the item that I don’t want to toss it away, but staining makes it unsuitable as a showcase piece, which means I can’t love it as much as I want to, either.

You get where I’m going with this.

Right from the outset, Westworld switches between two interconnected narratives: the behind-the-scenes power struggles of the people who run the titular themepark, and the goings-on in the park itself as experienced by both customers and ‘hosts’, the humanoid robot-AIs who act as literal NPCs in pre-structured, pay-to-participate narratives. To the customers, Westworld functions as an immersive holiday-roleplay experience: though visually indistinguishable from real humans, the hosts are considered unreal, and are therefore fair game to any sort of violence, dismissal or sexual fantasy the customers can dream up. (This despite – or at times, because of – the fact that their stated ability to pass the Turing test means their reactions to said violations are viscerally animate.) To the programmers, managers, storytellers, engineers, butchers and behaviourists who run it, Westworld is, variously, a job, an experiment, a financial gamble, a risk, a sandpit and a microcosm of human nature: the hosts might look human, but however unsettling their appearance or behaviour at times, no one is ever allowed to forget what they are.

But to the hosts themselves, Westworld is entirely real, as are their pre-programmed identities. While their existence is ostensibly circumscribed by adherence to preordained narrative ‘loops’, the repetition of their every conversation, death and bodily reconstruction wiped from their memories by the park engineers, certain hosts – notably Dolores, the rancher’s daughter, and Maeve, the bordello madame – are starting to remember their histories. Struggling to understand their occasional eerie interviews with their puppeteering masters – explained away as dreams, on the rare occasion where such explanation is warranted – they fight to break free of their intended loops, with startling consequences.But there is also a hidden layer to Westworld: a maze sought by a mysterious Man in Black and to which the various hosts and their narratives are somehow key. With the hosts exhibiting abnormal behaviour, retaining memories of their former ‘lives’ in a violent, fragmented struggle towards true autonomy, freedom and sentience, Westworld poses a single, sharp question: what does it mean to be human?

Or rather, it’s clearly trying to pose this question; and to be fair, it very nearly succeeds. But for a series so overtly concerned with its own meta – it is, after all, a story about the construction, reception and impact of stories on those who consume and construct them – it has a damnable lack of insight into the particulars of its assumed audiences, both internal and external, and to the ways this hinders the proclaimed universality of its conclusions. Specifically: Westworld is a story in which all the internal storytellers are straight white men endowed with the traditional bigotries of racism, sexism and heteronormativity, but in a context where none of those biases are overtly addressed at any narrative level.

From the outset, it’s clear that Westworld is intended as a no-holds-barred fantasy in the literal sense: a place where the rich and privileged can pay through the nose to fuck, fight and fraternise in a facsimile of the old West without putting themselves at any real physical danger. Nobody there can die: customers, unlike hosts, can’t be killed (though they do risk harm in certain contexts), but each host body and character is nonetheless resurrected, rebuilt and put back into play after they meet their end. Knowing this lends the customers a recklessness and a violence they presumably lack in the real world: hosts are shot, stabbed, raped, assaulted and abused with impunity, because their disposable inhumanity is the point of the experience. This theme is echoed in their treatment by Westworld’s human overseers, who often refer to them as ‘it’ and perform their routine examinations, interviews, repairs and updates while the hosts are naked.

At this point in time, HBO is as well-known for its obsession with full frontal, frequently orgiastic nudity as it is for its total misapprehension of the distinction between nakedness and erotica. Never before has so much skin been shown outside of literal porn with so little instinct for sensuality, sexuality or any appreciation of the human form beyond hurr durr tiddies and, ever so occasionally, hurr durr dongs, and Westworld is no exception to this. It’s like the entirety of HBO is a fourteen-year-old straight boy who’s just discovered the nascent thrill of drawing Sharpie-graffiti genitals on every available schoolyard surface and can only snigger, unrepentant and gleeful, whenever anyone asks them not to. We get it, guys – humans have tits and asses, and you’ve figured out how to show us that! Huzzah for you! Now get the fuck over your pubescent creative wankphase and please, for the love of god, figure out how to do it tastefully, or at least with some general nodding in the direction of an aesthetic other than Things I Desperately Wanted To See As A Teengaer In The Days Before Internet Porn.

That being said, I will concede that there’s an actual, meaningful reason for at least some of Westworld’s ubiquitous nudity: it’s a deliberate, visual act of dehumanisation, one intended not only to distinguish the hosts from the ‘real’ people around them, but to remind the park’s human employees that there’s no need to treat the AIs with kindness or respect. For this reason, it also lends a powerful emphasis to the moments when particular characters opt to dress or cover the hosts, thereby acknowledging their personhood, however minimally. This does not, however, excuse the sadly requisite orgy scenes, nor does it justify the frankly obscene decision to have a white female character make a leering comment about the size of a black host’s penis, and especially not when said female character has already been established as queer. (Yes, bi/pan people exist; as I have good reason to know, being one of them. But there are about nine zillion ways the writers could’ve chosen to show Elsie’s sexual appreciation for men that didn’t tap into one of the single grossest sexual tropes on the books, let alone in a context which, given the host’s blank servility and Elsie’s status as an engineer, is unpleasantly evocative of master/slave dynamics.)

And on the topic of Elsie, let’s talk about queerness in Westworld, shall we? Because let’s be real: the bar for positive queer representation on TV is so fucking low right now, it’s basically at speedbump height, and yet myriad grown-ass adults are evidently hellbent on bellyflopping onto it with all the grace and nuance of a drunk walrus. Elsie is a queer white woman whose queerness is shown to us by her decision to kiss one of the female hosts, Clementine, who’s currently deployed as a prostitute, in a context where Clementine is reduced to a literal object, stripped of all consciousness and agency. Episode 6 ends on the cliffhanger of Elsie’s probable demise, and as soon as I saw that setup, I felt as if that single, non-consensual kiss – never referenced or expanded on otherwise – had been meant as Chekov’s gaykilling gun: this woman is queer, and thus is her death predicted. (Of course she fucking dies. Of course she does. I looked it up before I watched the next episode, but I might as well have Googled whether the sun sets in the west.)

It doesn’t help that the only other queer femininity we’re shown is either pornography as wallpaper or female host prostitutes hitting on female customers; and it especially doesn’t help that, as much as HBO loves its gratuitous orgy scenes, you’ll only ever see two naked women casually getting it on in the background, never two naked men. Nor does it escape notice that the lab tech with a penchant for fucking the hosts in sleep mode is apparently a queer man, a fact which is presented as a sort of narrative reveal. The first time he’s caught in the act, we only see the host’s legs, prone and still, under his body, but later there’s a whole sequence where he takes one of the male hosts, Hector – who is, not coincidentally, a MOC, singled out for sexual misuse by at least one other character – and prepares to rape him. (It’s not actually clear in context whether the tech is planning on fucking or being fucked by Hector – not that it’s any less a violation either way, of course; I’m noting it rather because the scene itself smacks of being constructed by people without any real idea of how penetrative sex between two men works. Like, ignoring the fact that they’re in a literal glass-walled room with the tech’s eyerolling colleague right next door, Hector is sitting upright on a chair, but is also flaccid and non-responsive by virtue of being in sleep mode. So even though we get a grimly lascivious close-up of the tech squirting lube on his hand, dropping his pants and, presumably, slicking himself up, it’s not actually clear what he’s hoping to achieve prior to the merciful moment when Hector wakes up and fights him the fuck off.)

Topping off this mess is Logan, a caustic, black-hat-playing customer who, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it foursome with three host prostitutes – two female, one male – is visually implied to be queer, and who thereinafter functions, completely unnecessarily, as a depraved bisexual stereotype. And I do mean blink-and-you’ll-miss-it: I had to rewind the episode to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, but it’s definitely there, and as with Elsie kissing Clementine, it’s never referenced again. The male host is engaging only with Logan, stroking his chest as he kisses and fucks the two women; it’s about as unsexualised as sexual contact between two naked men can actually get, and yet HBO has gone to the trouble of including it, I suspect for the sole purpose of turning a bland, unoriginal character into an even grosser stereotype than he would otherwise have been while acting under the misapprehension that it would give him depth. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. Logan doesn’t cease to be a cocky, punchable asshat just because you consented to put a naked white dude next to him for less time than it takes to have a really good shit; it just suggests that you, too, are a cocky, punchable asshat who should shit more in the bathroom and less on the fucking page. But I digress.

And then there’s the racism, which – and there’s no other way to put this – is presented as being an actual, intentional feature of the Westworld experience, even though it makes zero commercial sense to do this. Like. You have multiple white hosts who are programmed to make racist remarks about particular POC hosts, despite the fact that there are demonstrably POC customers paying to visit the park. You have a consistent motif of Native Americans being referred to as ‘savages’, both within Westworld-as-game and by the gamewriters themselves, with Native American mysticism being used to explain both the accidental glimpses various self-aware hosts get of the gamerunners and the in-game lore surrounding the maze. Demonstrably, the writers of Westworld are aware of this – why else is Episode 2, wherein writer character Lee Sizemore gleefully proposes a hella racist new story for the park, called ‘Chestnut’, as in old? I’ve said elsewhere that depiction is not endorsement, but it is perpetuation, and in a context where the point of Westworld as a commercial venture is demonstrably to appeal to customers of all genders, sexual orientations and races – all of whom we see in attendance – building in particular period-appropriate bigotries is utterly nonsensical.

More than this, as the openness with which the female prostitutes seduce female customers makes clear, it’s narratively inconsistent: clearly, not every bias of the era is being rigidly upheld. And yet it also makes perfect sense if you think of both Westworld and Westworld as being, predominantly, a product both created by and intended for a straight white male imagination. In text, Westworld’s stories are written by Lee and Robert, both of whom are straight white men, while Westworld itself was originally the conceit of Michael Crichton. Which isn’t to diminish the creative input of the many other people who’ve worked on the show – technically, it’s a masterclass in acting, direction, composition, music, lighting, special effects and editing, and those people deserve their props. It’s just that, in terms of narrative structure, by what I suspect is an accidental marriage of misguided purpose and unexamined habit, Westworld the series, like Westworld the park, functions primarily for a straight white male audience – and while I don’t doubt that there was some intent to critically highlight the failings of that perspective, as per the clear and very satisfying satirising of Lee Sizemore, as with Zack Snyder’s Suckerpunch and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, the straight white male gaze is still so embedded as a lazy default that Westworld ends up amplifying its biases more often than it critiques them. (To quote something my straight white husband said while watching, “It’s my gaze, and I feel like I’m being parodied by it.”)

Though we do, as mentioned, see various women and people of colour enjoying the Westworld park, the customers who actually serve as protagonists – Logan, William and the Man in Black – are all white men. Logan is queer by virtue of a single man’s hand on his chest, but other than enforcing a pernicious stereotype about bisexual appetites and behaviours, it doesn’t do a damn thing to alter his characterisation. The end of season reveal that William is the Man in Black – that William’s scenes have all taken place thirty years in the past, shown to us now through Dolores’s memories – is a cleverly executed twist, and yet the chronicle of William’s transformation from youthful, romantic idealist to violent, sadistic predator only highlights the fundamental problem, which is that the Westworld park, despite being touted as an adventure for everyone – despite Robert using his customers as a basis for making universal judgements about human nature – is clearly a more comfortable environment for some than others. Certainly, if I was able to afford the $40,000 a day we’re told it costs to attend, I’d be disinclined to spend so much for the privilege of watching male robots, whatever their courtesy to me, routinely talk about raping women, to say nothing of being forced to witness the callousness of other customers to the various hosts.

It should be obvious that there’s no such thing as a universal fantasy, and yet much of Westworld’s psychological theorising about human nature and morality hinges on our accepting that the desire  to play cowboy in a transfigured version of the old West is exactly this. That the final episode provides tantalising evidence that at least one other park with a different historical theme exists elsewhere in the complex doesn’t change the fact that S1 has sold us, via the various monologues of Logan and Lee, Robert and William and the Man in Black, the idea that Westworld specifically reveals deep truths about human nature.

Which brings us to Dolores, a female host whose primary narrative loop centres on her being a sweet, optimistic rancher’s daughter who, with every game reset, can be either raped or rescued from rape by the customers. That Dolores is our primary female character – that her narrative trajectory centres on her burgeoning sentience, her awareness of the repeat violations she’s suffered, and her refusal to remain a damsel – does not change the fact that making her thus victimised was a choice at both the internal (Westworld) and external (Westworld) levels. I say again unto HBO, I do not fucking care how edgy you think threats of sexual violence and the repeat objectification of women are: they’re not original, they’re not compelling, and in this particular instance, what you’ve actually succeeded in doing is undermining your core premise so spectacularly that I do not understand how anyone acting in good sense or conscience could let it happen.

Because in making host women like Dolores (white) and Maeve (a WOC), both of whom are repeatedly subject to sexual and physical violation, your lynchpin characters for the development of true human sentience from AIs – in making their memories of those violations the thing that spurs their development – you’re not actually asking the audience to consider what it means to be human. You’re asking them to consider the prospect that victims of rape and assault aren’t actually human in the first place, and then to think about how being repeatedly raped and assaulted might help them to gain humanity. And you’re not even being subtle about it, either, because by the end of S1, the entire Calvinistic premise is laid clear: that Robert and Arnold, the park’s founders, believed that tragedy and suffering was the cornerstone of sentience, and that the only way for hosts to surpass their programming is through misery. Which implies, by logical corollary, that Robert is doing the hosts a service by allowing others to hurt them or by hurting them himself – that they are only able to protest his mistreatment because the very fact of it gave them sentience.

Let that sink in for a moment, because it’s pretty fucking awful. The moral dilemma of Westworld, inasmuch as it exists, centres on the question of knowing culpability, and therefore asks a certain cognitive dissonance of the audience: on the one hand, the engineers and customers believe that the hosts aren’t real people, such that hurting them is no more an immoral act than playing Dark Side in a Star Wars RPG is; on the other hand, from an audience perspective, the hosts are demonstrably real people, or at the very least potential people, and we are quite reasonably distressed to see them hurt. Thus: if the humans in setting can’t reasonably be expected to know that the hosts are people, then we the audience are meant to feel conflicted about judging them for their acts of abuse and dehumanisation while still rooting for the hosts.

Ignore, for a moment, the additional grossness of the fact that both Dolores and Maeve are prompted to develop sentience, and are then subsequently guided in its emergence, by men, as though they are Eves being made from Adam’s rib. Ignore, too, the fact that it’s Dolores’s host father who, overwhelmed by the realisation of what is routinely done to his daughter, passes that fledgling sentience to Dolores, a white woman, who in turn passes it to Maeve, a woman of colour, without which those other male characters – William, Felix, Robert – would have no Galateas to their respective Pygmalions. Ignore all this, and consider the basic fucking question of personhood: of what it means to engage with AIs you know can pass a Turing test, who feel pain and bleed and die and exhibit every human symptom of pain and terror and revulsion as the need arises, who can improvise speech and memory, but who can by design give little or no consent to whatever it is you do to them. Harming such a person is not the same as engaging with a video game; we already know it’s not for any number of reasons, which means we can reasonably expect the characters in the show to know so, too. But even if you want to dispute that point – and I’m frankly not interested in engaging with someone who does – it doesn’t change the fact that Westworld is trying to invest us in a moral false equivalence.

The problem with telling stories about robots developing sentience is that both the robots and their masters are rendered at an identical, fictional distance to the (real, human) viewer. By definition, an audience doesn’t have to believe that a character is literally real in order to care about them; we simply have to accept their humanisation within the narrative. That being so, asking viewers to accept the dehumanisation of one fictional, sentient group while accepting the humanisation of another only works if you’re playing to prejudices we already have in the real world – such as racism or sexism, for instance – and as such, it’s not a coincidence that the AIs we see violated over and over are, almost exclusively, women and POC, while those protagonists who abuse them are, almost exclusively, white men. Meaning, in essence, that any initial acceptance of the abuse of hosts that we’re meant to have – or, by the same token, any initial excusing of abusers – is predicated on an existing form of bigotry: collectively, we are as used to doubting the experiences and personhood of women and POC as we are used to assuming the best about straight white men, and Westworld fully exploits that fact to tell its story.

Which, as much as it infuriates me, also leaves me with a dilemma in interpreting the show. Because as much as I dislike seeing marginalised groups exploited and harmed, I can appreciate the importance of aligning a fictional axis of oppression (being a host) with an actual axis of oppression (being female and/or a POC). Too often, SFFnal narratives try to tackle that sort of Othering without casting any actual Others, co-opting the trappings of dehumanisation to enhance our sympathy for a (mostly white, mostly straight) cast. And certainly, by the season finale, the deliberateness of this decision is made powerfully clear: joined by hosts Hector and Armistice and aided by Felix, a lab tech, Maeve makes her escape from Westworld, presenting us with the glorious image of three POC and one white woman battling their way free of oppressive control. And yet the reveal of Robert’s ultimate plans – the inference that Maeve’s rebellion wasn’t her own choice after all, but merely his programming of her; the revelation that Bernard is both a host and a recreation of Arnold, Robert’s old partner; the merging of Dolores’s arc with Wyatt’s – simultaneously serves to strip these characters of any true agency. Everything they’ve done has been at Robert’s whim; everything they’ve suffered has been because he wanted it so. As per the ubiquitous motif of the player piano, even when playing unexpected tunes, the hosts remain Robert’s instruments: even with his death, the songs they sing are his.

Westworld, then, is a study in contradictions, and yet is no contradiction at all. Though providing a stunning showcase for the acting talents of Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright in particular, their characters are nonetheless all controlled by Anthony Hopkins’s genial-creepy Robert, and that doesn’t really change throughout the season. Though the tropes of old West narratives are plainly up for discussion, any wider discussion of stereotyping is as likely to have a lampshade hung on it as to be absent altogether, and that’s definitely a problem. Not being familiar with the Michael Crichton film and TV show, I can’t pass judgement on the extent to which this new adaptation draws from or surpasses the source material. I can, however, observe that the original film dates to the 1970s, which possibly goes some way to explaining the uncritical straight white male gazieness embedded in the premise. Even so, there’s something strikingly reminiscent of Joss Whedon to this permutation of Westworld, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The combination of a technologically updated old West, intended to stand as both a literal and metaphoric frontier, the genre-aware meta-narrative that nonetheless perpetuates more stereotypes than it subverts, and the supposed moral dilemma of abusing those who can’t consent feels at times like a mashup of Firefly, Cabin in the Woods and Dollhouse that has staunchly failed to improve on Whedon’s many intersectional failings.

And yet, I suspect, I’ll still be poking my nose into Season 2, if only to see how Thandie Newton is doing. It feels like an absurdly low bar to say that, compared to most of HBO’s popular content, Westworld is more tell than show in portraying sexual violence, preferring to focus on the emotional lead-in and aftermath rather than the act itself, and yet that small consideration does ratchet the proverbial dial down a smidge when watching it – enough so that I’m prepared to say it’s vastly less offensive in that respect than, say, Game of Thrones. But it’s still there, still a fundamental part of the plot, and that’s going to be a not unreasonable dealbreaker for a lot of people; as is the fact that the only queer female character dies. Westworld certainly makes compelling television, but unlike the human protagonists, I wouldn’t want to live there.

ETA 11/1/17: I’m annoyed at myself for having left this out of the essay, but that’s what I get for writing notes over three days and then posting while exhausted at 1.30am: There is a marked difference in how Westworld treats Dolores and Maeve, despite the ostensible similarity of their narratives. Though Dolores is continually threatened with rape and damselled in traditional ways, she’s also surrounded by men who want to ‘rescue’ her, notably Bernard/Arnold, Teddy and William, because they believe her worthy of love. From the beginning, she’s held up as an invented feminine ideal, pure and kind and needing protection, and as such, even though she’s continually threatened, she’s one of the few female hosts whose nudity is kept to a bare minimum. Whereas Maeve, by contrast, is continually sexualised, not only in her invented role as the bordello madame, but in the frequency of her nude scenes and her treatment by the other characters; she finds some sexual autonomy, but romance is never part of her narrative. Though both Dolores and Maeve have consensual sexual encounters on screen – Dolores with William, Maeve with Hector – Dolores is given a tasteful fade to black, whereas Maeve is not. Given that Dolores is white and Maeve is black and the extent to which their respective characterisation adheres to old racist tropes about, respectively, white female virtue and black female strength and sexuality, I can’t help but view their deliberate juxtapositioning as a species of racefail.

Plus and also, the way the Man in Black comes after Maeve in her previous homsteader/mother incarnation,  to kill her and her daughter, because he wants to see if he’s capable of doing something ‘truly evil’? Even – or perhaps especially – once we know how much killing he’s already done up until that point, it’s not a minor thing that his personal development is predicated on the destruction of a black woman.

 

 

 

Warning: major spoilers for the entire Captive Prince trilogy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are three major contextualising reasons for this.

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

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

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

Laurent smiled.

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

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

“Too late, sweetheart,” said Damen.

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

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

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

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

Get him out of here,” said Laurent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicaise turned red, under the paint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A breath of amusement from Laurent…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

I can only hope we continue to do better.