Tag Archives: colonialism

U is for Katya Nar Umbriel

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

Barbara Ann Wright’s The Pyramid Waltz is a charming lesbian adventure romance in a fairy-tale setting. Heroine Katya Nar Umbriel is a quick-tongued, irreverent princess who strolls around the castle in tight trousers looking bored and charming the pants/skirts off any woman who catches her eye — this rakish persona is an excellent cover for her real work, which is ferreting out threats to the throne and the lives of her family along with a band of roguish misfits.

Cover image for Barbara Ann Wright's The Pyramid Waltz. A gold stone gastle stands gleaming against the background of a reddish sunset. In the right-hand foreground is a CGI illustration of a woman with chunky shoulder-length blond hair and pale skin. She wears a short red coat over a long white vest with gold buttons, unbuttoned to show a bit of cleavage. Her hips are canted slightly,  her feet apart, and in her left hand she loosely holds a long thin sword.Our second heroine Starbride is a new courtier with red-brown skin and dark hair, who is less interested in the politicking and catty gossip of the court and more interested in the trade law of the kingdom of Farraday, since the people of her home city are being taken advantage of by Farradain traders. Unlike the world of Ash, women are free to marry other women and start families; they can wear trousers or gowns as they please, and daughters can inherit titles and estates and even the crown, depending on their place in a family’s birth order. It’s a fun premise and a sweet romance, though a little less sophisticated than I hoped. It hits that awkward spot where it’s too sexy for YA, but feels too juvenile for adult romance. (Fantasy NA? Is that a thing yet? Please tell me it isn’t a thing yet.) But despite the lack of refinement, the world of the text has a great many things to say about the ebbs and swells of power that are precisely what intersectionality was created to address.

Katya is second in line to the throne, but her elder brother the Crown Prince lives elsewhere with his wife and children so Katya is the nearest direct link to the King and Queen. (The royal family can’t be all in the same place, for reasons that only eventually become guessable.) She is constantly besieged by favor-seekers, opportunists, and those who offer false friendship to advance a hidden agenda; as a result, she finds it hard to trust the kindness of others, particularly new acquaintances. At the same time, she plays the role of rebellious princess and seductress to mask her work as head of the Order of Vestra, a small band that uncovers traitors to and conspiracies against the crown — Katya’s friendship or attention, when offered, is therefore often as false or calculated as the flattery she receives in return. Katya unhesitatingly uses against others the same tactics (persuasion, lies, flattery, evasion) that she considers unethical when used against her.

(Over the course of the novel, I started to feel perversely sorry for the courtiers as a group — they’re characterized as universally shallow and silly and rank-obsessed and trend-mad in a way that reminds me a lot of the baseline misogyny in fantasies like Game of Thrones, where Sansa’s girlish desire to be a lady with a devoted knight is negatively contrasted to Arya’s boyish desire to take fighting lessons and run around outdoors.)

Complicating this power dynamic is the fact that Katya bears the Aspect, which is roughly to say she can transform into a Fiend when provoked or when involved in certain rituals. It gives her enormous physical power (horns, fangs, super strength and speed, the whole demon bit) but it is terribly inhuman and its lust for slaughter is insatiable. The pyramid necklace she wears keeps it mostly contained, but there is always a risk that anger or fear or other strong emotions will break the pyramid and loose the Fiend, in which case lots of people will die. This is different than many fantasy or paranormal romances, where the beastly side of a shifter is usually within the person’s control and does not impact their personhood — with the Fiend, however, Katya-as-Katya is so lost that she doesn’t even remember what she does when she’s changed. The Fiend is decidedly Not Her on a profound level — which makes her to some extent its victim, though not as victimized as those she kills when transformed. Power in this metaphor is something inimical to humanity, something cold and malevolent that needs to be kept in check.

Starbride’s POV expands the terms of power, for Starbride comes from a colonized people. I’m going to quote at length:

She ignored the Nereems’ words on courtly life and studied the architecture and tapestries, the small statues, and the representations of the ten spirits that were everywhere. She knew them already, though she hadn’t grown up with them. Like all aspects of Farradain culture, they had seeped into her homeland like a creeping tide of marmalade.

Allusia allowed Farraday into their land over one hundred years ago, to the mountains where the pale-skinned outlanders harvested the crystal to make pyramids. Some of the Allusian warlords had traded with them; others who attempted to drive them out were crushed by their army. The remaining Allusians organized to meet the Farradains on equal footing, learning more about these people, about their laws, but there was always more to learn. One hundred years hadn’t solved all their problems. (Kindle location 296)

Starbride has come to the Farradain court at Marienne because her mother would like her to find a well-connected lover to ease the trade burden on the people back home in Newhope; Starbride herself means to do research on the law to help her people, rather than offer herself up as bait to induce someone else to do it. She has a meet-cute with Katya while trying to find the library, but the more they talk and the closer they become, the less Starbride is inclined to explain her people’s problems to the princess: “Allusia has to fight its own battles. We can’t expect Farraday to solve all the problems it creates. [Ed note: why, precisely?] If we lean on them to do everything for us, we won’t know how to do anything for ourselves. We won’t even know when we’re being taken advantage of” (1172).

I have several problems with this approach  — the first being that Starbride quickly finds that what Farradain traders are doing in Newhope (something like price-fixing?) is illegal under Farradain law. Now obviously this is a bullshit move on the traders’ part, but what it tells the reader is that Farradain trade law has become the standard even in the Allusian capital. This is as clear an illustration of an imperial situation as I have seen in my recent reading. It is the threat of the Farradain army that makes this imposition possible and sustainable — so while Starbride’s urge to learn the law is all well and good, this will do nothing to eliminate the military threat that maintains the social imbalance. Her bootstrappy assertion that Allusians have to learn to cope on their own similarly ignores the nature of colonization and creates the illusion that Allusians and Farradains are operating on equal planes of agency. They are not, and we know it in the text: Starbride is ridiculed, fetishized, and Othered by the Farradain courtiers, who more than once refer to her as “exotic.” Eventually, she reveals the situation to Katya, who not only says that she should definitely have been told (on account of the illegality) but who instantly comes up with the idea of offering law scholarships for students from Allusia. Though this does further entangle Allusia and Farraday in the imperial machinery, it does so by including Allusians as actors and so must be counted as something of a win.

Not that Allusian culture is entirely free from problematic elements — they have a servant caste with something like a lifebond pledge. There wasn’t enough detail for me to explore, but it reads like a very cultish, benevolent slavery and I wanted either more or less of it than I got. More, because then it would be more than a throwaway, and less, because then I wouldn’t have to be occasionally squicked out by the casual way Starbride’s maid offered to sacrifice her life to save Starbride’s — like all the time, in casual conversation, in hypothetical poisonings, just constantly. It was weird.

The imperial legacy of Farraday, rather underexplored in the text considering how troubling a dynamic it is for the romance, dovetails with the sinister origin of the Umbriels’ power base: more Fiends. Every Umbriel within three removes from the throne has an Aspect like Katya’s — because centuries ago, an Umbriel ancestor bound the great Fiend Yanchasa beneath a giant pyramid and saved the kingdom. This was only possible by taking some of the demon into himself and his children, and the royal family has continued performing the binding ritual (the titular Pyramid Waltz) every five years, adding later descendants and children as needed. Yanchasa has become legend rather than fact in the minds of the common Faradains, so the Umbriels have to hide the monstrous sides of their nature from the population they rule over, even as they induct spouses and children into the ritual and give them their own Aspects to (hopefully) control. It is obviously in the kingdom’s best interests to keep the great Fiend imprisoned, but the Umbriels assume royal power is the reward they earn for being the Fiend’s jailers — even though this reward is not consented to by the populace, and in fact there are many who would object.

Needless to say, I am uncomfortable with this status quo. Which makes for a really fun read, until the threads start to unravel. Some pretty major spoilers to follow.

Ready? Let’s begin.

I knew by the third time dead uncle Roland’s name came up that he was probably going to turn out to be not-dead uncle Roland, and sure enough there he is, leading the rebellion. Roland had been leader of the Order in his day, and he had often been eager to use pyramid magic and mind-magic in ways not endorsed by his family or his teammates. ‘Enhanced interrogation techniques’ is about the size of it — he was more concerned with his own right to information than to any other person’s right to anything (mental privacy, health, life). Katya has been warned away from similar impulses by her father’s pyradisté (pyramid-wizard) Crowe, just as he’d once warned Roland. But Roland’s near-death experience has led him to merge himself with his Fiend: “Roland smiled, and the features of his Aspect dropped over his face … But his expression didn’t lose its character, didn’t become the Fiend’s. He was himself, even with the Aspect” (5283). Note the ambiguity in “he was himself”: Roland’s lust for control has caused him to embrace the monstrous side of his nature to the point where all human affection and empathy disappear. All that’s left is the desire for power: “All I ask is a kingdom ruled the right way, my way … the people of Marienne will finally get a ruler they deserve, one who will protect and guide them by any means necessary” (5301).

Katya refuses — but in the course of the fight scene that follows, she has her own humanity stripped away by the rising Fiend within. By the time Roland escapes, Katya has imbibed far more of Yanchasa’s essence — far more demon — than is considered safe. Starbride’s newly discovered powers as a pyradisté mean she is the only one nearby who can help, but in her inexperience she takes away not just the extra demon, but all of Katya’s Aspect. This is presented, quite clearly, as a loss:

No Aspect. No Fiend. That which her parents had passed to her, that which all Umbriels possessed, gone. What did that make her? … No more Fiend, maybe no more Umbriel. How could she lead the Order of Vestra if she didn’t have what the original leader of the Order had possessed? (5584)

Considering the nature of the Aspect, it is tempting to snark back a reply that What that makes you, young lady, is safer to be around, but it is not so simple. The Fiend is the embodiment of both personal and political power. Many of the secret passages running through the castle are tuned only to those who have Fiendish elements, for instance — and what’s worse, it is not made clear how Katya’s cleansing (if you can call it that) will affect the way the great pyramid imprisons Yanchasa. I’m sure this is covered by the next two books in the series, but I could have used a bit more closure at the end of this first novel. As it is, we’re left with an unfinished thought on how much monstrous power one person/kingdom can contain without it consuming them.

{Minor note because it was just too good to let go unpraised: during one early scene Katya’s Fiend is unleashed and we get one of the best descriptions of violence I have ever, ever read: “She reached between his legs and clawed him from groin to chin, cutting through him as if he were warm pie.” Warm pie! I still squirm with delight to read it. GRRM eat your heart out.}

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Lately I’ve been finding and enjoying a lot of great sff that deals with colonialism and/or race relations in some way: for instance, Zen Cho’s The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo and Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.

N. K. Jemisin, whose Inheritance trilogy fits in nicely with the above list of books, had a great post recently on confirmation bias and epic fantasy.

Wonderful author Malinda Lo recently posted her breakdown of diversity in the NYT YA Bestseller lists. She has pie charts for characters of color, characters with disabilities, and LGBT characters: the numbers are pretty stark and worth checking out.

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Wright, Barbara Ann. The Pyramid Waltz. Bold Strokes Books: September 18, 2012. Ebook.

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C is for Zen Cho

{For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.}

Let me not even pretend I can write with perfect objectivity about author Zen Cho’s The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. It has been a long time since a book has charmed me so thoroughly, on so many levels. This Dear Author review by Sunita sums it up nicely: “It’s frothy but not at all insubstantial. Rather, it’s effervescent and sparkling like Champagne; it goes down easy, feels like something special, and tastes complex and subtle.” I love champagne, both as a beverage and as a metaphor for intoxicating prose, so this was precisely to my liking.

Oh, there will be so many spoilers in the paragraphs ahead.

Jade (Geok Huay) Yeo is a Malayan writer of Chinese descent, living and working in 1920s London. She has a Dorothy-Parkerish keenness of voice, self-deprecating and self-confident by turns. She writes both articles with titles like ‘What The Well-Dressed Woman Is Wearing’ and literary pieces for the Oriental Literary Review. Her critic’s eye is crucial to her story, which is surprisingly rich in literary antecedents for so short a book: Eliot, Austen, two of the Brontës, Tennyson, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Wodehouse are all represented — and those were only the ones I noticed. This post and the comments name a few more.

But most significant are the frequent allusions to Jane Eyre, whose plot the novel parallels rather closely:

  • Our bookish and independent heroine refuses to be intimidated by a volatile, wealthy man.
  • The volatile, wealthy man finds her resistance irresistible.
  • The two begin an affair, but the first man turns out to have a wife already.
  • After a confrontation with the wife, our heroine takes refuge in a quiet spot in the country.
  • Our heroine finds a second chance at romantic involvement, with a less wealthy but more moral partner, and makes the choice most conducive to her personal happiness.

These are the broad strokes, though I could go on (our heroine has an overbearing aunt, our heroine finds employment through periodicals, Jade is one letter away from Jane, etc. there are so many it’s really exciting I’ll stop now honest).

Despite all these clues, Jade refuses this very comparison: “I had no intention of being anyone’s Jane Eyre, particularly as Jane Eyre herself declined to be a second wife” (Kindle location 726). When filtered through a Malayan cultural lens that includes polygamy, the  catastrophe at the heart of Brontë’s text — the strong taboo against bigamy — becomes something quite different. Jane Eyre in this context does not flee from a nearly committed crime: instead, she rejects a form of inclusion that would make her subservient, secondary. Western literature’s meaning alters when it is viewed from the margins rather than from the center.

Jade’s gently ironic tone should not prevent us from noticing that the state of second wife is the very type of subservience she is being offered by Diana Hardie. Again the threat is not bigamy or even adultery: the threat for Jade is being subsumed into a Western, high-literary, colonialist house; being subject to endless microaggressions about her country of origin; being “Hardie’s assistant” rather than a writer with her own name and career. It would mean the obliteration of her entire self and experience: “It would be like forswearing rice, and only eating cake for the rest of my life. I couldn’t do it” (752).

Sebastian Hardie, after all, could not be a more obvious symbol of the Western colonial and literary agenda. He is a celebrated author with a sexually adventurous lifestyle and a rampaging libido — the perfect Roaring Twenties sheik — the consummate romance novel hero. And like his wife, he would place Jade in a role as a sidekick. On their very first meeting, he refers to her as “Ariel … Alone on an incomprehensible island”  244). It’s clear he’s  attempting flattery, envisioning the Asian female critic as a waifish, magical sprite who was rescued by a European and must repay that debt with servitude and gratitude. But Jade’s not having it. “I’m really more of a Caliban,” she replies. It’s probably nothing more than a one-off joke, offered in a moment of social anxiety, but Hardie attempts for the rest of the novel to confine her within this persona: he refers to her as “little Caliban” (534) and writes revealing poems to her under that name. He has effectively colonized Jade, renaming her and confining her personhood within an explicitly English, literary framework.

It is never made explicit in the text, but I believe it’s safe to assume that in this little game Hardie imagines himself as Prospero, a figure often associated with creative and artistic powers (not to mention God complexes). But from the perspective of a reader it is abundantly clear that Sebastian Hardie is a Miranda, traipsing around his island home, talking a great deal of nonsense about love, and wondering if the people he sees are real people or magical spirits. The role of Prospero is reserved for Sebastian’s wife Diana, who is very clearly in charge of everything: “Being with Diana must be like living in a beautiful play written by a playwright of the modern school” (674).

Pregnant and disenchanted, Jade leaves the Hardies (and The Tempestbehind and goes to the country to have her child in seclusion. Like Jane Eyre, she finds herself in a place that operates on high moral principles and charitable acts:

Mrs. Crowther is a widow, but her assistants are Misses mostly. They are all very nice: they knit and are tremendously tactful. The food is British and hearty, and the furnishings are soothing, if plain. Perhaps they thought patterns might distress our minds further. (856)

Also like Jane, Jade finds friendship in this lonely place — but while Jane finds solace in the puritan spirit of the Riverses, Jade is drawn to a fellow inmate, Margery, who suffers from what is pretty obviously clinical depression: she describes “a black thing with horns and wings … that stares at one with yellow eyes — and one can’t get out of bed, but lies there and wishes one was dead” (910). Their sisterhood is not a literary-coincidental blood connection, but a sympathy created by marginalization. “I’m mad,” says Margery; “I’m bad,” replies Jade (892), but they do not let the prevailing cultural narratives about madness/badness impede their connection as human beings. Strict adherence to the plots of such narratives belongs to people like the Hardies, or to Margery’s relatives, who privilege “scientific” medical authority over her own lived experience of her illness (933).

By this point in the book Jade has realized the depth of her true feelings for her friend Ravi, the editor of the Oriental Literary Review, but she has no hope that he returns them — until he shows up in the middle of a thunderstorm. Jade is reading Agnes Grey and cites David Copperfield  — another book with two wives — to describe her shocked reaction. These are small details, but it soon becomes apparent that Ravi and Jade have each been telling themselves stories about the other, and that those stories have not matched. They get things sorted out almost in spite of themselves, in the charming way of all the best romantic comedies — and since we’re talking about the Jane Eyre parallels still you may note that Ravi has been imagining himself as suffering from unrequited love for an unattainable object, just as St. John Rivers does for Rosamond Oliver. In the course of proposing, Ravi reveals that he knows Jade’s untranslated name, Geok Huay. Jade is puzzled, as she’d never actually told him this — but he mentions that she had written it but then crossed it out on the very first letter she’d written to him as an editor. It is clear that Ravi has deliberately chosen to address her by the name she’d chosen to use in public, in London, in the literary world — but he has not forgotten her real name, and in this private, intimate moment he uses it, setting aside the colonial need for a ‘normal-sounding’ (read: British) identification.

If Jade excels at subverting and deflating the narratives of privilege and colonialism — her initial bad review of Hardie’s novel, her refusal to adore London’s golden boy, her refusal to move in with Hardie and his wife, her rebellious friendship with Margery — Ravi “remembers the things one has said” (176). He is an editor, someone who can keep multiple versions/visions of a narrative in his head without contradiction — and also someone who can spot the telling details, the places for improvement, the moments where a story’s plot or tone may be revised. As Jade says quite early about the Mimnaugh review: “I was worried he would give me helpful critique, which I would have to listen to because Ravi’s judgment is unerring” (87). Jade is constantly shifting between social and personal narratives — British imperial subject/foreigner, good girl/fallen woman, literary critic/pleasure reader — and Ravi is the one person in the book who can follow the thread between all these shifting stories. As such, he is perfectly suited to her, and Jade recognizes it.

And of course, in a truly subversive move that’s like catnip for lit-nerds like myself, Jade finds happiness not with the Rochester figure but with a much friendlier, warmer version of St. John Rivers, who initially offers her a similar kind of companionate marriage (before the two realize their mutual romantic feelings).

Nobody’s Jane Eyre, indeed.

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There is often the sense, as Zen Cho explainsthat “that fiction by or about people who are traditionally underrepresented in Western literature is kind of innately worthy and dull.” This perceived gap between reading-for-escape and reading-for-representation became a strong theme in a recent Dear Author thread asking what books readers were hoping to see in the future. But this is a false dichotomy, a lingering symptom of the way that non-white people have been Othered and limited throughout literature and history. I for one am thrilled that Zen Cho is hoping to write more “post-colonial fluff for book nerds.”

She has also complied this handy list of Malaysian science fiction and fantasy writers working in English, for your further reading pleasure.

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Cho, Zen. The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Seattle: Zen Cho, 2012. Ebook.

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