Posts Tagged ‘SF/F’

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.

Warning: total spoilers for the Vorkosigan Saga. 

Recently – which is to say, since the last week of March this year – I’ve taken advantage of moving continents, with all the travel, lack of internet access and desire for creature comforts that entails, to reread Lois McMaster Bujold’s complete Vorkosigan Saga in chronological order (though excluding the two stories which take place hundreds of years earlier in the same setting). This decision was chiefly sparked by my initial reading, also in March, of the latest instalment, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, which – apart from being excellent – also reveals that Cordelia and Aral, parents to series star Miles and protagonists in their own right of Shards of Honour and Barrayar, have been in a twenty-year polyamorous relationship with Oliver Jole, Aral’s former aide and current Admiral of the Sergyar fleet. Whether or not you consider this a latestage retcon depends largely on whether you consider Miles Vorkosigan to be a reliable narrator of his mother’s life, and on your parsing of the various updates the Miles-centric novels have provide about his parents prior to now. To me, the reveal felt like a natural one, fully in keeping with the characters as we know them; but then, as ever, your mileage may vary.

That being so, it feels notable that at least one person has been writing polyamorous Aral/Cordelia/Jole fic since 2010, and with what feels now to be a scary degree of prescience; or at least, with such a close understanding of the characters as to successfully pre-empt Bujold’s intentions. It’s actually worth comparing the two, if only because it makes for a fascinating example of exactly how insightful fanwriting can be in its interpretation, not just of the source material, but the specific psychology of the characters.

In their May 2010 fic, As You Tap on Your Glass, writer Dira Sudis attributes the following observation to Cordelia:

 Aral wasn’t often physically demonstrative in such a casual way with men under his command, though he had become quite fond of any number of them. Then, too, many of them–especially his secretaries–were the subjects of his occasional crushes, a phenomenon Cordelia observed with delight and tried never to acknowledge as such out loud, since Aral didn’t seem to quite realize it himself.

Jole was certainly a crush, she thought. Aral’s eyes always lit up when he talked about his latest bright young man, which he did fairly regularly. Any form of shop talk came to include a rather endearing digression on Jole’s virtues, winding down thoughtfully into musings on where best to deploy him when he had outgrown his role as Aral’s protégé, as they all did after a year or two.

So Jole had, somehow, found the knack of setting Aral at ease enough to be playful, and that made Cordelia like him even better than she had a moment before. She kept still, watching to see if she might spy anything else, and then Aral stood and stretched, tilting his head back toward the ceiling. Jole’s intent gaze followed him up like a compass needle to north, like a flower’s face to the sun, and Cordelia realized abruptly that it was not only that Jole liked the man inside the uniform–he liked the body inside the uniform.

Cordelia’s face heated and her heart leapt, and she found herself smiling rather the same way Aral did when he talked about Jole. In that very instant Jole became quite completely her favorite of all Aral’s protégés and all his crushes. She had in a single glance discovered something she had not realized she longed for–rather like the first time she had unexpectedly heard a Betan accent on Barrayar. She wanted, with the sudden intensity of homesickness, to cross the library and take Jole aside, to gossip delightfully about the man at the center of both their lives, to share this particular joy with someone who would appreciate it as she did.

But the impulse popped like a soap bubble as Jole looked quickly away–afraid of being caught in that gaze, because Jole was Barrayaran, of course. And Barrayarans were tediously heteronormative as well as tediously insistent on strict monogamy–on the appearance of strict monogamy, anyway, and for some people merely the appearance of the appearance. Aral was, of course, notoriously sincere in his appearance of strict monogamy. He had no reason not to be, since his crushes tended to be on his irretrievably unavailable bright young men, all determinedly heterosexual and all too aware of Aral’s exalted rank to contemplate any form of intimacy, let alone the sexual variety.

All but Jole, it seemed.

Not only is this excerpt wonderfully written, but it compares quite strikingly to a similar conversation between Cordelia and Jole at the start of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen:

“…Aral talked to me about nearly everything – I was his only safe repository for that part of himself till you came along – but he was always a bit cagey about how you two got started… I go off to visit my mother on Beta Colony leaving him in no worse straits than another of his unrequited silent crushes. I come back to find you two up and running and poor Illyan having a meltdown – it was like talking him in off a ledge.” Aral’s utterly loyal security chief had never come closer to, if not weeping with relief, at least cracking an expression, to find in her not an outraged spouse, but an unruffled ally. I knew Aral was bisexual when I married him. And he knew I was Betan. Melodrama was never an option, Illyan. “The only surprise was how you two ever got past all your Barrayaran inhibitions in the first place.” Not that she and Aral hadn’t discussed Oliver in theory.

A flash of old amusement crossed Jole’s always-expressive face. “Well – I’m afraid you’d think it was all more Barrayaran than Betan. It doubtless involved a lot less talking, which I cannot regret. The standard for declassification is still fifty years, isn’t it? That sounds about right to me.”

Cordelia snickered. “Never mind, then.”

Jole cocked his head in turn. “Did he have that many, er, silent crushes? Before me?”

“I ought to make you trade” – Jole made his own never mind, then, gesture, and Cordelia smiled – “but I’ll have pity. No, for all that the capital was awash with handsome officers, he more appreciated them as a man would a good sunset or a fine horse, abstractly. Intelligent officers, he recruited whenever he could, and if they happened to intersect the first set, well and good. Officers of extraordinary character – were always thinner on the ground. All three in one package -”

…No wonder that Aral had recruited Jole as nearly on the spot as the paperwork and his physicians permitted. The other recruitment had come rather later.

What this comparison says to me – aside from the fact that Dira Sudis is an excellent writer who ought to be recruited to work prominently on a Vorkosigan TV series, assuming we’re ever lucky enough to get such a thing – is that, however surprised some readers were by the events of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, they’re hardly incompatible with Bujold’s established characterisation if an outside observer was able to correctly intuit how such a relationship might play out a good five years before Bujold made it canon.

Which raises the question: exactly when did Bujold, in the privacy of her writer’s mind, establish this background triad?

As a character, Jole first appears in The Vor Game, which was released in 1990 – the sixth book in order of publication, but the fifth – including the novella The Mountains of Mourning, but ignoring the centuries-earlier precursors of Dreamweaver’s Dilemma and Falling Free – in order of chronology. His appearance there is so briefthat, when I first read the Vorkosigan Saga, I barely noticed; this time, however, with later events now firmly in mind, his introduction strikes a very different chord. Indeed, given the brevity of his appearance, the care taken to describe him feels, if not incongruous, then certainly meaningful, not least because Bujold seldom takes the time to give such detail about a character who barely says a word. We first meet Jole at Aral’s side, with Miles – aged twenty – observing him as follows:

He [Aral] was flanked by his aide, a tall blond lieutenant named Jole. Miles had met Jole on his last home leave. Now, there was a perfect officer, brave and brilliant – he’d served in space, been decorated for some courage and quick thinking during a horrendous on-board accident, been rotated through HQ while recovering from his injuries, and promptly been snabbled up as his military secretary by the Prime Minister, who had a sharp eye for hot new talent. Jaw-dropping gorgeous, to boot, he ought to be making recruiting vids. Miles sighed in hopeless jealousy every time he ran across him. Jole was even worse than Ivan, who while darkly handsome had never been accused of brilliance.

“Thanks, Jole,” Count Vorkosigan murmured to his aisde as his eye found Miles. “I’ll see you back at the office.”

“Yes, sir.” So dismissed, Jole ducked back out, glancing back at Miles and his superior with worried eyes, and then the door hissed closed again.

And that, despite an entire paragraph of description – and what, in retrospect, looks suspiciously like a deliberately punning, in-jokely use of the word hot – is all we see of him until the very end, when Miles, having rescued the Emperor and stopped a war, is reunited with his father, accompanied again by Jole:

Lieutenant Jole, suppressing a grin himself, arose from the other side of the comconsole desk and guided Yegorov gently and mercifully back out the door. “Thank you, Lieutenant. The Admiral appreciates your services, that will be all…” Jole glanced back over his shoulder, quirked a pensive brow, and followed Yegorov out. Miles just glimpsed the blond lieutenant drape himself across a chair in the antechamber, head back in the relaxed posture of a man anticipating a long wait, before the door slid closed. Jole could be supernaturally courteous at times.

According to the timeline established in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, he and Aral are already romantically involved during the events of The Vor Game – which is to say, during these scenes. As Bujold goes out of her way to make Jole visible – and to establish his handsomeness; a doubly unusual move, as she’s writing in Miles’s perspective, and young Miles especially is ordinarily too Barrayaran to make such open judgements about other men – it’s not unreasonable to wonder if she had the notion in mind even then, if only at the level of a future possibility. Certainly, it feels noteworthy that, in both of Jole’s brief appearances, he looks back at Aral as he leaves the room, as does the fact the fact that neither appearance contributes anything to the narrative beyond affirming Jole’s presence within it. In both instances, he exits stage left almost instantly: he doesn’t need to be there, except that he is. And Bujold, whatever else can be said of her, is not a writer known for her inclusion of pointless detail.

Barrayar, although the second novel chronologically, is seventh in publication order, having initially been released in 1991, just a year after The Vor Game. Given that it covers the events of Miles’s birth and Vordarian’s pretendership, it nonetheless contains two noteworthy exchanges on the subject of Aral’s relationships.The first is a conversation between Cordelia and Vordarian, wherein the latter attempts to unsettle the former’s faith in her husband:

He paused, watching her watch Aral. One corner of his mouth crooked up, then the quirk vanished in a thoughtful pursing of his lips. “He’s bisexual, you know.” He took a delicate sip of his wine.

“Was bisexual,” she corrected absently, looking fondly across the room. “Now he’s monogamous.”

Vordarian choked, sputtering… “He told you that?” he wheezed in astonishment.

“No, Vorrutyer did. Just before he met his, um, fatal accident.” Vordarian was standing frozen; she felt a certain malicious glee at having at last baffled a Barrayaran as much as they sometimes baffled her. Now, if she could just figure out what she’d said that had thrown him… She went on seriously, “The more I look back on Vorrutyer, the more he seems a tragic figure. Still obsessed with a love affair that was over eighteen years ago. Yet I sometimes wonder, if he could have had what he wanted then – kept Aral – if Aral might have kept that sadistic streak that ultimately consumed Vorrutyer’s sanity under control. It’s as if the two of them were on some kind of weird see-saw, each one’s survival entailing the other’s destruction.”

The second is between Aral and Cordelia, when the former discovers the latter comforting Lieutenant Koudelka and reacts angrily, much to Cordelia’s chagrin:

 “That remark you made in front of Kou was totally out of line.”

“What, I walk in to find my wife… cuddling, with one of my officers, and you expect me to make polite conversation about the weather?” he bit back.

“You know it was nothing of the sort.”

“Fine. Suppose it hadn’t been me? Suppose it had been one of the duty guards, or my father. How would you have explained it then? You know what they think of Betans. They’d jump on it, and the rumours would never be stopped. Next thing I knew, it would be coming back at me as political chaff. Every enemy I have out there is just waiting for a weak spot to pounce on. They’d love one like that.”

“How the devil did we get onto your damned politics? I’m talking about a friend. I doubt you could have come up with a more wounding remark if you’d funded a study project. That was foul, Aral! What’s the matter with you, anyway?”

“I don’t know.” He slowed, and rubbed his face tiredly. “It’s the damn job, I expect. I don’t meant to spill onto you.”

Cordelia supposed that was as near as she could expect of an admission of his being in the wrong, and accepted it with a little nod, letting her own rage evaporate…

“So if you’re having visions of, of playing King Arthur to our Lancelot and Guinevere in that – pig-head of yours, forget it. It won’t wash.”

He laughed a little at that. “My visions were closer to home, I’m afraid, and considerably more sordid. Just an old bad dream.”

“Yeah, I… guess it would hit a nerve, at that.” She wondered if the ghost of his first wife ever hovered by him, breathing cold death in his ear, as Vorrutyer’s ghost sometimes did by her. “But I’m Cordelia, remember? Not… anybody else.”

He leaned his forehead against hers. “Forgive me, dear Captain. I’m just an ugly scared old man, and growing older and uglier and more paranoid every day.”

On the surface, both these sections would seem to moot the idea that Bujold had early designs on the idea of Jole as a future romantic partner, being as how the one invokes the awful notion of bisexuality being negated by monogamy, while the other shows Aral grossly overreacting at the prospect of Cordelia being with someone else. And yet, at the same time, a constant theme of the Vorkosigan Saga is personal growth, and particularly in the context of Cordelia’s Betan attitude to sex and gender creeping into wider Barrayaran society. Aral’s lurid, self-destructive relationship with Ges Vorrutyer takes place eighteen years prior to Miles’s birth, while his affirming relationship with Oliver Jole begins eighteen years after it. Miles – or rather, Cordelia – represents a steadying midpoint in Aral’s romantic life, and as such, I’m disinclined to view that particular piece of symmetry as accidental.

More to the point, I imagine Bujold was intensely aware in writing The Vor Game and Barrayar that the Aral of one was by no means the Aral of the other. From the outset, Aral Vorkosigan has always been a character whose beliefs and behaviour are subject to extraordinary change. Of course the Aral of Barrayar, only just returned to nascent political respectability despite his new Betan wife, carrying significant psychological baggage over both the death of her predecessor and what he did in its aftermath, would react with rage and terror to the prospect of a second infidelity scandal. Cordelia’s line about Aral being monogamous is harder to swallow, though more because it represents an objectively angrifying stereotype than anything else. That Bujold is an overwhelmingly progressive writer doesn’t prevent the odd bias squeaking through, and it’s to her credit that, rather than doubling down on these early gaffes, her subsequent works more often make the effort to explode them. Yet even so, a statement about Aral being monogamous some eighteen years prior to meeting Jole – and more, one made distractedly, in response to a seeming non-sequitur – seems a thin thread on which to hang all later canon.

Having thus appeared in The Vor Game, Jole vanishes again until Cryoburn – fourteenth in publication order, fifteenth in chronological, released in 2010 – where he appears in the epilogue as a pallbearer at Aral’s funeral, having graduated in the intervening years to Admiral of the Sergyar fleet. This is a small but noteworthy appearance, smoothing the way (at the time) for his multiple mentions in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, which book is fifteenth in publication order, but fourteenth chronologically, released in 2012. Aside from being referred to here as Commodore rather than Admiral, that promotion being forthcoming, there’s a tantalising hint of things to come – or things to be subsequently revealed, rather – in the epilogue, where Ivan, discussing a missive from home, says:

“…Thank God, now Aunt Cordelia switches to telling me all about Commodore Jole’s new sailboat – the Sergyaran seas don’t dissolve human skin the way Ylla’s do, happily. He took them all out for a sail, good. And no one drowned. Much better.”

That being so, it seems reasonable to infer that Bujold was planning to reintroduce Jole at least two books ago, and was dropping small hints as to his continued importance. Personally, I’m inclined to think her plans for his starring in a future can be traced the point at which she first introduced him, though not necessarily as a romantic object for either Aral or Cordelia. And yet there’s a rightness to Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen that makes me wonder exactly how long a game Bujold’s been playing. From the very first book – both chronologically and in order of publication, for once – which is to say, from Shards of Honour, released in 1986 – Cordelia is painted as a woman who wants children, plural; who was, in fact, tricked into not applying for a promotion by a former lover who promised offspring in return for letting him take the job. On Beta Colony, having more than one or two children is viewed as antisocial, and in Barrayar, Cordelia’s desire for a large family is clearly stated:

Now, family size: that was the real, secret, wicked fascination of Barrayar. There were no legal limits here, no certificates to be earned, no third-child variances to be scrimped for; no rules, in fact, at all. She’d seen a woman on the street with not three but four children in tow, and no one had even stared. Cordelia had upped her own imaginary brood from two to three, and felt deliciously sinful, till she’d met a woman with ten. Four, maybe? Six? Vorkosigan could afford it. Cordelia wriggled her toes and cuddled into the cushions, afloat on an atavistic cloud of genetic greed.

This desire is railroaded by Miles’s health issues: not wanting to make their first son feel inadequate, neither Cordelia nor Aral hurries to give him siblings. That Miles goes on to have six children himself – or to plan them, anyway; his ambitions in that direction are likewise clearly stated at the start of Diplomatic Immunity, though the last two don’t appear until Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen – could well be seen as a sort of cathartic substitution, both emotionally and narratively, and in the hands of a lesser writer, that’s all we – and, by extension, Cordelia – would ever get.

But Lois McMaster Bujold is not a lesser writer, and among its many other qualities, the Vorkosigan Saga has always been distinguished by the centrality it gives to women’s narratives, women’s voices, even – or perhaps especially – in stories otherwise concerned with traditionally masculine themes. Considering this aspect of the series in its chronological ordering, Shards of Honour sets the tone with its contrasting of Betan and Barrayaran gender norms. Though the sexual violence to which various female characters are subjected, and with which Cordelia is intimately threatened, feels somewhat oldschool-gratuitous in 2016, the fact that Sergeant Bothari is likewise understood to be another of Vorrutyer’s victims is still damnably subversive. More shocking, and of equal modern impact, is the role played by the Betan uterine replicators, forcing Barrayar to take custody of the children conceived by its rapist soldiers – a technology whose introduction to that world becomes a toppling domino of social change. And then, in the epilogue, it’s a female medtech, recovering the bodies of the dead, who offers a poignant lens through which to view war and its losses:

“The Barrayarans are all so army-mad,” she explained. “I always like to put them back in their uniforms. They mean so much to them. I’m sure they’re more comfortable with them on.”

Ferrell frowned uneasily. “I still think he ought to be dumped with the rest of the garbage.”

“Not at all,” said the medtech. “Think of all the work he represents on somebody’s part. Nine months of pregnancy, childbirth, two years of diapering, and that’s just the beginning. Tens of thousands of meals, thousands of bedtime stories, years of school. Dozens of teachers. And all that military training, too. A lot of people went into making him.” She smoothed a strand of the corpse’s hair into place. “That head held the universe, once.”

In Barrayar, it’s Cordelia’s actions which see Vordarian dead and the empire saved, her plot to storm the palace enabled, over and over again, by the male underestimation of women. It’s Drou, Princess Kareen’s former bodyguard, who knows the secret way into the palace, her importance and competence both overlooked by allies and enemies alike on the basis of her gender, just as it’s Kareen’s bravery and reason which sees Vordarian first lose his grip on power. Alys Vorpatril, giving birth in fear and pain amidst the violence of civil war, is no less heroic than Cordelia Vorkosigan, mounting her assault on palace and pretender to save a child whose disabilities render him expendable in all eyes save her own. And then, with the day saved and Aral offered the Regency during Gregor’s minority, it’s once more a gendered oversight that leads to Cordelia having more power over the future of Barrayar than anyone bar her and her husband realise:

Her silent promise to Kareen was made policy when she and Aral, as a couple, were officially appointed Gregor’s guardians by the Council of Counts. This was legally distinct somehow from Aral’s guardianship of the Imperium as Regent. Prime Minister Vortala took time to lecture her and made it clear her new duties involved no political powers. She did have economic functions, including trusteeship of certain Vorbarra holdings that were separate from Imperial properties, appending strictly to Gregor’s title as Count Vorbarra. And by Aral’s delegation, she was given oversight of the Emperor’s household. And education.

“But, Aral,” said Cordelia, stunned. “Vortala emphasised I was to have no power.”

“Vortala… is not all-wise. Let’s just say, he has a little trouble recognising as such some forms of power which are not synonymous with force. Your window of opportunity is narrow, though; at age twelve, Gregor will enter a pre-Academy preparatory school.”

“But do they realise…?”

“I do. And you do. It’s enough.”

This description  – “forms of power which are not synonymous with force” – could well be a tagline for the series. Not only does it encompass Miles’s ferocious intelligence, applied with devastating effect despite his physical limitations, but it also encompasses the emotional, the cultural and – overwhelmingly – the traditionally feminine. In The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles’s desire to solve the mystery of Elena’s origins ultimately results in the death of her father, Sergeant Bothari, at the hands of her furious mother, his victim during the short-lived Escobar War. Yet the plot itself is also underwritten by Elena’s desire for autonomy, and Miles’s various reactions to it: the tension lies in his simultaneous yearning to give her what she doesn’t want (a life on Barrayar, with him) and what she does (a chance to prove her competence), both of which are technically within his power to bestow, yet neither of which he can give her – paradoxically, from his lovelorn perspective – without her say-so.

Similarly, The Mountains of Mourning – one of the most powerful, affecting novellas I’ve ever read –  hinges in its entirety on a woman’s demand for justice. Though Miles is ultimately her instrument, it’s Harra’s voice that matters most: her bravery and courage in seeking redress for the murder of her disabled baby daughter, Raina, whose story becomes the secret heart of Miles’s own:

Miles had sworn his officer’s oath to the Emperor less than two weeks ago, puffed with pride at his achievement. In his secret mind he had imagined himself keeping that oath through blazing battle, enemy torture, what-have-you, even while sharing cynical cracks afterwards with Ivan about archaic dress swords and the sort of people who insisted on wearing them.

But in the dark of subtler temptations, those which hurt without heroism for consolation, he foresaw, the Emperor would no longer be the symbol of Barrayar in his heart.

Peace to you, small lady, he thought to Raina. You’ve won a twisted poor modern knight, to wear your favour on his sleeve. But it’s a twisted poor world we were both born into, that rejects us without mercy and ejects us without consultation. At least I won’t just tilt at windmills for you. I’ll send in sappers to mine the twirling suckers, and blast them into the sky…

He knew who he served now. And why he could not quit. And why he must not fail.

In The Vor Game, it’s the actions of Cavilo – or rather, Metzov’s sexist underestimation of her – that sees an invasion plot fall apart. More prominently, the entire, steady reveal of Cetaganda is that, despite centuries of conflict, the male-dominated Barrayaran military caste has never understood the vital role haut women play in running Cetagandan society, having assumed their public invisibility to be synonymous with political irrelevance. Miles, indeed, initially makes the same error; yet over the course of the novel, as he aids the haut Rian, he stumbled up a steep learning curve to the contrary. Even in Ethan of Athos – a novel about a character from a planet of men, which is itself a delightful subversion of the many historically sexist, fetishistic instances of planets of women in SF – the titular Ethan, in his quest for new ovarian cultures with which to continue the next generation, only emerges unscathed thanks to the intervention of Elli Quinn, causing him to re-evaluate the influence of women on a world devoid of same:

Ethan paused in front of the bathroom mirror before turning out the light, and studied his own face. He thought of Elli Quinn, and EQ-1. In a woman, one saw not charts and graphs and numbers, but the genes of one’s own children personified and made flesh. So, every ovarian culture on Athos cast a woman’s shadow, unacknowledged, ineradicably there.

And what had she been like, Dr. Cynthia Jane Baruch, 200 years dead now, and how much had she secretly shaped Athos, all unbeknownst to the founding fathers who had hired her to create their ovarian cultures? She who had cared enough to put herself in them? The very bones of Athos were molded to her pattern. His bones.

“Salute, Mother,” Ethan whispered, and turned away to bed. Tomorrow began the new world, and the work thereof.

In Labyrinth, which introduces soon-to-be-Sergeant Taura, the central narrative hinges on Miles’s recognition of the humanity and personhood of a girl raised to believe herself inhuman and, as a consequence, unloveable. In The Borders of Infinity, having infiltrated a prisoner of war camp, it’s the women whose discipline and aid allow Miles to effect a rescue, though tragically at the cost of one of their number. Though Brothers in Arms is concerned almost entirely with the appearance of Miles’s clone-brother, Mark, it’s the spectre of Cordelia’s Betan judgement – “What have you done with your baby brother?” – that dictates Miles’s actions. This same question motivates his actions at the start of Mirror Dance, with Cordelia’s frank acceptance of Mark – along with the actions of Elena Bothari-Jesek, Elli Quinn, Sergeant Taura and Kareen Koudelka – ultimately bringing him in from the cold. And parallel to all this action, it’s Cordelia again who delivers one of the most powerful judgements, not just of Barrayar, but of patriarchal cultures generally, in SF:

“There are, as you have just seen, two agendas being pursued here tonight,” the Countess lectured amiably. “The political one of the old men – an annual renewal of the forms of the Vor – and the genetic agenda of the old women. The men imagine theirs is the only one, but that’s just an ego-serving self-delusion. The whole Vor system is founded on the women’s game, underneath. The old men in government councils spend their lives arguing against or scheming to fund this or that bit of off-planet military hardware. Meanwhile, the uterine replicator is creeping in past their guard, and they aren’t even conscious that the debate that will fundamentally alter Barrayar’s future is being carried on right now among their wives and daughters. To use it, or not to use it? Too late to keep it out, it’s already here. The middle classes are picking it up in droves. Every mother who loves her daughter is pressing for it, to spare her the physical dangers of biological childbearing. They’re fighting not the old men, who haven’t got a clue, but an old guard of their sisters who say to their daughters, in effect, ‘We had to suffer, so must you!’ Look around tonight, Mark. You’re witnessing the last generation of men and women who will dance this dance in the old way. The Vor system is about to change on its blindest side, the side that looks to – or fails to look to – its foundation. Another half generation from now, it’s not going to know what hit it.”

As Miles recovers in Memory, he revisits the grave of Raina, his small lady, anchoring himself to the past he almost lost. Komarr, by contrast, introduces Miles to his future – to Ekaterin, whose internal narration of a marriage gone loveless and soul-destroying is painfully raw and honest. Parallel to the romantic elements of A Civil Campaign, the political aspects centre on male efforts to control women, to varying degrees and with varying purposes, but all stemming from the same seed of gendered entitlement. Ranging roughly from least to most offensive, there’s Miles’s bungling attempts to woo Ekaterin, the Koudelka clan’s restriction of Kareen’s movements, Ekaterin’s meddling family members, and, at the more sinister end, a count creating over a hundred daughters using uterine replicators and left-over ovarian cultures to populate his barren district. There’s also Lord Dono Vorrutyer’s transition from his previous incarnation as Lady Donna, and the outrage with which this is initially greeted, to say nothing of the backroom politicking of Lady Alys Vorpatril, wrongly assumed by certain men to have no political power despite her many years at the Emperor’s side.

The follow-up story of Miles and Ekaterin’s marriage, Winterfair Gifts, is something of a Cinderella tale for Taura, and yet of equal importance is her status as a detective; of a woman whose testimony is believed, despite her outsider status. In Diplomatic Immunity, the ultimate reveal is of a Cetagandan genetic agenda being carried out by a rogue servant, ostensibly acting at the behest of their dead Imperial mistress; balancing this concern is the imminent arrival of Miles and Ekaterin’s twins. Indeed, the story opens with Miles, somewhat comically, reviewing a vid of their (scientifically enabled, replicator-based) conception, with the story closing on their birth – but not before a similar event is witnessed on the Cetagandan planet of Rho Ceta, a new generation distributed to their familial constellations as the Vorkosigans look on. (As Aral says in Mirror Dance, “All true wealth is biological.”)

In Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Ivan – a previously womanising character – finds himself in a marriage, initially of convenience, but growing into love. As well as engaging in a nuanced discussion of family – and particularly the relationships between grandmothers, mothers, daughters and sisters – Ivan’s union with Tej provides his mother, Lady Alys, hope of finally laying down a long-standing emotional burden: that of burning hair in offering to her dead husband on the joint anniversary of his death and Ivan’s birth:

“This is a Barrayaran ceremony for remembrance,” said Lady Alys, turning to Tej. “It was always my intention, when Ivan married, to turn this task of remembrance over to him, to continue or not as he willed. Because… memory isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” Her hand reached out and gripped Illyan’s, who gripped it back in a disturbed little shake, though he smiled at her.

“Thirty-five years seems long enough, to me,” Lady Alys went on. “Long enough to mourn, quite long enough to be enraged. It’s time for me to retire from remembering. From the pain and sorrow and anger and attachment, and the smell of burning hair in the fog. For Ivan, it’s not the same, of course. His memories of this place are very different from mine.”

“I never knew,” said Ivan Xav, shifting uncomfortably. “All that.”

In Cryoburn, whose in-depth discussion of death, cryo-revival, family and the value of life provides a masterful narrative leadup to the suckerpunch of Aral’s death, the central political mystery hinges on, quite literally, giving a woman back her voice – Lisa Sato, who speaks for the living and the dead, and whose restoration to life stands in melancholy contrast to the monumental passing of Aral Vorkosigan.

Among male protagonists, Miles is already somewhat unique, in that, while he’s known in the setting primarily as a great man’s son, narratively, by dint of Cordelia being the viewpoint protagonist of Shards of Honour and Barrayar – by virtue of her actions, which we know to be extraordinary – he is also a great woman’s son. Miles himself reflects on this, in, aptly enough, The Vor Game, wondering:

So why do I never think of my ambition as ship command like my mother before me? Captain Cordelia Naismith, Betan Astronomical Survey, had been in the risky business of expanding the wormhole nexus jump by blind jump, for humanity, for pure knowledge, for Beta Colony’s economic advancement, for – what had driven her? She’d commanded a sixty-person survey vessel, far from home and help – there were certain enviable aspects to her former career, to be sure. Chain-of-command, for example, would have been a legal fiction out in the farbeyond, the wishes of Betan HQ a matter for speculation and side bets.

She moved so wavelessly through Barrayaran society, only her most intimate observers realized how detached she was from it, fearing no one, not even the dread Illyan, controlled by no one, not even the Admiral himself. It was the casual fearlessness, Miles decided, that made his mother so unsettling. The Admiral’s Captain. Following in her footsteps would be like firewalking.

Which brings me, at long last, back to Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, and why it matters so much that, all thoughts of continuity aside, Cordelia gets this story – this catharsis – in particular. The Vorkosigan Saga, for all it takes its name from Aral and Miles, was her story first, and as such, it would do her a grave disservice to suggest, whether overtly or through implication, that she fade into the background with Aral’s death, or that her dreams die with him. As unusual as it is to see any story about polyamory, let alone one where two remaining partners negotiate a new relationship following the death of the central person they both loved most, it’s equally unusual to see such a late-life romance – Betan expected lifespan of 120 aside, Cordelia is still in her seventies – written sexually. Throw in the fact that Cordelia is twenty-six years Jole’s senior and her technologically-enabled new bid for motherhood, and Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is very much a unicorn novel.

And that, in every effect, is what Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan deserves. The fact that she has six grandchildren, no matter how dearly beloved, does not moot her own desire to raise six of Aral’s daughters with the man he most loved in the world. The fact of her loss – of hers and Jole’s – does not moot their mutual desire for new love, new beginnings, new recovery. The Barrayar of this sixteenth book is very different from the one first written in 1986, because for thirty years, Cordelia has been shepherding its progress within in parallel to Bujold’s shepherding of their progress without.

In Shards of Honour, Aral Vorkosigan  couldn’t retire from Barrayaran politics to raise a family, no matter his yearning to do just that; but in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Jole is able to step away from the military and become a professor, following his long-buried love of science as he rears his sons – his, Aral’s and Cordelia’s – alongside Cordelia’s daughters on Sergyar, the planet first traversed, discovered and colonised by Captain Naismith and Commander Vorkosigan. These social changes are poignantly referenced in an exchange between Cordelia and her eldest grandson, Alex, who feels uneasy about his own lack of any military enthusiasm:

“Your granda never went to war, you know. War came to him. And he learned to deal with it because he had to. If his older brother hadn’t been killed, if he’d never become the heir, if Mad Yuri’s war had never happened, I suspect he might have gone on to be… possibly not an artist, but I’d bet an architect. Probably one of those men who takes on vast public projects, as complicated and demanding as commanding an army, because all that Vorkosigan energy would have found its path somehow.” Like a river running in flood down from his own Dendarii mountains, bursting its banks. “Building Barrayar in another way.”

Alex’s face had gone still. “But I am the heir.”

“But living, now, in the Barrayar your granda remade, which is not like the one he inherited. You have more choices. You have all the choices you can imagine. It would have pleased him very much to know that was a gift he gave you. That your life didn’t need to be like his.” She hesitated. “Nor like your da’s, or his granda’s, or like anyone’s but your own. To the top of your bent. Whatever that bent turns out to be.”

If the revelation of Aral, Jole and Cordelia’s relationship constitutes a material change in the narrative, that’s only because the narrative of the Vorkosigan Saga has always been concerned with change. Though Bujold’s early writing is ahead of her time in many ways, it’s still evident in later books that she – and her philosophies, her understanding of the world and people – are growing, evolving. Changing. This has never been a static series, and whether or not there are any more books to follow – and I dearly hope there will be; may Lois McMaster Bujold have a Betan lifespan herself, and never lose the urge or ability to write – this solid refusal to confine Cordelia to perpetual mourning is important beyond its continuation of a beloved saga. She has a new life, and a new(ish) partner – one who loved Aral with her, and who therefore understands more intimately than anyone else exactly what he meant to her, without casting her in his shadow.

With his marriage to Ekaterin and the arrival of all his children, Miles has achieved the love and security he’s craved since confusedly proposing to Elena in The Warrior’s Apprentice at age seventeen. Why should Cordelia’s wishes be any less respected by the narrative? Why shouldn’t she, too, have more than one love, and be happier for it?

In Komarr – again, at the ending; Bujold has an enviable talent for endings – Miles shyly tells Ekaterin of his previous loves and lovers: Elena, Elli, Taura, Rowan, Rian. In asking where he found each woman, and where she subsequently ended up, Ekaterin swiftly discerns a pattern to which Miles himself is oblivious: he leaves his women stronger than he found them, better for having known him, which realisation leaves her to pass posthumous judgement on her late husband, Tien:

Tien had protected her proudly, she reflected, in the little Vor-lady fortress of her household. Tien had spent a decade protecting her so hard, especially from anything that resembled growth, she’d felt scarcely larger at thirty than she’d been at twenty. Whatever it was Vorkosigan had offered to this extraordinary list of lovers, it hadn’t been protection.

Say, then, that Aral Vorkosigan had this same knack: that Cordelia and Jole, though grieved by his passing, are stronger for having loved him – strong enough, in his absence, to love each other, not in his memory, but for themselves alone. Say that Cordelia has it, too: that Aral was stronger for loving her – strong enough, in her presence, to love more than one person, not in memory of the man he used to be, but in celebration of the man he became. Say that Jole has it. Say that he and Cordelia have it together. Say that love is not a funeral pyre, but the phoenix that rises from it.

The stories of mothers are not erased by the stories of their sons; the two are intertwined. It’s only habit that lets us fade the one into the background, foregrounding the other, forgetting which came first. Likewise, the stories of wives do not end with the deaths of their husbands; they go on, as they went on before – as Alys and Ekaterin and Cordelia go on – just in a new direction.

At the time of writing this, I am thirty years old; as old as the Vorkosigan Saga, which I have now read twice. And if I am not reading it still in thirty more years – when my own son is nearly as old as Miles; when my husband is in his seventies – I will be very much surprised.

 

Yesterday, after tangentially mentioning Baen Publishing in a Twitter conversation about queer representation in SFF, several Baen aficionados took this as an invitation to harangue both myself and the person to whom I was was speaking about the evils of left-wing politics, both in genre and more generally. Mostly, this involved yelling about how socialism is evil and feminism is cancer, which was equal parts hilarious and horrifying, with a bonus discussion of Christianity in the context of various political systems. My personal highlight: the unironic claim, made by a Christian participant, that Christ was apolitical, which. Um. Yeah. About that:

You Keep Using That Word

Anyway.

While the thread eventually devolved in much the way you’d expect, the actual opening salvo by Patrick Richardson – made in response to the observation that Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, politically speaking, is somewhat at variance with the bulk of Baen’s catalogue – was as follows: “It seems to be only the lefties that care about politics before story.” Which view was quickly seconded by the same woman who later claimed that Christ was apolitical: “Of course! If the story is crap but the author is a nifty socialist, that’s totes awesome!”

Twitter, as anyone who routinely uses it can tell you, is good for many things, but nuanced, lengthy dialogue is seldom one of them. And so, in addition to yesterday’s back and forth, I’m commenting here  – because for all their brevity, these two statements perfectly encapsulate the fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of most anti-diversity arguments.

I’ll deal with the second claim first, as it’s always struck me as being the most wilfully obtuse permutation of the stance. The idea that pro-diversity voices are wasting time, money and effort promoting books we don’t actually like is almost cartoonishly absurd; as though diversity is a naked emperor and we the masters of his empty wardrobe. Listen: I have a toddler, a husband, an active social life, a packed writing schedule, multiple online streaming accounts and a TBR pile that stretches into infinity. If you really think I’m going to waste valuable energy advocating for stories that don’t give me pleasure, then either you’re projecting – which, given the willingness of certain Puppies to thusly waste their own time, is a disturbingly real possibility – or you’re grossly overestimating your knowledge of human nature.

Having already discussed, at length, the dissonance between how recommendations made on the basis of diversity can appear to others and what they actually mean, I won’t revisit the details here. The salient point, however, is this: once you acknowledge that a book recommended on whatever basis is, by virtue of being recommended, a book enjoyed, then it’s virtually impossible to claim that diversity advocates are wilfully dismissive of quality. Nor is the intention to treat “diverse books” as a distinct subgenre, one elevated above its fellows without any regard for category or content otherwise. This is, in fact, exactly the kind of ghettoisation the pro-diversity camp is actively trying to avoid – all the diverse books on one niche shelf at the back, instead of being a normal, integrated part of genre. This accusation likewise ignores the fact that, actually, it’s quite common to group and recommend narratives on the basis of their tropes (friends to lovers, the Chosen One) or thematic elements (classic quest, mythological underpinnings), particularly when we’re speaking to personal preference.

The problem is that, when talking to someone who doesn’t value diversity in narrative – often because they’ve simply never considered it to be a noteworthy factor in their enjoyment of a book, and not because they inherently object to its presence – it can be difficult to explain why it matters at all. Taste is always a murky thing to navigate in such arguments, but it’s an inescapable factor: popularity and obscurity are both unreliable yardsticks where quality is concerned, and given the breadth of the human experience, there’s always going to be entrenched disagreement about what a good story is or should be; whether reading should challenge our comfort zones or confirm them; whether it’s better to read a book that shows us our own experience or a different one. Nobody wants to be told what to like or how to like it, just as we all reserve the right to entertain ourselves on our own terms, and yet, to borrow a phrase, no man is an island. Taken collectively, our individual preferences can and do have an impact at the macro/cultural level that transcends their micro/personal origins, even though the one is invariably a product of the other.

This is why the promotion of diversity is often discussed in moral/representational terms, particularly in connection with children: stories are our first and greatest window into the possible, and if those early adventures consistently exclude a large portion of their audience, or if certain groups are portrayed more complexly than others, then not everyone is learning the same lesson. Even so, the idea is never that diversity should take precedence over quality, as some seem to fear, but rather, that we should aim to create stories – stories in the plural, not the singular, though still bearing in mind the interrelationship between the individual and the collective – which are both diverse and good.

So what, then, of stories that are good, but not diverse? Where do they fit in? Because, on the basis of everything I’ve said here, there’s an argument to be made – and some, indeed, have made it – that you cannot have quality without diversity at all.

While this is a useful shorthand claim to make when looking at the collective end of things as they currently stand – which is to say, when acknowledging the historical lack of diversity and the ongoing need to remedy the imbalance – as a dictum removed from context, it not only ignores the rights of the individual, both as audience and creator, but opens up the question of whether a diverse story is diverse enough. It’s a difficult problem to navigate, and one that gives me a frequent headache. On the one hand, it’s undeniable that white liberal feminism (for instance) has a long and ugly history of ignoring the various racial and homophobic aspects of misogyny as experienced by women of colour and the queer community – that there is, as Kimberle Crenshaw said, an intersectional component to oppression.  As such, praising a novel for its diversity doesn’t mean those aspects of the story are automatically exempt from criticism; far from it, in fact, which is one more reason why I find the accusation that pro-diversity equals anti-quality so laughable. The advocates of diversity are simultaneously its sharpest critics, and always have been, because we’re the ones who care about getting it, by whatever definition, right.

But on the other hand, it’s an inescapable fact that stories are finite: no matter how much detail a given setting might contain, the author can’t focus on everything, or they’ll have no focus at all. By the same token, nothing and no one is perfect, least of all because ‘perfect’ means something different to everyone: the fact that an author drops the ball in one area doesn’t preclude them succeeding in another, and while the function of criticism is to discuss such contrasts – and while every individual reader is perfectly entitled to decide for themselves how such lines are drawn; to make their own decisions about content and execution – declaring imperfection the antithesis of success does all creative efforts a disservice.

Which brings me back to that mercurial element, taste, and the fear, as expressed by Richardson, that even acknowledging diversity as a factor means putting “politics before story”. It’s a telling phrase: by its very construction, it implies that politics are external to stories, instead of being a material component and/or a relevant lens through which to view them. Which, I would contend, they are. It’s not just that the personal is political: it’s that the political is seldom anything else. The only impersonal politics are those which affect other people; which is to say, they’re only ever impersonal to some, not objectively so. The conflation of political questions with abstract concerns can only occur when the decision-makers don’t meaningfully overlap with those their decisions impact. Political apathy is the sole province of the ignorant and the unaffected: everyone else, of necessity, is invested.

Speaking personally, then, and setting aside any other salient, stylistic factors, the point at which my preference for diversity will likely see me jolted from an otherwise good book, such that I may well question its claim to goodness, is the point at which the narrative becomes complicit in dehumanisation, particularly my own. What this means is always going to shift according to context, but broadly speaking, if an author leans on  offensive, simple stereotyping in lieu of characterisation, or if groups that might be realistically present or active within a given context are mysteriously absent, then I’m going to count that a negative. Note that a story which is, in some active sense, about dehumanisation – a misogynist culture; a slave-owning family – is not automatically the same as being complicit in that dehumanisation. This is an important distinction to make: whereas a story about dehumanisation will, by virtue of the attempt, acknowledge what’s going on, even if the characters never question the setting – say, by portraying complex female characters within a restrictive patriarchal system – a complicit story will render these elements as wallpaper: a meaningless background detail, like the number of moons or the price of fish, without ever acknowledging the implications.

It’s not just that, overwhelmingly, complicit stories tend to be dismissive of people like me, though that certainly doesn’t help; it’s that, at the level of worldbuilding and construction, I find them boring. One of my favourite things about genre novels is learning the rules of a new time and place – the customs, language, history and traditions that make up the setting – and as such, I don’t enjoy seeing them treated as irrelevant. For instance: if I’m told that the army of Fictional Country A has always accepted female soldiers, but that women are the legal subjects of their husbands, with no effort made to reconcile the apparent contradiction, then I’m going to consider that a faulty piece of worldbuilding and be jerked out of the story. Doubly so if this is just one of a number of similar elisions, all of which centre on women in a narrative whose complexities are otherwise lovingly considered; triply so if there are no central female characters, or if the ones that do appear are stereotyped in turn. (And yes, I can think of multiple books offhand to which this particular criticism applies.)

Call it the Sex/Hexchequer Test: if an elaborate, invented system of magic or governance is portrayed with greater internal consistency than the gender roles, then the story is probably sexist. Which doesn’t, I hasten to add, mean that it has nothing else to offer and should be shunned at all costs – imperfection, as stated above, is not the antithesis of success. But if someone wants to avoid the book on those grounds, then that’s entirely their business, and at the very least, I’ll likely be cranky about it.

And thus my preference for good diverse stories, which tend not to have this problem. It’s not a question of putting politics ahead of the story: it’s about acknowledging that all stories, regardless of authorial intention, contain politics, because people are political, and people wrote them. In real life, politics only ever seem impersonal if they impact someone else; in fiction, however, that’s what makes them visible. Stories aren’t apolitical just because we happen to agree with them or find them unobjectionable: it just means we’re confusing our own moral, cultural and political preferences with a neutral default. Which doesn’t mean we’re obliged to seek out stories that take us out of our comfort zone this way, or like them if we do: it just means that we can’t gauge their quality on the sole basis that this has, in fact, happened.

And yet, far too often, this is exactly what diversity advocates are criticised for doing: as though acknowledging the political dimensions of narrative and exploring them, in whatever way, deliberately, is somehow intrinsically bad; as though nobody sympathetic to certain dominant groups or ideologies has ever done likewise. Well, they have: you just didn’t think it mattered overmuch, because you agreed.

It’s not about quality, Mr Richardson; it never was. It’s about visibility – who lives, who dies, who tells your story – and whether or not you noticed.

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?

 

 

 

Right now, I’m reading The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu. It’s a sprawling silkpunk epic with a solid eye for detail and characterisation, and it’s a testament to how much I’m enjoying it otherwise that I’ve managed to get 225 pages into a 623 page book – which is to say, about a third of the way through – before the absence of ladies started to bother me. This is, I suspect, due to two main factors besides the easy prose and engaging politics: firstly, that the lack of women isn’t compounded by the presence of myriad misogynistic men, as it so often is elsewhere; and secondly, because The Grace of Kings has a List of Major Characters printed at the front, which I skimmed before starting (but did not read in depth, for fear of spoilers), and which contained multiple female names, sufficient that, on some level, I put the question out of mind.

But after 225 pages of continually shifting POVs, only a brief few of which have entailed forays into the perspectives of women, I was moved to go back and read the List over. Including both mortals and deities, it contains a total of 40 characters, only eight of whom are women, three of whom are goddesses rather than humans. A third of the way through the book, all the goddesses have made fleeting appearances, but only one of the human women, Jia, has thus far entered the story.

Here, in order of their appearance on the list, are the descriptions of the eight women:

Jia Matiza: the daughter of a rancher; a skilled herbalist; Kuni’s wife.

Lady Risana: an illusionist and accomplished musician.

Soto: Jia’s housekeeper. [Note: I’m assuming Soto’s gender on the basis that ‘housekeeper’ seems to be a feminine profession in this setting.]

Lady Mira: an embroiderer and songstress from Tunoa; the only woman who understands Mata.

Princess Kikomi and King Ponadomu of Amu: the jewel of Arulugi and her granduncle.

Tututika: patron of Amu; youngest of the gods; goddess of agriculture, beauty, and fresh water; her pawi is the golden carp.

Kana and Rapa: twin patrons of Cocru; Kana is the goddess of fire, ash, cremation and death; Rapa is the goddess of ice, snow, glaciers, and sleep; their pawi are twin ravens: one black, one white.

Of the 32 male characters listed as significant, only four are yet to appear; several, in fact, have already met their death. Similarly, while three of the five human women are described in the List in terms of their relationships to various men, the reverse is true of in only one case; and even then, it’s only because, for whatever reason, King Ponadomu and Princess Kikomi share a single entry. Kuni is not described as Jia’s husband, and Mata is not described as Lady Mira’s anything. In addition, the novel thus far has touched on numerous named male characters not featured in the List, but only a scant number of women. And while the main male characters aren’t, in the main, overtly misogynistic, the fact that women and girls are mentioned as being “sold to the indigo houses” – brothels, by inference – as punishments for various familial uprisings doesn’t create a happy background picture.

Here’s why this bothers me:

In every other respect, The Grace of Kings is an extremely well-researched, well-written novel. The world Liu has constructed is believable and original, and as such, I’m keen to continue reading it. But in a story that’s all about lost heirs, revolution, alliances and reclaimed thrones, the politics of which are otherwise meticulously detailed, the absence of women feels, not just conspicuous, but wrong. With all these would-be kings and political players jockeying for acclaim, allies and power over a timeframe that already spans some twelve-plus years, you’d think the subject of political marriages and the need to cement new reigns with heirs would have been raised at least once. But no: in 225 pages, not a single king has married, or asked about somebody’s daughters, or mentioned their wives, or anything. The new courts and armies are seemingly male-only. Given the implied sexism of a society that requires its daughters (as we know from Jia’s fleeting perspective) to behave with propriety and marry well, the asides about the indigo houses and the cautionary backstory of a chatelaine who fell in love with his king’s concubine and had to watch both her and their child killed for his presumption – and as much as I’m loathe to listen to misogynistic characters prate their views at length – the near-total absence of even discussion of women by men feels utterly bizarre.

You cannot found dynasties without women; the book is about founding dynasties; yet there are almost no women. It’s not even that Liu has reduced them to the barest heir-providing necessities – Jia, in those rare moments when we see her, is an accomplished, interesting character – but rather that, despite every other care he’s taken to build his world, he hasn’t really stopped to think about women’s roles within it. The detail that stands out for me here is his lack of a goddess of childbirth, children, mothers, fertility,  or women, or even of an actual mother goddess, as though women in this setting have no deity specific to them or their roles. There’s a patron of the gods – Kiji, Lord of the Air – and deities who provide over other seemingly masculine endeavours and professions – a god of fishermen, a god of war and the forge – but no corresponding patroness of femininity. The closest we come is Tututika, who governs beauty and agriculture, which ought to make her a guardian of fertility at least, and yet that vital aspect isn’t mentioned. Examine any pantheon, ancient or modern, and there are goddesses for all these things and more: Amaterasu, Hathor, Parvati, Innana, Xi Wangmu, Hera, Yemoja. The absence of an equivalent in Liu’s world – of a deity to govern such a vital sphere of mortal life – is therefore jarring, an unrealistic note in an otherwise well-made world.

Look: I am pretty firmly established at this point as someone who enjoys the presence of active female characters in a narrative. That’s a bias of mine! I admit it freely! And as I’ve said, The Grace of Kings is a book I’m really enjoying, and which may yet prove me wrong: I have, after all, got another two thirds left to read, and if things turn around in that section, I’ll accord them due respect. But from my current perch of 225 pages, I just can’t understand how, with all the research and thought that clearly went into every other aspect of the worldbuilding, Liu has seemingly managed to miss the significance of women in a story about founding dynasties, not just in terms of the necessary political machinations of his male characters, but in building his pantheon of active gods with a stake in the proceedings. In this world, women have no patron deity to watch over them, no guardian they pray to in childbirth or marriage. The gods argue about their various peoples being ill-treated at the hands of others, but for all the women being sold to indigo houses, deprived of their sons and husbands by the cruelties of successive regimes, there is no mother goddess advocating for their rights.

Which is, perhaps, why the mortal women are so silent, so absent. Unlike the men, they have no god to speak for them, and so say nothing at all.

Generally speaking, I don’t make a point of giving a shit about Jonathan Franzen; there’s the unavoidable sense that it might encourage him. This is, after all, a man who casually contemplated adopting a war orphan in the hope said child might teach him about Teh Yoof, and as much as I yearn to inhabit the parallel universe where that only happened in the Woody Allen film about Franzen’s life (a universe, I might add, in which Allen himself is not a fucking paedophile), our own bizarre reality holds with smug tenacity to the dictum that truth, like so many other curious biological functions, is frequently stranger than fiction. I mean, for the love of god, you cannot make this shit up:

Franzen said he was in his late 40s at the time with a thriving career and a good relationship but he felt angry with the younger generation. “Oh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy [his partner] and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan. The whole idea lasted maybe six weeks.”

He added: “One of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation. They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people. I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least not in any way that was accessible to me.”

Instead, Henry Finder, his editor at the New Yorker, suggested he meet up with a group of new university graduates. “It cured me of my anger at young people,” Franzen said.

Jonathan Franzen, everyone: a real live David Williamson antagonist.

Naturally, then, when I stumbled on a review of Franzen’s latest novel – titled, rather unambiguously, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity Is an Irrelevant Piece of Shit – I filed it away in my mental Drawer of Schadenfreude for later edification and enjoyment. Having now consumed said hatchet job, however, what I’ve mainly taken away from it – apart from yet more reassurance, were it needed, that Franzen’s work isn’t for me – is a sense of overriding irritation at seeing genre fiction hung up, yet again, as a literary whipping boy. Specifically: Franzen’s work is so bad that the reviewer – listed only as CML – can’t seem to find anything else to compare it to.

In this way, Purity, whose author aspires to universality in a way only an author contemptuous and jealous of pulp can, is worse than lowbrow genre fiction. The prose from the early chapters is less polished than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and the sex is less sexy than Fifty Shades of Grey. Purity tries harder than these books, and fails more miserably…

Look: there’s a lot of intelligent criticism to be levied at the Harry Potter series, but calling Rowling’s prose unpolished does not, I would argue, fall into that category, and especially not when you’re implicitly likening the degree of failure to E. L. James’s total misapprehension of the words consent, abuse and erotica. It’s downright profane, lumping Rowling and James together under the maladapted, sneering label of lowbrow genre fiction; like saying that spray-on Easy Cheese is the same as good Brie. Genre labels aside, it’s also salient that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (thank you very much) was originally written for children, and is therefore possessed of a plainer diction than either James or Franzen aspires to. Even so, it still contains easy, comic prose like this –

There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.

– while Fifty Shades of Grey contains prose like this:

“‘Argh!” I cry as I feel a weird pinching sensation deep inside me as he rips through my virginity.

In point of fact, the only real similarity between James and Rowling is the fact that they’re both women who’ve made an absurd amount of money from their writing, which – really? Given the entire range of the literary canon to choose from, the two authors CML elects to backhandedly insult by saying, in effect, “they’re bad, but Franzen’s even worse” are arguably the two most successful female writers of recent times? James alone I can buy; however popular her books might be, no one has ever argued that it’s thanks to her riveting prose style. But paired with Rowling – paired with equal contempt with Rowling? Yeah, no: I’m gonna call sexist bullshit on that one. In this same vein, it’s worth mentioning that CML also links to John Dolan’s scathing 2010 denunciation of Franzen’s then-latest novel, The Corrections, referring to it as “a masterpiece” – which, largely, it is, except for the part where it features the single most unselfaware profession of blatant misogyny by someone attempting to decry misogyny that I’ve ever fucking witnessed:

It’s just not accurate — I mean the misogyny in this paragraph, its depiction of feminist academics as crazed hypocrites. I live with these people. Until last year I literally lived with an American Women’s Studies professor; so I’m entitled to say, in the words of Hunter S. Thompson’s attorney, “I know these people in my goddamn BLOOD!” They’re no prizes, God knows; they’re bitter and sullen and above all deeply confused; but I must say that Franzen’s venomous depiction of them gets it all wrong. As any academic knows, the real surprise about Women’s Studies professors is that very, very few of them resemble the firebreathing dyke stereotype. Most of them are wretchedly lonely women whose secret dream is a husband and kids.

See that, kids? That, right there, is a textbook example of what we in the feminism biz call a majestic display of assfuckery (that’s a technical term). I mean, really, for reals: that shit belongs in the same Bizzaro World Woody Allen film as Frazen’s adoption aspirations. Here’s a hint, men of the academic and literary spheres: if your big insider secret about Women’s Studies professors is actual goddamn surprise that they’re not all fucking stereotypes – you know, like the MISOGYNISTIC AS FUCK, OLD AS THE LITERAL SUFFRAGETTE MOVEMENT STEREOTYPE that feminists are really just “wretchedly lonely women whose secret dream is a husband and kids”then it’s entirely possible that you should shut your goddamn cakehole on the subject.

But I digress.

The point being, in slamming a book which is, by all accounts, Franzen’s laughably inept attempt to engage with feminism (among other things), it would be super helpful if the reviewer did not invoke the spectre of actual sexism as their literary ally by, for instance, consistently likening Franzen’s lack of skill to that possessed by women writers.

Which brings me to this little gem:

For Purity, like the rest of Franzen’s oeuvre, reads like a fanfic or rough draft from a creative writing student.

Nor is CML the only reviewer to negatively compare the sex in Purity to that of fanfic. According to Madeleine Davies:

But being dull—a perception that, admittedly, is totally subjective—isn’t the true crime of Franzen’s craft. It’s his stilted, erotic fan fiction-esque descriptions of sex, descriptions that imply that he doesn’t really understand how sex works or what feels good, particularly for women—as well as his continued deployment of sexual metaphors that should condemn him to life in Literary Sex Jail.

And look – okay. I get that, for most people in the literary world, fanfiction means Fifty Shades of Grey, which is unremittingly terrible in every possible respect, but it’s also a form of writing that’s overwhelmingly produced and consumed by women, so no, you don’t get to use it as a casual synonym for bad writing without that pinging my Dogwhistle Sexism senses. Fanfic is a body of work that seldom if ever sees its best works elevated to the status of literary ambassadors for the pure and simple reason that its adherents don’t get to choose what makes it to the mainstream; instead, the whole thing is treated as a lucky dip for proper writers to rummage around in, pointing and laughing at whatever they dredge up. I’ve written before, at length, about the inherent hypocrisy in how fanfiction is commonly defined and valued – which can be roughly summarised as: Public Domain Works Adapted By Famous Men = Great Literature, Copyrighted Works Adapted By Unknown Women = Trash Porn – and don’t intend to rehash the argument here. What I will do, however, for the edification of those who’ve never bothered to actually read any fanfic before dismissing it wholesale – and who, given the high probability of encountering gay sex therein, will likely never do so – is share a few quotes in support of the genre’s quality.

First, though, here’s a quote from Franzen’s Purity – something which, according to both CML and Davies, is bad enough to merit comparison with the dread fanfictions:

Your little body had once been deeper inside your mother than your father’s dick had ever gone, you’d squeezed your entire goddamned head through her pussy, and then for the longest time you’d sucked on her tits whenever you felt like it, and you couldn’t for the life of you remember it. You found yourself self-alienated from the get-go.

Oh god, MY EYES.

Look. Okay. So that’s appallingly terrible and makes me want to go bathe in industrial bleach, but in the interests of fairness, let’s also consider a Purity excerpt that has nothing to do with sex – a sort of prose-style baseline:

There’s the imperative to keep secrets, and the imperative to have them known. How do you know that you’re a person, distinct from other people? By keeping certain things to yourself. You guard them inside you, because, if you don’t, there’s no distinction between inside and outside. Secrets are the way you know you even have an inside. A radical exhibitionist is a person who has forfeited his identity. But identity in a vacuum is also meaningless. Sooner or later, the inside of you needs a witness. Otherwise you’re just a cow, a cat, a stone, a thing in the world, trapped in your thingness. To have an identity, you have to believe that other identities equally exist. You need closeness with other people. And how is closeness built? By sharing secrets. . . . Your identity exists at the intersection of these lines of trust.

Listen: I have years of routine exposure to academic philosophy under my belt at this point, and I’ve seen conference-level exposition on the nature of haecceity with more passion than that, and that was before the bar opened.

How, then, does fanfiction compare?

Let’s have a look at some of that supposedly atrocious sex I’ve been hearing about. Hell, I’ll even go the hetero option, just to aid the comparison:

Bellamy breathes out harshly and presses his face into her cheek for a second, a gesture so oddly sweet that she actually tears up a little. I’m so glad it’s him, she thinks, and grips his neck with one hand, scratching at his scalp and getting paint in his hair. I lied before, I’m so glad it’s him.

She doesn’t know how long it lasts, because she loses herself in it the second he starts to move again, holding her knee in one hand and her hair in the other. Her whole body feels like one long, giant current, and every spot he touches is like a live spark, a jolt of electricity, and of course he was right. Of course she should’ve known it’d be like this.

At some point, he must kiss her, or maybe she kisses him, or maybe it doesn’t matter because who cares who started it when it’s so good, when she feels devoured in the best way possible, so small beneath him but so powerful, all at once. Clarke wants it to last forever. She wants to go back in time and yell at herself for not doing this sooner. She wants to do it again and it’s not even over yet. She wants.

Inconceivable, by jaegermighty

Well, okay. But surely the queer romance is universally terrible, right? It’s just so inherently laughable, all those ordinarily stoic men kissing each other like it might be a thing that actually happens every day in our actual world. Right?

Dean inhales, hard. “I’m sorry. I’m dropping this on you and you don’t need-” he babbles, and then Cas is coming forward to grab him by the front of his shirt and kiss him until he shuts the fuck up. “Oh Jesus,” Dean says, when they break apart for a second. Cas’s mouth is reddening and his hands are knotted in Dean’s shirt like he’s hanging off a cliff. He looks almost as wide-eyed and hysterical as Dean feels. There is nothing happening in Dean’s brain: it’s white noise and static and the sound of loose change being shaken in coffee cans. “Holy crap,” Dean says, and pulls Cas in again by the back of his neck. Dean starts out in charge and then finds himself backed into the fridge while Cas opens his mouth and sucks the curve of Dean’s bottom lip, atomically vaporizes Dean’s top ten hits from his sexual history without unbuttoning anyone’s shirt. It is not quite how Dean expected- or feared- this would go. “What the fuck,” Dean murmurs, cupping Cas’s face with one hand so he can kiss up and down the other side of his face, under his eyes, along his cheekbones, while Cas shuts his eyes and sighs like’s falling apart. “What the fuck was I waiting for?”

“I don’t know,” Cas says. “I don’t know.”

“Why didn’t you ever-”

“Why didn’t you?”

okay, cupid, by orange_crushed

But what about philosophy, internality? Does fanfic have any real insights into human nature comparable to what you might find in a published novel?

It doesn’t stop. He can’t stop.

He manages to stop lying to everyone else, but only because it’s so goddamn frustrating when they don’t realize that he’s lying his ass off with almost every word he speaks, and he gets tired of being angry all the time, but he can’t stop lying to his father.

Little lies. Stupid lies. Obvious lies. Any lie-opportunity that presents itself and Stiles is all over it like he’d be all over Lydia if she wouldn’t mace his ass into the ground a second later.

Because his father always knows, always calls him out on it, and Stiles latches on to this when all other signs of affection dry up after his mother’s death.

(Stiles doesn’t blame his father. He wouldn’t want to hug the kid who’d killed the love of his life, either.)

The Trouble With Reclining Your Body in a Horizontal Position, by apocryphal

What about poetry, then – actual poetry, that hits like a gutpunch? Can fanfic do that?

Some nights, I wish you’d kill me

I want to be the body lying face down in the bathtub

There’s more dignity in that

Than in being

Your love interest

Recycled Hymns, by taylorpotato

Beautiful language, then – not literal poetry, but prose that enthrals in its own right. Does that ever make an appearance?

Stars spilled carelessly across the carpet of the sky, flickering silver jacks and cat’s eye marbles. Filling him up like a cup, brimming him over. The stars change, even when nothing else can. Case in point: he can see the lights of his motel flickering in the distance. Orange, red. Warm like a campfire. Again, again. The vacancy sign is crooked. It’s always crooked. It dangles a skinned cord and vibrates when the wind blows, glares brighter and fades in tiny surges, an artificial heart throbbing in the transformers. Currents are not constant, even if they seem that way: he can stare into light bulbs without blinking if he wants to, and heaven makes the bulbs wax and wane the way they really do, the way they did even when he wasn’t looking. Heaven is awash with the details of life, and heaven affords the time to observe them. He’s only a hundred meters out from the parking lot, or however many he wants to be. For a second he stands in the road and looks up. Cranes his neck back until the trees disappear from the edges of his vision, until there is nothing but night washed over him, nothing in his eyes but stars. The sky turns overhead so slowly they leave trails pulled out like taffy, bright shivering rows like the cut of a ship through still water. The wake. Here out in the middle of nowhere, the air smells like ozone and forest, like asphalt, a little like rain.

apocrypha, by orange_crushed

Can fanfiction be, not just comic, but witty? Can the prose itself make the reader laugh, instead of just describing madcap shenanigans?

When Derek comes home the next day Stiles is sprawled almost upside down on the faded leather couch, one leg thrown over the back and his head flopped over the edge. He drops his book onto his chest and smiles at Derek.

“Are you reading a book about crabs?” Derek asks, in a tone, Stiles feels, of unnecessary judgement.

Stiles slithers into a more conventional position so Derek can get a better look at the cover of Walking Sideways: The Remarkable World of Crabs.

“I’m learning a lot, dude. Did you know that there’s an actual word in science for the tendency of nature to try and evolve a crab?” He brandishes the book like a missionary tract. “Like, crabs are such a good design concept that different branches of the evolutionary tree are constantly going ‘hey, fuck it, let’s make a crab.’ There are like four totally unrelated species that independently arrived at crabbiness.”

“How embarrassing for them,” says Derek. “Like they showed up at the party wearing the same outfit.”

Stiles shoots him a shit-eating grin. “I thought you’d be personally interested, since you’re clearly a member of a new fifth species.”

Don’t Worry Baby, by kalpurna

Hell, I’ll even put my money where my mouth is: you want to take a look at my fanfic, make this argument personal? Here’s the start of my first ever foray into the Supernatural fandom:

The body is only a vessel, an earthly chalice into which the ocean of his being pours; but it is also, in the end, a body, and like all bodies, it has its mandates. Eat. Sleep. Dream. Touch. Though every atom of his borrowed flesh has died and risen, died and risen and died again, reassembled from powder to shards to pottery like an archaeologist’s miracle, still the heart that beats only as a formality refuses to do otherwise, a blood and lightning sentinel. The body is flightless, his wings visible only between blinks, an arcing shadowflash of furled storms tethered to scapulae, tendons, spine. Except when Famine touched him, he has no use for food; yet still, the stomach rumbles, the lips imbibe, the throat swallows. A ritual; the body is pious, or superstitious, or maybe just stupid. He can’t decide which. Perhaps it’s all three. But either way, it is also his piety, his superstition, his stupidity. He is not of the body, but the body is of him, and with him, and he is with it, a skin into which he has stitched himself so often that his true form – or is it now, rather, his other form? – is scarred with needlemarks, the broadest of which is Memory, and the deepest of which is Love.

Storge. PhiliaAgape. All this he has known before now: love of family, love in virtue, love of God.

Eros, though – eros belongs to bodies, and to such bright creatures as inhabit them.

Even angels.

North Hell, by sysrae

Look: I could do this all night, and I’m only active in a tiny number of fandoms. There’s always been good fanfic, and there will always be good fanfic, and I’m honestly not sure which is currently making me angrier: seeing the entire medium judged in absentia to the standards of E. L. James, or used as a quick, easy way to denigrate (male) writers like Franzen by dismissively comparing them (him) to women you’ve never heard of, who write under pseudonyms and use the word cock without let or hindrance in stories whose titles have the temerity to be stolen from William Shakespeare and Pablo Neruda, Radiohead and Richard Siken.

You don’t have to convert to fandom. Just, for the love of god: can we stop trying to lambaste Purity and its predecessors by comparing them to fanfiction, please? Because every time that happens, you’re not insulting Franzen.

You’re insulting fanfic.

And frankly, it deserves better.

Earlier this week, Chuck Wendig posted a piece on his blog – I Smell Your Rookie Moves, New Writers – which, as the title suggests, is a takedown of particular errors he feels newbie authors make. It’s been doing the rounds on my tumblr, Facebook and Twitter feeds, because quite a lot of people I follow seem to share his sentiments; but as often as I’ve agreed with Wendig’s rants in this past, this isn’t one of those times. In fact, my abiding reaction to the early sections in particular has been one of teeth-grinding fury.

Before we get started, let me make two things clear up front: firstly, that I have an inherent dislike of writing advice that lays down specific mandates regardless of where it comes from; and secondly, that I have enormous respect for Wendig himself as a writer. His prose is punchy, sharp and bruisingly beautiful, quite like getting mugged by a street poet, and I have zero qualms about his ability to offer good advice otherwise. This isn’t me quibbling with Wendig’s technique, nor am I taking issue with the fact that he, specifically, is the one who’s spoken – it’s just that, on this occasion, he’s said a few things I think are fucking stupid, and I’d rather like to address them.

So.

Straight up, there’s a need to compare what Wendig says in his very first paragraph to what he says in the fourth (bolding mine):

I am occasionally in a place where I read work by new writers. Sometimes this is at cons or conferences. Sometimes it’s in the sample of work that’s free online or a fragment from a self-published work…

What I’m trying to say is, your rookie efforts are not automatically worth putting out into the world, especially if those efforts cost readers money to access them. The mere existence of a story is not justification for its publication. Don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts. Get it right before you ask money to reward you for getting it wrong.

Oh my fucking GOD, I will flip a table. Where do I even begin with this bullshit? If someone is publishing their work free online, THEY AREN’T ASKING FOR CASH – and what’s more, no one is fucking asking you to read it. There are myriad online communities that exist precisely so that new writers can ‘publish’ their work and share it with each other, up to and including specific fandom and fanwriter sites, and I reject utterly the implication that there’s no point to those venues or those communities – that such new stories aren’t “worth putting out into the world” – just because they’re not up to Wendig’s standards. I’d take less issue with the sentiment of an established writer selflessly offering help to rookies if that’s what Wendig was actually doing; instead, his piece reads like a successful author castigating first-timers for daring to aspire to his level before he thinks they’re ready.

Listen: I am all for writers improving themselves, and in the event that I fork over money for a book, I am all in favour of that book not sucking! But look at the wording, here: “don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts” – don’t MAKE them, as though the author is standing behind the consumer with a loaded gun, forcing them to buy their latest Kindle release. The entire point of the goddamn marketplace is that consumers take risks on products and then share their opinions about what they bought, thereby potentially attracting or deterring others from purchasing likewise. Wanting to engage in this process in good faith is not a fucking crime, okay? This whole section reads like a form of literary class policing: know your place, and know that it isn’t good enough. 

I also think it’s telling – and grossly hypocritical, given that Wendig himself started as a self-published writer – that he explicitly mentions writers who self-publish, who are unpublished or who write for free, but not rookie authors published via traditional means. (The only nod to traditional publishing is when he talks about “tested authors,” though even then, he could just as easily mean writers who’ve released multiple stories in other formats.) Because, let me tell you: I have read my share of traditionally published works that were fucking shit, and I guarantee I paid more for each of them than I ever have for any self-published release. Never mind that “inferior efforts” is a monumental and incredibly subjective value judgement in the first place: what traditionally published authors have that their unpaid or self-supporting brethren don’t – or not usually, at any rate – is the help of professional editors. Which doesn’t mean that their first drafts are somehow magically lacking the same mistakes Wendig is so angry about here; just that they’ve got an extra pair of eyes to catch them on the first pass. Does Wendig recommend his non-traditional rookies use editors or beta readers, which is an unequivocally useful piece of advice? No, he does not – which means, in essence, that he’s holding such writers to a higher standard than their traditionally published counterparts: be so good the first time that you don’t need an editor.

And look. Okay. Wendig never mentions fanwriters by name, but speaking as someone who’s pretty heavily invested in fan culture at this point, applied in that context, his advice here is the exact fucking OPPOSITE of useful. I mean, I have my own issues with the idea in some fanwriting circles that unsolicited criticism of any kind, even concrit, is verboten, because at the end of the day, if you’re putting something online where people not your friends can read it, you’ve got to be prepared for some degree of feedback. The internet is not your perfect, criticism-free bubble, and there’s no rule saying you get to enjoy the advantages of having an audience minus that audience having its own opinions just because you’d rather not deal with them. But when people share their writing for pleasure ahead of profit – when the content you’re reading is produced for free – that rightly changes the nature of how any feedback should be offered, assuming you care about not being an asshole. A person writing for free is not necessarily interested in improvement, or in anything other than having fun as part of an online community – in which case, telling them to stop posting until they suck less is rather like running up to a bunch of kids playing ball at the park and yelling that they need to run more drills before they do that shit in public, otherwise they’re never going to get scouted. I know it’s hard for published writers to remember this, but some people do write for pleasure alone, and the internet makes that easier than ever.

More to the point, though: writing shouldn’t begin as a woodshed exercise for every single person who wants to try it for money, and part of what makes new authors better – especially if they’re the type of rookie who can’t afford an editor and has no access to reliable betas – is getting feedback on their work. I mean, let’s be real: Wendig is acting like charging money for crap books is a crime, instead of just part of the literary-commercial ecosystem. Crap books – and we won’t always agree on what they are, because it’s a judgement call – are always going to be published, and some people are always going to regret buying them, but that doesn’t mean they should never have been written or published in the first place.

Except 50 Shades of Gray, maybe. That is some abusive, rape-apologist bullshit right there.

But I digress.    

Here’s my point: so long as you continue to write, your writing style will change. Maybe you’ll get better, maybe you’ll get worse, and maybe you’ll just get different – write for long enough, and you’ll probably do all three. But if you really want to succeed as a writer, hesitating to publish through fear of your own inadequacies is going to get you vastly fewer places than publishing in confidence, but learning to accept criticism. That being so, I’m not angry that Wendig wants new writers to improve; that’s fair enough. I’m angry because a statement like “don’t make people give you cash for your inferior efforts” isn’t going stop an uncritical egotist who already thinks they’re the next John Green, but it’s sure as hell going to stop the kind of self-doubting beginner whose problem isn’t accepting criticism, but finding the necessary confidence to parse it intelligently.

Which brings me to the topic of Wendig’s actual advice, and the reason I’m always sceptical whenever I see anyone lay down hard rules about what to do, or not do, in the course of writing: it’s because, 90% of the time, that sort of advice doesn’t account for differences in individual style any more than it accounts for differences in individual taste, and therefore has the effect of teaching someone, not how to write well, where well is a universal, but how to write like the person giving the advice.

It is compelling, I know, to figure out every single thing that is happening all the time always in your story. Characters smile and laugh. Okay. They fidget. Fine. They drink a cup of tea with their pinky out. Sure, why not? But if you’re writing out every hiccup, burp, fart, wince, flinch, sip, and gobble, you got problems. A character turns on a lamp? Super, you don’t need to describe how they turn it on. I don’t need to see John Q. Dicknoggin unzipping his fly before he pisses, and frankly, I may not need to see that he pisses unless it’s telling us something about his character.     

On the surface, this is a reasonable thing to say. The problem is that it’s only contextually reasonable, in that some people will be helped by taking this advice, and others hindered. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, for instance -widely regarded as a genre classic – could never have been written if Peake wrote to Wendig’s specifications, and regardless of whether his work is your cup of tea, you can’t deny that many people are extremely fond of it, even though – or especially because, depending on your perspective – it contains passages like this:

The speed of the door as it swung on its hinges was extraordinary, but what was just as dramatic was the silence – a silence so complete that Bellgrove, with his head turned towards his staff and his hand still groping in the air for the bell-pull, could not grasp the reason for the peculiar behaviour of his colleagues. When a man is about to make a speech, however modest, he is glad to have the attention of his audience. To see on every face that stared in his direction an expression of intense interest, but an interest that obviously had nothing to do with him, was more than disturbing. What had happened to them? Why were all those eyes so out of focus – or if they were in focus why should they skim his own as though there were something absorbing about the woodwork of the high green door behind him? And why was Throd standing on tiptoe in order to look through him?

Bellgrove was about to turn – not because he thought there could be anything to see but because he was experiencing that sensation that causes men to turn their heads on deserted roads in order to make sure they are alone. But before he could turn of his own free will he received two sharp yet deferential knuckle-taps on his left shoulder-blade – and leaping about as though at the touch of a ghost he found himself face to face with the tall Christmas-cracker of a butler.

Intense, tight, detailed description of settings, people and actions is a valid stylistic choice. That doesn’t mean it can’t be executed badly – just that doing so is not synonymous with executing it at all.

Enter Wendig’s second objection:

We tell stories because they are interesting. We offer narrative because narrative is a bone-breaker: it snaps the femur of the status quo. It is in fact the sharp, gunshot-loud fracture-break of the expected story is what perks our attention. Guy goes to work, works, comes home, has dinner, goes to bed? Not interesting. Guy goes to work, has the same troubles with his boss, endures the standard problems of the day (“where are my goddamn staples?”), goes home, eats an unsatisfying dinner, goes to bed and sleeps restlessly until the next day of the same thing? Still not interesting. Guy goes to work and gets fired? Okay, maybe, depending on if he does something unexpected with it. Guy goes to work and gets fired out of a cannon into a warehouse full of ninjas? I’M LISTENING.

Well, of course you are, Chuck: you write SFF, and are therefore highly likely to prefer ninjas to the minutiae of daily office life. But this doesn’t change the fact that there’s an entire literary tradition based around slice-of-life realism: stories where the big emotional tension really does hinge on the fact that someone was fired after struggling with their boss, and what this means for their family. Hell, you basically just described the first third of American Beauty. What you’re really railing at here is the idea that domesticity is fundamentally uninteresting – which, don’t even get me started on the gendered implications of that logic when applied in wider contexts, aka The Reason Why So Many Goddamn Fantasy Stories Focus On Big Dudes With Swords Because What Women Do In The Castle Is Girly And Unimportant – in conjunction with a dislike of stories that privilege a character’s emotions and internality above external conflict. Which is to say: this paragraph tells us a great deal about what Chuck Wendig looks for in a novel, but conflates this preference with what good novels look like, period.

Description is the same way. You don’t need to tell me what everything looks like because I already know –

Not if I’m describing something that’s purely fictional, you don’t. Which is to say: the fact that I don’t need to tell you what everything looks like doesn’t mean I shouldn’t tell you what anything looks like.

– and most things aren’t that interesting. Leaves on a tree are leaves on a tree. For the impact of story, how many points each leaf has or how they move in the wind is not compelling.

AUGH. Look: I get that this is meant to be a random example illustrating why we shouldn’t include information that’s totally irrelevant to the plot, but it’s a really shitty example, because even ignoring the fact that sometimes, it’s just nice to set the scene, I can think of a dozen reasons off the top of my head why detailing leaves specifically might be relevant. A ranger describes a particular plant which, in addition to its historical significance, can be used as life-saving medicine. The king’s poisoner tends their herb garden, teaching their protégé the various uses of each. A paleobotanist suddenly encounters plants she thought extinct, and promptly goes into raptures. But Foz! I hear you cry, Aren’t you being unfairly specific? When would that ever happen, really?

Reader, I just described to you actual canonically important scenes from The Lord of the Rings, Robin Hobb’s Assassin series and Jurassic Park. The devil is in the motherfucking details, dudes. Sometimes you can do without them, but sometimes you really can’t.

Trim, tighten, slice, dice. Pare it all down. Render. Render!…

Whatever it is you’re writing, it’s too long. Cut it by a third or more. Do it now. I don’t care if you think you should do it, just do it. Try it. You can go back to it if you don’t like it. Consider it an intellectual challenge — can you utterly obliterate 33% of your story? Can you do it mercilessly and yet still tell the story you want to tell? I bet you jolly well fucking can.

Merciful fucking Christ, if I never see another piece of writing advice that involves the phrase “pare it all down” it’ll be too soon. I mean, look: I love a stylistically wham, bam, thank-you ma’am novel as much as the next person, but sometimes I want to indulge myself. Really settle in with the slow-burn detail, rolling around in lush descriptions of bright new worlds. Sometimes you want a bit of junk in the literary trunk, you know? Every single novel does not have to whip its metaphorical dick out on the first page and then spend the next thirty chapters furiously jacking itself to climax like a pornstar trying to hit his mark for a neatly-timed cumshot. Your novel won’t implicitly suck if you slow down and take your time teasing the reader.

Plus and also? I know we have a cultural stereotype that says rookie writers consistently produce pages and pages of unnecessary drivel, but a lot of newbies underwrite, too – in which case, telling them to pare back an already barren story isn’t going to help. There’s a reason why so many early creative writing exercises teach students how to describe, how to build: you need to get to the point of creating excess before you can learn how to cut it back, such that assuming the presence of excess as a default is a bad way to go.

The story begins on page one.

Repeat: the story begins on page one.

It doesn’t begin on page ten. It doesn’t start in chapter five.

It starts on page one.

Get to the point. Get to the story. Intro characters and their problem and the stakes to those problems as immediately as you are able. You think you’re doing some clever shit by denying this? You think you need to invest us in your luscious prose and the rich loamy soil of the worldbuilding and the deep nature of these characters — ha ha ha, no. We’re here for a reason. We’re here for a story. If by the end of the first page there isn’t the sign of a story starting up? Then we’re pulling the ripcord and ejecting. We’ll parachute out of your airless atmosphere and land on the ground where things are actually happening.

This is one way to tell a story, certainly. But it’s not the only way, and it’s not always a good one. I have had my absolute fill of – to pick a single example – first-person YA fantasy novels that start with the character in the middle of a battle for precisely this reason, but which never slow down sufficiently to explain why the fight unfolded that way in the first place, because the author never bothered to figure it out. Listen: I’m aware that there’s a debate about the utility of prologues in SFF, and some people hate them for exactly the reasons Wendig has outlined above. The story should start when it starts; if you can’t communicate that earlier information in the first chapter, then it doesn’t deserve a prologue. And in some cases, that’s correct.

But prologues also constitute an important stylistic break. In a story that’s otherwise written entirely in the first person, for instance, having a prologue in the third, containing information the viewpoint character couldn’t possibly know, but which is materially relevant to interpreting their actions, can be an extremely clever move. Think about every film you’ve ever seen that starts in one place before the opening credits roll, then cuts to the protagonist once they’ve finished. That, right there? That’s setting the scene, and even though it’s not always obvious how that first scene relates to the subsequent ones, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t ever have been there in the first place.

Despite his presumptuous use of the royal ‘we’, Chuck Wendig is not speaking for everyone when he says that readers aren’t interested in stories that take longer than a fucking page to establish worldbuilding or character. Good novels can be slow. Not to bring up Tolkien again, because I get hives when people hold him up as the be-all, end-all of the genre, but Christ: do you even remember how The Fellowship of the Ring starts? It’s with a prologue entitled Concerning Hobbits that goes on for pages before Frodo Baggins is ever even mentioned by name, and that doesn’t stop people loving it. Writing books is not a goddamn race, is my point, and I’m sick and tired of seeing brevity held up as an unequivocal literary virtue when it’s just as liable to produce dross as gold when used inexpertly.

Dialogue, for instance, is one of those things that has rules. And for some reason, it’s one of the most common things I see get utterly fucked.

On this point, I agree with Wendig. But then, he’s not discussing style here so much as the basic rules of grammar – and even then, if you’re doing it intelligently, with purpose, as opposed to because you’re unaware of the conventions, even these can be fluid. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet eschews all quotation marks, and it’s a gorgeous novel: yes, it’s an exception to the norm, but I mention it because Wendig’s decision to situate adherence to actual grammatical/formatting rules as identical to meeting his personal narrative preferences makes me bristle. Generally speaking, electing to fuck with the standard protocols is not something you’d do with a first novel, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t ever been done successfully. Returning to an earlier point, it’s the kind of problem that, for a traditionally published author, would (one hopes) be caught in editing – so if you’re not too sharp on the basic conventions and you care about getting them right, you can either look them up, ask a knowledgeable friend to beta your work, or hire an editor. This is line-edit drama, not a problem with poorly-executed style, and there’s a goddamn difference, please and thank you.

You need to let your characters talk.

Dialogue is grease that slicks the wheels of your story.

And eventually it gets tiresome. You love the characters and you think they should be allowed to go on and on all day long because you think they’re just aces. They’re not. Shut them up. Keep the dialogue trim and vital. Concise and powerful. Let them have their say in the way they need to say it — in the way that best exemplifies who those characters are and what they want — and then close their mouths. Move onto the next thing. Let’s hear from someone else or something else.

Generally speaking, I agree with this, too. Unless your character is giving a speech, monologuing to a captive audience or engaging in a soliloquy, they’re probably not going to speak uninterrupted for any length of time. The conversation will go back and forth, and eventually, it’s going to end, and you don’t always need to show every single exchange in order to get the point across. I will, however, take issue with the idea that dialogue must always be “trim and vital, concise and powerful” – because many people aren’t. Naturalistic dialogue can be a powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal, letting you establish voice, dialect, setting and any manner of other things. That doesn’t mean letting the characters talk about anything under the sun with no reference to plotting; it means that not every single exchange has to be geared towards the narrative end-game in order to make a positive contribution to the story.

Each character needs to be a shining beam — each distinct from the next. Bright and demonstrative of its own color. Not archetypes, not stereotypes, but complex and easily distinguished people. And I want a reason to care about them.

This, I agree with: absolutely, 1000%.

Right out of the gate, I want this. I need to know what they want, why they want it, and what they’re willing to do to get it. I need, in very short terms, their quest. Whether desired or a burden, I gotta know why they’re here on the page in front of me. That’s not true only of the protagonist, but of all the characters.

Who are they?

If you can’t tell me quickly, they become noise instead of operating as signal.

Aaaand we’re back to disagreeing again. Because, look, Chuck – I don’t know what your fucking deal with speed is, here, but I’m going to say it again: storytelling isn’t a race. There are times when I want to know quickly what a character’s motivation is, and times where I can stand to wait a little. Sometimes, the best characters slowly emerge from the background, insinuating themselves into the story in ways you didn’t expect at the outset. A great recent example of this was Csevet in Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. A courier who initially brings the protagonist, Maia, the news of his ascension to the throne, Csevet seems at first to be a background character, someone who’ll disappear once he’s fulfilled his immediate purpose. This isn’t because Addison fails to make him a distinct individual, but is rather a consequence of the story being told with a tight focus on Maia’s perspective: Csevet’s needs aren’t as important in the first chapters as Maia’s are, and as Csevet initially appears to deliver a specific piece of news, we’re not expecting Maia to keep him around. But he does, and so the character expands, steadily revealing more and more of himself as the narrative progresses.

You don’t need to give a physical description of every single character the second they first appear in the story, because that information might not be immediately relevant. A character can move in the background as a seeming bit player before ever coming to the fore, and even once you can see them, their motives won’t always be transparent. I don’t just mean this in the facetiously obvious sense, that some characters have hidden agendas: I mean that if you’ve got six characters in a scene, the fact that the primary focus is on two of them doesn’t mean the other four won’t come into their own later. This is even more important to remember if you’re writing in first person, where describing a character or making an observation is synonymous with the character doing those things – and while the author might want to give certain details, the character might not even pick up on them for another three chapters.

What I’m saying is this: Wendig is completely correct in saying that your characters, even the minor ones, should be real, distinct individuals. But that doesn’t mean you have to give their quest away up front, or make it immediately obvious that a seemingly minor character is going to come into greater prominence later. I dislike working from the assumption that your audience is impatient, easily bored and allergic to surprises – especially as I’m not that sort of reader myself.

It’s very hard to manage a lot of characters.

I do it in some books and the way that I do it is by introducing them piecemeal — not in one big dump like I’m emptying a bag of apples onto the counter (where they promptly all roll away from me), but one or two at a time.

Which is kind of what I’m getting at, but from the opposite perspective: it’s okay to empty your bag of apples, provided you subsequently gather them all back up again. Otherwise, you’re permanently restricting yourself to writing early scenes where only one or two characters are present, which… personally? I find that boring; or at least, I wouldn’t want it as a staple. I like stories that challenge me by throwing me in the deep end, asking that I figure out a bunch of characters and navigate their relationships on the fly by way of teaching me the setting. Elizabeth Bear does this wonderfully, as do Kate Elliott and Alaya Dawn Johnson, which is a big part of why I love their books. Particularly in SFF, the social roles the characters inhabit can tell you as much about them – and the world – as their personalities and motives, and the fact that there might be a tension between how a character behaves in an official capacity and who they are otherwise can lead to some extremely satisfying characterisation. Thus: you might first show me the faceless Executioner in Chapter 1, letting them appear as a background authority in Chapter 2, so that when I finally learn their name and their hatred of the Emperor they purport to serve in Chapter 3, I feel the contradiction far more strongly than if you’d simply said as much to begin with.

…if each character sounds like a replicant of the next, you’ve got a problem. It’s not just about vocal patterns. It’s about what they’re saying in addition to how they’re saying it. It’s about their ideas and vision and desires. Look at it this way: it’s not just your prose that makes you your author. It’s not just your style. It’s whatyou write. It’s the themes you express. Characters operate the same way. They have different viewpoints and needs. They have their own ways of expressing those viewpoints and needs, too. Get on that. Otherwise, they’re all just clones with different names and faces. 

Exactly.

Stop doing stunt moves. You can do that later. Right now, assume that you have a single goal: clarity. Clarity is key. It is king. If I do not know what is going on, then I’m out… Do yourself a favor and aim to just tell the story. Get out of the way. Be clear. Be forthright. Be confident and assertive and show us what’s happening without compromise and without burying it under a lot of mud.

You don’t get points for being deliberately ambiguous.

On the surface, this is good advice: it’s just that, given the emphasis on speed in the rest of this piece, I’m inclined to think that Wendig thinks of clarity as a synonym for simplicity, as per the injunction against “trick moves”. Which, yes: if you’re a very new writer, you need to make sure you’re being understood before you can play with expression. But natively, not everyone is going to have the same style or be interested in writing the same sort of book. It’s not a “trick move” to want to have a big cast, or to tell a slow-burn story, or to be interested in description. In fact, I’d argue that writing in a sparse, clean style takes just as much skill as writing more lavishly: there’s an art to economy, and I’ve never liked the idea that it’s somehow a better, easier choice for beginners just because it uses fewer words. Ask any artist: understanding negative space and its impact on the picture takes skill and practice, just like drawing does.

I guess what I’m saying is this: Chuck Wendig has written a piece that’s enormously helpful if you want to learn to write like Chuck Wendig and/or have a natural inclination towards his style, but which is vastly less helpful if you want to learn to write like anyone else; like you, for instance. There’s some good advice there, to be sure, but the parts that aren’t – which conflate his personal preferences with universal truths; which tell new writers they’re not good enough to be worth the cost of admission, no matter how cheap – those parts can fuck right off. Not everybody needs to write books the exact same way, just as everyone doesn’t need to read and love the exact same things, and I’m sick of writing advice that’s really just one person’s taste masquerading as objective truth.