The Etched City – Magic and Metamorphosis

K. J. Bishop’s first novel, The Etched City, appeared in 2003 and is her only novel to date. I had read a couple of her short stories, most notably “The Art of Dying” from the Vandermeer’s The New Weird anthology, so I was somewhat prepared for Bishop’s world of gunslingers and duelists, artists and prostitutes. At the same time, The Etched City is a novel that I can’t get out of my head and that I have trouble explaining to others when I try.

The Plot: After years of fighting a military dictator, former compatriots Raule and Gwynn leave the desert for the exotic city of Ashamoil. There Raule is shunned from the school of doctors despite her extensive knowledge of field medicine and instead takes a post in a religious hospital in one of the poorest districts of the city. Gwynn takes work as a hired gun for a slave trader, to Raule’s disgust. As Raule and Gwynn see each other more and more rarely, Gwynn begins an affair with a young artist named Beth, and at this point, the novel starts getting weird; Gwynn’s work situation becomes increasingly unstable as his girlfriend’s mental state appears to be deteriorating as well (at one point he goes to her house to find her with a bunch of strangers sewing together different parts of dead animals to create chimeric creatures). Beth eventually leaves the city, and shortly thereafter, Gwynn and Raule both decide to do the same, though separately.

In many ways, this novel felt less like a narrative and more like a series of very striking moments; Bishop’s language was frequently visceral and vivid, but I had trouble seeing how things really fit together over time. I was even a little disappointed that we spent so little time with Raule when I found her much more interesting that Gwynn; once the two reach the city of Ashamoil, we become deeply embroiled in the goings-on of Gwynn and his employer, with occasional glimpses at what Raule is doing. One thing that I did really like, though, is the way that magic is introduced in the novel. I really like when magic isn’t normally part of a world and the characters have to come to terms with extraordinary events just as readers do. Add in the fact that several characters are also alcoholics and drug users, and it makes it hard to tell when something extraordinary is actually happening and when it’s only happening in the mind of a character. As such, the first few magical events are easily passed off as misperception or hallucination, but it slowly becomes clear that not all things are as they seem.

This unfolding of the magical world corresponds with one of the dominant themes of the novel, that of metamorphosis. A wide number of items and events in the novel are related to this theme: eggs, cocoons, fetuses, lobotomies, flowers, etc. Contrasted with this are moments of stasis, such as the poor of the city who have little to no mobility or the “primitive” people that Gwynn’s employer holds in a never-ending civil war for the sake of his slave trade. The Rev seems to be a nexus for these themes in that he finds himself able to produce many kinds of small magic, but ultimately he is stuck with his own guilt and self-doubt and romantic fantasies about young, nubile women.

Since I read The Etched City for my SLA exam, I ended up thinking a lot about how the constructed contrast between urban and rural areas works in New Weird fiction. Much of the criticism on China Miéville’s work concerns his construction of social spaces within urban environments, and after reading The Etched City, I’m increasingly interested in how urban and rural locations are related to issues of agency in these works.

 

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The Mists of Avalon – Pluralism and Feminism

I’ve been spending my summer reading time working on books for my SLA (Specialized Literature Area) Exam, which is focusing on the New Weird (hence all the China Miéville reviews recently). However, I was starting to get frustrated and overwhelmed with the project and allowed myself a “real” summer reading book, something that wasn’t geared toward any project or exam I’m currently working on. I’m not sure how I picked Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, but I got my boyfriend to bring it home from the library and read the first half of the book in about two days. The second half took the rest of the week, but I can now turn back to my exam reading feeling somewhat refreshed and ready to look at the New Weird with new eyes.

I’m not going to try to summarize the plot; suffice it to say that The Mists of Avalon is a retelling of the King Arthur legends from the point of view of the various women involved, mostly Arthur’s half-sister Morgaine and his wife Gwenhwyfar. It is a work of epic proportions: 900 pages, spanning 60+ years. What the story is really about, though, is the rise of Christianity against the worship of the Goddess at Avalon. As Britain becomes a “Christian land” with a “Christian king,” the worship of the Goddess is practiced less and the isle of Avalon fades farther and farther into the mist. Much of this is represented as a power struggle between Morgaine, a priestess of Avalon, and Gwenhwyfar, the Christian queen reared by nuns and ruled by her fear of sin and guilt over her love of Lancelet. These two women hold a great deal of sway over Arthur, Morgaine as the mother of his only child and Gwenhwyfar as his lawfully wedded wife. Morgaine, however, refuses to fully exploit her power, hiding away her son, Gwydion, from Arthur until he is grown.

What I found most interesting as I was reading this book was the way my loyalties changed throughout. The characters in this novel are well-constructed; I both hated and sympathized with almost every one of them throughout the course of the narrative, which I always take as the sign of good characters (this is one of the main reasons I love Battlestar Galactica). I often perceived the women of Avalon as shrewish as they insisted Arthur maintain the status of Goddess worship alongside Christianity, like they were not acknowledging the complicated materialities of Arthur’s position, how he must manage so many people in order to keep peace. I tended to side with the Merlins, Taliesin and Kevin, who argued for plurality: that all Gods are one God no matter what name he is called by, and that the time of Avalon had passed, so the best thing to do was to infuse Christianity with as much of druidism and Goddess worship as possible. Thus, Kevin steals the Holy Regalia of the Goddess in order for it to be in the world, incorporated into Christian worship. What brought me back to the side of Avalon, over and over again, was the reminder that women were getting really and truly hosed under the brand of Christianity that was coming from Camelot (there were other groups of Christians that were finding themselves persecuted for accepting the pluralistic view that Taliesin preached; Kevin is something of a different story, I think). I think that the scene between Gwydion and Niniane toward the end of the novel is very telling, as Gwydion, who does not ascribe to Christianity seeks to police Gwenhwyfar’s sexual liasons in the same way the Christian priests would, but Niniane refuses to participate and Gwydion kills her. The new system of gender hierarchy is not strictly a Christian one, but it is pervasive and unstoppable.

Which leads to my complaints about the end of the novel. Morgaine’s discovery of the Goddess in the small chapel dedicated to Mary and the simple joy that nuns of Glastonbury experience in their lives represents for her that the Goddess lives on in the world in a new form, that her work was not in vain, and that she should have listened to Kevin all along. At the same time, I’m infuriated that Morgaine is okay with the sexual rights of women virtually disappearing, and I’m dissatisfied that the novel’s ending suggests that all has worked out for the best. A pluralist society is not really pluralist when not everyone accepts and acknowledges the pluralism, which is exactly what Morgaine and the women of Avalon argue for when they ask Arthur to protect Goddess worship in his kingdom.

All in all, The Mists of Avalon was a very fun immersion; I had forgotten what it’s like to lose myself in an epic fantasy. I think, though, that the novel’s feminism is beginning to feel a bit dated, and I’m now interested in reading some more recent feminist fantasy masterpieces.

P.S. I tried to watch the TNT movie adaptation, but only got through about 5 minutes. It was unbearably cheesy and I hated how everyone was automatically older than they were in the book.

The Scar – Agency and the Lack Thereof

China Mieville’s 2002 novel The Scar is a loose sequel to Perdido Street Station, set in Bas-Lag several months after the events of the previous novel. Like its predecessor, The Scar won the British Fantasy Award, and it was nominated for the Arthur C. Clark, the Philip K. Dick, and the Hugo awards.

The Plot: Bellis Coldwine, a former lover of Isaac Grimnebulin, has been forced to flee New Crozubon as all of Isaac’s friends and acquaintances begin disappearing, courtesy of the New Crozubon militia. Bellis books passage to a New Crozubon colony by working as a translator, but on the way her ship is commandeered by a New Crozubon spy and then by pirates. Bellis, the passengers and crew, and the ship are taken to Armada, a city constructed of other stolen ships and led by a pair of sinister figures called the Lovers. As this pair constructs schemes within schemes and persuades public opinion to their side, Bellis works with the New Crozubon spy to get a message back home.

I really like novels that feature “constrained cities”: cities that occupy a single (albiet large) building, cities that a hemmed in by external forces like nature, cities that occupy space ships/space stations, etc. So I found Armada completely fascinating, the details about social organization in the confined space, descriptions of living quarters carved out of what were formerly functional ship spaces, the public garden that had been built by raiding parties traveling to shore to steal dirt, and so on and so forth. What I like about these constrained cities is how often we see social structure affecting and being affected by physical structures; for example, what we think of as a family unit changes when there isn’t enough room for each group of husband, wife, and children to have their own quarters. Armada didn’t disappoint; in a city where the primary income is brought in through piracy, the residents have developed particular ways of divvying up the spoils, including those humans who are brought into residency against their will. Each riding has its own rulers and policies since the city has grown too big to be managed as a unified whole, as we see when the Lovers begin trying to do just that.

Bellis Coldwine was an interesting heroine. I found her immediately appealing because of the way she carefully considers her options in various situations: “Bellis sat still. She was not intimidated by this man, but she had  no power over him, none at all. She tried to work out what was most likely to engage his sympathy, make him acquiesce” (14-5). In the same way, she considers how others, especially the Lovers, are using language to persuade others. She is, in short, a rhetorician, weighing her available means of persuasion and analyzing the means of others throughout the novel as she navigates her way back to New Crozubon. If you read my posts about Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, and Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, you know that representations of rhetors and rhetoric in fiction is one of my primary concerns, and I really consider The Scar a win for rhetoric.

I kept thinking, though, as I was reading, that this novel seemed to be less political than Perdido Street Station; while the social organization of Armada is interesting, it also seems very tied to a particular physical organization and, consequently, has few implications for “real life”. I’ve decided, though, that this novel is just as political, but in a different way; rather than being a story about people getting together to do something, this is a story about not having agency. Bellis realizes at the end of the adventure (for lack of a better word) that she had been a tool the whole time, first of one man, then another. While she did influence the events that happened, she could not do so in any kind of informed or strategic way, because she never had enough information to really know what she was doing, even when she was very good at doing it. And Bellis was very good at persuading others, manipulating some events to (what she thought was) her advantage. When Bellis realizes that she had no real agency in the events, though, she simply accepts this, since her “service” does ultimately earn her a ride back to New Crozubon (so does that count as agency? I feel so conflicted…). It is Bellis’s reaction to this revelation that made me feel a bit, well, cold toward her; I found that I had been pulled into sympathizing with Bellis more than maybe I should have because I immediately grabbed onto what I saw as our commonalities (“You’re a rhetorician?! I’m a rhetorician too! We should hang out sometime!”). Her utilitarian reaction to being a pawn, though, rankles my sense of justice even as it caters to my cynicism. At the same time, the ambiguity I feel toward her now (she can be a right bitch at moments) makes her even better as a character, and I can think of few female fantasy characters written by men who have impressed me this much.

One last thing that I would like to note is that I think in this novel we see some inklings of Embassytown in Bellis’s work as a translator. She is frequently admonished to pay no attention to what she is translating, to only let the words flow through her, but this is, of course, impossible until she begins translating the abstract scientific language of Kruach Aum. That is, the language can only flow through her if it is language she doesn’t understand in the first place — if it isn’t really language to her at all because she cannot interpret it.

 

Perdido Street Station – Rape, Crime, Identity, and Social Constructions

China Mieville’s 2000 novel Perdido Street Station was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula in 2002 and won several other awards, including the Arthur C. Clark Award and the British Fantasy Society’s August Derleth Award. It also put him on the map for science fiction scholars, and since then, he’s been one of the most-often examined contemporary writers in science fiction journals.

The Plot: Isaac, a scientist studying out-of-mode theories who has a khepri artist as a lover, is approached by a garuda who has had his wings removed with an interesting commission: to make him fly again, whether by wings or some other means. In the course of his research, Isaac inadvertantly releases a brain-sucking parasite onto the city of New Crozubon, a parasite with no natural predators for thousands of miles. In the course of amending his mistake, Isaac gleans allies from several groups, including the New Crozubon criminal element, the wingless garuda, the newly sentient Construct Council, mercenaries, political activists, and a creature from another dimension. Even after Isaac and his crew manage to save the city, the oppressive regime in power and a criminal kingpin continue to hunt him as the perpetrator, and he is forced to flee the city.

I read Joan Gordon’s article “Hybridity, Heterotopia, and Mateship” before Perdido Street Station itself and, consequently, had her ideas about hybridity and social organization in my head as I was reading. It’s true that, as Gordon argues, Isaac’s plan requires many different kinds of people in order to work, but I also saw the novel as examining the many ways in which we construct difference. Much like The City and the City, we see many spaces where differences are upheld on tenuous logics, like the separation of the two khepri neighborhoods, Creekside and Kinken. The residents of Kinken, Isaac’s khepri lover Lin reflects, construct Creekside as a ghetto in order to not be living in a ghetto themselves. Likewise, there is a division between the the cactacae who live within the Glass House, supposedly keeping their traditions alive, and those who live without. But we also see several places where differences are real and not constructed, notably with the Construct Council and the Weaver (and I would like to say that I think Miéville does an excellent job of creating characters that fall outside of human ideologies, here with the Weaver and with the Arakei in Embassytown).

I’d really like to spend some time with the garuda, another place where we see real, as opposed to constructed, difference: first with Yagharek and then with the New Crozubon garuda Isaac meets in the Spatters. Before I started off my summer reading with Perdido Street Station, I did a small project on Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy, and I’ve been thinking a lot about her philosophy that utopias in SF happen too suddenly, that humans can’t get to utopia without a great deal of hardship and resistance. Thus, the Xenogenesis Trilogy shows this resistance as well as the small steps towards a better humanity, while questioning some of the ideologies that inform our ideas of “better” (see, for instance, Zaki and Miller). I think that we see something similar with the garuda; their ideology of the individual results in something of a utopian society, but it’s a society that is completely unworkable in the space of New Crozubon, as we see with the hierarchical structure of the garuda in the Spatters, the need for someone to be in charge in order to keep the others safe. I feel like this is an important reminder of how deeply physical space affect societal construction; what seems to be the best way for the garuda to live in small tribes in the harsh desert landscape does them little good in the city where different resources are necessary for survival.

I found Kar’uchai’s meeting with Isaac deeply affecting for a number of reasons. First of all, I felt like Miéville had somehow broken our writer/reader contract by making me sympathize with a character who turned out to be a rapist. I felt like, in some ways, my choice had been stolen, my choice to reject or accept Yagharek after being given all the information. And I was upset that the closing section of the novel seem to present Yagharek as somehow redeeming himself for his crime by plucking his feathers and not being a garuda any more. At the same time, I realized that I was committing the same mistake that Isaac does, by reading the rape of Kar’uchai through my own ideological conceptions of rape. Really, murder is a much worse crime, but I wouldn’t have felt as upset by finding out that Yagharek had killed someone. More importantly, though, Kar’uchai forces Isaac (and the reader) to reconsider how our concepts of rape interpolate the “rape victim” as somehow different from victims of other crimes. She says, “I was not violated or ravaged […] I am not abused or defiled … or ravished or spoiled. You would call his actions rape, but I do not: that tells me nothing. He stole my choice, and that is why he was … judged […] Do not look at me with eyes reserved for victims” (609-10) The one crime of choice-theft for the garuda, with its many possible manifestations, asks the reader to reflect on the underlying logic of our own criminal system and the way that system ranks the severity of crimes.

  • Gordon, Joan. “Hybridity, Heterotopia, and Mateship in China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station.” Science Fiction Studies 30.3 (2003): 456–76. Print.
  • Miéville, China. Perdido Street Station. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000. Print.
  • Miller, Jim. “Post-Apocalyptic Hoping: Octavia Butler’s Dystopian/Utopian Vision.” Science Fiction Studies (1998): 336–360. Print.
  • Zaki, Hoda M. “Utopia, Dystpia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler.” Science Fiction Studies 17.2 (1990): 239–51. Print.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Cloning, Socialism, and the Individual

The blurb on the cover of my copy of Kate Wilhelm’s 1976 novel Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, my second book in the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge, claims that it is the most important novel about cloning ever. I was skeptical at first, but by the end of the novel I was pretty convinced that Wilhelm was doing something unique with the issue of cloning, engaging with the ethical issues from a different direction. At the same time, I’m still struggling with how to understand the final message of the text, whether Wilhelm wants us to celebrate the “individual” or understand that the “individual” is constructed out of a particular set of circumstances.

The Plot: David and his family begin reading the signs of the coming apocalypse with enough time to prepare an elaborate medical facility and living space for many people, including farmland and livestock. It quickly becomes apparent that the spreading plague and chemical fallout is making many of the inhabitants of the compound, both human and animal, sterile, and David and his fellow biologists design a plan for maintaining the human race via cloning. However, as the clones grow and develop, it becomes increasingly clear that they are incredibly alien from their human elders; rather than distinguishing themselves as individuals, clones understand the cloned siblings collectively to constitute a unit, and the mental development, including telepathy, reflects this. As the human elders die off, the clones set up a new society, but when the clones send off an exploratory party made up of individuals from different sibling sets, the traits of individuality begin to reappear, eventually resulting in the casting out of one woman and her further imprisonment upon becoming pregnant. Her son, Mark, is the protagonist on the last third of the novel, as the clones begin to exhibit signs of depletion in creative thinking and problem-solving skills and Mark begins his own plans to save the human race.

The novel’s division into three sections with multiple perspectives is interesting insofar as it does and does not allow us to enter the hive-mind of the clone sibling group. The hive-mind of sibling groups is difficult to represent through the kind of limited third person point-of-view that Wilhelm uses; it is almost as if as soon as Wilhelm becomes narrating from their point-of-view, the cloned characters begin separating from their siblings. And, this is exactly what is happening, though not necessarily because of Wilhelm’s narrating; instead, Wilhelm can only tell the story from the point-of-view of characters who are coming closer to the “individual” that we understand. Since part of the argument of the novel seems to be that the kind of hive-mind that is the consequence of human cloning is a bad thing, the reader not seeing things from the clones point of view works well.

Of course, hive-mind isn’t entirely a correct description; at first, the sibling groups themselves might be understood as individuals with many bodies. Increasingly, though, the clones become unable to function without someone to give them directions. The younger clones are unable to make meaning of abstract representations or conceive of anything that isn’t already in being. Wilhelm seems to be suggesting that individualization is key in problem-solving because it forces us to imagine what is going on in other’s minds in order to participate in social activities; because the clones are telepathic, they never develop these skills. Interestingly, the evolution of telepathy does not seem to affect the clones ability to use language, or even really seem to change the language they use. However, as the younger clones lose the ability to conceive of abstracts, they begin to see Mark’s ability to construct stories as something magical. One might even go so far as to say that rhetoric, or at least the canon of invention, is held in high regard within the discourse of this novel.

I’m still troubled by the ending. On the one hand, I can see where Rachel Hyland at GeekSpeak is coming from when she writes, “mostly it’s kind of a treatise on the value of individual liberties, almost an anti-Socialism manifesto, certainly a passionate argument against conformity.” It’s hard to miss the dystopic socialism of the clones, especially when they’re primary philosophy is this: “There is not individual, there is only the community […] What is right for the community is right even unto death for the individual. There is no one, there is only the whole.” At the same time, the necessity of the individual seems to be born out of particular circumstances; several times throughout the novel, Wilhelm alludes to pioneers and suggests that given the circumstances (i.e. human civilization crumbling and the clones having to rebuild the infrastructure), the ideology of the individual is the most effective for bringing about the changes the characters seem to want. Josh Wimmer at io9.com attributes the clones’ downfall not to their socialist practices but to their overriding need for safety, perhaps because the loss of a sibling is such a traumatic experience for the whole sibling group. This primary desire is not conducive to the kinds of activities and practices that must happen in order to revive something like civilization.

In the end, I’m pretty sure that Hyland is right, that the authorial audience for this text is one that would accept the argument that individuals and their rights are just better than socialist constructions. While I’m not persuaded of that, I am fairly convinced that “socialism” of varying degrees requires a certain kind of infrastructure, and that infrastructure is often built by the ideology of the individual.

Fire – Women, Beauty, Children, and Risk

Kristin Cashore’s 2009 novel Fire  is a companion to Graceling rather than the sequel I was hoping for. Instead, we travel back in time with Graceling‘s primary antagonist Leck to witness his first attempt to take over a kingdom, this time the Dells, a land separated from the seven kingdoms by an impassable mountain range. While Fire doesn’t continue the story of Katsa, it does pick up on several of the themes from Graceling that I found interesting.

The Plot: The Dells is a kingdom populated with both regular varieties of recognizable animals and people and monster varieties: unnaturally brightly colored creatures with the mental abilities to ensnare regular human and other animals in order to make them easier prey. While monster animals are widely prevalent, monster humans are much more rare; in fact, there is only one, named Fire after her widely colored red hair. Lady Fire lives in relative seclusion in the northern part of the kingdom for two reasons: 1) many people are unable to control their attraction to or strong reaction against her and she must constantly be on her guard, and 2) her father, Lord Cansrel, basically ran the kingdom into the ground through his control over the previous king and insatiable desire for chaos and strife. As much as Fire prefers her quiet life, teaching local children music and how to guard their minds against the monsters and spending her evenings with childhood friend and part time lover Lord Archer and his father, the unrest in the kingdom results in Prince Brigan, commander of the King Nash’s army, escorting her to the King’s City to assist in wartime preparations and spy operations. For some time, Fire resists using her impressive mental abilities to break into the minds of captured spies and enemies, but twins Prince Garan and Princess Clara convince her of her responsibility to the kingdom. As Fire gets more involved with political intrigue, she also gets more involved with Prince Brigan and his daughter Hanna, before finding herself facing young Leck, the ugliest mind she has met yet.

Fire is primarily a romance, and to a certain degree it put me in mind of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls; both feature women who wish they could travel and live without the necessary trappings of their lives, but who both come to understand that “with great power comes great responsibility.” The important difference is, of course, that Paladin of Souls is about a middle aged woman, not a young one, and that plays into the narrative and its critiques. Fire is a more conventional romance with a young beautiful lady and a young powerful prince…who happens to have a five year old daughter. As I skimmed through the reviews on Goodreads, several commented, whether positively or negatively, on the sexual and marriage politics of the novel, and that is a very large part of the novel. However, I would disagree with those who criticized the novel for its pro-casual sex stance; I think it’s more complicated than that. Archer, the most promiscuous character of the novel, is not treated kindly for his choices; as he blames Fire’s rejections of his frequent proposals of marriage for his sometimes unseemly behavior, Fire refuses to take the blame, telling him that he was responsible for his own actions and that those actions made him somewhat distasteful to her, even as she continued to love him as a friend (she ends their relationship as lovers halfway through the novel). Those women who do sleep with Archer face the consequences: both Princess Clara and Mila, one of Fire’s guards, end up pregnant. Brigan’s youthful relationship with a stable girl results in his daughter (the mother passed away shortly after the child’s birth). One of the reasons that Fire does shy away from casual sex, even as she so easily entices so many men, is because she refuses to risk children, who would undoubtedly be monsters as well. In fact, Fire takes herbs that will make her permanently barren, even though she deeply desires children and feels so jealous of Clara and Mila in their pregnancies.

Where the novel does depart from the social mores of some segments of our own society and of some depictions of “courtly” life is in what is at stake with a unexpected pregnancy. When Mila declares, “I’m ruined!”, she is not referring to her chances at getting a good husband or some risk of her being disowned by her family. Instead, because Mila is a soldier who uses her wages to support her sister and her sister’s children, her pregnancy will interfere with her ability to make money. Women are not socially punished for having children out of wedlock, and Mila is found another job that she is able to perform. Even bastards may be declared heirs without anyone batting an eye.

The feminist features of Cashore’s novels are complicated; she neither criticizes women for desiring children or upholds the assumed imperative of motherhood. At the same time, her texts do follow pretty standard, and somewhat disturbing, romance narratives in which young women are unable to fully be themselves, to feel all their feelings, until the right men come along. So I continue to feel ambivalent about this pair of novels, and I guess I’ll have to check out the third one, Bitterblue.

Graceling – Evil Rhetors and Female Survivors

Kristin Cashore’s debut novel Graceling was published in 2008, about two and a half weeks after Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. I make a point of saying this if only to remind myself that there is very, very little possibility that the novels are actually in conversation with each other, and instead they are perhaps reflecting larger cultural shifts. I read Graceling as part of the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge (henceforth the WoGF) since Cashore had been on my radar for a while, but I hadn’t actually read any of her work. I pretty much inhaled the novel; I read about half of it last night while I should have been reading for class, but no regrets.

The Plot: Katsa is the orphaned niece of King Randa and his number one thug. Possessing superhuman abilities, called her Grace, Katsa can kill pretty much anyone or anything with ease; unfortunately, she discovers her power by inadvertently killing an adult cousin when she was six years old because she did not want the man to touch her. Disgusted by her role as Randa’s enforcer throughout the seven kingdoms, Katsa organizes the Council, a group of individuals from lords down to servants who seek to protect citizens in all kingdoms from the power-hunger of their kings. Through her work for the Council, Katsa meets Po, a Graced fighting prince from the peaceful island of Lienid who searches for his kidnapped grandfather. After refusing to do Randa’s dirty work any longer, Katsa removes herself from the court and travels with Po as he seeks more information about his grandfather’s disappearance. What they discover is the underhanded work of the supposedly kind and beneficent King Leck of Monsea, who is himself Graced with the ability to fog people’s mind with his words and make them remember events as he chooses. Po and Katsa’s goal becomes saving Leck’s daughter Bitterblue from her sick, twisted, perverted, evil father.

So, a few quick notes on things that I could harp on and on about — but won’t — and then onto the things that I thought were really interesting.

  • Once again, the character who could be characterized as the Rhetor, using language to shape people’s perceptions of reality, is the villain. But not just any villain; Leck is really sick and despicable. I couldn’t help but think of Baron Harkonnen. Ugh. This, of course, makes me sad because seeing rhetoric get such a bad rap always makes me sad. I mean, Katsa uses rhetoric too, most notably in the scene when she tenders her resignation to her uncle; it is not her actual actions that persuade him; instead, her words about what her actions might be cause him to see the situation in a very different way. Rhetoric.
  • I commented on the connections I saw between Graceling and The Hunger Games earlier, the primary one being that they both feature female protagonists who are buffeted about by various physical and political forces, but who survive through being extremely good at survival skills. Now, I’m all for girls doing traditionally “boy” things, but I’m worried about what these narratives say to and about girls who like to do or are really good at doing “girl” things. Can’t cooking or sewing or organizing a community event save somebody sometime?
  • I’m going to talk more about Katsa and Po’s relationship next, but I really hated how once Katsa found the right man, all of a sudden she’s breaking into tears whenever and wherever, as long as it’s on his shoulder.

So much for that. What I thought was best and really interesting about this book was the way it constructs sex. Throughout the novel, Katsa continually claims that she never wishes to marry and she never wishes to have children. One suitor, upon hearing this, claims that of course she’ll want children eventually because all women do. I really sympathized with Katsa on this point, seeing as I’ve heard the same line a few times myself. Moreover, Katsa’s desire to not marry is culturally situated; as soon as she marries, she will have wifely obligations, and she doesn’t want to have to serve anyone but herself, and given her long tenure under Randa, the reader can understand her want of independence. (Interestingly, Katniss of The Hunger Games also claims to never want children for equally political reasons: she does not want to produce fodder for the Capitol’s games. However, SPOILER ALERT she does relinquish because of Peeta’s own desire for children, and I’m interested to see how Cashore deals with this same issue in subsequent books, given that she’s taken a much more feminist stand concerning inherent motherliness in women in Katsa’s choice than Katniss perhaps made in hers.)

So what happens is this: Po and Katsa fall in love (of course). Katsa kind of hates it because it means that she wakes up in the night afraid he won’t be there instead of being completely sufficient within herself. She wrestles with it and tells Po that it’s all futile because she will never marry and they should really just part ways so they don’t have to deal with their feelings all the time. Po tells her that they can be more than friends but less than married, and oddly enough, Katsa had never considered just taking a lover (I’m guessing because of societal constructs that discouraged women from knowing about such things so they wouldn’t do it). However, instead of being swept away in a fit of passion, Katsa dwells on it a few days, making sure of her own choice, and then, after guaranteeing that they have a form of birth control, she chooses to have sex with Po. And I loved it: the thorough forethought, the arrival at a decision, the conscious responsibility — it’s a model that I wish we saw more of.

The other thing that really struck me as I was reading was the theme of female survivorship. Katsa is extremely good at surviving, and she frequently takes it upon herself to protect other girls, especially from male predators. That her Grace manifests itself when she feels threatened by the untoward advances of her cousin is notable considering what she and Po save Bitterblue from, and Katsa is frequently appalled by the fact that women need to be most able to protect themselves but are taught nothing about fighting or surviving by those who claim to be protecting them. Her choice at the end to hold fighting schools for girls throughout the seven kingdoms suggests that this will be a theme explore in the sequels. At the same time, the novel has little to say about the trauma of abuse (Bitterblue copes quite well in her stoicism) or about structural changes that might bring about greater safety for women.