Tag Archives: historical romance

Viscounts and Vorkosigans

Welcome to the inaugural post in my new once-monthly series, For the Love of Lit Crit, where we treat romance novels like the deliberately composed texts they are. Posts will be tagged as such and collected on their very own page. Spoilers generally abound. Suggestions for a better series title (and books to analyze) will be eagerly entertained.

In Jo Walton’s review of A Civil Campaign for Tor.com, she states that aside from the title she finds this book has more in common with The Grand Sophy than with Heyer’s A Civil Contract. As far as plot structure and character are concerned, she’s probably right — I’ve never read The Grand Sophy myself so I’m leaving that one out of this analysis. But thematically, I feel like the Vorkosigan book is a direct response to the themes of Heyer’s text. A Civil Contract is essentially about the social self, how to define it and how it can or cannot be changed; A Civil Campaign takes these fundamental questions and very forthrightly rebuts Heyer’s conservative theses.

In A Civil Contract, hero Adam starts the book by being thrown out of his accustomed orbit. He has inherited his late father’s title, he has become the legal head of his family, he has been injured in battle and has a permanent limp, and now he must cash out his captaincy and abandon his military career. The previous viscount ran in the highest social circles but was financially profligate and reckless; much of Adam’s journey over the course of the book deals with him trying to find a different mode of aristocracy more suited to his personal inclinations. He does so by following the example of the elderly gentlemen-farmers and learning how best to improve his ancestral lands, thus satisfying his class pride while also gaining scope for his energy and individual drive. It is a personal decision, but it also means Adam never really questions his position as an aristocrat. He simply finds a more personally palatable form of aristocracy, without rejecting the class hierarchy’s fundamental assumptions.

This is not the only time Adam inhabits a ready-made social role. His romance with Julia is obviously a classic example of the Wounded Hero romance, a connection between two types rather than two individuals and explicitly described as such:

It was not wonderful that he should have alleviated the pain and the weariness of the months he had spent in and out of the surgeons’ hands with a flirtation with the lovely Miss Oversley; still less wonderful that a romantic girl should have encouraged the gallantry of a hero of Salamanca. (A Civil Contract, Kindle location 150)

Julia is less a character than a symbol in this novel: she exists to embody the most rarefied type of nobility. And while Adam found this charming before, he comes to a different opinion after her marriage to the Marquis of Rockhill: “when he looked at Julia, and listened to her, she seemed to be almost a stranger. Even her appearance had altered. She had always been charmingly dressed, but in a style suited to her maiden status; he had never seen her attired in the silks, the velvets, and the jewels of matronhood” (Kindle location 4975). This is the glittering and useless aristocracy of Adam’s father, against which our hero has been struggling over the course of the whole novel.

I have said before that I often try to root for the Other Woman as a habit of feminist praxis, and Julia is such a quintessential Other Woman that empathizing with her feels like real resistance to patriarchy. The more the text tries to make her unsympathetic — to make her spoiled, or histrionic, or casually adulterous — the more I want to champion her. Yes, she’s impractical and sheltered — not hard, when her attempts to be practical are roundly mocked and everyone goes out of their way to shelter her. I can’t find it in me to blame her for what has obviously been done to her by her family (and the author). Adam’s gradual rejection of Julia and what she represents reads to me less like a character coming into emotional maturity and more like a man who slowly comes to believe himself a superior kind of person. His preference for the maiden over the matron ties in with his protectiveness of Fontley and his resistance to Mr. Chawleigh’s wealth: there’s something about purity in there that I would tease out if I could stand to spend so much time talking about Adam. (Confession: I’m one of those readers who remains unconvinced by this book’s happy ending).

I must also disagree with Jo Walton’s assertion that there’s “none of Heyer’s weirdly vile racism here, because we don’t see anyone to provoke it.” (Also: weirdly vile? As opposed to commonly vile?) Here’s an early passage describing Mr. Chawleigh’s reception by his new in-laws: “With every will in the world to talk pleasantly to him, an over-delicate refinement made [Adam’s sister] Charlotte regard him with much the same nervous surprise as she would have felt at being addressed by an aboriginal” (1376). Racism and colonialism underscore the inherent class bias in the text: Mr. Chawleigh is as far removed from the world of Adam’s titled English family as a brown- or black-skinned native of some far-flung imperial wilderness. It’s a little moment, but a telling one: that’s a lot of power systems to invoke in one throwaway simile.

Despite the narrative’s attempts to make him overbearing, Mr. Chawleigh is an incredibly likeable character, even if I did hear his dialogue in the voice of Mr. Hardwood from this episode of Blackadder (video link: relevant bit starts at 11:04). His rampant generosity and earnest desire to make his new in-laws happy are touching and empathetic. But to Adam’s high-born eyes his greatest virtue is his refusal to mix with those above his social station. Adam is similarly grateful for Jenny’s reticence to make changes at Fontley, even when those changes are necessary maintenance and repair. As the romance progresses, the story asks the question: How permeable are the barriers between Adam and Jenny? How much can they transcend their social selves to make a sincere connection separate from class and status?

Not that much, as it turns out. They can essentially hold hands through the chain-link fence, but they will never be the same category of person. Jenny is much more attuned to this than Adam, which makes sense as the marginalized are always much more attuned to the workings of privilege than the privileged are. (See: rape culture, institutional racism, accessibility for disabled people, etc.) Upon her first much-postponed arrival at Fontley — her husband’s home! which her father’s money helped save! — Adam tells her she can do as she pleases and Jenny has the following heartbreaking insight: “She did not say: I am only a guest in your house, but it was what she thought, for he uttered the speech just stiltedly enough to betray that it had been rehearsed” (3473). This same assumption of difference underlies Julia’s suggestion to Adam that they enjoy a discreet sexual liaison (it’s couched as ‘friendship,’ but come on): “Cannot something be left to us? … Jenny could not be hurt by anything that passed between you and me, Adam” (3830). Nor will I be the first person to point out that Jenny’s lack of beauty reads as a function of class, even though there’s no statistical reason to suppose a commoner is likely to be less pretty than a lord’s daughter. Moreover, while Jenny gives birth to a son with a great deal of bodily risk and effort, Julia becomes a stepmother to two girls already half-grown. It’s hard not to see this as a class distinction as well: the common folk’s messy struggle, the upper classes’ aloofness and untouchability. I found myself wanting to read more about Julia and her stepdaughters; it felt as though there was a whole book there waiting to be explored, more nuanced than the usual stepmother tropes allow. Again: official Olivia Waite stance is Team Julia.

And Team Jenny — because Jenny broke my heart and she deserves better than what she gets in this book. Here is Adam’s ultimate confession of love: “‘I do love you, Jenny,’ he said gently. ‘Very much indeed — and I couldn’t do without you. You are a part of my life'” (6006). Jenny has one of her quiet, unspoken revelations: “Probably Adam would always carry Julia in some corner of his heart … although he might no longer yearn to possess her she would remain nostalgically dear to him while life endured.”

This is a hell of a thing for a romance heroine to think at the emotional climax of the book.

Look, I get it: the chemistry of lust can be blinding, and a quieter, less dashing partner can nevertheless be wonderfully romantic (e.g. Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon, be still my swooning heart). And we should definitely resist the urge to define love as a thing earned through effort, because that way lie the hellish gates of the Friendzone and favor sharking and Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” where unasked-for sacrifices by manipulative partners lead to an obligation for love, for sex, and for attention and power in ways that are clearly misogynistic. (Thanks to Cecilia Grant for reminding me about “Grenade!” That song is the catchiest and the worst.)

But does Jenny not deserve one goddamn moment where it’s all about her? Where her thoughts, needs, feelings, and existence as a human being come first? Just one would be nice. But there’s nothing in Adam’s confession of love that even comes close to Mr. Chawleigh’s quietly heartrending, “She’s all I’ve got, you see” (4848). The problem is not that Adam and Jenny’s relationship is different in kind than Adam and Julia’s: the problem is that Adam and Jenny’s relationship will always come second to Adam’s relationship with Adam. Jenny becomes part of his life, but she never really becomes part of his self, and her own self disappears in consideration of his aristocratic priorities.

This is not merely a romantic failure in our hero, I would argue, but a larger failure of empathy across class boundaries. Contrast Mr. Chawleigh’s open and earnest affection for his daughter with Adam’s feelings upon seeing his newborn son for the first time: “He thought he had never seen anything less beautiful than the red and crumpled countenance of his son” (6006). Father of the Year, that one. He only waxes enthusiastic when he sees that this noble-born future viscount is equally scornful of his lowborn antecedents: “I left [Mr. Chawleigh] making the most peculiar noises to his grandson, who treated them with utter contempt — very understandably, I thought!” (6006). He’s pleased to see his baby son self-ally with the proper class by scorning Mr. Chawleigh. Blood will tell, as so often happens in Heyer. Class is changeless. It’s an essentially conservative thesis.

It’s also rejected in every possible way by Bujold’s A Civil Campaign.

First, a few disclaimers: I’ve been hopping around the Vorkosiverse rather than reading the series straight through, which means there’s a lot I’ve missed so any comments and clarifications from those in the know would be most welcome. Also, if anyone wants to put together a movie version of any of these books and cast Gwendolyn Christie (aka Brienne of Tarth, aka She Who Should Be Queen In Westeros) as Drou, I would be eternally grateful and see said movie seventeen times at non-matinee prices.

It’s a truism that Heyer’s book is about class — but saying this obscures the fact that class, of course, is not one homogenous and indivisible thing. Class is a cake we make out of money, race, manners, education, family, and gender. A Civil Campaign explores each one of these in ways that could really only happen in a space Regency, where futuristic technology and antique social systems can smash productively up against one another.

It’s also not going to be possible for me to talk as much about all this as I would like — especially not when I’ve got edits to be working on! — but I’ll try and hit some of the highlights before my brain dissolves in the heat.

When these books are read back-to-back, Miles reads as an utter rejection of all things Adam: he’s a successful soldier, his family members are strong and independent and happy (for the most part), he’s got a sense of humor about his own failings, his disability is not made conveniently invisible in the way Adam’s is (oh noes, I has a limp that’s noticeable enough to get me sympathy laid but doesn’t stop me from tramping around making pretend I am a farmer God I just hate Adam more and more). But the greatest difference is that Miles is adept at passing through the membranes of class and station that Heyer’s book would have us treat as permanent barriers. His undercover identity as Admiral Naismith is a ghost that haunts the narrative, showing even to readers like me unfamiliar with prior books that Miles’ identity is fluid and variable, Odyssean rather than Achillean. In fact, this becomes the very problem between him and Ekaterina: Miles chooses the wrong self to show her at first, hiding his true intentions in ways that remind her traumatically of her first husband’s manipulations. The idea of being one solid knowable self frightens Miles a little, in fact: “Someday, if things went well, he must stand before her in his skin, in this very room and place, with no disguise at all” (Kindle location 7964). Imagine Adam feeling this self-conscious in front of, well, anyone. Miles is well aware that there is a secret kernel of self not defined by terms like Vor or ImpSec or even mutie: he hesitates to show it to Ekaterin because his shifting selves have successfully kept him alive for so many years.

And oh, Ekaterin — I must really go back and read Komarr because I definitely want more time with Ekaterin. I also feel like she’s a mirror version of Jenny, with Tien as another mirror-Adam — a cold husband who’s convinced his wife she’s a mere accessory, who has a truncated military career, who’s made a great financial gamble (Adam’s is successful, but I still think it was a pretty self-serving move). It’s an unsettlingly short leap of imagination from Adam’s benevolent neglect to Tien’s emotional manipulation and abuse. Ekaterin lost sight of who she was as a person during those terrible years, and on Barrayar she’s trying to assert a self long-suppressed:

Every night now, lying down alone without Tien, was like a taste of some solitary heaven. She could stretch her arms and legs out all the way to the sides of the bed, reveling in the smooth space, free of compromise, confusion, oppression, negotiation, deference, placation. Free of Tien. Through the long years of their marriage she had become almost numb to the ties that had bound her to him, the promises and the fear, his desperate needs, his secrets and lies. When the straps of her vows had been released at last by his death, it was as if her whole soul had come awake, tingling painfully, like a limb when circulation was restored. (1183)

There’s a whole spectrum of understood social roles for Ekaterin (mother, Vor, grieving widow considering remarriage) but no sense of her true individual self; this is what she is seeking over the course of the plot. The true self is here separate from class, rather than nourished by it as in Heyer’s text — yes, designing gardens is a pretty upper-class thing to do, but designing a prettier butterbug is a much more democratic, business-oriented move. It’s also something that is uniquely her — and she needs that, so desperately. It’s only when she has her self again that she really begins to think about having someone else as well: the romance arc follows the swell of Ekaterin’s growing strength and confidence — even when the person she’s at odds with is Miles himself. This is one of those romances that definitely keeps the characters apart to better effect — something refreshing in a sea of fuck-til-we’re-in-love erotic romances.

If you’ll allow me a brief metatextual tangent, it seems that social class is a little like genre, in that both operate on a set of shared but mostly unspoken assumptions. Both are accumulations of similarities rather than hard-and-fast categories. (And genres, like classes, come with various levels of social prestige.) In her review of the Bujold text, Jo Walton states that the narrative moves of the romance genre are “as stylized as a Noh play.” Romance does have codes and conventions but many of these are very opaque to outsiders or readers new to the genre. For instance, the Hardass Police Captain (video at the link) is an oft-cited cultural touchstone even among people who don’t watch a lot of buddy cop movies, but things like TSTL and Secret Babies and the No Other Woman Bed are far less frequently referenced outside of romance blogs and reviews. In regard to Ekaterin, little moments like suddenly noticing how Miles’ scent turns her on or keeping his apology letter tucked in the bodice of her gown for rereading are as good as an I love you to romance fans, but might not stand out to readers who lack the awareness of those tropes’ repetition. Similarly, class markers are often codes, and often inherited, and rarely talked about openly: for instance, when you bring food to a potluck, what kind of food do you bring? (And all my super-upper-class readers just looked at each other in horror at the word ‘potluck.’) Or when an invitation specifies BYOB, do you bring a mid-range white Burgundy or a case of Natty Ice? (Everyone with working tastebuds just looked at each other in horror at the words ‘Natty Ice.’)

And now we’re at 3k words — is your attention span as strained as mine? And I’m writing all this! It’s summer — we all deserve a break. Let’s hit the rest in bullet-point form.

  • Mark: Miles’ clone, so the two men are genetically identical. But physically and intellectually vastly different — Mark was raised in an abusive, horrifying situation, trained as a living weapon of assassination for his clone-brother. He’s been accepted into the Vorkosigan family (!) and is trying to figure out what his role is there, including getting treatment for mental health issues that manifest as a set of alternate selves known as the Black Gang. This was super-interesting to me, so again, going to dive heavily into the earlier books. Again: class is not destiny, family is not destiny, upbringing is not destiny.
  • Kareen Koudelka: Barrayar-born but coming back from a year’s education on Beta. Her sexual activities with Mark are gratifying to both her and him, and immensely helpful in his therapy — which would be creepier if Kareen weren’t so obviously into Mark and vice versa — but open pre-marital sex doesn’t jive with Barrayar standards of behavior, particularly the narrow standards for young unmarried women of high status. Kareen and Mark fight against the objections of her parents to their relationship, since she’s grown to enjoy the greater freedom and lack of disapproving supervision she found off-world. The pair also find satisfaction in borrowing economic terms with which to define the terms of their affair. This works because both Mark and Kareen place personal value (rather than class-specific value) on business and entrepreneurship.
  • Lord Dono: Betan medical technology allows a female character, Donna, to switch gender entirely for the purposes of inheriting a countship and thwarting her asshole cousin. There’s an unfortunate equivalence here between biology and gender — Dono has a penis, therefore Dono is a man — which prevents me from labeling this as a depiction of a trans character. Let us say instead that it is trans-adjacent. For instance, after the biological change, plot protagonists express varying levels of surprise and approval, but plot antagonists react with revulsion, misgendering, and even attempted mutilation. Dono himself is a wonderful character, charismatic and compelling with an edge of wit and cunning. The Donna/Dono plotline also exposes the way Betan habits and technology are starting to be used as loopholes for the narrow constraints of Barrayaran tradition, and not just by progressives — see also the rather horrifying plotline of the old Vor count and his hundreds of artificially created daughters, which I can’t even begin to take apart without a few more read-throughs and several stiff drinks.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that the Beta-versus-Barrayar framework established in Shards of Honor and Barrayar (god, those books, so good!) exists to topple one by one many of the foundational pillars of Regency society as established in fiction like Heyer’s. (Hence this book’s dedication, obvs.) Primogeniture, ableism, women’s role as primarily one of motherhood and childrearing, etc. It’s not perfect — it’s very white and there’s a distinct preponderance of happy heterosexual couples, though let’s talk sometime about Aral Vorkosigan’s youthful flirtation with bisexuality — but it’s an interesting and vastly explorable series. One which I hope to explore more fully once the temperature goes down and stops boiling my brain. (Seriously, my recent forebears were from Finland: I’m like Pratchett’s Detritus in anything over 85 degrees.)

Thanks for listening, everyone, and happy summer!

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Speaking of Tor.com, their series on Post Binary Gender in SF is well worth the reading; start here with the introduction.

Merrian Oliver-Weymouth curates the wonderful Pinterest board Barrayar Dreaming, using real-world images and artifacts to visualize the imaginary world of Barrayar. There’s also The Vor, curated by Pinterest user fajrdrako. Both are utterly enchanting.

Someone somewhere has to be writing a thesis or dissertation on the Vorkosiverse and reproductive health choices, right? Abortion, surrogacy, pre-birth disability diagnoses, cloning — it’s all in there. Hard SF doesn’t often get to be this messy about the body, nor so inclined to consider a woman’s perspective on such technologies. I’m going to keep an eye on this as I keep reading. 

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Bujold, Lois McMaster. A Civil Campaign. Amazon Digital Services, 2011. Kindle edition.

Heyer, Georgette. A Civil Contract. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2011. Kindle edition.

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Z is for Zoe Archer

{Content note: the following post contains brief mentions of rape and nonconsensual attitudes in romance.

Click here for the complete — actually complete! — alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

This post is both an ending and a beginning: an ending, because we have reached the letter Z, and after tomorrow’s brief wrap-up of the whole series I am going to explore the exciting new field of Shutting The Hell Up; a beginning, because Zoe Archer’s books were the ones that first got me really looking for more varied representation in romance all those (five) years ago. Rebel is the third book in Ms. Archer’s Blades of the Rose series, which I thoroughly enjoy for their mix of magic, historical romance, and adventure. (I’m several books behind in terms of keeping up with her many series — the curse of being a slow reader!)

Cover image for Rebel by Zoe Archer. Background of snowy peaks and high alpine forest. In the foreground a sharp-faced, dark-haired, tan-skinned man kneels, looking around observantly. He wears trousers, boots, a pale coat, and a fancy gold waistcoat. One arm is thrown out protectively to the woman who stands behind him, looking off in the opposite direction. She has pale skin and blond hair in a long braid down one shoulder. She wears goggles, trousers, a belted overshirt, and a long duster coat. A long knife is tied to the belt at her waist. One hand holds a pair of binoculars, and the other rests lightly on the man's shoulder. The premise of this series is an explicit treatise on the ethical and unethical uses of power. The Blades of the Rose (as in compass rose) are a group of fighters, spies, and scientists who travel the world to protect magical artifacts from being exploited. Their nemeses are a group known as the Heirs of Albion, whose purpose is to collect as many magical artifacts as they can for the purposes of elevating England above all other nations: “If the Heirs had their desire, Britain’s empire would see no limits” (Kindle location 13015). The contest is perennially uneven: the Heirs are aristocratic and wealthy, central figures of the real-world British Empire, and they do not scruple to use every means available to achieve their goal. Our heroes, in contrast, only use magic “that is theirs by right or gift” (15869). It leaves them perpetually outgunned and outmanned, forced to rely on their wits and strategy rather than brute force — ripe terrain for anyone who likes rooting for the underdog.

It’s been a while since I read the whole series, but in broad strokes the Blades’ own structure unfortunately replicates the pattern of imperial power, where the center is located in England (Southampton) and agents are dispatched out to the margins (Mongolia, Greece, Africa, Canada) on limited-time missions. I chose Rebel to discuss not only because it has a Native Canadian hero, but because the colonial themes of the series are brought out most vividly in this particular installment. Unfortunately, just as the Blades’ resistance to imperialism takes an imperial form, the resistances to oppression and colonial power in Rebel often replicate the patterns that sustain those systems.

Hero Nathan Lesperance is part Cowichan and part Stoney, but he’s never really known either tribe. Like many Native Canadian children, Nathan was taken from his parents at a young age and raised to be assimilated into white Christian culture. It’s a particularly cruel piece of North American history whose present ramifications include dying languages, broken traditions, lost cultures, and traumatic isolation for many First Nations people. Nathan’s determination to resist the colonial pressure that attempts to erase his history and his personhood has led him to become a lawyer on Vancouver Island, doing pro bono work to ease the burdens of injustice on Chinese and Native populations: “From the inside out, he’d smash apart the edifices of their prejudice, and the victory would be all the sweeter because they’d put the hammer in his hands” (12464). I was reminded of heroine Starbride from Barbara Ann Wright’s Pyramid Waltz, who also hopes to use the law as a means of fighting imperialism. I was also very strongly reminded of Audre Lord’s famous essay, “The Master’s Tools Cannot Dismantle the Master’s House” (PDF). In this light, Nathan’s project is doomed to fail because he cannot see that the very foundations of the edifice are stacked against him. The law is created by imperial minds, with racist biases, and backed by prejudice at every level. A system that encourages settler colonialism through land grants, broken treaties, and military action cannot be used to dismantle imperialism: it would be like trying to use a hammer to smash itself.

Nathan, moreover, is not even truly within the system. One of the first descriptions we get of him explicitly marks out his difference through the eyes of a local Mountie:

“I’m not your typical lawyer,” said Lesperance, dry.

On that, the sergeant had to agree. For one thing, most lawyers resembled prosperous bankers, their soft stomachs gently filling out their waistcoats, hands soft and manicured, a look of self-satisfaction in their fleshy, middle-aged faces. Nathan Lesperance looked hard as granite, hale, barely thirty, and more suited for a tough life in the wilderness than arguing the finer points of law in court or from behind a desk. (12231)

This description is a typical hero’s look — “hard as granite” in particular is one of romance’s more often-applied phrases. But we’re still gazing at Nathan through the imperial lens here: the definition of banker or lawyer implies male, middle-aged (well, yeah, after all those years of schooling!), soft and white. By invoking Nathan’s difference from this type, the text reiterates his marginalization.

Soon after this, Nathan discovers an ability to shapeshift into a large grey wolf. Our Native hero quite literally has a beast inside him, one which matches faintly remembered stories told to him by his dead mother: “A legendary race of changers lived in the sacred mountains” (12811). But our white heroine has to fill in the gaps in his knowledge: “The race of changers are called Earth Spirits … I have heard the legends, too. But I learned long ago that there is much more truth to legends than society would have us believe … You are an Earth Spirit.” The colonialist rupture of tribal tradition means Nathan now has to learn about his innermost self from a woman who comes from that same colonizing culture. When Nathan objects, as this seems to confirm every bigoted thing that’s ever been said about him — and he’s not really wrong, is he? — Astrid qualifies her statement:

“I did not say you were a man-beast. A man who can change into an animal. That is different.”

His bark of laughter held no humor. “Stupid of me not to see the difference.” (12847)

Bark of laughter — again, a common romance turn of phrase that in context proves rather infelicitous. The problem of where Nathan’s self as man begins and where his self as wolf begins (or later bear or hawk — spoilers! he has three beasts in there!) troubles the text. As is common in paranormal romance, strong emotions tend to bring out Nathan’s bestial form, especially anger, arousal, and fear. I am increasingly uncomfortable with the way these emotions are elided into one another in romance generally and paranormal romance most of all; I get that it’s all connected to self-control but as someone who can’t help flinching at loud noises I get uncomfortable at the thought of a partner who’s one inciting incident away from literally turning into a slavering monster with sharp teeth and claws. Nathan can change shape at will and is able to understand speech in his animal forms, but this comforting sentience disappears when he changes under the pressure of emotional impulses. And the way this ties back into the stereotypes of Natives as bestial only compounds my discomfort:

An animal within himself. He’d always felt it, fought it down every day. White men thought Indians were animals. He would prove them wrong, even if it meant brutally tethering a part of himself. But that hidden beast recognized her [Astrid], saw its like within her. And demanded. (12313)

The existence of Nathan’s beast-form here is a literal proof that white prejudice against Native peoples has some basis in fact in the world of the text. Some Native people are literally, not figuratively, animals. And the bestial nature is brought out by contact with (and attraction to) our white, blonde heroine.

It must be confessed: I love Astrid as a character. She’s lonely and standoffish and deeply wounded in ways that usually only the hero is allowed to be. I love a prickly heroine, and she’s a top-notch example. Astrid is frequently characterized, like Nathan, as beast-like or having a hidden beast that matches his. Astrid’s beast, however, is metaphorical: Nathan’s is literal. I cannot read this as an even distribution of power — unless her position as a white colonizer with greater knowledge (of magic, of his own people, of the threats posed by the Heir) compensates for the fact that Nathan is constantly fighting the urge to — if you’ll allow me a mild euphemism — disregard her sexual non-consent:

Nathan lowered back down to sitting, though he grimaced in pain from his aching cock. He breathed in hard, forcing himself and the beast back under control but having a hell of a time. The beast demanded more. He never took an unwilling women — even if the woman’s body was so damned willing she could start a firestorm with her heat … He clenched his jaw so tightly it throbbed, felt the animal in him growl, demanding to be set free. But he was more than animal. He had to prove that to her, and to himself. (13959)

“He never took an unwilling woman” — the pronoun’s most immediate antecedent is the beast, not Nathan, but both are active so both are mingled here. Normally such language is an externalization of a purely interior struggle — the classical example is Athena grabbing Achilles by the hair in the Iliad to prevent him from striking Agamemnon. But Nathan’s inner beast is frighteningly, fatally real. He never for one moment accepts that Astrid might honestly, truly reject him: all her denials are ascribed to fear, or avoidance of pain, or her desire to hide from complicated emotions. Their bond is presented in the text as something diegetically real and palpable even before they have exchanged more than three sentences: it is not quite a fated mate scenario, but it is close. The problem with this is that, like Nathan’s beast, the ethical landscape changes when what is usually a metaphor becomes factual. If you meet someone and the two of you have an instantaneous, real bond that happens because of magic, then it is accurate to say that rejecting that must be immoral or deluded, just like denying climate change or the benefit of vaccination is deluded (note: there will be no arguing about those statements in comments). But in real life, such palpable bonds are not scientific, they are not demonstrable by any outside measure, they are not objectively true — they are, however, frequently used as justifications for sexual assault and abuse. A brief tour through the many blog posts about the Jamie-Cersei rape scene from the recent Game of Thrones episode “Breaker of Chains” (this one from the Mary Sue is my favorite) will provide ample parallels for why this is an important sticking point.

This tension between threat and desire is resolved in the plot when Astrid yields her consent, as often happens in romance, whereupon Nathan’s beast of course turns protective instead of ominous. And to the text’s credit, Nathan’s change is not purely presented as an increase in power. It unsettles him, disturbs the course of his life, and makes him vulnerable in new ways. In fact, he way Astrid and Nathan progress from shame about the change/looking away, to watching the change as though watching is a gift, becomes highly sexually charged: “‘We shared something before,’ he nodded toward the direction from which they’d come, the riverbank on which they’d made love. ‘We’ll share this now.’ He pulled off his boots with hands that shook slightly with the intimacy of what he was about to do. A greater intimacy than the joining of their bodies in sex. They both knew that no one had ever seen him so unguarded, so truly exposed as he would be in a moment” (27211). This further complicates the interplay of violence and sexuality, and strikes me an unsatisfactory answer to the questions raised by the text. More and more, I am unsettled by the idea of romances whose erotic charge is He could hurt you, but he doesn’t. That is not a fun fantasy for me; that is not an escape; that is far too close to real life and my nightmares. You’re special: you’re the only one he shows the monster to. <– A horrible pun I could not resist.

If Nathan’s sexualized shapeshifting is a vulnerability, it is one that makes him and the other Earth Spirits a target for the Heirs, who want to colonize tribal powers the way the British colonized tribal lands: “Captive breeding … They will force you into captive breeding and create their own army of shape changers” (14754). The Heirs will do this by using three totems — a bear, an eagle, and a hawk — that each give them the power to control that animal’s shifters. There are repeated statements that the tribes can do nothing to resist the Heirs. There are repeated statements that the power of the Heirs is generally irresistible. It is hard to discern which of these statements are textual (setting us up for the eventual triumph of our heroes) and which of these statements are interacting with real-world historical narratives, which holds that all Native cultures eventually fall beneath the onslaught of white settlement and militarism. Similarly, Astrid’s eventual sexual submission is never really in doubt in the text — this is romance, where we know our hero and heroine will get together, so all her protestations are mere bumps in the road. Nathan has been colonized and is under the threat of an even more terrifying colonization by the Heirs — at the same time, his determined sexual pursuit of Astrid bears a strong resemblance to the forward movement of an irresistible, implacable enemy. At one point when Nathan is explaining why it’s particularly hard for men to watch the women they love take risks, Astrid says, “I thought that, rebel that you are, you’d have a bit more progressive attitude.” Nathan’s reply: “Some things are carved into a man’s blood and bones” (15520).

Let us have rebellion, this book says, but not too much.

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Snarky Cake’s post Multicultural Tokenism in Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy has informed much of my analysis in this post, and aligns with many of my own observations of the genre.

I really wish I had had the time to read Stranger as well for this post, since black English genius inventor and waistcoat enthusiast Catullus Graves is the closest I’ve ever come to having a real-life crush on a romance hero. And Ms. Archer pairs him with a buxom, redheaded writer, so the self-identification for me there is off the charts.

Now added to my impossibly long reading list: Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture.

Definitely worth checking though it may not be still trending when this post hits: the hashtag #DiversityIsNot. Those who devalue Twitter as a means of amplifying decentered voices are talking out of their (frequently centered) ass.

This Goodreads thread about abuse red flags, sexual violence, and paranormal and erotic romance (and a bit of romantic suspense) is full of food for thought. I don’t necessarily endorse every comment in here, but I do endorse having the discussion. This post asking whether we give paranormal heroes a pass on abusive behavior is also important.

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Archer, Zoe. Blades of the Rose bundle. New York: Zebra Books, December 1, 2010. Ebook.

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R is for Robin Hood

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

Carrie Lofty’s What a Scoundrel Wants is a Robin Hood romance. Yes, technically the hero is Will Scarlet, Robin’s nephew (in this version of the mythology) rather than Robin himself — but we spend a lot of time in the woods, Scarlet’s a dab hand with a bow, he’s angsty because of his impossible youthful crush on Maid Marian (now Robin’s wife), the villain is the new Sheriff of Nottingham … You get the idea.

Cover image for What a Scoundrel Wants by Carrie Lofty. Forest background. A shirtless man with tan skin and folded arms faces us, slightly to the left, visible only from his chin to his incongruous belt buckle.If people know one thing about Robin Hood, it’s this: He robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Socialism, or at least a sense of wealth redistribution as a social good, is baked right in to the legend. But we don’t see a great deal of that in Lofty’s text. We’ve got a few peasants in Nottingham, some more in a smaller village, and a gaggle of refugees in the woods, but aside from a general sense of sucks to be poor there’s not a lot of social dynamics or even description of what the general public is supposedly suffering from.  In some ways this fits with Will Scarlet’s more ambiguous morality — but even when Robin himself shows up to help with the big battle scene at the end, the focus remains on a handful of larger-than-life heroes rather than the dismantling of an oppressive social system.

In fact, collective action in What a Scoundrel Wants is almost universally bad. The first scene  of the book involves Will being framed for the murder of a nobleman, purely because he was the only one of the guards not in on the conspiracy. Then a group of forest refugees try to hang him — it’s technically on the orders of their douchebag leader, our heroine Meg’s ex-lover, but it’s presented very much as the will of an angry mob. A second, much angrier mob later attempts to burn Meg as a witch — an epithet Meg is used to, since this amorphous mass of peasants has often persecuted her on account of her blindness and her mysterious alchemical talents. The reunion of Robin’s band at the end of the book seems to promise a positive scene of group unity, but then his men turn cowardly in the face of the Greek fire Meg has made for them to use in storming the villain’s castle, and only Robin’s personal bravery and charismatic leadership keep them from breaking ranks and running away.

Essentially, every group in this text is an amoeba. Heroes and villains stand out and can exert their will upon the group. The text’s world is divided between these two types of characters: leads, who have agency, and extras, who don’t.

It is in this context that we must evaluate our heroine Meg’s blindness.

(Side note: The Dear Author review from 2008 manages to get through 800 words without once mentioning the heroine’s disability. I suppose they did this to avoid spoilers, but it feels like an erasure, especially when slightly euphemistic language comes into play: “Meg has enough of her own troubles.” Translation: We shouldn’t talk about blindness: it’s not polite.)

First of all, Meg is a fantastic heroine of a very unusual type. She’s prickly, mendacious, and constantly horny. She gives fewer fucks than just about any other romance heroine I’ve seen, and I love her even more on this re-read than I did on my first time through. As a blind heroine, too, she avoids the most common pitfalls of disability in romance: she’s not a Magical Cripple or a litmus test for the moral purity of other characters. She’s accepted her disability to the extent that she has learned to cope with it in her daily life, but she is far from happy when it leaves her vulnerable or disadvantaged, and she’s not above using it as a verbal dagger to win points when she has to. The text allows her to be difficult and human, and that’s  worth celebrating.

However, Meg’s blindness exists in the text’s world of negative collective action. Her disability isolates her and forces her to depend on others for basic needs (food, shelter, translating ancient alchemy texts, not being stabbed with swords). She has worked hard to find ways around certain aspects of this dependence — keeping the inside of her cabin strictly organized so she can find her alchemy supplies, for example — and this is presented as heroic and admirable. But because she is a lead and not an extra, this dependence on others is presented as a problem in ways that seem ridiculous outside the plot context.

Such as when the hero drags her from her sickbed (literally, not figuratively) and ditches her in the woods. Because if she’s truly strong, she’ll make it back to the castle.

At this point in the narrative, Meg has been severely burned. On her hands, which are her primary tools for navigating a world. She has not regained feeling in her extremities since the injury, the skin is blistered and tender, and her hands are wrapped in thick linen bandages. This is not the first time Meg has been injured in the course of the book — the text beats up on every character at some point — but this is definitely a pivotal trauma. To make things worse, she’s being tended at Loxley Manor by Marian, who she knows Will had deep tortured pants-feelings for. So she turns quiet, and emotionally distant, and worries that her hands will be as useless to her now as her eyes have become.

Whereupon Will Scarlet hauls her into the woods with this justification: “If you’re strong enough to be my partner, come find me” (289).

She does, of course, because Meg is a heroine and a Lead With Agency. Tearing off her bandages, fueled by anger, using the moss on the north side of trees to orient herself (which: nope), she struggles back to Loxley Manor. Her hands are bleeding, her scabs open and painful. Naturally, she and Will fall instantly into bed, happy together at last: “He had hoped and gambled, and she rediscovered her strength in the forest, conquering the melancholy that hindered her recovery” (305).

Call me cynical, but it seems like groping through a forest with open wounds would hinder her recovery a lot more than a sulky attitude. It’s the year 1199 and not only do we not have antibiotics yet, but we’re not all that clear about bacteria or hand-washing, either.

But none of this is as important to the story as making sure that we demonstrate Meg’s heroism by showing that she can rise above the limitations of her disability. Because to do otherwise requires her to depend on the kindness of extras — of that amorphous, amoral mass of humanity that has no will of its own or sense of personhood.

If you’ve read much in the way of disability studies — and I am by no means an expert — you might have encountered two models of disability: the medical model (or individual model), and the social model. Lisa Egan at xoJane explains:

Someone with a medical/individual perspective would state that I am prevented from getting around my city because I’m a person with a disability and it’s tough luck that the Tube is so inaccessible. If I want to use the Tube then I’m just gonna have to find a new skeleton from somewhere.

The way I see it is that I’ve been disabled when it comes to travelling around my city by the architects that installed stairs and escalators instead of ramps and lifts at the majority of Underground stations. Stairs and escalators are man-made barriers put in the way by a discriminatory society that excludes me because I have impaired mobility.

The world of What a Scoundrel Wants very clearly adheres to the medical/individual model, not only because of its emphasis on Meg’s personal strength, but also because it removes any agency from the extras who make up this world. Notice in Egan’s description how the social model foregrounds the actions of non-disabled people in making the Tube inaccessible: the architects have chosen to use stairs and escalators instead of ramps, and that choice impacts Egan’s ability to travel through the city.

The emphasis on personal resilience somewhat undermines Meg’s strong portrayal, in my opinion: if only individual determination and heroism can make a disabled life manageable, if there is no room for a discussion of how society’s choices impact a disabled person’s ability, then there is no way forward. Indeed, at the end of the book, we’re left with no hint as to what Meg and Will are going to do next — where they will live, how they will earn their living, how they will afford to continue Meg’s alchemical experiments (all issues previously discussed in the text). The background lack of agency in Lofty’s world reaches up at the end to swallow even our hero and heroine.

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It’s a new blog to me, but the website Blind Spot run by UK researcher and lecturer Hannah Thompson has some excellent analysis of literature and media relating to blindness — for instance, the Lego Movie.

For other books featuring disabled characters, check out this Dear Author thread and the always incisive Love in the Margins.

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Lofty, Carrie. What a Scoundrel Wants. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2008. Print.

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M is for Pamela Morsi

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

One of the great delights as I continue this post series is how intertwined the various books are starting to become. Themes and connections are coming from the woodwork out, which is incredibly gratifying for someone who thinks of books as part of a grand conversation anyways. Last week Eloisa James broke my heart (and not in the good way) with her depiction of a character with a mental impairment caused by oxygen deprivation at birth: Pamela Morsi’s earthy and charming Simple Jess is the perfect book to read as a follow-up, since it features a character with a similar disability and an identical cause. Unlike Rupert, however, Jesse Best is the hero of his story, with a POV and HEA and everything. This book was recommended by Ridley and it more than lived up to its reputation for empathy and charm: Jesse’s depiction is thoughtful and rounded and avoids many of the common problems of mental disability in fiction. (Counterexample: Colleen McCullough’s Tim, which to my shame I read dozens of times in high school.) Additionally, the romance as a whole brings up but doesn’t answer many surprisingly troubling questions about society, difference, and belonging that invite further feminist critique.

Cover of Simple Jess by Pamela Morsi. Blue and pink gradient background with leaves, pine needles, twigs, and a blown dandelion clock. Text is serifed and highly ornate.The village of Marrying Stone is a place where codes of behavior are rigid and vehemently policed by the inhabitants: “On Marrying Stone Mountain, being different was not thought altogether to be such a good thing” (3288). There’s no government or law to speak of, outside of the farcical kangaroo court (which I found both entertaining and excruciating): all the pressure to conform is social pressure rooted in familial ties and individual force of will. The good people of Marrying Stone know what is right and they will require you behave accordingly.

In this narrow-eyed, strong-minded world, every major character struggles with a mark of difference. Heroine Althea is determined to stay unmarried and is letting a fertile farm lie unplowed (hur hur hur); hero Jesse Best tries to be “a man like other men” despite the mental impairment that makes him an outsider even in his own head; Mavis Phillips worries that someone other than her brother will learn she slept with Eben Baxley contrary to ideals of feminine chastity; Oather Phillips worries that the village (and his father) will find out he isn’t drawn to women the way that other men are. Every family/gender role is set and specific, every activity has long-standing rules and traditions: hunting, farming, butchering, the Literary, the kangaroo court. Even the constant near-feud state between McNees and Piggotts is way of maintaining the boundaries of set categories, even though the bloodlines of the two families have been mixed and mingled for generations.

Social pressure is intense because social cooperation is necessary for survival. The people of Marrying Stone are subsistence-level farmers and hunters, and it takes careful planning and hard work to last though the winter. One of the most compelling reasons for Althea to remarry is that she cannot work her farm on her own: “She hadn’t had an idea about putting in a crop last year. Orv and Tom had offered to do it for her. But she’d turned them down flat. As she’d turned down all their offers for assistance. She hadn’t wanted their favors. She hadn’t wanted their presence” (859). These favors aren’t charity, and they aren’t neutral: “it was part of the courting process for the female to feel beholden to the gentleman” (3863). Althea can’t accept help without implying acceptance of sexual or romantic overtures as well: it’s only because Jesse is considered asexual by his fellow townsfolk that there are no innuendoes made about his presence on her farm. Even then, his chores become an indirect courtship, a way for Althea to realize that Jesse is good for her and her son as well as good for her farm. It’s a standard romance narrative — but it also fits in seamlessly with what the townsfolk expect of a courtship.

Of course, Jesse turns out to be anything but asexual. When the town learns of the kiss he shared with Althea, they have to remove him from the category of “child” and place him in the category of “man,” with assumed sexual desires and agency:

Jesse Best had kissed a woman and now people knew it. Whether they believed that Althea had led him on or not, parents would be warning their daughters to steer clear. The notion folks now had of Jesse Best would include not just his sweetness, his strength, and the sounds of his fiddle, but also his sexuality. For folks on the mountain, simple and sex didn’t go together. That was a thing to be feared. (3150).

Despite the town’s newfound suspicion, our hero’s pants-feelings are explicitly coded as natural by the text: “‘The feelings you get in your body, Jesse, they are the same feelings that other men get and they have nothing to do with your mind.'” (1834). Jesse’s mental struggles mean he is forced to depend more on instinct than logic to make decisions: this is often expressed in naturalistic terms, as when he trusts his hunting dogs to be aware of predators in the woods, or describes his sensitivity to people’s scents. I’ll admit to being charmed by Jesse’s private terms for arousal and sexuality, especially “round parts”; don’t we all create our own internal shorthand for sex, after all, even if we know the cultural or clinical terms?

And of course our heroine is equally enthralled, again tied to the idea of naturalness:

He was no practiced lover, but it was his love, as natural as his beauty, that had drawn her into his embrace as easily as had his arms. And it was that authenticity that had kept her there, reveling in the pleasure of it. (4360)

But Jesse’s sexuality is only natural because it is expressed in a heterosexual direction: the closeted Oather Phillips has no such luxury, even though his response to Jesse’s good looks are identical to our heroine’s:

“My God, he is beautiful.” The words, spoken in near reverence, came from the man standing next to her.

“Yes, he is,” she answered languidly from her sensual trance. “Oh!” Her horrified little squeak came immediately thereafter. Althea looked over at Oather, shocked that he had read her thoughts, and such wicked thoughts, too.

Oather stared back at her, his eyes wide in equal alarm. It was as if he too were aghast at his own words. (4360).

Oather’s queerness is often expressed in coded terms, but it’s clear enough to a reader familiar with closeted characters in romance. His behavior toward Althea during his courtship, sadly, is often categorized as unnatural: “Oather put such a polite face on everything. It felt so unnatural, so constrained. He was much aware of the rules of etiquette. Somehow she found Jesse’s more honest assessment more to her liking” (3863). It’s an open question whether this unnaturalness is located in Oather’s denial of who he is and who he wants, or in his homosexual desire more generally: “Oather felt uncomfortable about commenting on what was natural” (3377). He is palpably uncomfortable when attempting to perform any of the prescribed behaviors of heterosexual masculinity: courting, hunting, sexual aggression (Althea notices he doesn’t try and cop a feel like the other men do). Manliness in this book is identified with heterosexuality: we have no burly bearded hunters falling in love with other burly bearded hunters. (Though that sounds like it’d be fun to read.) Jesse Best’s revealed heterosexuality and its expression brings both him and Althea into line with community standards: his simple-mindedness is proven to be compatible with Marrying Stone’s vision of masculinity, and her isolation is ended by marriage and acquiring a husband who can help her farm and raise Baby Paisley. Oather Phillips, on the other hand, spectacularly fails to perform masculinity and nearly kills a child in a hunting accident. His shock at this near-miss is the impetus for him to finally confront his father and leave Marrying Stone for good: “Oather’s different,” Althea says at the book’s end. “He’s always been different from folks here on the mountain. Maybe somewhere else he’ll find folks that are more like him” (5159).

I have said that Jesse and Althea are reintegrated into the community of Marrying Stone, but it’s not a pure surrender. Granny Piggott, sharp-tongued matriarch, gives Althea some advice that subverts the immutability of Marrying Stone’s codes: “Listen and learn. What is worthwhile — and for all that I don’t take great store by Beulah’s pronouncements, there is bound to be some worthwhile — that you keep. The rest you just smile and say thank you, and forget you ever heard it” (3713). This advice preserves the form of tradition, if not the substance. Difference can be masked, not erased. But unlike Althea and Jesse, Oather cannot follow this advice, since his particular brand of difference invites/implies the participation of someone else, another gay man who would then have to similarly reject traditional categories of masculinity. So Oather goes to New Orleans, where apparently there are people like himself, according to the vision that semi-magical Pastor Jay gets from the angels at the end of the book:

“You can show me his future? Now that’s a neat trick if I ever heard one. Let’s see you try. — Why yes, I see it. I see it now. Ain’t this pretty. What a beautiful place. The boy looks so happy. All those friends around. Everybody laughing. What a wonderful place. Oh, Lord, it’s not what I think, is it? — It’s Heaven, ain’t it? Poor Oather dies young and goes to Heaven. — It’s not Heaven. Then where is it? — New Orleans? Hmmm. Sure looks like Heaven from here.” (5568)

This ending is an optimistic one, but it is also a kind of death. It seems Ms. Morsi is playing against the Kill Your Gays trope, but in a way that still invokes it — hence Pastor Jay’s assumption that Oather dies young. This is the final passage in the book and it brings into question the value of separatism: is it satisfying when the narrative suggests that Marrying Stone does not constitute an entire world? That not everybody can be comfortably or safely a part of this small and insular mountain community? That other communities, with other rules, exist? How hard must we work to reform the societies we live in? Is our effort better spent simply creating societies that are safer and more inclusive? What do we stand to gain by leaving oppressive communities, and what have we lost?

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Thoughtful blogger Jackie C. Horne at Romance Novels for Feminists has a great post on interpretations of disability in romance fiction. Books mentioned include Simple Jess, Tim, The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie and others.

Writer Nina Mitchell had a stroke at age 26 and now writes frankly about her experience and daily life. I found her through her series for the Hairpin, but she also runs her own site, Mindpop, with more current updates.

Sunita at Vacuous Minx had a provocative and many-layered post about disability devotees, fetish reading, content warnings/trigger warnings, and genre definitions that has more thoughts in it than I believed one blog post could contain. Comments highly recommended as well.

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Morsi, Pamela. Simple Jess. Jove Books, 2011. Ebook.

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