The Valley of Life and Death: An Wuxia Novel with a Female Protagonist who May Be Aro-Ace

The cover of The Valley of Life and Death

I have found something amazing – an wuxia novel with a female protagonist who is not at all interested in romance. If you haven’t read as many wuxia novels as I have, you can’t appreciate just how amazing that is. It’s called The Valley of Life and Death (《生死谷》), by Zheng Feng (鄭丰). Did I mention that it’s amazing?

Anyway, before I continue, I’ll offer a brief overview of the story…

What Kind of Story Is This?

The story is set during the late Tang Dynasty (in the early 800s A.D.) when the imperial government of China is unstable.

Fei Ruoran is the daughter of a high-ranking minister. At the beginning of the story, she’s seven years old, and she’s friends with Wu Xiaohu, the bastard son of the prime minister. They are both captured, and thrust into a valley with about two hundred other children. They are trained in skills such as climbing and martial arts, and over the years, they have to pass the ‘three tests’. For example, the second test is that all of the surviving children are left in the valley for winter without food, and they will be kept there until only eight are still alive – and the most readily available source of food is each other’s bodies. Fei Ruoran and Wu Xiaohu just want to go home, but after years of being in that valley, will they be able to return?

If this sounds like The Hunger Games set in China in the Tang Dynasty, that’s because it sure feels like that (though, for what it’s worth, I think The Valley of Life and Death is better than The Hunger Games). in fact the preface specifically mentions that it’s like stories such as The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and The Drifting Classroom (and a few other examples which I don’t remember).

But Back to Talking about Fei Ruoran and Her Lack of Interest in Romance and Sex

The story starts when Fei Ruoran is seven years old, and (if one excludes the epilogue) ends when she is nineteen years old.

One would not expect a seven year old to be particularly interested in romance or sex, so at first, I had no idea that she would continue to be uninterested as a teenager, especially since this is an wuxia novel. As she grew older, I kept on expecting her to start showing interest in romance (though not necessarily sex because, again, this is wuxia), and it was not until the end that it turned out that, nope, she never becomes interested in romance at all in her entire life.

At the beginning of the novel, it seemed there would be two co-equal protagonists, Wu Xiaohu and Fei Ruoran, and that Wu Xiaohu (who is may) may even become the top protagonist. Thus, I was also surprised when Wu Xiaohu gradually became a less important character, and while he retained major character status all of the way to the end, the finale of the story is really about her, and not much about him. Though there are other wuxia novels centered on female protagonists (as well as Tiān​ Xiāng Piāo by Wolong Sheng in which the male protagonist dies halfway through the novel so the women who were in love with him are suddenly promoted to protagonist status)​​, this was still a pleasant surprise.

It is stated over and over again that Fei Ruoran only considers Wu Xiaohu to be a friend and a brother, and that she has no romantic feelings for him. At one point in the novel, (when she is about 15 years old IIRC) another character assumes she must have romantic feelings for Wu Xiaohu because she is so close to them, and she thinks that, not only is she certain that Wu Xiaohu feels like a brother to her, she does not even know what romance is. This is strongest evidence in the novel that Fei Ruoran may in fact be aromantic.

Zheng Feng’s afterword to the novel is very interesting, but I am just going to focus on the part where she talks about the lack of romance in the novel. She says in the afterword that she did try to work in a romance for Fei Ruoran, but it did not work, so it was taken out of the story. She also says, and this is a quote:

《生死谷》是我唯一一本沒有牽涉太多愛情的小說,大概因為我的人物都是整日在生死之間掙扎的殺手,愛情對他們來說,實在太過奢侈了吧?

The Valley of Life and Death is the only novel I’ve written which does not involve a lot of romance; that’s probably because the characters are all killers who spend the whole day struggling with matters of life and death; wouldn’t romance be too much of a luxury for them?

I am relieved that Zheng Feng put a question mark at the end of that sentence, indicating that she’s not really sure why there is not much romance. To me, and an aromantic, the explanation that they do not engage in romance because it’s a ‘luxury’ not make much sense. It could explain why they do not pursue romance, but it seems to me that alloromantic people will experience romantic feelings whether or not they can or want to pursue romance. Furthermore, since a lot of people compare this novel to The Hunger Games, I will say that the characters in The Hunger Games have even less opportunity to pursue romance, but that does not stop them.

For me, the most plausible explanation is that Fei Ruoran is simply aromantic. Especially since, unlike Katniss Everdeen, she never has anything to do with romance during her entire life.

At this point, I suppose I ought to say a few words about the major male characters, Wu Xiaohu and Tian Shaxing. I don’t know what their sexual or romantic orientation is. They both develop strong feelings for a female character other than Fei Ruoran, and it is not clear whether or not these feelings ever become romantic or sexual. Furthermore, Tian Shaxing is never a viewpoint character, which makes this kind of thing harder to judge.

By the way, did I mention that this is a great novel, possibly my favorite novel that I’ve read in 2017 so far? I’d love it even if there was no sign of the protagonist being aro or ace.

Anyway, more about the implications of Fei Ruoran being aromantic.

A good portion of the novel is about Fei Ruoran trying very hard to protect/help/keep alive her friends Tian Shaxing and Wu Xiaohu. I do not want to spoil the novel, so I’m going to have to find a very vague way to say this … you know how some aro people feel like there alloromantic friends accept the benefits of being their friend without investing as much in the friendship as the aro person because they do not value the friendship as much? That arguably happens in this novel, in that Wu Xiaohu and Tian Shaxing do not always invest as much in Fei Ruoran as she invests in them (again, my point would be clearer if I were more specific, but I do not want to spoil. If you can’t read Chinese but really want to know what I’m talking about, you can ask me and I will respond in the comments).

Unfortunately, I don’t think this counts as aro ace fiction.

Even though Fei Ruoran being aro ace makes way more sense to me than any other interpretation, and I will hella recommend this novel to anybody looking for an aro-friendly wuxia novel, I would not go so far as to put this on a list of fiction with aro ace characters. I don’t think fiction necessarily explicitly state that a character is aro or ace, nor do I think Word of Ace is necessary, but I think that, short of an explicit statement that a character is ace or aro, the experience of being ace and aro needs to be described clearly enough that it is recognizable. I think this novel is one step short of that, but it is still short of that. Thus, I would not, say, use it as an example for the ace tropes series.

That said, I will still see if any of the ace tropes described so far apply to this novel and … none of them apply.

Nonetheless, I am still super happy with this novel. And I would like to point out that I’ve have previously written about another Zheng Feng novel in the post A Novel Featuring a Non-Sexual/Non-Romantic Intimate Relationship, which goes to show that even Zheng Feng protagonists who do not seem to be aro or ace can have intense nonromantic personal relationships with someone of a different gender.

Comments on the “Love Minus Sex or Romance” Section of Stepping Off The Relationship Escalator

I just got a copy of Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life by Amy Gahran. Amy Gahran is also known as ‘Aggie Sez’, and used to blog at Solo Poly, most well known for the blog post “Riding the relationship escalator (or not).” I have not had time to read the whole book, but I did skip ahead and read all of Part 5, “Love Minus Sex or Romance.”

The first chapter in Part 5 is “Asexual and Aromantic: Part of the Rainbow.” A lot of this chapter is Asexuality and Aromanticism 101.

My biggest complaint is that it seems to imply that asexuals never want to have sex, and the only reason asexuals would consent to sex is procreation. It is true that most aces prefer not to have sex. Furthermore, most of the book’s research came from responses to an in-depth online survey, and I suppose it is possible that all of the aces who responded to the survey said that they do not want sex. However, I think it would have been better if it had noted that, while the majority of aces do not want sex in their personal relationships, a few do (including non-procreational sex).

What I found most interesting in the “Asexual and Aromantic: Part of the Rainbow” chapter was this part:

Being asexual or aromantic means that one’s intimate relationships will probably diverge from Relationship Escalator hallmark #4: sexual and romantic connection.

The writer goes on to explain that ‘mutual attraction’ is one of the features of the relationship escalator, and though asexual and/or aromantic people can perform every other hallmark of the relationship escalator, this is one part they cannot do. This is why the writer chose to single out asexuality and aromanticism, and not specifically address any other orientations – she claims that no other orientation precludes riding the relationship escalator all of the way.

To be clear, the introductory section (which I also read), the writer says that, while getting legally married and having children are highly encouraged on the relationship escalator, they are not hallmarks in contemporary American culture, and thus not ‘hallmarks’ of the relationship escalator. “Sexual and romantic connection” is one of the five hallmarks, therefore any relationship which lacks that is by definition not on the relationship escalator. Again, I wish the writer were clearer about the distinction between attraction and behavior – if someone does not experience sexual attraction, but they choose to have sex anyway, does that count as a sexual connection?

The next chapter is “More Nonsexual Relationship Options” which discusses nonsexual intimate relationships in general, not specifically relationships ace people have. The beginning of this chapter says that 40% of the people who responded to the survey said that they have had an important nonsexual and/or nonromantic intimate relationship, and 20% said they were open to such relationships (I do not know what percentage of the people who took the survey are ace and/or aro – I’d be interested in seeing the percentages for people who do NOT identify with asexuality or aromanticism). There are also a few pages about kink, and how kink relationships can be nonsexual and/or nonromantic.

It included various personal stories taken from the survey. The story which caught my eye the most is from ‘Theresa’. Theresa formed a clear agreement with her partner to stop having sex, though she does not know why they stopped wanting sex with each other. She has felt internal shame at having a sexless relationship with her significant other, even though it’s something they both wanted. She is afraid of her friends finding out that she does not have sex with her partner.

The last chapter in this part of the book is “Choosing Celibacy” which does not have any significant new information or insights for me, though I think it’s a good thing that this chapter is in the book for readers who know less about it.

One of the things which struck me while I was skimming through the book is that stories from asexuals who responded to the survey are throughout the book, not just in the asexuality & aromanticism chapter. The writer herself says:

One of the most unexpected and enlightening parts of my survey was hearing from dozens of people in the ace (slang for asexual) community, as well as many more who have been intimately involved with asexual partners.

These were some of the most eloquent and thoughtful responses I received. But in retrospect, that is isn’t very surprising: if you want to think really, really hard hard about intimacy and relationships, try taking sex and/or romance out of the picture.

Is this book worth reading? If one is primarily interested in asexuality and/or aromanticism and NOT the rest of the book, I would say no. The Invisible Orientation by Julia Sondria Decker goes into much more depth about asexuality, and while I am not aware of any good nonfiction book about aromanticism, one would still be better off researching aromanticism on the internet, or even reading about aromanticism in The Invisible Orientation, than tracking down Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator. However, I have not read most of the book yet. I am guessing other parts of the book will be more informative for me because they are about topics that I know less about. Based on my skimming, this does seem like a very good book about close personal relationships, particularly unconventional close personal relationships.

My Response to luvtheheaven’s Comment & Her Links

On my last post, luvtheheaven left this comment. It would take so many words for me to respond to everything luvtheheaven says and to respond to the links she posted that I decided to go ahead and make this a post. I think this is a good way to continue the discussion on ace/aro representation in fiction.

This post will discuss ace/aro representation fiction more generally than the previous post (i.e. it will not be so focused on the Old Kingdom books). However, at the end, I do have a spoilery section, which is marked.

First of all, I really appreciate that luvtheheaven linked these comments where Garth Nix talks a little about ace/aro representation in Clariel. I don’t have much to say about it, except that I was wondering how much research Garth Nix did and whether he was aware of asexuality / aromanticism and reader responses, and now I know.

One of the tweets which most resonated with me (even though it was not directly about the Old Kingdom series) was this one from Claudie Arseneault:

I have reached the points where while I do want more ace rep, I want people to Actually Support Ace Voices even more.

Yes, I also want more ace rep, but I also want more support for the [good] ace rep which already exists (that is not quite the same as what Claudie Arseneault is saying – she is asking support for ace writers specifically – however I also happen to be in favor of supporting ace writers telling ace stories). In the past six or so months, I’ve learned a LOT about the ace rep which currently is available in prose fiction. Since I’ve been on my ace-fiction binge, I’ve kept on seeing comments like ‘I want to see X in ace fiction’ and my response is ‘yes, you can find X in ace fiction, here is a list of stories which have X’. Sometimes, the response is ‘thanks, I’ll look into that’. And sometimes, the response is ‘well, I want to find it in the fiction I would read anyway, not have to go to some obscure source which might not fit my tastes in fiction’.

The latter response is valid. I wish I could find all of the ace rep I want without having to specifically look for it because it would just happen to be in the fiction I was reading anyway for other reasons. However, as things stand now, I would not have been able to find dozens of works of fiction featuring ace rep if I were not specifically seeking it.

However, while recognizing that it is a valid response, I also find it frustrating. I find it frustrating when people claim (or imply) that there is no ace fiction with X when I can think of at least three examples of ace fiction with X. I also find it frustrating that people who say they want X in ace fiction … are not supporting ace fiction which already has X.

You want more ace fiction with X? Then show it. If you have sufficient financial means, then buy it. If you do not have sufficient financial means, then tell your local public library to buy it. If you buy a work of ace fiction, and like it, then tell your local library to buy it so that people in your area who do not have financial means can read it too (my local library does not follow up on all of my recommendations of ace fiction, but it has followed up on some of them). If you do not have financial means, and you also do not have access to a public library, well, that sucks. Hopefully, you can at least find X in fanfiction online, and you will support it by leaving nice comments for the fic writer.

Anyway, here are another two tweets from Claudie Arseneault:

EVergreen thoughts on ace rep and where to find it: if all you know about is Clariel, Every Heart and We Awaken, you’re not paying attention

Oooooor you’re just paying attention to trad pubs. (Also Clariel is harmful stop putting on lists)

I completely agree with the first part – if all you know about is Clariel and Every Heart a Doorway, and We Awaken, then you’re not paying attention. I trust that anybody who has been following by blog at all in the past six months knows about more than those three works, since I’ve been posting a ton of reviews of ace fiction.

As for the second comment, errr, We Awaken is published by Harmony Ink Press, and how, exactly, does Harmony Ink Press count as a traditional publisher? They publish LGBTQ+ YA fiction – and nothing else. Does the mere fact that they print books and work through the large distributors make them a traditional publisher? Because if that is enough to make someone count as a ‘traditional publisher’, then the meaning of ‘traditional publisher’ is so broad that it’s not a useful term for me.

However, I would say that people pay a lot more attention to mainstream publishers than to independent publishers. This is partially justified, but if one is paying attention to mainstream publishing TO THE EXCLUSION of independent publishing, especially if one wants more ace rep, then yes, there is a problem (I plan at some point to write a whole post/rant about this topic, but I don’t want to go there right now).

As for the last point – “Clariel is harmful stop putting on lists” – I disagree completely. While there are many ace and/or aro readers who have found it hurtful, there are also many ace and/or aro readers who have found it validating. For example, I really appreciate this comment by LW, even though I do not agree with it 100%. LW loves grey-morality characters, is demiromantic, ace, and disabled, and particularly likes Clariel because Clariel is demiromantic (according to LW’s interpretation, and I agree that demiromantic!Clariel is a valid interpretation), ace, and disabled. LW also says in her comment that it bothers her when people claim that Clariel is bad ace / aro representation. It is for the sake of readers such as LW – and to be honest, myself, since Clariel actually is one of my favorites out of the 40+ works of ace fiction I’ve read – that I am opposed to telling people to stop putting Clariel on lists.

(and one could have a worthwhile discussion about the implications of Clariel being visibly disfigured, but I will not go there right now).

I am in favor of putting asterisks by Clariel when one puts it on lists (such as * ‘many ace/aro readers do not like the ace representation in this novel’), but I am against not putting it on lists at all.

Anyway, that lets me segway into a more Clariel focused discussion which luvtheheaven also linked…

[Clariel] goes for the stereotype that aro aces aren’t capable of making friends/understanding the point of friends.

I disagree. Clariel (the ace/aro character) actually does have at least one friend in the story (Belatiel), she values that friendship, and it’s strongly implied that she was friends with some of the borderers. She is also friends with her aunt, if one considers it to be possible to be friends with members of one’s own family. I did not get the sense that the story was supporting that stereotype at all.

A lot of why Clariel is socially isolated is a) her mother Jaciel b) being forced to be in a social environment where she does not want to be c) people refusing to understand Clariel’s concerns (and the few characters who are interested in her concerns do not spend much time with her due to circumstances). One of the parts of Clariel which most moved me was when Clariel finally figured out why her mother Jaciel is the way she is, that she is also like her mother in some ways and might be socially isolated for some of the same reasons (note: Jaciel is not an aro/ace character), and while Clariel does not excuse the emotional pain her mother caused, she understands that her mother did it because of her own personal struggles, not because she does not care about Clariel. (And also, the fact that Clariel eventually feels empathy for her mother, in spite of the fact that her mother hardly ever tried to connect to Clariel in a personal way, is solid evidence that Clariel does have feelings and can emotionally connect to people). (Also, it was refreshing to have a protagonist in this series who actually interacts with her living mother, as opposed to Sabriel and Lirael, whose mothers are dead).

Actually, looking back on both Clariel and Lirael, it is Lirael, not Clariel, who has more of a social isolation/friendship issue. But I understand that many readers do not perceive it that way, probably because Lirael’s one and only friendship is given plenty of pagespace while she avoids people as much as possible (so her interactions with people do not get much pagespace), whereas, *because* Clariel actually does interact with people more than Lirael, and her friendships do not get nearly as much pagespace, the fact that Clariel does not get along with many of the people she interacts with is more obvious. Come to think of it, the fact that the writer puts so much more emphasis on Lirael’s positive social interactions vs. her negative social interactions, and puts so much emphasis on Clariel’s negative social interactions vs. her positive interactions, is worth critiquing.

As far as “Clariel literally just wants to run away and live by herself in a forest” … Clariel’s first choice is to join the borderers who patrol the forest. It is only when she is convinced very early in the novel that that is impossible that she makes Plan B, running away to live by herself in a forest, her goal. I think that, if she were given a choice between joining the borderers, and living alone in the forest, she would not hesitate to join the borderers.

One last point before I get to the spoilery section – a point I made in my previous post – is that one reason I am not so bothered by some of the things in Clariel is that I have read so much ace fiction. One of the arguments people who are claiming that Clariel is bad ace/aro representation make is ‘imagine that this was the only time you ever saw an ace/aro character in fiction’ … but in my case it is NOT. Far from it. If Clariel were the only instance that I ever saw of an ace/aro character in fiction, I may feel differently, but that’s not my situation. I admit that I tend to get more irritated with certain tropes (such as Allo Savior Complex) the more frequent they are, but the negative aspects of Clariel’s aro/ace representation are not frequent enough in the ace/aro fiction I’ve read to irritate me that way.

[THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF THE SPOILERY SECTION, IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO EXPOSE YOURSELF TO SPOILERS STOP READING]

Then the “Her isolation directly contributes to her fall. She becomes evil and is then an antagonist for the rest of the series” tweet. Yes, mostly. But it’s not her fault that she was isolated in a way which contributed to her fall. For example, Kagrin himself admits that he had not realized how much danger Clariel was in, and failed to give Clariel the information she needed to make a non-evil choice. Clariel herself did not like being isolated in Abhorsen House, and the Abhorsen justifies it as “well, I thought you liked being alone” and this leads Clariel to listening to the one sentient being who is around and willing to give Clariel advice – Mogget. Nobody warns Clariel that Mogget is kind of evil and that it is better to ignore his advice (to be fair, none of the other characters really understood that Mogget was kind of evil until it was too late).

One of the things I like about Clariel is that it counters one of the things I do not like about Sabriel. In Sabriel, Sabriel is clueless, and is really lucky that all of the entities who give her advice (because she did not know enough to make informed decisions on her own) was trustworthy, and that she has magically good instinct. I do not like that. In Clariel, Clariel is not as lucky as Sabriel, so some of the entities who give her advice are untrustworthy, and because Clariel is clueless (just as Sabriel was clueless at that age, though Clariel and Sabriel are clueless about different things), Clariel lacks magically good instinct, and she cannot tell that the advice is bad. This feels more realistic to me.

For that matter, Clariel counters something even bigger about the original Old Kingdom trilogy which bothers me. In the original Old Kingdom books, morality is very black and white (with the exception of Mogget) – the good are purely good, and the evil are purely evil, and have almost no character development to boot. Clariel has a more grey morality, in which the ‘good’ characters often do the wrong thing because they are uninformed / refuse to communicate well, and the ‘evil’ characters (with the exception of Kilp and Aron) mostly just want to be free, and the only thing which makes them ‘evil’ is that they are willing to wreck havoc in order to break free. Morality has many more shades of grey in Clariel than in other books in the series.

I want to say a few things about Goldenhand.

Like many readers, I was annoyed by the ‘all the protagonists get as Happily Ever After by romantically pairing up’ ending. It might have been less annoying if the romance part was well-written, but it was not.

Also, it turns out that Clariel’s fate was much more tragic than I thought at the end of Clariel (I guess I was too optimistic). However, we learn that Clariel has a dual personality – her evil persona is Chlorr of the Mask, but there is also ‘Clariel’ who, in spite of everything, refuses to do evil, so Chlorr of the Mask made her sleep. At the climax of Goldenhand, Lirael has to wake up good!Clariel, and good!Clariel is the one who delivers the final blow to Chlorr of the Mask (i.e. evil!Clariel), not Lirael herself. So when I was looking through the tweets which say ‘Clariel becomes the super villain which the allo characters spend the entire book trying to kill’ errr … yes, that’s true, but did you miss the part where good!Clariel turns out to be the one who eliminates evil!Clariel for good. (Yes, good!Clariel also dies, and having the aro/ace die while the allos survive deserves critique. In my opinion, Lirael also should have died because she RANG ASTARAEL TWICE IN A ROW, and the fact that she survived *in spite of having rung Astarael twice* was cheap).

More Thoughts on Ace and Aro Representation in Clariel

I don’t like this book cover as much as the Australian book cover for Clariel.

One of the things I like about the ace and aro representation in Clariel by Garth Nix is that it’s complicated. It’s actually one of the more complex representations of asexuality and aromanticism I’ve found in prose fiction so far, even though Clariel does not have the highest asexuality content rating. In this post, I’m going to go into some of those issues in more depth.

Have you read Goldenhand?

No, not yet. I know that the character Clariel also appears in Goldenhand, and I’ve read that it throws Clariel’s asexuality/aromanticism in a different light than Clariel, but I have not read about it in detail because I’m trying to avoid spoilers right now. I do plan to read Goldenhand. In the mean time, I think it’s worthwhile to record my thoughts about ace/aro representation in Clariel before I read Goldenhand.

I am aware that Goldenhand may completely upset my interpretation of Clariel’s ace/aro qualities. However, even if Goldenhand says “Clariel is really a repressed heteroromantic heterosexual who needed to be fixed by a (male) One True Love after all, ha ha you suckers who thought she was aro ace!” I am mentally capable of removing canon from my personal headcanon (I will be unhappy if Goldenhand pulls off that terrible bait-and-switch, but the comments I’ve seen from one ace reviewer indicate that Goldenhand is not that blatantly awful).

So basically, this post is going to be you saying all of the things you didn’t say in the original review because you were trying to keep the spoilers out?

Mostly, I did think of one more thing to address which does not require going into spoiler territory – namely, Clariel’s Aunt Lemmin. So, this part of the post is still spoiler-free.

I’ve seen some people say that Aunt Lemmin is also an aromantic asexual. I do not rule out that possibility, but I am also not convinced. It seems that the evidence for Aunt Lemmin being an aro ace is that she is a happy spinster, and I think she may also be referred to as a ‘natural singleton’ (which seems to be the Old Kingdom term for someone who is not interested in forming long-term sexual or romantic relationships). On the other hand, it is well established in the Old Kingdom series that the Old Kingdom accepts casual sex to some degree (it’s shown in Clariel itself, as Clariel observes and tries to avoid her peers’ hookup culture). And when the term ‘natural singleton’ first shows up in Clariel, it is in reference to pine martens who still come together briefly to mate. Thus, it seems to me that the social category ‘natural singleton’ does not exclude the possibility of casual sex, and nothing in the story indicates that Aunt Lemmin avoids sex.

In fact, it is Aunt Lemmin who tells Clariel that she may just be suppressing her sexual feelings, and that she ought to be really, really sure that she does not feel any inclinations towards sex, because it would be so terrible if she were sexually repressed. While it is possible for aces to have such sentiments, to me, it is slight evidence that Aunt Lemmin is not ace.

In short, it actually makes more sense to me that Aunt Lemmin is not ace (the idea of her being aro is more plausible to me).

So is the spoilers galore section of this post going to start now?

No. Because I recently re-read Sabriel and Lirael, and I must comment on them.

*GROAN*

Oh come on, if you don’t want to know about what I think about Sabriel and Lirael after the re-reads, you can skip this section.

Anyway, in the beginning of my re-read of Sabriel, I thought ‘this was better than I remembered’. Then, when I got to the second half, I remembered why I did not like it when I read it nearly twenty years ago. To the extent that I like it now, it is to a large extent because of it’s connection to the other Old Kingdom stories – if it were still a standalone novel (as it was when I first read it) I probably would still dislike it today.

Lirael, of course, is more interesting – and I actually have acey comments to make about it.

In my review of Clariel, I claimed that Lirael was not an ace character. After I wrote the review, I learned that there are a few fans who headcanon Lirael as being grey-ace, and having re-read Lirael, I can see where that headcanon is coming from. Whenever Lirael is in a potentially sexual situation, she recoils and tries to get out it. Furthermore, she shows no positive interest in sex, or ever exhibits sexual attraction. In fact, the description of Lirael is a lot like the description of Clariel!

However, there are some key differences, which is why Clariel is generally considered to be a canon ace character and Lirael is not.

The explanation for why Lirael acts the way she does in potentially sexual situations is that she is shy and does not believe that men could really want her. Except … that does not match how she acts on-page. Yes, she is shy, but in one scene where a ‘handsome’ man shows clear sexual interest in her a) she considers good looks to be a minus, because good-looking men are more likely to expect her to say yes to sex (hmmm) and b) she is not shy at all about turning him down, though she does it in a roundabout way. To me, it seems that Lirael isn’t avoiding sex because of shyness/self-confidence issues – she genuinely does not want sex at that point in her life, and is willing to put in some effort to avoid it. Does that mean she is ace? Not necessarily. But the fact that she does not experience sexual attraction even to ‘handsome’ men implies that, at the very least, she may not be heterosexual. Of course, I know that in the next book, Abhorsen, she does get romantically matched with a male character (I do not remember the book well enough to offer any nuanced commentary).

Are you going to re-read Abhorsen too?

No. I do not recall liking it because I felt the story was not that interesting. A lot of it is about Orannis, and Orannis is pretty boring.

You think an ancient supervillain who is threatening to destroy the entire world is BORING???!!!!

Yes. The story of Abhorsen, IIRC, is about the protagonists struggling to stop a supervillain devoid of personality, and the characters do not grow nearly as much as they do in Lirael.

Anyway, what make Clariel different from Lirael is that she a) is no more shy about sex than her non-ace peers b) she has done soul-searching to figure out whether she is interested at all in people in a sexual way, and her conclusion is that she just does not want people in a sexual way. By contrast, at least in Lirael, Lirael does not demonstrate any such reflection on her sexuality.

Are we FINALLY getting to the SPOILERTASTIC part of this post?

Yep. If you do not want to expose yourself to SPOILERS GALORE for Clariel, this is where you stop reading this post.

So, some readers claim that Clariel isn’t really ace/aro, or that she is demisexual/demiromantic, or something. What is up with that?

In the novel, Clariel states repeatedly that she is not interested in sex or romance. She also has clearly done a lot of introspection, trying to figure out if she does have some kind of sexual or romantic feelings, and came up with nothing.

Thus, when I first came across the claims that a) Clariel is not really ace/aro after all or b) Clariel is demiromantic/demisexual, I was nonplussed.

It turns out that THERE IS A SINGLE SENTENCE on the penultimate page of the novel in which Clariel says that she had suppressed some feeling towards Belatiel. THAT’S IT, A SINGLE BLOODY SENTENCE. A sentence so insignificant that I did not even notice it when I was reading the novel through the first time, and had to go hunting for to find it after reading the critiques. And in contrast to the specificity which Clariel describes her lack of inclinations towards sex, romance, and marriage, this ‘feeling’ is not specifically described. The context also fails to make it clear whether this ‘feeling’ is romantic, or sexual, or something entirely different. It seems just as plausible to me that this feeling could be sisterly affection towards Bel as anything else.

That said, IF this ‘suppressed feeling’ is sexual and/or romantic in nature, then I would conclude that Clariel is demisexual and/or demiromantic, and thus still under the ace/aro umbrella. I have read comments from demiromantic readers that they felt really validated by Clariel, since they felt like Clariel’s inner journey of figuring out this romance thing was just like their own. I also do think that one of the passages which I quoted in my review has a sentence which hints at possible demiromanticism/demisexuality, specifically – “She had always presumed [giddy desire] just came upon them, but she did wonder now if it might grow from a small spark of friendship.”

I think saying that Clariel is demiromantic and/or demisexual is a valid interpretation of the novel. I also still think it’s possible to interpret Clariel as being an aromantic asexual. The interpretation which I do not consider valid is the one which says that Clariel is not under the aro/ace umbrella at all, because given what Clariel says about herself, that does not make sense.

Now, if it turns out in Goldenhand that Clariel had eventually fallen in love with Belatiel in some sense, I will accept that as canon evidence that Clariel is demiromantic, and I would be cool with that choice for her character. What I would not be cool with is if Goldenhand does the “ha ha suckers, Clariel isn’t ace at all!” gambit which I describe above.

Of course, I am strictly basing this on Clariel. Who knows what I will find when I read Goldenhand? (technically, the people who have already read Goldenhand know.)

So what about the TRAGIC ENDING?

First of all, I have no objection to tragic endings. In fact I wrote this post almost five years ago. Agent Aletha felt that the ending of Clariel was a bit like the “Bury Your Gays” trope, and I can see where she’s coming from, but I do not feel the same way.

“Bury Your Gays” is so widely condemned by LGBTQ+ critics because it is so damn common, especially in mainstream depictions of queer characters. Most queer critics say that, if the survival rate of queer characters were roughly the same as the survival rate of straight characters in mainstream media, “Bury Your Gays” would not be such a big deal.

By contrast … I have read a lot of ace fiction by this point. Most of what I’ve read came by the way of indie publishing, but even among the mainstream ace fiction I’ve read, tragic endings are uncommon. I thought it was ironic that an LGBTQ+ publisher which has an explicit policy of not permitting queer characters to have tragic deaths went ahead and published a novel in which the ace character has a tragic death, but that was ONE instance, not a pattern.

Also … how tragic was the ending of Clariel anyway? She wanted to be free and live on her own in the forest, and she got what she wanted. True, she is exiled from the Old Kingdom, and we all know that she is going to be corrupted further by Free Magic and turn into a necromancer and all that, but … seriously, it could have been worse. I found one reviewer who said that she felt cheated because we did not really see the transformation of Clariel into Chlorr of the Mask, that the novel ends while Clariel still has a sense of mercy and kindness towards other people. Though I did not feel cheated, I understand her point. The ending of Clariel in itself, is not Clariel’s tragedy. Clariel’s tragedy is what happens after the end of Clariel (though the ending of Clariel makes Clariel descent into evil almost inevitable).

Speaking of Clariel’s (eventual) descent into evil…

So what about Clariel turning into an EVIL EVIL EVIL villain? Doesn’t this reinforce the stereotype of aces being psychopathic villains?

There is a stereotype of ace characters being villains because of their lack of feelings. And this is even more true of aro characters, to the point that not wanting romance is code for villain, and characters who successfully engage in romance are almost never villains (see this post). This stereotype is much more prevalent in mainstream fiction than fiction targeted at ace audiences, for obvious reasons. However, Clariel is aimed at a mainstream audience, not a specifically ace audience.

However, Clariel subverts the premise of the stereotype.

The logic of the stereotype is that because the idea is, if a character does not experience sexual and/or romantic feelings, it means they don’t experience feelings in general, which means they don’t experience empathy, or care about other people, and this leads them to being indifferent or spiteful towards others, thus the villainy.

By contrast, some reviewers have summarized Clariel as “the path to hell is paved with good intentions.” The irony is that, if Clariel really were a psychopath/sociopath, she probably would not have turned into a villain at all, or at least would have just been a petty villain. If she did not care about other people or give a shit about other people’s feelings, she probably would have just stolen money from her parents and gone back to Estwael to live in the forest. It would not have been nice thing to do, but it would have let her avoid becoming villain. Or later in the book, if she had abandoned Belatiel in the forest – which is exactly what she wanted to do – yeah, Belatiel probably would have died, but she would have just been a petty villain, not a grand villain. She only stayed with Belatiel *because she did not want him to die*. And in the end, what pushes her into bargaining with the Free Magic creatures was her belief that her aunt was in imminent danger, and that if she did not rescue her, nobody would help her, and that her aunt would suffer and quite possibly die. If her aunt’s wellbeing were not at stake, or if Clariel believed that someone else would rescue her in time, she probably would not have accepted the bargain. Accepting the Free Magic creatures’ bargain, of course, is what sealed Clariel’s fate. It is because Clariel cares about other people, and wants to help them even if she must risk or even harm herself, that she becomes so exposed to Free Magic that she becomes irredeemably corrupted.

That said, this series still follows the generally pattern of the major good characters (with the exception of the nonhuman characters) getting paired up in satisfying romantic relationships, while the major evil characters (not just Clariel – also Rogir and Hedge) are uninterested in romance. This does sting me a little, not so much because of Clariel individually, but because of the pattern. If there had been an unambiguously good major character who was not inclined towards romantic bonds, or a major villain (such as Rogir or Hedge) who demonstrated an interest in romance, I would probably not mind this point.

So what about that quote from Agent Aletha’s review, “We complain over and over that in fiction asexuality is often used to distance the audience from a character, to mark them as other and undermine their very humanity. Is that the case here, making it more palatable for [Clariel] to go to the dark side?”

I am less interested in Garth Nix’s intentions when he was writing the story than how readers react. Prior to working on this post, I only read reviews of Clariel, which mentioned asexuality, but to ponder this question, I went out and read a bunch of reviews from mainstream readers to see how they react, specifically, whether Clariel’s ace/aro qualities make it more palatable to readers that she goes to the dark side.

First of all, on a general note, it seems that the readers who were most likely to enjoy Clariel were readers, such as myself, who thought that Lirael was the best book of the original trilogy. Readers who thought that Sabriel and Abhorsen were better than Lirael, on the other hand, were more likely to dislike Clariel. This make sense to me. Both Lirael and Clariel are more introspective and focused on character and worldbuilding, whereas Sabriel and Abhorsen are more action-packed and ZOMYGOSH-WE-MUST-STOP-HORRIBLE-THING-TRYING-TO-DESTORY-THE-WORLD!!!!!!!!!! (for what it’s worth, my favorite action sequence in the series is still Lirael vs. the stilken, even though the stilken was just threatening to kills librarians and destory of a library, not destroy the whole world). I did not find any reviews by people who had never read an Old Kingdom novel before, and I am mildly curious what somebody who was otherwise unfamiliar with the series would think (I suppose if I waded through enough Goodreads or Amazon reviews I would find such reviews).

Anyway, reactions to the novel are very mixed. Many of the people who disliked the novel cite Clariel as being an unlikable protagonist because she is whiny, self-absorbed, wants to go back to the forest, etc. Would these readers still feel this way about Clariel if she were presented as a heteroromantic heterosexual character? I don’t know. However, some of the same reviewers who dislike Clariel say that they also dislike Prince Sameth for similar reasons, and Sameth definitely is not an ace character, which implies that it is not Clariel’s aceness which puts them off.

For what it’s worth, Clariel did not seem particularly self-absorbed or whiny to me, not more so than a lot of other teenagers (in particular, she did not seem any more self-absorbed or whiny than Lirael). Yes, she has some unlikeable attributes (c’mon, she turns into a villain) but overall I was sympathetic to her as a protagonist.

Anyway, in conclusion, having re-read Sabriel and Lirael, I am … finding it hard to decide whether I like Lirael or Clariel more. Probably Clariel, if only because a lot of Lirael is about Prince Sameth, who I find less compelling as a character than either Lirael or Clariel. I also find the ace/aro representation in Clariel to be overall positive, but with potentially negative complications.

Now I’m bracing myself for Goldenhand.

Review: Seven Way We Lie by Riley Redgate

The cover of Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate

This is yet another book I’m reading for my Mystery Grab Bag Ace Fiction Month.

What is this novel about?

It’s set at a high school in a fictional town in Kansas. It is about seven teenagers, each of whom represent one of the seven deadly sins of Christianity (Lust, Envy, Greed, Sloth, Gluttony, Wrath, and Pride). As one would expect from teenagers who are metaphors for deadly sins, they each have some kind of serious problem – for example, the one who represents ‘lust’ keeps on hooking up with guys to fill the emptiness in her life left by the mother who abandoned her, and one who represents ‘sloth’ uses marijuana all the time and never does his homework, and the one who represents greed is the high school’s marijuana/beer-for-the-underaged dealer.

Anyway, the school administration gets an anonymous tip that one of the teachers is in a romantic relationship with a student, but they do not know who the teacher or the student is. That is the spark which sets this high school drama on fire.

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this story?

The teacher and the student in a romantic relationship do NOT have sex, but they do touch each other a lot, lie down together in bed, etc. – and obviously, it is a student/teacher romance. There is quite a bit of discussion of the characters sexual activities and sexual feelings, and there is on-page sexual kissing, on-page detailed making-out, and a dick pic, but no on-page sex.

As far as violence … one of the kisses in non-consensual. A student is involuntarily outed as being non-heterosexual, and there is some physical violence associated with that (as well as a ton of drama). A student drinks so much alcohol that she has to go to the hospital.

Tell me more about this novel.

There are seven point-of-view (POV) characters.

You serious? SEVEN POV CHARACTERS? And this is a standalone novel, not part of a series, so you’ve never met any of these characters before, right? How did you keep track of all of them?

Well, it did take me about a hundred pages for me to get a good handle on who all of them were. I felt like I ought to have figured out sooner that Olivia Scott and Kat Scott were twin sisters, even though the fact that they have the same last name ought to have been a big hint.

So, which of them was the ace character?

Err, can’t you want until we get to the ‘Asexuality’ section?

I MUST KNOW NOW WHICH DEADLY SIN THE ACE CHARACTER REPRESENTS!

The character who represents the deadly sin of ‘Pride’ is ace.

Now that’s just typical – of course they present the ace character as acting holier-than-thou towards all of the non-asexual characters…

Ummm, this novel is not like that.

… and I bet the ‘Lust’ character is the other non-heterosexual character…

Err, no. The pansexual character does not represent ‘Lust’, he’s the marijuana/beer dealer who represents ‘Greed’.

How about you let me get on with the review?

Fine, get on with it.

I thought this was a pretty good high school drama. It does not really feel like my experience in high school (unlike This Song Is (Not) For You), but it also did not feel as fake as a lot of the high school fiction I’ve encountered.

While Olivia Scott was not the character I liked the most, she certainly had the most colorful voice. Here are some examples:

It’d be less awkward than letting this silence stretch on longer, that’s for sure. But my voice is on lockdown, which is bizarre, given that locking down my voice is usually about as doable as locking down a rampaging rhinoceros.

I don’t want to say anything that might make him go.

Why am I invested? This is a horrible idea. Whoever invented emotions is hopefully frozen in the ninth circle of hell. They deserve it.

I think the POV I liked the most was Kat Scott. The only thing she gives a shit about is theatre – specifically, performing in an intense Russian drama in which nobody is happy. She doesn’t care about her classes, and she doesn’t want to spend time with her family, so she fills her time when she’s not occupied with theatre with play first-person shooter electronic games in which she blasts away zombies. (If you’re wondering, her deadly sin is ‘Wrath’).

Anyway who has had any contact with the high school fiction genre knows that there is a tendency to pair off characters romantically/sexually for a happy ending. Does this happen here? Yes – there is one pair who gets the sex-and-romance Happy Ending Special (except it’s too clichéd to be special). However, the other five POV characters get more interesting endings, so huzzah for that.

Is the pansexual character one of the ones who gets the Happy Ending Special?

No. And by the way, that character has a name: Lucas McCallum. You don’t have to call him “the pansexual character”.

That’s just typical.

It IS typical. But his ending isn’t tragic either. While I recognize the pattern of heterosexual characters getting the Sex-and-Romance-Happy-Ending-Special while the queer character does not, I actually prefer this to and ending in which *all the characters* get shoved into a Sex-and-Romance-Happy-Ending-Special.

Asexuality?

On the asexuality content scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I rate this as a 2.

The ace character is Valentine Simmons. A review I read while I was deciding whether or not to read this claimed that Valentine is autistic. This is never explicitly stated in the novel, but Valentine’s character does seem autistic.

The word ‘asexual’ is never used. Instead, we get descriptions like this:

Part of me wonders what it would feel like, a kiss. I’ve never felt compelled to try putting my mouth on somebody else’s mouth. I refuse to believe it feels like a symphony of violins, or a ferociously panning camera, or an eruption of emotion in the center of my chest, or anything else it’s supposed to be.

Then, in a later scene, there is this:

“Right. You’re not into guys,” he says, disappointment settling onto his face.

Frustration mounts in my chest. He’s attractive; that’s obvious. I’ve never connected with a human being the way I have with him. And still – still … “I’m not into anyone,” I say desperately. “I don’t know if it’s because I’ve hardly had a friend, or what, but conceptualizing crushes has always been a problem, and I just – I don’t.” The words stick in my throat. I say them again, a broken record spitting broken words: “I don’t.”

There are other instances in the novel when it’s stated, in one way or another, that Valentine is not sexually/romantically interested in people. Fortunately, it’s not a source of angst or unhappiness for Valentine (with the exception of the above scene where Valentine disappoints a friend). Valentine just finds it baffling that other people make such a fuss about sex/romance.

Was this written by an asexual?

I don’t know.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

I do. It’s not a literary masterpiece, and some parts of the novel do not entirely cohere together, but I found it an enjoyable distraction.

Review: Clariel by Garth Nix

Cover of the Australian edition of Clariel. I like this cover better than the cover of the US edition.

So, this is another book that I’ve read for my Myster Grab Bag Ace Fiction Month.

What is this story about?

Seventeen-year-old Clariel loves being the forest around the town of Estwael, and dreams of becoming a Borderer so she can live in the forest and serve the kingdom. However, her parents bring her to Belisaere, the capital city, which to Clariel feels like a prison with too many people and not enough trees.

Clariel schemes to get away from the city as soon as possible and return to the forest around Estwael. Unfortunately, others have their own schemes, and they involve Clariel. Her parents want to arrange either an apprenticeship or marriage for her. King Orrikan III refuses to rule AND refuses to appoint a regent to rule in his place, and since his heir Princess Tathiel is missing, power-hungry people have stepped into the void – and since Clariel is a cousin of the king and one of his closest living relatives, they want to control her. And though the kingdom has been safe from ravages of necromancers and Free Magic creatures for a long time, there is now a Free Magic creature active in Belisaere itself, and it too has an interest in Clariel…

What sex and/or violence is there in this story?

There is no sex, though there are quite a few references to characters’ off-page sexual activities, as well as various expressions of sexual interest. This story never dwells in gory details, but there is definitely substantial violence in the story, including on-page murder.

Hey Sara, before you even read this book, let alone wrote this review, I know you wrote a spiel about another book in the series.

I did. Here it is:

Cover of Lirael (old US edition, not the new US edition)

I read Sabriel, the first book in the Old Kingdom series … when I was about ten or eleven years old. I read Lirael when I was about sixteen years old.

Though I did not identify as asexual when I was sixteen, and Lirael, the protagonist of Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr, is not an ace character, I really related to her, and I think it was partially because I subconsciously took her story as a metaphor for my experiences which I would later describe with the word ‘asexual’.

Lirael is born among the Clayr, a group of people who have the Sight – a limited ability to see the future (though not all futures which they see come to be). Clayr on average first develop the sight at the age of 12, though some develop it earlier, and there are rare cases where it will not develop until they are 16 years old. Developing the Sight considered a major rite of passage among the Clayr, complete with a ceremony to mark the change, and it is considered one of the top things which distinguishes a child from an adult.

Lirael, at the age of 14, still has not gotten the Sight, but all of her peers has. She believes that she is broken, that something is wrong with her. When people learn about Lirael’s distress, they tell her that she is just a late bloomer.

Is the parallel between experiencing the Sight and sexual attraction obvious yet? Is the parallel between being a Sightless adolescent Clayr and an ace clear yet?

Does Lirael ever develop the Sight? Spoiler: No. And Lirael must come to terms with the fact that she is never going to experience something which she has been taught from childhood that all Clayr experience. She must find a different path to adulthood.

When I was sixteen, I still thought of myself as a late bloomer with regards to experiencing sexual feelings, but I think I also sensed on some level that I just might never feel those feelings the way most people did.

For this reason, it made intuitive sense to me that the Old Kingdom series would have an ace protagonist at some point. At the time I wrote this, I had yet to read Clariel. However, if you are reading this, and you did not get access to this by hacking into my computer, that means that I have read Clariel by now, and that this is being incorporated into the review.

Okay, so now talk about Clariel.

Clariel is set about 600 years before Sabriel. In Sabriel, the Old Kingdom has practically fallen – it had been two hundred years since there has been a monarch, the country is overrun with Free Magic, necromancers, and their slaves summoned back from death, and the once mighty Abhorsen family is no longer powerful enough to guarantee the safety of its own children, which is why the Abhorsen sends his child to grow up in Ancelstierre, not the Old Kingdom itself. By contrast, Clariel is set during the peak of the Old Kingdom’s prosperity, when necromancy and Free Magic are so rare that even the Abhorsen is not worried about them, and the nobility looks down upon studying Charter magic because that’s something for servants to do. However, in the very overconfidence amid the prosperity of the Old Kingdom, as well as the political instability caused by the king’s refusal to take responsibility, one can see the beginnings of the decline of the Old Kingdom. In other words, if Sabriel is set after the fall of Rome, then Clariel is set during the Pax Romana.

Since this is a prequel, I think a reader who had never read any other novel in the series would have no trouble reading Clariel first.

Even though it is almost 400 pages long (in hardback), I read this in two days. I totally got sucked in.

So, Asexuality?

On the asexuality content scale (1 = most asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I rate this as a 3.

The first sign of Clariel’s (a)sexuality is this passage, early in the novel:

They had talked about solitude an self-sufficiency once, Lemmin and her niece, soon after Clariel had first chosen to lie with a young man and had found herself quite separate from the experience, and not caring one way or another about repeating the act itself or the emotional dance that went with it.

“Perhaps I don’t like men,” Clariel had said to her aunt, who was pulling garlic bulbs and delighting in her crop. “Though I can’t say I have those feelings for women, either.”

“You’re young,” Lemmin had replied, sniffing a particularly grand clump of garlic. “It’s probably too early to tell, one way or another. The most important thing is to be true to yourself, however you feel, and not try to feel or behave differently because you think you should, or someone has told you how you must feel. But do think about it. Unexamined feelings lead to all kinds of trouble.”

Clariel examined her feelings once again [a year later], and found them unchanged.

A few chapters later, it comes up again:

“I … I like to go my own way, without needing anyone else.”

“Very few people need no one else,” said Ader.

“I mean I don’t need to be with someone, married, or tied down.”

“Marriage need not be a shackling together of the unwilling,” said Mistress Ader. “But it is not impossible that you are a natural singleton.”

The term “natural singleton” appears a few times in the story. It seems to be the term that the Old Kingdom uses for adults who have no urge to for sexual or romantic relationships (in other words, aromantic asexuals, since this culture does not seem to distinguish sexual and romantic interest). I am quite happy that the Old Kingdom culture has any kind of vocabulary for people who do not experience sexual feelings, and it makes sense to me that it would not perfectly align with our own.

In a later passage, we learn more about Clariel’s sexual experience:

Clariel’s own sexual experimentation with a twenty-two-year-old Borderer the previous year had happened out of curiosity, not love, or even very much desire. She had liked Ramis well enough and he had certainly desired her, but though she had slept with him three times to be sure of what she was feeling – or not – she had not particularly cared when he was posted away, and neither had she sought out a new lover.

Throughout the novel, whenever a scene comes up in which, in general, the heroine would be expected to deal with romance or romantic feelings, Clariel essentially says “Nope. I still have no interest in this sex and romance stuff.” I like that the writer repeatedly restated it during relevant scenes, since it was a) consistent and b) really drove home the point that Clariel really has no inclination for sex or romance. One of the more interesting scenes of this type was this one:

“Thank you,” said Clariel. “I hope I do get to fly with you. You’ve been a good friend.”

Bel mumbled something and the tips of his ears turned red, the blush easy to see on his pale skin. Clariel noticed the blush and perceived she was meant to hear the mutter, no doubt a protestation about “mere friends” or something like that. Bel wanted more, obviously, but she did not. She liked his company, and he was a friend, as she judged things, proven by his actions. But she felt no passionate attraction, no giddy desire. She’d never felt that, though she’d heard enough about it from other young women in Estwael. She had always presumed it just came upon them, but she did wonder now if it might grow from a small spark of friendship. But it didn’t matter. Not now.

“A good friend,” she repeated.

“I know,” sighed Bel. “If I had a denier for every time I’ve heard ‘let’s be friends’ I’d be richer than Kelp.”

“Come on, Bel,” said Clariel, suddenly cross with him. “Denima was falling all over you. She’s prettier than me, and smarter too, I’d say.”

“I wouldn’t say so,” said Bel stiffly. “Either one.”

“I’m just not … not interested in men,” said Clariel.

“Oohh,” said Bel, blushing again.

“Or women either,” added Clariel. She felt a strong desire to slap him around the ears a bit and if he hadn’t been wounded might have done so. “Think about the situation I’m in, will you! How could I be thinking about … about kissing and bed games with everything that’s happened … that is happening?”

Bel was silent. Evidently he had no trouble thinking about such things, at any time.

There is a supporting character, Guillaine, who like Lirael, was born among the Clayr. She does have the Sight, but it is so weak that she could not fully integrate with Clayr society, so she left and moved to Belisaere. If we keep running with the metaphor ‘having the Sight is the equivalent to experiencing sexual attraction’, then Guillaine is the equivalent of a grey-asexual.

And then … there is the stuff which I’m not going to discuss because it is majorly spoilerful. Some of the thoughts which Agent Aletha has about what the story implies about asexuality/aromanticism were thoughts I had as well when I was reading the novel, though my take on it is a little different. Some ace and/or aro readers may find certain aspects of how the novel presents asexuality/aromanticism to be problematic.

In any case, I am really happy to see such a clearly ace protagonist in a bestselling series.

Was this written by an asexual?

I don’t know.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

I LOVE this novel, issues with the presentation of asexuality/aromanticism aside. Not as much as I loved Lirael as a teenager, but this novel reminded me of how good the Old Kingdom series can be. Since I was left hungering for more, I even went back and started to re-read Sabriel, for the first time in almost twenty years. I don’t think Sabriel is as good as Clariel, but it’s better than I remembered.

Review: “Making Love” by Aidan Wayne

makinglove_500x750

This is another novella I’m reviewing for Asexual Fiction from Riptide Publishing Month.

What’s the story, Wishbone?

No, just no. Do not put that theme song in my head.

Fine, go ahead and write your own blurb, just like you typically do for these reviews.

Carla is a cupid working for Aphordite Agency. She has amazing aim for shooting her love arrows, but she is terrible at chemistry, which is why she kept on shooting arrows at an aromantic person. Then she sees a succubus, Leeta, come to the agency, looking for romantic love, and Carla’s boss is all like “No, you’re a succubus, we won’t help succubi find True Love because succubi just want easy meals, now GET OUT YOU SUCKY SUCCUBUS!!!!” This goes against Carla’s values – of course everyone deserves a chance at True Love. Thus, she makes it her mission to find True Love for Leeta.

What sexual and/or violent content is there in this story?

There is a sexual scene … whether it is a sex scene depends on how one defines such things. Also, one of the main characters is a succubus.

There is no violent content (unless a cupid shooting love arrows at people counts as violence).

Tell me more about this story.

It is, in a sense, a romantic comedy. At least, it follows some of the common rules of romantic comedies, such as when a matchmaker tries to make a match for someone else, and they keep on rejecting the matches, and the matchmaker actually feels relieved that the matches aren’t working out, you know what’s going to happen…

I actually don’t have much to say about the story.

Asexuality?

There are hints in the story that Carla is asexual, but it’s never stated explicitly, and even if Carla is asexual, well, I find the way this story presents aromanticism to be much more interesting.

Okay then, aromanticism?

On the aromantic content scale (1 = least aromantic content, 10 = most aromantic content), I rate this story as being a 3. Whereas the words ‘asexual’ and ‘ace’ are never used in the story, the word ‘aromantic’ is used multiple times. In fact, I am 80% certain that this is the first fiction story over 5,000 words I’ve read which uses the word ‘aromantic’ but does not use the words ‘asexual’ or ‘ace’.

At the beginning of the story, the anecdote of Carla futile usage of love arrows on an aromantic girl establishes that aromantic people exist.

In the story, succubi are stereotyped as all being aromantic, and this is why the agency does not even bother to try to find love matches for them. This is clearly the inverse of the situation of aromantic people – it is assumed that humans, as opposed to, say, robots or aliens from outer space, are alloromantic. At the end of the story, this comes out:

Yes! Yes, while it seems as though it’s a rarer phenomenon, what with them being an aromantic species on the whole, it looks as though romantic Sparks might be found in as many as one percent of all succubi and incubi. Statistically, that’s right around how many aromantic people exist in the world of the romantically inclined. Which is a pretty big number!

Now … is Carla aromantic? It is stated repeatedly throughout the story that Carla is bad at chemistry, and it’s hinted at that it is because she does not actually understand romance. Hmmm. And then there is this bit:

“Mm.” Leeta shifted on the couch, recrossing her legs and curling her tail. “Have you ever been in love?”

“Oh, me?” Carla laughed and waved a hand. “No, not yet. But that’s okay! A lot of cupids are late bloomers anyway.”

That bit made me think ‘hmmm’. The following passage makes it seem that Carla wants to want ‘love’ rather than simply want ‘love’.

And here we get to the mess that is discussions of ‘love’ in English. In contemporary English, ‘love’ is often assumed to mean ‘romantic love’ even when the context does not suggest that. And since this is a story about a cupid whose job is to spark romances, her culture is hyper-amantonormative.

But she does fall in love with Leeta, described thus:

Leeta was in love with her. And Carla could feel her own love pinging back to meet it. It made her feel very brave.

Is Carla romantically attracted to Leeta? Is the love she feels romantic? As a reader, I’m not sure. However, given the way Carla described her previous experience of never feeling ‘in love’ (romantic love?) for people, I suspect she is somewhere under the greyromantic umbrella.

Was this written by an asexual?

I don’t know.

Was this written by an aromantic?

I don’t know.

Hey Sara, do you like this story?

Yes, I do.

One may buy this from the Riptide Publishing Store or various eBook retailers.