Exploitation for Sexy Looks: Comparing Visuals of ‘Strong Female Characters’ in Anglophone Geek Pop Culture and in Jin Yong Stories (Part 1)

This is part of the Rambling Series about Sexism in Jin Yong Stories.

Last month I posted “Gender, Intelligence, and Physical Beauty in the World of Jin Yong”, and Siggy replied with a comment about Anglophone feminist critique of ‘strong female characters’. This led to me thinking about whether or not Anglophone feminist critique of ‘strong female characters’ applies to Jin Yong fiction. Since the answer is complex, I’m breaking this up into multiple posts. This post, obviously, is going to be about exploiting female characters for sexy looks.

As I said in the first post of what seems to becoming a series, most Jin Yong non-elderly female characters are described as being physically beautiful. If they are too young to be sexually mature, then they are phenomenally cute (which, to be fair, is not being exploited for sexy looks). In fact, it is remarkable when a non-elderly female character is not pretty because that is uncommon in Jin Yong stories. Off the top of my head, I think Cheng Lingsu (程靈素) is the most prominent non-pretty young female character in the Jin Yong stories.

An illustration showing Cheng Lingsu

By contrast, most young men in Jin Yong stories are described as being plain looking, and if they are described as being handsome, they are probably a villain. IIRC, the only male Jin Yong protagonist who is described as being handsome is Yang Guo (he is so handsome that he starts wearing a mask so that girls will stop falling in love with him as soon as they see his face).

Yang Guo is hiding his handsome face.

So … tons of pretty young women with few plain-looking women, and tons of plain-looking young men with a few handsome young men, mostly villains. I hope that the double standard here is so obvious that I do not have to explain it.

Did I mention that the plain-looking male protagonists of most Jin Yong stories have three or more pretty young women pining after him? (okay, to be fair, a few of them have only TWO pretty young women pining after him – for example, the male protagonist that Cheng Lingsu falls in love with has only two pretty women in love with him) (but hey that means that all Jin Yong stories have at least two female characters, which means they are automatically one third of the way to passing the very low bar set by the Bechdel test)

This is also a common problem in Anglophone geek pop culture. It can even be a problem in ‘feminist’ geek media. For example, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga is often described as being ‘feminist’, yet some readers have critiqued it because most of the prominent female characters are gorgeous while most of the prominent male characters do not have handsome looks (the notable exceptions are Cordelia Naismith, Ivan Vorpatril, and in the most recent novel, Oliver Jole).

So far, I have only been talking about Jin Yong novels. When his stories are adapted to screen, his male protagonists experience a bout of adaptational attractiveness. The most notorious example of this is casting Hu Ge to play Guo Jing, a male protagonist who is repeatedly described in the novel as being plain looking.

In case you don’t know what Hu Ge looks like, here is a picture of him playing the allegedly non-handsome Guo Jing.

This, however, is also not particularly different from Anglophone media. I will say this in defence of the Jin Yong adaptations – in the only adaptation I saw with Cheng Lingsu, they did not cast a particularly pretty actress to play her (though, looking at photos of other adaptations, it seems that Cheng Lingsu can suffer from adaptational attractiveness).

What do I want? First of all, unless there is a good and specific reason not to have it, I want there to be gender parity for the level of physical attractiveness of male and female characters (i.e. I want it to be just as likely for a dude to be handsome as a lady to be beautiful).

Second, I want characters to have a diversity of appearances, including those which are not conventionally attractive. I like eye candy too, and I do not mind at all having *some* conventionally attractive characters, but I do not want it to go so far as to exclude everyone else. Only telling stories about conventionally attractive characters (and making all of your major female characters conventionally attractive) sends the message that people who are not conventionally attractive (including women who are not conventionally attractive) do not matter, and that’s not cool.

***

So far, I’ve been saying that Jin Yong stories are just like Anglophone geek pop media. This was the point at which I was going to start talking about how Jin Yong stories (and wuxia in general) are DIFFERENT from Anglophone geek pop media, until I decided to split this post into two parts. So, that will be discussed in Part 2!

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Educating People about Ace Fiction

This is for the June 2017 Carnival of Aces: Asexual Education.

Around October of 2016, I figured out that there had been an explosion of published ace fiction in 2015 and 2016, especially from LGBTQ+ publishers. My reaction was “What? How did I miss this? I need to learn more!” And so I embarked on educating myself on all of this new ace fiction (and a little older ace fiction). I assumed that many other aces, like myself, had missed a lot of this new published ace fiction, so that was one of the reasons I wrote so many reviews.

Now, I’ve moved away from writing reviews towards writing meta-criticism, mainly contributing to the Ace Trope series at the Asexual Agenda (at least so far), which I enjoy more than writing reviews, and I think is even better for educating people about what is out there in ace fiction than just writing reviews.

Why bother educating anybody about ace fiction?

With regards to educating myself, it was definitely a matter of curiosity, though it is fair to ask why I am so curious about ace fiction. I want there to be ace fiction because I have experiences, as an ace, which I rarely see expressed in fiction in general (unless I interpret fiction in a very metaphorical way). It’s not so much that I am interested in characters who just happen to be ace, just as I am not interested in characters who happen to have hazel eyes (even though I have hazel eyes myself), as that I am interested in ace experiences.

Why bother educating anyone aside from myself about ace fiction? Other readers, like myself, may want to find ace fiction for themselves, so I can help pave the way just as critics such as Agent Aletha helped me. And the more readers there are who support ace fiction in their own way, the more incentive writers/creators have to make more ace fiction.

So far, I have focused on reader education (especially myself), mostly ace readers. I am not sure how to go about educating a non-ace audience, or even whether that is a worthwhile goal. I would like ace fiction to be for ace audiences first. If ace fiction is primarily directed at non-ace readers, it could lead to challenges like the challenges gay men have with their representation in M/M romance, a genre which is mostly written for a female audience (Jamie Fessenden, a gay man who writes M/M romance, has a nuanced take on M/M being written for female audiences). That said, ace fiction can also be a great tool for educating non-aces about asexuality. It is also true that, the wider the readership there is for ace fiction, the more support there will be for ace fiction. I suppose my main concern is that I do not want ace fiction to cater so much to non-ace readers that it fails to cater to ace readers.

A group which I think could seriously benefit from education about ace-fiction are the writers/editors/creators who create ace fiction. I know Erica Cameron wrote some kind of guide for writing ace characters which I cannot find right now (if you have the link, please drop a comment), which was basically asexuality 101. Which is entirely necessary. And for some ace stories, asexuality 101 might be enough for a writer/editor/creator to represent asexuality properly. But even when a story gets the asexuality 101 right, or at least not wrong, it can feel … off. And there are tropes which are way overused, such as Allo Savior Complex, but one won’t learn how to use the Allo Savior Complex trope in a good way from asexuality 101 (the Allo Savior Complex trope can be used very well, but most of the time I just find it irritating, or if it’s really badly handled, offensive – so my advice to writers is, unless one has a good reason to use it, don’t use it). And just as there are tropes which are overdone in ace fiction, there are also things which a lot of ace readers want from ace fiction, but ace fiction is not delivering.

By the way, when I talk about educating writers/editors/creators of ace fiction – I’m not distinguishing between those who are ace and those who are not ace. Though I have yet to do a statistical analysis, my impression is that non-aces are much more likely to make an ace 101 level mistake than aces are, but GIVEN that a non-ace has already avoided 101 level mistakes, ace writers/etc. are almost as likely to make ace 201+ mistakes as non-aces. Though past the 101 level, it is a lot harder to determine what even is a mistake, since there is a lot less consensus about upper-division asexuality than there is about asexuality 101.

At this point, I think the best education available about ace fiction for writers/editors/creators which goes beyond asexuality 101 is the comments sections of the Ace Tropes series at the Asexual Agenda. Not so much the posts themselves – though I suppose one has to read the posts to make the most sense of the comments. I have learned a lot about how ace fiction could be improved from reading the comments. And if a writer/editor/creator came to me, and wanted to know how they could write asexuality better, my three recommendations would be a) make sure you have asexuality 101 down b) read the comments of the Ace Tropes series c) learn a lot about the real life experiences of different kinds of aces d) read a lot of ace fiction so you know what’s already out there, what is being done well, what is overdone, and what is missing.

How I Recommend Getting Access to Ace Fiction

In the past half-year or so, I ended up reading and reviewing a lot of ace fiction. Obviously, I had to gain access to it, and unsurprising, I now have Thoughts About How to Access Ace Fiction.

Generally, I recommend two methods of gaining access to ace fiction:

1) Borrowing ace fiction from libraries
2) Buying ace fiction

A method which I strongly discourage is piracy. It denies writers and publishers the income they have earned (libraries at least make some payment towards writers/publishers). First of all, it’s unfair. Second of all, writers/publishers not getting paid = less incentive to write/publish ace fiction.

A method which I neither encourage nor discourage is seeking review copies. Some writers and/or publishers are willing to formally or informally offer free copies in exchange for reviews. Since I have never tried to use this method, I cannot offer much advice.

Anyway, to my recommended methods…

Borrowing Ace Fiction from the Library

I have always lived in a place which has some kind of public library, and where I could get a library card. Thus, I do not have personal experience of living in a place without a public library, and cannot say anything useful to people in that situation.

If you are lucky, your local library already has a decent selection of ace fiction and all you have to do is borrow it like you would any other book.

However, at least in the year 2017, the odds are that you local library does not have a decent selection of ace fiction. This requires more effort on your part – specifically, requesting that your library adds more ace fiction to their shelves.

My local library’s website has a page called ‘Suggest a Title’ where I can ask them to add new titles. I fill out information such as title, author, publisher, and year of publication. They also give a little box where I can offer additional information. I always put the ISBN in this box to make it easier for the librarians to find the book, and they I put in a short blurb about why the library ought to add this book to their shelves. My blurbs typically are something like this:

I am asexual, and when I was growing up, I did not read any novels with characters who were explicitly asexual like I am. I want people like me to be able to read novels with characters like us, and right now, the library does not have a great selection of books with asexual characters. This book has an asexual character, and furthermore, it’s well-written, and that’s why it belongs on the library’s shelves.

(Feel free to copy and paste that as a template, though I recommend customizing the message for each request)

My success with getting my local library to get new ace fiction is about 50% – which means that my local library has substantially improved its selection of ace fiction since I started these requests (because the selection was not good to start with).

I cannot speak from all libraries, but my local library is willing to buy books from small publishers, and I once even got the library to buy a self-published book (it wasn’t ace fiction, but it still proved that the library is willing to add self-published books to the collection).

Of course, whether a library will acquire ace fiction partially depends on local factors. For example, an underfunded library is less likely to acquire new books. Likewise, a library which, say, primarily stocks books in Chinese may be reluctant to acquire books in English or other European languages (and most of the ace fiction I know about is only available in English and/or other European languages).

Even if you decide to buy a book rather than borrow it from the library, I recommend suggesting titles to you local library anyway to help other readers access ace fiction.

Now for my other recommended method…

Buying Ace Fiction

If you are in a financial secure position, I highly recommend buying your ace fiction. It supports the writers and publishers most directly. Plus, you never have to return your copy to the library. Or, more importantly, you can get access even if it’s not available at your local library.

Most of the ace fiction I’ve read in the past year I’ve bought myself. I admit that, when it was available at the library, I generally chose to borrow it, but I still feel I’ve done my part to financially support ace fiction, and borrowing from the library helps me stretch my money for buying more ace fiction. I also think that, even if one is financially secure, but new to ace fiction and uncertain, that it’s fine to choose the library over direct purchase if that makes it easier to give ace fiction a chance.

But how to go about buying ace fiction?

First of all, for various reasons, I refuse to buy anything from Amazon unless it is something I really want and find extremely difficult to buy elsewhere. Ace fiction does not fall in this category, because I have ways of getting ace fiction without Amazon. Also, I ONLY buy eBooks which are available without DRM. There are a couple of ace fiction titles which I was interested in but are sold exclusively sold through Amazon and with DRM, therefore I did not buy them. I even contacted one of the writers, and she promised that she would soon make it available for purchase through a store other than Amazon, and over a year later it’s … still only available through Amazon with DRM. Therefore, I have neither bought nor read it.

Right now, I’m not going to persuade you to avoid Amazon in generally, but I am going to make the case that it is bad to buy ace fiction from Amazon unless it’s the only store selling it. Why? To quote the Riptide Publishing FAQ

Both our authors and ourselves get to keep a much larger share of the purchase price when you buy directly from us (or any other publisher site), which makes it easier for your favorite authors to spend more time writing new books. Third-party vendors such as Amazon may keep as much as sixty-five percent of your sale price, leaving as little as thirty-five cents on the dollar for the publisher and author to share.

That’s right, Amazon sometimes take a 65% cut of the sales price, leaving only 35% for both the writer and the publisher to split. So why to publishers still sell through Amazon? Because so many buyers will only buy through Amazon, thus they will lose out on sales if they refuse to work with Amazon. And it is precisely because Amazon has such market power that they are able to abuse small publishers this way (yes, I think Amazon taking a 65% cut of the sales price is abusive). I think there are other reasons to avoid Amazon, but I think this reason alone is pretty compelling.

As far as I know, other book retailers do not take such huge cuts, but they still take some kind of cut. I know that with small publishers in general, writers get paid the highest royalties for sales done directly through the publisher, and that publishers make more money per book from direct sales than from sales through third parties. Therefore, PLEASE buy direct from small publishers so that money goes towards the writers, editors, etc. rather than to Amazon.

To further sweeten the pot, small publishers frequently run sales to encourage readers to buy direct rather than buy through Amazon. Sometimes the discounts are as much as 40% (and more rarely, even more than 40%). Even with these discounts, the writer/publisher still makes more money than if you bought through Amazon. You save money, they make more money than if the sale had gone through Amazon, it’s a win/win. If you want to save money, it may be worthwhile to wait a while for a sale to occur (Cyber Monday tends to be a great time to get discounts, but there are often sales at other times of the year, such as holidays).

Self-published books are a little different since they rarely have a dedicated website for direct sales. When possible, I buy self-published fiction directly through Smashwords since they tend to give writers a better cut than other sellers. If it’s not available through Smashwords, I buy through the Kobo Store (which I find irritating, but given a choice between Kobo and Amazon, I will always choose Kobo). And if it’s only available through Kobo with DRM (which has happened to me once), then I refuse to buy (though I was eventually able to borrow a print copy of that book from the library, so I read it anyway).

But what if it’s legally available for free?

Well then, that makes things simpler (and much cheaper), and I don’t think you need much advice. Generally, fanfic and webcomics are free, and occasionally, prose ace fiction is also legally available for free.

Resources for Finding Ace Fiction

You could look at my book reviews, but maybe you don’t like my reviews or want to learn about ace fiction I haven’t reviewed.

A great resource is the Ace Reads tagpacker, as well as the Ace Reads tumblr with its reviews (obviously, I sometimes disagree with Agent Aletha, but I have great respect for her as a reviewer, and when we have reviewed the same work I recommend reading both of our reviews, especially if we disagree).

I also greatly appreciate the the ace fiction reviews at Just Love (though I do not always agree).

There are also the Aro and Asexual SF fiction database, these lightning reviews of ace webcomics, the Demisexuality in Fiction database, and this database of ace fanfic.

Two publishers, Less than Three Press and Riptide Publishing, also have good filters for asexual fiction: The Less than Three Press Asexual Filter and the Riptide Publishing Asexual Spectrum filter.

May you all find ace fiction that you like!

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: Mindtouch by M.C.A. Hogarth

The cover of Mindtouch by M.C.A. Hogarth

This is the last book I’m reviewing for my Mystery Grab Bag Ace Fiction Month

What is this novel about?

This is set in the Pelted Universe, in which space has been populated by species genetically engineered by humans known as the ‘Pelted’ (humans are still around too, but outside of Earth itself, the Pelted are far more numerous than humans).

Jahir is an Eldritch, a species which is not ‘Pelted’ yet also was designed by humans way back when. The Eldritch either die as children, die in childbirth, or have super-long lifespans (as in, multiple centuries). They have ESP, and are also very private and have little contact with outsiders, so when Jahir decides to go off planet to get a medical education, he has very little preparation for life off of his home planet, and the galaxy ain’t prepared for him either.

However, he meets Vasiht’h, who is a Glaseah, one of the Pelted species which also has ESP powers. They hit it off, and Vasiht’h helps Jahir cope, and, well, this story is labelled as ‘romance’…

What sexual and/or violent content is there?

I cannot think of anything particularly sexual or violent in the story offhand, though there are dying children.

Tell me more about this novel.

This is the first book in the Mindhealers Duology (there is also an additional novella).

This novel was … not super interesting. Okay, some parts were mildly interesting, and the ending gave me hope that the second book in the duology might be more interesting. Then I started reading the second book in the duology, and found it more boring than the first, so I stopped reading it when I was 40% of the way through it. That is why I am only reviewing the first book, which I actually finished, rather than the duology as a whole, which I did not finish.

Though to be honest, if I had not bought both books in the duology at the same time, and instead had just bought the first book without the second book, I probably would not have bothered to buy the second book.

Asexuality

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

I feel really ambivalent about the presentation of asexuality in this novel.

Vasiht’h is asexual … he is Glaseah, and Glaseah are generally asexual. Because:

“If I was truly passionate about both, I’d be doing it already,” Vasiht’h said, and sighed. “The truth is I don’t think I’m really passionate about anything. There are things I’m interested in. But grand passion? That’s not something Glaseah are built for. We don’t get swept up in rushes like species with more excitable hormone profiles.”

So get that – Glaseah are passionless and don’t feel sexual urges because they lack hormones. As a species.

Meanwhile, I’m not entirely clear what is going on with Jahir’s orientation, but he has strong touch-aversion, because he is an Eldritch, and Eldritch tend to have strong touch aversion as a species.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with the concept of having an alien species where, due to a low level of hormones, the lack passion and interest in having sex, and are for practical purposes asexual.

As far as humans, there probably is someone out there who is asexual because they have a certain hormone profile, and if their hormone profile changed, they would stop being asexual. There are people who are passionless, and some of them may be passionless because of their hormone profile. There are also asexuals who are generally not passionate.

Though at this point, I am pretty irritated at the way they present hormones as mainly influencing sexuality and ‘passion’ and not a zillion other biological processes. For example, the hormone thyroxine regulates metabolism in mammals (and maybe other kinds of animals, I don’t remember off hand), and the Glaseah are mammals. If they are low in hormones, then does that include thyroxine, and does that mean that the Glaseah have some non-hormonal mechanism for regulating metabolism. What about the hormone cortisol? Though cortisol levels fluctuate dramatically in healthy people (which means having low cortisol at a particular moment might be okay), having a permanently low cortisol level is fatal in humans (and I presume in mammals in general).

The thing is, this story does not exist in a vacuum. There is a common misconception that asexuality is caused by someone having a certain hormone profile. While I acknowledge that having low levels of certain hormones may induce asexuality, this is not the case for most self-identified asexuals.

And I am particularly miffed by the explicit connection between low interest in sex and not being passionate about things in general. Yes, there are people who have little interest in sex and generally are not passionate, and that’s fine. However, as someone who identifies as both asexual and passionate, I don’t like people strongly implying that sexual = passionate and asexual = non-passionate.

And then there is the thing about saying that a character lacks interest in sex / has strong touch-aversion BECAUSE OF THEIR SPECIES. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with it, there are animal species which tend to like / dislike touch more than other animals species. However, asexual humans tend to get told that we can’t be asexual because all humans are sexual beings. In this context, saying that a character is asexual because of their species implies that it is species, and not the individual, which determines whether an individual may be asexual.

To be fair, the novel does present a character whose sexuality does not match the most common sexuality of their species:

“And… I’m really colony-world bred,” she said. “I wasn’t raised with Harat-Sharii’s culture. I know what we’re supposed to be like… we’re supposed to be enthusiastic and passionate, people whose love for life spills over into sex.” She caressed her cup with her fingertips. “I don’t have that. I mean, I have the passion, but I don’t want it to spread all over indiscriminately, like some kind of virus. I want one person. One man, preferably, so we can have kits the old-fashioned way.”

Here I am groaning AGAIN at the sexual = enthusiastic/passionate and asexual = non-passionate thing. If it were just one species which fit this pattern, that would be less bad than two species fitting this pattern. It reinforces the prejudice that people who are not into sex lack passion that much harder.

Also, most notably, this is not the asexual character (or even Jahir, who I’m not sure is ace or not).

I do consider this to be asexual content, which is why this story has a rating of 2 and not zero. However, when I read ace fiction, I want something which either reflects my experience as an asexual, or at least seems to reflect the real-life experience of other asexuals (there are works of ace fiction which do not look much at all like my experience, but seem realistic in the sense that the ace characters are like some real ace people). I feel that this novel fails at this harder than most of the ace fiction I’ve read.

What would have made a world of difference is if one of the minor human characters had come out as ace. It need not have been a big deal, it could have been a quick ‘By the way, I’m human, and though most humans are not asexual, I am asexual.’ That would have greatly counteracted the common bad stereotypes of asexuals which this novel seems to support.

That said, some parts are probably still relevant to some ace people. In particular, people who want a protagonist who is strongly touch averse (very, very rare in romance stories) may be interested in Jahir.

Given that the novel is the way it is, the ace representation in this book bugs me more because the writer herself claims that this is an ‘asexual romance’ on her website. I think, given how marginalized ace people are, and how little representation there is of us out there, a writer ought to avoid labelling this as ‘asexual’ because, intentionally or unintentionally, I feel it reinforces too many bad stereotypes of asexual people, and I think it would be less bad if it did not present itself as being ‘asexual’ fiction.

Was this written by an ace?

I don’t know.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

No. The ending did make me want to give the second novel in the duology a chance (especially since I had already bought it), but then it blew that chance.

Review: Deadly Sweet Lies by Erica Cameron

The cover of Deadly Sweet Lies by Erica Cameron

This is another book I read for Mystery Grab Bag Ace Fiction Month.

What is this novel about?

Julian, a teenager living in Las Vegas, is a supreme master of the art of bullshitting people. That’s how he keep the rent paid – his mother is a wreck who cannot hold a steady job or manager her finances, so it’s up to Julian to get enough money through illegal poker matches to cover both of their basic needs. And Julian hides the severity of his mother’s problems because he does not want to be placed in a group home or foster care. Fortunately, he has the refuge of the dream world, where he can meet Orane, his one true friend … until Orane dies, and it turns out he was not such a good friend after all.

Meanwhile, Nadette is also a teenager. She can detect lies as soon as she hears them – and she cannot lie herself because it would make her head hurt. For years, she has been pursued by people in the dream world, but since she knows right away that they are lying to her, she never falls for their schemes. Until one person from the dream world comes to tell her that, if she does not do what he wants, he will hurt her family – and Nadette knows that he is telling the truth.

What sexual and/or violent content does this novel contain?

There is assaulting young children, murder … oh, you asked about sexual content first. There isn’t any sexual content, unless kissing counts as sexual content. And yes, there is a nonconsensual kiss in the story.

Tell me more about this novel.

This book is the second novel in the The Dream War Saga series. It is possible to start with this book since there are enough references to events of Sing, Sweet Nightingale (the first book in the series) to follow what is going on.

Even though this novel is presumably in a different genre than Assassins: Discord (this novel is fantasy, whereas Assassins: Discord is a thriller), these two novels are both remarkably similar. Teenage protagonist from abusive/neglectful family who has honed their deception/manipulation skills because of their family? Check. A suspenseful chase between Florida and New York? Check (though at least it’s in a different direction – in Assassins it’s NY-to-Florida, whereas this novel is Florida-to-NY). A preoccupation with figuring out which of the powerful people is lying and about what? Check. Female teenage protagonist who finds a haven and falls in love with girl at said haven? Check (though at least the orienation is different – Nadette in this novel is lesbian, whereas the protagonist of Assassins is bi).

All that said, I found it easier to suspend suspension of disbelief in this novel because it IS fantasy. In that sense, it worked better for me than Assassins. However, I felt that Assassins had a better character growth arc than this story.

I do like the contrast between Julian and Nadette’s powers – Julian is a magical liar, and Nadette is a magical lie-detector. As it so happens, Julian’s power beats Nadette’s power – Julian is the only person who can lie to Nadette without her detecting the lie.

Then the novel abruptly cuts off right before the climax of the story. In other words, it’s a major cliffhanger ending. I am not quite as against cliffhanger endings as some readers, but even by my standards, this novel pushing the limits of my tolerance. Even if the main issue is meant to be resolved in the next book in the series rather than this book, I felt that it would have been much better for this book to go a chapter past where it actually did.

Asexuality?

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

Most of the asexual content is in Chapter 21.

Before Chapter 21, Julian realizes that he likes Nadette, and when a boy likes a girl, that means he’s in love with her right? So he kisses her without permission (yep, I groaned too). But when Nadette tells him that, no, she does not like him that way, she’s a lesbian, Julian is relieved. So he wonders what is up with him when he’s happy that the girl he likes does not want to be his girlfriend.

Then we get to Chapter 21, in which Julian talks to Beth about all this. Eventually, their conversation gets to this point.

Beth’s next question stops me cold. “What do you think about sex? In a general sense.”

“What? Seriously?” I stare at her. She doesn’t take the question back or even try to clarify it. She just sits there. Waiting. “It’s … I don’t know. A biological and evolutionary imperative.”

As Beth’s smile grows, the expression hovers between amused and sympathetic. “Have you ever heard the term asexual?”

“Like a worm? Or an amoeba?”

Her laugh echoes through the room. “No, not like an amoeba. Keep in mind this is another one of those ‘everyone-is-different’ things, but on the scale of human sexuality, asexuality can mean that you’re not sexually attracted to anyone. Girls, boys, trans, genderfluid – no matter what form humans take, you have no desire to have sex with them.”

“That’s …” My mouth is dry. It feels like my heart has stopped. I have to swallow a couple of times before I can create words. “That’s a thing? People do that?”

“Yeah. It’s a small portion of the population – like one percent or something, maybe less – but if that’s how you feel, you’re definitely not the only one.”

“But …” The word spins through my head as I look back at my life. I figured I never wanted to sleep with anyone because I poured all my focus into staying financially steady. I thought I pushed it aside by choice. But looking back on the last few years, when all the guys I knew were suddenly obsessed with finding someone (anyone, really) willing to sleep with them … I never had to push that hard. It never felt like I was sacrificing anything.

So we have both the ace explanation and the allo-savior complex on display here. And I also notice the way it constructs ‘trans’ as being separate from ‘girls’ and ‘boys’, implying that ‘trans’ is a gender separate from ‘female’ and ‘male’ (I know some trans people get unhappy when they have to choose between marking, say ‘female’ ‘male’ and ‘trans’ on questionnaires because they are both ‘female’ AND ‘trans’ or both ‘male’ AND ‘trans’).

The scene keeps going on in that vein, with Beth pouring out more ace explanation. How does a non-ace like her happen to be so informed about ace stuff? Julian asks that very question…

I take another breath, this one shakier than I want it to be. “How do you know all this?”

Beth relaxes, the slight shift of her shoulders an additional ease to her posture suddenly cluing me in to the nervousness I somehow missed. “I had a friend growing up who identified as demisexual and talking to her about that got me interested in human sexuality in general. I started doing a lot of reading on my own.”

Not much happens with Julian’s asexuality in the story after this point.

What this written by an ace?

Yes, Erica Cameron is asexual. In fact, she figured out she was asexual while she was during research for this novel.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

No *sigh*. Erica Cameron is not a bad writer, but the novels she writes do not seem to agree with my reading tastes. I think this will be the last Erica Cameron book I’ll ever read.