Posts Tagged ‘Romance’

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.

Despite the vast quantities of domestic!AU fanfic that exist to the contrary, there’s still a common misconception in TVlandia that romantic relationships are only really interesting when imminent or imperilled; that any sort of emotional contentment or continuity between the characters will be boring to watch. And yet platonic relationships, in which we’re also meant to invest, are just as frequently treated as rock-solid: inviolable except, potentially, at a few plot-critical junctures. And that’s a big problem for romantic pairings – or rather, for our ability to invest in them, because the plain fact is, you can’t successfully threaten to destroy a thing you’ve never committed to building. Not only will nobody care, but there’s literally nothing to tear down except your own expired eviction notices. When you make it your telegraphed aim, week in, week out, year after year, to perpetuate a will-they, won’t-they dynamic, it becomes increasingly hard to give a shit about the won’t-they episodes, because, just like a child threatening to run away to the circus, it doesn’t matter how loudly you scream And this time, I mean it! – we all know you’re bluffing.

Having gone this route, the writers then wonder why fandom is often far more invested in seeing those platonic (predominantly male/male) relationships become romantic than in their canonical (predominantly male/female) pairings. Which: yes, we want queer representation, and yes, we enjoy our own interpretations of the characters, but at base, the problem – as far as you TV writers are concerned, anyway – is trifold. Firstly, you’re limiting your romantic male/female interactions to fit a preordained narrative, which paradoxically weakens the same relationship they’re meant to promote by shallowing its development. Secondly, because you’re worried portraying a platonic male/female relationship in addition to your romantic one might confuse viewers as to who, in fact, the girl is meant to end up with, you don’t create any extraneous narrative potential between characters of the opposite gender. Which means, third and finally, that your same sex interactions are likely biased towards male-male, as most shows tend to have fewer female characters overall – and when they do appear, as per the first point, you’re usually orienting their participation around a single particular man, instead of letting them talk to each other – which means the most naturally developed, complex relationships portrayed are, overwhelmingly, between men.

Thus: having firmly invested your audience in the importance of a romantic relationship, you then proceed to use all the juiciest romantic foundations – which is to say, shared interests, complex histories, mutual respect, in-jokes, magnetic antagonism, slowly kindled alliances and a dozen other things – in male/male scenes, and then affect gaping surprise when your fanbase not only notices, but expresses a preference for it.

So you start to queerbait in earnest – because hey, you didn’t expect it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t capitalise on it! – but never commit to making anyone queer, because that would constitute a Change in the Narrative, and all your sexual prejudices aside, according to the ancient laws of syndication, changing the formula is bad. (Plus and also, I’m pretty sure at this point that all TV executives sign some of kind of blood oath on being greenlit to never use the word ‘bisexual’ on air, even in those rare instances when it actually fucking applies, oh my GOD.)

And maybe, once upon a time, when you could firmly count on homophobes and sexists being the majority viewership and the narrative had to be static each week so as to remain accessible in the pre-DVD- and online-streaming era, that was true. But here and now, this isn’t that world, and as such, I’m here to let you in on a little secret:

TV audiences aren’t opposed to change. We’re opposed to discontinuity, which is what happens when you contort the narrative into increasingly bizarre shapes in order to maintain a tired dynamic despite the clear potential to do differently. You’re always going to lose some old viewers and gain some new ones as the story progresses – that’s true of everything – but I guarantee you’ll lose more overall by substituting arbitrary, superficial changes for meaningful, complex ones.

Partly, the problem is one of uncertainty. Most TV shows are renewed on a yearly basis, which makes it hard for creators to invest in a long game up front. Stories with high school settings, I feel, are a particular victim of this: unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, most teen shows never anticipate their characters transitioning to college, and so keep them confined to a perpetual Twilight Zone of late adolescence, the actors getting older and older as their eventual graduation date becomes more and more ambiguous. More often, however, the real failing is one of details, devils relevant to: of creators either forgetting or refusing to keep track of developments which, while potentially irrelevant to plot mechanics, constitute a vital form of emotional continuity for viewers. A character whose actor leaves the show, for instance, might suddenly cease to be mentioned by their friends, no matter how vital they were before that point or how shocking their departure, while secondary characters routinely vanish from the narrative without any explanation. Charitably, this is another hangover from the days before box sets and streaming, when too many references to past events might potentially confuse new or casual viewers, but in the year 2016, that seems an increasingly thin excuse. At this point, if you’re constructing a show and not thinking about how it’ll hang together during a binge-watching session, when multiple repeat viewers are easily able to notice the inconsistencies, you’re doing it wrong.

Returning, then, to the problem of romance, why is will-they won’t-they still seen as such a reliable default? I have my suspicions, and once again – somewhat unsurprisingly, at this point – they’re rooted in sexism. While straight romance as endgame is a device common across all genres, and is therefore seen as an acceptable, even mandatory inclusion, writing romance as an ongoing or primary narrative component is consistently coded as feminine, and is therefore devalued. The politics of this distinction are subtle and tricky, but when combined with the gender of the writer, it’s usually the difference between a book being shelved in the romance/chick lit section or being billed as general fiction. Indiana Jones can romance Marian all the way through Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that’s an action classic, but even with all the drug dealers, plane crashes and shootouts, Romancing the Stone is still a romantic comedy. The primary emotional arc of Cloverfield is centred on heterosexual romance – a fact made all the more intimate by the hand-held camera device – but god forbid we call it anything other than a horror/monster movie. Caught between the Scylla of Romantic Girl Cooties on one hand and the Charybdis of No Homo on the other, many creators have evidently deemed the true, Odyssian course to be Unresolved (Hetero)Sexual Tension. (Was that phrasing a thinly-veiled jab at City on Fire? Yes it was, internets. Yes it was. Fight me.)

With detailed romance viewed as a narrative contaminant, then, it seldom seems to occur to such writers that it’s infinitely more satisfying to watch a couple pull together against an external threat, or to navigate their togetherness in a way that isn’t suggestive of imminent breakup, than it is to watch the same two people endlessly circle, clash and fall back again without ever making progress. And oh, god, the number of TV shows that try to spice things up by introducing an unexpected third party, as though we’re not all sick to fucking death of love triangles already! Listen: if your idea of a “threat” to a nascent hetero pairing is to introduce a new straight love interest for one of them, unless you’re willing to actually made good on their potential chemistry – or, let’s go crazy, introduce a queer or poly dynamic – all you’re doing is wasting a character, because the audience already knows they can’t be permanent, and even though your job is to entertain, you’ve decided against any outcomes that might actually be surprising.

You know what is surprising, TV writers? Literally anything else.

So go the fuck forth, and do it.

 

Trigger warning: discussion of rape/sexual assault, spoilers for Uprooted.

Recently, I contributed to a tumblr thread about our unfortunate cultural habit of romanticising abusive behaviour in stories meant primarily for teenage girls, and how this can have a very real, very negative impact on their ability to accurately identify abuse in other contexts. I highly recommend reading the other responses in the thread, as many women shared their own, similar experiences of being confused on this point as teens, while Cora Buhlert also wrote an excellent follow-up post about the conversation. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past year or so, not only because I’m interested in feminism within SFF, but also because of my own personal history.

As a teenager, I didn’t understand consent the way I do now, because nobody ever explained it to me in anything beyond the most basic, Rape-Is-A-Masked-Man-In-The-Bushes way. I watched a lot of TV shows where young women were raped and murdered by men who were, overwhelmingly, strangers, and I read a lot of books – quite a horrifying number, in hindsight – where the abuse and coercion of women was incorporated as a normative aspect of fantasy worldbuilding, but very seldom interrogated. It’s not as if I was consciously expecting these stories to provide me with guidance about my then-fledgling sex life, but at the same time, it’s not as if there was a surplus of knowledgeable, approachable, non-judgemental adults lining up to advise me, either. My brain was a sponge: I learned without meaning to learn, in a vacuum of intention to either teach or critique. Sex ed at school meant a basic knowledge of STDs and contraceptives, a basic knowledge of anatomy, and some truly horrendous Behold Yon Horrible Consequences videos filmed in the 1980s about the dangers of teen pregnancy. I don’t think the word consent was ever used, even when we talked about rape: the binary question, rather, was whether you should say yes or no at a given time, and why drinking at parties was a bad idea because you’d be more likely to say yes and regret it later.

The idea that anyone who coaxed that drunken yes from you might be guilty of rape or assault was never mentioned. If it had been, I might have made some very different choices as a teenager. Or maybe I’d have done the exact same thing, but understood immediately what it meant, instead of locking up for an hour nearly fourteen years later, covered in cold sweat at the belated realisation: oh. Oh. Naively, I’d thought I was done with such bleak epiphanies the first time I backdated my earliest forays into internet chatrooms and realised that actually, yes: those men were, in all probability, paedophiles. The teacher in his thirties who praised my thirteen-year-old “maturity” was not just an adult wanting to be my friend, and the men aged eighteen and over who’d ask for cybersex certainly weren’t.

Culturally, we have a lot of sexist baggage about women turning thirty and what it’s supposed to mean, but nowhere in all that baggage have I ever seen mentioned the likelihood of looking back on my early sexual experiences and realising, all too late, like a brutal, cascading suckerpunch, how fucked-up most of them were. That I would, at twenty-nine, rediscover a poem I wrote at sixteen – a poem I’d read multiple times since then, had showed to multiple adults since then, had always held up internally as an example of my early skill – and almost fucking vomit to realise how clearly it described a sexual assault. I was crying when I wrote it, raw and blank in the aftermath of the event itself, and – I remember this vividly – utterly confused, because I didn’t know what had happened. How can you be nearly thirty before you understand a thing like that?

I am, I’ve come to understand, a peculiarly repressive person. I hide things from myself. For all my ferocious introspection, I can be singularly self-deceptive. I wonder at the trait: was I always that way? Is it learned or innate? What quirk of blood or history encapsulates this appalling, unuseful talent? It feels like such an incongruous thing, especially given the strength of my memories. But perhaps that’s the problem: at the time, the things that appal me now weren’t appalling at all. They might have been unpleasant, even ugly or frightening, but they were also, in the context, normal, and as such, I didn’t question them. I remembered them as acceptable, as things that just happened, and even when the feelings underlying those verdicts were – are – turbulent, a second, more intelligent ruling is nonetheless hard to make. I was depressed as a teenager, and inasmuch as a facet of that depression was situational, I thought I understood the whole, both then and afterwards. Instead, that sadness – that very real, rooted sadness, both temporal and ephemeral – acted as a masking agent for other, more particular injuries. At the time, there was no need to wonder why sex could leave me heartsick; I felt that way often enough as it was to see nothing extraordinary in the confluence.

(Oh, young thing, no. Don’t boast of the bruises you didn’t want. Your loneliness ached, I know, but less than their acquisition.)

The past, as they say, is a foreign country. I did things differently there.

*

Tonight, I started reading Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. It was a novel about which I’d heard only good things from people I trust; a novel I was hoping would break me out of my current reading slump, wherein I’ve started a great many books, but am struggling to finish any of them. To borrow the parlance of memes, cannot tell if too depressed to read or just fed up with exclusionary, derivative bullshit – or, alternatively, if reading so much fanfiction has utterly wrecked my internal yardstick for length, structure and content. Yesterday – partly to test this hypothesis, and partly because I just wanted to – I embarked on my third reading of Katherine Addision’s The Goblin Emperor, a novel which, both stylistically and structurally, is utterly removed from fanfic’s conventions, but which is similarly subversive of genre.

Given that I devoured it, thrilled and rapturous, in a single sitting, I’m inclined to think the problem is other people.

I hate not finishing books, but lately, I’m all out of fucks to give for stories that don’t include me in the narrative. After struggling with Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, I started reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars in parallel, hoping to find enough thematic points to compare and contrast that the one might jumpstart my interest in the other. And part of me wants, really wants, to read them both – not just dutifully, but because I don’t feel fully entitled to discuss them otherwise. But god, god, where are the rest of the women, and why are the few we see surrounded by men? Where is the queerness hiding, and why do I have to sift for it like some unlucky prospector stranded at the ass end of the gold rush? Why, Mr Kay, are you taking me away from your (thus far) single female POV character to show me what her would-be assassin thinks of his attempt on her life, even and especially when he dies at the end of the chapter? All his exposition did was silence hers, and as she’s apparently The Kind Of Woman Other Women Hate, I’m holding out little hope that the next fucktillionty pages are any better.

And thus, Uprooted. I wanted to root for it. (Heh.) Every ten years, Agnieszka’s village has to give a girl to the Dragon, the wizard who protects their valley. After a decade in his service, the girls come back, unharmed but changed, only to be replaced by new apprentice. And this year, everyone thinks that Kasia, Agnieszka’s beautiful, clever best friend, is the one he’ll choose – only for Agnieszka herself to be taken instead. The writing is lovely, the pacing fluid, and we’ve already been reassured that the Dragon doesn’t assault the girls he takes, that he leaves them dowered and educated and self-possessed, and oh, I was so ready for this to be a story I loved –

But it’s not. It can’t be. The Dragon is an abuser – is grossly, violatingly abusive – and yet the narrative blooms with cues that he’s meant to be Agnieszka’s love interest, burning touches and flashing eyes, and of course, of course he’s centuries old and handsome in a young man’s body (you’re so mature for your age!) and no, this is not what I wanted – is, in fact, the exact fucking opposite of what I wanted – but what if I’m the problem? What if the novel is going to interrogate these tropes, this awful problematic idea of abuse as a prelude to romance, and I bow out too early?

I went to the internet, source of my current wisdom and early folly. Internet, I said, speaking as if to a magic mirror (wireless, wireless in the wall, who’s the truthiest of all?) – internet, does Agnieszka end up with the Dragon?

And lo, did the internet answer: pretty much, yeah. Sorry.

Now, I love Naomi Novik, and YA, and romances, though it took me a good long while to really admit the latter, and thanks to the aforementioned years of narrative conditioning, I have a pretty high tolerance for Partner A initially treating Parter B terribly Because Misunderstanding or some other reason, even though it sets my teeth on edge. By which I mean, I hate it intellectually, but there’s still a firmly-established emotional bedrock for pushing through regardless, on the offchance that we eventually get to a half-decent explanation. It’s actually not as weirdly hypocritical as it sounds: a lot of us have grown up feeling conflicted about the toxic tropes of our youth, as compelled by their unhealthy hold on our formative memories as we are repulsed by our subsequent understanding of them, and as such, it’s not uncommon to see them being… de-escalated, seems the best word for it. We know they’re fucked up, but we kinda want to use them anyway, because all the intellectualism in the world can’t make us rip out even the most diseased aortal tissue wholesale; it hurts too much, for one thing, and for another, it won’t grow back. And so, instead, we try our best to manage their perpetuation carefully: to sand off the worst, most unforgivable elements and mitigate the rest through lovingly tailored contexts. You can just about graph it, sometimes, the way those old tropes change from book to book, as newer authors learn their lore from newer permutations. It’s a form of literary evolution not unlike the Belyaev fox experiment: each new generation of readers learns to love the least-aggressive tropes from a litter of mixed novels until, one day, a thing that once bit savagely will whine and roll over for belly rubs.

Uprooted, though – Uprooted retains its teeth. And even knowing why, by this selfsame logic, other readers were able to skritch it happily behind the ears and carry on, I don’t think I can be one of them.

When the Dragon brings Agnieszka to his castle, he doesn’t tell her why he picked her. For the first few days, he barely speaks to her at all. When he touches her, he grabs her, hard. He insults her, viciously and constantly, berating her as stupid and ugly and useless, though he doesn’t stop to explain what it is he wants from her, or why she needs to learn. He forces her to dress in clothes she finds uncomfortable, expects her to cook his meals for him, but insults her efforts. And Agnieszka, right from the outset, is frightened that he’ll rape her – in fact, she doubts the safety of the girls in his care from the very first page:

He doesn’t devour them really; it only feels that way. He takes a girl to his tower, and ten years later he lets her go, but by then she’s someone different. Her clothes are too fine and she talks like a courtier and she’s been living alone with a man for ten years, so of course she’s ruined, even though the girls all say he never puts a hand on them. What else could they say?

We see her doubts again, on page sixteen:

Kasia had always said she believed the women who came back, that the Dragon didn’t put a hand on them. “He’s taken girls for a hundred years now,” she said firmly. “One of them would have admitted it, and word would have got out.”

But a few weeks ago, she’d asked my mother, privately, to tell her how it happened when a girl was married – to tell her what her own mother would have, the night before she was wed. I’d overheard them through the window, while I was coming back from the woods, and I’d stood there next to the window and listened in with hot tears running down my face, angry, so angry for Kasia’s sake.

Now that was going to be me. And I wasn’t brave – I didn’t think that I could take deep breaths, and keep from clenching up tight, like my mother had told Kasia to do so it wouldn’t hurt. I found myself imagining for one terrible moment the Dragon’s face so close to mine, even closer than when he’d inspected me at the choosing – his black eyes cold and glittering like stone, those iron-hard fingers, so strangely warm, drawing my dress away from my skin, while he smiled that sleek satisfied smile down at me. What if all of him was fever-hot like that, so I’d feel him almost glowing like an ember, all over my body, while he lay upon me and – 

I shuddered away from my thoughts and stood up.

This isn’t just a vague fear, but one the narrative makes explicit: Agnieszka is, very graphically and very, very literally, afraid of being raped. And contextually, she has every reason to be! The fact that the Dragon doesn’t take her to bed the second they get to his tower is hardly proof that he has no intention of doing so later; and certainly, it’s within his power to make her do whatever he wants.

As this scene, on page twenty-eight, makes clear:

I froze in surprise and stopped reading, my mouth hanging open. He was furiously angry: his eyes were glittering and terrible… 

He gaped at me and grew even more wildly angry; he stormed across the tiny chamber, while I belatedly tried to scramble up and back, but there was nowhere for me to go. He was on me in an instant, thrusting me flat down against my pillows.

“So,” he said, silkily, his hand pressed down upon my collarbone, pinning me easily to the bed. It felt as though my heart was thumping back and forth between my breastbone and my back…

“Agnieszka,” he murmured, bending low towards me, and I realised he meant to kiss me. I was terrified, and yet half-wanting him to do it and have it over with, so I wouldn’t have to be so afraid, and then he didn’t at all. “Tell me, dear Agnieszka, where are you really from? Did the Falcon send you? Or perhaps even the king himself?”

Listen: at this point, I don’t give a flying fuck that, for whatever reason, the Dragon seems to think Agnieszka is a spy. It doesn’t excuse his behaviour, because whoever she really is, she’s still a girl he’s got pinned to a bed, and he’s still making her feel sexually afraid of him in order to try and intimidate her into answering. The idea that his incredibly intimate rape threat is somehow justified by her potential treachery is, frankly, sickening. Never mind that, after she runs and accidentally spills a potion over herself, he leaves her frozen in stone for half a day without any explanation or apology; never mind that he physically makes her crawl around him, belittling her competence all the while. Agnieszka is so miserable and terrified that she wants to kill the Dragon, even contemplating suicide when she can’t go through with her plan. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment, but to me, it felt like a slap in the face:

…I saw the tray discarded on the floor, the knife lying bare and gleaming. Oh. Oh, what a fool I’d been, even to think about it. He was my lord: if by some horrible chance I had killed him, I would surely be put to death for it, and like as not my parents along with me. Murder was no escape at all; better to just throw myself out the window.

I even turned and looked out the window, miserably…

So, to reiterate: the Dragon is treating Agnieszka in such a monstrous, abusive, bullying fashion that murder and suicide have both crossed her mind as options; she’s frightened he’ll rape her still, and he’s used that fear to try and make her comply with his wishes.

And then Prince Marek arrives, and actually tries to rape her.

To make this even more horrible, up until his assault, Agnieszka had been contemplating going to Marek for help, only keeping quiet because she’s afraid he won’t believe her. She’s heard stories of his exploits, thinks of him as a hero, and apart from anything else, he’s the only other person she’s even seen since the Dragon took her away.

Here is what happens (TW for assault):

He laughed again and kissed my throat. “Don’t worry, he can’t object,” he said, as though that was my only reason to protest…

It’s not that he was taking pleasure in overcoming me. I was still mute and my resistance was more confused batting at him, half-wondering: surely he couldn’t, Prince Marek couldn’t, the hero; surely he couldn’t even really want me. I didn’t scream, I didn’t plead, and I think he scarcely imagined that I would resist. I supposed in an ordinary noble house, some more-than-willing scullery maid would already have crept into his bedchamber and saved him the trouble of going looking. For that matter, I’d probably have been willing myself, if he’d asked me outright and given me enough time to get over my surprise and answer him: I struggled more by reflex than because I wanted to reject him.

But he did overcome me. Then I began to be really afraid, wanting only to get away; I pushed at his hands, and said, “Prince, I don’t, please, wait,” in disjointed bursts. And though he might not have wanted resistance, when he met it, he cared nothing: he only grew impatient.

“There, there; all right,” he said, as though I were a horse to be reined in and made calm, while he pinned my hand by my side. My homespun dress was tied up with a sash in a simple bow; he already had it loose, and then he dragged up my skirts.

I was trying to thrust my skirts back down, push him away, drag myself free: useless. He held me with such casual strength.

At this point, Agnieszka uses one of the few magic spells the Dragon has taught her – a spell to create clothes, the better to look pretty for him – to recover herself. Marek is so stunned that she has a chance to bash him over the head with the abandoned dinner tray, and he goes down hard, unconscious. Agnieszka, not unsurprisingly, is both frightened at the prospect of having killed a prince and shaken at having been nearly raped. So when the Dragon enters and discovers the scene, does he treat her kindly, even dispassionately, while he tries to heal the Prince? Or does he behave like a cruel, abusive, victim-blaming asshat?

Oh, yeah. Welcome to door number three.

I stood hovering anxiously over the bed, over both of them, and finally I blurted, “Will he -“

“No thanks to you,” the Dragon said, but that was good enough: I let myself sink to the ground in my heap of cream velvet, and buried my head on the bed in my arms sheathed in embroidered golden lace.

“And now you’re going to blubber, I suppose,” the Dragon said over my head. “What were you thinking? Why did you put yourself in that ludicrous dress if you didn’t want to seduce him?”

“It was better than staying in the one he tore off me!” I cried, lifting my head: not in tears at all; I had spent all my tears by then, and all I had left was anger. “I didn’t choose to be in this -“

I stopped, a heavy fold of silk caught up in my hands, staring at it. The Dragon had been nowhere near; he hadn’t worked any magic, cast any spell. “What have you done to me?” I whispered. “He said – he called me a witch. You’ve made me a witch.”

The Dragon snorted. “If I could make witches, I certainly wouldn’t choose a half-wit peasant girl as my material. I haven’t done anything to you but try and drum a few miserable cantrips into your nearly impenetrable skull.” He levered himself up off the bed with a hiss of weariness, struggling, not unlike the way I’d struggled in those terrible weeks while he – 

While he taught me magic. Still on my knees, I stared up at him, bewildered and yet unwillingly beginning to believe. “But then why would you teach me?”

“I would have been delighted to leave you moldering in your coin-sized village, but my options were painfully limited.” To my blank look, he scowled. “Those with the gift must be taught: the king’s law requires it. In any case, it would’ve been idiotic of me to leave you sitting there like a ripe plum until something came along out of the Wood and ate you, and made itself into a truly remarkable horror.”

While I flinched away appalled from this idea, he turned his scowl on the prince…

“Here,” said the Dragon. “Kalikual. It’s better than beating paramours into insensibility.”

So, to be clear: not only does the Dragon neglect, at any point, to ask if Agnieszka is all right – not only does he belittle her for defending herself, and continue to bully her intelligence – but he blames the assault on her choice of clothes, and then refers to the prince, not as her assailant or rapist, but as her paramour, a consensual term that utterly minimises what just took place. Their subsequent conversation reveals his belief that Marek, who assumes the Dragon takes women “to force them to whore for me”, would have seen bedding Agnieszka as “cuckolding” him, and therefore a sort of petty revenge. Again, this is desperately minimizing language, even in context: at no point is the attempted rape named as such, and despite the fact that Agnieszka has spent literal weeks in fear of being raped, the rest of the conversation – and, indeed, the events of the following chapter – appear to show her experiencing no emotional consequences at having that fear made manifest. Instead, the Dragon continues to bully her, and badly, when she fails to make her magic work:

He roared at me furiously for ten minutes after he finally managed to put out the sulky and determined fire, calling me a witless muttonheaded spawn of pig farmers – “My father’s a woodcutter,” I said – “Of axe-swinging lummocks!” he snarled. But even so, I wasn’t afraid anymore. He only spluttered himself into exhaustion and then sent me away, and I didn’t mind his shouting at all, now that I knew there were no teeth in it to rend me.

I was almost sorry not to be better, for now I could tell his frustration was that of the lover of beauty and perfection. He hadn’t wanted a student, but, having been saddled with me, he wanted to make a great and skillful witch of me, to teach me his art…

It maddened him to no end, not without some justice. I know I was being foolish.

At this point, it was all I could do not to fling the book at the wall. It’s Agnieszka who’s been sexually assaulted and belittled, but the sympathy here – and worse, given in her voice! – is all for the Dragon: language that tries to excuse his abuse as the understandable frustration of a perfectionist, Agnieszka blaming herself for not being good enough, for daring to have interests and talents beyond what he expects of her, even though he’s done literally nothing to show her kindness at all. Are we meant to find it a sign of progress, that she doesn’t mind his shouting? Are we meant to feel well-disposed towards such a vile abuser, or ought we to be rooting for her escape?

My instincts were telling me one thing, and the narrative another. Which is why I went on Twitter and asked if their relationship becomes a romantic one. Universally, the response came back: they get together, it’s implied they’re still together at the end, and the Dragon’s early mistreatment of Agnieszka is never satisfactorily addressed.

And I just – no. No. I do not want to read nearly four hundred more pages only for this level of vicious cruelty to never be called what it is. I do not want to read about a sexual assault victim falling in love with an abusive rape-apologist and think about how romantic I would’ve found it all, when I was Agnieszka’s age; how romantic some other girl might find it now, who won’t know any better until she’s nearly thirty, too. I do not want to soldier on for the sake of those amazing feminist virtues I’ve been told the rest of the novel somehow, separately, embodies, because if I’m going to read a book that deals with rape and sexual assault, I would like it, please and thank you, to actually call it those things, or at least to behave as though belittling a victim of same in their immediate fucking aftermath isn’t an acceptable gateway to romance.

Fucking hell. I just want to read a book that doesn’t make me feel like I’m being either punched for existing, or treated as though I don’t. We’re SFF writers; we literally make up shit for a living. Why does everything have to be so brutally fucking difficult?

 

 

 

YA Article Bingo

The past few years have seen so many terrible articles in mainstream publications about the rise, worthiness and content of YA that it’s hard to keep them straight. Just last month, for instance, Joanna Trollope declared that the entirety of YA SFF “doesn’t really relate to the real world” because she dislikes The Hunger Games, which novels she admits to never having read. Before that, there was Megan Cox Gurdon up in arms at the idea that YA novels might tackle difficult topics like rape, abuse and self-harm, an alarmist piece which lead to the creation of the #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter.  We’ve had pundits suggesting boys won’t read YA titles unless they have gender-neutral covers, and others saying that YA has become so female-dominated that boys are being left behind anyway – which is ironic, given the regularity with which various YA heroines are criticised as being poor role models for girls. While some good commentary has occasionally emerged through the morass of moralising, misapprehension and general handwringing, more often than not, the dominant mood of such articles is censorious:  a condemnation of popular YA in particular that quickly turns to disparaging the genre in general, and doubly so where SFF is mentioned.

Which brings me to the latest such offering:  Laura C. Mallonee’s Time For Teen Fantasy Heroines To Grow Up, which is a perfect example of Mainstream YA Article Bingo and then some. After a few establishing remarks about the current glut of YA film adaptations, it’s not long before Mallonnee presents us with this gem of a paragraph:

“But it would be a mistake to assume that the same girl who sped through Twilight and Hunger Games will easily find her way to The Martian Chronicles or even contemporary fantasy’s immediate forbearers — works by authors like Tamora Pierce or Robin McKinley. Teens today aren’t genre nerds who only love fantasy. According to Ms. Sutherland, they read these books because it’s what their friends are reading. But how did they become so popular? And what do they have to say — specifically to their young, female readers — about the world?”

Obligatory pairing of Twilight and The Hunger Games? Check. The suggestion that modern YA fantasy is somehow fundamentally different to REAL fantasy, or even to the YA novels of yesteryear? Check. Assertion that popular kids read genre now, too? Check. Moral panic about female readers? Check. The cliche density is so high in just this one section alone, it’s hard to tease out all the problematic logic underpinning each and every statement. Take, for instance, the immensely judgemental suggestion that the “same girl” who reads popular YA fantasy novels is unlikely to also read real SFF, presumably on the basis that she’s a popular kid rather than one of the “genre nerds”. What this is, in essence, is yet another permutation of the Fake Geek Girl argument: a deeply sexist panic at the idea that, even when they’re reading dystopian novels, watching comic movies and learning archery for fun, ‘regular’ girls can’t really be true fans of real SFF, because their enjoyment of other, more mainstream activities – or, far more often, their possession of conventionally attractive looks – invariably marks them out as dilettantes only feigning nerdness in order to drive boys crazy. In making this distinction, all Mallonee has done is shift the accusation of dilettantism to the (again, female) creators of modern YA novels: they’re not writing real SFF, like Ray Bradbury did – just popular, pretendy SFF for cheerleaders and pretty girls to read.

We’re then treated to five paragraphs on the history of novels written for young women (comparing modern YA to books written over a century ago? Check!), which, while interesting, betrays a rather heavy-handed attempt to suggest that girl-oriented stories have always fallen into one of three categories: lurid, lower-class love triangles and romantic pulp, written for money; sweet domestic fantasies; and feminist novels where girls do sports and go to college and postpone marriage for the sake of their careers. Which isn’t to say that Mallonee’s analysis is wholly inaccurate, at least as far as the texts she’s chosen to reference are concerned. (Conspicuous omission of J. K. Rowling and the Harry Potter phenomenon while discussing the rise of YA? Check!). But in trying to draw comparisons between these categories and different types of modern YA – which is inarguably the intention – Mallonee is not only neglecting the idea that, this being 2013 rather than 1860, a heroine can quite plausibly experience a love triangle AND be domestic AND play sports at college without the readers’ heads exploding, but is effectively arguing that only one of these categories has any feminist value at all. And as much as I enjoy reading YA novels where the heroine avoids romantic complications (and despite my own strong feelings on the subject of love triangles) the idea that such romantic elements are inherently anti-feminist, regressive, cheap or otherwise unworthy simply doesn’t wash.

The next section – an analysis of Twilight and its reception – is quite breathtakingly hypocritical. Having rebuked the almost universal condemnation of Bella Swann with the assertion that “Branding youth culture as obscene or degrading is old hat — and teens don’t care,” Mallonee immediately jumps on the exact same bandwagon, comparing Bella with Elnora Comstock, heroine of Gene Stratton-Porter’s 1908 novel, A Girl of the Limberlost. “In a time when few women went to college,” she says, “Elnora’s ambition was a brave push into new territory, inspiring readers with aspirations for their own futures. What hope did Bella inspire?” The comparison with Elnora is then extended, only slightly more favourably, to Katniss Everdeen, who wins some praise for being a capable woodswoman – but not much. Once again, Mallonee’s hypocrisy comes to the fore:

“Though Katniss never had romantic feelings for him before the Games, she pretends to return Peeta’s affection in order to “give the audience something more to care about,” and it’s this complex brand of romance that becomes her main tool for survival. Critics have applauded Collins for subverting standard romantic hooks, but this faux love story actually draws many Hunger Games fans, who debate aggressively online over the respective hotness of Peeta and Gale, Katniss’s childhood friend. Though Katniss eventually becomes a hero, up until page 156 of the first book, her internal struggles revolve around her conflicted emotions toward Peeta and Gale, not on the ethical dilemma of having to kill people.” 

Take a moment to parse the above. In the first sentence, Mallonee asserts that Katniss has no feelings for Peeta prior to the start of the Games, pretending to love him as a survival technique only after he admits to loving her himself; she then complains that, up until page 156 of the first book, Katniss’s inner monologue is dominated by her struggle to choose between Peeta and Gale. Which is a rather astonishing claim to make, when you consider that Peeta doesn’t even admit his feelings for Katniss until page 158 – at which point, they haven’t even reached the arena. Even allowing for a slight slip in page numbers between various editions, it’s still clear that Mallonee has contradicted herself, first claiming that the romantic elements don’t exist at the outset, and then complaining that the outset consists of little else. And as for the idea that Katniss “eventually” becomes a hero – what of her selfless decision to save her sister by volunteering as tribute in the first place? Does that not count as heroic? Evidently not – but then, Mallonee is so keen to criticise both the series and its fans for their focus on romance that, rather ironically, she hasn’t focussed on any other elements herself. Except for death, of course – the dystopian setting is “grotesque”, and Mallonee takes a perverse delight in reciting just how many times the word ‘dead’ appears in the trilogy. (Dystopias are depressing and unsettling for teenage readers? Check!) Mallonee then expresses regret at the fact that, rather than emphasising a comforting moral or specific lesson, the ending of The Hunger Games is thematically open-ended. “Readers,” she laments, “are left to untangle the book’s intimations about the real world for themselves.” You’ll have to forgive me, but I fail to see how an invitation to further critical analysis counts as a negative.

And then, of course, there’s the obligatory comparison of these pulpy, trashy, regressive, female-authored SFFnal YA novels with a literary, contemporary, feminist, male-authored work which – funnily enough – is better than mere YA: Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. (Male authors doing feminism better than women? Check!) Despite having a teenage, female heroine, Mallonee finds it ” almost — but not quite — surprising” that Winter’s Bone wasn’t marketed to teenage girls; but then, even if it had been, one suspects that her imaginary, popular strawgirls wouldn’t have had the wit or wisdom to appreciate it. Not like those nerdy, unpopular readers, the ones we’re not talking about; the kind of girls who like popular YA novels are, according to Mallonee, a different breed entirely. This sort of dislike of the readers of popular YA is evident in her conclusion:

“The problem with Twilight and Hunger Games is that while operating in a seemingly black-and-white world they actually infect their readers with chaos: Twilight by exploiting its audience’s desire to completely escape reality, and Hunger Games by cementing its readers’ fears that there is nothing beyond the darkness.

The value of books like Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone is that while acknowledging the world’s ugliness, they carve a path of resilience the reader can follow.”

Respectfully, I would submit that this is bullshit. Throughout her article, Mallonee has made clear her contempt, not only for popular modern narratives, but for stories which dare to include a romantic component for their heroines – an opinion she has tried to imbue with historical significance by first disparaging the “promiscuity” and “passivity” of early romance-oriented novels aimed at girls, and then contrasting these lesser works with their unromantic, college-and-sport themed heirs,  novels which “captured the spirit of the Suffragettes”. That being so, it hardly seems irrelevant that, in critiquing modern YA novels, Mallonee has described the romance in Twilight as “sinister” and disparaged its role in The Hunger Games, all while praising the lack of romance in both Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone. For Mallonee to conclude, then, that the value of the latter titles and the failure of the former is due to other factors entirely – thematic descriptors that, quite pointedly, have nothing to do with romance – is both insincere and deeply inaccurate. Instead, she tries to pin that sentiment on David Levithan, quoting him in such a way that her own, snide conclusions about the failings of SFFnal YA read as an interpretation of his remarks, rather than as a revelation of her own bias. To quote:

“I asked David Levithan, Scholastic’s vice president and editorial director, whether such books might be a way for girls to escape the real world. He explained that most successful fantasy literature is actually deeply relatable to the reader: “The themes (survival in Hunger Games, unrequited love in Twilight, etc.) are completely real even if the situations are not.” Within this milieu, authors as influential as Meyer and Collins have the opportunity to inspire their readers toward greatness, but they squander it miserably. Neither Bella nor Katniss have dreams that transcend their current situations.”

 In fact, it’s not even clear if the bracketed reference to Twilight and The Hunger Games is something Levithan actually said, or whether Mallonee inserted it herself to contextualise his comments and just so happened to forget the convention of using square brackets when commenting within a quote. In either case, though, it seems abundantly clear that Levithan’s actual statement – that the success of fantasy literature hinges on its use of real and relatable human elements – is the exact opposite of Mallonee’s conclusion, which is that Meyer and Collins both fail to do this, as neither of their heroines “have dreams that transcend their current situations.” Whether intentionally or not, Mallonee has ended her article by quoting a prominent YA editor in such a way as to make him look highly critical of Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins – a ploy which is not only grossly misleading, but cheap. And that, I’m afraid, is the tone of her article all over. Rather than enter into an honest discussion of her issues with the portrayal of romance in YA novels and the genre’s newfound popularity – both meaty topics, and well worth discussing – Mallonee has instead decided to invoke the age-old spectre of SFF as meaningless pulp, less worthy of praise than real literature, and used it as a shoddy cover for different anxieties. As she herself says:

“Louisa May Alcott may have written sensational vampire stories, but she also wrote Little Women, a classic I first read in middle school that taught me I could do or be anything, and that my uneventful life was filled with meaning. I’m not betting on Meyer or Collins to create her, but I’d like to think another Jo March might still be out there.”

What a condescendingly sexist, genrephobic mess. While there’s nothing wrong with either critiquing the role of romance  in popular narratives or disliking popular works, the intimation that the presence of the former and success of the latter is somehow fundamentally unfeminist, unliterary and unworthy is deeply problematic –  as is criticising exclusively the tastes of female readers and the motives of female authors under the guise of impartial, literary concern. Thanks ever so for your patronising thoughts on YA SFF, Laura – but next time, save yourself the effort.

*This post was sponsored and proofed by Grammarly, a free proofreading service. 

Warning: spoilers for The Killing (Danish version)

Over the past few weeks, my husband and I have been watching our way through all three seasons of The Killing – an amazing Danish crime show following Sarah Lund, a detective based in Copenhagen, as she investigates a series of politically connected crimes, each one of which forms the backbone of a particular season. The quality of the scripts, plots, acting and overall everything are astonishingly high, and I’d unhesitatingly rate the series as one of the single best crime shows I’ve ever seen. The final episode, however, has left me feeling deeply annoyed – not because it’s inconsistent with everything that’s come before, but for precisely the opposite reason.

Right from the outset, The Killing sets itself up as a gritty, no-nonsense thriller series: lots of political backstabbing with undertones of noir. The tropes in play are textbook – Lund is a single parent; she has a difficult relationship with her son, and is so obsessed with the job that, particularly in season one, her dedication sees the rest of her life systematically lost or broken; there’s an overriding theme of power corrupting even good men; and, crucially, all the primary victims are women: two raped and murdered teenage girls (Nana Birk Larsen from S1, Louise Hjelby from S3), a tortured and murdered lawyer (Anne Dragsholm from S2), and a kidnapped child (Emilie Zeuthen from S3) – and yet their execution is anything but. Lund is one of the more complex, compelling female detectives I’ve ever seen, played with incredible skill and subtlety by Sofie Grabol, and despite the traditional use of women in refrigerators to fuel the plot, just the fact that each death is dealt with, carefully and in detail, over the course of an entire season, is itself a humanising change from the endless parade of procedurals in which multiple such deaths are investigated and forgotten within the space of a single episode.

It’s also notable that, despite other thematic differences, key tropes recycle – and, indeed, feature prominently – across all three seasons: in particular, the good politician forced to accept the corruption of his peers for the sake of political expediency; the duplicitous political aide whose decision to withhold key information “for the good of the party” invariably leads to more deaths in the long run; the ruptured-but-repairing marriage of a couple trying to parent a young child or children while dealing with a crisis; and, of course, the steady disintegration of Lund’s personal life, which in S1 alone includes breaking up with her partner, an abortive move to Sweden, the loss of custody of her son, the death of a colleague, and, eventually, the loss of her job (albeit temporarily). Given the fact that S1 is 20 episodes long, whereas S2 and S3 are only ten each, the tropes it uses really do cast a long shadow over the rest of the series; which isn’t, I hasten to add, an entirely bad thing. As I’ve said, each season is incredibly well-constructed, and even though familiar themes and elements tie them all together, there’s still a real sense of tension and mystery to each whodunnit.

But where Lund’s personal life is concerned, it doesn’t take long to realise that her universe is a crapsack one. Important family occasions and crucial conversations with loved ones are invariably interrupted by urgent, work-related phone calls or summonses. If Lund makes a promise to meet with her mother, son or partner, you can bet she’ll either fail to make the date or be entirely preoccupied during it, with her early departure taken as a given. This self-destructive pattern of events is hardly unique to The Killing – the fact that I’ve long since thought of her as Wallanderesque is proof of that – but it does seem more unremitting than usual, not because Lund falls into a bleaker pit than other, similarly obsessive detectives (she doesn’t), but rather because the promise of recovery is never really dangled before her, either. Lund’s personal life is monotone: once her move to Sweden is called off midway through S1, we know that things have fallen apart forever. This pattern only continues in S2: not only does she grow increasingly estranged from her son and mother, but as her fledgeling love interests turns out to be the killer, it sort of hits home the point that Lund is not a character for whom things will ever work out.

And that’s entirely fine. What bothers me about the ending to S3, though – a plot-twisty scene in which Lund shoots the killer dead in cold blood, not because he attacked her, but because she lacked any evidence with which to convict him, a vigilante-style action that sees her fleeing the country to escape justice – is that it takes this phenomenon to an unnecessary and unrealistic extreme, both narratively and in terms of Lund’s character. Narratively, it’s a weaksauce decision: not only did Lund have a new lead and new suspicions about the killer having additional victims, but three other prominent characters had actual evidence to support her theory. Had Lund stayed to stand trial rather than fleeing – or had she refrained from shooting the killer at all – their collaboration would have been natural; instead, with Lund fled, none of the other parties have any reason ever to meet again, which ensures that the matter stays buried, and while that might fit with the overall theme of politics winning out over propriety, it feels like a cop-out designed to ensure a bleak outcome in the face of common sense. Similarly, I couldn’t help feeling that such a dramatic action was out of character for Lund: not only did the shooting come at a time when she had more to lose than ever – having just reconnected with her son, become a grandmother, accepted a cushy new job and rekindled an old romance – but as far as the rest of the series goes, we’ve never seen her run away from anything, and especially not the consequences of her actions. Even though her shooting of the killer felt forced to me, I didn’t think it implausible; but her fleeing from justice felt wholly out of character. Lund has always broken the rules in pursuit of justice; yet every time, we’ve seen her stay and face the music. That the final season ended with her escape was deeply irritating – a decision I felt was made, not because it was in the best interests of the plot, but to ensure that the whole series finished on a suitably bleak and gritty note.

Which is why, to finally come to the point, I had something of an epiphany tonight: that stories whose emotional outcome can be broadly inferred by what genre you’re in are almost always, on some fundamental level, going to disappoint me, because even though their individual events might surprise me, their actual endings won’t. All the way through S3 of The Killing, I kept on thinking, there’s no way this will end well. The absolute best that can happen is that they’ll save the girl – because even gritty noir shows tend to flinch from killing nine year old girls in the final act! – but otherwise, Lund is screwed, because she’s ALWAYS screwed. And of course, that’s exactly what happened. Which isn’t to say I disliked The Killing – as I said earlier, it’s easily one of my favourite crime series. But while there were doubtless viewers for whom the ending came as an emotional suckerpunch, for me, it just felt like a bland continuation of the overall theme of bleakness; because once you firmly establish that there’s no room for Lund to end a season happily, then no matter how spectacular you make the cause of her unhappiness, past a certain point, I’m just going to struggle to find it in me to care.

And this made me realise, in turn, that I have just the same problem with romance narratives – or rather, with stories that are explicitly marketed as romance. By which I mean: if I know from the outset that Story X is a romance, then you’re simultaneously telling me the emotional catharsis of the ending – that the protagonists end up together, happily ever after. And sometimes, that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a story. But if I want to be surprised, there has to be some emotional uncertainty. By definition, genre is always going to codify at least a few things about any given narrative. If I read a whodunnit, I can be pretty sure that a crime will be committed, and that at some point during the course of events, I’ll find out who the guilty party is. What isn’t certain is whether the criminal will be brought to justice, how the detective and/or protagonist will cope with it, and who’ll be hurt in the process. In other words, while I might know beforehand some of what happens, I won’t know how I’ll feel about it ’till afterwards, and that uncertainty is what motivates me to get to the end.

Which is also why I tend to have a preference for romance narratives that appear in stories which aren’t earmarked as romance: because even though I natively want my favoured characters to end up together, the minute you tell me that the pairing is predestined, it takes away some of the clout of the finale, because it simultaneously removes the possibility of an emotional surprise. And sometimes that’s comforting; sometimes, as I’ve said, it’s what I’m after – just as at other times, I’m in the mood to feel cynical about life, the universe and everything. But the stories that really get under my skin are the ones that make me doubt; the ones whose climactic moments have me physically hunching forwards, desperate to learn what happens next – and a truly great story can make me forget what genre it belongs to. The first time I saw How to Train Your Dragon at the cinema, the climactic battle was so well done that, when Hiccup and Toothless fell through the sky, I actually forgot I was watching a children’s film, with all the narrative safeties that traditionally implies: I watched them fall, and my heart seized up, because just for an instant, I thought that one or both of them was going to die. The story was so well-crafted, I stopped watching through the lens of genre awareness and became completely immersed in the narrative, as awestruck and uncertain as if I were six years old, and for someone who spends as much of their life doing meta-analysis as I do, that’s no small thing.

So if this post has a point, it’s this: that, regardless of the genre in which you’re writing, emotional uncertainty is important. Audiences can tell the difference between fake conflict – aka, There’s Only An Obstacle Here To Make The Plot Work, Otherwise They’d Just Kiss On Page Ten And Get It Over With – and conflict that genuinely unsettles the characters; similarly, they can also tell the difference between forced bleakness – aka, We Decided This Story Was Going To Be Serious And Depressing, Therefore Nobody Is Allowed To Have A Happy Ending – and a story where tragedy feels organic to the narrative. It’s a subtle distinction at times, and as in all things fictional, YMMV, but far too often, I feel as though creators and audiences both fall into the trap of relying on the audience’s knowledge of genre to smooth over bumps in the plot and characterisation. After all, the human brain excels at filling in gaps: a lot of the time, we see what we expect to see, and if what we expect (for instance) is gritty compromise, then why stop and question the logic of Sarah Lund shooting an unarmed suspect when she had a new lead, a whole new life to live for, and several powerful, dedicated allies she could turn to for help? Easier just to shrug and say, well, that’s how this sort of story goes. And as I’ve said, that doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. But for me, it won’t ever really be a surprising thing – and sometimes, that’s a type of disappointment all its own.

*A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Grammarly, who offered to sponsor a writing-related post in return for an Amazon voucher valued at USD$50. I agreed to do so on two conditions: one, that I disclose that I was being paid, and two, that I actually liked the product. Which, from my limited usage, I do:  some of the things it checks for, like use of the passive voice and particular grammatical constructions, are probably more applicable to formal or academic writing than informal blogging, but as a tool, I found it easy to use, and it’s certainly more thorough, and with a nicer user interface, than the spellcheck in Open Office.   

You know, as strange as it may sound given how much time I spend ranting on the internet, I actually live a rich, full life, one in which I regularly leave the house and talk to my friends about a wide range of things that do not, in fact, suck. I’m also a fairly busy person, especially right now, what with finishing up a new novel, writing various reviews and columns, tending my seven-month-old son and – oh, yeah – the fact that we just moved house. So even though I still make time for online shenanigans, the number of articles I read in full, per day, has dropped dramatically, which leaves me feeling like some sort of digital meerkat, briefly popping up into the bright, popcultural sunlight of the internet, then ducking back down into the subterranean warren of Shit I Actually Need To Do, No, Seriously, How The Fuck Is It September Already? And most of the time, it’s a policy that serves me well.

But invariably – and with a regularity that is fast depleting my finite stores of dispassionate, well-reasoned criticism – there comes a day when I poke my head above ground and encounter a fresh, steaming pile of bullshit, such that I start gritting my teeth and channelling Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You.

10 Things - Asshole Day

And today, we’ve hit the trifecta: this spectacularly douchey, concern-trolling, woe-is-my-unrecognised-talent Facebook post by John Ringo lamenting John Scalzi’s Hugo win, Mike Krahulik’s PAX announcement that he regretted ever discontinuing their rape-apologist Dickwolves merchandise, and – my personal favourite – an astonishingly incoherent post by one Paul Cook over at Amazing Stories on When Science Fiction Isn’t Science Fiction (which, surprise! turns out to be if it contains romance elements and is therefore written for ladies).

And I mean, OK: so Ringo is an entitled, embittered asshat, and Krahulik is the same foot-in-mouth, mostly jerky dude he always was, though with an increasing glimmer of self awareness and repentance, and those are definitely things worth talking about – as, indeed, many people are already doing. Once upon a time, I’d likely have gone in to bat about them myself. But like I said, I have limited ranting time these days, and so instead I’ll stick with responding to Paul Cook’s piece, because, seriously? Are we still having this same damn conversation about “real” SFF and why romance isn’t part of it?

We are?

Rage comics are you fucking kidding me

I wish I was, rage comics dude. I really wish I was.

Right from the outset of Cook’s piece, it’s pretty clear that we’re dealing with some pretty deeply-ingrained assumptions about the genre. To quote (my emphasis):

Most writers who publish in the science fiction field stay within the usual parameters of the field, continuing their careers writing what no one would doubt as standard science fiction. Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein to name but four, wrote and published their works as science fiction, with the occasional foray into the fantastic–but not outright fantasy. Heinlein did write Glory Road which was science fiction using fantasy tropes that no one would mistake for aspects of a regular fantasy novel. That is to say, Heinlein’sGlory Road isn’t at all like one of Robert Jordan’s epic fantasies nor does it resemble the Arthurian fantasy of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s classic (and truly excellent novel),  The Mists of Avalon.

That said, some writers who might have started off in science fiction soon reveal their true selves when they start publishing what they really want to write about.

Or, in other words: Cook’s definition of “standard science fiction” doesn’t include any “outright fantasy” elements (though it can include “fantasy tropes” PROVIDED nobody could mistake the story for being a “regular fantasy novel”,  meaning either “epic” or “Arthurian” fantasies). This definition appears to be sacrosanct to Cook, because when, in his estimation, SF writers deviate from “the usual parameters of the field”, they’re not just mixing it up, evolving the genre, exploring new narrative possibilities or otherwise striving for originality – no. They’re revealing their “true selves” and writing “what they really want to write about” – language which not only couches their deviation as a betrayal of SF, but which actively suggests their former use of the genre was somehow all a cynical act; that they never really wanted to write SF at all, caring only for their subsequent stories and not their original SF works, as though the latter output was merely a misbegotten firstborn left to fend for itself after the arrival of a long-awaited second child.

He then proceeds to list the authors to whom he thinks this wildly prejudicial and utterly bizarre characterisation applies. Namely: Gene Wolfe, Lois McMaster Bujold, and duo Sharon Lee and Steve Miller; he also complains about “steampunk writers… shifting over to writing about zombies,” and while he names no names in that instance, the paragraph in question is accompanied by a picture of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker cover, which would seem to indicate at least some measure of dissatisfaction with her work in particular.

Clearly, then, Cook feels strongly about what constitutes real SF – but despite how negatively he’s characterised such genre-hopping dilettantism, that doesn’t mean he necessarily hates the works in question; just the fact that people keep calling such books SF, when in his mind, they’re not. So what does he actually say to defend his position?

Of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, he says this (my emphasis again):

 I can tell you that these books–masterpieces as everyone seems to think they are–are actually medieval/Arthurian fantasies. In fact, there is virtually no real “science fiction” in these books other than various tropes… Severian’s travels and adventures and storytelling (Book Two has a long fairy tale inserted in the middle of the novel that goes absolutely nowhere and adds nothing to the novel) are straight out of a YA rite-of-passage fantasy…  The earth does not wobble on its axis (as it would if the moon were gone) and without vulcanism and tectonic plate induction in the ocean, carbon dioxide would not be removed from the atmosphere and recycled into the mantle where it can stay out of the atmosphere and not smother life. These things don’t matter to the fantasist. They didn’t matter to Wolfe.

Now, conceivably, that first backhanded disparagement – that people only “seem to think” Wolfe’s books are “masterpieces”, implying that Cook thinks they’re anything but – could just be the product of poor grammar, as the insertion of a comma after the word masterpieces would strongly imply that Cook agrees with its usage; and in either case, I don’t particularly care. Cook is, after all, entitled to his opinion about the merit of various books, and especially given that I’ve read no Wolfe myself, I’m hardly abristle at this possible slight to his honour. I mention it only because, if intended as a slight – and I suspect it is – it contextualises Cook’s subsequent judgements as belonging to a series of negative ones. In which case, the remark about the book resembling a “YA rite-of-passage fantasy” is clearly a disparaging one; and this sets off warning bells for me. Similarly, his subsequent assertion that proper details and scientific research “don’t matter to the fantasist” is jarring, as is the simultaneous inference that true SF always gets such things right. Being able to pick holes in the worldbuilding of a given novel might well demonstrate its structural failings, but that doesn’t mean the book belongs to a different genre. Off the top of my head, I can think of plenty of fantasy novels whose authors take extraordinary care with their inclusion of real-world details, just as I can name multiple SF stories that show a comparative lack of care for science. The whole idea of FTL travel and wormhole jumps, for instance, is just as handwavium-based as Wolfe’s decision to ignore vulcanism and a wobbly Earth axis, and yet I doubt that the inclusion of either element would irritate Cook to the same degree. Whatever: as I already said, I don’t really care what he thinks of Wolfe’s work – but I do care that he thinks sloppy worldbuilding is somehow a symptom of fantasy-writing.

Onwards, then, to his criticism of Bujold. This is where the real problems start, and in such an offensively baffling way that I can’t help but quote the whole paragraph (emphasis mine, again):

Another writer well-praised (from every corner) is Lois McMaster Bujold. Her great work is the Miles Vorkosigan series. These are supposed to be military science fiction stories, but they are really at their core Romance novels. At first, they were military science fiction novels of a higher order than most. But the romance elements creep in very early on. Bujold tips her hand in the eloquence of her language (normally a good thing) and the attention to detail that only women would find attractive: balls, courts, military dress, palace intrigues, gossiping, and whispering in the corridors. All of this is right out of Alexander Dumas. True, these intrigues and flourishes do happen in the real world (or they used to), but Bujold, over time with novels such as Miles in Loveand Cordelia’s Honor, you can see that Bujold is a closet romance writer. Not that this is a bad thing, but some of us aren’t that interested in romance. For me, personally, it takes much of the dramatic urgency out of a story if the hero is already married or if during a skirmish comes back to canoodle or wine or dine with his beloved before rushing back to the fray.

I honestly don’t know which is more painful: Cook’s efforts to try and say that really, it’s OK Bujold writes romance even though he doesn’t like it, or the totally oblivious sexism with which he undercuts this assertion. In remarking that Bujold “tips her hand” by including “romance elements” – which, he says, involve an “attention to detail that only women would find attractive” – he characterises romance as being a wholly feminine genre, such that, when he goes on to say that “some of us aren’t that interested in romance”, it seems pretty clear that by “some of us”, Cook means men.  Whether intentionally or not, he therefore manages to dismiss Bujold, one of the most respected and multi-award-winning SF writers out there, as not being a real SF author because she actually just writes romance and romance is for women only. Which makes his subsequent remark that all her “attention to detail that only women find attractive” is “right out of Alexander [sic] Dumas” all the weirder: I mean, what’s he trying to say with this? That Dumas only wrote for women, or that he was also a closet romance writer? It just doesn’t make any sense, and yet the insult to both women and romance is so palpable it left me staring at the screen in disbelief, jaw clenched.

On closer examination, though, it’s his final sentence that actually worries me most: specifically, the admission that it bores him “if the hero is already married”. It’s clear this description is meant to accurately summarise romance stories as a whole, but as even a cursory perusal of the genre would make plain, nothing could be further from the truth. The Happily Ever After is where, barring cameo appearances in future volumes, romance stories stop – it is emphatically not what constitutes their defining narrative structure. The Vorkosigan books, by contrast, feature both sides of the story: we see the characters meet and fall in love, but because their romantic, pre-HEA friction isn’t the defining aspect of the narrative, but rather just a single facet of a larger story, we also see them afterwards, getting on with their lives together. So while the series definitely contains romantic elements, collectively, the books aren’t romance novels. I don’t say that to defend Bujold against the accusation of writing romance, because I don’t believe there’s anything lesser or pejorative about writing romance instead of SF (and I certainly don’t believe it’s a women-only genre; female-dominated, maybe, in terms of readership and output, but that’s hardly the same thing, and a separate point besides). No: what bothers me is that, when Cook says he doesn’t like to read about married heroes who take a break from fighting to “canoodle” with their sweethearts, it feels like an admission that he prefers his (male) heroes to be single and to lack a romantic attachment to the women in their lives. And this is a very different thing: because whereas Bujold’s decision to portray happy, realistic, functional marriages necessarily involves male characters who treat the women they love with respect, Cook seems to be against that – because all that kindness and love and icky lady romance gets in the way of the action. And that makes me wonder: does he, then, have no issue with SF stories where the hero is a womaniser, someone who sleeps with various sexy maidens while in pursuit of his duty and doesn’t care enough to see them again afterwards, but who still cares just enough to be Tragically Wounded if they end up dead? Maybe I’m being uncharitable because this paragraph so profoundly rubbed me the wrong way, but even so – and especially given his citation of Heinlen, Clarke, Sturgeon and Asimov as stellar examples of real SF authors – I can’t help but feel that what he’s really objecting to in the Vorkosigan books isn’t the use of sex or romance, or even necessarily of marriage, but to the presence of female love interests who influence the plot in ways other than simply sleeping with the hero, and to the use of heroes who think about the women they love as partners rather than sex objects.

In talking about Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s novels – a paragraph which, once again, I’m forced to quote in full – Cook becomes even more disparaging about romance (my emphasis):

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s novels in their Liaden Universe® (from Baen Books) are also romance writers. Like the Vorkosigan novels, they begin as space adventures in the military science fiction genre, but their latest installments are romances only barely disguised with science fiction tropes and conceits. Lee’s and Miller’s stories in this series are carefully written, but I’d call them science fiction-lite because there really isn’t much tension in these stories. It’s as if, now that they’ve found their niche and their considerable audience, they want to play it safe. True, science fiction as a whole is indeed part of Romance Literature (if we go all the way back to the 18th century when novels were invented in England, with the Gothic novel leading the way), but some writers, by dint of their nature, turn to romance or the western or whatever. I’ve read several of the books in the Liaden Universe® and to me they are romances in disguise–with the couple coming together with a calm sense of inevitability rather than one preceded by blood, sweat, tears and some sort of significant loss. True, no science fiction or fantasy writer has the courage to end a novel the way Hemingway does in A Farewell to Arms, but then ours is an escapist genre. Which is also why we don’t have a Hemingway or Faulkner in our midst–but that’s another story.

By this point, the repetitive assertion that romance or romance writers are “disguised” or closeted somehow is really starting to wear me down. I find it depressing – but not actually surprising – that even though, in the very first paragraph, Cook is capable of acknowledging that SF stories can contain fantasy tropes without actually being fantasy novels, presumably because he wants to establish the credentials of his favourite authors as being beyond reproach, he spends much of the rest of the post categorically denying the idea that romance tropes can similarly exist in SF stories without causing the book in question to magically switch genres. The idea that Lee and Miller chose to write “science fiction-lite” by amping up the romance – and more, that this decision was a way to “play it safe” – is more than usually laughable given Cook’s simultaneous inference that it ruined the books; which begs the question, safe from what? Ridicule and accusations of selling out? Clearly not. I don’t even have the energy to try and unpack what’s meant by the claim that “some writers, by dint of their nature, turn to romance” – by what nature, exactly? There are so many things this could mean, all of them contextually pejorative, one of the least of which is the idea that “by dint of their nature” is a not-so-subtle code for “by dint of being born female, or having an interest in women”. At absolute best, Cook is simply so enamoured of SF as a genre that he’s inclined to view any departure from it by SFnal authors as not just a bad decision, but an actual character flaw – hence it being in their “nature” to revert to writing “romance or the western or whatever”. Which makes the fact that he then goes on to praise Hemmingway and Faulkner as being braver, better writers than anyone in SFF  all the more mind-boggling (never mind being an assertion that opens up a whole different can of worms).

Finally, he expresses his distaste for zombie stories mucking up steampunk and SF, and once more manages to throw in a gendered barb: “I have no interest,” he says, ” in reading about zombies, fancy dress balls, smooching warriors, or star-lit dinners on the terrace overlooking a waiting army about to go to war” – a remark which neatly mirrors his complaints about those pesky romantic details that “only women” like.  And that would be the end of it – except that, of course, he also manages to make an ass of himself in the comments. When confronted with accusations of sexism, Cook becomes angry, remarking that Lee and Miller, “competent as they are, are writing disguised romances” – which manages to be a more overtly disparaging slight about romance than he makes in the actual article.  He also refers to the romance elements in their books as being their “true predilections” – because clearly, if an SF writer writes romance, they mustn’t care as much about SF! The fact that he also claims to be “very precise in my wording, or I try to be” is, under the circumstances, rather heartbreaking. But it’s his response to accusations of misogyny that proves the most telling:

By accusing me of being a misogynist, you shut down all possibility of an informed analysis of any woman’s work. That’s a refuge I’ve seen critics in literature take for over 30 years, at least since the mid-1980s. It doesn’t work that way. Any work of art can be criticized, regardless of the gender of who wrote them, painted them, composed them, etc.

And I just… I don’t even know how to respond to this. Because Cook has said, right there in his own, apparently “precise” words, that Bujold’s work involves “the attention to detail that only women would find attractive” – details which Cook himself feels are detrimental to the story, and which he plainly states are a hallmark of Bujold’s romantic credentials. This is unequivocally a sexist remark, and the fact that Cook doesn’t recognise this fact – let alone understand that his disparagement of romance as both feminine and lesser is similarly gross – is the main problem with his piece. But the idea that misogyny is some kind of card that critics play to shut down the possibility of an informed analysis of women’s work? What planet is this guy even on? OF COURSE any work can be criticsed, regardless of the gender of the creator; that’s not in dispute. But that doesn’t mean that Cook isn’t being sexist in his analysis: and when he complains about the fact that accusations of misogyny have effectively been ruining criticism for thirty-odd years, it makes me wonder how many times in the past someone has called him out for sexist behaviour, and he’s chosen to interpret that as meaning “you can’t critique female writers because you’re male and therefore biased”, when what they’re ACTUALLY saying is “by all means critique female writers, but be aware that your internalised, negative assumptions about women, romance and femininity are influencing your judgement in unhelpful ways”. Like, seriously? Thirty years of viewing misogyny accusations as a tactic for dodging criticism rather than, you know, a legitimate fucking complaint about sexism in SFF, and he’s never once sat down and thought, Huh, maybe they have a point? Christ on a BICYCLE.

And then it gets worse:

I’m correct here. The books I mention as romances are romances. They are also very “light” in gravitas and absolutely devoid of metaphor.

More anti-romance bullshit! Because romance is light, devoid of metaphor and totally lacking in gravitas, AMIRITE LADIES? And obviously, the best way to prove you’re not sexist is to call romance a female-only genre and then disparage the shit out of it!

The last great sf story that, to me, resonated with metaphor was Terry Bisson’s “macs” which was about American’s natural desire to kill someone who’s harmed us.

Oh.

Well, THAT’S not profoundly unsettling. (Note also, please, that the story in question came out in 1999, which means that, by his own admission, Cook hasn’t seen anything worthy in the genre for nearly fifteen fucking years.)

 I know I’ve offended you, only because I have had an opinion.

No, it’s not because you had an opinion; it’s because the opinion itself was offensive bullshit.

DeAnn, please, please explain to me what “ground” Lois Bujold has broken with her writing. She’s writing in the 1940s Astounding tradition of space adventures tinted with romance. That’s it. If you want ground breaking, read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar or his The Long Result or his Shockwave Rider. Don’t bore me with telling me these mediocre writers are ground-breaking. They’re just writing pulp fiction–pure entertainment. Lift away all the standard tropes and conceits from Bujold’s writing and you have stories where we know the hero gets his heroine and all will be well. Our writers have lost the courage to tell a story such as Thomas Disch’s Genocides or any one of Philip K. Dick’s novels. But, then, publishers publish what they think sells. Thus, romance, thus zombies. But that’s my opinion. And the fact that I have a divergent opinion makes me the most hated person on the internet.

And in this final comment, despite all his earlier protestations that being a romance writer “isn’t a bad thing”, Cook finally gets angry enough to be honest: Bujold breaks no ground with her stories – she is, in fact, “mediocre… pulp fiction – pure entertainment” – and romance is only popular, not because it has any merit, but because “publishers publish what they think sells”. And isn’t it interesting how, with the sole exception of Marion Zimmer Bradley, every single person Cook has held up as an example of brave, exemplary writing is an old white guy from his generation? Talk about being stuck in the past.

Dear Mr Cook, if you’re reading this: you’re not the most hated person on the internet. Michael Brutsch couldn’t even claim that much, and he might actually have deserved it. Nobody is sending you rape or death threats; nobody is telling you, in graphic detail, the things they’ll do to your children or pets in revenge for what you’ve said (though all those things have happened to women writers just for existing on the internet, let alone saying anything controversial). All they’re doing is sharing their opinions of your opinion, as they – we – are entitled to do; and because we think your opinion is bullshit, you’ve elected to view our response as persecution. You aren’t being persecuted; you’re being argued with, and the fact that you can’t tell the difference is a sign of the privileged echo-chamber in which, until now, I suspect you’ve spent your fannish life. I’d tell you to grow up, but seeing as how, the last good story you read was apparently written almost fifteen years ago, one suspects it wouldn’t help. As far as I can tell, your tastes are so firmly fixed in the stories of your youth that every development undergone by the genre since then is something you’ve elected to view with suspicion. And that wouldn’t bother me, but SFF is my genre, too, and I’m sick of watching bitter old men try to claw away and disparage everything about SFF that’s welcomed me and drawn me in by saying that it isn’t really SF; that the genre is changing, not because the audience and the world are changing together, but because shallow people just want to make money. I’m sick of it, and so I’m arguing against your opinion – at length, in my own time, even knowing that, unlike you, I am actually risking a genuinely abusive backlash by doing so, because that’s what happens to women on the internet when the really ugly trolls catch wind of us.

So why am I bothering, then?

Because I fucking belong here and you will not make me feel otherwise.

Trigger warning: some talk of rape.

“You’re not friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love ’till it kills you both. You’ll fight, and you’ll shag, and you’ll hate each other ’till it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends. Love isn’t brains, children, it’s blood – blood screaming inside of you to work its will. I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.”

– Spike,  Lover’s Walk (S3E8)

To me, the above quote is one of the single best speeches in all of Buffy – it might even be my personal favourite. In his lone appearance in S3, Spike is forced into a brief alliance with Buffy and the newly-returned Angel, and instantly sees through their claims to be “just friends”. Superficially, then, his response is not only the emotional denouement of the episode, but a comment on their relationship.

Only, here’s the thing: Buffy and Angel do become friends. Their love has already reached its big romantic climax. Buffy has fought with Angelus, not Angel; they’ve only had sex once (the events of I Will Remember You are reversed, and therefore don’t count); and though they argue down the line, they don’t ever hate each other. The relationship Spike is describing doesn’t exist.

Or rather, it does – but not between Buffy and Angel. This entire speech is a neat foreshadowing of everything that happens between Buffy and Spike. They’re not friends; they never were. Buffy dies being loved by Spike – he collapses in grief at the loss – and then later, after she says she loves him, Spike dies for Buffy in turn. They fight and shag constantly through S6 – sometimes simultaneously – and frequently state their hatred for one another before then: in fact, this is the exact progression of events in Smashed and Wrecked, when they first have sex. In Dead Things, we even see them stand on opposite sides of the same door, reaching for each other, each one yearning against their better judgement – blood screaming inside them to work its will, while Out Of This World by Bush plays eerily in the background. When it comes to Buffy, Spike is unashamedly love’s bitch. This speech will never not be about them.

Buffy and Spike is my crackship. Not because they’re impossible together, but because they should be – and because, like crack, they’re unhealthily addictive.

Their relationship is every possible flavour of fucked up. From the moment Spike first shows up in S2, they’re enemies – but when Angelus tries to end the world, it’s Spike who helps Buffy defeat him. In S4, despite their mutual loathing, we go down the rabbit hole of their relationship twice – once in Something Blue, when Willow’s magic forces them together, and then again in Who Are You, where Faith flirts with Spike while wearing Buffy’s body, and we realise he’s equal parts angry and aroused at the prospect. In Goodbye Iowa, he even refers to Buffy as Goldilocks – a term of endearment he uses again in S6’s Gone, when the usage prompts Buffy to cut her hair short. But it’s not until S5’s Out of My Mind that he realises he loves her: a dream-revelation that throws him awake with a whispered, “Oh god, no. Please, no.” (Love isn’t brains, children.)

Some of what Spike does is deeply gross (the Buffybot) or outright indefensible (his abortive rape attempt) – and yet, I keep coming back to their relationship; as broken and dysfunctional as it is, it’s nonetheless compelling. Even now, I still can’t decide whether every loving, useful thing Spike does while unsouled – withstanding torture to protect Dawn, fighting on Buffy’s side, comforting her when nobody else even knows what’s wrong – either outweighs or is outweighed by those two awful, terrible things. Because, here’s the thing: we don’t blame Angel for the crimes he commits as Angelus. His soulless personality is so different to his human one that it’s easy to view them as a flipswitch binary: he’s either one or the other. Angel has a romantic relationship with Buffy; Angelus wants to torture, abuse and kill her. But Spike is much more ambiguous. His emotional evolution starts while he’s still unsouled, to the point where loving Buffy prompts him to get his soul back. He’s so horrified by his actions in Seeing Red – the rape attempt – that, in his own words, he makes himself into the man she deserves: someone whose conscience would render him incapable of sexual violence.

And I just… OK. It’s impossible, literally impossible, to get away from the rape attempt (though apparently the fact that Xander did the same thing in S1’s The Pack is both forgiven and forgotten). You can’t ignore or downplay it, and while you can try and contextualise it for the purposes of discussing both Spike’s character and his relationship with Buffy, that still doesn’t change what he did. Thematically, though, there’s something significant in the fact that Spike stops himself – that he regains himself mid-assault, realises what he’s doing, and goes immediately to get his soul back. Because when Angel turns into Angelus after he and Buffy sleep together, the whole narrative becomes a metaphor for the fact that sometimes, men change once they’ve slept with you – they turn into monsters, and you’re left to pick up the pieces. It’s a theme that’s reiterated when Parker turns out to be a colossal douche, and to a lesser extent, when Riley starts seeing vampire gals on the side. Men turn into monsters, but overwhelmingly in the Buffyverse, they refuse to acknowledge it – except for Spike, who not only admits what he is, but actively tries to change.

See, the problem with Angel/Angelus being two extremes of a binary personality is that Angel is never held accountable (or at least, not by Buffy) for the things he does as Angelus. We never see him apologise: not for the way he treats her while evil, not for Miss Calendar’s death, none of it. Despite the fact that Angel’s whole redemptive arc is predicated on actively atoning for his vampire crimes, he still behaves as though it was all beyond his control. He doesn’t apologise for what he does to Buffy, because he’s not the one who did it – yet even if we consider that to be technically true, it still seems reasonable to expect him to seek forgiveness. Parker, however, has no such excuse: he’s a classic user, a weasel who avoids responsibility for his actions by claiming his motives were always obvious – that Buffy, or whichever girl he’s left broken-hearted, has simply misunderstood him. And then there’s Riley, whose response to being caught cheating is to issue an unbelievably selfish ultimatum: either Buffy can decide immediately that she still wants him around, in which case he’ll make an effort to earn back her trust, or she can stay angry and lose him forever. The speech that Xander gives Buffy at this point to convince her that Riley ought to stay is infuriating. He’s 1% right, in the sense that fairness doesn’t enter into it – Riley has given her an ultimatum, and as sucky as that is, she can’t abstain from making a decision – but given how incredibly shitty a thing Riley’s done by putting her in that position, he really doesn’t deserve Xander’s understanding; he certainly doesn’t deserve Buffy’s. And despite his denials, it’s clear his real issue with Buffy is her greater strength: she didn’t need his protection, he felt insecure as a result, and when presented with an easy out – flying away to the Amazon if his demands weren’t met, instead of staying to make things right – he takes it.

And then there’s Spike.

He apologises for the Buffybot; he openly admits that he’s a monster. After his assault on Buffy, the first thing he does is try to redeem himself, because unlike every other man she’s ever slept with, he admits he’s done something wrong, and that he, Spike, is the culprit. And it’s not silent redemption, either: the guilt drives him mad, and when he comes back at the start of S7, not only the audience, but Buffy herself is left in no doubt that what he’s done – regaining his soul – has been an act of atonement: that he’s given himself a conscience, punished himself physically and mentally, and returned with no expectation of forgiveness to offer what help he can. And that, I think, despite everything, is at the core of why I keep coming back to Buffy and Spike’s relationship, why I can’t let go of it: as brutally fucked up as their history is, and despite the fact that Spike’s assault is arguably* the worst thing any partner has ever done to her, he’s also the only parter to accept responsibility for his actions, and to try and directly atone for them. Spike learns because of Buffy; he becomes a better man – or a better monster – through loving her, and I don’t think that’s true of any of the others; even Angel.

And speaking of Angel: sit down and think for a moment about the basis for their relationship. S1 is only twelve episodes long. Angel doesn’t appear in all of them, and most of the time, his presence is fleeting. He and Buffy don’t even kiss until episode 7, and two episodes later, we’re meant to believe he’s in love with her – and while we later learn he’s been watching her quietly ever since she was called (which is incredibly creepy and stalkerish), the short timeframe strongly implies that her love of him is a youthful infatuation, at least initially. They’re together for a while, but a bit more than halfway through S2, he turns evil, and Buffy sends him to hell. When he returns in S3, he isn’t back on the field (so to speak) until about episode 7 – prior to that, he’s recovering. Though they get back together soon afterwards, when Joyce speaks to Angel about the “hard choices” he and Buffy have ahead of them, he breaks it off with her – and as sensible as that decision ultimately is, the way he goes about it doesn’t sit well with me. However immature Buffy was at the start of their relationship, she’s grown up enormously by that point, and instead of treating her like an adult – someone capable of knowing her own mind and making her own decisions – he takes the choice away from her, effectively dumping her for her own good. This is something he does again by returning in S4 without letting her know he’s there, and it’s also something we later see Riley do, too: indulging in paternalistic, overprotective behaviour despite her superior strength and emotional autonomy.

A sidenote here about Xander: I cannot even begin to express how much it bothers me that his rape attempt from S1’s The Pack is never addressed in the narrative. Despite remembering everything he did while under the influence of the hyena spirit, Xander feigns amnesia in order to dodge the consequences of his actions, putting him on the same page as Angel, Parker and Riley. Never mind the fact that, at this point – which is to say, four episodes into the first season – he and Buffy have known each other for all of a month or so, and that realistically, if a guy you’d known for such a short amount of time sexually assaulted you while in an altered state,  it ought to make you wary of him afterwards at the very least. But this doesn’t happen, which I take to be an enormous failure on the part of the writers. The fact that Spike’s assault is more forceful then Xander’s doesn’t detract from the vileness of the sentiment – nor, indeed, from the fact that, whereas Spike regains his senses mid-struggle and stops himself, Xander has to be physically incapacitated by Buffy. But despite the difference in their demonic aspects – Xander is possessed by a hyena spirit, while Spike is soulless – the two states nonetheless appear to be rather similar, in that both are guided by primal urges while still retaining their base personalities. It therefore seems a telling sign of Xander’s status as a Nice Guy that, whereas Spike seeks redemption for what he’s done while still soulless, Xander doesn’t so much as apologise even when back to normal. Xander, it seems, has less decency at times than someone who physically lacks a conscience.

Which is, I think, the best definition for vampirehood in the Buffyverse. Becoming a vampire invests you with bloodlust and demonic strength while stripping you of your conscience: what’s left is who you were before, but influenced by power and hunger and unfettered by consequences, which is the perfect explanation for Spike. In S5’s Crush, he’s implicitly likened to Quasimodo – a troubled outsider whose love for Esmerelda (that is, Buffy) can never be reciprocated, because his motivations in pursuing her are purely selfish – and yet, in the same conversation, we’re also invited to sympathise with him, for the sake of the effort he makes. Spike’s soullessness means that he’s without conscience, but unlike Quasimodo, he tries to grow one, and eventually succeeds by regaining his soul – but this being something of a chicken and egg dilemma, his attempts prior to that are equal parts creepy, misguided and genuinely touching. He makes a shrine to Buffy, furnished with clothes and photos stolen from her house. He tells her about Riley out of a mix of self-interest and real concern, but when he realises how deeply she’s been hurt by it, we see him express contrition and empathy. In S5’s Triangle, we even see him rehearsing apologies, complete with a dented box of chocolates. In Crush, he threatens her with death at Drusilla’s hands unless she confesses being attracted to him, but at the same time acknowledges how wrong his own feelings are. And when Glory captures and tortures him, he withholds the secret of Dawn’s identity at great personal cost, because he knows how much her loss would hurt Buffy. Without recourse to a conscience, he’s pulled in different directions at once, trying to do the right thing but failing at least as often as he succeeds. The demon in him is selfish, lustful and possessive, but the good man, the poet, so long dormant, is fighting for control.

And then there’s the issue of the Buffybot. More than once in the course of the show, a character spurned or crossed in love resorts to magic or science as a way to regain control: Xander once, with his wildly destructive love spell in Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered; Warren twice, first with his own robot, April, and then with the enslavement, attempted rape and actual manslaughter of Katrina; Willow twice, first with her abortive attempt to curse Oz and Veruca, and then with her erasure of Tara’s memory; and Spike twice, once with his abortive plan to cast a love spell on Drusilla, and then again with the Buffybot. (And that’s before you count Anya’s work as a vengeance demon.) As skeevy and gross as the two sexbots are, for my part, I find them vastly less disturbing than Xander’s attempt to actually put Cordelia in his power – at least the robots aren’t real people. (We see from the Buffybot’s point of view in one episode, which was mechanical enough to convince me it lacks true sentience.) In fact, Xander’s spell is uncomfortably close to Warren’s plans for Katrina, in that both men actually used magic to try and control their ex-girlfriends; the fact that Xander never killed or raped anyone doesn’t put him that much ahead of the game when you consider not only how narrow his escape was, but the fact that he’s never really penalised for it. By contrast, Spike abandons his plan to curse Drusilla when he realises their split is his fault, not hers, an epiphany that Xander never has, and which stands as yet another instance of Spike admitting his faults and learning from his behaviour when other, ostensibly more moral characters fail to do so under similar circumstances.

There is, I suspect, a rather awful reason for this – and, indeed, for why Spike alone of all Buffy’s lovers and love interests accepts responsibility for his actions. It’s all down to narrative impetus: we, the viewers, are meant to sympathise with Xander, just as we’re meant to sympathise with Angel and Riley. At base, we “know” they’re all good guys, and as such, their contrition is implied. We don’t need to see them apologise, because the surrounding story is structured to suggest that they’ve already been forgiven off-camera. But Spike, by contrast, begins as a villain. His developmental arc is the most dramatic and varied in the whole show, culminating in a  radical heel face turn at the end of S6. We need to see his redemption, because otherwise, there’s no reason to believe that it’s taken place – and to an extent, this makes sense: if the audience can reasonably infer that something has happened, then it’s a waste of script and wordage to insert it. The problem is that, if the good guys never apologise on screen, then their goodness is called into question – which is why  the most fucked up relationship in the whole show is simultaneously the most equitable. Neither Buffy nor the audience can assume anything about Spike’s intentions that we aren’t actually shown, and as a result, he has to work the hardest out of anyone to be seen as good.

Thus: when Angelus is trying to end the world, Spike is trying to save it. When Xander is busy making threats and lying, Spike is saving Giles and keeping his promises. When Riley is out paying lady vamps to bite him, or sulking because Buffy’s had the temerity to put her own need to be strong ahead of his need to feel manly and protective, Spike is telling her the truth and offering quiet, undemanding support. When Willow and the others are smothering the newly resurrected Buffy, Spike gives her an out. And when absolutely everyone betrays her at the end of S7, it’s Spike alone who keeps faith with her. From villain to invalid to lovelorn drunk; from glowering menace to chaotic, defanged outsider; from frenemy to lover to ex; from assailant to madman to stalwart, both Spike’s personality and his relationship with Buffy undergo the most development in the whole show. He’s done some truly awful things, but when it really matters and everyone else has abandoned her, it’s always Spike, and Spike alone, who’s there to watch her back.

*I say arguably, because Angelus’s crimes are pretty horrific, too, and YMMV in terms of which you consider to be worse overall: there’s no sliding scale for evil, no definitive catalogue with which to determine their heinousness objectively.