Historical Fiction Factions

I have spent a lot of time (and essay space) thinking about our responsibility to history: what parts we should keep, what parts we should not repeat, what parts we should unerase. This is far from uncommon — plenty of novelists get their material from real-life historical fact.

But where many authors of historical fiction — your Philippa Gregories and your Hilaries Mantel — stick as close as possible to the facts while still crafting an engaging narrative, historical romance often does something else. The facts become a jumping-off point. There’s a little sidestep that happens between the research and the writing: you find an interesting person or tidbit in an archive or a letter, and you imagine it being the foundation of a story, and then you set it up and change the names and let it all play out until you arrive at the HEA.

Historical fiction is making a claim of authority: this is what this person/place/event was like (probably, or possibly, or insofar as we know). Historical romance is making a claim of imagination: what if you were a person like so and so, in such and such a time and place? HF aims to make the past come to life as itself; HR wants to connect the past with the present in a way that amplifies resonances and promises a satisfying amount of resolution.

This means that sometimes it seems like historical romance creates a world where its most central subjects almost kind of … don’t exist?

Much of the time we readers don’t think about it in these terms, especially in cases when the inspiration is obscure or small-scale. A poignant ad in the back of a newspaper becomes a full-fledged epic love story in the hands of a talented author. Just because something is domestic or personal doesn’t mean it is unimportant; you could fill an entire career by exploring the seams and niches of history, and find plenty of things worth exploring.

But sometimes you want to write about characters doing something big. Something history does remember. Like translating a groundbreaking astronomy text. Or taking down a Confederate spy ring. Or going to the moon.

Because reading about characters doing big, world-changing things is fun — especially when you add sexual and romantic fulfillment to the mix. (However you might define fulfillment; a Pride Month shout-out to all the ace and aro folks in Romancelandia!) Different authors play this game to different degrees; sometimes a writer will split the difference by throwing in a wink to the hero or heroine’s inspiration: Heroine was one of the greatest swordswomen in France, second only to Julie d’Aubigny. I always find these moments a little awkward, as though the author has pulled back the curtain to whisper into my ear when I just want to watch these made-up people make out. I’m happy to look up the real history later.

The thing about queer history specifically is that we don’t have nearly as much of it as we should. Diaries and letters were burned, libraries full of research were destroyed, and these gaps were used as arguments against queer people’s value and worth. To write happy queer people back into history already involves resisting and revising the accepted historical narrative. We have to allow ourselves to imagine things we cannot and will never definitively prove.

And sometimes we want to write about queer people doing big, world-changing things while finding love and happiness.

I refuse to allow happy queer people to only appear in historical romance so long as they’re keeping themselves quietly at home.

When I was plotting Lady’s Guide, I knew my queer lady astronomer would occupy roughly the same space as Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville (Lucy pretty much splits the difference, chronologically and scientifically). I looked forward to making references to scientific men like Joseph Banks, Pierre Laplace, and Humphry Davy. But the more I thought about it, the less happy I was with erasing the two women scientists and leaving all the men in place. That was pretty much the opposite of what I was going for.

So I destroyed the entire Royal Society, too. Also William Herschel, J. M. W. Turner, and Charles Babbage while I was at it. (My Ada Lovelace analogue hasn’t appeared on the page … yet.)

I kept the order of scientific discoveries in place, but the characters and the relationships are inventions. Because the truth is, no matter how closely we hew to known facts, we’ll never be able to perfectly capture the reality of even the most well-documented historical eras. The map is not the territory.

Perfection is unattainable — so what else can you shoot for?

Ultimately, the modern reader is my priority. I am not writing for people in the 19th century; I am writing for people in the present moment, who have a lot on their minds and who are looking for a way through. Sometimes we have to practice imagining a better world than the one we’ve inherited. Sometimes we need somewhere safe to practice hope, before we try something world-changing in our own lives.

Fulfillment we can give you. Happy queer people, making choices that matter to them, even if those choices are sometimes constrained. Happiness, in spite of anything. In spite of everything.

A short bibliography for The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics:

Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

The Mechanism of the Heavens by Mary Somerville

Paper Garden by Molly Peacock

The Subversive Stitch by Roszika Parker

Queer City by Peter Ackroyd

Y is for Y Chromosomes: Gender Binary (Part 2)

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.} Yesterday I talked about the gender binary in mainstream romance; today's post is all about m/m and f/f romance. I'm a mere dabbler in each of these deep pools, with much of my knowledge gleaned second-hand from scurrilous if entertaining places like Tumblr, so I hope there will be experts around to chime in with points I may not have considered or come across. None of the below comments will have anything to do with the writing quality of either subgenre -- instead I'd like to explore the various intersections that crop up around the reading culture and reception of m/m and f/f separately within the broader mainstream culture of romance.

Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that this month's posts have not featured a romance with two male leads (though we have seen gay secondary characters). As I mentioned in comments to the Evangeline Parsons Yazzie post, I tend to give m/m romance a heavy side-eye: although I've read quite a few m/m fics and fanfics as a youth on the internet, my early experiences with m/m romance as a genre came when I started publishing erotic romance and joined my first author loops. (Oh, author loops, those gutters of self-promo and tone policing -- it's like being in a cutthroat high school clique with your mom.) <-- Statement that may ensure I'll never be in another author loop ever again?

The m/m authors I learned about on the loops were primarily straight women. They were upbeat, self-consciously naughty, and self-described allies of gay men. Note: gay men. A standard example comes from author Tara Lain (screencap), who writes m/m and the occasional m/m/f menage: "I love the intensity, passion, lack of gender roles, diversity, and innate drama that accompany two men in love."

LACK OF GENDER ROLES COMMA DIVERSITY. This right here could easily fuel a two-thousand word post about privilege and appropriation and the way political theory devolves into marketing buzzwords. Limiting gender to one half of the binary is not compatible with diversity as a value. For one thing, despite the many parallel comments in this Goodreads thread on m/m romance, erasing the presence of women is not an acceptable solution to the problems that gender inequality presents. Not even in fiction. Because simply erasing one gender from a text does not erase capital-G-Gender from the text. A post at Vacuous Minx puts it most succinctly:

Let’s be honest and acknowledge that m/m provides a respite from what women’s gendered roles in romance novels make us confront, not from “gendered power relationships” more generally.

For another thing, "diversity" here is a feel-good term and an emotional manipulation: it aligns the straight author and her books with the morality of tolerance even as she makes money from the appropriated lives of marginalized identities. This is the very definition of fetishization.

When Victoria Brownworth wrote about m/m romance for Lambda Literary several years ago, including her own experience as a young lesbian reading f/f stroke fiction authored by men, it became A Huge Thing. [Updated to add: Victoria Brownworth has been active in TERF circles, which if I had known when I was writing this post would have made me pass her over in silence. Sometimes I get turned around by internet chronology. I stand by my citations below, mostly because they do not cite Ms. Brownworth.] One of the very first commenters was a female author of m/m who took issue with the terms:

[A] fetish by definition means to hold something in awe or in high regard. How does that jive with the hate-filled connotations that you want to associate with it? I also have a shoe fetish… does that mean I hate shoes?

Note: in her example, gay men = shoes. The definition of objectification. This is the facet of the m/m culture that always gives me the impression the (straight, female) author has taken two GI Joes and is mashing their faces together while saying, "Now kiss!" It gives me the heebie-jeebies and it means I hesitate to pick up an m/m romance that does not come with a recommendation from a trusted source. (Much more thoughtful responses to Brownworth's argument can be found in this post by Sarah Frantz at Teach Me Tonight, and in comments. It's a good old-fashioned internet clusterfuck and now my brain hurts so I'm moving on.) I know there are gay male authors of m/m and I know there are wonderful books out there -- but the fetishizing gatekeepers have so far succeeded in scaring me away from nearly the entire subgenre.

Let's revisit Tara Lain's author page again, because it brings up another issue I'd like to develop more fully, and which I haven't seen brought to the forefront of any mainstream m/m discussions in the past few years. Here is her front-page bio, in full, where I've added some crucial emphasis:

I’m Tara Lain and I write The Beautiful Boys of Romance. I love all my characters, but especially my unique heroes. I write mostly MM romance with some MMF as well. I love the intensity, passion, lack of gender roles, diversity, and innate drama that accompany two men in love. Giving my guys their happy ever after is my favorite thing. I write serious themes with a light touch and readers often call my books “sweet” despite all the hot sex!  I believe in love and enjoy giving more of it to the world! Please say hi, ask questions, and make yourself at home!  : )

The theme here is of ownership and control: the author is explicitly foregrounding her authority in the world of her texts, not only in regard to "her" boys but in regard to the shape of their (fictional) lives. The issue of control is also what makes discussions of m/m so quickly vitriolic on both sides: lgbt people object to feeling not in control of the bulk of fictional depictions of their own lives (and have been systemically erased from history and literature), and m/m authors and readers object to the idea that their own creative endeavors must be limited by considerations outside themselves (especially volatile for romance authors/readers, who are routinely pushed outside the literary tradition).

The idea of control helps explain why the same kind of rhetorical turns and attitudes that put my hackles up in professional publishing tend to merely (or sometimes profoundly) amuse me when I see them on Tumblr and in fan spaces. For instance: the Science Boyfriends fandom, which imagines that Bruce Banner and Tony Stark are in a romantic relationship and/or like to hang out and do lab work and experiments and make inventions together. It tends to be pretty cute, with a sweet rom-com vibe in both art and fic. Like many popular fan and slash pairings -- the Winchesters, every Sherlock/Watson iteration, the original Kirk/Spock -- these stories and artworks are a response, a reframing of an original work that is both culturally resonant and light on female characters or straight romantic relationships. Fanfic/slash is often deeply personal, experimental, self-aware, allusive, complex, and vivid. It is also mostly read and written by young women. In a world where young women's own bodies and sexuality are constantly policed, scrutinized, and appropriated by everyone else, I suspect the way slash takes control back from creators (generally also men) is profoundly therapeutic: These are the characters you've given us, but we are reclaiming them as our own. Or else it's an echo of the way young women feel appropriated by media? Taking the image or depiction of someone and putting that to your own use: if this is how value is created for young women, perhaps it also can become how young women create value? (See yesterday's thought about authors swapping beefcake photos.) Remember the Creamsicle fandom? That time when a cartoon pointing out sexist depictions of girls on social media became a sweet lesbian romance between two characters who hadn't even existed twenty-four hours earlier? God, that made me so happy. Young women (and some of them young queer women!) working together to create something positive out of misogyny and systemic erasure. I tear up just thinking about it.

Of course, if this is a major propellant of slashfic (hint: probably not entirely!), then it's an impulse that must eventually need tempering with an eye toward other marginalized identities. No matter how many Science Boyfriend fics are written, Bruce Banner and Tony Stark will remain safely un-marginalized: actual gay men do not have this luxury. Making the switch to original characters transforms the writer's ethical landscape -- especially if this change happens to align with your own social privilege as a straight or straight-identified person in a homophobic culture. I'm starting to think this dynamic (a straight female writer progressing from slash fic to original fic to a career as an author of m/m romance) parallels one identified in this piece from Restructure, where geeky men redefine intelligence/math skills/computer savvy as masculine in response to jock bullying and identification of manliness with physical prowess. So when women claim to be intelligent/skilled in math/computer savvy in the same way, geek men push back out of ingrained self-defense. Similarly, slash writers potentially reclaim and reframe male relationships as a vital means of self-expression; when real-life gay men object, writers push back to defend themselves as a matter of course. I think this might explain certain common rhetorical moves in these debates -- the description of m/m romance as works of respect and pure imagination, for instance, read very similarly to defenses of fan fiction against authors who object to it. You don't own that, is the general refrain all around.

To get back on track ... The money is, I realize now, a large part of what makes the m/m industry so distasteful to me on a grand scale. When the BBC Sherlock mocked fan culture in the Series Three premiere, I was appalled and put off. It was an inappropriate use of power: Moffatt and the producers of Sherlock were much more culturally and financially powerful than the fans they were poking at. In m/m, the existence of royalty relationships tends to amplify hegemonic power, so that straight women -- Suzanne Brockman and J. R. Ward come to mind -- reap the bulk of the attention and financial rewards in a subgenre centered on the love lives of gay men. Particularly when straight women can build entire careers and lengthy backlists on just books with m/m pairings. I can't get past this as a sticking point, quite honestly. Not every m/m romance is automatically appropriative -- but the structure of the industry itself deserves some sharp critique. So all this isn't to say that I'm against m/m romance as a thing per se -- merely that I'm going to be extra-careful about where my dollars go in an industry that feels so fundamentally imbalanced.

And now, for f/f fiction!

I've had incredible luck with f/f romance for this series. I've found wonderful new authors whose books I'm now itching to read more of, and I've found great resources like The Lesbrary which features lesbian-themed fiction both popular and literary (often reviewed by actual lesbians!). Not everything has been perfect, but nothing has made me feel as deeply uneasy as with m/m, either -- not even the unabashedly pulpy ones like Rebekah Weatherspoon's Better Off Red. There's probably something about the intersections between straight women/queer women, as opposed to those between straight women/gay men, that has implications (but people smarter than me will have to work on this for the moment). When discussing f/f fiction, there are few genre-wide arguments to cite, few clusterfucks to dig up -- but why? I can think of many reasons and all of them are depressing. Is it because:

  • Two women having sex is not as much of a social threat as two men (witness all the anti-marriage equality materials that featured scare grooms, and the way lesbian sex was never as thoroughly criminalized as gay sex between men).
  • If romance is "women writing about women," then f/f romance is "women writing about women falling in love with other women." That's like a Double Romance. "Gross," says Patriarchy.
  • The much lower revenue streams of f/f mean there are far fewer presses, authors, and readers with a financial stake in the subgenre. So there will be arguments, but they will rarely reach the heights of a debate that hits, for instance, a revered literary institution for gay lit, a top-notch romance review site, Gawker, and OUT Magazine.

F/f has yet to go mainstream in the way that m/m has/is about to -- but I'm certainly going to be reading more of it. And that seems as good a place as any to call it a day.

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A Twitter-borne recommendation from queer gamer scholar Todd Harper has gotten me hooked on sci-fi gay romance animated webcomic Buying Time. I'm only a little ways in but I am thoroughly charmed. More like this, please.

Gay author of m/m romance Theo Fenraven has some thoughts on this issue, which do not entirely align with my own, but which are definitely worth bringing up for debate.

This year's Lambda Literary Award winners were announced today! I freely admit this is just a coincidence, but it's a pleasing one nonetheless.

Edited to add: An email remnded me of this thoughtful post from author E. E. Ottoman about the popularity of f/f versus m/m romance.

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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.

Q is for Queer Vampires

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism and romance.} There's really no point in my rehashing how vampires have been associated with sexuality (especially forms of sexuality coded as deviant) since long before Bram Stoker. Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer, and Charlaine Harris did not invent the metaphor: they simply developed the nuances of the theme in different ways, and Rebekah Weatherspoon's Better Off Red: Vampire Sorority Sisters is part of this tradition. (Side note: I love a book that does what it says on the tin.) No surprise then that this book also dabbles with many of the ancillary themes of the vampire-sex association: belonging, bodily autonomy and consent, sexual identity, and predation.

Cover image for Rebekah Weatherspoon's Better Off Red. Black background with a red swirl on the left-hand spine. One pale-skinned woman with long red hair sits on a bed far away with her nude back to us; she has her head turned slightly as if about to look over her shoulder. Closer to the viewer, a pale-skinned woman with short dark hair, who is also nude, stands facing away from us, looking at the redhead.It all starts when our heroine Ginger meets the girls of the ABO sorority (I see what you did there!). She connects with one of them at once, a black girl with "a beautiful, full afro" (Kindle location 148):

"Ginger?" Cleo asked, taking in my long red hair. "I thought my parents were cruel. Tsk, tsk, naming a ginger kid 'Ginger?'"

"Yeah, it could be worse," I said with a shrug. "At least it doesn't rhyme with anything."

"True. It could be worse. My last name is Jones." I couldn't say what sucked more, a name tag mocking your hair and your God-given beauty marks or being named after a blaxploitation character. (166)

Cleo becomes a lodestar and a mirror for Ginger over the course of the plot: both girls are humans living among vampires, they're both gay but unsure about coming out to their families, they're both certain they don't want to be turned. Cleo is a locus of comfort and safety in Ginger's new vampire-oriented lifestyle -- a comfort she desperately needs, since even through her overwhelming attraction to vampire queen Camila, Ginger is starkly aware that she is at an enormous physical and sexual disadvantage. Camila is gorgeous, Camila is experienced and dominating in bed, and Camila is deadly: "Were amazingly good looks reason enough to trust your blood lusting captor?" (754). It's a question many women and girls will find familiar. Rich, beautiful, great in bed, a little frightening -- Camila is the standard alpha romance fantasy, complete with tragic backstory, emotional distance, and a few too many abusive red flags for my personal comfort.

Ginger's phrase 'blood lusting' is spot-on -- a vampire's bite is orgasmic for both the vampire feeding and the human feeder. We haven't only linked sex with violence: we've linked sex with violence and food. Camila explains:

"Well, you eat meat, right? Imagine if you had to chase the cows. You don't have a gun, so you have to use your fists and you can only chase those cows at night ... Wouldn't it be easier if the cow showed up at your door and let you take all you needed? ... We live off what humans give us. Humans were beginning to suspect our existence. When we are starving, our kind can drain a human in a matter of minutes. That sort of feeding leaves bodies, and they began to hunt us. A few vampires realized if they could just find humans to volunteer to feed them on a regular basis, no humans would have to die and there would be no trace of a monster to hunt. Our master finally settled on this sorority as a guise and many of us have become accustomed to finding our feeders this way. It's about convenience, comfort, and routine." (901)

The sister-queens' "convenience, comfort, and routine" requires that the human sorority pledges essentially restructure their entire lives around keeping vampires' existence secret and being fed upon; it's posited as a volunteer relationship, but it's also cloaked by the usual rituals of sorority pledging and maintained in strictest secrecy from the wider human world. I have to wonder: does this cloaking undermine the ability of pledges to give meaningful consent to this arrangement? Especially since the sister-queens use mind control to remove the girls' fear during the first feeding: isn't that a little bit, well, squicky, from a consent standpoint? The reason I was willing to trust that the narrative wouldn't just brush this under the rug was because of Ginger, who clearly sees the creepiness here and isn't afraid to call it out, even in her own head. I can stomach a great deal more consent iffiness when it's labeled openly as such.*

Ginger is an exception even in the vampire sorority: she has a small amount of demon blood from her birth mother, which means her blood isn't nourishing to vampires (though Camila still bites her frequently -- she likes the taste, and the orgasms). Alone among the new ABO pledges, Ginger is not food. Nor is she a feeder, and this combined with her intense romance with the Queen leaves her a little apart from the other girls.

Now that they're bonded to the sister-queens, the new pledges have their freedoms strictly curtailed: a curfew, required escort after dark, and although the girls can date whom they want they will be ejected from the sorority if they contract an STI: "As of last night, we know you're all clean," Cleo says (1343), which is a hell of a thing to announce so casually in a group setting. Medical privacy rights be damned! And the reason for this rule is not to protect the vampires, who are immune to human diseases -- it's because the group feeding almost always involves group sex, "and we play together too much to give each other the clap." Sexual orientation and personal boundaries don't matter in the face of the vampires' sexualized hunger, and over the course of the book we see some characters couple up while other characters sleep around -- but all of them except Ginger are participants in frequent multi-partner orgies where intense orgasms are a shorthand for consent with a partner someone may or may not desire outside of the feedings. Again: a little squicky. (Though it must be admitted, these scenes are hot as hell -- Ms. Weatherspoon writes an excellent sex scene.) The emphasis on secrecy and all the lesbian loving parallel the narratives of the closet, of being on the down-low, of all the times where being LGBTQA has been scorned or outlawed or forbidden and must be hidden from mainstream 'normal' society. While it's become much easier in the past decades for queer people to come out in American culture, for Ms. Weatherspoon's vampires that moment will never come. Revelation, as it appears in the Sookie Stackhouse novels or the True Blood tv show, is not an option for these sorority girls: their closet is for life.

New ABO members are given teardrop rubies they are required to wear at all times, so they might be recognized in case of emergencies: "If you get hurt, hit by a car, fall down some stairs, drink yourself half to death at Chi Nu house, you'll be taken to a hospital that is bound to our sister-queens ... If you know your turn to feed is coming up, do not drink or take any illegal substances. Our sister-queens can taste it in our system and I've been told it makes our blood taste like piss" (1363). Again, the girls' physical independence and choice is restricted for the vampires' convenience. While gathering this quote from my notes I had to do a double-take, because it's a rather spooky little piece of text that -- spoilers coming up! -- foreshadows the fate of first Cleo, then Ginger.

Cleo is in a terrible car crash and suffers horrible burns. (Car accidents: Olivia's Least Favorite Plot Point Ever.) She's in a lot of pain and isn't expected to last the night. Camila makes it plain that she intends to turn Cleo to save her life. Ginger objects, on the very relevant grounds that Cleo "doesn't want this" (4751). Cleo has explicitly said as much, because becoming a vampire would mean severing ties with her human family. But Cleo's decision not to become an immortal demon (vampires and demons are roughly equivalent, or at least related, in this mythology) does not, in the Queen's eyes, take precedence over Camila's own wishes: "'She's mine. I can't let her suffer in pain any longer. She'll be upset for a while, but in the end she will have wanted me to help her.'" Ginger is forced to wait in the corner while Camila and the other sister-queens perform the unwanted ritual on the unconscious, dying black girl in the hospital bed. There is a terribly unsettling echo in this of the way black people's consent has been routinely discounted in the course of American medical history: TuskeegeeOak RidgeHenrietta Lacks.

At first Cleo seems fine but things soon turn sour, especially with her maybe-girlfriend-maybe-not Benny. Benny has been raised in vampire culture and wanted Cleo to turn so Benny could feed her; her happiness that she can now do what she wants royally pisses Cleo off: "'She's fucking happy I died just so she could have me the way she wanted me'" (4980). Cleo begins arguing with Camila, acting out in ways that are completely psychologically understandable but which the vampire queen describes as troublesome. She's also feeding too much from one human, which is dangerous. The other girls have to meet Cleo's grieving family and not let on that Cleo's still alive at the ABO house; it does not help at all that Cleo's family is a mirror-version of Ginger's mom, dad, and brother: "I made it to the hall of Camila's quarters before I leaned against the wall and sobbed. Cleo's poor family. And I thought of my parents, what Dad and Mom would do if they lost me too soon and what Todd would have to say to the girls if he was in Maxwell's shoes" (5181).

Ginger becomes immensely frustrated with the situation and with Camila -- but she gets distracted by the approaching exams and then -- oh, look, more spoilers -- her lab partner and OBA frat pledge Greg sexually assaults her and pushes her down a flight of stairs. (Remember that prophetic quote? Yeah.) Our heroine suffers a massive head injury and Camila is there instantly to dispatch Greg -- and to turn our heroine, again with the justification of saving her life, again without proper consent: "Her blood was flowing into my mouth before I even thought to stop her" (5365). We learn from master vampire-demon Dalhem shortly after that unlike Cleo, who really was dying, Ginger could have been saved without being turned: "'Your sister-queens could have healed you and left you human, but our Camila let her emotions for you get in the way. She let her emotions overrule what she truly knew to be just" (5574).

This is a major, major failing. Even Dalhem thinks so, for he strips Camlia of her royal rank and gives the queenship to Ginger. I must admit I was a little frustrated at this point: new black vampire Cleo is unwillingly turned, loses her girlfriend, and turns a little bit feral -- but new white vampire Ginger is given control of the sorority, gets to keep Camila despite the gross breach of trust, and is praised for having more restraint than her years suggest. Not that Ginger feels all that liberated by the change: "There was nowhere for me to go. I couldn't hide in my dorm room. I couldn't go home. The ABO house was my home now. Even if I escaped to another sister-queen's room, Camila was a part of me now ... Making things right with Camila was something I had to do, though at the moment I wanted something different" (5790). Camila as Queen was a power fantasy; Ginger as Queen now feels limited, constrained -- imprisoned. Lost to the world she's grown up in and the family who adopted her and loved her and supported her when she finally got up the courage to come out to them. It highlights the fact that the vampires, like their human feeders, are not entirely free of important constraints: they must avoid daylight, they must live in secrecy, they are surrounded by a web of blood-bonds and hierarchy and rules laid down by God hisownself. The more I think about it, the less certain I am that anyone in this text is ever allowed to make a truly free and unconstrained choice. This feels both frustrating and realistic, an unresolvable tension.

Fortunately for my poor aching heart, Ginger gets to keep contact with her family, who are welcomed into the vampire culture as feeders in the area around their home. (PFLAG for vampires?) We learn that Cleo would have lost her family anyways if she'd told them she was gay: her mom would have cast her out due to church pressure. Tolerance for lesbianism is equated with tolerance for vampirism, and I just don't have an extra thousand words to use to unpack that right now. Ginger and Camila enact a vampire marriage that makes them truly -- finally -- equals, which is pretty good as far as happy endings go. I was still troubled by Cleo's plotline, by what had happened to her and between her and Benny and how they both had been betrayed by Camila's thoughtlessness -- until I learned she was the heroine of the second book in the series. That's a pretty great hook, actually. Well played, Ms. Weatherspoon.

Looking over this post, it sounds grumpy and unsatisfied and as though I did not enjoy the book. I did, very much -- especially once some of my worries about Cleo's storyline were soothed, or at least postponed. There's a lot of ambiguity about identity and consent in here -- taking apart the dynamics of animalistic vampires and humans who are compared to food animals could keep me busy for another week at least. At lot of these ambiguities strike me as important, and they're ones we've yet to really decode -- I'm not sure this book is perfectly suited to my tastes, but it's a hell of a set of questions.

*This is one the reasons I actually love the terms dubcon and noncon -- they mark a recognition that consent is questionable or absent, and I can read on or avoid it as I choose. Sometimes I read it, though usually in erotica rather than romance. My biggest problem with the use of dubious consent or even rape in romance is that it's so often excused as 'close enough' to meaningful, unconstrained consent. I see this elision as a symptom of rape culture.)

___

I am quite picky about my vampire fiction, but here are some gems I've discovered over the years. Dracula's Guest is an anthology of pre-Stoker vampire stories and legends, edited by Michael Sims. It is highly recommended for alternative visions of vampire mythology, some of which are still unexplored in fiction (a goldmine for authors!). For a different exploration of vampires-thinking-of-people-as-cattle and issues of autonomy and consent, Terry Pratchett's Carpe Jugulum is a perennial personal favorite, and quite funny to boot. Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series also features homosocial/homosexual vampires, many of whom are adorably dandyish and playful and fun, and some of whom are masterminds of espionage and politicking.

Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book thoroughly worth the reading: deeply researched, empathetic, and significant. It is still, however, a black woman's story filtered through a white woman's voice. This piece at the Grio by Ronda Racha Price gives a solid overview of events since the book's publication and asks important questions about the financial agendas at stake with Henrietta Lacks' legacy and the use and abuse of black bodies in medical science.

Favorite website The Toast's series of Femslash Fridays features great snippets of imagined lesbian couples from pop culture: this one on Bend It Like Beckham is chock-full of insight into representation in media, self-awareness, and the full spectrum of queerness beyond the binary and the stereotypes.

I became aware of this book because of Rebekah Weatherspoon's Tumblr, which is delightful and sexy and smart. 

___ Weatherspoon, Rebekah. Better Off Red: Vampire Sorority Sisters Book 1. Bold Strokes Books: November 15, 2011. Ebook.

P is for Cathy Pegau

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.} Cathy Pegau's sci-fi heist romance Rulebreaker has one of the most on-point titles I've seen in some time. From the con-artist heroine to her executive lesbian love interest to the giant mining company determined to cover up a sinister corporate secret, it feels as though rules and the law are created only to be broken, bent, flouted, or twisted. What's more, the way the book unfolds treats the usual turns and tropes of romance the same way, playing with reader expectations in a way not unlike a good con.

Cover image for Cathy Pegau's Rulebreaker. Vaguely futuristic metallic background. One woman with pale skin and short dark hair stands facing the reader. One hand is on her hip and the other rests casually on her head, holding a sci-fi looking pistol. She wears a dark blue strapless garment and her expression is cool and challenging. Behind her is a second dark-haired woman with pale skin, looking down demurely as though hiding something.Bisexual con artist and occasional thief  Liv has a whole set of rules for appropriate criminal behavior: "Felon's Rule Number One: Don't get emotionally involved" (87). Of course she's going to break this rule: she's going to get involved, and hard. It's one of the strongest types of what TV Tropes calls Tempting Fate -- similar examples include the cop who mentions he's two days away from retirement (and you instantly know he's going to be killed), or the computer geek who declares himself invincible (only to be immediately drenched in liquid nitrogen). They're practically prophecies in fiction and film. So when Liv's hot ex-husband Tonio reappears to ask for her help with an absurdly lucrative new heist, the reader is primed to expect a classic reunion story about a couple of exes rediscovering how to be together.

And it looks for a while as though that's what we're getting. Liv and Tonio have chemistry that is off the charts. Liv is intensely, frankly sexual and Tonio pushes all her buttons -- but they both keep pulling back, trying to keep things simple and uncomplicated because they knew that as a couple they were something of a disaster. And this would all seem very cliché and expected except that the astute reader (read: me) has read the blurb and noticed that we are to have a lady love interest at some point.

I'll confess: I was intrigued. Zia -- short for Jadzia -- first shows up at the halfway point in the text. Remarkably late for a main character. In authorly circles I have seen people dinged in critiques or pitches for not introducing both protagonists in the first ten or so pages. But bending this particular rule really serves the story, because in the first half of the book we get plenty of time to learn about the sci-fi world of Nevarro, and thanks to Tonio we get to see how Liv behaves both when she trusts someone and when she does not. Tonio might be her ex and they might have some unresolved issues about their past, but he's miles safer for Liz than Willem Grey or his son Christian, the two arch-criminals who have set up our blackmail heist.

[Author's note: I only just realized that one of the cold-blooded killer characters in Rulebreaker is actually named Christian Grey. There's a little one-off about his sexual preferences at the end of the novel that is suddenly a whole lot more hilarious.]

Liv's job is to cozy up to hard-nosed executive Zia Talbot, who has hidden files about a piece of safety tech that would earn the company heavy fines if the Central Mining Authority learns about it. Seduction is implied, if not explicitly required, and Liv is slightly anxious about this: she has had crushes on women before, but she's never slept with or dated one. I was worried we were in for a coming-out arc -- which is fine, just not that exciting to me -- but instead it turns out Liv is worried that she won't be as successful in seducing a woman as she would be with a man. She's anxious because of her inexperience, not because she's questioning her same-sex attraction. And when she does meet Zia, the intensity of the blaze between them is not presented as qualitatively different from her attraction to Tonio. When they do eventually sleep together, she notices the different textures and responses of a woman's body, but it's not presented as somehow validating or confirming anything we didn't already know about Liv. It's emotionally transformative -- but that's because Liv and Zia have a much more sustainable romantic connection than Liv and Tonio ever did. It's to the narrative's credit that this isn't presented as a competition, as though Zia is Liv's Tru Lurrv while Tonio was a mistake -- Liv and Tonio cared about each other but also hurt each other, while Liv and Zia bring out the best in each other. It's sweet and realistic and doesn't make anyone into the villain -- this being one of my pet peeves about love triangles and why I generally avoid them. (I haven't read much YA recently, as you can imagine.) A bisexual heroine is a rare enough thing in romance: a bisexual heroine who gets to actually display her attraction to both sexes on-page for reasons other than titillation is like some sort of romance unicorn.

Ah, Zia ... She is intelligent, demanding, controlled, and lovely -- a Harlequin Presents-type fantasy CEO who just happens to be female. No wonder Liv so quickly breaks that first felon's rule by falling in love with the mark. This part of the text plays out another traditional romance narrative: Pining Secretary In Love With Sexy Boss. Zia responds to Liv's flirtations the way any alpha would: knowing smiles, innuendo, seductive compliments, expensive gifts. She notices Liv's hesitation and chalks it up to inexperience (Liv has told her this would be her first time with another woman), so she offers to go slow and do things right -- again, all very classic protective alpha.

Only the reader knows that Liv is anxious not just because of romantic timidity or the newness of lesbian action, but because she's dreading the moment when Zia learns Liv's been conning her the whole time to break into her computer system. Moral twinges are read as virginal shyness -- it's a clever twist on an old trope and it makes for some nicely angsty reading. It also preserves the fantasy of the boss-secretary dynamic without undermining Liv's agency as a character: one of my biggest problems with the alpha CEO hero is how often the heroine is made passive as a counterbalance or contrast (Christian Grey and Ana Steele being a fairly obvious example). Liv is an excellent assistant, due in no small part to the skills she's honed on the shady side of the law, and it really is a pleasure to watch her blossom in the cutthroat corporate world. There are hints that she could easily transition into a permanent position in the company -- a feint toward the well-trod redemption arc, where the thief goes straight because of love. A cop from the CMA appears to try and get Liv to turn on her fellow criminals: she has an opportunity here to get in good with the law, for possibly the first time in her life.

But Willem and Christian are growing impatient: the pressure is on for Liv to find the right files so the blackmail can begin. When she does, the discovery of what's in them twists the usual tropes again: Zia is not innocent. She's covered up deaths and allowed more deaths to happen just to preserve her career; the fact that the actual death rate is higher than she realized is not treated as a mitigating factor to absolve her of blame, but as a demonstration that she should have been asking better questions and made more ethical choices. It's a bold move by the text -- especially since the secret really is a plausibly dirty one, involving the forced labor of conscripted prisoners and faulty safety equipment -- but it mens that Zia's high-status position as a wealthy and successful woman is compromised. The fantasy is tempered by the truth. In many ways this revelation also makes Zia a better match for Liv -- they both know how to hide their tracks from the inquisitive eyes of the law. Liv's own past is far from pristine, so now they can move forward together on a more equal footing -- or they could, if Liv still weren't on the con. And if she didn't know that turning evidence for the CMA would get Zia not only fired but imprisoned in the same prison mines Liv's spent her whole life avoiding, and from which Zia picked people to die in the mines.

At this point, I had no idea where the text would go. My sense of the narrative direction had been twisted too many times -- I was being conned, and I was delighted. Everything depended on the characters' choices at this point: there was no one story shape (reunion story, Presents romance, redemption arc) that was controlling the narrative's direction: "None of these choices ended with a happily ever after. In my world, what did I expect, roses and rainbows?" (2699). Things go merrily to hell in the manner of all the best heist stories (Sneakers being my perennial favorite). Liv confesses her hidden agenda to Zia. The Greys take Liv's mom hostage. In the resulting shootout Tonio is killed and Zia is critically injured. It's the rock-bottom black moment for our heroine:

Zia and Tonio were both gone because of things I'd done. Did I think I could get away with breaking all those rules? Who the hell was I that they didn't apply? And now look what had happened. (3683)

I knew as a reader that Zia wasn't going to die, but I couldn't help worrying about it anyways. Tonio had died, after all, and up until that moment I'd thought we might also be in for a last-minute menage romance (I do like a good menage). It didn't help that I was reading this book in the lead-up to the Purple Wedding on Game of Thrones and was having a week where every character felt vulnerable. Ms. Pegau's text had shown itself so willing to play with genre tropes that my usual rock-hard certainty about the protagonist's survival was ever so slightly shaken. I was impressed.

Liv ends up in a CMA holding facility, a place where nothing exists except rules. A mostly recovered Zia comes to find her, and the book ends with a new rule: "Find someone you love who loves you back, the job be damned" (3988). It's a sweet yet plausible ending, not unmixed with difficulty -- really very satisfying.

You may be wondering, in all this, where the feminist angle comes in. Partly it's that this is a story about women with agency that isn't based on violence or magical powers, but on intelligence, persuasion, perception, and guts. Much as I love a good fantasy premise, it's refreshing to have people -- especially women in fiction -- who are strong because of purely human traits.

But also, I believe that stories can be either a way to keep the walls up or to tear them down, both in our individual lives and in our collective culture. We saw with Zen Cho's book how the (re)interpretation of the colonizers' literary traditions helped people with colonized identities manage the oppressions and obstacles they faced. If the nature of oppression is restriction -- through the law, through custom, through reductive stereotypes -- then a plot about breaking rules and confounding expectations must be somewhat liberating. Liv and Zia go through a process of discovering which rules are solid and which rules deserve to be broken: they are more sensitive at the end of the book to each other and to the consequences of their own actions. The text's meta-narrative at the same time shows us how flexible stories really are -- it suggests that we can decide to some extent which story we're living in, which set of rules we want to follow. Like Jade Temptress, this ending feels almost like a beginning, with two people who have a wider understanding of their own powers and a greater resistance to forces that would try to keep them from reaching their full potential of happiness and self-assertion.

Sounds pretty feminist to me.

___

Sexism in SFF and geek culture is really having a moment lately -- this post by Foz Meadows lays out some of the ways that women's participation in the history and culture of geekdom has been consistently overlooked, tested, or erased entirely.

This older post from Tor.com is a recap of a WorldCon panel from 2010, and opens up some interesting questions about bisexuality in sff more specifically (especially: why is there not more of it?).

Romance Novels for Feminists has a great post on the interaction between heist plots and romance.

___ Pegau, Cathy. Rulebreaker. Carina Press: August 8, 2011. Ebook.

K is for Jacqueline Koyanagi

{Click here for the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance. And be warned that there are enormous spoilers in the post below!} It's easy to say that Jacqueline Koyanagi's luscious debut Ascension ticks just about every box on the anti-kyriarchy bingo card: our heroine is a queer disabled woman of color (in space!). She falls in love with a disabled starship captain who's in a polyamorous relationship with another queer woman: a medic who plans on having children with a man-slash-engineer-slash-sometime-wolf. But like we saw with Her Love, Her Land, this book was written from deeply within the perspective of the identities it represents. The characters' disability is a plot point, but it's not The Plot Point -- the same goes for queerness and race: they're baked in, functions of character rather than Moving Moments. Polyamory gets a bit more of the Very Special Episode treatment, but this aspect is presented as bridging a gap between two different planetary cultures, one more sexually conservative than the other.

Cover image for Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi. A green space-ish, tech-ish background. A dark-skinned woman with dreadlocks stands in profile with one hand on her hip, looking skeptically at the viewer. Her suit is close-fitting and very jointed, with futuristic seams. Her left hand holds a large futuristic gun, pointed down.And all the characters are compelling, and several scenes made me gasp out loud (Adul!), but what I can't wait to talk about is how this book treats the problem of humans having bodies.

I say problem because human bodies are a source of profound tension, both in Ascension and in fiction and philosophy and human existence more generally. Our bodies are ourselves -- but they are not entirely ourselves. They connect us to the world -- except when they prevent us from connecting to the world. When we looked at the meaning of bodies in Vicki Essex's In Her Corner, they were always one or the other: male or female, healthy or injured. Bodies in Ascension are better described with the conjunction and: they are weak and strong, burdensome flesh and transcendent gifts all at the same time. Characters are not restricted to one single and never-changing attitude to their own physicality: instead, there is a web of constantly shifting priorities, needs, limitations, and abilities.

We begin with Alana Quick, whose genetic disability, Mel's Disease, is a daily obstacle:

I dropped the scrap and looked at my empty hands to determine how bad the tremors were today -- hands that should have ben learning the curves of a ship instead of reaching for prescriptions. Hands that would become unreliable without medication, weak and gnarled. I didn't feel sorry for myself. I knew I could accomplish amazing feats with these hands, given the right tools and a ship to love. It's just that, well, I got frustrated that my ability to function -- to do the one thing I'd loved since childhood -- was entirely dependent on synthesized chemicals. (Kindle location 87)

At the same time, the self-awareness her disease requires of her enhances Alana's natural flair for mechanics and ship-fixing:

Every ship I worked on, I got to know by learning her song. I imagined each one stringing wires through me like new arteries, connecting us until I could feel what ailed her reflected in the pain patterns of my own flesh ... Each job made me feel alive. (319)

Her body's particularity, her disability, becomes a source of helpful experience. It's not an idealization -- disability here is not a superpower --  but it has given her practice with a mode of thought that comes in handy in her work.

At the same time, Alana's disease is more than simply a personal affliction: it's a financial burden as well. Alana (and her aunt Lai, who has the same disease) are dependent upon a medication known as Dexitek, which means they have an extra expense they can ill afford with the lack of ship-repair jobs: "People like [therapist] Shrike had no idea what it meant to have to choose between paying bills and paying for food" (107). This is a classic and very real meeting point between disability and poverty: the one reinforces the other, compounding Alana's suffering just as it compounds the suffering of disabled persons in our own present society. "Life was a privilege, not a right," Alana says. "Something you had to struggle for when you were unlucky enough to be born at the intersection of poverty and bad genes" (1841). Yes, precisely.

As with Tessa Dare's Three Nights with a Scoundrel, in Ascension we have a plethora of disabled characters, each of whose experiences is unique and personal. Captain Tev Helix (oh, the hotness!) wears a prosthesis since she lost a leg in a mining accident: her disability has a before and an after with a moment of trauma as punctuation, leading to a different experience of embodiment than Alana's chronic pain issues or pilot Marre's terminal slide toward invisibility. "At some point I knew I couldn't pretend to be whole anymore," Tev says. "It didn't even occur to me at first that I'd still be able to have a leg, just not the one I was born with" (2267). The prosthetic is still her leg, still a part of her body: but years later, she's still paying off the debt for the new leg and her post-injury medical care.

Tev's leg and Alana's Dexitek highlight the common SF trope of technology as a means of compensating for physical disability. Where Ascension goes a step further is treating implanted non-compensatory tech as a part of a person's embodiment. To elude the authorities, who are pursuing them for a crime they didn't commit, the entire crew of the Tangled Axon remove their communication implants. Alana finds this loss profoundly disconcerting:

I still slept on one side to avoid hitting the transmit switch even though it wasn't there anymore. I still reached for my neck when I wanted to talk to someone. I still had to remind myself that I now had to seek them out face-to-face. I'd lost a sense almost as integrated as my vision or hearing, and I didn't know if I'd ever not feel a little incomplete. My body missed the metal I'd lost just as badly as if it had been blood or bone. (1899)

The great anxiety surrounding cyborgs, of course, is that adding robot parts decreases a person's humanity (Robocop, replicants, the Terminator, the Borg, the current preview for that Johnny Depp thing I'm too lazy to look up right now). Here, the tech incorporated in the body is all but transmuted into human flesh. This is a flexible, inclusive definition of humanity that I admit I can't stop thinking about: of course we're going to think of implanted tech as part of ourselves, just as we already personify and anthropomorphize our cars and our phones and our gadgets. Add to this Ascension's overlap between a ship's body and its captain's, and the metaphysical connection between the pilot and the ship and the crew ... There is a receptive physical inclusivity in this world, a fluid resilience and incorporation (pun intended) that I want more of.

Though the Dexitek works well enough most days, Alana and her aunt are saving for a more permanent cure, which the sinister corporation Transliminal Solutions offers for a hefty price tag. At the book's beginning Alana is offered a temporary taste of this cure, but once she takes it she will need to keep taking it and each treatment is shockingly expensive. Her therapist assures her there are payment plans: "I knew all about their 'payment plans.' More like indentured servitude. They'd own not just my city, but my body. My suffering and its relief. My life" (126). Alana carries this miracle drug with her for over half the book but never ingests it -- her disability, though often frustrating and limiting, is not the worst-case scenario for her as an individual. Her struggle with Mel's is at least a familiar struggle -- she would like a cure, but not at the expense of her personhood. Life with a disability is preferred to (and importantly not equivalent to) dehumanization.

That able-bodied-ness is not itself an idealized state in Ms. Koyanagi's text is shown by the attitude of Alana's sister Nova, a spirit guide (read: New Age-y type thing) who feels that her own healthy able body is still not good enough, still not the sum total of her true self:

The first time I saw Nova injured as a child -- a paper cut, nothing more -- she screamed and wept for hours, unable to reconcile the visceral, heartbreaking reality of blood and split skin. It was too much, too far removed from her expectations of what little girls should be made of. Surely a tear in her flesh should have leaked purity and rapture into the world. Surely her soul should have escaped in vaporous arabesques, dissipating into the ether. (1115)

The language here is strongly reminiscent of our own culture's trope that girls' bodies are innately delicate and ethereal -- witness this stunning Yahoo Answers thread from the antiquity of the internet about women farting, only some of which appears to be trolling -- but despite that, from all I can tell the hierarchy in Ascension is gender-neutral at minimum and matriarchal at maximum. Most of the characters we meet are women, including all those in positions of power. It's a straight gender reversal of the usual fictional ratio and as such is welcome and soothing as sinking into a warm bath.

And yet it's unsettling that in this book we have a sci-fi religion that elevates asceticism and self-starvation as practices that purify the soul, in ways that echo both the modern dietary compulsions of high fashion and the spiritual guidelines from, say, medieval Catholicism or Jainism. I admit to a personal lapsed-Catholic distrust of any doctrine of self-abnegation. Alana, so connected to her body even when that connection causes pain, is horrified by what she sees as her sister's casual disdain for a functional body: "Her words came from a kind of healthy privilege I couldn't begin to process" (2168). To Alana, Nova feels ungrateful, squandering a pain-free existence for no practical gain, unnecessarily scornful of an able body that does nothing to impede her connection with the wider world.

And yet ...

And yet Nova's words in this passage are impossible to refute:

"One day, you'll feel it too ... Only you'll feel it when it's too late. Your eyes will weaken. Your legs will start to hurt when you climb stairs. The space behind your knees will ache, like growing pains all over again, but this time you'll know the feeling is your body stretching and reshaping, pulling itself apart to make room for death. You'll fight it with medication like you always do, but she'll still come for you. Memories will lose definition around the edges, smoothing over in places that were once sharp and precise. Your skin will seem to expand and deflate, wrinkling in places that were once like silk. You'll feel as if you're shrinking inside your skin, disappearing. You'll get implants and upgrades, you'll fill your body with scaffolding to hold it together, to buy time, but the truth will remain: you're dying. You've always been dying. Life is a thin film, a veil between deaths." (2169)

Nova is right: Alana is going to die. Even the cure from Transliminal that she hopes for proves to be an illusion, a fraud. Alana's focus on her body blinds her to the long-term destiny of every human life. I was strongly, gut-wrenchingly reminded of the passage in Catch-22 where Yossarian spends entire pages wondering which organ could be the first one to fail, the first soldier to fall, the first sign of his own impending demise. And barring catastrophe, there has to be a first step into the descent, doesn't there? Nova is entirely, horribly right: by virtue of the fact that we are alive, our bodies are destined to fail and to die. This is the way of all flesh.

There is a quote late in the book from another character who resists the inevitability of death: "Birke's voice echoed in my thoughts. I will never lose her again. I will build a new universe where bodies aren't fragile, where the soul is limitless, where medicine is pure magic" (4093). And this is our villain. Who -- spoilers! -- happens to be a double of our heroine, from another universe, one where Nova had Mel's and died of it instead of Alana. So the Alana-double is searching through various realities, trying to find a Nova-double she can use to resurrect her sister. She is Alana's resistance to the gospel of death, taken to its logical conclusion.

And yet ...

And yet Birke is clearly, unambiguously a villain. She kills remorselessly, wiping an entire planet and its population in one stunning surprise of a scene. (I told you there were spoilers!) It's doubtful this is the first time she's done this in one reality or another; if death is inevitable, why bother waiting for it? Why allow other people to wait for it, when you have a personal stake in eliminating them? Nova's self-abnegation is a questionable virtue, but Birke's willingness to abnegate others is clearly much more terrible.

While Birke-as-Alana's-doppelganger does show up somewhat out of nowhere at the climax of the plot -- can this really be the very first double we've met from the othersiders? -- the way her appearance complicates the text's structure of embodiment is symbolically satisfying to a profound degree. As Alana wonders: "How could someone who shared my body be so alien? Was it the difference of a single synapse? One twist in the timeline, and this is what I would have been?" (3904).

The answer to this question is yes, as Alana realizes while Nova chooses to give her life in sacrifice to save Marre's (despite what she's said earlier about death's inevitability):

Her [Birke's] grief resonated with mine. I knew its bitter taste, its color. I knew how it felt to see the empty space they once occupied. To resent even happy memories for the flaying pain they brought to the surface. I understood then that it was true: given the right set of circumstances, I could have become Birke. Any version of me from any reality could have become her. (4093)

Body and self, self and other, the individual and the universe -- it always comes back to that first conjuction, the all-important andAlana is right about the body, and Nova is too. Nova is also right about the soul: her last gift to her sister is this memory from their childhood:

"I said there's two reasons to have a soul ... One ... is to feel the all world inside you, from now to then and back again. To breathe the breath of every ancestor, to know where you've been and anchor you to the physical world -- to your body and everything it touches."

I grabbed Nova's finger and pretended to bite it. She laughed and shook it out, but didn't break her stride. "The other ... is so that one day, you can look into the eye of the universe and burn away that which separates us from God." (4112)

Reader, I admit I teared up at this part. So often genre fiction will set one ideology against one another until one of them wins -- the brooding isolated hero is brought back out into the world, the cold uptight heroine learns to relax and enjoy life. Ascension manages to draw a great deal of tension out of opposing worldviews, yet it doesn't feel the need to resolve the tension in favor of one or the other. Engineer Ovie is a wolf and a man, simultaneously. Alana and her sister are both right, and both wrong. The body is a gift and a burden. It depends on who you ask -- and how they're feeling when you ask them.

Side note: Stay tuned for my upcoming essay Oh My God, I Just Realized How Many Parallels This Book Has To Star Wars Let's Talk About Them Forever Especially The Things About Tech And Disability And Family And Choices.

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Last year Tor.com posted an excerpt from Kathryn Allan's Disability in Science Fiction, and later a review of the book. I haven't had a chance to read this yet myself, but Interlibrary Loan has a chance to change all that!

Dr. Laura Vivanco let me know that for a limited time, the archives of the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies are free to access. There's a lot of great things in there! I'm going to learn so much!

I owe a great intellectual (and therefore personal) debt to the incisive Ana Mardoll, whose writing on the now-defunct-but-still-visible FWD/Forward was a light in the darkness of my privilege, and who continues to be awesome by writing the viscerally readable Annotated Index of Ross Geller.

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Koyanagi, Jacqueline. Ascension. Masque Books, 2013. Ebook.

A is for Ash

{Welcome to the first post of my April A-Z challenge! For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.} This is my second time reading Ash, Malinda Lo's lyrical lesbian Cinderella YA romance. The first time I found our heroine a little bit too reactive for my tastes, though I liked the book's style and setting a great deal. I also liked the presence of queer relationships in a fairy-tale context, and thought it was a step forward for LGBTQ representation in young adult fiction. Upon the re-read, I started to qualify and modify this second conclusion. It now seems to me that the specter of compulsory heterosexuality is very present in Ash, and even helps drive the mechanics of the plot.

Cover for Ash by Malinda Lo. A black background with the image of a black-haired, pale-skinned girl in a white diaphanous dress. She is on her side, curled up with her arms around her knees. Cursive script reads ASH.The main action is interspersed with fairy stories, many of which feature some element of romance. Some of these romances involve two women, such as the sweetly charming story of Niamh and the Fairy Queen. Throughout the book, women are shown falling in love with one another, sneaking away from dances with one another, all the usual motions of romance. But we never see two men together—and we never see two women getting married or raising children. We have queer relationships, but no queer families.

In fact, marriage in Ash is very classically heteronormative, particularly among the upper classes on whose borders our heroine exists. Her stepsister Ana is "well ready to find a husband" (Kindle location 970); her fellow maid Gwen "can't wait to find a husband" (1191); and the kingdom is all a-twitter about Prince Aidan choosing "a bride ... a lady worthy of becoming his wife" (1957). As for the prince's thoughts on his upcoming nuptials, Ash "did not think he seemed particularly thrilled by his parents' announcement" (1963). Just as in the default medieval fantasy-Europe, marriage is for legitimizing children, for inheriting power, and for merging property.

And in this world, despite all the lesbian love, ladies cannot earn their own living, as stepsister Clara makes clear: "I am a gentlewoman's daughter. I have no trade" (Kindle location 2120). Which means upper-class manners are heavily gendered in a way readers are likely recognize from their own lives:

"One must be properly respectful and yet give a hint of playfulness," Lady Isobel instructed ... "One cannot diminish the importance of this -- you must always show that you admire his wealth and stature, but at the same time you must not be in too much awe of it."

"Why not? Clara asked. "Do men not enjoy it when a woman is in awe of them?"

"Of course they do," Ana put in, "but you must avoid appearing as though you are interested only in his wealth." (Kindle location 2110)

Ambitious Ana is angling for the prince, and Clara merely hopes to be comfortably well-off, but Ash explicitly rejects marriage as a means of self-support. She argues with Clara and says that such an arrangement would "be false" (2127), emphasis original, and she "deliberately" devours an egg on a night when girls who fast are promised dreams of their future husband (1265).

It seems fairly obvious in this context that Sidhean the fairy represents Ash's putative husband. He is aloof and cruel yet protective in the manner of alpha heroes from time immemorial: he jealously rescues her from an interested female fairy (1333) and his gifts are magically binding and symbolically loaded -- a fur cloak, a medallion, and a moonstone ring. Each gift is a debt: along with the material gifts, he grants Ash's wishes and helps her attend the Royal Hunt and the subsequent masquerade, Ash's stand-ins for the single ball of the original tale. So again, heterosexual relationships are transactional and commodified. SIdhean's ability to grant Ash's wishes places him in the fairy godmother role, but unlike the original story it is made abundantly clear that his gifts come with price tags attached.

The hunters, including Ash's love interest Kaisa, exist somewhat outside this patriarchal framework: "hunts had always been led by women."

When she saw the hunters in the village, Ash was transfixed by the sight of them. The women, especially, with their casual camaraderie and easy grace, seemed like entirely different creatures than her stepmother and stepsisters. (493)

As the King's Huntress, Kaisa can earn wages. She is a member of the royal household in a way that is more than mere servitude: she has a certain independence, and she is invited to high-class events like the masquerade, which a true servant would never be permitted to attend as a guest. Her romance with Ash is secret and sweet and happens in the forest and in back hallways of the palace -- on the fringes of the world of straight marriage and patriarchal monarchy. In one of these stolen moments, we learn Ash has internalized the rules of straight romance:

"I am no one -- a servant in a poor household. What could I give you?"

Kaisa seemed taken aback. "You don't need to give me anything," she said. "I offer because I care for you." (2412)

At this point, Ash is still in debt to Sidhean, still bound to him by gifts and promises and the full weight of his love and expectation. There appears to be no way for Ash to be with Kaisa; she is owned by someone else, not free to make her own choices. Later, once she realizes the depths of her love for Kaisa (and vice versa), she has a deeper realization:

The knowledge of love had changed her. It focused what had once been a blur; it turned her world around and presented her with a new landscape. Now, she would do anything to bring Kaisa happiness. And if the knowledge of love could change her, would it not also change Sidhean? (2795)

The world of transactional (straight) romance is mutable, escapable: true love has a power that mere marriage can only envy, even as the fairies envy mortals and copy the forms but not the substance of their customs:

As the people swayed and stamped and sung their way around the bonfire, Ash knew that this was what the fairies were always hunting for: a circle of joy, hot and brilliant, the scent of love in the deepest winter. But all they could do was create a pale, crystalline imitation, perfect and cold. (2720)

Ash goes to Sidhean and does something that surprised and puzzled me on my first read: she asks him to let her free, in return for one night together. I'd been thinking of the fairy as something of a villain, or at least an antagonist: that Ash could simply ask to be released and get it seemed to cheapen the climax of the novel. It's that easy? I wondered. Just like that?

Well, yes, just like that -- because Ash's request preserves for Sidhean the form of the transactional, heterosexual marriage, an exchange rather than a true gift. There is a risk: "One night in my world is not the same as one night in yours," he tells her (2812). But Ash has the advantage of knowing that the fairy world is not quite real -- she has had this thought many times over the course of the book -- and she is willing to take a chance. And indeed, upon waking, only one mortal night has passed (though there's an argument to be made that something like a lifetime has passed in the fairy realm). Ash is able to accept Kaisa's love and to offer her own, freed now from the bonds of debt.

At the same time, this freedom from the larger patriarchal/transactional system appears to come at a price. Lesbian relationships aren't at all visible in the larger world of Ash, as straight relationships are. We only see two women living happily ever after together in the tales of fairies and heroes, tales that take place in an implied (and very romanticized) past. The choice between the fairy husband and the huntress lover is a lose-lose, given this structure. Queer love can subvert the larger social system; it cannot participate in it.

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Malinda Lo has talked quite a bit about race in fantasy and race and sexuality in character dialogue. The prequel Huntress makes it more explicit than the text in Ash, but Ms. Lo does say that she pictured both Ash and Kaisa as having Asian features. At the end of last year she also did a post full of YA books featuring LGBT characters of color.

Recently I discovered the existence of The Lesbrarywhich is a fantastic name for a website and a bountiful source of recommendations and reviews of lesbian writing in just about every genre.

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Lo, Malinda. Ash. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co. 2009. Ebook.