Jane's Cowboy's Father's Secret Space Ranch

{Olivia never met a fake romance title she didn't immediately want to write. This story title was found during a magnificent workshop given by Courtney Milan and Alisha Rai during RWA 2016. Enjoy!} Something was wrong with the cows.

Jane glared at the GPS monitor, which showed the location of every animal the Bar Sinister Ranch owned on the plateau. Normally the herd moved as an amorphous, amoeba-like blob within the boundary fences, drifting to and fro in search of water and good grazing.

Today, they were making patterns. Human patterns. Clear, recognizable shapes no cow should know anything about. It was, to Jane's mind, odd.

She crested the final rise and brought the Jeep to a skidding stop. Sure enough, there they were. Three hundred head of Flying Guernsey, standing precisely in the outline of a giant cartoon heart.

One thing the GPS hadn't been able to show her: they were glowing.

The setting sun made it hard to be sure at first, but as Jane strode forward with boots crunching on the dry summer grass, she noticed faint silver outlines on horns and hooves. The closer she got, the brighter they became.

This was more than odd, Jane decided -- this was downright spooky.

When she moved a few steps closer, she spotted the cowboy.

He was tall and lanky and absurdly hatted, wearing a Stetson with enough silver sequins to embarrass even Autry. He leaned lazily against the boundary fence while Jane approached. As questions and curses elbowed each other aside behind her clenched teeth, he hooked one thumb beneath the brim of his hat and raised it to fully show his face.

Crap, the man was gorgeous.

Long nose, sea-blue eyes, just the right amount of stubble on a rugged chin. Lips that looked sweet enough when still, and even better when the corners turned up. "Evenin', ma'am," he drawled, all black velvet and whiskey. "I suppose these cows belong to you?"

"They sure do." Jane kept her tone firm, though she couldn't help letting her eyes wander along the sling of his hips and the long of his legs. The boots were silver, too, she noticed -- almost like aluminum foil, but stiffer. "What the the hell have you done to my cattle?"

The cowboy glanced skyward, then pushed away from the fence. Suddenly the laziness was gone replaced by a steely sense of purpose. "Sorry to tell you, they'll have to come with me."

"Sure," Jane snorted, since there was not a wheeled thing in sight besides her Jeep. "Are you planning to ride them all into the sunset?"

"Nah." The cowboy smiled, and despite herself Jane's mouth went dry. That smile was trouble, and she'd always had a weakness for trouble. "We got something a little more technical planned." He put finger and thumb up to those lips -- oh, those lips, Jane, stop staring -- and let out a piercing whistle that carried a bit farther than Jane expected it would.

The sky lit up, bright as day but twice as cold. White light poured down onto the earth, giving every blade of grass a shadow like a bared knife.

Cows rose gently from the ground, bobbing like balloons, some of them lowing in irritation at being moved and others stretching their necks to keep lipping at the grass.

"Son of a bitch!" This couldn't be happening. Jane had leveraged every last cent of credit she could squeeze out of the bank to buy this herd and put the Bar Sinister back in the black. Without these cows, she'd have nothing.

She'd worked too hard to have it all vanish now.

A callused hand clasped her shoulder, not ungently. "I'm afraid you'll be coming along with us, ma'am," said the cowboy. "Can't leave any loose ends."

Jane cursed a navy-blue streak all the way up from the ground.

~~~~~~~

The ship itself was round and silver and every surface was studded with rhinestones. "Light collectors," Ed explained. (The cowboy's name was Ed.) Everything sparkles on the moon."

Jane floated by a porthole, fuming, as the great grey sphere drew nearer outside. Ed had gone to change -- Jane had yakked all over those silver boots as soon as they reached zero-g. It wasn't exactly her proudest moment, but then again it kind of was.

The door hissed open as Ed returned, boots freshly wiped and gleaming. "I brought you something to wear for when we land," he said. "One of my sister's spare outfits." It was as silver and glittery as Ed's clothes, but with considerably more puffiness around the shoulders.

Jane hurled the thing to the floor. Tried to, anyway. The suit rebounded off the tile in the low gravity and careened ceilingward. "Put me the fuck back down!" Jane demanded.

"Could do that," Ed said, unflappable. Jane swore to herself she would flap him before this was through. "But the Men in Black would have to kill you to keep the secret safe."

"What secret?" But just then the ship rounded the curve of the moon, and the question answered itself.

Below was a vast complex of domes, spheres, and spires -- a sprawling, bubblous city that covered nearly half the moon's surface. Slender antennae swiveled to track them, and eerie neon lights flashed in cryptic patterns.

"What," said Ed, as Jane goggled. "You didn't think we came all the way up here and then just turned back around?"

It took Jane a minute to catch her breath. God, but it was beautiful. "What is it for?"

"Mining, at first," Ed said. Pride and, yes, love warmed the whiskey of his voice. "Helium-3, other minerals. But later science got a foothold. Some things are easier here than waybelow: nanotech, diamond synthesis, artificial intelligence. Some of it's been up here since Grissom. My grandmother came up around then."

"So you're…"

Ed tipped his hat. "A space cowboy, born and raised."

Jane rested one hand on the window, glass cool against her palm. Chilled by the vacuum of space just outside. "What on earth does a city like this need with my cows?"

"What else? We eat 'em. Moon-raised beef's not the same, trust me. Of course, I've got something a little different planned for this herd. You'll see." Klaxons began to sound, and Ed waved at the suit that was still bobbing cheerily around the cabin. "Gotta bring us in, but soon as you're outfitted I'll give you the ten-cent tour. Considering you're a resident now." He nodded, and something sheepish softened his features. "Welcome home."

~~~~~~~

Jane had only known about Artemis for an hour now, but that was plenty long enough to have developed certain expectations. The city had looked so dazzling at a distance, but up close the flaws queued up to introduce themselves. "You said your family'd been up here since the 70's," Jane snapped. "I didn't think you meant the 1870s."

"It's rotten, I know," Ed said, all apologies. "Dad's a little old-fashioned."

Old-fashioned didn't quite cover it: they were standing in the middle of what looked like an old movie set from a spaghetti Western, with swinging hinged doors, wooden beams, and honest-to-God ropes hanging from hooks on the walls. Mint-green grass grew hopeless and humble on a layer of washed-out topsoil. Above them, in unsettling contrast to the decor, was a glass dome ringed with solar panels. The lower panes of glass were half-blocked with the soft grey lunar dust Jane had already learned to loathe. She wrinkled her nose against the taste of that dust in the back of her mouth. They'd better have whiskey here, or she would damn walk back to Earth. "Ed, honey, this is just not going to be enough space for three hundred head of Flying Guernsey. They're a nervous breed if you pen them up -- they need room to roam."

"They're going to get it," Ed said. He'd gone all steely again. Determination suited him, and Jane's heart kicked up in spite of her irritation. She let herself enjoy the view as he strode to a broad pair of doors in the dome's wall and flung them open. The room beyond had the too-full, harried air of all storage sheds, but from out of the piles of spare parts and equipment Ed rolled a giant hollow sphere of iridescent plastic, taller than he was. "I mentioned the nanotech?" he said, grinning at Jane's confusion. "A friend of mine's been working on something for me. It's going to be a game-changer." He tapped his fingers on the side of the sphere, and grass sprang up along the lowest curve of the sphere. Ed put a hand on the side of the sphere and pushed -- instead of rolling up the side, the grass slid along to stay at the bottom as the sphere rolled over the dusty ground. Another tap of the fingers and a stream appeared, clear water making a flowing circle around the grass. "Space is at a premium up here, and of course we can't get real grass to grow on the surface," Ed said, beaming with pride like a miniature sun, "so I thought: what if the cows could take the grazing land with them when they moved?"

Jane squinted, skeptical. "So you put the cows … inside? Like a hamster ball?"

"Yep. It's climate-controlled, UV-protected, and airtight. Waste gets broken down and recycled as fertilizer, or reconstituted into more grass. You can put one of those Guernsey of yours in here and set 'em loose for days on the lunar surface, no trouble. I've got five hundred of these all set -- I was just waiting to snatch a herd that wasn't being watched too closely. Finally, free-range beef for Artemis without the import markup and trouble of going waybelow."

"Cow balls," Jane said flatly. "You've invented cow balls."

Ed laughed. "I guess I have, at that."

Jane pinched the bridge of her nose. "Why are the pretty ones always so dumb?"

Ed's face went still, and Jane had one moment to regret her thoughtless tongue. But then that smile appeared again, catching her breath. He stepped forward and rested a hand on the wall behind her, leaning in, all conspiracy. "You think I'm pretty?"

"Sure," Jane said, not at all breathlessly, no matter how much her heart hammered. "And dumb."

Ed leaned in one more inch, and Jane's whole body tightened. That whiskey-velvet voice went even lower. "Maybe I just haven't had the right teacher."

Jane licked her lips, but then her defensive instincts kicked in. "Maybe kidnapping people isn't a great way to convince them to trust you."

Ed's lean face sobered. "I'm sorry about that. And sorry I scared you."

"Scared me? You pissed me off, is what you did. Maybe I'll be scared when I have the time." When this was over. Except it would never be over. She would never go home again. Never see the sun set behind the mountains, or smell the salt breeze coming off the ocean. No more oceans, ever.

Fingers brushed her chin, tilting her head up. Ed's blue eyes peered down into hers. "Look, damn the Men in Black," he said softly. "If you want to go home, I'll take you back right now. Cows and all."

It was sweet, but it was too late. "I'd have to spend the rest of my life on the run, wouldn't I?" Ed nodded, his eyes still on hers. Jane shook her head. "I'm not the running kind."

"You sure aren't." He bent, and his lips touched hers and were gone again before she even realized what he was about. He put some distance between them and stuck out a hand. God, Jane realized, with a silent laugh -- he was blushing. It was adorable. "Partners?" he offered.

"Partners." Admittedly, the moon wasn't where she'd meant to end up as a rancher, but Jane had never been one to let the details get in the way of her dreams. She grasped Ed's hand, callus to callus. Sparks flew up her whole arm.

Ed, bless him, went stiff and steely again. "There's only one more person you have to convince: my father, Edward Goodnight III."

~~~~~~

Ned Goodnight's only concession to appropriate lunar attire was the silver fabric of his suit. In every other respect he was the nearest thing Jane had ever seen to an Old West cattle baron -- waistcoat and string tie, silver watch-chain, and a fussy calligraphy sweep of salt-and-pepper mustache. He'd been running the Mare Desiderii Beef Company the exact same way for thirty years, and from the stubborn gleam in his eye he looked forward to running it for another thirty. "I thought we put this cow ball nonsense to rest two months ago," he said, chewing on the silver end of an electronic cigar. Beside him, his second wife Corinne took notes on a transparent clipboard, her brown skin looking smooth as velvet next to the shiny silver of her moon suit. Hers was a jumpsuit, impeccably tailored, and Jane was already planning to ask where she could get one of her own.

"It's the best option we have, if we want to save the company." Ed looked so much more boyish without his hat, his chestnut hair mussed and sticking out at all angles. His eyes had the same stubborn gleam as his daddy's, though. "Face it, the MDC is a sinking ship. Profits are lower than they've ever been, and we can't turn things around unless we start making changes. Big ones. Bringing in new ideas, new blood." His eyes flicked briefly to Jane, then away.

"New ideas," Ned scoffed. "You know how many new ideas I've seen in my time? They come and go, and you could lose a whole lifetime chasing after them, but let me tell you what never changes: people have to eat."

"Sure," Ed shot back, "but they haven't been eating beef. The new GMO labs are producing plenty of tasty proteins at half the cost of imported steak."

"Supply has also been an issue," Corinne added. Her black hair was pulled back into a demure ponytail, and her ankles were crossed and tucked beneath her chair in the most ladylike way, but there was something confident in her voice that had Jane sitting up and paying better attention. Here was the power behind the throne. "Waybelow advancements in surveillance have made it more difficult to acquire the necessary numbers of raw product. It's not going to get any better, either."

"It'll come back around," Ned insisted. "Business is a cycle, you have to ride it out."

"Excuse me," Jane broke in, "but does this mean you brought my herd all the way up here just to slaughter them?"

Ned turned to face her, hands tucked into the blue sash wrapped around his silver suit. "I suppose you have a better idea?"

"Sure do," she said at once. "You moon folks know anything about running a dairy farm?"

"Dairy?" Ed looked confused, then intrigued. "Nobody's ever had a chance to try it in Artemis. We never had the pastureland to support a dairy herd. We get the dehydrated stuff from ISS transfers: powdered milk, crunchy cheese, astronaut ice cream."

"Your cow balls mean we've got the pastureland now, don't they?" Jane said.

"That's right." Ed drummed his fingers on the boardroom table, his enthusiasm building. "I've had the real stuff waybelow. Ice cream, pepper jack, sour cream. People up here would love it. They'd pay anything."

"Don't forget butter," Jane added.

Corinne paused her note-taking. "Butter?" Her gaze drifted into the distance. "I had that once." She smiled faintly, pen poised in the air. "It was the most delicious thing I've ever tasted."

Jane leaned forward, her eyes on Corinne. "Those GMO proteins the competitors' labs are making? They'll taste even better fried in butter, I guarantee it. Why fight the competition when you can force them to collaborate, and corner a unique share of the market?"

"I can have projections made within the hour," Corinne said, pen flying.

"This is all well and good," Ned huffed, "but I'm the CEO here and what I say goes."

"Not quite," Jane said. She slapped both hands down on the table. "That herd belongs to me, even if we're nowhere near my ranch. And I'm not handing them over just to be killed for a batch of steaks nobody's even going to buy. So either we turn your pastureland into a proper dairy barn -- no more of this frontier crap -- or I'm taking all three hundred cattle and going back waybelow."

"The Men in Black will find you within days," Ned growled.

"And what good will that do you, all the way up here?" Jane pushed back. "You'll be left with nothing and no hopes for the future. Bankruptcy on Earth is a vicious process, and I'm sure it's no different in Artemis. Worse, I'd guess."

From the angry spots in Goodnight's cheeks, she'd guessed right. Ned chewed on his cigar, moved it away, chewed on his mustache, and put the cigar back in his mouth. Jane raised an eyebrow in challenge. Ed bided his time and bit his lip. Finally Ned's eyes wandered to his wife, who was patiently waiting him out. "You think it'll work, Corinne?"

"I think it's the best idea I've heard in decades," she replied.

The transformation in Ned was instantaneous. "Right," he said, and shoved himself to his feet. Cigar vapor trailed him as he began pacing the office. "I'll need a list of materials -- technical specs, cattle feed, production specifics, you can give me all that, right?"

"Right," Jane said.

"Do it. Meanwhile we'll work on converting the slaughterhouse to a dairy barn, and you two'll get those cows in balls and make sure they're ready to go as soon as we are." He stopped and waved at his son. "Ed can show you the city, find you some accommodations within the family compound. Easiest if you stay close -- we're going to be going at it 24/7 for the foreseeable future."

Jane glanced out the window as Ned continued, Corinne easily keeping up with the list. Artemis spread out beneath her, glittery as a gem. A prize waiting to be seized.

"You hungry?" Ed said, and she glanced back to see he was looking nervous and adorable again. "Artemis food's a bit different than what you're used to. My fridge is stocked up right now -- I could take you back to my place, show you what moon cooking is like. If you're interested."

"Oh, I'm interested." She'd let her tone turn suggestive, making Ed blushed again. Jane wondered just how far down that blush went, and if he'd let her find out tonight or if he'd make her wait. Jane grinned -- this was going to be fun. "Show me what you got, cowboy."

THE END

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Q is for Queer Vampires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

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

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

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

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

A is for Ash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

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

___

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

This Star Trek Post is Brought to You by Not Getting Whooping Cough

So there is a pertussis epidemic afoot in our neck of the woods at present, and after one local news source referred to it as the Hundred Day Cough—the Napoleon of viruses!—I ran out and got myself vaccinated. At which point my brain fell all to pieces.

It's not whooping cough, and it's not an allergic reaction: it's just my body taking energy to make antibodies, like it's supposed to. But it has drained all the thinky-juice from my brain-parts, so instead of making headway on any of my works-in-progress I am weeping over episodes of My Little Pony (that poor tortoise just wants to be loved!) and watching a lot of original series Star Trek for the first time ever.

Which is why I want to talk about the Unnamed Female Romulan Commander.

A still shot from 'The Enterprise Incident,' featuring (among other figures) the Unnamed Female Romulan Commander in a long-sleeved, two-tone asymettrical mini-dress with black over-the-knee boots and sheer black hose.

That's her there, center left, in one of the greatest outfits Star Trek has ever given humanity. She appears in an episode called 'The Enterprise Incident,' which is also pretty fantastic. The UFRC is in charge of the Romulan flagship (!) with a cloaking device, and spends most of her on-screen time seducing Spock (!!) using her words, logic, and that incredible minidress-boot combination. (Which is, of course, what any right-thinking dude-inclined woman would do if dropped into a Star Trek episode.) All while trying to also seduce him into defecting, which somehow doesn't come across as evil so much as it does, well, strategic. Spock is clearly a badass and good to have on your side, plus if he's fighting with the Romulans then she can keep seducing him, and it feels like everybody wins.

Spock, of course, is there to steal the cloaking device. There's an elaborate game of espionage being played, though the episode goes to some lengths to keep the reveal from happening too early. It's one of Star Trek's most effectively plotted stories. And though the UFRC doesn't win, she's not humiliated, and she's treated with the respect due to her rank by everyone on the Enterprise, and Spock even privately admits that their brief sexytimes will have a greater impact on him than the theft of the cloaking device.

And then she disappears from the Star Trek universe forever.

This is unacceptable.

I mean, look at her accomplishments!

  • She can command a damn Romulan flagship, which bespeaks a certain amount of ruthless intelligence and political cunning, but she is never vicious or cruel in the use of her power.
  • She can seduce both the human and Vulcan sides of Spock, and very nearly bend him to her will without denting his awesomeness or independence. Not even Kirk can do this—except in the slashier areas of internet fandom (love you, K/S!).
  • She respects the rights and dignity of her prisoners, even those she has condemned to death.
  • She does not lose control when she discovers Spock's betrayal, and she is as gracious in defeat as she is in victory.
  • She has emotions and expresses them, but they are not her sole motivation.
  • She manages to find two flattering, tasteful outfits in the Star Trek universe—which let me tell you, is no small feat. I expect she has a personal dressmaker on staff, because every other non-Federation lady has the worst outfits.

I don't really have a larger point here. Just that one of the weaknesses of the original series is a tendency to ignore opportunities for long-form narrative arcs, as well as a distressing amount of sexism for a show that was/is considered a progressive benchmark. Following up on the UFRC would have been an excellent way to address both.

And if anyone knows where I can find a replica of that minidress, please let me know.

A Tribute To Anne McCaffrey, Accidental Romance Author

Word came over the Twitter today that beloved author Anne McCaffrey has died at 85. She was one of my absolute favorites growing up, and what's more I'm currently in the middle of the biggest Dragonriders of Pern-reading binge in the history of dragons. Or binges. It's always dangerous to revisit things you loved as a kid—there is the chance they will have gone stale or turned fragile, and then you can never quite recapture that soothing golden glow. But then there are the things that turn out to be even better now that you've grown up and gotten around more than you did when you were, say, twelve. And then you feel smart for having such good taste as a kid.

With that in mind, let's talk about the first book in the Pern series: Dragonflight.

It is my contention that Dragonflight is a classic example of romance as well as sci-fi/fantasy.

There are going to be a lot of pieces talking about Anne McCaffrey's imagination and worldbuilding skill from an sff perspective. This post is going to talk specifically about how this first book in the Pern series was a pioneering romance as well as being a ridiculously brave mix of fantasy and sci-fi.*

Spoilers ahoy.

{Ed. note: For the twelve of you who don't already know this, the events on Pern starts off looking like your basic faux-medieval fantasy, only to be revealed as a deliberately anachronistic colony planet founded by future Earthlings who make dragons using alien genetic techniques. While fighting off vicious devouring space spores with fire and acid. It is Teh Shiznit.}

The book begins with Lessa. This book came out at a time when romance heroines mostly followed the Harlequin or Heyer models: Dragonflight was published four years before The Flame and the Flower, to give you some perspective. Lessa is something entirely different. For one thing, she's an unqualified bitch—guarded, ambitious, and rebellious. She's spent ten years living secretly as a drudge, working to undermine the man who slaughtered her family and planning her return to glory. She is talented, intelligent, and more than a little unscrupulous—and after she takes a bath, her hair goes all frizzy and full of static, which she finds irritating.

No wonder I loved her.

Our hero, F'lar, initially sees Lessa only as a tool for his own agenda to save Pern from a looming threat nobody but him really believes in. As time passes, the two of them come to appreciate one another's intelligence and strength. They begin to trust one another. They have some dragon-induced, mind-blowing sex. And then Lessa discovers time-travel.

No, for real! Kickass bitchy heroine discovers time travel!

And then she figures out how to use time travel to save the planet, but it involves a five-hundred-year jump. And F'lar tells her not to go because her dragon is the only egg-laying queen Pern has left and they need dragons. And Lessa goes anyways—and F'lar falls totally to pieces. Followed swiftly by the reader, because when she comes back—thus saving the planet and proving that she was right all along—he goes running up and grabs her and is sobbing with relief and it's not because the planet's been saved or anything to do with dragons. It's because he thought she was dead and now she's back. She is more important to him than saving the planet.

And the first time I read this book, some quiet part of my brain sat up and went: THIS.

This was what I wanted: a strong woman and a strong man slowly coming to care for one another beyond the bounds of reason. A book where the lady got to save the planet instead of being rescued b the hero. (Throughout the book, Lessa gets thoroughly pissed when people tell her she can't do things because being female is an obstacle—whether it's her own femininity or her dragon's.) Less and F'lar are not perfect people; it'd be fair to say they're both downright annoying at times. But they're perfect for each other.

And all the classic romance beats are there: the initial annoyance with each other, the grudging respect, the attraction that refuses to be stifled even when they're at odds, the eventual affection and trust, and that devastating reunion at the end of the book. This is a romance written in 1968 that avoids the worst excesses of romance during that time: the useless angst, the spineless heroine, and the rapist hero—though we could have an in-depth conversation about how consent works when dragon hormones are involved, and believe me, people have.

And yet, the paradox—this is a strong romance from an author who would have dismissed the label (and has apparently done so in places I cannot find citations for). I can't really blame her. Romance gets a bad rap, especially in the sff part of the world. All I can say is that when I discovered Dragonflight, I recognized it as being kin to Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles and Julie Garwood's The Bride. I took it to heart personally as a romance, and find it hard to let the label go.

So today, per this week's holiday, today I am thankful for Anne McCaffrey and the Pern series—for Lessa and Menolly especially—for showing young me the kind of capable, intelligent, forthright romance heroines I've loved ever since. Even if she wasn't writing romance at the time.

Book Vs. Book: Card and Pratchett

We here at Olivia Waite earned our masters degree in Comparative Literature, and old habits die hard. The Book Vs. Book series will compare one book to another book similar in plot or theme or based on the same material. We will not care (much) about arguing which book is better, but we will care a great deal about what the books' differences mean for the story experience. It goes without saying that Here There Be Spoilers.

Welcome to the first installment of Book Vs. Book! Let's get down to business.

The cover image from Orson Scott Card's book Ender's Game

Enders Game by Orson Scott Card

vs.

Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett

The cover from Terry Pratchett's book Only You Can Save Mankind

Full disclosure: I read both books a while ago, and memory might be a little hazy.

Further disclosure: I am a diehard Pratchett fan, and Orson Scott Card's books have become a little tainted for me by some of his politics in the past decade or so. So if the question were Which book do you like more, Olivia? the answer would not require a thoughtful blog post.

But the question here is something else: If your main character has a life-changing revelation that will alter the reader's perception of the entire story, where in the plot do you put that revelation?

Both books involve a boy playing an alien-slaughtering video game that turns out to be real. Which means all those video-game deaths are real deaths. Ender's Game was published in 1985, and Only You came out in 1992, but the question of how video game violence intersects with real-life violence is evergreen. It's not clear that violent games cause violent acts, as many have claimed—but it's also not clear that violent games and violent acts exist in totally separate ethical realms, either.

This revelation—that the fictional deaths each boy has caused are in fact the death of real alien beings—comes at different points in each story.

With Ender's Game, the revelation is held back until the climactic point of the story's arc. It is a twist ending, a pull-the-rug-out-from-under-them surprise. It's been some years since I read the book, but I remember thinking: What on earth does he do now? And Orson Scott Card spends the rest of a lengthy series exploring precisely that. In fact, the original story was a novelette, meant to establish the character of Ender as the protagonist of Speaker for the Dead (at least, according to Wikipedia, so feel free to rebut my ignorance in the comments). So this first book is really a set-up to an exploration of the question, rather than an exploration itself.

Meanwhile, in Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny Maxwell learns that he's been killing real—or mostly real—beings about halfway through the book, and the second half is him trying to fix what he's done wrong. The tone of this book is quite different—Pratchett is funny even when dealing with weighty issues, where Card is all about heavy moral angst—but what really matters is that the realization comes halfway through. It's the obstacle, rather than the reveal.

The trouble with saving the question for the reveal is that it makes false all the things that seemed important before, and not in a way that feels satisfying. For instance, in Secret Window, or Identity, or Shutter Island, or even Inception (possibly), the twist at the end lets the audience know they've been mistaken the whole time. There can be a pleasure in this—The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense both use the twist ending rather beautifully, to solve a mystery and to help a child move forward, respectively—but the pleasure comes because the twist responds to the stakes we've been working with the entire time. In Ender's Game, the stakes are suddenly changed, and just as suddenly the book is over. The reader has spent the entire reading experience caring about conflicts that ultimately do not matter. This is why the twist ending can feel like cruelty.

Ultimately, I want stories to explore questions, rather than simply pose them. I want to come to the end of a book and feel as though I've gained something, not lost something. If the stakes change, I want the characters to work through what that change means.

In short, I want answers. Even answers I disagree with—even multiple answers. But there must be something offered to the reader, in gratitude for their work in bringing the story to life.

Please feel free to agree, disagree, and offer evidence in the comments below. If you have a suggestion for a future installment of Book Vs. Book, please let me know as well.