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

Space, Science, and the Gender of Perfection

{Courting Critique is a post series that takes an analytic and intersectional feminist look at romance texts — not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because good criticism can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound!} Engineer Eugene Parsons demands perfection. It's the first thing, possibly the only thing, people know about him.

The problem: perfection is unattainable, like a limit in calculus that is never quite reached. The other, less obvious problem: the definition of perfection keeps shifting, especially where gender is involved.

Cover image for Earth Bound. Starry background behind two light-skinned people in a tense embrace. The woman has dark hair, artful makeup, a black dress, and full-length black gloves. The man has a grey suit, intense expression, and his hands on the woman's bare skin.

First, a capsule review: Earth Bound,  the latest entry in Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner's stellar Fly Me to the Moon series, is an absolute gut-punch of a romance between two difficult, critical, closed-off engineers who put their ambitions and the mission above everything else. Oh, and seedy '60s motel sex. I could not have possibly loved it more. Full spoilers from here on out.

The most basic definition of perfection is free from factual or mathematical error. Parsons has good reason to pursue this kind of perfection, as the lives of real people depend on the machines and mathematics used by the American Space Department to send men and machines into orbit: "If the capsule wasn't traveling fast enough, wasn't flying straight up, the massive hand of gravity would catch it and pull it straight back down. It could crash right into a place filled with houses and families" (Kindle location 63). Not to mention that whole Cold War business, which Parsons at times seems to be fighting as though he's out to win it single-handed. The urgency of this mission leads him to look for the very best -- which is how he meets our heroine, computer and programmer Charlie Eason.

Charlie is a perfect hire for ASD -- except that she's a woman.

To clarify, Parsons has absolutely no issue with hiring women. Many of the computers are women (just like in real life: see the wealth of links at the end of this piece). Parsons does, however, have a problem with how deeply attracted he is to Charlie's astonishing beauty. With the other computers their gender is a nonvariable, an unimportant detail he can put aside in the interests of getting the best work from the most competent people. But he can't do that with Charlie -- "his body refused to stop noticing hers" (197) -- and he loathes himself for this failing, even as he insists on hiring her for her undeniable talents. In the classic romance tradition, this self-loathing adds a potent charge to the characters' interactions on the page (Parsons happily avoids being creepy or domineering, or at least not any more domineering than he is with his male subordinates).

Charlie doesn't recognize it's attraction at first, of course. Parsons is a closed book (and locked, and chained, and encrypted…), and Dr. Eason is used to being undermined and underestimated on account of her gender: "It would never be enough. No matter how many papers she authored, no matter how many projects she successfully completed, deadlines she met, or snafus she navigated, all they'd ever be able to see were the breasts" (879). No matter how objectively skilled a woman is, her femininity is read as a flaw when it appears in spaces and roles designated masculine. She will always be imperfect by default. The same is clearly true about race, though the text only briefly glances at this. (Again, links below!)

[perfectpullquote align="right"]No matter how many papers she authored ... all they'd ever be able to see were the breasts.[/perfectpullquote]

Which is not to say there is no standard for a specifically feminine perfection, because of course there is -- rigidly defined and lionized gender roles trouble the course of both hero and heroine. There is an unwritten expectation of purity in the binary gender construct, and a sense that real, flawed humans are constantly falling short of what it means to be a perfect man or a perfect woman. Consider this bit about the astronauts' wives: "Their wives sat among the spectators, looking cool and polished, and in the case of the new Mrs. Campbell, a little bored. She didn't yet have Mrs. Reynolds' expertise in being utterly blank every second of the day" (1508). Blankness is perfectly feminine; polish is perfectly feminine; emotion and thought are to be hidden or erased while attempting to conform to the ideal.

Charlie has the markers of idealized femininity down pat: makeup, polite smiles, skirts and heels, never a sign of anger or hurt. Cool, cool as marble, polished, frozen -- these descriptions surface over and over about Charlie and other women. I feel like I've seen a lot of romance heroines characterized as 'naturally' feminine (contemporaries do this with surprising frequency): in this text high-femme presentation is explicitly a strategy for social leverage, even though it leaves women open for predation (lecherous astronaut Carruthers) and exploitation (shameless magazine photo ops to get good press for ASD): "Yes, she used her looks to gain the advantage in certain situations. But they were her looks and her advantage. She was furious that her face was going to be used to sell ASD to the public. Why couldn't they discuss the mission, the technology, and the sheer wonder of what they were trying to do? Why did it have to be the surface, the glamour, the stuff that meant nothing?" (2033). Having spent so much time constructing that surface in self-defense, Charlie is nevertheless frustrated by people who choose to treat it as the sum total of who she is. It's a double-bind that still feels far too familiar to those of us here in 2016.

Expectations of purity also underscore a beautifully ironic conflict between Charlie's love for computer programming and her parents' romanticization of physics: "For a long time, the conversation had been about Charlie's field of study. Why couldn't you go into physics like Tom? Tom the golden child, who couldn't get enough of splitting and combining atoms -- and whose genitals were the right shape" (290). Charlie's mother even pronounces the word engineering "like she might pronounce shit" (281): in her parents' eyes Charlie's intellectual talents make her too pure for her chosen profession. They believe she is squandering herself on something corrupt and pedestrian: the scorn they heap on her career choices is couched in the language of support and pride in their daughter (why isn't she living up to her potential?) but Charlie can't help but read this as scorn for her as a person -- especially in comparison to her brother, whose gender is part of what makes him the Platonically Ideal Physicist. All this despite the fact that the pure 'secrets of the universe physics' the elder Easons are so enamored with is the actual Manhattan Project. Hardly a landmark of non-applied, non-militarized, above-it-all science.

Meanwhile, Parsons' family offers a contrasting image of masculine perfection in war hero brother George. He's smart, handsome, charming, and brave: the town is literally putting up a statue to him to memorialize his death in combat. Like younger siblings the world over, Parsons feels he suffers by comparison: "I felt like I was this weaker, lesser version of him and could never measure up" (1795). This sense of falling short mixes with grief and guilt (Parsons and George had argued before he was killed) and poisons Parsons' interactions with ex-Nazi rocket scientist Friedrich Gerhardt (clearly a von Braun analogue). Gerhardt's presence not only reminds Parsons of the masculine standards he feels he fails to meet, but he's also an indication that the world itself is the furthest thing from perfect: "The fact that George -- his wonderful, boisterous, heroic brother -- wasn't here and Gerhardt was was all the evidence Parsons needed to know the universe was fundamentally fucked" (1676).

Defining the universe as unfair, perverse, and cruel is absolutely vital in a historical that addresses sexism and misogyny in such a head-on manner. We know -- at least, if we've been reading tons of books about the Cold War and the Space Race and the Manhattan Project, have you not? -- that Charlie's contributions are not only neglected by her contemporaries, but also erased from the broad historical narrative. Like Lise Meitner, Margaret Hamilton, Hazel Ying Lee and the WASPthe Mercury 13, the real-life women of NASA, and countless others, Charlie's battle against discrimination and diminishment will be endless and unrewarded. She'll be written out of the narrative, and that unwriting will be used to deny women spaces and voices in decades to come.

[perfectpullquote align="left"]The fact that George wasn't here and Gerhardt was was all the evidence Parsons needed to know the universe was fundamentally fucked.[/perfectpullquote]

What saves this point of view from being far too harsh to nourish a romance plot is the last and, I think, best definition of perfection: something that is neither too little nor too much, but just right. This is perfection as completion: two satellites meeting in orbit against all odds, the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. What makes this kind of life-saving perfection possible? Love, of course.

If you think I wasn't hearing Origin of Love while rereading this, think again. (Two Plato references in one blog post! It's a banner Thursday.)

An early passage sees Parsons thinking of himself and Charlie in astrodynamic terms: "She was the capsule here, serenely making her orbits, while he was the rocket casing, jettisoned to burn up in the long fall back to earth" (158). Geeky penis metaphors aside (come on, right?), Parsons continually views himself as secondary to Charlie, as a resource who's only there to be used and discarded so she can achieve her proper glorious heights. He's a man who demands perfection, but once he decides she is perfect, his devotion is absolute: "I'll work to get you whatever you need, Charlie. You know that" (1305). This is undoubtedly part of what makes Parsons work so well as a version of the Demanding Boss hero archetype, which usually makes me grimace: the dedication and generosity he displays toward the mission and toward Charlie more than balance out the barked orders and fraying temper.

Charlie recognizes this devotion and even refers to Parsons once as an "acolyte" (916); she also envisions their relationship in terms that echo his : "She didn't think she was perfect, but she thought that together, they might be more than they were apart. Together they might be something like it" (2465). The inevitable crisis in the relationship is paralleled by a crisis in a planned orbital rendezvous mission. Charlie and Parsons have to navigate their way back to one another emotionally even as they maneuver two soaring metal ships within kissing distance of one another. Their final reconciliation is as subtle, tense, and minutely managed as any astronaut's docking procedure.  It's a sublime and elegant piece of work and as an author I am equal parts delighted and envious.

Charlie and Parsons' HEA doesn't make the world perfect -- he's still going to be snappish, and she'll still be subject to plenty of micro- and macro-aggressions --  but it shows they've earned the kind of perfection they find with each other. And what more can a romance possibly offer?

 

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Barry, Emma, and Turner, Genevieve. Earth Bound. Amazon Digital Services, 2016. Kindle edition.

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Further Reading:

  • You know about the Hidden Figures book and movie already, right? Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe? I could not possibly be more excited.
  • But since that's not out until September, here is Rise of the Rocket Girls, a primer on the race to the moon focusing on women's contributions and participation.
  • Also Amelia Earhart's Daughters, which expands the years examined and looks at women pilots in WWII and the Cold War.
  • Something from the Russian side of all this: The Night WitchesMost of the prose in this book about Russian women flying bombing runs in WWII comes straight from interviews with survivors, so it's a little plain prose-wise -- but you cannot beat the level of detail and vividness.
  • Girls of Atomic City. Summers spent driving by Hanford on our way to Eastern Washington campsites kicked off my fascination with the Atomic Age. (You might have noticed this is something of a pet topic of mine, huh?) But Hanford was basically a glorified military base -- Oak Ridge was a whole damn city, with segregated living spaces and sock hops and I swear to God a rabbit breeding club.
  • Also great: 109 East Palace, about a woman who worked as Oppenheimer's trusted secretary (and front) during the early days of Los Alamos.

Batman and Bootleggers: For the Love of Lit Crit

{For the Love of Lit Crit is a post series that takes a feminist look at romance texts -- not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because sometimes analysis can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound! Also, a content note for discussion of guns and violence, though I don't think things get really graphic or specific. Meanwhile, during the month of January I'm catching up on a bunch of books from the TBR list, most of which have been out for some time because I am perpetually behind the curve. I'm also tweeting about what I find as I read; follow #Readening on Twitter for comments, thoughts, Titanic design corrections, and critiques of bee metaphors.}

That last long post must really be sticking with me, because here I was reading a lusty paranormal romance set in Jazz Age San Francisco and all I could think about was the violence. Not the sensual wardrobes, not the issues with race -- nope, the violence and how actions are morally coded based on the actor rather than the deed itself. Cover for Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennett.

Capsule review: I'm torn about whether to recommend this. I loved the detail of the built world and I'm definitely going to read the next in the series because I already ship Bo and Astrid and I need to at least stay caught up until their story in book 3. And I'm revising a Prohibition paranormal of my own now (with monsters instead of ghosts and magic) so this series is totally Necessary Author Research and probably even tax-deductible. But I had a lot of issues with the way the book dealt with race: those concerns are pretty much covered in this Dear Author review (click the spoiler tag), and they're just problematic enough that I hesitate to give this book an enthusiastic two thumbs up. Not because I am easily offended, but because lot of the issues here are recognizable stereotypes with a long horrible history, and seeing them repeated in modern texts can make a reader so damn tired. It's less How outrageous! and more Ugh, not this again.

I'm glad Dear Author's review tackled the issues with depiction of Chinese-American characters, because that leaves me free to talk about the contradictory way this book presents violence -- specifically gun violence and domestic violence -- in regard to our hero.

A Good Man Who Does Bad Things

I knew going in that a bootlegging hero was probably going to have to kill someone. Not every rumrunner forbade guns like Seattle's Roy Olmstead, though I suspect that's partly who Bitter Spirits hero Winter Magnusson was based on. And there's definitely room in romantic heroism for killing: Han shot first, after all. So I wasn't surprised when the book revealed that Winter has a few deaths on his conscience.

I was a little surprised that one of them was his wife, though. Again, spoilers everywhere in this analysis.

It's negligence rather than murder, but Winter still holds himself responsible for the car accident that killed his mother, his father, his wife, and left Winter himself visibly scarred. The fallout of this trauma is one of the major emotional arcs of the romance. And you know what? All I could think was: That sounds about right. You killed your family, buddy. That feels like one of those events that maybe one shouldn't be able to entirely get over? It's like Batman, only instead of a thief in the alley it's like little Brucie was playing with a pistol and shot Mr. and Mrs. Wayne himself.

(I just giggled for five fully minutes imagining how self-flagellating and angsty Batman could get in that scenario. Batman really is the funniest superhero.)

Winter reserves the greatest measure of guilt not for his parents, but for his wife Paulina -- because, he explains, she'd asked him for a divorce and he'd refused: "I should have just let her go. I'm not sure why I didn't. I think maybe I saw it as a failure, and that was unacceptable ... I told her divorce was impossible, that I'd never let it happen ... So that's why I feel guilty -- because even though I didn't love her, I refused to let her go. If I had, everyone would still be alive" (Kindle location 2335).

Heroine Aida replies: "Paulina made the decision to marry you. You didn't hold a gun to her head."

This metaphor struck me as being in extremely poor taste.

For one thing, while I haven't specifically researched divorce laws in 1927 California (anyone with a quick link is free to add it in comments), my understanding is that divorce at this time in this place has to be agreed to by both parties. So that if Winter refuses to grant a divorce, Paulina has to stay married to him, no matter how she personally feels about it. This may not be violence, per se, but it's definitely an unpleasant level of control for him to exert for very little reason. It feels mean. It feels petty. It feels, in a word, unheroic.

For another thing, he's literally just told Aida he caused his wife's death. A woman is dead -- two women, and a man, if you count his mother and father, but he doesn't seem to agonize over that as much. And the best our heroine can muster is: "But the important thing is you shouldn't feel bad about it."

I for one am perfectly okay with the hero feeling bad about this. Forever. Maybe not to Batman levels of self-flagellation, but surely this tragedy is more than just an opportunity for him to grow emotionally as a person. There should be consequences for a mistake of this magnitude. Our hero is not in prison, he is not making restitution to his wife's family, he is not working to make automobiles safer or donating to charity or doing anything else to atone for his actions. He is merely berating himself emotionally. I find it unpleasant that those are the only consequences for such a colossal waste of life, but I am equally loth to see any consequence of that event erased because the heroine feels one should "live in the moment." (Yep, actual quote, Kindle location 2335 like the others.)

Taken on its own, bereft of genre context, this exchange makes Aida look cold and amoral. She's not, of course. She's simply being a Good Heroine: her job in the narrative is to reassure the hero about his past mistakes to prove he is a Good Person Deserving Of Love. And Good People don't do Bad Things. The hero is by definition a Good Person -- ergo his actions are Good, and must be construed in the best possible light. The cause of Paulina's death was not really the hero's inattention while driving; the cause of Paulina's death was her own "character defects" -- specifically, not being 'strong' enough to leave on her own when her husband refused to divorce her. Her rich, powerful, musclebound, lawbreaking husband with a ton of underworld connections and corrupt cops on his payroll, who'd just said he'd never let her go. Gosh, why wouldn't she be scared to leave? Again, "character defects" is a direct quote from our heroine. About the dead wife, not about the hero.

I was a little stunned. We're blaming the dead wife for her own death at this point and I'm supposed to be rooting for these two as a couple.

And it's not as though the violence of Winter's career as a bootlegger can be separated from his family life. His job was the reason why Paulina wanted a divorce in the first place. Later, when Aida gets nervous before she and Winter have sex for the first time, our hero reflects: "he was reminded of Paulina, timid and guarded -- worse, he was reminded of how he used to feel around her. Like a monster and a bully. Like the bad guy" (2412).

Two points:

  1. Winter clearly prioritizes his own feelings in this moment over his sexual partner's. He thinks his feeling that he might be 'the bad guy' is worse than Aida's feeling of being unsafe or unsure about the sex they are about to have.
  2. Winter wants Aida because he likes that she believes he's a Good Guy -- not because she has a solid moral compass, not because he can trust her judgment, but simply because it makes him feel better about himself. It's an ego-stroke, pure and simple. There's no sense that Aida expects him to do better. In fact, it's the opposite: Aida is presented as a better match for Winter because she can accept his violent actions.

We are a long way here from the world of Filthy Lucre, where the heroine wants a good man to stop doing bad things, and tells him so. Winter's tendency toward violence is by definition Good, because he is a hero, and the text gives him leave to be as vicious as he wants, consequence-free.

My concern about this moral framework is not only for Paulina: it's for our villain, too. Our evil Chinese necromancer villain whose big evil plan is to bring Pauline's corpse back from the dead as a weapon against our hero. Reader, I'd be lying if I said this wasn't a really fun plot point. I was hoping Pauline would get some of her own back; there's an earlier scene where Aida, a spirit medium, calls forth a dead husband who exposes his much younger widow's adultery and callousness. I was hoping either Paulina would get to yell at Winter, or that she'd get to say she understood it was an accident; either one would be fine with me.

Instead, Paulina is a wordless, mindless zombie monster, controlled by black magic. A really lushly described, viscerally gross zombie corpse. Who never talks. Who maybe needs to be exorcised by the heroine and/or shot re-dead by the hero because that's how we deal with first wives in romance, amirite?

Ugh, not this again.

A Bad Man Who Does Bad Things

The weirdness of the division between Good People and Bad People is illustrated most vividly in a scene between Aida and Doctor Yip, our villain.

Here is the first part.

Doctor Yip's motivation, as Dear Author pointed out, is a historical truth and major act of bigotry: "After the Great Fire, the city tried to move Chinatown and seize our land, and when we resisted, you kept us in cages on Angel Island, separating our families for years" (4126).

Aida's response: "didn't."

(#NotAllWhiteHeroines)

The text continues: "Aida could empathize with grief for a lost sibling, but she didn't lash out and kill people for revenge when [her brother] Sam died." Note what happened here: the villain laid out a sustained, horrible, systemic, racist injustice he personally suffered from, and the heroine rejected his moral claim because she personally had not participated in said injustice.

Here is the second part.

Doctor Yip makes another moral claim: despite the many killings he's orchestrated, he has not shed a single drop of blood: "'I have no blood debt on my hands. I am clean.'"

Aida's response: "'Just because you didn't pull the trigger doesn't mean you're not guilty.'" She refuses to allow him to salve his conscience with technicalities when the greater point is that he's responsible for several murders.

These two parts? They happen on the same damn page.

What this tells me as a reader is that the underlying moral structure of this text is tied to something other than action. Or facts, really. Aida resists any moral statement made by the villain, even if doing so means she contradicts herself within three paragraphs. The villain is Bad: he must be opposed. Winter is Good: he must be supported. Even if his actions in this same scene are comprised of several brutal murders (one done with Aida's complete knowledge and approval). But he's defending the heroine and himself, so it's okay, right? He's Good, isn't he?

I'm coming down hard on this text not because it makes a uniquely irritating choice, but because it's a vivid example of something I find all over the romance genre. I don't mind having Good People and Bad People in fiction; I am not criticizing the lack of moral subtlety. But I do object to moral categories being applied as fixed traits, regardless of what we see a character actually do. Like many readers I bring my own moral compass with me when I read, and it is a rare book that can convince me to abandon it. I can sympathize with a hero who wants to not seem monstrous on page 10: but when we get to 100 and he's murdered, tortured, threatened, and intimidated his way through the book, I begin to think that all those frightened secondary characters have a point.

If you've noticed a lot of gun metaphors -- pulling the trigger, put a gun to her head -- you're picking up on one of the very strong motifs of this book. Guns both as props and as symbols are everywhere. Even at the climax of the sex scenes!

... he shuddered in her arms like a great, divine beast taken down by a single bullet.

She didn't know if she was the gun that fired the bullet or the hunter who'd pulled the trigger ... she knew she had made a terrible miscalculation.

She was the one who'd been shot. (2910)

There's also a lot of guns-as-power imagery, but I won't tire you with all that. Suffice to say that in the world right now -- what with Ferguson, and Ottawa, and Paris, and now Boko Haram -- I am increasingly wary of those who idealize guns as the proper tools of Good Men, whose violence shouldn't be questioned.

At least Batman tries not to kill people.

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Chinese-Canadian romance author Vicki Essex points out that new CBC show Strange Empire is an awesome diverse take on Western tropes, including violence and vengeance.

Speaking of Batman and the pitfalls of vigilante justice, here is a marvelous article from Cracked that lists Batman's 6 most brutal murders. Some of these veer hilariously into self-parody, and others are just plain awful, so click at your peril.

Leigh Kolb at Bitch Flicks has a grounded and thoughtful feminist reading of Sons of Anarchy's inescapably violent masculinity.

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Bennett, Jenn. Bitter Spirits (Roaring Twenties Book 1). New York: Berkeley Sensation, January 2014. Kindle edition.

Filthy Lucre and Laundered Souls

{Disclaimer: a copy of this book was provided me by the author for review. Ms. Cullars reached out after I discussed an earlier work of hers in my Feminism A-Z series on intersectionality in romance. It's a brave author who looks at those posts and asks to run the gauntlet again. Especially since this review turned out to be extremely long. Spoilers will naturally abound, so be ye warned. Also, this review series really does need a better title, so any suggestions will be most welcome.}

There's an old joke that runs though literature departments: everything in fiction is a metaphor for sex -- except sex, which is a metaphor for death.

Cover for Filthy Lucre by Sharon Cullars.

With money, it seems to go the other way. Money in fiction -- literary, mystery, romance, sff, whatever -- is always a stand-in for something else. Usually power, of course, but that begs the question: what kind of power precisely? In the case of Filthy Lucre by Sharon Cullars, money stands in for agency, for freedom, and for trust. Sometimes all at once, which makes my analytical brain rejoice.

Let's get one thing out of the way first thing: this is a thoughtful and unusual romance -- bank-robbing hero and black heroine in Missouri in 1933? AMBITIOUS -- and it was really enjoyable. Definitely read it before continuing this post. There are mouth-watering food descriptions and richly drawn characters and real human conflict keeping the hero and heroine apart. Things like: he's a bank robber who's brought his fellow bank robbers into her home and they've taken her hostage and are probably going to kill her so they can make a clean getaway after the robbery. Also, those other bank robbers are Bonnie and Clyde. Yes, that Bonnie and Clyde.

I told you it was unusual.

The very first thing we see is heroine Theodora Holliday -- Teddy -- being robbed. She's in a general store at the wrong time, and a small man with a shotgun takes everything in the till and the purses of the two women present. Unlike the other (white) woman, Teddy initially refuses to hand over her cash: she needs it to buy flour to make a pecan pie for her elderly neighbor. She only changes her mind when it becomes clear the choice really is between her money or her life. She hands over the purse and fumes all the way home -- money is hard to come by, and losing twenty dollars means her choices become more constrained. She resents that her kind and generous impulses (the pie) have been thwarted by someone else's violence and greed.

This is therefore not an auspicious moment for our hero Louis Daniels to make his entrance -- especially as a white man, in a fancy car, flashing a Hollywood smile and a wad of bills. Teddy often rents out rooms to make ends meet, and Louis is looking for a room somewhere quieter than the hotels in the middle of town. (The town is Joplin, Missouri, *ominous musical cue for those who know their Bonny and Clyde*.) Teddy is instantly (and correctly) suspicious of both his whiteness and his obvious wealth: "In her twenty-eight years, she'd learned that shiny, new things sometimes brought trouble with them… the man was just as 'shiny' as his car. Something about him set her spider's senses off" (page 7). She turns down the extra cash, despite her straitened circumstances -- a single white man boarding with her will be cause for damaging rumors and innuendo, and she's pretty sure he's got an agenda he isn't being open about.

Then the man offers her a hundred dollars. Per night. For three nights. It's a ludicrously high sum; for comparison, here is a current Seattle AirBNB listing for about the same price with a ton of amenities in a great location with excellent reviews. Teddy caves: "She'd heard people say that everyone had their price, and he'd found hers" (8). This is good money, an irresistible windfall, and she allows herself to be persuaded.

But what has she been persuaded by? Money in the earlier scene was something that increased Teddy's agency. But here, money substitutes for trust: Teddy's distrust of the shiny man is put aside in favor of an astronomical sum of cash. The less trust Teddy has initially, the more money it would take to change her mind. Now money is itself what limits her choices, what constrains her actions. Or to put it another way, Teddy is choosing one short-term limit (shutting down her inner qualms) in favor of a long-term goal (being financially stable for months). It says a lot about this book that I never felt like Teddy was powerless, even when she was technically being victimized. It always felt like she was making clear-eyed choices as best she could in an imperfect world, and that the text wasn't interested in punishing her or in making a fetish of her weakness (with one possible exception, which I'll get to in due course).

Even though her decision has changed with the money, her mind is still clear. When her handsome new tenant offers to go to the store to get the flour she couldn't buy earlier, Teddy's suspicions are alerted again: "Handsome and helpful, usually two traits she found good in a man, but she wasn't sure she was buying what he was selling" (11). Money is again a stand-in for trust, but in reverse: now instead of taking money to compensate for her distrust, Teddy is (metaphorically) reluctant to offer money as a signal of trust. Money's symbolic value in the text is already amazingly fluid, and we're only eleven pages in.

The Unheroic Hero

We switch to Louis' POV for a trip to the same store Teddy was robbed in earlier. Surprise! He's not a good man, or an honest one. He's shot people for cheating him at cards. He's robbed banks before, too, despite telling Teddy he's not on the run from the law. And then there's this revealing passage, which I'm going to quote in full:

Louis left the store wondering why the owner assumed he was married and then remembered the ring on his finger. He'd never taken it off, even after Laureen had up and left one day a few years ago saying she was sick of living off the measly money he made doing road work. She'd gone off with some starched-collar type who worked at the Kansas City credit union.

One of them fancy head doctors might say that Laureen's leaving was why he'd started knocking off credit unions, eventually moving up to full-on banks. And maybe that fancy head doctor might be right; maybe he was trying to get back at her, as though he had something to prove to her memory at least. (15)

Olivia's notes: No shit, Sherlock. This is classic hero backstory, a man getting revenge on his evil materialistic ex. (Romance heroes are so pissy about rejection sometimes, I swear.) And as part of my habit of always trying to see things from the Evil Ex's perspective, I have to say: I can completely understand why someone would care about the financial stability of their partner during the Great Depression. It is the Great Depression, Louis. I'm sure your feelings are hurt by the fact that your ex wants to, you know, eat every day, but I'm not sure that a bank robbing spree constitutes a really mature emotional response to romantic disappointment.

To give Louis his credit, he knows this is not a sustainable career path. And he's never killed anyone, which is important both for his own morality and for my comfort as a reader. But like Teddy, he can't resist the siren call of an enormous sum of money: "The money split up evenly would mean twenty-five thousand dollars for each of them. That was enough dough to keep him on the up and up for a while" (19). Louis has made plans to rob the Joplin Citizens Bank with three other people named Bud, Buck, and Sis; he met Bud when they tried to rob the same store at the same time: "They'd held guns on each other; then Bud had broken out in a laugh and said, 'Halfsies?'" (20). Reader, I laughed. But this agreement means that Louis is handing over a certain amount of agency in exchange for a payoff: Bud is volatile and violent and unpredictable, a killer. The Joplin bank has only one elderly guard, but Louis is already worried the man will try to play the hero and get shot by an angry Bud.

Spoiler: Louis is right to be worried. But it's easy to say that Bud and Buck and Sis aren't due until the next afternoon, when right now you have a good home-cooked meal and a pretty woman to talk to over a highly symbolic pecan pie. And a slow dance with the radio on, and a good steamy kiss. Despite Louis' secrets, which the reader is privy to, it's lovely watching these two characters connect. They have a great deal in common despite the barrier of race (which the text does not shy away from in the slightest).

And then Bud shows up early and ruins everything. First, we learn that he is the man who robbed Teddy at gunpoint yesterday morning. Nice friends you've got there, Louis! Then he introduces himself as Clyde Barrow, which is when I yelled "Holy shit!" out loud and dove for Wikipedia to read up on Bonnie and Clyde before things went any further. Because honestly, I never in my life thought I would read Bonnie and Clyde as the villains in a romance novel. It's a great portrayal: humanizing without glorifying, empathetic and scary at the same time. The choice of characters takes only a minor liberty with history in a way I can easily approve of, and it plays into the text's themes in a way I won't forget for quite a long time.

Bud quickly realizes Teddy is an upstanding soul and therefore a liability. Suddenly our heroine is a hostage in her own home, her life very explicitly in jeopardy. And she is pissed at Louis for his role in events: "Snake! Here she'd given him a room and a good meal and ... and her company ... and this was how he repaid her. The money he'd handed her yesterday morning couldn't even begin to make up for this" (41). Louis tries to apologize, but Teddy's not having it: "'Sorry is worth to me about a sliver of a penny and not even that'" (46). Instead, she begins deliberately exploiting Louis' physical attraction to her, trying to win him over to her side, to deepen the bond they've formed so he'll help her escape. He sees what she's doing but goes along, since it means he gets to touch her more. (Heroes, amirite?) He's trying to win her over as well, to make her see things from his perspective:

'I hate preachers! ... They're like the cops, supposed to be helping you and what do they do? They take just like any robber you'd meet in the street. Same with the rich folk. They'd sooner kick you in the teeth than help out a child starving in the streets ... The big fat cats of the world have at least taught me a lesson. Those that got keep getting. They're not out on the roadsides, putting up tents, finding clay and dirt to eat. They're sitting down to plates of steaks and potatoes -- with the -- with the gratin -- and the champagne. Yeah, I want that. I want not to ever have to worry where my next meal is coming from' (51)

This is a persuasive argument, emotionally speaking. What's more, this speech marks Louis as the kind of Bootstraps Billionaire we see so often in both contemporary and historical romance: the man whose anger propels him to fame and fortune, the poor kid made good through sweat and seething vengeance, the self-made man who builds an empire on ruthlessness and intelligence and daring. Captain Wentworth from Austen's Persuasion is probably the origin point of this trope; see also every hero who runs a gambling hell in fictional London or who owns a penthouse apartment in a major contemporary metropolis. And generally such heroes have to either atone for the ruthless things they did on their way to the top, or learn that true love means more than bespoke suits and chrome furniture, etc. But here there's a twist -- and honestly, I think this is really innovative for a romance -- because we're catching Louis at the beginning of that typical arc. This is the Self-Made Hero before he's Made (shiny Studebaker notwithstanding). Teddy's job (as a heroine, not as a person) is to convince Louis to abandon that whole arc at the beginning. To give up on the money before he has the money to give up on.

I gotta say, that's a pretty radical move. Will he change his mind or go through with the bank robbery as planned? I was dying to know.

A Disarmed Heroine

Teddy's rejection of Louis' chosen means to wealth could not be more clear: he offers her a cut of the bank money, to compensate her for the danger and stress of being held hostage. She not only refuses that, but also gives back his original three hundred dollars:

"I'm not taking it back..."

"And I'm not keeping it..." she said as she let the bills fall to the floor. And their stalemate began.

She refused to pick up the bills, and he simply pretended they weren't there. (74)

THE MONEY LITERALLY COMES BETWEEN THEM I swear my lit-crit brain was giggling so hard at this point. Note the language is clearly tilted in Teddy's favor: she's the active one, refusing, while Louis is merely pretending. She's the one in touch with reality, and he's kidding himself. By giving back all the money she's taken from him, Teddy is withdrawing her implied participation not only with the coming robbery, but with everything Louis did to earn that first wad of bills too. She's making her distrust of him foremost in the relationship again. She's choosing her self-worth over his expedience. And she's doing it without being at all idealistic or naive: she knows damn well what that money could mean for her, but she knows she would betray herself by accepting it. She's principled in a realistic, grounded way. Also -- and this is only striking me as I write this -- she manages to refuse money without ever once resorting to prostitution references or using the word 'whore' or anything. She talks about sin and souls and the devil, but in the context of reckless murder during a robbery such language is fairly tame.

Have I mentioned how much I love Teddy? She's great. Just great. I only have two small reservations. 1) I was, and I can't believe I have to type these words in public, supremely uncomfortable with what I can only refer to as the Amos 'n' Andy sex scene.

2) I can't stop wondering what the author could have done differently with Teddy's knife.

Teddy keeps a knife strapped to her thigh because she's dealt with harassment before and wants to take no chances. It's a nice counterbalance to the secrets Louis keeps during the initial few days of the novel: he's hiding a criminal past she doesn't know about, but she's got a weapon he doesn't know about. It evens the scales and ups the stakes in a way that had me steepling my fingers.

Unfortunately, Louis catches sight of the knife when she attempts escape and takes it away. Now, for the first time, Teddy is presented as a victim: "He hated that she seemed so broken. She might as well be their first casualty. Not actually dead, yet something dead inside" (77). He also notes the knife was tied with a red ribbon -- a detail that sexualizes the exchange, as though Louis were a bridegroom removing a very sharp garter. (I should clarify that Teddy is not a virgin -- this is explained but not used as a shocking plot point and it was great.)

And now, if you're anything like me, some practical questions arise: How do you tie a knife to your thigh with a ribbon? There's no indication of a sheath, no indication that this knife is anything other than a common kitchen utensil: are you telling me Teddy's walking around with a butcher knife tied to her leg? Edge-out, or possibly dangling? Right alongside the carotid artery? This does not seem safe. This does not seem possible. And none of it matters, because once Louis takes the knife it disappears entirely from the text.

Oh, how I wanted her to stab somebody.

Or rather, since this book takes such issue with violence, I wanted her to half to stab somebody and to choose not to, or to choose to stab somebody in defense of her life or in defiance of principle. I wanted this to be a thread that tied up, not one that was cut short. Chekhov's gun is meant to be fired, after all. Instead, the text saves Teddy from having to make that choice. It felt a little bit like a waste.

Bonnie and Clyde

Mirror couples are fairly common in romance, particularly when there's a theme to illustrate. Bonnie and Clyde here are a contrast to the hero and heroine -- they are the Charlotte and Mr. Collins of this novel. It helps a lot that they're called Sis and Bud because it gives the reader a sense of distance: the historical facts don't get in the way of the characters on the page. Louis is puzzled by their connection and puts it in monetary terms: "He'd never figured out why Bud had taken up with her. Probably because she gave out easily what many women put a high price on" (56). This is pretty much the only time sex work is used as a money metaphor, so kudos to Ms. Cullars for avoiding that particular pet peeve of mine.

The more I think about Bonnie Parker in this book, the more amazing her character becomes. In the early chapters I was cringing every time Sis spoke: she drops the n-word, she's described as a bitch numerous times, she's unhappy and unpleasant and picks fights with our heroine. The men leave to case the bank for the robbery, and Sis is given a gun in case the hostage proves troublesome. Everyone is tense -- Teddy in fear for her life, Louis in fear for Teddy, Sis because she would rather be going with Bud. Then Teddy's neighbor Mrs. Williams (of the aforementioned pecan pie) drops by and it's looking like we're going to start the part of the book with the shooting before we even get to the robbery.

Then something wonderful happens: the women connect.

Mrs. Williams doesn't know there's a gun in Sis' pocket. She can tell Sis is unhappy, though, and treats her gently. Like a real person. Somehow, now that the men are gone, these three women are able to simply spend an afternoon talking to one another about their lives and their hopes. Sis even recites one of Bonnie Parker's most notorious (real) poems, which Mrs. Williams greatly enjoys. The threat of violence is dissipated -- for the moment, anway -- and afterward Sis starts treating Teddy better, helping out in the kitchen and everything. Teddy meanwhile sees Sis walking down a road our heroine wants to avoid, getting caught up in murder and mayhem for the sake of a man she loves beyond choice, beyond morality. When eventually -- after many turns I don't need to go into here -- Teddy ditches Louis (oh, she was totally right to do it), she does so in part because she doesn't want to end up like Sis, alone and friendless and cut off from society.

In the moral framework of this story, Bonnie and Clyde's bloody death -- not a spoiler, because who hasn't seen stills from the Warren Beatty film? -- could have been presented as a punishment. The hand of justice strikes down evildoers, that kind of thing. Instead Ms. Cullars puts it on-page in Bonnie's POV, which may be one of the most startling things I've seen in a romance in some time. It's intensely human, almost a stand-alone short story, and I know it's going to haunt me in the best way. There's no sense of voyeuristic pleasure, no sense that Sis gets "what's coming to her," even as the scene is much more violent than the usual fates of villains in romance. When the death makes the headlines, everyone is all "good riddance" except for our hero and heroine, who secretly find themselves mourning the loss. The moral position of the text is clearly weighted against celebrating the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde.

Again, that's a pretty radical move.

There's a lot more I could talk about -- the heroine's house, the realistic handling of race, the evil ex, the family issues -- but my stars, we're nearly at four thousand words already. Suffice to say that you can't write four thousand words about just any romance: this is a book I'm going to be thinking about for some time to come.

___

I talk a lot about the meaning of money in this review of Jeannie Lin's phenomenal romance The Jade Temptressand also reflect (rather more loosely) on money in romance here.

While I'm tooting my own horn, I'm also spending this month catching up on a great many books from my TBR: follow #Readening on Twitter for real-time updates, comments, and links to future reviews.

Jackie Horne at Romance Novels for Feminists has a great discussion of money in category romance, and how heroines deal and don't deal with money (with a really thoughtful comment thread, too).

My favorite detail from the surprisingly good Wikipedia entry on Bonnie and Clyde: "Several days later [slain highway patrolman] Murphy's fiancée wore her intended wedding dress to his funeral, sparking photos and newspaper coverage." That is some grade-A fuck-you material right there.

If you have the spoons for it, reading about sundown towns in America is terribly illuminating. Especially when you start searching the database for places you have lived. Content note for violent racism, white supremacy, and lynching.

The Toast has an excellent list of wealthy heroines in romance, for a palate-cleanser.

A fleeting anachronism led me to the history of the nylon riots after WWII, which are one of those things you think can't possibly be real until you see the photographs and read witness accounts.

___

Cullars, Sharon. Filthy Lucre. Loose Id Publishing: 2014, PDF.

Better, Less Offensive History

At present I am in a library, staring out a bank of windows at a grassy field. Huge pieces of public art are scattered across the space: a driftwood horse, a strange lemon-fish-bowl assembly, and others, all shaded by giant leafy trees. Yes, I am at a small private liberal arts college. It is my ten-year reunion weekend. And someone just rode by on a unicycle, because of course they did. For the next three days, I will be meeting old friends, walking familiar and forgotten sidewalks, and staring my past self right in the face. It's the emotional equivalent of crossing one's eyes: uncomfortable, perspective-changing, and unsustainable for long periods. I don't have many large regrets, but like anyone I have a collection of small mistakes accumulated over many years, often misunderstood at the time when I made them. Most of these can be boiled down to things like People can be terrible at fearlessly articulating what they need and Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes. I liked who I was in college, and I like who I am now, but my current self is much wiser in many important ways. My past self is also much less afraid in other ways; I am trying to get some of that boldness back without ditching everything I've gained in the intervening years.

This college, where I spent four of the most vivid years of my life, also happens to be on/near the site of a famous missionary massacre during America's western expansionist/genocidal phase. These rolling hills and river valleys were taken from various NDN peoples (Walla Walla, Cayuse, Nez Perce, Colville, and others) by stealth and slaughter. The college itself -- increasingly rich and white -- did and quite probably still does an imperfect job of confronting this history in the course of student life. During my years, I spent much more time reading Ovid and Euripides than reading about the mass death of the Cayuse children from smallpox. Like the college, I am responsible in some part for not adequately confronting the past.

Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes.

When we arrived, my husband came back from a visit to the hotel's business center and told me I must visit the second floor. I joined him and to my astonishment discovered a series of paintings depicting scenes from the life and death of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. Most are blandly illustrative, but the others -- well, others are rather more appalling in their choice of subject. Artist David Manuel's website celebrates his tendency to value "historical accuracy over political correctness," and even telling you that in advance cannot prepare you for the effect of seeing these paintings. Since they are slightly bloody and almost certainly triggering, I have put them below the jump.

DavidManuel1

DavidManuel2

These images are so absurdly sensationalized that they are all but parodies of themselves. I believe them to be quite toxic. They remind me of the Pawnee murals from Parks and Recreation -- about whose defacement Leslie Knope says: "We need better security. We also need better, less offensive history."

It's a joke, but we laugh because it's accurate. Our history is full of things to regret, both personally and at a distance. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Chattel slavery. New World colonization and colonialism in Africa. The East India Company. The death of Hypatia. We have a responsibility not to sweep these things under the rug in service of our own comfort. We have a responsibility to face the mistakes we have made and the crimes we have committed. It would be easy at this point to say that I've never personally disenfranchised anyone or committed genocide, but since I also benefit daily from the actions of those who have, I'm going to let that guilty-defensive impulse rest in the darkness where it belongs.

Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes.

And these thoughts in my mind are becoming entwined with recent conversations about the depiction of past eras in historical romance, especially in this Vacuous Minx post (the comments are legion and golden). Historical accuracy does of course matter.  Misrepresenting the past does a disservice to truth. But often, a too-perfect representation of the past risks recreating the same violence and harm. Consider how romances set in the American antebellum south so often dehumanize black characters as a matter of course. (Shout-out to Beverly Jenkins' Indigo for doing pretty much the opposite of that.) Consider the ways that aristocratic systems are ennobled (ha! see what I did there), romanticized, and democratized in historical romance. Every duke deserves his rank by merit of character/leadership as well as by birth. Every duke is also kind to his servants.

What matters, I think, are not so much the mistakes, but the mistakes we insist upon repeating. Repetition creates a space for its subject, like water drops wearing away a stone; accumulation becomes important. David Manuel's paintings depict a single historical fact: the Cayuse did in fact kill Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. But to focus on this one moment is to lose sight of the larger truth: Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were active, deliberate participants in a system whose goal was the elimination of the Cayuse people and their culture.

Similarly, historical romance has a marked tendency to focus on equalizing the oppressions of one white, straight, cis, aristocratic couple. The problem is that this is not simply one elision, in one book, by one author. It is the thousandth time this particular and very basic erasure has occurred -- which means it is not precisely a mistake. It is a tactic, a narrative necessity to make the duke palatable as a hero to a modern reader's taste. Romance authors and readers discover these rules without having to speak of them too much.

I am increasingly suspicious of rules we learn without speaking of them too much.

This campus is also where I rediscovered my love of historical romance. I wrote my first fan letter, to Julia Quinn, at a chair not ten feet away from where I'm currently sitting. Romance is an escape, people tell me -- but there are important corollary question: an escape for whom, and an escape from what? Julia Quinn's books gave me a break from the dude-centric, often joyless books I was slogging through at the time in service of a well-rounded education. Now I see what else that education tended to pass over -- and a lot of the same subjects don't appear in Julia Quinn's books, either, even if they could. Patterns shift, and escapes become cages. I still read Julia Quinn -- though I think I'm a few books behind at this point -- but I also hunger for something else. An escape from feeling like the frothy romance is the only acceptable or legitimate kind? An escape from a trope or template that is growing stale for me? I'm not entirely sure.

When I was an undergraduate, everything on campus was designed to convey the feeling: You belong here. I still feel it -- it's woven into the very ground of this campus. It's how I feel about historical romance as well. There is a way in which this belonging is true. There is another way in which it is not. This much I have found, since last I was here.

I wonder what else I have yet to learn?

___

For anyone near Washington, DC, I cannot recommend highly enough the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall. They dive head-first into historical confrontation, amplify NDN voices, and have the best cafeteria in the entire Smithsonian. 

At RT this past May, I was fortunate enough to get a free copy of Carrie Lofty's Starlight, which is a romance with a mill owning hero and a union-leader heroine in Scotland's textile industry. It definitely pulls some punches, but is still really different and enjoyable. I've been thinking I need to read the rest of the series, especially the one set in South Africa.

Bonus image: for those of you who enjoy dark irony, this screenshot comes from David Manuel's website.

Screencap that shows David Manuel's website has been built by a company called Cherokee Designs.

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.

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.

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.

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.

L is for Jeannie Lin

{Content note: the following post very briefly quotes fictional acts of torture during a police interrogation -- and, in case anyone else cringes at such things like I do, I should mention the torture involves hand injuries. GAH.  Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

Despite the casual malice of Othello and the oceans of blood in Macbeth, I have always found King Lear to be Shakespeare's most chilling tragedy. There's a dark purple void at the heart of that story into which all good things fall, never to be seen again -- it's simultaneously frightening and fascinating, a masterclass in showing how human isolation can tear a whole world to pieces.

I would never have expected to get shades of that same feeling from a historical romance set in Tang Dynasty China, but such are the marvelous gifts the romance genre sometimes offers to its reverent acolytes. And by "romance genre" I mean Jeannie Lin, whose Chinese-set historicals just keep getting better and better: Jade Temptress is a stunning and memorable book, maybe even a masterpiece of the genre. The Shakespeare angle only clarifies how the book deconstructs the interlocking systems of money, class, and power.

Cover image for Jeannie Lin's The Jade Temptress. A woman with pale skin, dark hair, Asian features, and deep red lips wears a white gown patterned with bright flowers and wrapped with a blue sash. Large red flowers are woven into her hair. One hand is languid and the other held against her face in a pose of subtle invitation.The first scene of King Lear sets up everything that follows: the king divides his kingdom between his three daughters, offering the most riches to whichever one who loves him most. Or rather, whichever one claims to love him most, since of course love is not so easily measured or proved as Lear seems to believe. It's a stupid game, thoughtless at best and malicious at worst. As the two eldest fall over themselves in their haste to kiss dad's ass, Lear's youngest and best daughter Cordelia decides the only way to win is not to play.

LEAR: ... what can you say to draw

A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

CORDELIA: Nothing.

LEAR: Nothing!

CORDELIA: Nothing. (Lear I.i.87-91)

Lear imagines himself as something like a fairy-tale king who can discern true goodness and reward it with the appropriate amount of wealth. It is stagey and disingenuous, particularly since he has plainly saved the best part, the "third more opulent," for his darling youngest daughter. Cordelia's "nothing" shatters the king's comfortable little play: she rejects the idea that love can be exchanged for anything except itself. To exchange love for money turns love into something like work -- or something like prostitution, though Cordelia doesn't say so. Lear throws a tantrum, the King of France proposes to Cordelia on the spot, the two elder daughters are embarrassed, and everyone agrees Lear is a royal ass. Things proceed to go quite rapidly to hell.

Jade Temptress heroine Mingyu, a famous courtesan in the imperial capital of Changan, is caught in a similar web where familial relationships and profit-based relationships are conflated. Her fellow courtesans are her "sisters," and the scheming brothel-mistress Madame Sun prefers to be known as "Mother":

Though they called each other mother and daughter, Mingyu never forgot the truth. She had a true mother once. Her birth mother had sold her and her sister for a small handful of coins. Madame Sun, her foster mother, would never let her go for so little. (Kindle location 352)

A nice little twist of the knife, there: are you really more valued simply because your foster mother sets a higher price on you? (Short answer: no.) Madame Sun is even less able than Lear to imagine human worth as anything other than a financial measure --  as a result, her affections are always expressed in terms of prices and profit. It's unclear how much of this is artifice, manipulation for her personal gain, and how much is simply her own deeply ingrained belief: even Mingyu is left uncertain about this, at the end. But she is quite clear on her own position in this dynamic: "Always 'us.' There was no Mingyu. There was Madame and there was the Lotus Palace . . ." (375). Since her love (or at least its performance) can be purchased, it becomes a commodity -- which is to say it has economic value, and therefore cannot/should not be given away for free. Any sense of the courtesan as a person capable of love outside of currency relationships must be suppressed in order to maintain the value of the courtesan's love as a luxury item. At the same time, since all her wages go to the Lotus Palace and not to herself, the courtesan is distanced from economic agency: she can earn, but she cannot spend. She is in essence a lever by which money moves from her suitors to her foster mother, who quite literally owns her. As indicated by "There was no Mingyu," our heroine reads this framework as an erasure: "This is a dream world," she says later of the city's pleasure district. "We don't exist outside it" (1223). This is Cordelia's thought turned inward: Mingyu recognizes that her participation in the sex trade has made her into nothing, both in a legal and an emotional sense.

Since she is nothing, Mingyu has learned to use nothingness as a weapon in Changan's tangled web of money, gender, and class. She cultivates a quiet and mysterious air of unreadability -- an emptiness behind which she conceals her own truth. Hero Wu Kaifeng recognizes this:

"You make yourself into a blank canvas and let your admirers fill it as required."

"A mirror," she corrected, unperturbed. "A courtesan is a mirror. The bureaucrats value their own learning, so I give them poetry and music. The generals value competition and strategy, so I confirm the brilliance of their plans."

"And myself?" . . .

"You value justice, Constable. Unfortunately, that is the one thing I cannot speak to. I know nothing of it." (2023)

And this is true: Mingyu and her Lotus Palace sisters are disempowered in Changan by the trifecta of gender, class, and economics. They are all women, of low birth, whose earnings go to Madame Sun. They only have agency insofar as they control the agency of others -- specifically, men: "Sometimes exploiting a man's power is the only influence a woman can wield" (526), Mingyu explains. Love becomes a means of channeling power, and money a measure of both. The higher the price a courtesan commands, the more power she wields -- and vice versa. (Which goes a long way toward explaining Madame Sun.) Love separated from money is rendered meaningless, unmeasurable: nonexistent. Mingyu's fellow courtesan Ziyi, burned by heartbreak, expresses this most succinctly: "The inspector is wealthy and offers you his protection. He'll pursue you at any cost. It's hardly different from romantic love. In some ways, it's more reliable" (2565).

This is some Jane Austen-level irony in a genre romance -- especially since the inspector in question, imperial official Xi Lun, is so very easily read as the horror-movie version of the classic alpha romance hero:

Xi was pleasing enough to the eye. His face was square and his jaw broad. To match the strong features of his face, his clothing was impeccable and his manners cultured. He was young compared to many highly ranked officials and he was free with his wealth. (1724)

Handsome, powerful, rich, worldly, and younger than many at a similar point in his career -- all my Dom Billionaire alarm bells were ringing like mad. His pursuit of Mingyu is relentless and he completely ignores the charms of the other courtesans, all while giving our heroine crushing kisses, pricey gifts, and a barrel full of disregard for her limits and boundaries. This is the complete set of genre-recognized Stalker Romance Hero Cues. Mingyu responds the only way she can: by getting profoundly creeped out. Xi Lun has entirely bought into -- see what I did there? -- the system of love-as-commodity that she feels erases her as an individual and an agent. He offers her valuable objects and Mingyu knows this is because he sees her as only another type of object. His intent to purchase her bond -- to make her legally his property -- is the novel's biggest threat, and even his erotic desire is an expression less of physical lust than of an eroticized control: "Sex would just be another way for him to exert his dominance" (2160). Again, this is language we are used to seeing as the mark of an alpha hero, but in this context the alpha billionaire's confidence and compliments turn impeccably sinister.

Xi Lun is only the most obvious symbol of a patriarchal system where all women are commodified to greater or lesser extent. I was strongly reminded of activist blogger Melissa McEwan's "The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck," which details the way marginalized groups -- specifically women, though she recognizes parallels to LGBTQ people and people of color -- learn to respond to the constant barrage of microaggressions with wariness and guardedness toward privileged groups, as a form of self-protection. For Mingyu and Ziyi and the other courtesans, every man in Changan exists as a potential threat. Even the wealthy men they hope to seduce into providing for them. Even our hero, Constable Wu Kaifeng.

If Xi Lun is a villainous romance hero, Wu Kaifeng is a heroic romance villain. We know Kaifeng interrogated Mingyu at one point in the first book, The Lotus Palace, but it's only now that we learn the full extent of what happened. Turns out, he tortured her. Actual physical torture as part of a police investigation -- and it's explicitly sexualized:

The first time Wu had interrogated her, he'd taken out six bamboo sticks and laced them between his fingers. He'd held her hand still in his own as he completed the task, a gesture that was grotesquely intimate. (573)

In the hands of an author I trust less, this would have had me side-eyeing the text something fierce. But Ms. Lin has remarkable control of her material and has not led me wrong before -- more concretely, this is not the first time Mingyu has been abused at the hands of a man in authority. The late General Deng was fond of making his possessiveness known in subtle but unmistakably douchey ways. She knows how to read abuse rather than merely react to it: Wu Kaifeng puts her in physical pain, yes, but he does it in the course of his duty -- torture being an accepted part of Changan police procedure -- and most importantly of all, he stops the torture long before he needs to. (And apologizes for it later in a perfect and specific way.) This one fact is enough to show Mingyu that the constable operates outside the usual dangerous networks of social privilege:

"I don't trust you because you are kindhearted and honorable, Constable Wu. I trust you because you don't care who Deng Zhi is or how vast his forces are. You don't care who I am, which means you don't care that a lowly courtesan was found with her dead and high-ranking lover. Or that her life means nothing to the magistrate or his superiors. All you care about is finding the truth." (596)

Note all the negatives in this early passage -- Mingyu is starting to rebel against the values of the Pingkang Li by seeing value in nothingness more generally. She will grow bolder about this as the novel progresses.

Merely being a member of the privileged gender is not enough to put Wu Kaifeng at the apex of power in Changan, and he knows it: "I'm ill-mannered," he says later. "Unsightly. Nothing to anyone that matters" (1271). Mingyu initially recognizes in Kaifeng a lack that gives him power, similar to her own mirror-like unreadability: "Part of her envied Wu Kaifeng and his unyielding approach. It must be freeing to walk through this world and feel nothing" (596). But their positions are differently privileged by class: Mingyu may not have money of her own -- except for what she's been able to hide away in secret -- but she does have access to a moneyed lifestyle. Her clothes, her social skills, her musical ability, all these mark her as a member of the rarefied upper echelons of society, even if she only exists there as a shadow of her true self. The constable, in contrast, is a man of unknown birth, fortuneless and indifferently educated, a pariah in the imperial world where scholarship and bloodlines are directly tied to career advancement and power. Mingyu's position might be a cage, but it's a cage raised far above the level a man like Wu Kaifeng can hope to reach. If he resists the kyriarchal network of money and privilege, as Mingyu sees, it is because he has as little hope of agency within that network as she does.

A third of the way through, at the very moment when Kaifeng insists he is nothing, Mingyu contradicts him:

"It's not true," she murmured. "You're not really like that."

He smiled crookedly at her. "Not ugly?"

"Not . . . nothing." (1271)

And then something happens: he kisses her. Something else happens: Mingyu kisses him back. (This seems as good a time as any to state that Wu Kaifeng is one of the swoon-worthiest heroes I've read in quite some time. Jeannie Lin writes the best first kisses.) "Don't think too much of this," Mingyu warns. "I won't," Kaifeng promises (1271). And then they part: "They both knew that nothing more could become of it" (1309). This kiss, like Mingyu and Kaifeng, is nothing -- but like them, and like Cordelia's 'nothing,' this nothingness has a power outside the system of commodified love and desire. Thanks to the iterative nature of romance narratives, the reader knows damn well that something will indeed come of this. Mingyu is changed almost immediately: "Her stolen and precious hour with Wu Kaifeng had emboldened her more than it should have" (1440). She's using the language of value -- stolen, precious -- to describe something that by law and custom shouldn't even exist.

Kyriarchal power systems are bending beneath the weight of actions motivated by honest mutual desire.

Wu Kaifeng may have started as a torturer, but he moves increasingly away from any attmpts to claim, control, or possess Mingyu. All these terms are standard romance sex scene tropes -- hell, they're practically subgenres at this point -- but Kaifeng makes a great case for the pure undiluted hotness of un-claiming: "He found her sash and looped the length of silk around her wrists to secure her arms overhead, but the gesture was only symbolic. Almost poetic, for someone untrained in poetry. He couldn't tie her there, he couldn't keep her" (2383). [My notes at this point are simply "SWOON SWOON SWOON." From me, not Mingyu. She's not really the swooning type.] This deliberate and careful unclaiming consistently allows Mingyu the metaphorical space to claim herself, to exist again as a person: "When Kaifeng took her like this, single-mindedly, with no motive but for his pleasure and her own, she finally belonged to herself. Her body was her own and this pleasure -- this pleasure was hers for the taking" (2737).

But this progression is unsustainable and comes to a head at the climax: Mingyu is growing bold enough to want to free herself from the entire money-love-power system, and talks of leaving the city. Wu Kaifeng knows that although he has come to love her anything he does to claim or take or possess her will only keep her imprisoned. So he retreats entirely, saying they must part.

This next move will take some explaining, so bear with me. Mingyu and Kaifeng are falling in love while trying to solve the mystery of the death of Mingyu's protector General Deng. (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!) At first it appears Deng was beheaded by one of his bodyguards, so the general is given a state funeral and a very expensive new head made of jade. But then it turns out -- SPOILERS NO REALLY IT'S COMING UP -- that the headless body belongs to one of the bodyguards, and Deng has faked his own assassination so he can start a coup, and he's been hiding in the family mausoleum, but by the time our protagonists figure this out someone else has killed all the surviving bodyguards and also poisoned the general. And servant confesses and commits suicide, but maybe he didn't really do it either? And maybe he was poisoned by the real killer? It's a giant MacGuffin of a murder investigation, with near-constant deceptions and a complete lack of meaning at the end -- in short, it's perfect. And the late general's oh-so-valuable jade head? Is broken up by Wu Kaifeng and used to buy Mingyu's freedom from Madame Sun.

So the head of a man who was not actually beheaded is broken, and the pieces used to pay Mingyu's very real debt -- a concrete example of something coming from nothing, of emptiness being turned into profit. Now that the courtesan owns herself again, of course, she is able to reunite with Wu Kaifeng. Mingyu has some money she's hoarded and they spend most of it renovating a derelict tea-shop: in the book's final scene, Kaifeng has bought Mingyu a very pretty musical instrument with basically the last of their cash. Now, at the happy ending, nothing is all they have. They're hoping the tea-shop will turn a profit, but they don't know. It's the diametric opposite of the usual romance narrative, where the couple ends up wealthy or at least comfortable -- but while a lack of funds might jeopardize the normal HEA, we've had the whole rest of the book to know how capable our hero and heroine are at making something out of nothing. Where King Lear let nothingness destroy his life, his family, and his kingdom, Mingyu and Kaifeng find nothingness a haven from the interconnecting dynamics that work to dehumanize them. The vast amount of nothingness at the end of this novel is not a lack, but an opportunity. It's really quite elegant, as a twist on the usual trope.

A brief postscript: Let this analysis not be taken to mean that sex work per se is necessarily degrading or corrupting or dehumanizing. This is a study of a single fictional text and its motifs. But the intersections beneath which sex work takes place in both Ms. Lin's Tang Dynasty setting and in our own modern Western Judeo-Christian culture -- systems of class oppression and gender bias most especially -- these often do great damage to sex workers as individuals and as a class. If Mingyu feels erased as an individual, so too do many real-world sex workers, who are criminalized by an imperfect justice system, and whose voices are discounted by a culture that considers them less than fully human.

An even briefer, much less serious postscript: using the words 'nothing' and 'something' so often has gotten "Something Good" from The Sound of Music thoroughly stuck in my head -- and it occurs to me that the lyrics to that song also set up a system where goodness is rewarded with love as if love is a prize for moral behavior and how is that not a type of commodification and I should probably just stop now before my brain dribbles out my ears.

___

Dear Author's group review of this book touches on the class issues as well as themes of artifice and reality -- it's a really great discussion of a really wonderful book. Miss Bates has a review the parallels many of my own reactions here.

Jeannie Lin's first book in this series, The Lotus Palace, sold less than expected, so that Harlequin pulled The Jade Temptress from print distribution and made it digital-only. Ms. Lin blogged about her complex reaction to the news, and Courtney Milan responded with print sales figures of her own to back up Jeannie Lin's thoughts. It's an interesting conversation on how we interpret sales data in light of race and romance, and there are no easy answers anywhere.

This post from Racialicious is brief but illuminating and touches on capitalism in China, contact between Asian and European cultures, Orientalist stereotypes, and the difference between a concubine and a mistress.

My own views on sex work are rendered largely irrelevant, I think, by the fact that I am not nor ever have been a sex worker. (And no matter what they tell you, erotic romance authorship is not the same thing at all.) For years I have looked to Seattle's own Mistress Matisse for considered and knowledgeable opinions in a very volatile field of discourse and experience: her Twitter feed is a great source of activism and writing. And while I've only just started reading Melissa Gira Grant's recent book Playing the WhoreI can tell you that it is robust, insightful, and pulling no punches.

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Lin, Jeannie. The Jade Temptress. Toronto: HQN, 2014. Ebook.

Shakespeare, WIlliam. King Lear. Shakespeare Online. Web. 1999. Accessed April 4, 2014.

J is for Eloisa James

{For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here!} I knew when I started reading that Eloisa James' The Duke is Mine takes its inspiration from the Princess and the Pea, but halfway into the second chapter I was getting irresistible literary flashes of quite another story. (If the comment thread from the Dear Author review is anything to go by, I'm not alone in suspecting this text of being allusive even when I don't immediately recognize the references.) So I stopped, put the book down, grabbed my handy annotated copy of Through the Looking-Glassand had myself a quick re-read to look for connections.

Cover image for The Duke is Mine by Eloisa James. A pale-skinned woman with dark hair and a gold gown rucked up around her knees lounges back on a pile of mattresses that extend to the bottom edge of the cover. The mattresses have a variety of multicolored patterns.Building elaborate bridges between texts is one of my favorite games -- as we saw with Jade Yeo -- and it was a lifeline here, since without a secondary structure to prop it up this book has all the heft and resilience of antique tissue paper in a hurricane. Reading it with Looking-Glass in mind gives the story more resonance but not more meaning, and does nothing to mitigate the exploitative way the text treats its disabled secondary character, Rupert Blakemore, Marquess of Montsurrey.

Like much of Lewis Carroll's work, The Duke is Mine is lively, full of wordplay, and often shockingly cruel. Brief moments of connection between the texts pop up on virtually every page: rabbits, madness, mazes, math, pompous moral maxims, nonsense, riddles, and a sense of the world as incomprehensible to those who inhabit it.  I'm no Carroll scholar (the intensity of the absurdity tires me out) and not all of these parallels are relevant to my project at the moment, so I will attempt to be concise. (Good luck, self.) Olivia Lytton is a grown-up Alice: she delights in wordplay for wordplay's sake, she refuses to be intimidated by those in power, and she frequently has poetry recited at her. After she crosses into the mirror world, Alice's goal as a pawn is to cross the chess-board and be queened; similarly, Olivia has been "duchified" (James, Kindle location 147) in preparation for her to assume the position of duchess, which is explicitly equated with royalty: "a coronet was as good as a crown" (38). The proper instrument of transformation, according to Olivia's mother, is a book known as The Mirror of Compliments:

"'Dignity, virtue, affability, and bearing,'" Mrs. Lytton recited over and over, turning it into a nursery rhyme.

Georgiana would glance at the glass, checking her dignified bearing and affable expression.

Olivia would sing back to her mother: "Debility, vanity, absurdity, and ... brainlessness!" (176)

This kind of word-twisting is highly reminiscent of the Looking-Glass world, whether it's the Gnat's animal puns (Carroll 149-152) or Humpty-Dumpty's nonsense etymologies (184-189). Carroll's use of madness as metaphor is universalizing and inclusive, e.g. "We're all mad here," though admittedly that's from Wonderland rather than Looking-Glass. There's a sense that everyone in the Looking-Glass world is susceptible to madness, with different symptoms from different people at different times. Alice, for instance, forgets her name in one chapter, and while this is a source of some anxiety it is not considered a stain on her character, merely an effect of the peculiar Looking-Glass landscape. In contrast, Ms. James' text makes intellectual ability a moral value rather than a simple descriptor or a function of an otherworldly geography. Antagonists are frequently brainless (Lady Althea) or else they mistake self-importance for wisdom (the Duchess of Sconce, Lady Cecily). On the 'heroic' side, Olivia has her gift for witty banter, her twin Georgiana is a keen would-be scientist, and hero Quin is a mathematical genius. Meanwhile, Olivia's fiancé Rupert is reviled and belittled and pitied and scorned for his mental disability -- until he turns out to have a flair for military strategy, whereupon he is hailed as a national hero. (More on this later.)

The way Rupert's disability is treated in this book is shameful on so many levels that it took my breath away. There is absolutely zero narrative purpose to the early scene where Olivia and Rupert are forced to attempt a consummation of their betrothal -- no, let me use language more frank: Olivia and Rupert are forced to try to fuck one another for the social satisfaction of their parents. It does not go well, and the best thing I can say about this scene is that at least there is no penetration. I am not against uncomfortable elements in romance -- if anything, I think the genre could do with a little messification. I just want my discomfort to have a purpose in the story: consequences for plot or for character. The only purpose in this scene, however, appears to be Look how unpleasant sex with this person could be. Which ... doesn't really need spelling out at such length or so grotesquely. Rupert doesn't have to have his limp penis in his hand for us to know that he's the wrong partner for Olivia. The significant poem Rupert recites during this passage could have been delivered in any number of less appalling ways. Quin later calls this a "double rape" (James 4490) and he is absolutely correct. It made me feel complicit in a crime just by reading it, and I expected better from a writer whose work I have long admired for its intelligence and liveliness. But apparently this kind of rank humiliation of major characters does nothing to tarnish a story, as Ms. James has given her own book five stars on Goodreads.

Eloisa James gives her own book five stars on Goodreads.

Rupert's disability is frequently described in terms of eggs: he is more "akin to a duck" than a duke (623), a very Looking-Glass pun; his mind is "more scrambled than an egg custard" (2787); he lacks "a full twelve eggs to the dozen" (3719); he is a "poor scrambled egg" (5830). This metaphor combined with his love of poetry and obsession with military glory is more than enough to connect him with Carroll's Humpty Dumpty -- a connection I wish I'd thought about a little more deeply while reading, since it might have prepared me for -- SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER -- the bit where Rupert dies. Just like Humpty he has fallen from a wall, or rather the "battlements" (5754) of a Spanish fort, and he lingers only long enough to provide Olivia and Quin with an excuse to rush off to wartime France (?!?!?!) and indulge in some self-involved, mawkish sentiment.

The more I think about Rupert's death, the angrier it makes me. It's positioned at the climax of a series of narrative moves that make Rupert increasingly romanticized and heroic as a military leader -- moves which, in retrospect, were clearly designed to elicit my sympathy so that I would be all the more hurt by Rupert's demise. The fact that it worked, that I was devastated by Rupert's death, should not I think be counted a success. It is in fact the laziest, cheapest kind of emotional manupulation: this is precisely the pattern I hate about Nicholas Sparks' non-romance novels, and I don't like it any better for appearing here.

One of Rupert's men says he was "Babbling of green fields" (5680), and the Falstaff reference completes Rupert's transformation from Humpty Dumpty into Carroll's White Knight, with his "gentle face and large mild eyes" and talk of a "glorious victory" (Carroll 207) and, of course, his love of poetry. Humpty Dumpty is pompous and sharp-tongued, but the White Knight is a figure of elegy and pity; a sweet and noble type despite his lack of intellect. This transformation is, I think, meant to show how Olivia's initial disdain for Rupert has softened into respect and friendly affection -- but it is entirely meaningless, since she is softening toward Rupert's glorious reputation, rather than Rupert himself, who has been away on the Continent for most of the book.

Rupert's death also rather too neatly absolves Olivia from the responsibility for breaking off their engagement: she's never forced by the narrative to account for her less-than-loyal actions and speak in their defense or apology; she never has to deal with what Rupert feels as a human being. It's a betrayal of the narrative's original promises of tension -- just like it's too convenient that Georgie decides she doesn't want to marry Quin even though she's initially quite taken with the idea. By the time we hear of Rupert's injuries, Olivia and Quin have decided that all the reasons they shouldn't be together don't matter anyways, so Rupert's death feels cruel and unnecessary and becomes little more than an afterthought on the page: Quin, sitting at Rupert's deathbed, is so occupied thinking about his love for Olivia that he barely notices the moment Rupert stops breathing. I know many reviewers hate the heroine of this novel for being heartless and/or boinking literally the first man she meets after signing the betrothal papers, but I thought Quin's utter self-absorption in the face of a fellow man's death was a gobsmacking piece of selfishness.

Horribly, this death was imagined by Olivia and her twin in the early pages of the novel, in one of the most callous passages I've ever seen uttered by a heroine: "'Foolish fiancés are often killed on the battlefield,' Olivia pointed out. 'I think the term is "cannon fodder" ... I would be sad,' Olivia protested. 'I think'" (289). This kind of casual indifference to death is common in the absurdist worlds of Wonderland and Looking-Glass, but it's breathtakingly jarring in a historical romance, even a wallpaper one. The fact of Rupert's eventual death turns this macabre early joke into a prophecy.

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As we saw with Sandra Hill's book at the start of this week, it's profoundly dehumanizing to turn experiences of secondary characters' oppression into a metaphor for your privileged hero and heroine. It's equally dehumanizing to kill off a disabled character for the sake of an able-bodied protagonist's emotional journey. TVTropes calls it Bury Your Disabled, and it reduces the disabled person to the level of a prop for abled characters' development or convenience. I really feel angered to have to lay this out plainly for a professor of literature in the year 2014. It's especially frustrating in light of the fact that Rupert's own story, of which we see hints, looks fascinating: he has led a band of misfit soldiers, several of whom are also disabled in various ways, into an unlikely and significant victory. This is a tale that would be worth the telling, a historical heist with a diverse cast and a unique plot. Instead, we are left with the old cliché of the Inspirationally Disadvantaged character, and his death becomes deeply, distressingly fetishized:

Rupert was buried with honors: not in the family tomb, but in Westminster Abbey, as befitted an English hero who trailed clouds of glory. His place was marked by a very simple marble tablet engraved with his name and a fragment of an odd poem.

A few years later, a young poet named Keats stood puzzling over the inscription one long afternoon. Sometime after that, a middle-aged poet named Auden found himself fascinated by it for a whole week. Fifty years later, an erudite dissertation discussed the complexities of fragmentation ... but that was all in the future, a puzzle that lay ahead for those interested in twists of language. (6867)

(I hate like fire the suspicion that the dissertation mentioned is Ms. James' own. Someone please correct me if there's a reference here I'm missing.)

Rupert's job in this alternate history of influence is not to be a great poet himself, but an inspiration of great poetry in able-bodied, able-minded men. Just like he is not to be a lover or a husband, but an object of pity and a lens to demonstrate the supposed noble nature of our hero and heroine. It was only at the end of the book that Ms. James brought attention to Rupert's middle names: Forrest G. There was a succession of swear words that erupted before I could get myself under control. Forrest Gump is not exactly an ideal representation of people with disabilities, but at least Forrest Gump fucking survives to the end of his own story.

We saw with Tessa Dare's Three Nights with a Scoundrel how having multiple disabled characters broadens the spectrum of representation. In theory we have multiple disabled characters in this book: in the afterward Ms. James identifies Quin as a character with "Aspergers-like" traits; I initially read this as "Asperger's-lite," and the Freudian slip turns out to be an accurate description of our hero's supposed condition. Quin has difficulty reading the emotions of others, we hear at the start -- but with Olivia, everything is magically clear. It's so simple! Problem solved! Disability conquered! Now if only he could rescue his wife from the garrison of French soldiers who've kidnapped her!

You heard me.

The last section of this novel veers off inexplicably into adventure-romance territory. I caught the Scarlet Pimpernel reference -- unlike French blockades, the Day Dream can't slip by me!-- but I did not understand its purpose as a climactic movement. It would barely be worth mentioning here, were it not for the bit with the mattresses, which I cannot bring myself to pass over sans comment. Olivia has been imprisoned in the garrison, where most of the soldiers are adoring young boys but one, Bessette, definitely has predatory intentions toward our heroine (you're not a real romance heroine unless someone's threatening to rape you, doncha know). So how do the young soldiers propose to defend Olivia? By putting her on top of a stack of fourteen mattresses in her cell.

You heard me.

The logic of this strategy absolutely requires quoting:

"We thought that it looked too much like a bed with just one or two mattresses."

"It is a bed."

"Yes, but if it looked like a bed, there was the chance that Bessette might decide to ..." He waved his hand, embarrassed. "You'd be there, you see, on a bed. But this way it is difficult to reach you."

"You are brilliant," Olivia said sincerely. (6447)

I am seized with quiet horror at the thought that, even in jest, someone believes that sexual predators can be thwarted by a giant-ass stack of mattresses.

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I have tried to form a coherent analysis of the mechanics of this novel, but that is hard to do when so many pieces of the narrative do not seem to fit with one another. This book reads as though the author is moving pieces around on a chessboard, making clever patterns and shapes that reference other stories (I spotted a few, including to my shame the Justin Bieber lyrics; Ms. James confirms many other allusions in her afterword). But none of those shapes seem to have anything to do with one another, making for a very shallow reading experience. And like Carroll's stories and poems, that cutting edge of cruelty at the expense of the vulnerable is never quite blunted.

Update: After I posted the above, Eloisa James has removed her own review of this book from Goodreads. 

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As I've mentioned before, Love in the Margins does excellent posts about disability in romance, among many other topics. There's also the Disability 101 series at great feminist site Shakesville, and this very illuminating Tumblr post from Shit Ableist's Say 

For a great breakdown of the many, many problems with framing narratives of disabled people as 'inspiration porn,' please enjoy "Kevin Grow and Disability as Inspiration" by s. e. smith from Disability Intersections.

___ James, Eloisa. The Duke is Mine. New York: Avon Books, 2011. Ebook.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. London: Penguin Books, 2009. Print book.

I is for American Indians, Native Americans, First Nations, Indigenous Peoples, Etc.

{Note: for the purposes of this article, I will be using "Native American" as a general term, and tribal designations or individual preferences for identification when appropriate and/or available. Click here for the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

When it comes to the treatment of Native Americans in fiction, the romance genre has a lot to answer for. E.g. the millions of historical Western romances with the word "savage" in the title. Or that time white author Cassie Edwards filled her novels with plagiarized passages from nature writing and out-of-print Native American memoirs. I mean, the words holy shit are utterly inadequate there: cultural appropriation does not get more shameless and literal than that.

Romance's appropriation of American Indian experience is often cloaked in New Age-y terms of appreciation and/or reverence, such as this quote from Western historical author Paty Jager's 2011 post on Romance at Random:

The Indians love of the land and nature make wonderful backdrops for the use of language and how they portray their lives. This honest connection with the world around them adds to the romance of the story. Their distinct and different culture from ours is fascinating to us.

Notice the use of pronouns there: they are Native Americans, primitive and romantic and exotic. We are romance authors, sophisticated and language-oriented and cultured. The phrasing splits the two groups and allows for no overlap between them. Similar stereotyped language appears in this RT Magazine Theme Spotlight piece: "The Native American romance emphasizes instinct, creativity, freedom, and the longing to escape from the strictures of society to return to nature." It's Noble Savages all the way down. With this kind of othering so strongly at work in the subgenre, it's hardly surprising that actual examples of Native American/American Indian romance authors are very difficult to come by.

Cover image for Her Land, Her Love by Evangeline Parsons Yazzie. A brown-skinned, dark-haired woman in a Navajo rug dress looks sadly down to one side. Gold triangles frame the corners of the image.Naturally, as I often do when stumped, I asked Twitter for help -- a Storify of the collected responses can be found here -- which is how I learned about Evangeline Parsons Yazzie.

Of all the authors mentioned in that Storify, Ms. Yazzie is the one who most explicitly identifies as Native American (specifically Navajo). Her Land, Her Love (Amazon link: publisher page is here) is the author's first romance: her other works are children's books based on Navajo legends and stories. Ms. Yazzie makes clear in her introduction that she chose the historical romance form deliberately, and that this story is a way of remembering and retelling her people's past: therefore it seems appropriate to talk about the ways in which this book departs significantly from the usual forms of white-authored Native American romance.

This book's roots are in oral storytelling and the prose shows it: the opening chapters have zero conflict and are simple and descriptive in the manner of folktales and poetry. Time moves in fits and starts and great leaps -- we start with our heroine Nínááníbaa' as a baby and move quickly forward into her youth and the day of her marriage to hero Hashké Yił Naabaah. At the same time there's a wealth of detail of Navajo daily life: it felt more as though I were reading a work of historical scholarship rather than a historical romance. I'll admit: it was at times quite frightfully dull. But those conflict-free, happy chapters full of loving family members and yearly rhythms and hilarious sheep and goat sounds give us the space to see the Navajo as they are when they are free to be themselves, with their religion, culture, and living places mostly intact.

This in-depth depiction is the opposite of what we see in the captivity narratives identified by Janet at Dear Author as part of the romance genre's foundations, where a white heroine (it's usually a heroine) is captured by a local tribe and gradually assimilated, often marrying a Native American man (or a white dude who has been similarly assimilated). This is the voyeuristic and colonialist arc we see in -- to take one popular example -- James Cameron's Avatar, where an outsider can out-native the natives, for some reason. By contrast, none of the white characters in Her Love, Her Land is going to out-Navajo the actual Navajo -- this romance novel is centered firmly in indigenous culture, looking out, rather than from the mainstream white colonial perspective, looking in. Practically all of the dialogue is in Navajo, an extremely complex language, with English translations following. I liked this a great deal: it reassured me that the author was writing from within the tradition, with personal knowledge of Navajo language and culture. (I'm also a bit of a language geek, so I would occasionally try and work out which words were doing what in a given Navajo sentence. I got basically nowhere, which isn't surprising since there's a reason this language was used for coded messages in WWII, but it was fun trying.) Most of all, this book felt profoundly real -- perhaps it was just knowing that many of these stories were real, had been handed down the author's family tree for several generations. I can't separate that from my reactions, and I'm not sure I'd want to if I could. Reading this book felt like bearing witness.

This sense of a place well-lived in, with real-life families, makes the text absolutely terrifying for a reader aware of what's to come. We know this idyllic continuity is not going to last, and the happier our main couple and their relatives become, the harder it will be when everything is taken away from them. We see, in exquisite detail, precisely how much our here and heroine are going to lose in the years to come. And by this point we've come to care for them just as they've come to care for each other. (Seriously, Nínááníbaa' and Hashké Yił Naabaah's four-day honeymoon where they're living together but not allowed to touch one another is the sweetest, shyest thing. They're all trembling and nerves and yearning eyes, both of them.) The fall happens gradually -- the capture of two daughters here, the loss of a son there, the need to compromise for safety's sake as Kit Carson's men burn villages and poison waterholes -- and it is all the more heartbreaking for being drawn out. Hashke Yił Naabaah is a war leader, admired and respected and responsible for his people's happiness, so at every turn he is trying to understand what the white men want from him, how he can find a way to compromise, how to get across the vital needs of his people. There are a few moments of narrative omniscience, where the story pulls back to tell us what one particular white officer might be thinking, but for the most part the white men we see in this novel are all completely opaque, nameless and inhuman. There's occasional reference to the state of national politics, but it is not nearly enough to outweigh the terrible crimes happening here, on the page in front of us, to people we've spent years of book-time with.

One of these moments, however, is particularly worth our attention as intersectional feminists (practicing):

Never in the wildest dreams of the Naabeehó naabaahii did any of them think that the greed for gold and silver was at the forefront of the decision to remove the noble Naabeehó people to a place far from their land between the four mountains. Once again, the soldiers lied to them!

General Carleton, along with a man who had been a territorial governor of New Mexico, had secretly met at Santa Fe and created a grand scheme for removing the "savage" Navajos from their lands. The two men believed the land the Naabeehó occupied was rich in gold, silver, and copper. The Union Army was becoming poor fighting a war in the south known as the Civil War. General Carleton felt their contribution of precious metals would be valuable in helping their Union Army fund the war. (Kindle location 3212)

The Civil War, while not "fought over slavery" precisely as whitewashed history would have us think, nevertheless did have the outcome of making the chattel slavery system illegal in the United States. (Unless we want to talk about sharecropping and Jim Crow but I digress.) The huge effort required for the liberation of the slaves is here directly tied to Indian removal and violent oppression. This is intersectionality at its most basic: the legal/military means by which black people became legally people (as opposed to property) necessitated the destruction of Indian nations in territories hundreds of miles away from the battlefield -- at least in the eyes of the white men in charge of the Army and US domestic policy. We like to believe -- are often taught to believe -- that the US's story is an arc of decreasing racism and the long slow death of white supremacy: direct connections like this one between black and Native American oppression prove that comforting fiction to be a sweet and poisonous lie.

Ms. Yazzie's text walks a fine line between realism and romanticism: the pain our hero and heroine suffer -- removal from their homes, the loss of their children, fear for their safety and the ever-present possibility of rape and starvation and death -- is arbitrary and malicious, unthinkably sadistic. At the same time, the resourcefulness and strength Haske Yił Naabaah and Nínááníbaa' show in supporting one another and their fellow Navajo is highly idealized. Frankly, I was glad this was so. I didn't want to watch those strong hearts lose hope in one another, even though they lost hope in plenty of other things (the promises of soldiers, for example). This is not a subtle moment in history, so the heightened contrast feels appropriately stark.

In the middle of the book, our hero and heroine are removed from their home and sent on the Long Walk. Again the tropes of the captivity narrative are reversed: the Navajo people are the ones being taken and removed, forced to depend on the dubious charity of Union soldiers in an internment camp on the outskirts of a fort. People starve, people sicken, people vanish, people die. There's no moral justification for any of it. Our protagonists are still living in the camp at the end of the book, though historically the Navajo were eventually moved to a slightly better location (not great, and not their proper home, but not quite as barren and hostile as Bosque Redondo). Perhaps this is part of what makes Native American romances so comparatively rare: the implausibility of a happy ending in the face of flat-out genocide. The history of contact with Native peoples in the US is irredeemably tragic and negative, a difficult setting for a genre whose most recognizable trope is a happy ending.

This would make Native invisibility in romance more understandable if it didn't dovetail so nicely with the prevailing cultural notion that Native Americans only exist in the past, rather than being present citizens, neighbors, friends, and potential lovers/heroes and heroines of romance. I expected to be able to find at least one contemporary romance with a Native American protagonist -- but everything skewed immediately paranormal and urban fantasy. You can apparently have Muscogee or Navajo characters, but only if they're magical. Special. Not really human or normal at all, in fact. It put my hackles up in ways I haven't been able to articulate, though this post is a good start.

So going forward I shall continue my search for that unicorn: a (hopefully contemporary) romance with a Native American hero/heroine written by a Native American author. If anyone knows of one (or has written one!), let me know!

Let everyone know. We'll be listening.

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The Navajo People have a truly excellent website, with plenty of links about history, culture, and news.

Native American authors are definitely out there: they're just writing things that aren't genre romance. Here is a list of 20 Native American authors you need to read (hometown hero Sherman Alexie shoutout!). 

Speaking of Native peoples and children's literature, Colorlines recently did an eye-opening post about the interplay of racist sports mascots and children's books.

Photographer Matika Wilbur's Project 562 aims to photograph people from every one of the 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States. It's amazing and beautiful and vital -- go look!

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Yazzie, Evangeline Parsons. Her Land, Her Love. Flagstaff, Arizona: Salina Bookshelf. 2014. Ebook.

H is for Harmony

{For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.} Sienna Mynx's 1920s-set interracial romance Harmony was a mixed bag for me. The book was self-published and it shows, especially in the comma confusion and some occasional editing errors that jerked me right out of the story ("romp" for "rump" and such). Hero Vinnie is an alpha male mob boss, neither of which tropes are really my jam, and I had some minor quibbles with the pacing and the plot. But by far my biggest disappointment is -- spoilers! -- the fact that our two villains (well, one-and-a-half villains: thanks, redemption arc) are both gay. People, I am so damn tired of gay villains in romance: it was cliché and reductive in the 80's, and it's cliché and reductive now.

Cover image for Harmony by Sienna Mynx. A brown-skinned, black-haired woman with a white flower behind one ear stares challengingly at the camera. She wears a spaghetti-strapped black dress. Behind her, a pale-skinned man with slicked-back blondish hair dangles a cigarette between his lips and stares at the camera with a shotgun raised to one side.It's especially disappointing in an interracial romance that is explicitly concerned with how societal norms punish our black heroine and Italian-immigrant hero for the taboo nature of their relationship. Harmony and Vinnie lament the hardships they will face as a mixed-race couple, to the point where they end the book starting over in a new town out West where they won't be so blatantly discriminated against. There are only a few states where their relationship is even legal, and our hero and heroine suffer from the stigma and prejudiced disdain of others at several key points in the plot.

None of this gives Vinnie and Harmony any immediate empathy for their gay siblings: Harmony's brother Willie's homosexuality is described as a "sickness" (Kindle location 3185) and Vinnie's brother Antonio's as a "madness" (3289) and "sins" (4256). (Side note: I have a hard time using the word "queer" in relation to this text, as it appears several times as a slur.)

Any excuse to post this exchange between Jeff Winger and Troy Barnes.In fact, it is Antonio, our villain, who most strongly makes the argument that it's hypocritical to defend your straight mixed-race relationship while disapproving of his mixed-race relationship with another man: "You can fuck Annie, playhouse with her, but you would never accept me and Teek" (3208). Teek is the gay brother of Vinnie's ex-girlfriend Annie -- so for those of you playing along at home, we now have three gay brothers. Two of the three are black. One of the three, Teek, is dead when the book begins, and the other two conspire for revenge -- though the main impetus is Antonio's, since Teek was "the only person who ever loved me unconditionally" (3206). Antonio is killed pretty much immediately after this reveal, and Willie gravely injured.

With the various bootlegging gangs poised for war thanks to Antonio's big gay treachery, Harmony gives her brother a wad of cash and sends him to Chicago, saying he should "go wherever you want and be who you are ... You of all people should know we can't help who we love, only the choices we make" (4053). This has the phraseology of acceptance, but it's really a Pilate-like washing of the hands: an earlier exchange between Harmony and Vinnie about her brother's future sees Vinnie encourage her to "Let him go. Let him be his own man, make his own mistakes" (3487). It's an unfortunate turn of phrase that equates gay relationships with shady criminal activity (the context in which we mostly see men's choices characterized as "mistakes" in this text). Harmony expresses love for her brother, but it has the regretful love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin flavor we've seen so often in 'not officially bigoted' homophobic parlance.The happy ending requires Harmony and her brother to be separated, possibly forever. The text's inability to distinguish between Willie's criminal actions and his sexual desires is one of the many points where a thoughtful editor could have improved the book immensely. Instead we're left with a three-pack of the Bury Your Gays trope, with a hefty sprinkling of the myth that black people are especially prone to homophobia.

Fortunately, this disappointing dynamic is only a small part of the text. The part that resonated most strongly with me is the way this text deploys the human voice as a tool and a motif -- in particular, the voice of our heroine Harmony.

Harmony's voice is an instrument of unassailable power. It soothes her when she feels anxious, and it undermines her opponents. In a narrative where she is often vulnerable, trapped and surrounded by violent, untrustworthy men -- our hero included -- the power of her voice consistently levels the playing field: "Nothing could touch her when she sang" (532). Even as Harmony's song keeps her protected, it utterly destabilizes our aggressive alpha hero:

Words he hadn't spoken since he parted the shores of Sicily escaped him. He whispered them forgetting she didn't understand his language. He wanted to stop time. Never in his life had a woman's voice had such an affect on him. Silently he had craved her for months after the first time he heard her sing. He bought all the jazz records he could, trying to capture the calm soothing feeling of her voice that chipped at the iceberg in his chest most would call a heart. (543)

Harmony yells "No!" more often than any heroine in my recent memory. Shouts it, more than once, to the hero and others, often after eavesdropping and overhearing something vital she wasn't supposed to hear. In keeping with this vocal self-assertion, she consistently refuses to be sidelined, deceived, discounted, ignored, or dismissed. At one point she is given solid cause to distrust the hero, and -- praise be! -- she distrusts him, as any reasonable person would when choosing between a long-loved brother in peril and a three-days' Mafioso hookup who has kidnapped you and is keeping you in the dark about his plans. When Vinnie's racist henchman beats her and tries to prevent her escaping from the isolated farm where she's being kept, Harmony takes a pickax to his face. Then she steals a gun and a car, finds her brother, and threatens to shoot our hero for being a jackass. The fact that she happens to be wrong about who's really behind the conspiracy does not become an emotional plot point: she is not made to atone for her mistake the way romance heroines are so often punished by the narrative for distrusting the hero. In fact, Vinnie seems rather impressed (as well he should be).

Words are the heroine's best weapons. Antagonists more than once refer to her as "mouthy." This in a text that emphasizes different modes of speech -- singing, promises, lies, and confessions most prominently -- makes Harmony something of a superhero. She argues back against those who would shame her for loving a white man. She unravels lies and compels the fulfillment of promises. At the book's climax, she persuades two rival gang leaders to help her rescue Vinnie from assassination -- a welcome reversal of the usual suspense dynamic.

Hero Vinnie, unfortunately for him in such a world as this, is more a man of concrete physical action:

He should just hold her and talk out their goodbye. Find the comforting words to give her so she would remember him fondly, and not like this, broken and needy. But he craved the physical more. (3901)

In the course of the plot, Vinnie tries to fight violence with violence and gang warfare with gang warfare. The fight scenes tend to feature him grabbing someone by the throat, choking them, or stepping on someone's throat -- silencing moves, reflecting his discomfort with language and speech. He is simultaneously paranoid about and vulnerable to his brother's lies, and his inability to discern the truth of someone's words often leads him to retort with his fists rather than with argument. Many romance heroes are described as dangerous, but few truly are: Vinnie kills multiple people in truly brutal ways over the course of the plot, and experiences little if any remorse for it. Yet time and time again, Vinnie fails at what he sets out to do -- to reform his brother, to get back his stolen booze shipment, to convince Harmony to trust him implicitly, to be different than his abusive, larger-than-life father.

Often in romance the violence of a dangerous hero is justified and made palatable by the narrative: he defends the heroine, he kills the villain, he defeats enemies who are equally or more brutally vicious. The hero's violence is within his control, or at least within the scope of sympathy and heroic morality. But Vinnie's violent nature is almost fatal to himself, to Harmony, and to their shared future. It's a part of himself that he hates, and for once the narrative supports the hero's self-loathing: Vinnie is absolutely right to hate the part of himself that is hateful. Harmony gives him several earfuls about it, and his stubborn refusal to listen to her is presented as a mistake (unlike her earlier distrust and threats against him). His brother, his booze-running, his loyal gangster friends -- all of these are taken from him, one by one, as the consequences of violence compound and increase. Just stop, I was mentally pleading by the time of the final showdown. Just leave while you're still alive. There's nothing left for you here. Vinnie nearly dies in a blaze of glory, haloed by bullets, hung from his arms in the barn where he failed to get former captured enemies to confess (that language weakness again). His farm, a longtime refuge, burns to the ground in the turmoil, while Harmony throws an unconscious Vinnie in the back of her car and they take refuge with the unspeaking Amish (no, seriously, it was kind of weird).

Normally, especially in romantic suspense (which I'd argue is the proper subgenre for this book), we see the heroine's life destroyed to push her closer to the hero. In Vivid, for instance, Viveca's cottage was set on fire by a disgruntled local douchebag, after which she moved in to the house where Nate and his family lived. In Harmony, for once, it's the hero's world that burns: Harmony gets everything she dreamed of since the start of the book. Vinnie puts aside his violent urges, for the sake of Harmony and their child. It's like the end of Jane Eyre, if Rochester used more Italian words and was only emotionally rather than physically wounded at the end. I am left feeling that it really shouldn't be so rare for an alpha hero in the romance genre to renounce a life of violence. To have a black heroine's voice be the most powerful in the book, to have the white alpha hero ultimately yield to her authority, is kind of a radical move.

I think I've talked myself into liking this book.

I guess there's something to be said for overthinking things.

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For actual period takes on black-authored romance in the 1920s, check out this gem from the Popular Romance Project about romance stories in black newspapers of the early 20th century. 

And for a wider historical perspective, here is a piece from The Root on black LGBTQ authors during the Harlem Renaissance.

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Mynx, Sienna. Harmony. The Divas Pen: 2012. Ebook.

G is for Gold Mountain

{Click here for the complete A-Z of intersectional feminism in romance.} So yesterday was really something, wasn't it? Today will be much more relaxed, I promise. Less righteous vitriol; fewer italics; hardly any swears at all.

It appears that this blog series is developing ongoing themes and topoi -- such as 19th-century California, which has appeared in Beverly Jenkins' Destiny's Embrace and yesterday's unmentionable disaster. Sharon Cullars' short romance Gold Mountain is set during the wild and lawless days of the building of the railroads: our heroine is a black laundress/cook and our hero is a Chinese immigrant building the railroads. It's a short, quick read that didn't entirely work for me but did have the benefit of featuring hardly any white people at all.

Cover art for Gold Mountain by Sharon Cullars. A brown-skinned woman with dark hair looks out at the reader. Behind her, a shirtless man with narrow eyes and golden skin hides half in shadow. As we saw with Tessa Dare's book earlier, portrayals of marginalized identities can become stronger and richer when you have more than one character with that identity. I mean, come on Olivia, that's called tokenism and we knew that. But there's often a sense, when writing books specifically in resistance to a dominant kyriarchal narrative, that building books with marginalized characters is an act of rehabilitation. There are so many reductive, venomous stereotypes out there for us to rebel against. Highly Recommended Author Zen Cho describes how this very impulse informed her creation of Jade Yeo:

I think of this imaginary genre as being a reactive one, a thing that I am producing as part of a long slow recovery process. What I am doing with it is, I am processing my childhood reading — all the stuff that was really influential and enjoyable, but also kind of secretly toxic — and I am trying to extract the poison from it while preserving the things I loved.

So when romance has a long, long history with the gay villain, for instance, the initial temptation is to write the Nicest, Most Moral And Upright Gay Character Ever in response. And this is important and necessary, because we need to see heroes and heroines of every stripe; because I really believe that heroism (in both the romance sense and in the wider sense) should be something every person on earth feels they have access to. The title of protagonist should be one any human being can claim for themselves.

Unfortunately, we are not all heroes. Or heroines. Or admirable. Some of us are shit-eating bastards -- okay, so there are a few swears in here -- and others of us are purely mediocre, or cowardly, or weak, or self-serving. And being disabled or black or queer etc. doesn't magically forestall any of this. (Apparently today is Saying Obvious Things day on the blog -- bear with me.) So the need to resist toxic stereotypes is therefore directly at war with the need to depict human foibles in all their ugly reality.

The solution is obvious and yet so often not employed: if more than one of your characters is black, or Asian, or trans, you do not have to worry so much about making them all Model Minorities. Authors are also free, in this scenario, to complicate the story's conflict in realistic ways. Because marginalization is not martyrdom, and ugly power dynamics have a tendency to trickle downward through increasingly vulnerable layers of the social fabric. Oppressed groups can and do respond to systemic discrimination with violence of their own. This is precisely what we see in Gold Mountain, and I found it by far the most compelling aspect of the book.

The reason there are not a lot of white characters in Gold Mountain is this: white people in this world are dangerous. Our black heroine Leah and Chinese hero Quiang avoid them when they can. The two white people we spend the longest time with are a pair of bigoted arsonists who (it is implied) would probably not be averse to a little bit of rape as well. Then there are the railroad overseers, who are as negligent of the life and safety of their Chinese employees as you would expect.

The way that abuses of power filter through the social strata is very clear in this text. We start with 19th-century robber barons, who hire cheaper Chinese labor as a cost-cutting measure:

All the [Chinese] workers knew they were making far less than the whites who worked alongside them, but there was nothing they could do. The one time they'd decided to strike for better pay, the railroad management withheld their monies until they all went back to work. (Kindle location 890)

Naturally, the lower-class white workers are sympathetic to this Catch-22 in which their Chinese counterparts are trapped. Oh wait, no they are not:

If anything the Chinese were often the victims of those who resented their good fortune in this land. That was why the esteemed families had come together as the Seven Companies, as the Heaven and Earth Society, to protect those who were regularly beaten and sometimes even murdered. (1427)

In other words, when faced with economic hardship, abuse, and no legal recourse for redress, the Chinese immigrants organize their own shadow authority. Naturally, the triad is focused on justice and benevolent care for those harmed by the state of California's racist policies. Oh wait, no they are not:

The night running was often dangerous because several families were in contention for the opium trade. And certain independents without honor thought to push their way into the competition, making the running even more hazardous. On two occasions [Quiang had] had to take extreme measures to protect himself. One man would never walk again. And he had gained a few more scars to join those already mapped on his body. (1427)

Racist penny-pinching policies by railroad company men whose names we do not even know are directly responsible for the fact that Quiang has to maim a fellow immigrant in self-defense. And it must be stated: the dramatic tension of this situation makes for some eminently compelling scenes. My favorite moment in this novella is not anything to do with the romance -- though the romance is well-handled -- but rather the scene where Quiang is framed for stealing from the triad, resigns himself to death, and then convinces the dragonhead that if he must kill someone for the crime, to kill both Quiang and Quiang's boss, the real thief. It's a total badass move on the part of our hero as well as a riveting piece of drama, and it's all due to the fact that we know he has no legal recourse and is at the mercy of this deadly, whimsical brand of outlaw justice.

Meanwhile, our heroine Leah is dealing with similar though less obviously fatal dynamics. Black Pastor Caldwell has noticed her continued absence from church:

She didn't know how many Sundays she could let pass before it would be plain that she just didn't want to go to that church any longer. She was as pious as anybody, but she liked to worship in her own way. Not within the confines of a place where the menfolk made it known they were there more for wife hunting than worshipping God. She had just gotten plain tired of the male parishioners coming up to her with nary a word of wooing and expecting her to accept off-the-cuff proposals ... It didn't help that Pastor Caldwell was one of those men. (440)

Naturally, the black men are only looking out for a sister in a land full of predatory and lawless white men. Oh wait, no they are not:

She understood too well that in a community of only a few Negroes, any unmarried Negro woman was open game for not only decent-minded suitors, but those with less-godly intentions ... Some folk would always assume that a Negro woman, no matter how primly dressed, was a loose woman. Outside of the church and the colored women's auxiliary, there weren't too many places she and Clara could go to socialize. (465)

But of course, naturally, when Clara is killed and Leah in the hospital recovering from injuries, Pastor Caldwell offers to help her because of disinterested Christian charity. Oh wait, no he does not:

"I know you don't have a place to live right now. There's a room above the rectory where the church puts up visitors. I can have it made up all feminine-like for your comfort, and you can stay as long as you like. I know people will probably talk -- they always do. But maybe in a few months, we ... we can make the talking stop by ... I don't know any other way to bring this up. I haven't courted you properly, but I think you might have figured out by now that I have a soft spot for you, and I would be honored and privileged --" (1571)

Leah cuts off his inelegant speech at this point before he can go completely Collins on us. Her objections are that A) Clara loved him, and B) Leah does not, so his proposal is doubly unwelcome to her. Naturally, Pastor Collins takes this refusal with good grace. Oh wait:

The pastor took up his hat and stood. His face was stern and formal. "I'm sorry to have overstepped myself. You can trust that I will not make that mistake again. I wish you well, Sister. And .. if you ever do need anything ... well, the church is always open to you." (1597)

Injured and grieving, Leah has now been cut off from the only society she knows by her refusal to prioritize the pastor's romantic desires over her own. Racist discrimination in society and the law directly lead black women to be victimized by black men as well as whites. I'll admit that I spent a large part of this book giving Pastor Caldwell the side-eye as he lurked creepily through his scenes. He doesn't end up being more than self-absorbed and unpleasant, but the threat was very palpable. And if his fiancée Tallulah -- an engagement acquired immediately after Leah's refusal -- had not offered our heroine a place to stay after her discharge from the hospital, she would have been out on the dangerous streets of Sacramento.

These two social groups, black and Chinese people, each building a unique response to a unique pattern of repression, are deliberately isolated from one another, just as Quiang and Leah are initially separated from one another by the language barrier: Quiang does not speak English, and Leah does not speak Taishanese (Quiang's particular dialect of the Chinese language family). Mixing the systems of black, Chinese, and white power and resistance gets volatile very quickly: the one scene we have with characters of all three races leads rapidly to Clara's death. Leah is in no doubt about her responsibility for this: "Clara was dead because of her, because she had stood up for a Chinaman" (1336). Nothing good can happen when different groups or ethnicities mix:

At near midnight the streets were deserted but for the most base of the citizenry, whether white, Irish, Chinese, Negro, or Mexican -- races kept apart by the laws of man, brought together by the pursuit of illegal or lascivious distractions." (1355)

Quiang's inability to get free of association with the triad puts his and Leah's lives in immediate danger. Being shut out from legal existence means that illegal existence will necessarily flourish -- we see this with alcohol Prohibition, and we see it here in Gold Mountain. During the course of Leah and Quiang's romance, I was on tenterhooks to see how these tensions would be resolved.

Turns out -- spoilers! -- they aren't. Quiang and Leah move away, driven by the need to get away from the sinister control of the triad and its leaders. They raise happy children in Colorado, which I had a hard time believing was free from any prejudice against a mixed-race couple and their mixed-race children in 1865. The children are sweet and the romance was too, but I wish there had been more answers at the end.

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Sharon Cullars really, really needs a new website -- seriously, no way to click through to page two of your blog? does page two even exist? I can't tell -- but the landing page did provide a link to this excellent interview she did with late mystery author and former Massachusetts cop Judith Smith-Levin (link is at the top left).

Lately activist Suey Park has provoked a larger -- and often vitriolic -- discussion about anti-Asian racism and white progressive allyship. Feministing has a piece that discusses how the response to Park's #CancelColbert mirrors other recent backlashes to women's online speech, particularly women of color.

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Cullars, Sharon. Gold Mountain. Loose Id LLC: 2010. Ebook.

D is for Tessa Dare

{For the complete alphabet of diversity in romance, click here.} There's a lot to like about Lily, Tessa Dare's deaf heroine in Three Nights with a Scoundrel. Lily combines a fundamental optimism with the sympathetic resonance of grief -- for her murdered twin brother, for the best friend she slowly realizes she's fallen in love with but who has her on an uncomfortably high pedestal -- and a quiet practical side that keeps her grounded (she likes lists and accounting ledgers). Her deafness is real and palpable in the text, but is not the main focus of the story.

Cover image for Three Nights with a Scoundrel by Tessa Dare. Blue-toned landscape. Block of color in the middle has white text reading: THREE NIGHTS WITH A SCOUNDREL and, smaller, TESSA DARE. Above, a tan-skinned dark-haired woman in an apricot gown puts her hands on the shoulders of a tan-skinned, dark-haired man wearing apparently nothing at all.But the very best thing about Lily Chatwick's portrayal is that she's not the only deaf person in the book.

So many disabled heroes or heroines are the only ones so depicted in their stories. They labor under the burden of tokenism: how you depict your Significant Deaf Character reflects on all deaf people. But in real life the experience of being disabled is a spectrum of reactions, adaptations, limitations, attitudes, acceptance, and struggle that is exquisitely unique to each disabled person. In real life no single person is the One Deaf Person.

It happens just before the halfway point of the book. Lily and Julian, our hero, have dressed as commoners and gone to sit in the cheap seats at the theater (like you do for kicks when you're an aristocrat in a Regency romance). After the play, however, the suspense plot rears its head and Julian drags Lily across half of London to a run-down coffeehouse he partly grew up in, where nobody will think to look for Lady Lily Chatwick.

And then we meet the landlady:

Even inside the coffeehouse, they continued this way. Neither speaking a word. Not with lips or tongue, at any rate. No, Julian and the landlady were communicating solely with their hands. Rapid, precise, two-handed movements that Julian only belatedly -- after sending Lily an apologetic glance -- began pairing with speech. (159)

Unlike Anna the landlady, Lily wasn't born deaf, but lost her hearing after an illness five or so years back. She can read lips reasonably well, given the right conditions: adequate lighting, clear sightlines, no sudden tangents in conversation, help from gestures and expressions. But she cannot sign, and her experience of disability is not the same as Anna's  -- nor, we learn, is it the same as the experience of Julian's late mother, who was deaf and taught him to sign:

"My mother was born deaf. You were deafened by illness. It's an entirely separate thing. I can say to you, the pianoforte is out of tune, and though you don't hear it, you understand exactly what I mean. Not so with my mother. But she and Anna and the others downstairs, they notice things -- little subtleties of sights and smells and textures -- that you and I would never think to heed." He smiled. "If it helps, they don't see you as one of them either." (174)

It's somewhat radical that the born-deaf are presented here as rejecting association with Lily -- especially since she is a wealthy member of the nobility, and the born-deaf we see are all commoners. There is no big monolithic The Deaf in this book. There are only deaf people.

Of course, what becomes abundantly clear through the use of such a character spectrum is that the intersection of class and disability: Lily suffers plenty of microaggressions over the course of the novel, but her position as a lady (and her wealth) prevent her from being more thoroughly victimized. Julian's mother, by contrast, is raped while serving as a housemaid -- her illiteracy and the lack of people who know sign make her an easy target for predatory gentlemen.  She ends up pregnant, unemployed, and homeless. Julian recognizes the combination of  luck and determination it took for her not to abandon him in such straitened circumstances:

He'd been a help to his mother when he grew older. But Julian knew at any time in his infancy, she could have made life a great deal easier on herself by dropping him on the doorstep of a foundling hospital. She hadn't.  They'd always had each other. Most times, that was all they'd had. (166-167)

If disabled characters in historical romance are rare, depictions of a whole community of disabled people are unheard-of. I did a little digging based on the feeling that this background detail was based on real history, and it only took moments to turn up a Wikipedia page for Old Kentish Sign Language, which leads to a page on Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, and so on down the internet rabbit hole. The potential here for new ways of approaching familiar historical times is truly compelling -- imagine a small-town historical romance set in a village of people who are bilingual in spoken English and sign language -- if that doesn't get you at least a little excited, well, I don't know what else to say.

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Updated because I knew there was a link I had forgotten: Matt and Kay Daigle produce the awesome webcomic That Deaf Guy, which is not only sweet and hilarious but also a great take on the day-to-day challenges of life as a deaf man and father.

For disability in romance, definitely follow the ever-marvelous Ridley at Love in the Margins: reviews, links, and thoughtful commentary abound. 

There is also this Dear Author recommendation thread for books featuring disabled characters, and this Smart Bitches thread for books with disabled heroines.

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Dare, Tessa. Three Nights with a Scoundrel. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2010. Print book.

B is for Beverly Jenkins

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.} Ask anyone who knows: they'll tell you Beverly Jenkins is the queen of African-American historical romance. I've had Destiny's Embrace sitting in my TBR pile forever, just waiting for me to pick it up. And I finally did! And ... I didn't like it.

Cover image for Destiny's Embrace by Beverly Jenkins. Pastoral background. A dark-skinned, dark-haired woman lounges on her right elbow facing away. Her light blue gown is undone to bare her long back. Facing her and the viewer is a dark-skinned, dark-haired shirtless man, gazing into her eyes with heroic intensity. Pink text above reads BEVERLY JENKINS. Yellow text below reads DESTINY'S EMBRACE.Let's be clear: this is mostly a matter of personal preference. Destiny's Embrace is a romance in a very classic mold: virgin heroine resplendent with niceness, alpha hero terrified of commitment, cast of secondary characters whose goodness is directly related to how much they help or are sympathetic to our protagonists. Plenty of conflicts are foreshadowed -- the heroine's abusive mother in Philadelphia, the hero's current mistress, the sinister neighboring rancher who's busting down fences to poach water he doesn't have the rights to -- but all these problems are resolved in a single scene each, and none of the solutions have any consequences or repercussions.

In short, I was bored silly.

This unsettled me so much -- was it due to unconscious racism? seriously, everybody talks about how much they like Beverly Jenkins -- that I bought and read another book of hers, Vivid, for comparison.

Cover image for Vivid by Beverly Jenkins. A flowery landscape. A shirtless man with dark skin stands behind a dark-skinned woman, his hands on her upper arms, his face tilted down toward hers. The woman wears a white gown with a red sash. Her eyes are closed, her shoulders are bare, and she is leaning back into the man's chest. Pink text reads BEVERLY JENKINS in the upper right and VIVID across the bottom edge.I liked Vivid a great deal more, not least because the heroine's goal was more concrete and emotionally plausible, but in many ways it felt like the same book with the same basic underpinnings. Like a book that had kept its boned corset but changed the color of its gown. And that book is one I've read before, over and over, in many a historical romance over the years. In fact, I checked the publication date on Destiny's Embrace to make sure it was published recently and was not a reissue from the late 80s. (It wasn't.) It's a very familiar romance type, and it is very much not my bag.

This is not necessarily something Beverly Jenkins needs to change. For one thing, she has a thousand awards, a passionate following, and can cheerfully ignore the opinions of a newbie author of weird erotic paranormal historicals.

For another, I kept remembering part of this Ann Leckie post about tradition and inclusion in genre ficion:

And the whole “escape the suffocating weight of Tradition!” thing doesn’t look the same from every angle. Consider that for women, POC, and LGBTQ writers the question of forebears and tradition can be a fraught one. “She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.” Such writers have either been denied their own tradition by this kind of erasure, or have been repeatedly erased from the dominant one. To some of us, belonging to a tradition is a valuable and hard-won thing.

I had a similar thought two years ago when I discussed a contemporary romance with a trans heroine  that felt old-fashioned and cliché to me: having a romance heroine from a usually invisible group who is written the same way as all our much-discussed TSTL heroines is something of a triumph.

And yet ...

And yet here I am, unsatisfied, about to think overly hard about these two Beverly Jenkins novels and the value of resistance.

My very favorite line from Vivid comes early on, when our titular heroine meets the hero's mischievous daughter and recalls her own less-than-proper childhood:

Vivid's partner-in-crime had been her late grandmother Maria, founder of the Female Plotting Rebelling Society. Grandmother Maria believed that all females, regardless of age, race, or circumstances, should always be plotting rebellion to better the state of women. (Kindle location 512)

The Female Plotting Rebelling Society! I was enchanted. I imagined something like a black 19th-century Michigan Lysistrata taking place (tell me you wouldn't read that!) especially since the text has at this point already established the parameters of a gender battle: Vivid is a female doctor, determined to build her practice despite the era's rampant sexism, and Nate, our hero, is a man whose spoiled and adulterous ex-wife has left him convinced that women are flimsy, treacherous things not to be trusted or loved or anything. (Alpha heroes can be so adorably fragile, can't they?) Sadly, the FPRS is never again mentioned, as the plot meanders through several seemingly unconnected episodes of suspense and family melodrama.

Still, this quote helps set up a fundamental theme of the book: rebellion and resistance are important virtues. The indignities of Jim Crow are depicted, and several characters speak against those racist policies or find ways to work around them as best they can. National politics are mentioned frequently and in-depth, and I admit (nerd alert!) that I was delighted to find a mini-essay on the pros and cons of Frederick Douglass as a representative of black experience in a historical romance novel. Black voters in the text are forced to choose between a Republican Party that has neglected them and a Democratic Party that has worked for their disenfranchisement and destruction; some characters stay loyal to the party of Lincoln, but others make a different choice. This rebellious spirit, defending the dignity and humanity of black persons, is presented as entirely compatible with patriotic fervor: we are not resisting the state, so much as we are attempting to improve it.

Additionally, we have our heroine's resistance to rigidly sexist gender roles as conceived by the inhabitants of Grayson's Grove. Vivid is an excellent doctor, well-trained and passionate, who saves numerous lives and spends her off hours reading case reports and compiling patient histories. (Even in the 19th century, most of good doctoring is paperwork.) In defense of herself and other women, Vivid speaks out against prejudiced locals, including our hero himself -- and all of them are demonstrably wrong for distrusting her abilities. Her resistance to the town's initial sexist skepticism guarantees her own happiness in her profession and new location, and it also ensures that Grayson's Grove has a trained and competent doctor for the first time in decades. It's both a personal triumph and a sign of social progress.

In fact, Grayson's Grove has a particular history of anti-sexist action by the women who live there, as Nate himself reveals to the reader:

The women owned many of the businesses, oftimes they voted as a bloc on Grove affairs, and generally they had their way when they wanted it. According to legend, during his grandfather's day the men once tried to rein in their wives. It resulted in a disaster so cataclysmic that even today Nate could not get any of the elder men to discuss what had transpired. The women won, that was all Nate and his contemporaries knew. (1328)

(Shades of Lysistrata again...)

Unfortunately, resistance is also especially virtuous in courtship relationships. Both Vivid and Destiny's Embrace present their heroes as generally irresistible: handsome, caring, moral  men who have dropped panties all over their respective landscapes. Destiny's Embrace is particularly explicit about this, and features this memorable line from the hero's internal monologue: "How dare she be immune to his charms. Did she not know his reputation with the ladies?" (3182). In my mind he was wearing a fedora for the rest of the book. Also from Destiny's Embrace: "'I believe you will be good for my son,' Mrs. Yates was saying. 'Other than myself, he's unaccustomed to a woman who'll stand her ground as you did today'" (1217). This was the point where the phonograph in my head began playing 'Gaston' on endless loop.

In both texts the heroine's unique resistance to the hero's sexual appeal makes her different and therefore more desirable than other women. Both books also feature secondary romance storylines involving an elderly female relative of the hero -- and these romances are even more adversarial than that of the main protagonists. Witness local curmudgeon Adam Crowley from Vivid, declaring his intentions toward the hero's Aunt Abigail: "If Nate can court a recalcitrant female, then so can I ... I'm putting you on notice. Before the snow falls, you and I are going to be man and wife" (3262). Note the absence of a question mark or any suggestion that Abigail is permitted to refuse this offer.

The result of such a dynamic is that real, earnest resistance to romantic overtures is erased or at best transformed into mere temporizing and game-playing. There is a passage in Destiny's Embrace when local jerk Silas Cook decides Mariah would make him a fine wife: "She [Mariah] did not have a good time. One, Silas Cook kept referring to her as 'sugar,' and two, when she told him she was flattered by his proposal but uninterested in becoming his next wife, he refused to take her seriously" (3682). Hero Logan's announcement later in the book that he and Mariah are courting only infuriates Silas -- and the target of is anger, naturally, is the heroine: "Don't you hello me, girl. You led me on" (4111). The only difference between his and Logan's pursuit of Mariah is that Mariah secretly desires Logan -- but her spoken interactions with the two men are nearly identical in many places. Throughout both texts, female characters will express resistance or refusal to sexual overtures, only to have everyone around them chuckle knowingly and wait until refusal magically becomes blissful acceptance. Such is the textual, sexual power of the romance hero.

Structurally, the patterns of these three layers of resistance -- political, social, and romantic -- serve to equate the position of men with the position of the state, giving the world of the text a patriarchal authority that may be softened, but never completely overthrown. Black citizens resist the state, but are still contained within it and subject to its racist laws. Women in Grayson's Grove are educated and outspoken, but still subject to the tyranny of male opinion and control. That great passage about the prior generation of intelligent, active women? Their victory is hollow, because nobody currently knows how they won or what they were fighting to get (besides the vague 'not reined in').  It's a little chilling to think that because the men won't talk about it, nobody knows what happened -- why, exactly, can they not ask the women themselves? Male silence on this matter erases the effects of female rebellion from oral history as well as from living memory.

And female resistance to romance slowly evaporates beneath the exertion of male desire. Female desire exists, but it is tempered by both Vivid's and Mariah's (highly fetishized) virginity, which renders their desires less than fully active. The hero's good looks and sexual prowess frequently overpower the heroine's physical and emotional reservations in ways that longtime romance readers will instantly recognize -- unspoken attraction leads to bickering, arguments end when characters begin making out, etc. But because the sexual arena in these books is very much a sphere of masculine authority -- the 'let me teach you how to sex' language is everywhere -- the result is that feminine speech and self-assertion are subtly but consistently undermined.

Witness this climactic moment from Vivid. Nate and Vivid have gotten engaged and Vivid's parents are on their way to town to celebrate. But another stranger arrives first -- some weeks earlier, Nate had secretly sent out a batch of letters seeking a replacement doctor. Specifically, a male doctor, who has now arrived and proven to be lecherous and arrogant and generally gross. Vivid is naturally furious at Nate's betrayal, breaks off the engagement, and storms out -- but in the midst of her fury, we get this: "She knew she'd eventually be calm enough to hear Nate's explanation, but damn him, she hadn't reached that state yet" (4160). He has brutally undermined her career and lied to her (if only through forgetfulness, though that wouldn't make me any less angry in her shoes) -- but she's already putting her own emotions aside, thinking outside herself and prioritizing Nate's perspective over her own -- all in less than a page after the reveal.

We have come a long way from the Vivid of the first few chapters, who fired a rifle at Nate's hat when he tried to walk away mid-argument. Despite all the book's description of women as formidable, as strong, as troublesome, as rebellious, the narrative arc shows a process of taming, muting, and restraint. (And don't get me started on the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold character, really just don't.)

This brings us back to the Ann Leckie quote, about the importance of the tradition for the marginalized. Black Americans in 19th-century Michigan were heavily Othered, and thus may have more stake in mantaining (a typo, but I'm leaving it) the politics of respectability. The excellent Trudy from Gradient Lair explains it perfectly this post; I'm only borrowing the most relevant sentence for my analysis, but please feel encouraged to click through and read the whole thing.

During the post-Civil War era and early-mid 20th century, the politics of respectability was viewed as a source of power or galvanization of Black middle class society, and a way to combat White supremacist myths of automatic Black inferiority associated with poverty and degradation.

I think it's fairly safe to say that Nate's urge to make Grayson's Grove a successful, thriving community in a racist country definitely leads him into some oppressive, anti-feminist behavior. Female rebellion threatens Nate's ability to counter the social pressures of white supremacy: his intentions are noble. This is precisely why intersectionality as a field exists: because this need to combat anti-black racism, both in history and in Vivid, has as a frequent consequence the erasure of black women's identities and perspectives.

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An interview with Beverly Jenkins was featured in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.

The history of the romance genre is only starting to be written, and black romances in particular are often overlooked. For more reading, this past February RT Magazine posted a timeline of African-American romances. There is also this Multicultural Romance Roundtable from Love in the Margins.

P.S.: If anyone has read Jenkins' Night Hawk and has insights to share, please weigh in!

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Jenkins, Beverly. Destiny's Embrace. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2013. Ebook.

Jenkins, Beverly. Vivid. N.p.: Amazon Digital Services, 2013. Ebook.