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, 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!


Speaking of, 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. 


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

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

E is for Vicki Essex

{Content note: the text below describes a character dealing with being triggered and recovering from a past sexual assault, though nothing is graphically depicted in this post. There is also some transphobic language quoted. For the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.}

Vicki Essex has one of the sleekest voices writing in contemporary romance today. Her prose is clear and engaging, grounded in her characters' physical reactions, studded with moments that take my breath away as a reader and as a writer: "Kyle was still smiling, but inside, threads of anticipation and dread tangled into a tight, messy knot" (Kindle location 792). Damn, that just gets me right in the chest. This talent and her three-dimensional characters are what get me coming back to Ms. Essex's books even though, as I found when I read Back to the Good Fortune Diner last year, her plots tend to leave me frustrated and unsatisfied. In Her Corner, Ms. Essex's latest Harlequin Superromance, worked better for me than the earlier book, but still left me with unresolved questions.

Cover image for In Her Corner by Vicki Essex. Background is a running path at a park. A dark-haired woman with olive skin wears a yellow tank top with sweat stains and black athletic pants. She is running toward us, smiling off into the distance. Behind her runs a paler-skinned, dark-haired man in a blue tank top and shorts. He is smiling at the woman ahead of him.When your heroine is a Brazilian MMA fighter from a legacy family and your hero an Olympic gold-medal wrestler, your story is going to be more than usually concerned with the human body and your characters' physicality. For once, the romance genre's tendency to idealize its protagonists' bodies makes sense, because these characters work hard to be in peak physical condition:

She was shorter than he'd first thought -- five-eight at most. But she was built like a brick house with thick biceps that showed through the stretchy biking top and a trim, tapered waist. He'd been wrong to say that the biking gear hid all her feminine assets, because he could see them clearly defined now. Her grin widened as she unsnapped her helmet and shook out her hair. Long, thick, wavy black tresses slick with sweat tumbled out, barely tamed by an elastic hair tie at her nape. (133)

I have to admit, I cheered to see thick biceps on a heroine. Not just because it makes sense for the character, but because many athletic heroines are presented as slim and gamine rather than stacked or muscular, and it's nice to have a little variety there. Notice, though, how careful the text is to make sure we know that even though she's muscular she's still obviously a woman, and more specifically a sexy woman (would an Olympic wrestler really use a word like "tresses"?).

Not long after, we have some equal-opportunity objectification of the hero:

He was the living portrait of a Greco-Roman wrestler, complete with broken Romanesque nose and dark brown Brutus-style haircut. She wondered idly if he'd ever wrestled naked like the pugilists of those bygone days. (152)

(Pause to envision and appreciate the underrated sexiness of the Brutus haircut.)

Both Bella and Kyle are pressured to match this idealized physicality with an idealized performance of binary gender roles: Kyle's father was abusive and hypercritical, a chauvinist of the old school, and his son has been "forged by his father's unyielding will into the manliest of men" (2273). (Reader, I giggled.) Manliness, as I'm sure you've heard, requires a person to suppress all emotions, to defend others (especially 'weaker' women and children), to disregard physical caution and safety in favor of pride, and to never let a girl "push you around" (504). Meanwhile Bella's family -- all of whom, brothers, father, grandfather, are into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and training as a career -- are urging her not to fight, to settle down instead and raise babies with the boyfriend she dumped because he wanted her to stop fighting: "He said he didn't want to see me get hurt. He kept going on about how it wouldn't look right and how our kids would be affected" (102). Her family agrees, calling her desire to have an MMA career "selfish" (103). It's a pretty standard patriarchal line, and it's to Bella's credit (and Ms. Essex's) that she mourns their lack of support but never truly considers giving up on what she wants. I like a heroine with drive.

The tension between what is expected of Kyle as a man and Bella as a woman propels most of the plot. Bella struggles against gendered expectations for female fighters (skimpy costumes, sexism, underestimation of her abilities) while Kyle struggles to find ways to articulate the emotions he can no longer suppress (fallout from his father's abuse, the trauma of being a rape victim, the depth of his feelings for Bella). One of the more elegant tensions of this story is that Bella needs what Kyle has (encouragement for her career,  training in wrestling) and Kyle needs what Bella has (emotional support and reassurance, unconditional affection). This is a romance where the two genders meet in the middle (stay tuned for why this is not necessarily ideal!). The text throughout is careful never to portray Bella and Kyle as meaningfully different based on their physical bodies -- Kyle has experience and skills that Bella does not, and vice versa, which is why they are training together in the first place -- but the expected gender performance for male and female bodies in the gender binary system leads to vastly different experiences within the highly sexist culture of the UFF (a fictional stand-in for the UFC).

MMA fighting in this book is generally presented as dangerous but acceptably so, a physically difficult yet uniquely rewarding career … except that there's Wayne. For anyone who's been following the increased scrutiny on concussions in the NFL and the long-term health effects of contact sports, Wayne's sudden bursts of irritation, frequent migraines, and prescriptions for painkillers are a puzzle too easily solved, even before he explains it:

"It's  nothing you need to worry about," he said with a shake of his head. "I'm just getting old ... Even if I'd known this would happen, I wouldn't have given any of it up. That's the price of glory. This --" he indicated his worn-out body " -- is just a thing that happens." (3034)

Kyle himself has a bad knee from his early wrestling years -- and he is none too happy when Bella points out that this means his peak athletic days are behind him. It's less a matter of fetishizing youth and skill and more a question of control: "You think you can control everything in your life?" she asks him. "You can't" (2881).

The great fear in this book is not physical danger, but lack of control over one's own body. The real danger of a fighting career is not immediate pain, but a long-term debilitating injury -- the risk is that the fighter will lose physical control, either in the present or in the much-battered future. Wayne regrets his aches and pains not because they hurt, but because they mean his body is doing things he does not want and cannot stop. This is inevitable and tragic. Meanwhile, Bella loses an important exhibition fight when she is distracted by Kyle's voice at a critical moment, and this loss echoes the way Kyle's father once took ownership of Kyle's body and career:

The moment he'd opened his mouth, Bella had shifted because his voice had triggered her into taking a staggered stance. It was a Pavlovian response: the same thing had happened to Kyle whenever his father had pitched his voice in certain ways. They'd drilled that way, too, with Dad shouting instructions and Kyle going through the motions like a trained monkey. (1771)

This fear is the connecting thread between the gendered obstacles against which Kyle and Bella struggle: both dread giving (bodily) control over to someone else -- Bella because it is too expected for a woman, and Kyle because it is not permitted for a man. The "Pavlovian" and "trained monkey" language in the above passasge puts both Bella and Kyle in the position of objects rather than actors; part of Kyle's horror and regret after this scene comes from his disinclination to manipulate others the way his father manipulated him.

No wonder that in this context assault -- whether violent or sexual -- is presented as a more terrifying experience than simple hand-to-hand combat in a controlled setting. We have three characters assaulted over the course of the story: Kyle (raped by an ex-girlfriend), Bella (physically assaulted by a douchebag agent), and Shawnese (a teenaged recovering addict and prostitute who is stabbed by her former pimp). Control is a key issue in all three events, because the act of being assaulted takes bodily control away from the victim -- not just because of the physical force involved in the incident, but because of the resulting emotional and physical instability. For instance, when Bella's douchebag agent Ryan (a stock villain whose lines all come from Rape Culture 101) grabs her during an argument, Bella easily gets free and slams Ryan into the ground. But this moment is not followed by a rush of triumph:

Bella started trembling. Her heart pounded in her ears. She felt light-headed.

"Easy, easy." Kyle was at her side instantly. He sat her down in a chair and pushed her head between her knees.

Her vision cleared as she breathed deeply to calm the jackhammer of her pulse. What the hell was wrong with her? She fought for a living. She'd fought against women and men tougher and better trained than Ryan. Why was she freaking out? (1379)

She is freaking out specifically because this was not a fight, something she'd trained and prepped for -- this was an attack, by definition unasked-for and unwanted. When Bella next sees Ryan at a UFF gala, she loses physical control again: "She glared down at her ex-manager, heart pounding in her throat as those horrible feelings from that shocking day returned. Her fury intensified as all the things she should've said to him bubbled up" (2579). Again, the rush of rage is followed by a feeling of weakness: "I don't want to sound like a wuss, but I'm kind of freaked-out" (2578).

Bella doesn't use the word in the second scene, but it's obvious she's been triggered. Kyle recognizes it -- though he doesn't use the word either -- because the same thing happens to him on a fairly regular basis. Including the scene immediately following this one, when he and Bella first try to consummate their relationship: Kyle panics and stops the sex right at the end of Chapter Fifteen. He describes his rape and how it is still haunting him: "I might as well tell you you're not the first girl I've left in this state. They all thought I was just a doped-up loser who couldn't get it up ... It's hard to fall asleep when every creak sounds like someone in your house" (2756). This is by no means the first rape we've seen in romance, but it's one of the rare instances where the violation is separated from physical penetration (which I would argue is the feminized standard, particularly in the romance genre where rape or attempted rape is so often the province of the heroine). Kyle's experience traumatized him not because he was penetrated (he wasn't) but because someone took control of his body away from him without his consent. This is uniquely traumatic for Kyle on account of his father's past abuse, which took similar forms of physical control and denial of his agency and autonomy.

When he and Bella finally -- finally! -- do succeed in seducing one another, Kyle believes (in true romance fashion) it has healed his broken self:

Born again. That was the only thing Kyle could compare this feeling to as he woke up the next morning. Every limb felt supple, and his back and chest felt light. It was like he was twenty-one again, rather than thirty-six -- energetic, vital, invincible ... A sense of accomplishment and pride rushed through him. He'd made it through the night with Bella. He hadn't had any nightmares, hadn't shot up out of his bed at the slightest sound. He'd had sex without embarrassing himself. His body had listened to him. He'd stayed fully in control of himself. (3383)

Kyle's reaction to this miraculous event mystified me when I was first reading: he pushes Bella away and focuses on making future hotel-sex plans with his supermodel fuck buddy. No, really, he does. It's baffling -- there's a woman you care about, and you can finally have sex again after so many lonely years and sleepless nights, and the sex was amazing, and you're like, "Yep, time to ditch her in the most hurtful way possible!" But sitting down to compose this argument has shown me Kyle's deep need for control, and how Bella threatens that. (This deeper understanding of a book is one of the reasons I love criticism, and one of the reasons I'm doing this project in the first place.)

After successfully fucking Bella, Kyle believes he's fixed now. That he can go back to old playboy patterns (supermodels, no-strings-attached sex). One sexual assault caused the hurt, so naturally he thinks one sexual triumph can heal it. He feels younger, so he believes he can act like he did when he was younger. He's not thinking about his life currently, about his feelings or Bella's. He still has a profound disassociation from his own emotions, which has the unfortunate tendency of making him rather opaque from a reader's perspective -- and from the heroine's. "I didn't cure you, Kyle," Bella tells him. "You can't go chasing women trying to make yourself feel better. You need to talk to someone. You need help" (3540). (A heroine who refuses to play amateur therapist! Ten points to Gryffindor!) It is at this moment, when she questions his newfound sense of stability, that Kyle turns into a bastard and tells her he only slept with her to help her unwind before her big fight. (It may also be worth pointing out that Bella uses Portuguese words more in this scene than in the entire rest of the book -- no doubt on account of the unique and explosive emotional tenor of this argument, but I can't help wondering if this evidence of her foreign-ness helps Kyle find her more threatening than he would have if she'd been cursing at him in English.)

This theme of bodily control helps explain something else otherwise inexplicable in the book: why the text's presentation of Kyle's trans sister Jess is so ham-handed. I'll start with the concise analysis from Ridley's review at Love in the Margins:

The line about slapping Kyle’s shoulder seems to illustrate masculine strength, and a guffaw isn’t generally used for women’s laughter. When Bella compared her to a drag queen, I cringed, but the story goes on to basically portray her as one. She’s tall and ultra-feminine and her contribution to the book is to be part of Kyle’s rough relationship with his late father and to outfit Bella in a fabulous dress for a glitzy party. I wanted more substance and less stereotype. She wasn’t a character so much as a convenience.

It's abundantly clear that both Kyle and the narrative have no idea what to do when confronted with Jess' physical body:

He watched for that moment in Bella's eyes. That slight widening when she realized Jess hadn't been born a woman. With her surgically enhanced body and flamboyant style, he could understand how some people might miss the little details, but there were some things surgery couldn't erase. (2254)

Jess is presented as masculine-in-disguise, a man in drag rather than a 'real' woman. In this book's world, the body does not lie: it expresses the truth about sexual attraction, emotional trauma, age, strength, and someone's 'original' gender. These things can be distractions -- emotions especially -- but there is very little of the 'traitorous body' language we're used to seeing in romance. The body is right: it is only brains and hearts that get confused. Just as Kyle and Bella can't ignore their bodies' responses to one another, Jess' assigned-masculine body can't hide its 'true' gender. Therefore a trans woman is presented as a drag queen, and her assigned-masculine body combined with her feminine gender performance are read by other characters as dissonant and disturbing. Because of the body problem, the text has to go to great lengths to feminize Jess -- so she becomes of narrative necessity a makeup artist, highly skilled in performative femininity even though she fails to pass convincingly as a woman.

This contradiction is the symptom of a system unaware of its own baked-in assumption that gender and sex are identical concepts in a fixed binary system. (There's a lot to argue in that statement, I know, but I'm still only a neophyte in that regard and the short answer for our purposes is: no, sex and gender are not identical or equivalent and the binary turns out to look more like a spectrum.) Trans embodiment troubles a text so fixated on physical, corporeal truth, and Jess' appearance functions as something of a trigger for Kyle: "Jess reminded him of all the lessons their father had beaten into him, all the things a man was supposed to be. All the things he'd failed at..." (2291) The existence of a trans woman -- even his own sister! -- for Kyle does not lead him to realize that rigid sex/gender roles are notionally flawed, that there is a wider range of human experience and gender expression than simply This One or The Other. Genitalia is not destiny. Instead, Jess' existence is a reminder of the gap between Kyle's own fragile manhood and the fetishized, idealized masculinity his father insisted he embody both physically and morally. (Whispers: nobody tell Kyle about intersex people or he'll have to go have a lie-down.) While Jess' inclusion in the text is a step forward for trans representation in romance -- your mileage may vary -- it feels like Ms. Essex missed an opportunity for a deeper commentary on the way cultural binaries fail to describe the full possibility of human existence.

In short, I'm glad this hero gets himself a professional therapist by the end of the book. It seems like he's gonna need it.


While writing Back to the Good Fortune Diner with its Chinese-American heroine, Vicki Essex incorporated much of her own background and experience as a Canadian of Chinese descent. She also wrote a post looking forward to the first women's fight in the UFC.

For an upcoming multi-authored look at trans experience and resources, check out trans bodies: they've got a book coming out sometime this spring!


Essex, Vicki. In Her Corner. Toronto, Ontario: Harlequin Enterprises, 2014. Ebook.

A Trans Romance Heroine and the Problems of Representation

Regular readers of this blog and those of you who follow me on Tumblr and Pinterest will know that I'm pretty keen on bringing feminism full-on into the romance genre. One of the things I'd like to see is greater numbers of heroines and heroes other than white, straight, cis, able-bodied, thin, wealthy people. (On which note: Dear Author recently had a thread recommending good romances that feature protagonists with disabilities, so let's take a moment to cheer for that!) So you can imagine how thrilled I was to learn that there was a contemporary romance that featured a transgender heroine! It's Two Spirit Ranch by Jaime Stryker, and reading it brought up a lot of questions for me.

But First, A Primer

The language for talking about trans experiences is still pretty fluid and I am still learning, but here is a lamentably brief and limited definition of the two terms that are valuable for the discussion in this post.

  • cis: short for either cissexual or cisgender, but no need to worry about that distinction right now. Cis was originally a chemistry term, but in social justice it just means 'not trans' -- if your experience of your own gender matches the gender you were assigned at birth, you are a cis person. I love this word so much, partially because it is useful and illuminating, but also because it reminds me of the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul, which is just 'Gaul that is on the near side of the Alps.'
  • dysmorphia: I can't explain it any better than QueerSexEd, but trans people often experience a certain amount of distance from their own body. This varies from person to person and can be psychologically traumatizing.
  • trans: short for transgender or transsexual, another much-debated distinction that I do not feel qualified to tackle. A trans person is a person whose experienced gender identity is different from the gender they were assigned at birth. For instance, a trans woman experiences her gender as female though she was assigned male at birth.  (The article for transgender on Wikipedia is surprisingly thorough and link-heavy, if you'd like more information.)

And Now, A Review

Sad to say, Two-Spirit Ranch was not very good, as a romance. It's riddled with lame cliché and, for all its evident enthusiasm, not very competently written. But plenty of romances are bad, and talking about things like the sheer, untrammeled idiocy of our sheriff hero is not nearly as interesting as talking about how this book succeeds and fails at representing characters from marginalized groups. (Though a disproportionate number of my reading notes consist of the words: "Stupid sheriff.")

Because while the book received a lot of press from non-romance sources like Jezebel and MediaBistro, it didn't get a lot of coverage within the romance industry itself. Partly this is a factor of the sheer business of the industry—so damn many books!—and partly this is a factor of the silencing that trans voices routinely are subject to in a culture that is hostile to their very existence. I am by no means an authority on trans experiences—I'm as straight, white, able-bodied, and cis as your average romance heroine—but it seems to me that someone in the romance community should be talking more about this book, and nobody else has stepped forward. That the existence of this book is a referendum on the state of diversity in romance today should be clear from this ChicagoNow headline: Will romance genre embrace new transsexual story?

You are heartily encouraged to call shenanigans in the comments.

Our Heroine

Overall, I felt that the depiction of our trans heroine Terri was positive and plausible. Female pronouns were used to refer to her throughout, except when her past as Terrence was discussed. This seemed appropriate, respectful, and fairly similar to what trans bloggers have written about all over the internet. The author has clearly listen to trans women talk about their lived experiences, and transgender blogger Cyrsti Hart agrees (though she enjoyed the book more than I did). For me, this authenticity was most clearly shown in this speech of Terri's:

"Dont get me wrong. I'm proud of who I am. It took me a long time to get to this point in my life, and I had years of struggle. But sometimes you just don't want to have to get into your story with every person. You just want to be who you are now. Not everyone is open to understanding." (Kindle 1615)

The book's most nicely written passage deals with Terry's dysmorphia growing up, and is worth quoting at length:

The body she had lived in then had always felt like a stranger's from as far back as she remembered. Looking at it now, the person seemed like a distant memory. Almost like the feeling of waking after a long dream. On a conscious level, she knew that was her in the photo, but it felt so unreal since she never identified with the person in that body. In fact, going through puberty was very difficult. Imagine the shock of seeing your girl friends grow breasts and wider hips while you were getting hairier and your voice started to deepen. (Kindle 377)

Even the fact that our heroine was often TSTL was kind of refreshing: she was shallow and frustrating in precisely the same way as any other poorly written category heroine. I liked as well that her trans identity was dealt with in the opening chapters—I refuse to count the prologue, which was word-for-word a scene from the novel's emotional climax and was exactly the kind of unnecessary beginning that gives Angela James at Carina the fits—so that it was a part of our heroine's thought process throughout, and informed her experience as she moved from busy New York to small-town Montana.

The quibbles I have are these. One: Terri was treated exactly like a woman—a stereotypical, girly, watches-her-figure (yes, she used that old-timey phrase) kind of woman. It was peculiar to find a trans-centered romance novel that was so heavily invested in maintaining traditional gender roles. It read less like an attempt to show that trans women are still 'real' women, and more like the classic Mars-Venus bullshit that is so insidious within the genre and the category romance in particular.

Two: Terri's trans identity was used in classic romance fashion as a Deep, Dark Secret, one that she 'should' have told the hero right off and one that causes much romantic angst when it is eventually revealed. Normally the Deep, Dark Secret cliché is as good or bad as the writer who employs it—but in this case, it worryingly mirrors the idea that a trans person's very existence is a deception. As Cord Jefferson explains in Good Magazine:

Time and again in both comedic and dramatic films, transgender people are cast as deviant tricksters out to fool innocent victims into sleeping with them. This narrative plays upon two of America's deepest fears: sexual vulnerability and humiliation. Not only is your sex partner "lying" about their gender, victims who "fall for it" are then forced to grapple with the embarrassment of being had, of being seen as gay. Men "tricked" into sleeping with another man are embarrassed by the threat to their masculinity. So much culture has taught us that transgender people aren't just sexual aliens, they're also predatory liars.

The supposed deceit of trans individuals is often used against them—it's a dehumanizing justification to hurt them, often violently, in the name of a false sense of self-defense. I cannot state this strongly enough: trans people have been and are being killed because of this attitude, and its presence in a romance is disturbing. Especially when it's our hero who's upset at having been 'deceived':

"I may be a small town sheriff but didn't you respect me enough to tell me the truth? But I would have rather heard it from you first hand. Don't you think I deserved at least that, Terri? Don't you? Didn't I deserve some respect after all we've been through?" (Kindle 1779)

He really sounds like a man working himself up to put his fist through a wall, and I was concerned. Especially since "all we've been through" consists of one day at the fair and one night's good lovin' (closed-door, to my disappointment). And even after the sex he'd had no idea she was trans until his evil condo-building cousin showed him the proof acquired from a private detective (don't even ask).

This is a small town, where everyone knows everyone else's business, sexual and otherwise—you bet your ass any trans person would take their sweet time before revealing something so dangerous, no matter how sexy the sheriff.

Our Hero

But my main problem with our hero Jake is not his alpha-hole behavior (though there's plenty of that). My main problem with Jake is that his backstory presents him as part Native American—and this brings up the biggest issue I had with treating Two-Spirit Ranch as what author Jaime Stryker wants it to be: a progressive novel advocating greater diversity in romance.

It must be stated: romance has a terrible history with Native American and First Nations characters. It's noble savagery all the way down. And, sadly, so is this book: in its use of the two-spirit people as a solution for the plot, there is a distinct tone of Gosh, those Native tribes were so much more tolerant and environmentally friendly than we supposedly advanced white settlers:

"I had no idea," Terri said, dumbstruck. "It sounds so much more advanced than our society now." The professor nodded knowingly. "When it comes to our society's rigid views regarding sexuality or gender, you're right. It was seen as a positive rather than a negative. Diversity was a reflection of nature and all its infinite possibilities." (Kindle 1688)

And then Professor Redfeather goes back to digging up transgender Native pottery from beneath the lightning-struck tree on Terri's ranch. No, really.

There is precisely one mention of "the reservation" in this book, and here it is:

Jake: "I hated being part Native growing up. Not only were they bad guys in the western movies, but sometimes I'd see alcoholic Indians begging on the streets of town or committing crimes around the reservation. At the time, I didn't understand what was really behind some of that." (Kindle 1085)

But the issue of what's "behind some of that" is never discussed. Native Americans here are academics and people of the past—there's no discussion of what's happening on the reservation right now, on the fact that these supposedly magical, tolerant people are no longer here because we either killed them all or drove them away. The whole point of including the Native background at all is to 'solve' the problem Jake has with Terri's trans identity.

And—pardon the swearing—it's just plain shitty to present one marginalized identity as the 'solution' for another person's different experience of marginalization.

In Conclusion

Ultimately, for all my criticism, I'm glad Two-Spirit Ranch exists. It can be easier to creatively respond to a bad representation than to a lack of representation: the No no no, here's how that story should have gone! motivation is a strong one.

But frankly, I'd hoped for better. I think we as an industry can and should do better at including trans characters. And if anyone knows of any other examples out there, be sure to point me in their direction.

Further Reading

These are by no means the only resources on the web if you want to read more about trans or Native identity and issues of representation. (Let me introduce you to my friend, Google.) These are merely the websites I could think of right off the top of my head, and which have thoroughly informed my reading of trans experience, Native experience, feminism, and intersectionality. Any mistakes or missteps in the above analysis are entirely and completely my own.

Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog

How To Make Love to a Trans Person by Gabe Moses

Native Appropriations



Tiger Beatdown