Five Things Which are Wrong with Black Jewels by Anne Bishop

Five… But if I’d count them, there would be more, I’m sure.

Kink Fantasy Instead of Dark Fantasy

Oh, yes. It’s damnably kinky. And it isn’t even about numerous sex scenes. Or about magical rites and hierarchies connected to sexuality on a literal level.

It was to be dark and lush, I’m sure. Male sexual slaves, voluptuous Queens wielding magic, handsome guys as protagonists, decadent courts… But when the world-building is scarce and the male characters are fetishized, what is left isn’t a seductive darkness but a repelling uneasiness.

So, yeah, the main antagonist is a lass who’s been raping her own son and who likes gelding disobedient males. She holds some men as sexual slaves and allows some others to rape and mistreat “weaker” witches.

The protagonist, meanwhile, is harassed and raped (age 12) in a psychiatric hospital, due to quench her MarySue-ish magical powers. Her would-be-true-lover (1700 years old) is one of the sexual slaves of the antagonist. Because of his BDSM inclinations he’s known as The Sadist. He’s been waiting to love and serve the protagonist centuries before she was born.

His bro is a sexual slave, too. They are both slaves because their daddy—supposedly almighty Lord of Hell—couldn’t have acknowledged them. And the said Lord of Hell—called Saetan SaDiablo; so subtly indeed—considers the protagonist his spiritual daughter. That “parenthood” doesn’t stop him from being aroused with sucking her blood. Yummy.

And so it goes on. The tortures, the rapes, the pedophile and incestuous vibes, the guys who are going mad with sex-driven fury… And the males who are sexually enslaved appear actually not only in the books about the main pack of our heroes, but in the spin-offs—such as The Invisible Ring—as well. And I have one big problem with a trope like that.

If some fantasy series was centered on female sex-workers enduring humilation and submission and dreaming of revenge, such a series would be considered as a one fetishizing women, probably. And I would agree with it. But then—it does mean that Black Jewels are fetishizing men. If the issues of male sex-working or male slut-shaming are raised in the series, it isn’t a metaphor whose aim is to show women’s problems through reversion. Neither it is the way of making the readers aware that sexual violence can afflict men too. No. You know the reason for depicting sexually enslaved men in this show? Just for the porn. Because it’s so kinky, you know. Pretty down-trodden angry guys. And you know what is the reason for all the rapes and tortures? It’s a plot device serving as a compassion-generator. When your characters need to have a trauma, let’s give them some gang rape or sadistic tortures! Who cares about real results and real victims of violence and PTSD…

Lame Worldbuilding

So, the Great Lord of Hell is called Saetan SaDiablo. His sonnies are called Daemon Sadi (a demon of BDSM, you know) and Lucivar. His evil ex-wife is called Hekatah. His good ex-wife is called Cassandra. And what is the surname of Jaenelle, our protagonist? Angelline, of course. And let’s not forget about Surreal, a badass spy-sex-worker who is an ally of our protagonists.

Repeat after me—this is lush dark fantasy. Lush dark fantasy creating subtle and voluptuous atmosphere. Does it really matter that the main characters’ names sound like in a bad paranormal romance on Wattpad? Does it really matter that only a Soviet tank can equal their subtlety?

And “suggestive” naming is only the tip of the iceberg of Black Jewels’ worldbuilding. Because, except for the magical hierarchy (including virginity-fetish rituals, of course) and the rank of magical jewels, there is no worldbuilding. Except for talking dogs and big obese cats, except for the concept of three plains of reality (Tereille, Kaeleer and Hell), there are no original ideas. There are some lands and some cultures, but we don’t get anything specific or climatic about them. Whether it is the Keep where Saetan resides or the hospital where Jaenelle was imprisoned, or the destroyed land of Zuulaman, we are not given any details. It gets a bit better with spin-offs focused on Shalador, but even in them, the author wastes the potential of her universe. There’s an exiled ethnic group there, there are traditions concerned with dance and music, there is tree-symbolism… But, as usual at Bishop’s, smut talking, trauma fetish and sexy undertones are more important than any promising background.

But the worst thing about the worldbuilding is its randomness. Because you’ll have no clue on what period the setting is based. When a winged warrior fights with a crossbow and then opens a fridge and goes to a cabin shower, know that something bad has happened.

The case of Black Jewels isn’t inconsistency on purpose like in retellings or urban fantasy books, or other ones which blend genres. The case of Black Jewels is “I put fridges, cameras and suits alongside feudal hierarchy, talking dogs and dragons and 50000 years old demons because my priority are SexyBoys and MarySues, not any worldbuilding”. But you can’t have everything. You can’t have a boudoir-like atmosphere and fridges. You can’t have a Regency-like aristocracy compiled with hierarchy matching more some quasi-medieval times. Because if you put it together, it’ll be looking ridiculous.

Stiff Gender Roles

I really wonder what the life of trans or non-binary people looks like in the world of Black Jewels. Does a trans guy can be a witch because of his biological organs?

Is a magically-gifted transwoman not allowed to be a witch? Should she be a Warrior Prince, instead?

Oh, wait. There’s no problem. Because in that world, there are no non-heteronormative people except for a backstage GayTokenFriend and a LesbianTokenFriend. Gender equals biological sex. And it’s even a wider problem than the absence of the whole minorities or the fetishizing of menstruating people. Than highlighting male vs. female dychotomy and making jokes about it in the good old manner of “your old lady…”—most of the books’ humour relies on that, really. No. It’s the problem of the very worldbuilding.

We are told we are in a matriarchal society, but “weaker” witches are sexually assaulted and treated like breeding mares. And please don’t say that it may be the question of class. Did in medieval Europe well-born ladies harass peasant males commonly? I guess they didn’t.

We are told we are in a matriarchal society, but when a male Blood wants to serve a Witch, the Witch can’t refuse him. And in the cases of some characters, such as Jared in The Invisible Ring or Lucivar overall, this need of serving has some toxic bossy understones actually.

We are told we are in a matriarchal society, but (almost) only males are warriors and only women (those with a less potent magical gift) are housekeepers. And there is no true alternative to it.

Because when a guy starts cooking in JewelsVerse, he either screws everything up or wants to Arrange a Romantic Supper. I know that in Paranormal Romance it may look funny, but in the broader context it just consolidates harmful gender stereotypes. *recalls Mortal Instruments and Twilight* Oh, wait, maybe it’s the specificity of the genre.

The Invisible Commonfolk

Gender roles aren’t the only inchangeable ones in the series. The same is with the class system based on the magical aristocracy of the Blood and the rest being the commoners serving the nobs. The hierarchy is almost always hereditary, with exceptions made for the MarySue-ish characters—Saetan is a son of a sex-worker and Queen Cassidy (the protagonist of Shalador’s Lady) is from an ordinary family.

Usually, the villains are blood-purity-obsessed classists and they hold the low-born ones in contempt while the protagonists do care about them. Does it mean that the books are pro-commonfolk, though? It doesn’t. Commonfolk is represented in them as long as it is useful—useful to show how friendly and caring Jaenelle/Saetan/Cassidy/whoever else from the Goodies is. Also, the hierarchy is never directly questioned and the problem of feudal violence (including economical and sexual abuse of commoners and weaker witches) comes down to “bad people supporting Evil Dorothea SaDiablo and good traditional order”. *toxic vibes of Darkover and Six Duchies*

But, again—it could be the question of the genre. Mortal Instruments with their “Jace-demon-hunter-aristocrat” is equally classist, after all.

Mary Sue, Mary Sue!

Oh, this series is shamelessly open about MarySue-ism. So open that I have never encountered such a shamelessness. Maybe except for the “works” of Mr. Paolini.

Almost every protagonist has some powers unusual for their age/sex/class. Saetan and Daemon are Black Widows, performing magic of dreams and poisons, which is usually associated with women. If it isn’t enough, they wear the strongest jewels possible, the Black ones. Lucivar is a persecuted half-blood wearing a Black-Grey jewel who’ll grow into the leader of the Eyriens, his mother’s reluctant people. Surreal is a badass spy-sex-worker with a Tragic Past (oh wait, almost every protagonist has a one) and mysterious heritage of the Children of the Forest Dea al Mon, wearing a Grey jewel. Only two levels lower than the very High Lord of Hell, you know.

And Jaenelle… Oh, Jaenelle is the essence. Even when she was seven, her eyes would glimpse with the wisdom of entire ages. When she was a kid, she’d already collected jewels darker and stronger than any known ones. When she was twelve, she survived a gang rape and appeared to her would-be-TrueLover Daemon as a clawed woman with hooves, with lion’s mane and with a corn on her head. No, she isn’t some crypto-tiger-unicorn-horse. She is the embodied dream of the whole generations of the Blood, the Chosen One destined to restore Old Good Order and to defeat Evul!Dorothea SaDiablo. And now I’m asking you—how, on Earth, could we treat such a character seriously? How could we treat any of the protagonists seriously?

So… Are There any Good Things?

They are, after all.

If not all the bossy/incestuous/simply silly/#alwayssexual vibes, reading about the family life of Saetan and his sons would be quite nice, a fresh perspective of dailyness in a generic Paranormal Fantasy. If not all the rule of “Saetan and his lot are always right/justified” reading about Lucivar defeating his racists&classists political adversaries would be a good thing to read. Also, the metaphor of racism overall isn’t that bad in the series. But all the other things are in the kind of Draco in Leather Pants riding a pink unicorn.

Read on your own responsibility, I warn you.

The Complex World of Barbara Kingsolver

WARNING: Lots of spoilers included

Usually, I don’t read a lot of general fiction in English. General fiction is something special to me, something which should be chosen meticulously. And so—except for the classics—this kind of books in their original language do not take a lot of place on my bookshelves.

The case of me and Barbara Kingsolver was different. I felt I had to read something by her, and to get it in paper. In English. And so I bought The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna. Mesmerized, I added Unsheltered which dissapointed me a bit but didn’t diminish the former books nevertheless.


What always surprizes me about Kingsolver’s books is that for better and worse, they present problems which are up-to-date. Even her historical novels reflects the nowadaysʼ problems acutely.
It’s strange to read about the main character of The Lacuna, who is a closeted gay, accused of being a communist plotting against US. It’s strange because it’s hard to not think of ultraconservatives claiming that gays are “neo-marxists” wanting to destroy “the western civilization”. It’s strange to read of biracial kids of one of The Poisonwood Bible‘s characters who can’t find their place in US. Because then you are painfully reminded of the white extinction conspiracy theories, and of perceving two people having biracial children in the categories of genocide.

It’s strange to read of a woman who sacrified her independence for the sake of her kids in The Poisonwood Bible taking place in the fifties, and to realize that the same happens to a woman in Unsheltered, who was rearing her children in the nineties.

It’s strange and unsettling. But the books by Kingsolver are just like that—they make us aware of the things we don’t want to see and of the parallels of which we would prefer to not be aware of. The truth they give us isn’t easy.

It wasn’t easy to me, to read Unsheltered and see how an already working woman has to look after her crumbling house, after her infant grandson, and after her embittered and ill father-in-law. To read about her son who doesn’t give a damn about his own little kid but who considers himself a heroic breadwinner and blackmails the rest of the family with his money. And who gives up all his parental duties to his sister. It’s all… So true.

We think that the men are more engaged fathers and women are more financially independent nowadays, and then there is Unsheltered telling you how illusionary it is.

You may think that this book is too much about politics and not very subtle in its social diagnosis. I agree with it as long as we agree on something else—that Levin and Prince Oblonsky are not discussing politics by talking of liberalism in Anna Karenina. That the description of the conservative aristocrats and their bigotry in Illusions Perdues by Balzac isn’t actually a political comment. What I mean that the older the book, the less politics we see in it. Unsheltered seems so ideological because it’s very recent and it takes place nowadays. And here and now, one can’t afford the privilege of neutrality if one writes a general fiction book on the broader scale.

Unsheltered—too much about the politics as it may seem—grasps some social types acutely, at least. There is Zeke, a Young Man into Business. There’s Willa, a middle-aged journalist struggling to keep her house together. And there’s Tig, a girl written against all the stereotypes of a woke SJW who doesn’t know the true life and true problems—she’s the one to be more responsible than Zeke is, actually, looking after his son and after their ailing grandpa. She is doing the dirty job and she doesn’t complain.

It’s also not only about individuals, but about nature and society as well. It’s about people supporting the populists against their own interests, and about the climate changes turning the rules of the world on their head. The questions are unconvenient. And the answers are difficult.

But that’s the only one side of the story. On the other one, there’s not Willa’s family, but a nineteenth century scientist Mary Treat and her friend, a devoted teacher called Thatcher Greenwood.

On the level of the social metaphor and cultural allusions—from Darwin’s theory through Italian immigration to the bigotry of the 1870s authorities—their story is convincing and actually more subtle than the sociopolitical background of Willa’s plot. It’s also a nice parallel of the contemporary times—one may think that the whole thing with creationism vs evolutionism, authority vs the common person, hasn’t changed a lot. Just as the hostility towards immigrants who aren’t WASPish enough—once Italians, now Latin Americans. And the politics doing what they want under the guise of protecting the “good” citizens.

The characters aren’t fleshed out well, though. Or rather—they aren’t fleshed out as for Kingsolver. Mary Treat must have been a fascinating figure, but she’s portrayed plain and detached. From her point, we don’t even get as much of herstory as one may expect from supposedly “progressive” and “engaged” book. Thatcher, on the other hand, is sketched but not drawn. He lacks characterization and personal interests—except for science. And the members of his family are lacking both.

Her previous books, The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna, have everything, though —vivid characterization and description, moving metaphors and acute social and historical context. If they were praised and acclaimed, they were praised deservedly.

Both of them are more retellings than anything else—the retellings of 1930s and 1950s, the retellings of American values and American superstitions about the Other, either the Latin American or the African one. Or the progressive one. Or simply one who doesn’t fit into the traditional sexuality. Or doesn’t have a “typical” family.

They show the world where “decency” and “hierarchy” are the key words and where the symbolic power is so terrific that it erases entire events and silences entire social groups. The said world, though, isn’t a place of opression and calamity only. There are safe spaces there—female solidarity in The Poisonwood Bible, friendship in The Lacuna. Neither the silenced groups—like LGBT people—are presented like “Look what a discovery I’ve made! They existed even back then!” nor their problems are introduced as kind of “Injustice!#1#!1!”. It’s all very subtle and woven into the plot in an unaffected way.

In The Lacuna, the parallels and premonitions accompany the reader from the very beginning. The outcasted lepers from Mexico City foreshadow the fate of Harrison Shepherd, the main character—who’ll be an outcast one day, too—and of his friend, the painter Frida Kahlo, who’ll end as a disabled and severelly ill person. The vividly described murals of Diego Rivera remind both of socialist postulates and of the native history of Mexico; over years, Harrison will be inspired by both. The homonym of laguna/lacuna refers both to the Harrison’s diving passion and to the need of oblivion—which, in the end, will become his doom and his rescue alike. It refers also to the lost part of his diary, the one describing his first gay love—an affair with a schoolmate. It refers to his love life overall—to the silence and discretion surrounding his orientation out of necessity. Because he lives in damnably homophobic times and Kingsolver doesn’t forget about it while writing his character.

Harrison’s sexuality isn’t about “look, he was queer even BACK THEN” or about “it wasn’t so bad, people were quite fine about him”. In his life, there are safe spaces—his friendship to Frida Kahlo and then to his secretary, an Appalachian Violet Brown—who is, by the way, a character out of any stereotypes about intolerant country people. But overall, he must hide his true self from the society. It doesn’t mean that his personality is about gayness; because it isn’t. He’s much more fascinating character than a figure of an average persecuted gay in the historical times. Nevertheless, he suffers from homophobia. He’s expelled from school, his mother doesn’t even know that he can be gay. And in the end, his country is against him, treating him as somebody thwarted and subversive. And he can’t even call his relations “love”—full of all the romantic patterns as they are.

As I’ve mentoned, his personality isn’t about gayness—it’s about being an observant, the bridge between US and Mexico, the person between. Harrison lives with the life of other people—those for whom he works and those whom he creates in his novels. He lives with the life of the servants on the fictional Isla Pixol, with the life of Frida Kahlo and Leo Trotski and their friends and spouses. Through his diaries, their personalities and the very land of Mexico are painted so vivid and captivating that the closing of the Mexican plot left me in mourning, actually.

Harrison seems almost translucent, but always wry, cunning and observant; until he leaves for Northern Carolina and, suddenly, out of necessity, his life becomes so much of his own. There, he can’t be a detached observant anymore, gradually engaging into the life of the local community. Guess to what it will lead in the times of Red Panic.

The Poisonwood Bible evokes the suffocating atmosphere of the fifties as much as The Lacuna, but it’s a book very different in technique, setting and pace. Told from the perspective of a mother—the wife of Nathan Price, a Baptist minister choosing a mission in Congo—and four daughters, it follows their relation to Africa and their life there. Each of them has an unique voice and perceives Congo and its local people in a specific way. Each of them is already hurt or would be hurt this way or another. And each of them remains under Nathan’s influence—even years after the family ties have been severed. For the figure of the father and the husband casts a long shadow over the life of the Price women; those who’ve survived. A figure of the man who—under the guise of piety and religious devotion—terrorized his family emotionally and sometimes even abused physically.

In this story, Nathan Price isn’t all a villain; his character is explained by his war trauma. He is bossy and insensible, though, and utterly sexist. He considers his wife Orleanna and their daughters “silly” females and doesn’t appreciate the work Orleanna does for him; a lot of tedious daily work. He thinks he knows the best about everything—he’s a paternalist convinced that Christianity (and abandoning of the local traditions) is the only way to save and redeem the “stupid” and “primitive” Congo people. He doesn’t see their own ways and their own methods of dealing with various things—from gardening to mourning. He is, actually, the symbol of white paternalism; the intention may not seem all bad but it’s contemptuous at its very roots, and the resolution is ignorant and domineering.

The most terryfying thing about him is the wrongdoing he does to his family. He is no “flash” type of an abuser, the one to rape his own children and beat his wife with a belt. His relation to his daughters doesn’t need to be incestuous to be utterly toxic, and the physical harm he does to Orleanna seems even more terryfying because it’s sporadic. And wrapped up in the pack of psychological abuse, of diminishing and gaslighting. Nathan Price isn’t your Openly Dysfunctional Daddy Figure. Oh, not. He’s a Respected Figure, a Man Devoted to His Case and burying his secrets deeply. And the worst is that taking into account the whole setting of the 1950s, such a type of an abuser looks disturbingly probable. After all, officially the US women were happy, weren’t they? What harm could come to them from a Decent Male?

The four daughters of him and Orleanna, meanwhile, are not only well-drawn but symbolize the several ways of approaching Africa.

Rachel, the eldest, is not only as much a paternalist as her father; she’s even more contemptuous. She stays in Africa only to abuse its people and accursing them of being lazy, stupid and cruel. She is to run a big hotel, the symbol of the colonial domination still prevailing on the continent. And the worst is that she considers herself benevolent.

Adah, a girl with physical disability, doesn’t speak, but it doesn’t mean that the conclusions she draws from her observation aren’t interesting. She lives in the slanted world full of puns and ambiguous words, where “God’s love” becomes “Evols’ dog” and “left behind” means “left behind” literally. She sees how everything grows thwarted on the Congo’s soil—from Scripture to the very flora, both lush and dangerous. She’s wry and cynical but—unlike her father—possess some hidden instinct of compassion, embracing not only human beings but the whole nature too.

Leah, her twin, as the one devoted to God, can gain some understanding from her father—at least as we meet her. Soon, though, she’ll start to oppose social conventions, gender roles and Nathan’s orders. She’ll start to defy God as her father understand Him to become a woman centered on the earth, not on the heaven. She’ll be also the only one of the sisters to have kids—but, oh wait, Rachel won’t consider them her nephews. Too coloured, you know.

And Ruth May… Well, Ruth May is doomed. You may not see it at once, but it’ll soon become clear.

The Poisonwood Bible—like The Lacuna—is the book where the different culture is neither exotized nor fetishized. Mexico or Congo aren’t exotic guises in Kingsolver’s writing, and neither their people are. She points out things which may seem strange to a Westerner—like the folk beliefs of the Mexicans or the child-adult dychotomy at Congo with nothing between—but she never does it in the way of “Look how remote and weird it is!” She actually seeks similarities, not differences. She shows, for example, that no matter Congo or US, the women do the tough job—like cleaning, child-rearing or gathering crops—while men do the spectacular job—like hunting—and claim that the spectacular one is not only the more important one, but allowed to be done only by them. And because the tough job is more demanding and absorbing, the women often can’t decide about the outer problems or free themselves from this circle of hard work or (even) abuse—there’s simply too little time.

In The Poisonwood Bible, there are other themes, of course, not only gender, colonialism and domestic abuse. There’s the great history seen from the perspective of the ordinary people. There’s nature and its symbolism. There’s the role of language. There’s race and culture clash. There’s sisterly and motherly love. And all this entwined together like the web of human fate.

In Kingsolver’s novels, everything is connected. Patrice Lumumba and Leo Trotsky are equally doomed. A middle-aged journalist is as much confined to her family as a young housewife. Latin American people and Congo people are misunderstood and exotized alike. Immigrants are held in contempt no matter the period. The nature is both beautiful and cruel—just as the very life is.

The Social Side of the Strange Worlds of Patricia A. McKillip

Patricia A. McKillip is an evenement in fantasy. She writes neither fairytales-retellings nor epic fantasy. She never precises whether her books are for Young Adults or for adults, or for everybody. She doesn’t step into writing big multi-volumed sagas and her books aren’t centered on generic adventures or YA-ish finding of a True Lover. Her works aren’t typical but they are acclaimed, and I think they are so deservedly. And although they are no retellings of the classical fairy tales, they are closer to the definition of a retelling than most of the “dark” interpretations of Snow White or Cinderella.

There is everything a retelling requires in every book of her I’ve read—the twisted fairy logic of vows and promises, the mythical creatures, the riddles, the mystery, the unobviously ambiguous characters. And it isn’t the grim ambiguity of ASoIaF or LittleSiren-DeadlyKiller by Alexandra Christo and other YA authors of retellings. It’s something much more subtle. Patricia A. McKillip creates her own myths and fairy tales, and she creates them in an enchanting way. She uses the well-known tropes like ordinary things turning magical, dragons guarding treasures or wizards casting illusions. Her books are filled with brave kings and evil sorceresses, but the kings come out not to be so brave and the sorceresses not so sinister. And the best thing about the shifts she does and the illusions she reveals is that her tropes and narrative tools do not scream: It’s retelling!!! The paradox is that sometimes, it makes her stories more unobvious and progressive from all those books yelling “Look, I did representation/girl power/reinterpretation!”

And it works on many levels.

Let’s take, for example, the question of women and their sexuality in her books.

From the trilogy about the Riddlemaster, through The Cygnet and Alphabet of Thorn to Od Magic, her heroines (either on the first or the second stage, either in the legends or in the times of the very action) live in informal relationships, have lovers and bear kids out of wedlock. And it’s amazing on several levels.

The first thing, of course, is that all those plots and threads are subtle. McKillip yells neither “Look how liberated my women characters are!” nor “Look at those shameless sluts!”. Sex, parenting and falling in love are something perfectly normal and neutral in her worlds.

The second one is that those women (and men too, don’t worry) aren’t defined by their sexual life. Her female characters could be librarians, witches, rulers, warriors, can be positive or ambiguous characters, and all this has nothing to do with their love or sexual affairs. To me, it’s wonderful, really. I wonder whether is any other fantasy author as genuine as McKillip—writing, for example, about a woman who has three kids-out of-wedlock with three dads and who is a competent ruler whose descriptions aren’t sensual at all. Guy Gavriel Kay would write such a character too sexually. Robin Hobb—well, she would repeat probably something like “It’s a different culture but never take somebody so disgraced for your role model!”

Patricia A. McKillip is unique. Yeah. Just as her overall handling of the female characters.

There were things which irritated me at the beginning, I must confess. The trilogy about the Riddlemaster harboured some stereotypes, such as girls tending mostly to the household and princesses being cherished as valuable brides mainly, or a male-centered university. Even in this trilogy, though—published in the 1970s, remember—were introduced not only both female warriors and magicians, but the main female character came out to be a powerful sorceress with agency of her own, too.

Over the course of following—and usually standalone—novels Patricia A. McKillip got only better and better with the portrayal of her female characters, from their personality to introducing some elements of herstory.

In Od Magic, the figure of a sage and a mentor—a local Gandalf, you know—is an elderly female. And a famed magician is a girl pretending being her own father. In Alphabet of Thorn, it comes out that the first king of the land was actually the queen, which gives self-efficience to the young princess. Meanwhile, the main character discovers that her mother was a time-travelling sorceress cooperating with her cousin and lover, a greedy emperor. In Ombria in Shadow, both the antagonist and the protagonists are females—including an ambiguous witch who works for the Good Side eventually. In The Tower at Stony Wood, two shapechanging women work against the proud king who seems all a Noble Guy to the male protagonist.

The Tower at Stony Wood was the first McKillip’s book which made me discover author’s modus operandi, additionally. I realized that in her books, nothing is as the reader initially suppose. Bad witches—so hated in the patriarchal imaginary—turn friendly, shapechangers are not dangerous unhuman creatures, noble kings are flawed, women rejecting loving men are not Ungrateful Bitches. The most surprising message about The Tower… is the social one, though. Because this book (unlike Robin Hobb’s or Tolkien’s, hah!) isn’t about feudal loyality and keeping the establishment. It’s about the opposite, actually, and it isn’t the only McKillip’s book like that.

In Od Magic, the main character, a common-born mage-gardener, defies the stiff order of the magical school. In The Sorceress and the Cygnet, Corleu, a boy from a down-trodden tribe of wanderers, challanges the very gods.

What I mean is that you shouldn’t judge Patricia A. McKillip’s books as a typical fantasy from white-cishetero-males era. Because her books aren’t like that at all—in every respect. Not only her female characters are numerous and well-described; people of colour are introduced as well. In the Riddlemaster trilogy, Morgon, the main character, could be interpreted as non-white. And there is the whole nation of Herun where the people are of colour. And all this is shown in a very natural way, deprived both of nasty racial stereotypes and virtue calling.

In her following books, non-white characters are introduced as well: in The Alphabet of Thorn and in The Cygnet they are protagonists, actually.

The eventual queer treads aren’t so obvious in McKillip’s writing, though. One may read the relation between Morgon and the High One as not entirely normative, and so the love- friendship between the dragon prince and his sorcerer in The Cygnet. However, nothing is proven. Please also remember that I’ve read only nine books of her, so I can’t judge them all. I can only hope that a writer whose worlds are so unobvious omitted some questions not out of homophobia. Not everybody is Mercedes Lackey.

And not everybody is Patricia A. McKillip, writing things which have been always progressive and subversive, and not being accused of introducing any political agenda at once.

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.