Sunday, 31 August 2014

Turnabout Is Fair Play

So Fliss and I have a deal; every time I make her read a Horus Heresy novel, she can select something from her extensive collection of books for me to try. So far nothing has sprung out as being worth an entire post, but here are some postage stamp specials on the first three selections.

Hunting Party - Elizabeth Moon

Transplanting the English gentry to a sci-fi setting isn't automatically a bad idea, but doing it so utterly uncritically causes exceptional problems. Moon's twin obsessions with the military and British toffs rub uncomfortably against each other, and in fact only work together in the sense that they paint a rather distasteful, retrograde viewpoints.  The fact Moon turned out to be an Islamophobe convinced we try too hard to allow Muslims to believe things that make them unfit to live in "our" society is some distance away from surprising.

The Painted Man - Peter V Brett

An incredibly standard fantasy with a central conceit (demons arise each night and terrorise those unable to draw the wards necessary for defence) that's nowhere near as original or smart as it thinks it is, this story starts poorly, becomes mediocre, and yet legitimately finishes strong as we finally arrive at the point. This has the odd effect of making the books first two-thirds or so read like one of those awful prequels fantasy writers put out to delay getting on with their core series or to make a quick buck, completely failing to realise that there's a reason they started their stories where they did, and that the prequels are therefore mere exercises in dot connecting.

Oh, and it's sexist, has an entirely too stereotypical depiction of an Islamic-style civilisation for comfort, and features (off-page) an entirely unnecessary and unpleasant gang rape which violates the three rules of having a main character sexually assaulted: 1) don't do it unless it's narratively essential, 2) don't do it unless you are quite convinced you can deal with the fall-out plausibly and sensibly, and 3) maybe don't do it anyway?

King's Dragon - Kate Elliott

This is rather more like it. There are proper things to say here.

In several ways this is once again familiar fantasy fare - a medieval society with added magic finds itself invaded by Orc analogues, in this case slightly snake-like Vikings with a commendable love of dogs.  Complicating this is a rebellion by the King's half-sister Sabelle, which again is far from unfamiliar, as well as perpetuating the standard fantasy problem of inviting us to somehow give a toss about which scion of a family who murdered their way into a dictatorship gets to perpetuate that dictatorship.  Remember that time Kim Jong-Il had to decide which of his sons would next be directly responsible to the immiseration of millions? Remember how hoping he'd choose the least unpleasant option was entirely not the point?

What sets this book apart is Elliott's religious system, a brilliant simple reinvention of Christianity that replaces the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit with the ...Duonity?... of Lord and Lady. Every part of Elliott'  Unity faith spills from this central precept of God manifesting equal male and female forms.  Gender roles in Elliott's kingdom of Wendar and Varre are far more fluid as a consequence; not only are women no less likely to hold titles than men, but parents are free to choose from their children who will make the best heir, irrespective both of their children's age and their gender. Even in areas where gender roles are still separate - bishops (biscops, as they're called here) and city majors are (almost) always female, generals are usually male - there is no implicit superiority of masculine roles. There is I suppose a criticism one could mount here about whether Elliott is suggesting "separate but equal" is actually a viable approach in gender relations, but I'm not inclined to make it. It seems more likely that Elliott is exploring the best-case scenario of a powerful state religion in a period when gendered roles may have seemed an inevitable result of manual labour and "strength of arms" (a phrase in itself implying the importance of muscle mass) would perhaps have made any attempts to suggest men and women could be considered universally interchangeable on the job market difficult to credit. By making so few concessions to the differences between the genders, Elliott is not only criticising the degree of Christian tradition that springs from nothing but ugly misogyny, but reminding us that fantasy writers developing their own societies have to choose to bake in cultural sexism (and there are good reasons to make that choice), they can't just put it in automatically on the grounds that "that's how things were back then".

This being a fantasy novel, it is inevitably the first in a series, in this case one of seven (Green 1/7, in the FlissRic system). Elliott again reaches for a standard approach here, giving her protagonists one problem to successfully solve (Sabella's rebellion) whilst another (Vikings! Who are snakes!) gets increasingly worse. Which is fine, I guess, though the pacing is rather strange; we spend forever getting to any action regarding the rebellion, and things wrap up completely within a few pages. In part this is because of the noticeably passive nature of our protagonists Alain and Liath. Neither do much but watch and worry for most of the book until they can act of visions they receive from saints and use them to save the day/avert total catastrophe.  This is deeply unsatisfactory, of course, about as ex machina as a deus or two can get, but hopefully there's more going on here than there seems to be.

Given I slapped around Favre for his use of rape in his novel, I should talk a little about the same being used here. I'll be as circumspect as possible, but even so the following has attached both a trigger and a spoiler warning. One of Elliott's characters is explicitly as passive and removed as she is because she spent time (which we witnessed) as a slave, who was repeated sexually assaulted by her master. Elliott deserves credit for how she handles this in general; she is both as vague as possible about the specifics of the situation and gives plenty of time to the emotional fallout from it. If you feel the need to put a character through that sort of horror, this definitely seems to be the way to go.

The problem here, and it's a small one, is that Liath's passivity rubs directly against the rest of the novel.  If a rape survivor needs to disengage from the world in order to process what they've been subjected to, that's obviously none of my fucking business. But the structure of the text is such that we're being encouraged to engage fully at the same time as Liath is pulling back. The result is to in some sense present Liath as an obstacle to plot development, which is what happens when you try to run a deeply personal traumatic story alongside a large-scale tale of war and deception.  You can use more general horror for a backdrop, indeed doing so has a long and noble history, but there's a low ceiling on how much you can push reader interest in the particulars of that backdrop on its own terms, as oppose to as a mechanism for complicating the protagonists' lives.

Or at least, so it seems to me.


darkman said...

So there really does exists fantasy novels that isn't hugely sexists.

On another note, out of three books you got two with islamophobic content and two that contains rape. Time to worry about your gf's book collection?

SpaceSquid said...

In her defense, fantasy is a genre where it's much harder to avoid rape-loving racists than it is to just roll your eyes and get on with it.