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.

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.