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About me

You can call me Ella. I am going to analyse and examine fantasy fiction (and sometimes other genres as well) from feminist and socialist point of view. Beware of heavy spoilers.

NOTE: Since English isn’t my first language, forgive me (or correct) my errors.

Harry Potter and the Broader Context

Amidst the books which have accompanied me through summer, the most famous is the series about Harry Potter, undoubtedly.

WARNING I can’t say I’ve approached it with no prejudice, especially seeing all this awful transphobia of JK Rowling. Let me explain something: I’m sick with the misunderstanding around non-binary and trans people. I’m sick with perceiving them as funny/thwarted/unnatural ones, with dehumanizing them. I’m sick with dehumanizing anybody who’s rare or different, anyway. Please understand: being trans is no game or whim. In the binary world of ours, it’s neither funny nor easy. If you want to complain on terrible PC and cultural marxism or claim JK the victim of misogyny, this is not the place for it. WARNING

I’ve been no fan, angry with the author displaying her bias. I’ve been ready for a sceptic read. I’ve been ready to examine whether the books were really the children of their times in the question of representation or female characters.

To me, they weren’t.

Even in the ʼ90s and before, there was fantasy with important or even leading PoCs characters. The Chronicles of Valdemar by Mercedes Lackey, The Chronicles of the Cheysuli by Jennifer Roberson… Many of Robin Hobb’s characters can be read as non-white, too, and the same applies to the case of several books by Patricia A. McKillip. Not to mention Ursula LeGuin and her worlds which often were literally all of colour. Or Tamora Pierce.

And non-heteronormative characters? Again, Ursula LeGuin, Mercedes Lackey, Darkover by Marion Zimmer Bradley… And, after a fashion, non-binary Fool/Lord Golden at Hobb’s.

Female protagonists? LeGuin’s Tenar, Lackey’s Talia and Elspeth, Pierce’s Alanna…

Diversity wasn’t a common postulate back then, that’s for sure, but it doesn’t mean that some authors hadn’t accomplished the said postulate already.

Then, why all those writers have never been as popular as Rowling? Why is Hogwart much more famous than Valdemar or Earthsea? To my mind, the answer is complex.

On the one hand, the works of Ursula LeGuin have been already considered classic and thus not attractive for a popular reader (just as McKillip’s)—not to mention that the world of Earthsea grew more complex and ambigious than magical England of Rowling has ever been.

On the other one, you have had mediocre writers like Mercedes Lackey or Jennifer Roberson. The latter one wrote her Cheysuli too sexist and cliched to grow or remain really popular, but Lackey? In my opinion, her series of Valdemar has been all a YA reader needs: big backstory, rich world, important lessons, likeable characters, diversity. I think that it’s better than one may think, and deserving more popularity. To me, no worse in style and pace from HP, really. Then, why her books have been never so popular? Is it possible that they were the victim of their own sincerity, filled with diversity before it has grown fashionable?

To my mind, Harry Potter is what a fan from the beginning of our century wanted—that’s the crucial thing about this series.

Be against racism but do not make your PoCs too important. Be compassionate towards AIDS-afflicted people but do not introduce LGBT characters openly and marry off any potentially queer heroes. Write your protagonist as an Average Orphan with bad stepmother foster parents and an Old Mentor making amends for his ambigious and secretive past. Be against classism but make your main character and his kinspeople extremely rich in their world. Set your story against the commonly known backdrop of England around which quite a big part of our culture have been already centered. Add some Universal Message about the Power of Love and Friendship, and—voilá!

I’m not saying this moderate conservatism was necessarily bad, even if I’m glad that the fandom has changed, demanding open diversity and openly grey characters, and openly unobvious conclusions.

The said keeping of the status quo was visible in the popularity of other fantasy series, though, no matter whether it was bad writing or good.

Twilight series offered a conservative tale of restraining oneself from sex and finding happiness in a traditional marriage, pretending at once that the Native American werewolves introduced some diversity into the universe.

Or Robin Hobb’s books about Farseers—not necessarily very famous ones, but apparently popular, with their own fanarts and forum. Could their popularity have something to do with status quo? With characters whose allegiance remain roughly the same, and who are punished for illicit affairs either with illegitimate pregnancy or with love drama? With characters lacking somebody both queer and ordinary (like Jesper and Wylan at Leigh Bardugo, let’s say)? With the well-known setting of eternal quasi-Middle Ages?

And then, of course, there is ASoIaF, a big tale for “adults”. Neo-liberal in its individualist message, focused on the noblemen. Presenting PoCs either as barbarians or slave-holders, or exotic guests from some faraway paradise islands. Fetishizing patriarchy and feudal abuse, and apparently lacking the perspective of the commoners. And making some unfortunate decisions about queer people as well.

No wonder that Harry Potter got so popular. It hit the spot. It was moderately tolerant and perfectly homely. Just as most of the fantasy bestsellers back then. It was tolerant enough to oppose the most hard-headed racists and suprematists, showing them as utterly bad. It was also very homely, using well-known cliches and tropes, already present in (urban) fantasy and fairy tales. There was a Dark Lord, a Chosen One, an old castle, and hell bunch of old families. There were wands and brooms, and Avada Kedavra instead of Abracadabra. There was Butterbeer and mutton pie. There was the well-known formula of unusual school adventures, and the world which everybody brought up on the western culture could recognize—an alternative England (still observing Halloween and Christmas, though) filled with mythological creatures from half the Europe: vampires, goblins, elves, giants, centaurs, unicorns. If some species were added, it was only a fancy bonus. If some nations and ethnic minorities were added, it was a bonus too—just look how the Eastern Europeans, especially Russians, are portrayed; either as Dead Eaters (Dolohov and Karkaroff) or coarse but good guys (Krum). And then you have the French, and poor Fleur and her kinswomen portrayed more or less as sexual objects in whose company guys go mad. Those French. So sensual, you know.

And, finally, there is the whole confused question of race. Really confused.

Having eight or ten PoCs in your series isn’t the problem, even. The problem is how those people are marginalized even if they are important for the Good Side (Kingsley Shacklebolt). How they are on the backstage while having potential for being on the first stage (Dean Thomas). How they are treated as mere pretty tokens and get confusing names (Cho Chang is the both). How their status is irrevelant to the real-world racism (Zabini).

It’s very sad. You have characters who have potential, whose problem isn’t the very absence from the universe or the “open” interpretation of their identity. Their problem is being either stereotypized or on the backstage, or both. And learning that Dumbledore could have been partially Native American (and we learn it in the last book, yeah) doesn’t change it.

Many writers thought back then that this was the place of characters of colour. On the backstage.

And then, the times changed and Rowling announced that Hermione may be black as well. And do you know why it smells fake? Because she tried to pretend that her universe is more diverse than actually is.

You have authors like Rick Riordan who simply write new series and introduce diverse characters. You have authors whose characters have been diverse from the very beginning. And you have JK Rowling and “look how gracious I’ve turned with PoCs!”.

The metaphorical racism of Potterverse doesn’t help, either, as it is quite convoluted.

On the one hand, the magicians, with their halfbloods and muggleborns and fear of interracial children like Hagrid, harbour a racial obsession fitting ante-bellum South or Nazi Germany. On the other one, the said magicians were the persecuted ones once, and it may be the reason for their contempt for the muggles. And your magical status has nothing to do with your skin, i. e. Zabini at Slytherin. And there are other races, often submitted to the human mages, races holding some potential for the metaphor of xenophobia and discrimination—like goblins and their notion of property and mutual relations, making Harry aware that no group in the magical world has been ever innocent. If only the said goblins were not bankers with specifically shaped noses, reminding of the worst and the most harmful stereotypes about the Jews…

And then, there is the total fail of the house elves. Rowling?… Their portrayal is actually an equivalent of the slave characters from Gone with the Wind. Happy to serve and obey their masters, happy with their slavery. The old South’s propaganda at its best. There is even a naïve, histerical abolitionist in the person of Hermione, and there is a good Southerner mageborn, Ron Weasley, who knows better. There is Dobby, of course. But Dobby is an exception. Just as the almost-abolitionist opinions of Dumbledore.

You can’t be anti-fascist and antiracist on the one hand and portray your non-“human” characters and their apologists like that on the other one.

And racism isn’t the only issue which is portrayed with presumably good intention but problematic realization.

You can tell the same about the non-existent LGBT people in Potterverse. Making allusions to HIV through Lupin’s werewolfness is no representation—and today, it would be considered quite offensive, to reduce the concerns of gay people to the already stereotypized HIV problem— no matter if the sexual minorities used to be portrayed metaphorically twenty years ago rather than introduced straightforward. If you want to write about queer people, write about them. Not about werewolves or Witted Ones, or whatevah. Write about them and do not announce your character’s gayness post-factum to show how “tolerant” you are. And, above all… Ok, I’m not going to comment Rowling’s transphobia again.

Or let’s take the portrayal of women and personal relations in the series. It isn’t sexist in the way of Belgariad or Xanth, but still, one can find several problems with it. I has, afer a fashion, many of the problems of Robin Hobb’s Six Duchies series, including pretending that there is more gender equality in your setting than actually is.

This dissonance is visible not only in the two families, the Dursleys and the Weasleys, who are the two sides of one “traditional” family model with a bread-winning daddy and a mom looking after the kids and the household. The only difference is that the Dursleys are Evil Rich Bigots with one pampered kid, and the Weasleys are Good Poors with the whole pack of children.

Do not misunderstand me. I appreciate the character and the hard work of Molly Weasley—more than Arthur’s, actually—but I think that the families like the one of hers were already in the minority in the UK over twenty years ago. In 2000, two-third of UK mums were working, damn!

And then, you learn of notable witches and female headmasters of Hogwart long before anybody postulated equality in the muggles’ world. You learn of McGonagall’s efficiency and of Tonks’ courage. On the Wrong Side, you have Bellatrix as the right hand of Voldemort. That’s on the one hand. On the other one, you have the Blacks and the other magical aristocrats caring mostly about their male members. So, yes, there is a big dissonance.

Just as it is about the family life in this world supposedly quite egalitarian on the gender level. Strangely, almost everybody marries one’s school girlfriend or boyfriend. Strangely, literally all characters (except Hagrid, perhaps) are born to married couples—just compare it with Percy Jackson’s milieu and its problems with absent parents. Nobody has heard of divorce or patchwork families. Nobody has heard of non-heteronormative relationships. Nobody, including teens buzzing with hormones, has ever heard of premarital sex, which makes catcalling Ron and Lee Jordan even nastier, presumably showing that those boys are only joking innocently.

Guess how all this has reflected the private life in the UK even back in the ’90s. Poorly, I would say.

You may think that the message of HP on love life isn’t conservative since, for example, Ron’s bigotry on Ginny’s boyfriends is ridiculed. But the very absence of some social trends is more telling than Ron being criticized both by Ginny and Hermione.

I would never expect I would say it, but The Farseer Trilogy and the Tawny Man trilogy are more realistic on love and sex than HP is. There is a lot of rant against extramarital relations there, but those relations do exist, at least. And they aren’t condemned to the bone, and they concern teens as well.

The women and their significance in the story is another question. Hermione, Luna or Minerva McGonagall don’t lack personality or agency. They lack their own perspective, just as Ron and Neville do, actuall—due to Harry being the centre of plots and events. They lack PoVs or some equivalents of them.

Strangely, though, the males in the series suffer less from the Harry-centrism than the women do. Somehow, most of the magical families relies on sons—Potters, Blacks, Dumbledores, Malfoys, Weasleys… Weasleys where there are six sons and one daughter. The most important figures of the universum—the enemy, the mentor, and the ambigious character—are male too: Voldemort, Dumbledore, Snape. And the chosen one, Harry Potter, is a boy, after all.

I don’t mean that all this has come sexist on purpose. I mean that it tells a lot of our culture where a male character is default, somebody (presumably) universal. And changing it isn’t about introducing Harriet Potter. It is about portraying girls sisterly, in believable situations and affiliations, without assuming that all their activities are giggling and plotting against each other once a pretty guy appears. Harry Potter doesn’t offer such a perspective. He doesn’t offer the perspective which would fully apply to boys and girls alike, either.

You may think that my thoughts on the series are harsh, but it’s more like liking something despite of its obvious flaws, actually. I don’ t hate or even dislike HP. I consider it a bit overrated but still inspiring. It has a generic plot, an issue with its author, and several social controversies, but its British setting is vivid and convincing, and many of the characters—like Snape, Slughorn, Molly, McGonagall—surprisingly well-drawn. It also gives a clear and keen message on fascism, and on the work of the public institutions in the times of crisis. And this message, although flawed in its details, cannot be ignored. No matter if the ultraconservatives claim Harry Potter for their own, the series will never belong to them. Once they criticized it for magic and “pagan” symbolism. Now they are excited because they get a transphobic author who produced an average child of its time with lack of diversity.

One can only laugh at it. And decide oneself what the problematic heritage of Harry Potter means for her, him or them.

The Metaphors Behind “The Belles” by Dhonielle Clayton

Imagine there is an island kingdom where the people are born grey-skinned, red-eyed and overall ugly. And only the Belles, a group of girls gifted with magic, can make them beautiful and colourful. But it has a price. A price of pain and of even worse things of which the younger generation of Belles isn’t aware.

Welcome to the Kingdom of Orleáns.

I could praise Dhonielle Clayton for an original setting based on New Orleans and French royal court. I could praise her for choosing French names deliberately. I could praise her for the world which turns from lush and georgeous to terryfying and cruel. I could praise her for writing her characters out of any racial and sexual orientation stereotypes. I could praise her for bitter metaphor of body image, beauty surgery and the look standards which are still required from women.

But I think that in her book, yet another metaphor is hidden.

To my mind, The Belles are the homage to placées of New Orleans and other regions and cities of French and Spanish colonies. Assuming that Clayton is well aware of the racial history of New Orleans—and from her interview I think she is—it is quite possible.

You may ask, who a placée was? Does it have anything to do with the beauty-disposing Belles?

Well, at first you need to know what was the institution of plaçage. It was an official system, popular especially in New Orleans, in which ante-bellum white rich guys took women of colour for their concubines and often had children with them, and those children—or rather, sons—were sometimes bestowed with education and freedom. The daughters usually had to follow their mothers’ path and were schooled for the next generation of misstresses.

Nowadays, it’s hard to judge such a social institution. Was it better than prostitution? Were placées safer than slaves on plantation—because they had to have only one lover and they were protected by their sponsors? It isn’t easy to answer such questions and Dhonielle Clayton doesn’t offer easy answers, either. Neither she does her metaphor obvious and straightforward. She does something else.

She writes her Belles in a lush and mysterious way, but out of any crude patriarchal sexualisation with which the placées were described even in complex and acclaimed books like Absalom, Absalom! She writes them as companions and sisters, enclosing them in the female world. She hides them from the world and makes them learn the secrets of beauty from their mothers and female mentors. Untouchable to men, they are chosen by the aristocratic houses to reshape and recolour human bodies as they are presented to the world after the years of childish and adolescent seclusion. But their life depends on the mighty ones’ whim, and the fate of turned-down Belles is terryfying.

To my mind, it is all the metaphor of placées existence. Secluded and guarded, they were chosen by their well-born sponsors and casted-off when they grew too old. Of course. The world of the Belles contains all those aspects of their existence, including desolation and eventual rejection. But it also omits sexual context on purpose, and transforms the deadly and beautiful girls into the symbol of the true Orléans.

Under the glamour and lushness, cruelty is hidden. Just as it was hidden in the racial relations in the real New Orleans, and not only there.

The Shameless Retellings of Frances Hardinge

There is something exquisitely sincere about the books of Frances Hardinge set in the England’s past. Exquisitely sincere and shameless.

Because Hardinge doesn’t conceal she writes from the progressive perspective and tells the past from the point of impassable classism, bigotry and sexism, and all this wrapped in unobvious fantasy elements.

Each of her “past” books seems to be focused on a different aspect of it, but the reader is reminded of some themes in all the three of them, the themes like change, classism, dysfunctional family and social “order”.

In Cuckoo Song, we watch the poor ones from an outer perspective, as the main character finds shelter in the company of a neglected feminist living among workers. It doesn’t mean, however, that the hopelessness of their existence isn’t caught; it’s caught into the dirty streets, into the worn clothes of children, into sparse food. It’s caught into the helplessness of servants who couldn’t get a proper job because of their unfair employer’s references, and into the anger of men who returned from WWI and got nothing from their country. And all those motifs and descriptions sound even more true being on the verge of the story, not in the centre of it. In Cuckoo Song, the poverty isn’t a nice component of a picaresque novel or a pretext to some inspirational porn. It’s an emanation of all-surrounding classism, of the order where the rich ones are the decent ones to such an extent that the morality and symbolic power become the one. The workers are indecent. The suffragists are indecent. Jazz is improper. And it’s funny how nothing has changed, after a fashion. We like jazz but we consider dying hair pink or blue improper. We take women’s work and voting for something obvious but we call the feminists femi-nazis.

The main theme, however, is family, the family which isn’t ideal merely because of being based on indissoluble heterosexual marriage. The family which coupes with fear and depression and whose members don’t know how to help their children. The family which excludes Triss, the main-and-not-the-main-character, from the social life under the pretext of caring about her safety and mental health. The family which has grown toxic not out of some unspeakable evil. It has grown toxic under the expectations of the society and under the burden of WWI’s tragedy.

It’s also a book about fear. The fear of the Other One—personalized in the Besiders and their mysterious community—and the fear about the world which changes quickly in the questions of class, politics and religion. Guess what on the which side Hardinge places her most badass-y characters.

A Skinful of Shadows, her book set in the Civil War England, approaches the classism and the concept of a toxic family from another side. It also makes the reader aware about the suffering of the animals—introducing two main characters, a girl called Makepeace and a tormented dead bear whose soul coexists with her mind in her body.

In this book, an aristocratic family of the Felmottes becomes the symbol of feudal greed and ruthlessness. The Felmottes not only do the usual aristocratic things like instigating the commoners against each other, mistreating servants and siring bastards carelessly. They also practice a kind of necromancy, and they use their illegitimate children as provisional containers for their ancestors’ souls. Makepeace, as one of those children, decide to rather escape into the havoc of the Civil War and save her half-brother than to endure it. She meets the puritans destroying the churches on the one hand and the king living in luxuries among dying and plagued people on the other one.

It doesn’t mean, however, than in A Skinful of Shadows, the aristocrats are villains and the commoners are all good. It doesn’t mean that the king is a tyrant and the puritans are noble revolutionaries. Neither does it mean that the king is a Poor Noble Guy warring with Insolent Scum.

The king is arrogant and doesn’t see the people’s needs and their suffering. The puritans, on the other hand, don’t care about any kind of tolerance, neither religious nor the social one; living with her Puritean uncle as a small girl, Makepeace is outcasted as an illegitimate child. She isn’t treated like a family member, actually. Those Good Ol’ Days indeed… And that Christian mercy.

Hardinge reminds us of something of which we don’t like being reminded. She reminds us of not only the fact of illegitimate children’s existence which was erased by the middle class’ understanding of the social history; the understanding which assumed that the marriage with a pack of biological kids was the only form of family. She also reminds us of the treating of such children; somehow, the pro-lifeism would always end when a child was illegitimate or—although this theme isn’t raised in her books—of colour, or both.

But the most important theme of A Skinful of Shadows may be the same as in Cuckoo Song—the change, the shifting time. The time when the commoners oppose the king so commonly and so openly the first time. On the one hand, Hardinge emphasizes the power of it. On the other one, she doesn’t describe it in simple categories—reactionary aristocrats and progressive ordinary people. She never forgets that the rebelling puritans were progressive in their demands of representation but very intolerant towards those who differed from them on the religion’s ground.

The Lie Tree, her book set against the 1870’s England, focuses more on the sexism, science and bigotry than on the broader political perspective. And unlike A Skinful of Shadows, it doesn’t do the commonfolk representation through introducing the main “low-born” character. Instead, it shows a daughter of a respected minister, and a lot of disturbing people and social phenomenons around her.

The Lie Tree is even more complicated than the previous past books of Hardinge, full of contradiction and paradox of the Victorian society. The father of Faith the main character is sexist but he relies on his daughter’s intellect. He is a Christian shattered with the revelations of the evolution theory. The main villain is a female scientist hidden behind the back of her second husband who runs the local excavations only for the sake of her pleasure. A supposedly benevolent doctor comes out to be a vengeful misogynist. The woman running the post station is accused of an affair with a married man but she is a closeted lesbian actually. The community of the island seems well-mannered and welcoming at first to turn excluding and ruthless. The death photographs depict the dead ones as if they were alive.

It’s a book very open about the impassibility of some nineteenth-century barriers. It’s a book about condemning the females-(scientists) and keeping them silent, out of sight and out of influence. It shows why speaking of stupid women who’ve been never as innovative as men is such a nonsense—the women weren’t given their chance, being prevented from education and discouraged from it. After a fashion, they still are.

The silence, a kind of mafia-like omerta stretches out over other questions as well and entwins everybody. Illegitimate children are buried out of sacred ground, invisible, forgotten. Faith’s mother pretends that her son is right-handed like “other” children. The death of Faith’s father is rumoured but never openly named. The servant who started the rumours keeps silent—and vengeful as she is, she had her reasons to do this way and not another. The employers pretend being in good relations with the servants and vice versa. Everybody pretends being kind and rightous. But under the cover, in silence, all the vileness grand and petty is hidden.

If you complain on PC and cancel culture, you should remember that those trends are nothing in comparison to all the nineteenth century censorship and exclusion—when nobody talked to you because of the supposed suicide of your husband and when piano’s legs where covered because they were to evoke sexual associations. But, of course, we tend to perceive the past as the time of freedom of speech and action. Well, it depended who spoke and about what and what one did. Behind the illusion of liberal past, there are whole silenced and diminished groups, and the consequences much worse than being called a racist or sexist in the social media. And it’s even more terryfying because the vileness in The Lie Tree isn’t something terryfic; it isn’t about direct violence, about genocides, slavery and pogroms. It’s about the petty things done by supposedly decent people— which show the best why decency is more about the power of some groups than about being a kind-hearted person. And Hardinge—unlike so many of those who write about the past —says it openly. She shows that so-often romantized times—like interwar period—weren’t friendly for the commoners, or for anybody who stood out.

And the best thing about her is that she doesn’t yell it. She whispers it. She doesn’t show her female or low-born characters only or mostly as victims. She shows them as human struggling (not always in a fair way) for humanism in the world which is often unhuman—both on the paranormal and on the mundane level.

Why You Should Care About “Kristin Lavransdatter” even if You Disagree with the Author

As much as I am angry about all the puritanism in Robin Hobb’s books, I accept the notion of sin in Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. I accept the strong religiosity of its characters and all the deliberation about guilt and grace.

Why have I ever come to it although it’s not my cup of tea at all? Is it because Undset got the Nobel Prize? Maybe. When I read Kristin… the first time, I was a little snob who wanted to learn serious literature. When I read it the second time, I saw all its nuances and subtleties. I saw how all the setting is connected to its times, and how the worldview of the characters follows this pattern. I saw also how realistic the novel is, and how the opinions of the heroes and of the very narrator change.

This changing, shifting, so obvious to the life in all its aspects, might have made me embracing Kristin… wholeheartedly. Unlike in The Forsyte Saga, it isn’t the change from questioning the establishment to longing for it. Unlike some more popular books —like Hobb’s series, of course—nothing remains the same. Let’s take Fitz Farseer. Fitz doesn’t change a lot from his teen years, literally inheriting Burrich’s opinions on sex and relationships, and being a wheening hypocrite stern to his foster son and to his lovers.

Meanwhile, Kristin isn’t such a simple character. She begins as a girl feeling guilty for her premarital sex with her beloved Erlend on the one hand and defying her parents openly for the sake of her love on the other one. She grows into a woman who may hold grudge, but who doesn’t conceal important things from her partner *recalls Fitz and laughs*. She ends up as a person who accepts the life as it is, focused not on scorning anybody, but on bringing help even to those who are outcasts. Meanwhile, she makes up with her son Gaute bringing his fiancee to their household before the wedding. She approaches the girl with no slut-shaming and she welcomes her grandson, commenting the sumptuous christening of the illegitimate child with only a bit of irony. And her complex attitude towards love and sex is only a small part of her contradictory and strong personality. I wish Robin Hobb had created such a character instead of pack of archetypes whose traits remain more or less the same. I wish Philippa Gregory created her characters like that, instead of quite inconsequent shifting between a modern approach of GirlsPower&StupidArrangedMar-riages on the one hand and the rule of not perceiving the people from Old Days through our standard on the other one. I wish Maurice Druon had had an approach like that instead of depicting the women with deliberate or involuntary sexism.

Because, really, Kristin Lavransdatter is one of the best historical novels I’ve read, and one of the novels in which the fantastic and subversive elements have been incorporated in a very subtle and unobvious way.

Still, why should I care, you may ask.

If you are an engaged Catholic, you’ll be probably glad to read a novel which is complex on the one hand and compatible with your worldview on the other one.

If you are a Conservative perceiving the private live in the past through the life of your parents or grandparents—who were probably stabily married without illegitimate kids—you’ll be surprised.

If you are a liberal or generally progressive, and doubtful about religion, you may wonder why should you care at all about a book written by a devoted Catholic who seemed ranting against extramarital sex. Then, I would advise you on reading Kristin Lavransdatter with your own eyes. You are wholly entitled to be sceptic. You are entitled to see the things which the author tried to conceal or saw as perfectly neutral. And the paradox is that those things are as visible in this book as in the works which are progressive or feminist retellings. Sometimes, they echo even more soundly.

Medieval World Without Purple-Washing

Kristin Lavransdatter might not be the most progressive novel in the matter of reproductive rights and explicit sexual freedom, but it is also better from conservative historical fiction on two levels. On the first one, it doesn’t conceal the fact that the people will fall in love and part from one another, and have illegitimate kids and illicit affairs no matter their religion or convictions.

On the second one, it’s more sincere in the question of women’s situation.

Nowadays, people like Jordan Peterson claim that there has been no patriarchy. On the other hand, not only the conservatives, but supposedly progressive authors—like Roshani Chokshi or Guy Gavriel Kay in his first novels—purplewash the past and tend to omit the sexism in their books. The conservatives, meanwhile, do purplewashing to present themselves and their opinions as women-friendly and to justify themselves and the institutions they support.

Sigrid Undset didn’t do anything like that. She did it not necessarily because she was an aware feminist, but the result is telling to the modern reader anyway.

The times when a man who’s never bitten his wife was considered a particularly kind guy weren’t women-friendly.

The times when a pregnant woman who experienced abuse stayed with her husband according to “God’s Will” weren’t women-friendly.

The times when a girl was accused of provoking her would-be-rapist—a man who was trained for a priest, additionally—weren’t women-friendly.

The times when a husband stroke her wife and felt entitled to do it merely because he was angry on her or worried about her, weren’t women-friendly.

The times when a woman was considered a witch merely because she’d gained some medical knowledge, weren’t women-friendly.

The times when priests and parents alike admonished women to obey their husbands, weren’t women-friendly.

The times when a well-born woman was an outcast because of living in an informal relationship, weren’t women-friendly.

The times when a master could seduce or rape his servant, and he was only to worry about providing (or not) some incomes to his bastards on her, weren’t women-friendly.

The times when a girl fell in love with her rapist and, many years later, wanted her husband to punish her for it, weren’t women-friendly.

On the basis of Kristin Lavransdatter, you can multiply such examples touching almost every female character in the novel.

Although the book doesn’t defy the patriarchy and the Church’s work on it openly, one could draw hope from some particular fragments featured and opinions expressed by the characters.

Kristin begins as a girl wanting to follow and obey her beloved, Erlend Nikulausson. Over the years, however, she starts seeing that Erlend relies on her and her managing skills a lot but he doesn’t respect her as his equal, excluding her from the things he considers important. In the end, she starts seeing the injustice of it.

It illustrates well how the women—despite of their hard work and their contribution to the society—are underestimated by men, even if they do the work considered male, like supervising incomes of an estate.

Fru Aashild, Erlend’s aunt, meets a similar fate, actually, working for her drinking husband whom she’s chosen on her own request. Additionally, she is clever and keen on herbs, and known for her elegance and beauty. Undset approaches her with sympathy and compassion alike, do not stepping into cliches of a woman who is weird because of her knowledge and dubious past, or a woman who deserves her not-so-happy marriage because she might have killed her first husband.

I just think that such characters and their thoughts may be read as feminist ones. Especially that even the male characters in Kristin Lavransdatter break some gender roles and seek women’s counsel if they are the good ones. Both Lavrans, Kristin’s father, and Simon, her kind-hearted ex-fiance, like children and take care of them after a way, taking interest in the infants’ ailings and toddlers’ games. Because of it, they are even considered too weak and not enough masculine. #patriarchyhurtsmentoo

Erlend, meanwhile, is that type of a man who relies on her wife a lot but then he doesn’t appreciate her work. He is that type of a man who finds sick toddlers and crying babes boring and nasty, and then plays an easy-going daddy towards his adolescent sons. In a nutshell, he’s a guy who doesn’t need to work much to receive his kids’ gratitude while Kristin is that “bad” parent who coupes with her sons on the daily basis and thus is found more stern and more demanding. Her parenthood isn’t all ideal—unlike her daddy, she punishes some of her children with beating— but she worries about her kids much more than Erlend does. And I hope neverthless that the question of corporeal punishment is still more about showing the medieval attitude towards child-rearing than expressing possible author’s views.

The Unobvious One

If one expect a peacuful and harmonious image of family life in the past on the one hand and impassable social barriers and stiff hierarchy on the other one, one may be surprised by Kristin Lavransdatter. If one expect TerribleFeudalism&TerribleHipocrysy, one may be surprised, too. If one expect All a Fine Past, it won’t meet one’s expectations as well.

Some conservatives generalise the past as the time of perfect family life and imperfect political life which excluded the Decent People—like Puritans, merchants, farmers—from influence. Some—still—don’t mind even the feudalism.

Sigrid Undset has avoided falling into any of those traps.

One may think that her books are both too proclerical and too focused on the gentry and nobility. Her trilogy, however, leaves a lot of space for sceptic interpretation (unlike some “beloved” series of mine like Outlander or The Tawny Man trilogy), and her characters are lively enough to speak for themselves—sometimes even against the author’s appeal. Just as characters in any well-written book should.

Yes, religion is important for the characters, and the pious ones are usually described as the good ones. Yes, Kristin considers brother Edvin her spiritual mentor even if a modern reader may disagree strongly with the advice and opinions of him.

On the other hand, the priests and nuns portrayed in the book differ a lot. There’s Erlend’s brother who simply does good things by helping the poors. There’s an educated nun running a school. There’s sira Eirik, a local priest from Kristin’s valley who has three kids (and a grandson-rapist bastard) and lived informally with his housekeeper together for years. There are also Church officials who treat religion as a political tool, and a bishop who grows into a villain threatening Kristin’s safety. As you see, the Church isn’t portrayed all good and innocent in the trilogy, and a reader doesn’t even need to read between lines to find some very dubious characters. One, however, can always notice how contradictory are the thoughts of Kristin in the book third in comparison to the (medieval) Church’s teaching on women, and how Erlend is portrayed as a Careless Bad Boy because of his quite indifferent attitude towards religion.

The class question is complicated in the trilogy as well. One may observe how the noble ones guarded the social barriers, and how doing something caused different consequences depending on the social class .

For example, Simon Darre, Kristin’s ex-fiance, married an ailing rich woman and cheated on her out of solitude and boredom, and got a servant maid with child. The maid would be married off well, and the child take into care of its father. Simon avoided any serious punishment.

Meanwhile, Erlend got excommunicated for living with a noble-born, marrried Eline out of wedlock openly, and their children couldn’t be sure whether they are outcasts or belong to the fine society.

It illustrates one of those things the author may not see but a reader does—that the social order of the setting isn’t about religious values, but about keeping the hierarchy clear and clean. That’s why the aristocrats and gentry could father kids on the peasant and servant girls, but the well-born women are to remain immaculate to ensure a noble house’s line undoubtfullness. And that’s why the virginity is praised among the well-born ones, and it isn’t neccessary in the commonfolk, among which having an illegitimate child with a BigGuy isn’t an obvious shame.

The paradoxes and contradictories of the social order in Kristin Lavransdatter aren’t only about double standards.

Among aristocrats, for example, Lavrans is considere a mere peasant, even if a respected one—because his line, famous in Sweden, isn’t important in Norway. On the other hand, some aristocrats are outcasts—like Fru Aashild or Eline. And Kristin has to work hard even if she is considered a misstress, a lady; her son Gaute adapts this style as a farmer who—because of Erlend’s political failure—inherited only her estate. And the numerous descriptions of household chores and agricultural works—often exhausting and tedious—make the books only closer to the ordinary life.

The commoners aren’t invisible and silent in the trilogy, anyway. They comment on the life of the main characters, they support them or mock them, and they always know something the nobs don’t.

The unobvioussness of the trilogy stretches out beyond the social and religious questions. The characters of it aren’t black-and-white, and neither their morality or their choices are—the reader is given enough of space to judge them and like or dislike them basing on their PoVs, not on the author’s whim. And the situations they encouter are often paradoxical.

Both arranged and love marriages grew unhappy over the course of the plot. Erlend is considered a womanizer because he’s lived in a monogamic but informal relationship. He is the main Love Interest but we are never suggested he’s the True Love and some God of Sex; instead, we are reminded more of his faults and shortcomings but not to an extend which would make him an Evil Husband cliche. Lavrans loves children but does not love conceiving them. Kristin and Simon regret the choices they’ve made freely. Kristin pretends being devoted and obedient, but over years, she defies her husband and she realizes that she has the right to do it. She pretends being pious but she saves her nephew with magic. She founds sex pleasant and sinful as a girl to find it sweet and almost sacred as a woman in her middle years—and this bitter-sweet, sacryfying view is quite rare both in the contemporary and the old fiction. And so her perceiving of religion changes—from terryfying sin to all-embracing compassion.

Even the literary technique responds to the novel’s tone—it’s one of the first works basing almost entirely on PoVs. The most of narration belongs to Kristin, but we get some fragments by Erlend, her parents and Simon Darre, all differing in vocabulary and atmosphere, giving a sense of drama and detachment alike. And all this is written so deftly that I must admit I consider Sigrid Undset the master of PoVs. Not one of the fantasy writers like George R. R. Martin, but her.

I’ve encountered an opinion that Undset got her Nobel Prize for Kristin Lavransdatter because the fascism was growing strong in Europe and the book/trilogy promoted the fascist values. And I must disagree with it strongly—not even because Undset was to defy the Nazis during WWII.

I disagree because there is nothing fascist about this book. It isn’t about strength, purity, exclusion and Aryan beauty. It’s about the women who are far from the “clean” innocent maidens, and who aren’t condemned for it in the end. It’s about women defying the men, fathers and husbands. It’s about a woman who ends helping the weak ones, the “unclean” ones—lepers, prostitutes and bastards. It’s about the people who—like Lavrans or Simon—are praised for their gentle heart. It’s, after a fashion, a novel condemning medieval Norway colonialism—because it is Erlend, the reckless one and the one who isn’t understanding enough but who is full of himself too much, who sees the people of far North as primitive and wicked.

So, where is the fascism? It isn’t a novel like that.

It’s a novel approaching the past from the unexpected, daily side. It’s novel of love, friendship and compassion. And a novel of strong women, even if they don’t act and sound like contemporary feminists.

Deverry Series Vs Deryni Series—a Preview

I love Celtic elements in fantasy. That’s why I’ve been looking for some series which not only contain such elements but which are entirely Celtic.

I’ve chosen two of them—Deryni and Deverry series. They are both quite looong—the first one contains more than fifteen books, and the second one consists of three tetralogies and one trilogy. I couldn’t have gone bankrupt, however, and that’s why I bought only six Deverry books and five Deryni ones. It means, probably, that I’m not especially entitled to give an opinion on those series, but I’ll try anyway. Let’s call it a preview.

I have a problem with the both of them, because they were quite easy and decent reads, but they lacked something, each of them on a different level.

Deryni Series

Let’s begin with the fact that Deryni series doesn’t actually belong to Celtic Fantasy genre. It’s more like an average Medieval Fantasy.

The main setting—the kingdom of Gwynedd ruled by the Haldane dynasty—is more an evocation of British Isles overall than of anything else. The Norman-like and Anglosaxon-like elements are still numerous and mixed together. There are Celtic names, but they are anglicized, and the only typical collocation with pre-Germanic tradition of the Isles are clans, actually. The gods… Do not count on any Celtic gods or the remnants of pagan traditions. The world of Eleven Kingdoms (another name for the confederated lands of Gwynedd and their neighbours) is a typical example of Christianity in Every Universe. And if I have a problem with it, it isn’t because I’m an evil atheist and Freemason. The Latin prayers and formulae sounds all elegant and elaborate, and So Much Medieval-like, but I have just one question—how even Christianity has appeared in this world? Have the aliens brought it through a portal of Deryni magic? In the face of an alternative geography, WHERE ARE Bethlehem, Jerusalem and so on, all the places crucial for the Biblical stories? Where? South of The Land of Apostrophes R’Kassi?

The anglicization of Gaelic names and portraying the Irish-like Mearans as opponents rebelling Our Good Haldanes tell us a lot of the place of Celtic tradition in this series altogether. It’s the tradition which is underestimated and misunderstood, thrown into without any awareness of the symbolic power and abuse with which the descendants of real Celts have been threatened on British Isles from the medieval times on. It’s almost like writing a book about ante-bellum South and symphatyzing with slaveholders. It’s almost like writing a book about colonialism symphatyzing with the colonists and portraying the natives as the antagonists and instigators.

It’s almost because in Deryni series, we are never told how the tribes and ethnic groups of Eleven Kingdoms are related, as if it had been always peacefully and friendly there, and the ethnicity hadn’t mattered. It’s all so mixed-up together—Celtic names, French names, Anglosaxon names, Norman names—that sometimes you can’t even make out on which land a particular realm is based. And it wouldn’t be a problem if only the series hadn’t pretended being so close to the real history. But it pretends, and it raises only more problematic questions. The British Isles, let’s say, were shaped by particular events which caused particular social changes. In the case of Gwynedd, one can’t be sure of such a historical logic. For example, where is an equivalent of French Normans conquering England if there is hell bunch of nobility with French-like surnames? It seems as if Kurtz looked at fourteenth or even fifteenth century UK and took its mixed heritage for granted without realizing how it had all begun. And she took for granted not only this, but particular customs as well. She seems to use religion and chivalry ethos, and clothes&names, as a mere decoration of Medieval Times. She doesn’t see all the dark things behind the medieval society—like knights behaving kindly only towards the well-born women and treating the low-born women like unpaid prostitutes and workers. She doesn’t see that the said chivalry ethos was to exclude the commoners from the “fine” society with its elaborate rules and manners. Because, oh wait, the commonfolk isn’t present in her books at all except for loyal servants at the farthest backstage and an architect SPOILERS whose rash actions lead to the death of the sister of one of the main characters. SPOILERS And the main characters are the good ones because they are offering charity to the poors once a year, during the local Christmas. I don’t know how to even comment this. It’s like reading Nancy Mitford (because weddings and engagements are the core of at least one Deryni trilogy) mixed with Philippa Gregory and Santa Montefiore in Middle-Earth. Such an ignorance about the commoners wasn’t present even in Darkover series.

The funny thing is to observe how the supposedly historical elements of Deryni universe are falling apart and come out to be a realistic decoration only as long as you aren’t keen on Middle Ages.

We are in an alternate eleventh and twelfth century, but the garments and armour resemble more that Late Medieval/Early Reinessaince ones. We get even alternate hairdresses, why not—Alaric Morgan has whiskers centuries before they would be fashionable. We are told that the names are usually given after the saints and ancestors, and then we got Princess Xenia (ROTFL) and King Kelson. Why not Xylia and Jackson? Kelson doesn’t sound royally at all.

Another question are so-called “Christian values” when they are truly needed. Why eleven-years-old Alaric Morgan having sex is described so casually? Why ladies-in-waiting are oversexualized just for the sake of being quasi-French? Where are the Catholic notions of sin, purity and so on? And what one has in one’s mind writing about a pre-teen in such a way?

At somebody else, it would be a good point to show the hypocrisy of medieval times when boys were discreetly allowed to sleep around from the very young age, just for the sake of being those who cannot bear kids and thus bring bastards and shame into their homes. But Kurtz seems to take such behaviour as neutral, and I wouldn’t say it’s evoking the real Medieval-like mentality. It’s rather putting into your books what you like to put, the things gathered from scraps here and there. The Catholic Church was important? Let’s make half of the bishops villains! The kings’ actions were morally dubious? Let’s make our kings arguing with their Church and slaughtering the people fighting for independence! There were double moral standards? Let’s portray preteens lads having sex as something exciting and teenage girls doing it as something shameful! The magic was feared? Let’s make the Good Ones the magic ones and tolerant ones!

As the result, the series makes comments on Medieval worldview when it is convenient for the author, pointing out religious intolerance but omitting classism, sexism and hypocrisy.

I must admit, however, that at least some books of Deryni series aren’t typically sexist. Oh, yes, the only women in Deryni Rising—the series’ installment—are a villainous throne-pretender and an emotionally unstable widowed queen. Oh, yes, the same queen withdraws early in the prequel—Deryni Checkmate—and the only significant female character is Bronwyn Morgan who’s mostly defined by her love towards her fiancee. Oh, yes, the whole series lacks some “strong women” in the medieval meaning of this term—a queen-regent or a duchess who rules on her own and truly takes part in the political life.

The Childe Morgan trilogy grasps something else, however. It grasps the sisterhood of women and the hardships of womanhood alike—the too-early arranged marriages, the dying infants and children, the risk being taken with every labour, the friendship of mothers, sisters, stepmothers and stepdaughters. It reaches beyond the patriarchal culture-codes of evil stepmothers and women-rivals.

As for the intrigue and the world-building, the culture and custom inconsistencies aren’t the only ones. The lands beyond the federation of Gwynedd are hardly distinguishable except for the biggest one, the kingdom of Torenth. Torenth is some mix of Russia, Hungary and Germany which can say a lot what the position of Eastern Europe is in Deryni series’ imaginary. Who cares, this country or another? It is an Exotic Guise. It’s a good place for false pretenders and Villainous Villains, filled with sinister nuns and mages, with fanciful clothes and fabrics. If you haven’t guessed yet, describing a country in such a way is the Orientalism in its best.

The plot is also some kind of a guise. At first, you think that it’s about some broader history—assuming hell bunch of names and dates, and the style which grows more deft and detached over the books. But behind this decoration, there is the typical fantasy pattern of following not any historical process, but the Beloved Characters of an Author. The Beloved Characters of Kurtz are King Kelson and Alaric Morgan, apparently. The first one defeats an accomplished magician at the age of fourteen and is a spitting image of his Deceased and Respected father, king Brion. The second one is not only a commander, a magical guardian of Brion and Kelson, a magician and a duke, but a hipster who is bored with the high society and wears completely unmedieval whiskers, too. Well, I smell two Mary Sues.

Another question is covering quite a calm and daily-life-centered plot of Childe Morgan trilogy with Occasional Treats from Evil Bishops, Evil Mearan Rebels and Superstitious Commonfolk. Those treats are really occasional, popping out when they are necessary to push forward the story arc. But, you know, in fantasy one cannot admit one is focused on dailyness.

Don’t get me wrong. From what I’ve read, the series about Deryni isn’t a bad one. It’s good as a basis for ASoIaF-ish novels, and its style is only improving with the course of following books. But it’s still a child of its time, and the main problem with it is that it pretends being something more than it actually is.

Deverry Series

Deverry Series is actually the series which appealed to me more, and which I would read eagerly from cover to cover. It isn’t the best written series or the most original one, but there are several elements in it which I liked a lot.

Unlike Deryni series, it’s a true Celtic fantasy, at least. It’s based on a concept of a fictional pre-Christian Gaulish tribe escaping from Ancient Romans’ (Rhwmanes) rule and migrating magically to another world—full of elves, dwarves and other races—and establishing a kingdom called Deverry. And I must confess that this is, at least, an original idea of Katharine Kerr.

The gods and names of her setting sound and are Celtic, freed from anglicization and romanisation alike. They are as the Gaulish names—far away from the Romans’ influence—might have been. Even if those names sounds sometimes either a bit Welsh (like Rhodry or Bronwyn) or Gaelic (Alastyr), they are given in Celtic form, according to its own spelling, not to the English one. Just compare it to all those Kelsons, Silkes, Xenias and Jovetts. Yay. Additionally, in Deverry not only the names are Celtic, but the clothes (brigga pants and checked coats), architecture (round-walled buildings) and tradition (an equivalent of vergobreti) too. The series evokes the pre-Christian beliefs of reincarnation and retells the story of Merlin and King Arthur. It gives even some sense of Celtic landscapes—vast moors and dark forrests, while in Deryni series, the land seemed just bland. All this looks just deliberate, like a vision on which the author has been working for years, not only picking this element from here and that element from there. For the names and customs of other races in the series are easily distinguishable as well. As a result, we receive a climatic and convincing setting, a true world, not a fancy decoration.

The worldbuilding is somehow troublesome, however, especially when it comes to depicting “exotic” nations. It’s actually quite funny that both Kurtz and Kerr didn’t avoid describing some cultures in an Orientalist way. In Deverry Saga, you have the islands of Bardek, whose inhabitants are some kind of hellenized dark-skinned Moors who’d been through a magical immigration similar to that one of the Deverrians. Although there are many positive characters among Bardekians, with their own traits and opinions, they are still stereotypized in general. They are seen as eccentric and sophisticated slaveholders and they train sinister magical assassins who draw their powers from thwarted sexual rituals. And, oh wait, those Evil! Magicians are gays. I’m only hoping that such a depiction is merely a testimony of its time—the first Deverry books appeared in the ’80s. The fact that the main male character of the series SPOILERS was in a relationship with another man (even if the man was more a spirit) SPOILERS gives some comfort, even if a small one.

Another question is the portrayal of women. Here, the scope is much broader than in Deryni series. There are female warriors, rulers on their own, queens-consorts, sorceresses, priestesses-warriors, craftswomen, farmers and healers, well-born ones and low born-ones. Their position isn’t always obvious—for example, widowed farmers or business-owners are quite independent, just as the single women who’ve chosen following a craft. The well-born women, on the other hand, could gain a lot of power when there are no male heirs in their family.

It doesn’t mean, however, that the series avoids the bitter truth about the female fate in the patriarchal society—the serving maids and tavern maids are treated no better than sex-workers, and the women overall must be careful about challenging their so-called traditional roles in social and sexual life. And all this is described in such a form that we get neither medieval-like people speaking like modern feminists, nor obedient females glad with their subservient position. We get the people shaped by their culture and thinking according to its rules, but by no means accepting it thoughtlessly. And the culture described by Kerr can tell us a lot about patriarchy. It isn’t about any rightful or immemorial rules which have been never improved or changed. It’s about keeping well-to-do girls in line to gain heirs whose origin is unquestionable. And sometimes, its rules are proved wrong openly in the books, SPOILERS as in the case of Rhodry’s sister-in-law who was dismissed by his husband being suspected of infertility. Married off to a widower with several kids, she bore a healthy child. SPOILERS I wish there had been a plot like that in some of the books about Six Duchies.

I’d like also Kerr having an equally nuanced attitude towards feudalism and social inequalities. Well, at least she writes a lot about ordinary people, even if they aren’t always the main characters. She writes about servants, tavern-keepers, witch-doctors, merchants, craftspeople, farmers, mercenaries, and gives some insight into their work and life.

The main female character could tell us a lot about the portrayal of women, sexism and classism in the series, anyway. Jill is a mercenary from the commonfolk SPOILERS who over the years choses rather learning magic than following and loving her military companion, prince Rhodry Maelwaedd. SPOILERS Her story arc is unique in this way that instead of getting “happily ever after” we are clearly reminded that in a patriarchal society, women have to choose between improving their talents and having love&family. Being expected to be mostly wives and mothers, they can’t have both. Gil, additionally, choses independence from feudal rules and labels, wandering as a free magician, over being a well-to-do wife supposed to represent her princely husband and keep herself away from improving her secret magical skills. She’s a character with her own aims, not defined by her love towards a man or by his needs.

There are other important female characters as well, like Lovyan—a noble woman ruling on her own whose ladies-in-waiting are her most trusted political counsellors—or Dallandra, a powerful spiritual Guardian who befriends the following incarnations of Jill. They don’t match the stereotype of women who are rivals jealous of one another; they form bonds of friendship and sisterhood.

It doesn’t mean that I appreciate everything about Kerr’s women characters and their relations. Her narration still contains some creepy moments (like making a brother and a sister entering an incestous relationship or Jill’s father being jealous of her) and the main TrueLover of the series is a poor one. Rhodry would be convincing as a typical feudal lordling carelessly impregnating commonfolk girls and then brooding over himself because of being exiled, relying on his lover a lot at once. But as a Love Interest, he is just irritating and ridiculous.

Still, there is something sincere and touching about Kerr’s writing. She doesn’t conceal that she has some favourite characters and tropes, like Jill&Rhodry&Nevyn the magician + their numerous incarnations. Thus, her stories sometimes follow more her personal appeals than the important historical figures and processes of her setting. For example, in Deverry Saga, the first quartet of the series, the king of Deverry seems quite unimportant. In the series’ finale, on the other hand, the lands of elves and dwarves grow more crucial than the kingdom of Deverry. The author is sincere about her attitude, however, and actually does more good than bad by focusing on a “pack of heroes+their incarnations”. Over books, the main story and the stories of the Deverry past get entwined together on purpose, revealing not only a lot about both daily life and political intrigues in the kingdom, but about the pattern which follow the characters and their succesors, too. As a result, the whole saga becomes something more epic, mystical and intricate than one could suppose, evoking the Celtic way of thinking and telling. Would I’ve read the whole series, I had seen it even more clearly, I suppose.

The narration of Kerr can surprise on another level, too. Especially its “past” section often focuses on the daily life of commonfolk and the court customs of aristocrats, describing the plot over decades as if it was a family saga. On the other hand, there are moments when we get a broader perspective instead of typical PoVs—and then we really have an impression that we are reading about the events profound and remote in Deverry’s world—Annwn—history. This history, unlike as in Deryni saga, is something beyond “this dynasty is good and this clergy is villainous”. It’s about establishing something better for all the sentient beings—from elves to humans, from aristocrats to peasants—about establishing something which brings peace and concord.

Even if it’s not easy. Even if it requires entire generations. And Nevyn, the “No One”, becomes the symbol of this struggle for a better world.

Strange the Dreamer Duology

I don’t like all the “Why you must read the book X/Y/Z”. Still, I think that the story of Lazlo Strange the librarian and Sarai the Muse of Nightmares trapped in the citadel on the sky over the city of Weep deserves such a “must”.

Because the books about them are just enchanting and wise, which is always a treasure in literature, not only in the fantasy one.

Being used to stilted and plain PoVs, I was surprised at what Laini Taylor could do with this way of writing. The voices of her characters are rich and imaginative, introducing the readers to great crimes and great wonders alike. The descriptions are telling and lush, and the locations easy to depict. There is something really magical and magically real about the world she created. Her setting is so similar and so alien at once—the City of Weep may be Middle-Eastern, Mesoamerican, India, African; it depends which inspiration seems the most vital to you. At the beginning, you might perceive it as yet another Exotic City with great mysteries and queer atractions and customs. You might perceive it like that because you’ve been taught—we’ve all been taught—it.

And then, the very book makes something incredible. It makes us perceive the city of Weep as the homeland, the neighbourhood. It shifts the notion of “normality” from a Western Culture-based setting to an “exotic” one. The City of Weep is a norm here, and the brown-skinned people, the ordinary ones. It isn’t the case of “you can always imagine that they are just tanned” or “look, I did representation, I’m sooo tolerant that I’ve thrown one non-white and ten white characters!!!”. Whether the citizens of Weep resemble some particular race or not, they aren’t white and they aren’t tokens, either. Make up with it, dear racists.

The inhabitants of the city—those from beyond like Sarai and those from below like her father, Eril-Fane—are the most traumatized characters as well. They cope with the terrible powers, being the children of blue-skinned “gods” from the citadel who were kidnapping and raping the locals for decades. As the people of Weep, they cope with PTSD being the result of abuse—sexual, psychological, physical. Men and women alike, which is, I would say, very wise of Taylor. They cope with their culture being destroyed and their identity erased. And thus, it seems to me, the story of Weep becomes on some level the story and the metaphor of colonialism. The powerful ones of literally god-like status who came from far away and who abuse the locals? We’ve seen it too often in our own history.

Another aspect of the story worth of praising is the notion of love. Love between Lazlo and Sarai, between Eril-Fane and his wife, love between two men and two women, love between siblings and friends, between a mother and her son. The love stories aren’t toxic. They are developing slowly and they are based not only on sexual fascination, but on the friendship as well. Sometimes, they come up unexpectedly, as in the case of an alchemist Thyon Nero who realizes that instead of being trapped into an arranged marriage, he could love another boy. The difficult relations —SPOILERS like that of Eril-Fane and Sarai, who was a child of rape on him, actually SPOILERS—are explained. The toxic ones—like that of Eril-Fane and Isagol, Sarai’s mother—aren’t justified and turned into some kinky fantasy. It’s just wise. And, as I’ve said, I didn’t expect such a wisedom from fantasy YA books.

The duology is good not only as a work of fiction, but as a fantasy, too. The world—or rather, the worlds—it describes are vivid and imaginable, rich with colours and scents. Some concepts are more SF than fantasy, but they are given in such a form that one might read it more like a myth or a legend. There is a lot of alchemy, there are people with two hearts and those who are changed with a magical metal. There are ships roaming the stars, and enchanting dreams more vivid than the very life. There are ghosts trapped among the alive ones. There are names erased with the sheer magic. In the core of it, however, the brutality of selfish blue-skinned “gods” remains and it erases any impression, any illusion of entering the universe somehow better from the one of our own. And overthrowing such illusions is a thing I appreciate.

All Quiet in Six Duchies

I’ve just been through Tawny Man trilogy by Robin Hobb. And it seems to me that what is good and bad in her writing was enhanced alike. As a result, nothing has been changed at all.

The good thing which I can say about the trilogy is that, at least, the plot and the grey characters improved. SPOILERS This time, fifteen years after the first trilogy’s ending, we get the tale of culture clash between Kettricken’s son and his fiancee, an OutIslander Elliania. Soon it’ll come out that the choices of her and her family are more tragic and complex than we initially suppose. On the other hand, there are the Witted Ones struggling for emancipation. The Witted Ones are especially interesting; we learn of fractions among them and of unwritten rules of theirs, and we’ll meet their spiritual leader who is, I would say, one of the wisest characters depicted in the series. SPOILERS

All which is wrong, inconsistent or simply naïve, overcomes any possible advantages, however.

On the broader scale, nothing has changed. The monarchy of the Farseers, according to Fool, is still the key to the world’s survivival. Which doesn’t convince me at all. I just don’t like characters which are important because of being the Chosen Ones, not because of their actions. I hate all the trope of keeping the establishment because the Fate!1! and blackmailing the reader with it. I hate it because in the light of it, the Witted Piebalds become the villains rather for the sake of their disobedience towards the Holy and Sacred feudal rules than for the sake of their cruelty. They are Evil! because they want to overthrow monarchy. They are evil because they oppose the establishment. They are evil because they dare to imagine another kind of rules. And when rapes&tortures are added to the list of their crimes, it seems to me it’s merely because Hobb can’t depict the opponents (especially the opponents of Good and Noble Farseers) who aren’t villains.

I hate that vision so much that I wish the timid image of Six Duchies was somehow deconstructed. I wish prostitution, ruthless feudals, hooked-up maids, disease and poverty; all the things which we would never see in those books. *regrets it isn’t Westeros* I wish our naïvely loyal Fitz or constantly intriguing Chade met some antimonarchist like John Laurens, contradicting not only their image of the government’s forms, but of masculinity as well.

The main problem is that the Six Duchies is a wishful fantasy of Happy and Justful medieval kingdom which has NEVER EVER existed. It’s a wishful fantasy on every level, from the work of feudal monarchy to interpersonal relations, resembling more those in white middle-class families in the 1950′ than the connections of abuse and power in medieval society. Repeat after me—Middle Ages DIDN’T look like that!

It is, actually, the very opposite of such series as ASoIaF, Darkover or Tearling, or Guy Gavriel Kay’s quasi-historical books, whose characters are aware that their universe is less than petfect; it’s unjust. The abuse and hierarchy blight everything in Westeros, Darkover or Batiara, including interpersonal relations. From Hobb, on the other hand, we get an idealized image of feudalism and social order.

And guess what? I wouldn’t mind the world where wives are afraid of being dismissed because of their infertility. Where teenage girls are threatened with leaving home because they dared to have premarital sex. Where widows’ future is decided between their dying husbands and former lovers. Where homosexuals are found unnatural and immoral.

I wouldn’t mind it as long as the said social order would be depicted as wicked at worst and imperfect at best. But here, it isn’t. It’s depicted as the righteous one, and those who defy it—either as the immoral ones (Starling and Hap’s girlfriend) or the eccentric ones (Fool). The eccentric ones are allowed to differ because they support the Farseers and come from the milieu so different from ours that we can forgive them their gender queerness and specific clothing style. The immoral ones… The immoral ones are to warn us as anti-role models.

Let’s take Hap, Fitz’s adopted son, and his girlfriend. SPOILERS She’s Evil! because she prompts the Virgin Country Boy to have premarital sex. Because of her, Hap loses his reputation as an apprentice. She takes on with another guy, and she convinces Hap that it was at her parents’ wish. Then, she marries for money. SPOILERS

You may say that the lass is simply unfair. She is, but why? Because Hobb wanted to Exemplify a Thesis of EvilWantonGreedy Girls seducing Good Boys. Remember—good girls are waiting till tying the knot and do not initiate a relation, not to mention an intercourse.

Starling and her story is even a better example, however, how to demonize and overdraw a sexually liberated woman. SPOILERS In the previous trilogy, we learn that Starling was a victim of war-rape and had an abortion as the result, an abortion which has made her infertile, probably. Remember, infertility is the punishment for terminating a pregnancy! Now, she’s a famous singer forbidding other artists to perform her works. She’s selfish, you know. Because she recognizes the copyright law. If that isn’t enough, she has casual sex with Fitz not informing him that she’s married at once. Her husband doesn’t know of anything. Because, ye know, it couldn’t be that they have a free-love relationship. But, oh wait, free love (or friends with benefits overall) is considered as something bad by Fitz even when he has sex with his friend Jinna, and they both aren’t bound to anybody else.

No, Starling must be a cheating trickster unfair towards her spouse and her lover as well. And when she says that she has the right to decide about her own body, one might interpretate it as a caricature of the feminist viewpoint; see, dear reader, all that liberty is about cheating and manipulating, not about freedom.

And how will she end? As a woman who’s pregnant—as she’s been dreaming for years. SPOILERS But as a Trecherous Bitch, she can’t have a child and retain her fame at once. No, she must be punished for her liberty and for her Licencious Behaviour. She leaves her singing career behind and plays a humble matron. And because from now she allows other singers to perform her works, we are clearly suggested that her decision was righteous, and her change good. “The Taming of the Shrew” so much.

Another example of taming the women with social expectations (either the author’s or the Six Duchies’ culture; I prefer not to know) are Kettricken and Molly.

You see, after almost fifteen years Kettricken is still a widow recalling Verity and longing for Verity. She couldn’t fall in love again or have any sexual life. And why? Because, assuming the political situation, she would rather have to take a lover than a husband. And for a Good Female Character, it’s unbecoming in Elderlingsverse. Only Broken Boys like Fitz are allowed to have extramarital sex (with only two partners, Starling and Jinna) and remain the Good Ones and the Not Led Astray Ones. They must repent for it, however. Of course. There is Chade, also. He could be an old jerk bedding young women due to his Merits for the Crone and his discretion.

And then, there is Molly. Oh, Molly. I wish you’d been allowed to decide about the life of you and your kids after Burrich’s death. I wish Fitz hadn’t been stalking you. I wish there was no “she’s my woman” and “Burrich took Molly from me!1!” in the books, refering to supposedly beloved woman as to some precious chattel. I wish there was no subtext of “she needs somebody to look after her and her children”. I wish there was no trope of “they parted and then she got a husband&pack of kids, and he got (numerous) lovers”.

Maybe I’m exaggerating. Maybe it isn’t sexism, but only the popcultural notion of love and relations in which the lovers belong to each other, and from it, some not especially healthy tropes are derived. Maybe our culture is still so dominated by males that even our good Fitz considers making men out of Hap and Dutiful something universal. Comparing it to Starling afraid that her husband would get rid off her because of her supposed infertility, and to Hap’s girlfriend’s dad behaviour “Your boy put a shame on my daughter!1!” suggests other conclusion, however.

As I’ve noticed in my previous text on Hobb—puritanism doesn’t serve women well. Gender equality isn’t about “let’s forbid lads an’ lassies alike having extramarital sex”. Putting aside its sexism on women’s social roles, Catholic Church—and Protestantism, then—tried to treat sex in such a way. And failed. As a result, it only strenghtened the double standards of boys allowed to fuck everything except other boys and “decent” (well-to-do) girls.

The situation in Six Duchies is even more ridiculous, assuming some social factors. Why sex is treated in such a way while there is nothing about it in the local religion? Eda and El do not have Jesus-like aproach towards the intimate life (religion is barely present, anyway). Why women’s virginity is required even when a woman is the heiress to her family, and her line, not the father’s, is important?

I think I know the answer. Hobb thinks that the Six Duchies’ social order is justful. That it’s about mutual care, not about power and abuse. That she can have a cake and eat a cake. Women warriors, hunters and princesses on their own—treated as the obvious and natural elements of the society— alongside with puritanical obsession. Dishwashing Burrich on the one side and “womanly touch” of Jinna at Fitz’s kitchen on the other one. (Notice that when the men are doing some domestic chores, it isn’t affiliated with their gender at all.)

Actually, she can’t have a cake and eat a cake.

The case of Dutiful and Elliania SPOILERS marrying quickly and having a child at the age of fifteen, roughly SPOILERS and being praised for it, made me realize something.

The whole thing isn’t about “values” or “the teens should wait with sex till they know what they want and whom they like/love/prefer”. It’s about something common to Ancient Greeks and Romans, to medieval Anglo-Saxons and to nineteenth-century bourgeoisie alike. It’s something out of “good vs evil” approach towards sexual life because it has been present in the societies differing from each other a lot on the moral ground.

It’s about so-called “propriety” which is actually abuse. Power. Control over the bodies of the others. It isn’t about sincerity towards one another or about anybody’s well-being. It’s about sustaining the guise of virtous conduct and high morals of the society. That’s why Dutiful can have sex openly and Hap cannot, even if they are both not entirely mature teens. Dutiful has a piece of paper conveniently called “marriage ceremony” and thus his relation with Elliania is considered better. Entitled to produce kids even if it might be too early, in biological and psychological terms as well. But these kids won’t be bastards, and good girls do not bring bastards to their homes. Remember—as long as you tied the knot, you can procreate prematurely! Propriety. That’s why Dutiful’s love is praised and Hap’s love—condemned. For the same reason for which some conservatives scorn cohabitating couples nowadays. It isn’t even about extramarital sex. It’s about “THEY DARE TO DO IT OPENLY!1!1” Double Standard rules, as usual. And as usual, it hurts women more than men. It causes Patience and Starling to be blamed of infertility (and what if it was Chivalry and Dewin Fisher who had problems, not their wives?), it causes young Nettle to be ushered into the Only Proper Role of a Dame. It forces all those who are considered “indecent” and “ill-behaving” to remain invisible to the “honest folk”; it’s a kind of symbolic power . It saves nobody and resolves nothing. This is the thing which makes harm to the Six Duchies’ society, not the queerness of Fool or the “immoral conduct” of Hap and his girlfriend. And the funniest thing is that alongside with the hereditary practices and political position of women in the realm, it doesn’t make sense. But Hobb cannot see it. She thinks that the rule of “no extramarital sex (openly)” is universal and normative, and the other rules—like those of the OutIslanders or Jamaillans—are exotic at best and deceptive at worst. She doesn’t see that out of her rule, one won’t make an equarchy. Only good, old patriarchy.

And the worst is that there is yet another trilogy to examine—Fitz and Fool. Do not expect, however, that I’ll deal with it soon.

NOTE: I do not have anything against Tawny Man trilogy in the matter of style or the plot overall. I’m also aware that there are numerous book series—even those contemporary ones—which are sexist in a much more open way. What I wanted to show it’s how Hobb’s writing reveals its social faults in supposedly unimportant details. You may say that it’s only talking; why should we care about it while there are female warriors and sovereign queens and princesses in her universe? I think, however, that sometimes words could reveal more than deeds.

P. S. I’ve chosen that queer and dandy picture of Fool on purpose, of course.

Why I Stopped Reading the “Outlander” Series in the Middle of It

It’s time for yet another one anti-review, I’m afraid. Maybe it’s just me; I like writing about things I dislike or I disagree about.

So, supposedly you’ve heard about a wanna-be-doctor Claire Randall who travels in time to the eighteenth-century Scotland and meets the local god of sex Jaime Fraser, haven’t you? You must have heard. I heard about it, too, and I decided to read the series because I craved desperately for some books about Gaelic Scotland. It dissapointed me. On so many levels. And it irritates me so much that I’m going (or hoping) not to waste a lot of time on explaining why it is so damnably irritating.

1. Children’s Beating Obsession

Let’s say I’ve read some historical novels. Philippa Gregory’s, Sigrid Undset’s, Les Rois Maudits, Poldark series, Cashelmara. What’s more, I’ve read books written in the times when beating children was commonly acceptable, like those of Dickens or Dostoevsky.

What did I learn from these books? Children weren’t beaten for every “misdeed”. They might have been slapped, not beaten with a belt. The more timid ones might not have been punished with beating at all.

Jaime Fraser or his nephew Ian weren’t so lucky, apparently. In Outlander, SPOILERS Jaime recalls that he was beaten by his father (usually with a belt) for literally every childish prank or involuntary omission. From the age of six to sixteen. And he recalls his daddy as a good one. On the other hand, usual Ian’s punishment for the more serious pranks was fifteen beats with a belt. And he also considers his daddy a good one. SPOILERS And I have no clue what is the purpose of all that. To show that the Olden Days were stricter towards kids? They were, but not to such an extent. To show that we shouldn’t judge the people of past with our measure? Tell it to Gabaldon when she describes the series’ TrueLovers/slavery/pacifist tries of stopping Jacobite Rising or American Revolution ’cause “We dont wan’t bloodshed!1!” Maybe—alongside with some naturalist descriptions—it’s just the author’s fetish.

Besides SPOILERS Claire returns to her own time to raise Brianna, her daughter by Jaime SPOILERS Except for the obvious dramatic tension of such a plot solution (lost spouses&kids, and so on) it’s invented to yet another reason, I think. It’s convenient for your book to bring up a child far away from the guy—being described as a perfect wish-fulfillment as he is—whose convictions on corporal punishment were far from the modern ones. *sinister laughter*

2. Naturalistic Obsession

Explicit descriptions of sex/rapes/tortures are another problem to me.

SPOILERS Hell bunch of sex scenes in every book? Described. Jaime tortured and raped by sadistic Captain Randall who was Claire’s husband ancestor? Described. Brianna raped by an Evil! Pirate? Described. Her boyfriend Roger kidnapped and tortured? Described. SPOILERS

You see, I’m the last person to mind explicite sex or violence when such descriptions are needed. When such descriptions enhance our knowledge of characters, or show us something important. I’m the last person, especially, to mind them out of conservative reasons, modesty and so on. There are things beyond politics, however, like good taste or usefulness. And most of the “explicite scenes” at Gabaldon’s books do not meet these conditions. And it isn’t even the question of tortures’ scene. They are disturbing as they should be, but quite overloaded as well. But sex scenes? Usually, they are completely unnecessary, “just for the porn”.*recalls Guy Gavriel Kay’s books* They don’t tell us a lot about the dynamics and relations between characters. And that’s why I prefer the way of Marquez or Undset of writing about sex. Their descriptions are more metaphorical than anything else, and surprisingly—more telling. You cannot say it, unluckily, about these written by Gabaldon. Sometimes, actually, sex between her characters grows nasty. As when Jaime convinces Claire to have sex in the middle of a military camp. Or the first night of Roger and Brianna—I don’t know why, but the description of it seemed quite nasty to me. Maybe because of all the details of coitus interruptus or of what an uncleaned mouth tastes. Really, I don’t give a damn about it. Another question is how even the medical acts of Claire turns sooner or later to be connected with sex or genitals*prefers not to describe it in details*.

I must admit, however, that the naturalism of Gabaldon’s books has one advantage at least—it’s body positive. It acknowledges the fact that—surprisingly! —women have body hair and periods, and that it is nothing unnatural or nasty. I know it’s damnably important to remind the world of it. However, such important things about womanhood and dailyness are covered with tones of unnecessary sex scenes or torture fetish.

3. Toxic TrueLovers (or Sexism Overall)

If you haven’t heard that in Outlander book Jaime beats Claire with belt because she’d dared to disobey him and she got into trouble with Evil! Captain Randall, then you have it.

I have a great problem with this thread. I wouldn’t have it if Jaime Fraser was portrayed as an average man from eighteenth-century Scotland with all its patriarchy and bias. I wouldn’t have it if the book had that hint of realism beyond SteamySex and TerryfyingTortures. But you see, it isn’t that kind of realism. It’s rather that kind of fiction where eighteenth-century men—brought up in feudal, patriarchal and classist culture—are perfect Love Interests, the loving ones, the understanding ones, the caring ones, the passionate ones. If one is perfect and outstanding in comparison to the contemporary ones, than how could one beat his wife?

Beating isn’t the only sin of Jaime. He’s a rapist bastard as well. He prompts Claire to have sex at the others’ presence—although she isn’t especially willing. He mishandles her during another intercourse, even when she wants him to stop.

SPOILERS Later, when Claire is gone, he remarries to a widow called Laoghaire who has been infatuated with him for years. SPOILERS He admits that she wasn’t glad having sex with him. What a reader can guess out, actually, is the fact that Jaime was raping Laoghaire. He wouldn’t ask her whether she wanted to have sex, and he was brutal and indifferent to her during “love”-making.

And guess what? There’s NO justification for it. No “sexist times” and no narrator’s comments about Evil! Laoghaire who’s always had a crush on Jaime and hated our Mary Sue Claire. If Jaime is such an ideal, he shouldn’t rape anybody.

On the other hand, the very demonizing of Laoghaire is the proof that the series isn’t well-written. If you need to make a villain of your hero/ine’s love rival, than it means that the plot doesn’t stand for itself. *recalls Kristin Lavransdatter and lady Eline, more tragic than villainous* Why, some writers can write such things decently. Some not.

And yet, Jaime is still not as wicked and irritating as Roger, at least. He isn’t your Typical Harlequin Badass with bad reputation and numerous sexual partners; actually, he’s a virgin younger from his wife when he’s marrying Claire, and such a trope is always refreshing. Additionally, most of his unforgettable actions seems more the author’s appeal of “Past is brutal and Laoghaire Evul!” than the consistent and deliberate deeds which are corresponding to his personality.

And Roger McKenzie? Roger is perfect. He’s perfect as your Harlequin Hero observing the world with his male gaze. He despises sexual revolution but he admits he used to have quite a heartless and random sex. Even when he falls in love with Brianna, he perceives her mostly through her hair, legs, breasts and buttocks. When she wants to have sex, he says that if he wanted just to bed her, he could have had his way with her several times. She slaps him. I don’t like beating anybody, but it’s hard to me not to think that Roger deserves it. He’s one of those hypocrits who want to fuck whores and love Madonnas, the worst nightmare produced by the pre-revolutionary society. SPOILERS And later, when he’s drawn to the eighteenth century and learns that Brianna is pregnant (possibly not with his child, but a rape-child) he rejects her. Meanwhile, for Jaime it’s obvious that Brianna isn’t to blame for the crime which was committed on her, and that Roger should help her if she wants that help. SPOILERS

It doesn’t mean, however, that Jaime is fair about sexuality from the modern perspective, SPOILERS being quite indulgent about Ian having sex with a prostitute. Later, the same Ian calls Brianna a whore, because she dared to have premarital sex with her beloved one. SPOILERS Well, I’m not going to point who’s a little whore here, actually.

The examples of sexism (and double standards as well) in the books are more numerous, and often, quite ridiculous. Claire, for example, says something like that the great quest of Jaime is being a male. *Facepalm* She allows her daughter to decide about having an abortion, for the pregnancy might be the result of rape. On the other hand, when a fourteen-years-old girl rejected by her family and seduced by a man much older from her, wants an abortion, Claire compares her to a murderer. Double standard rulz! And, if you forget, the feminists hate men.

4. Commonfolk Out of Question

To put it plainly—even the simple statistics can show us that Outlander isn’t about the commoners. Jaime and his sister are of gentry origin. Their uncle is the chieftain of McKenzie clan. Their aunt owns a plantation. They might suffer because of Jacobite Rising and being Gaelic Scotts, but that suffering is so typical for historical fiction—make the readers believe that the privileged ones unaccustomed to humilation are suffering more than the commoners accustomed to submission and abuse. Such a suffering is worth more, isn’t it? And even the fact that our heroes embrace some commoners (like Fergus) or make friends with Native Americans doesn’t change it.

Not to mention that usually, we like to identify with those who are both influential and similar to us at once. And eighteenth-century gentry—literate and moderately clean—sems undoubtedly closer to us than ignorants working in dirt, doesn’t it?

And if you miss it, Claire’s “contemporary” husband is a professor with some aristocratic origin, and they lead quite a wealthy life. Upper-middle class people’s problems so much.

5. Gay Men Obsession

The problem with Outlander series isn’t the eighteenth-century people calling non-heteronormative men with ugly names. It reflects the sad truth of the society’s attitude towards homosexuality.

The problem is how non-heteronormative people are portrayed in the series. Surprisingly, they are all males. Aristocratic men. One of them is quite a nasty aging man harassing adolescent boys. Another one, captain Randall, is a psychopath and rapist bastard obsessed with Jaime. The last one, John Grey, is super-intelligent, super-kind and super-handsome. He’s our heroes’ buddy, and he loves Jaime, of course. He’s probably also a rapist bastard abusing slaves, but as we’ve already learnt, rape is a relative thing in Outlander series.

I’ve just got an impression that when you portray some group with two villains and one Mary Sue, there’s something utterly wrong about it.

6. The Reign of Mary Sue

Jaime and Claire (and Brianna plus John Grey, to some extend) are Mary Sues. They are either beautiful/handsome or captivating despite of their Uncommon Beauty Type. Jaime is a warrior/clan-leader/ship captain/gentleman/politician/hunter (delete when not applicable) and he’s good at all of this. He’s also a passionate lover to his wife and—as we are to believe despite of several nasty questions—a perfect True Lover. He can rock a child or build a house as well, and he speaks several languages. Could he be a better Mary Sue? A character more wish-fulfilling and more inaccurate to one’s times? An eighteenth-century guy who takes care of kids from time to time and respects his wife as a professional doctor?

Claire, however, is even more Mary-Sue-like. She’s got rare golden eyes (the Cullens approve) and at the age of fifty, she’s still found attractive and visually competitive by randomly met prostitutes. And if I have a problem with it, it’s because that being an attractive woman past fifty (or even forty) is still seen as some exception. This time, it’s the sign of Mary-Sueishness.

What’s more, SPOILERS Claire possess some kind of clairvoyance, and makes out the theory of time-travelling on her own. As a doctor, she rules as well, inventing antibiotics in her makeshift laboratory at her eighteenth-century home in Carolina. SPOILERS

The worst aspect of Claire’s coolness is her attitude towards the people of colour, however. In ’60s, she’s shown as Sooo Tolerant because she befriends an Afro-American doctor. In the eighteenth century, because she feels sorry for the slaves and cures them, and she finds slavery terrible. And has friends among the Native Americans, remember! It’s just sad to think that the people of colour were introduced to the series probably only to show how Good, Tolerant and Gracious Claire is.

Not to mention that Claire’s Buddy is put in the show mostly to say things which would be find unforgettable at whites and to mock the Afro-American counter-culture with its hairstyle and clothing.

7. The Guise of a Serious Fiction

Maybe I’m a prejudiced snob. But I don’t consider Outlander series something beyond a romance with some multi-genre traits of adventure, historical and fantasy novel. It’s just an exceedingly well-packed and overloaded harlequin written a bit better than a mediocre work of this type. It meets all the tropes of a romance novel—historical setting, attractive men not entirely resembling the people of their times, shallow womanizers portrayed as True Lovers, pathetic sex.

But the series pretends it’s something more. That’s why all the “social issues”, historical characters, religious references or profound descriptions of converted and down-trodden Roger are thrown into.

8. Too Much Content and Too Little Important Action

OK, this was the main reason of putting this series aside by me. Not occasional sexism, not toxic True Lovers, not pretext PoC’s portrayal, not stereotypical gays.*feels ashamed* It’s just too long, with hell bunch of sub-plots which aren’t relevant at all. And book by book, it grows only worse. Thus, even the perspective of receiving a family tree in the book eighth didn’t convince me to go on with Outlander.

The Case of Marion Zimmer Bradley

Marion Zimmer Bradley was a paedophile abusing her own kids. She should have been put into a prison. The readers don’t need to boycott her books necessarily, assuming that the incomes are to be given to NGOs fightning paedophilia. The sad and alarming thing is that some friends of her claim that they didn’t observe anything wrong in her relations with children. And that her second husband was a damned paedophile, too. The dubious things might be actually some descriptions in her books — a rapist bastard avoiding any legal punishment in Two to Conquer, a brother having a crush for his sister in The Winds of Darkover and Stormqueen! as well. Or the strange repulsion towards sex during pregnancy (some transfered remorse?). It might be connected with the terrible things she did, or might not.

These things should be important if we’re discussing this problem.

However, I don’t see the point of some claims, especially on Goodreads and especially concerned with The Mists of Avalon. Marion Zimmer Bradley wasn’t a sexual criminal because she was a feminist/non-heteronormative/sceptic about Christianity/was writing about extramarital sex. Ursula K. LeGuin was an atheist-feminist. Does it mean she was a paedophile? E. M. Forster was a gay depicting some religiously sceptic characters in A Room with a View. Does it mean he was a paedophile? Balzac, Marquez, Sigrid Undset, Boccaccio—they all wrote about extramarital sex a lot, even if their descriptions weren’t as explicite as at Bradley’s. Some of them were anticlericals of sort as well. Does it mean they were paedophiles?

Nope.

Why I Stopped Reading Santa Montefiore on Two Books (or Rather, Why I Will Always Return to Victoria Hislop)

Or maybe, one thing about the hidden neo-colonialism of our culture?

Reading A Room with a View can explain us, I think, an Anglosphere phenomenon. It’s the phenomenon of the people born into relatively influential and wealthy countries fascinated with the countries more “exotic” and less influential at once. Fascinated to such an extent that they suppose these countries to be more colourful and interesting, and they are quite dissapointed when the truth comes out to be different. And with this phenomenon of boredom and false expectations, another one is connected.

These countries might vary a lot. They could be Mediterranean, Latin-American, Asian, or even — Eastern-European. But there is one thing which connects them. They are a guise. An escape from the author’s country. A mere background for a drama. A better drama, because a more exotic one. A stage which one could shape to one’s whim, just as the colonists and politicians did.

It is, I would say, the neo-colonial fantasy of the people so privileged that they can’t even see how shamelessly they interfere into one’s life and culture.

But then, where is the difference between this fantasy and, let’s call it, the Forsterian phenomenon? E. M. Forster also wrote about “exotic” countries like India or Italy. And guess what? He wasn’t so careless.

The difference between A Room with a View and all the “Mediterranean fiction” is that the former one actually mocks the Englishpeople seeking experiences and impressions outside their country and culture-circle. It’s a book self-aware of their “exotic guise”. While all the books of, let’s say, Santa Montefiore, Victoria Hislop or Rosanna Ley, sadly, aren’t.

Or let’s take A Passage to India. The racial, political and colonial tensions are no decorations there, no careless background for the dramatic story of True Love, Family Drama and so on (recalls Dinah Jefferies and snorts). There are the core of the book. It doesn’t make it pleasant, but sometimes, books aren’t to be pleasant.

While The Forget-Me-Not Sonata and Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree by Santa Montefiore are, I would say, an excellent example of the neo-colonial fantasy.

They are strange books. Supposedly set in Argentina, they are filled mostly with the characters of UK descend. If there are Argentinians, then they are rich ranchers marrying outside the country or episodic, stereotypical servants and gauchos, like in Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree. The Forget-Me-Not Sonata is even a better example of Anglocentrism, however. Argentina is merely a background there for a secluded English colony, and all the main characters are English. The Argentinians — or the Spaniards overall — are just servants. Servants who not only clean and cook. They entertain with impressions, entertain with impressions of fiery tango or beautiful countryside landscape. They give a guise, give some emotions to the bored and well-to-do characters. Otherwise, they don’t count, they aren’t important. And the worst thing is that the author probably didn’t intend it like that. The very presence of Argentinians was to be the proof of tolerance and diversity. Montefiore? It isn’t.

And the character of Mercedes, the cook in Audrey’s home, the protagonist of Sonata (Audrey, not home😁), is probably the worst example of such a neo-colonial portrayal. You see, Mercedes is a very stereotypical Latino servant-woman. Kind-hearted but superstitious, sharing her folk wisdom to the English missies. She throws words in Spanish into her English conversations, and she has numerous illegitimate children with random men. These Spaniards. So lusty and unordered. And their country. Who cares about some piece of true customs and history, when there is pampa and handsome gauchos?

So here we are — a safe story about well-to-do and secluded Britons, their kids and love dramas, set in Argentina, but English to its bone, and going back to England as well. And in England we have an aunt and her French lover. Who is a lazy guy having sex with her EvilSensous niece, of course. And we have a boarding school. And there are Gypsies. Roma people? Who bothers with calling an ethnic group with its own name, anyway. All which is important is their colourful carts and life-in-travel, and their gardening skills. An Other could be accepted as long as one is exotic and colourful, as long as one could entertain the colonist and apply to the colonist’s images of the Otherness.

This book (and Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree as well) is not only careless about some ethnic groups, and plainly neo-colonial. It’s also quite careless about all these who aren’t upper-middle class, and it uses non-heteronormative people as a mere joke as well. Remember, gays are half-males in pink clothes, and bisexual people are horny and trecherous.

The both books have a very strange morality, too. Boys sleeping around are perfectly good and normal, and their evanescent affairs do not hinder in finding a True Love. While girls sleeping around are either looking like “porn-stars” or are Evil Bitches using their bodies as a weapon. Double standard rulz!

Also, remember — cheating on your devoted husband isn’t bad as long as you do it with your TrueLover. Cheating on your bossy husband who decides on your kids’ education behind your back isn’t bad, either. Later, however, don’t be surprised when the said husband would be described as an understanding, noble and forgiving one.

The pop spirituality doesn’t help either, especially in Sonata, with ghosts being present at their own funerals and the wonderful kids of wonderful affairs, foreseeing the future of EvilUnhappyBitches.

In a nutshell — if you want to read about Argentina, never ever pick up Montefiore’s books!

Then, what is the difference between “exotic” Latinoamerican books of Santa Montefiore and “exotic” Greece-Mediterranean books of Victoria Hislop?

Oh, I could point several of them.

Let’s begin that her books about Greece are about Greeks at least, and her novel about Civil War Spain — about Spanish people. There are some Anglo-Spaniards or Anglo-Greeks in every book, serving as connectors — and this formulae is quite generic, I would say. But the characters most vital for the books are autochthons, and the action is placed in their countries with no guise of Express-UK-Emmigration. It is proceeded to such an extent that usually, the author throws hell bunch of Greek terms I must google out then. Some description of dishes, for example, would be quite useful. But, of course, throwing “exotic” names without any explanation is easy. Thoroughness of Hislop, however, have some advantages as well. From her books, one could always learn about details of flamenco or Cretan customs, and about the social and historical factors determining the behaviour and convictions of the characters. It is still more “I’ll show you how the life looks there, in this country far away” than anything else, but such an attempt is more sincere than the quasi-setting of Montefiore’s books, at least.

The interesting thing is also how — over the books — the human relations grow between Hislop’s characters. Except for quite simple morality of The Island, the next books offer us the female solidarity and the value of sisterhood instead of Madonna-whore dychotomy. The women — young and old, related or not, sick or healthy — are true friends there, giving help and support to each other. It’s already begun in The Island to reach its top in Those who are Loved where the main heroine chooses the well-being of her friend and her child over the lover who cheated on them both.

The morality of the books tends to be specific, however. In The Thread, we have a heroine who kills her Evul!NaziColaborantHusband with a very unhealthy diet. He was a Nazi friend, so who cares if murdering is good or bad? On the other hand, in The Island we are suggested that an unfaithful wife deserved her death. Wellp, I’m hoping it was to portray more the Cretan point of view sixty years ago than anything else. Overall, however, the values promoted in Hislop’s books are consistent and not toxic. A rich hypocrite abusing her wife and cheating on her is a bad guy. The people reporting their Jewish neigbours to the Nazis are the bads. The people killing the others for their sexual orientation are bad. The people helping the rejected ones are the good ones. The lepers aren’t to blame for their disease.

Some basic social sensibility is the most interesting aspect of Hislop’s books, anyway. Usually, the popular literature uses poverty, social conflicts or diseases as a dramatic guise, adding some emotion to the already emotional stories of love, wars and so on. It’s always nice to feel compassionate and generous cause you are reading about poor, discriminated or disabled people, isn’t it?

Here, it isn’t the case. Whatever drives Victoria Hislop to write about protesting workers, political prisoners, repressed and genocided Jews or rejected lepers, it seems to be more the true compassion than anything else. And it rings so true that for the mere sake of it, I can forgive her the whole package of the Mediterranean guise. Moreover, I should be grateful to her, for her books gave me some knowledge about leprosy and the history of Greece and Spain in the previous century. A priceless knowledge, actually.

You see, as a kid I thought (thanks to the Biblical stories, probably) that leprosy=zombification. I thought that you can contradict it by the mere touch and get sores&bumps&limbs falling apart at instant. And I wasn’t the only one to think like that, I suppose. I dehumanized the lepers and I was afraid at the very mention of the disease. Later, I grew compassionate towards the ill ones and disabled ones overall (and it might have had something to do with the changes in my worldview). The literature, however, would still give me an image of WalkingDeath, including Of Love and Other Demons and the Thomas Covenant series. And then, I read The Island. It was my first book by Hislop and I learnt hell bunch of useful things from it. At last, I read a book where the lepers weren’t some naturalistic token (and it’s very sad to use ill and disabled people like that altogether) or CrippledVillains (Fiona McIntosh and her Destiny, ugh). I read about characters I felt sorry for, and whose life hadn’t been as sad and hopeless as I suspected. I mean, the novel Spinalonga colony is quite a nice place — cafes, shops, gardens, a movie theatre…

Already in her first novel, Hislop made a rejected social group the main character, and she should be praised for the mere sake of it.

Her next works, however, emphasize classism and antisemitism more than ableism. It doesn’t mean that suddenly, her characters become healthy and pretty — there is still place for the deformed ones (in Those who are Loved one of the main characters gets terribly scarred during city riots) and the ill ones, either mentally or physically. But in these stories, the conflict between the rich ones and the poor ones, the privileged ones and the abused ones, is always present. There are the stories of strikes and persecutions, of citizens’ protests and the government’s violence. And it isn’t only the guise of Dramatic Times. It’s the homage for those who were rejected and persecuted, for the warriors of fredom. It always supports the side of the ordinary people, not of those who are happy, pretty and wealthy. Every political and historical reference — unlike at Montefiore’s — is deliberate.

The social problems raised in Hislop’s books gave me yet another important personal experience. I live in the country where nobody gives a damn about the crimes of right-wing dictators like Franco, Salazar, Trujillo, Somoza, Pinochet (…) or the Greek Junta actually. On the other hand, everybody with some social ideas is called a communist. And then, there are those books. Books in which the communists are on the democratic side, this time. Books with no Soviet propaganda justifying cruel dictators and crimes on humanity. I mean, it was nice to read it and to feel that you don’t support the bad side. It was nice to gain a proof that not only in the communist countries the human rigts were threatened. Actually, Franco’s Spain or monarchist Greece weren’t as bad as Third Reich or Soviet Russia. It was rather the level of communist Poland or Czech, or Hungary, and so on. In some moments, it was far worse. In others, slightly better. But, ye know, for some people, as long as the righties rule, there is no dictatorship.

And this thread in Hislop’s books is a mystery for me, altogether. Otherwise, they aren’t all progressive in the most obvious way. There are some atheists and illegitimate births described with no scorn, and Those who are Loved tells the story of a woman military rebel, but altogether, these tropes have been embraced into the western culture years ago. I just wonder who Victoria Hislop is — a decent conservative simply caring about the others and thinking that “Everybody’s better than Nazis”? Or maybe a left-winger who, for some reasons of her own, rarely raises some particular topics? Or maybe it isn’t the point.

The point is that her books, imperfect as they are, are at least more fair and more justful than most of the supposedly exotic and supposedly Mediterranean English-language fiction.