Review: Labyrinth by Alex Beecroft

The cover of "Labyrinth" by Alex Beecroft

What is this novella about?

Kikeru is the offspring of a priestess. If Kikeru is a man, then he may lead a secular life and marry a woman and have babies. If Kikeru is a woman, then she will become a sacred temple maiden and forbidden to marry.

The problem is that, first, Kikeru feels sexually/romantically attracted to men, not women. If he is a man, then he can only marry women, not men. If she is a woman, then she will have to live in celibacy forever. Either way, Kikeru will be unable to marry a man. Second, Kikeru does not feel like a man or a woman, but if she/he is not a man or a woman, then what is she/he?

This is made all the more complicated by the fact that a) Kikeru overhears some Achaeans talking about invading Crete, and then assault him and b) Kikeru is rescued from the mean Achaeans by Rusa, a man who Kikeru finds extremely attractive.

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

There is a sex scene of the ‘fade-to-black’ variety, as well as various references to sexual activities. As far as violence … well, there is attempted sexual assault, kidnapping, the possibility of war breaking out between the Minoans and the Achaeans, and … a bit more than that, but I think that’s enough to paint a picture.

Tell me more about this novella.

Clearly, Kikeru’s gender is nonbinary (well, it’s clear to the reader, it’s not clear to the characters). The novella switches between using he/his/him and she/her pronouns to refer to Kikeru. Since this review is much shorter than a novella, I think switching pronouns for Kikeru would be confusing, so whenever I refer to Kikeru, I use ‘she/he’ and ‘his/her’.

The part of the story revolving around Kikeru’s gender identity and Kikeru trying to find a gender role that she/he is comfortable with was by far the most interesting part of this novella. In fact, it was the only thing I found interesting about this novella. The Achaeans are really two-dimensional villains, which is a minus, but I can roll with 2-dimensional villains if there is exciting action/suspense/adventure … except there isn’t any compelling action/suspense/adventure plot either (I would not say that part of the story is bad, simply … uninteresting). The romance between Kikeru and Rusa seemed really flimsy, and thus uninteresting, to me.

I think I would have enjoyed this novel more if a) it focused just on Kikeru’s gender identity struggles, going into them in more depth or b) if it were expanded to a full novel, so that other parts of the story could be more fully developed. Granted, there is no guarantee that the other parts of the story would have been any more interesting if they had been more fully developed, but I think it’s at least possible that greater length could have given the plot space to become compelling.

Didn’t Lois McMaster Bujold also write a novella called “Labyrinth” which has a nonbinary-gender character?

Yes.

Asexuality?

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

This is the only passage where asexuality comes up in the story:

Jadikira shrugged, then oddly she seemed to turn to Maja for reassurance. “I don’t know what the appeal is, to be honest. All these stories about young women throwing away their lives to marry some young man? What’s that about?”

Maja shifted on her cushion, smoothed down her skirts, and looked troubled. “To tell the truth, I don’t know either. Like you, I never felt the urge.”

“Don’t get me wrong.” His daughter beamed at the older woman, as if she’d found a soul mate. Probably the first person she had met ever to agree with her nonsense. “Lust, I can understand. That’s how I got the bump. But her father could be any one of three men, and I don’t want to be hitched permanently to any of them.”

“There you’re ahead of me, then.” Maja tweaked her apron, and smiled at the deck planking. “Lust is not something I understand either—not for anyone. My child, I conceived at a ceremony like the one we just attended. I don’t remember much about it. Her father was a luminous creature. A god. That’s how I knew she was destined to be extraordinary. But not even that made me wish for a lover or a husband. For a long time, none of it troubled me at all. I had more interesting things to do.”

So apparently Kikeru’s mother, Maja, is asexual. I think this might be the first work of asexual fiction I’ve read in which the ace character is a parent.

Is Jadikira aromantic? Well, I don’t know what the writer’s intent is, but I would not conclude based on this passage alone that Jadikira is aromantic. There are people out there who fall in love and get thick into romance without wanting marriage or being ‘hitched permanently’ to anyone.

Was this written by an asexual?

Yes, Alex Beecroft is asexual. And a parent. Which might be why this story has an ace character who is also a parent.

Hey Sara, do you like this novella?

No, I don’t.

One may buy “Labyrinth” at the Riptide Publishing Store and various eBook retailers.

Review – Assassins: Discord by Erica Cameron

The cover of Assassins: Discord by Erica Cameron

What is this novel about?

Kindra, 16, belongs to a family of assassins, has been working as an assassin since she was ten, and it’s the only way of life she has ever known. She does not let her emotions interfere with her work because they do no good, she does not know why she is killing the people she kills because she does not need to know, and she does not even consider leaving her family because if she left, they would pursue her, and she’d rather keep working with her than be on the run for the rest of her (potentially short) life.

Then there is a mission where shit hits the fan tornado. Kindra is faced with dilemmas she has never had to deal with before.

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

There are no sex scenes, though there is (sexual) kissing, and references to sexual activity (including underage sexual activity). As far as violence … ummmm, it’s a novel about assassins. Of course there is violence. And the descriptions are sometimes gory. And there is a massacre of schoolchildren.

Tell me more about this novel.

It is part of Riptide Publishing’s YA line, Triton Books.

I had suspension of disbelief problems with this novel. Maybe it’s because I don’t know much about real-world hitpeople, and maybe this is more accurate that I think it is. However, I had trouble buying Kindra’s family – not that they are evil, since there is tons of evidence that some families are that evil – but that they could train Kindra to be such an effective assassin while abusing her the way they did. But maybe I am just naïve and ignorant.

The novel feels a bit like Legend by Marie Lu, a novel I really did not like. Though at least the romance in this novel is not nearly as ridiculously eyeroll-inducing as the romance in Legend, so that is a distinct improvement. In fact, I don’t think the romance plotline in this novel induced any eyerolls for me.

I don’t know what else to say, really. Yes, Kindra has a character growth arc as she learns just how abusive her family is and that she really can get away from it, and yes, her love interest is one of the principle people pulling her away from her evil family. It’s an action-thriller set in the contemporary United States (mostly New York City, Jacksonville, FL, and point in between).

Asexuality?

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

Quite a few of the characters in this novel are assassins, and one of them is asexual. Since revealing which of the assassins is asexual would be a major spoiler, I will simply refer to this character as ‘Asexual Assassin’.

We find out that this character is asexual in this scene (which I have edited for clarity and to remove spoilers):

“What? She’s not your type?” Kindra shot back. “Or maybe Mr. Rose Tattoo is more your speed?”

“Neither of them. Not even a little.”

“No?” She made herself leer. “I liked Rose Tattoo. I’d do him.”

“You’d do anyone.”

Her nose wrinkled. “Not anyone.” Not if she was the one picking her partners. “I’m bi, not a nympho.” Then the conversation really registered. “And how the hell would you know what my type is, anyway? [sentence removed because of spoiler].”

[They] shrugged, refused to meet her eyes, and then avoided the question entirely. “You were lucky. You know how hard it is to fake your way through that shit every time?” [Asexual Assassin] shuddered. “Hated it when [character] made me do that.”

Kindra blinked, a little more of her anger fading as memories realigned in her head. The briefings when [Asexual Assassin’s] eyes would go distant and empty, or the early mornings when [they would] take a shower that lasted over an hour. She’d never considered that the seductions [done for assassin work] were what had caused that bleak discomfort in [Asexual Assassin].

“Was it the guys or the girls?” Kindra wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer. If [Asexual Assassin] had hated it that much, then . . .

“Neither was all that great, but it was a little easier with some—a very few—of the girls.” [Asexual Assassin] still wouldn’t look at her. “Even then . . . Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Even if I’d told [character] when I realized I was asexual, it wouldn’t have changed anything.”

We learn that Kindra has been doing seductions for work purposes since she was twelve, but that she actually did not mind that aspect of assassin work much, and it does not seem to have traumatized her in any way.

There is another ace character in the novel, Blake. There is no hint that Blake is ace in this novel, but supposedly in the sequel it is revealed that Blake is greysexual.

I could say another thing or two about how asexuality is presented in this novel, but then I would be way into spoiler territory.

Was this written by an asexual?

Yes, Erica Cameron is asexual.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

Hmmmm … it’s not really my kind of thing. I can’t quite put my finger on why, though I think it is in ‘not my cup of tea’ territory, not ‘this is badly written’ territory. So no, I don’t like it. I’m undecided about whether or not I’ll read the sequel. I would really like to read a novel with an intersex/agender/gray-a protagonist, but I would rather not read another novel like this one.

This novel may be purchased from the Riptide Publishing Store and various book retailers.

From Indians to Blood Quanta to Asexuality

One of the many asexual fiction stories I’ve been reading and reviewing recently included this section:

“Yes,” [character] replied. “Shape shifters are beings that are mostly human. The only thing different is that they can change into any animal at will.”

“Like in the legends of the Sioux?”

[Character] sighed, almost wistfully. “I miss the Native Americans.”

[Note: these fictional characters have been alive for centuries.]

My reaction was “Why would this character ‘miss the Native Americans’? This story is set in the contemporary United States, and ‘Native Americans’ are still around.” I considered commenting on this in the review I wrote of this story, and looked up a reference from an American Indian source to back me up. The first reference I found was “‘Real’ Indians, the Vanishing Native Myth, and the Blood Quantum Question”.

I ultimately decided not to comment on this in the review, and I am not stating which story this passage came from because I do not want to single out this specific work of fiction. I am only pulling out this quote to describe why I started thinking about asexuality and American Indians. I’m going to discuss blood quanta for a while before I get back to talking about American Indians and then asexuality, but I assure you, this blog post WILL return to the topic of asexuality.

‘Blood Quanta’ Is a Culturally Specific Concept

I use the term ‘blood quanta’ to mean any system where people’s identities are measured in fractions based on their ancestry. For example, the wizarding world in the Harry Potter stories embraces a blood quanta system where they distinguish ‘halfbloods’ from those with exclusively wizard/witch ancestry and those with exclusively muggle ancestry.

American culture does not embrace blood quanta in quite as straightforward a manner as the wizarding world of Harry Potter, but it is still very prevalent. For example, it’s not unusual for someone to say something like ‘I’m half black [African-American] and half Japanese’ or ‘I’m half German American and half Scots-Irish’. This is not necessarily bad. In particular, I have no problem with people using blood quanta to define their own identities.

Now, when someone asks me ‘are you Jewish’ I simply answer ‘yes’. That is because I understand the question from a Jewish point of view, and Jewish culture does not recognize blood quanta (well, considering the complex variations of Jewish culture out there, there are probably exceptions, but they are just that – exceptions). There are many ways to define who is and is not a Jew – and by some definitions out there, I am not Jewish. However, all Jewish definitions of what makes someone a Jew that I know of boil down to ‘yes/no’. According to Jewish culture, there is no such thing as someone who is ‘half’ Jewish.

The most widely used criteria to determine who is and is not a Jew are those used by Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews, which can be briefly described thus: anyone whose mother is Jewish is a Jew, and people who were born to non-Jewish mothers are only Jews if they have properly converted to Judaism.

My mother is Jewish, therefore, by these criteria, I am also Jewish (note this has nothing to do with what I believe or whether I observe halakhah). The fact that my father is not Jewish is irrelevant, in fact, my Jewish relatives generally forget that my father is not Jewish because it’s not particularly important to them. Since this is how I have been taught to think about Jewish identity, I do not think about my Jewish identity in terms of blood quanta.

It’s also worth pointing out that my mother is an immigrant, and many of my Jewish relatives are not American and often do not view things through the lens of American culture.

In any case, Jewish culture is not unique in its non-recognition of blood quanta. Taiwan is a multi-ethnic society where nearly none of the ethnic groups recognize blood quanta. In Taiwan, questions such as ‘do you belong to ethnic group X’ tend to have a yes/no answer, just as in Jewish culture. This is in spite of the fact that inter-ethnic marriage has been common in Taiwan for centuries, with the result that most Taiwanese people can trace ancestry to multiple ethnic groups.

The main reason I went on this detour is to emphasize that blood quanta is a cultural construct, and that not all cultures think in blood quanta terms.

So, the Indians

To quote the article I linked to at the top of this blog post:

For you non-Native readers, keep this in mind. Native people rarely ask each other about their blood degree because they know that being Native is not about an abstract mathematical equation that parses out their identity into measurable fractions.

Now, I am finally getting to the part of the article I really want to discuss, which I am going to quote right now:

Blood quantum is perhaps the biggest determinant of Indian authenticity, but even those who are full blood can be deemed not real based on some stereotypes or legal definitions of what real Indians are. All Indians are subject to being judged for their authenticity, and even despite high blood quantum or enrolled status they can be deemed inauthentic simply by virtue of the fact that they live in the modern world.

Because after all, the real Indians were the ones who dressed in buckskins and hunted buffalo and deer for their living, and didn’t speak English. And they’ve been gone a long time.

Non-natives, whether they know it or not, are conditioned to determine the authenticity of Native people whenever they encounter them, especially those that live in places where Indians are highly invisible, like large cities or in states with low Native populations. Because they have been indoctrinated with the idea of the vanishing Native their whole lives, the assumption that there is no such thing as real Natives anymore is like a software program constantly running in the background. So when they meet someone who claims to be Native, the unconscious impulse is to automatically determine the truth of the claim.

The only comment I have to add to this is that, even though this is an excerpt from a book published in 2016, none of the ideas in this article are original or new. Ten or so years ago I’ve saw books by American Indians which were basically saying the same thing, and I suspect those books were mostly repeating things that American Indians have been saying for a really long time.

The Assumption Is That Such People Do Not Exist, and That Anyone Who Says They Are Such People Is Wrong, and Must Be Proven to Be Wrong

First of all, a disclaimer: I do NOT intend to say that aces, as a class of people, suffer more or face more institutional hostility than American Indians. Not even close. If you think I am saying that the oppression of aces is equivalent to the oppression of Indians, then you are misinterpreting me. Indians, as a class of people, have to deal with much more pervasive and harmful institutional oppression than aces.

As Dina Gilio-Whitaker says, non-natives are taught to think that all of the ‘real’ Indians are gone, so when they encounter an (American) Indian, their impulse to try to prove that that person is not a ‘real’ Indian rather than, say, realize that Indians are still around. The article clearly explains how non-natives have been programmed to think this way because denying the existence of Indians makes it easier to exploit them and drive them out of their homes to exploit the resources there (I do not think most people do this consciously, rather, this is why the myth became embedded in American culture). The Dakota Access Pipeline is a recent example of exploitation that has gotten a lot of media attention, but there are other actions liked that going on right now (another example is the proposal to flood the home of the Wintu people in Northern California).

Another form of exploitation which the ‘vanishing natives’ myth helps enable is that of criminals who want to assault Indians. The U.S. legal system is set up in such a way that (cw for link: sexual violence) a non-Indian who goes to an Indian reservation and commits felonies on Indian victims is immune from prosecution. This has led to the result that non-Indians who want to commit violent felonies has swarmed Indian reservations so they can do so without fear of law enforcement. One can also read more about this in the book Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey through Reservation Life by David Treuer (incidently, David Treuer is an example of Not Recognizing Blood Quanta – his father is Jewish, his mother is Ojibwe, and if IIRC, he simply identifies as Ojibwe, not as Jewish or half-Jewish/half-Ojibwe).

The article I linked is a bit dated – a law went into effect in 2015 which allows for the prosecution of domestic violence committed by non-Indians upon Indian spouses/partners – but the legal situation of non-Indians who commit felonies upon Indians who are not their spouses/partners is the same today as when the article was written. Though I can’t prove this, I strongly suspect that this legal situation would have been changed a long time ago if the ‘vanishing natives’ myth were not so widespread. Most people can readily understand the injustice of making a criminal immune to prosecution just because they are a non-Indian whose victim is Indian (though some members of Congress seem to have trouble understanding this), but because so many people believe that the real Indians are gone, they has been little motivation to change the system – why bother protecting people who ‘no longer exist’.

Anyway, Bringing This Back to Asexuality

The problems caused by invalidating ace identities have not been nearly as severe as the problems caused by denying Indian identities, the comparison still leaps at me.

The process by which people question Indians until they can prove that they are not ‘real’ Indians seems like the process by which people question aces until they can prove that they are not ‘ace’. If an Indian is not a ‘full-blood’, then they aren’t a real Indian, and if they are a ‘full-blood’, then they aren’t a real Indian because they speak English, etc. Likewise, an asexual is not really asexual if they have had sex, or if they have never had sex, they are not really asexual because they masturbate, and if they do not masturbate then they are not really asexual because they are mentally ill, and so fort. One can read more of this at the carnival about the ‘Unassailable Asexual’.

Why so many people have the idea that people cannot be asexual, and that anyone who claims to be asexual must be assailed until they admit that they aren’t really asexual, is more of a mystery to me than why people believe in the ‘vanishing natives’ myth. I’ve encountered hypotheses – such as the hypothesis that non-asexual people take comfort in the idea that everyone deals with the same sexual urges they do, and the existence of asexual people takes this comfort away from them – but I do not know if these hypotheses are the best explanation.

Does it matter why so many people are programmed to assail asexuality? In a sense, I think the answer is no, it does not matter. But to the extent that understanding why people assail asexuality can improve efforts to stop people from assailing asexuals, such understanding is useful.

Just as people dismiss problems Indians have by claiming that Indians do not ‘really’ exist anymore, people also dismiss problems aces have by claiming that asexuality is not really a thing, or even if they acknowledge that it is a thing, they claim that the problems are not related to asexuality. For example, some people claim that asexuality should not be included in anti-sexual-orientation-discrimination because we are not discriminated against. Well, first of all, some aces have experienced discrimination in the workplace and other places because they are asexual, and second, such laws also often explicitly protect heterosexuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation. If heterosexuals can get legal protection, why not asexuals?

Obviously, there are vast differences between the issues Indians deal with and the issues asexuals deal with, but the similarities are educational. And I would not have made the connection if I had not run into that quote from an asexual fiction novel and thought about how to explain my reaction to that quote in a review.

Review: Blank Spaces by Cass Lennox

The cover of Blank Spaces by Cass Lennox

This is one of the stories I’m reviewing for Asexual Fiction from Riptide Publishing Month.

What is this story about?

Works of art get stolen, leaving BLANK SPACES on the wall of an art gallery.

The End.

Okay, not really.

Absence is as crucial as presence. The absence of these stolen works of art is turning out to be crucial to the (dys)functioning of the art gallery where Vaughn works. They have insurance, but since it’s the third time art has been stolen from this gallery in a year, the insurance company sends Jonah to investigate. And when Vaughn’s friend takes him to a gay bar later, it is sheer freaking coincidence that Jonah also happens to be there, having sex with two guys at once.

Vaughn lives off his family’s wealth, came from a stable loving family (though they are sometimes too nosy about his personal life), loves art, has mild manners, and doesn’t like sex. Jonah thinks art is boring, is abrasive, was abandoned by his mother when he was five years old, lives from paycheck to paycheck, and likes to forget his problems by have lots of sex with strangers. Obviously, they are a perfect match … for entertaining readers.

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

There are many references to Jonah’s promiscuous lifestyle, but generally the descriptions of his sexual escapades are very brief. There is a non-penetrative sex scene which is described in some detail. There are brief references to the physical abuse Jonah experienced as a child, and at some points in the story there are threats of physical violence. Oh, and there is a scene where someone shoves someone into a closet and forcefully kisses that person (though the person being kissed loves it).

Tell me more about this novel

Based on my story summary, Jonah could seem like a creep. I’m relieved to say that he’s not. He’s flawed, and he sometimes fails social relations, but he does understand basic human decency, and when he messes up, he does apologize and try to make up for it.

Anyway, I would like to share this short excerpt from a scene where Vaughn is trying to get Jonah to appreciate abstract art:

“And what about the rest of it?” Jonah gestured to the creamy expanse below the mess. “There’s nothing.”

“Absence is as important as presence, in art.” He paused. “In most things, actually.”

What the shit did that mean? “In English?”

“The artist could have painted this in. But she didn’t. She left it bare for a reason.” He pointed up. “Why is it busy up there, but not down here? The lack of something here is meaningful. It contrasts the mess up there, and the mess contrasts how bare it is down here. The two define each other, and the absence therefore takes on its own significance. It could be colourful, but it isn’t, and we have to think about it.”

And a little later in the same scene:

“Look at this. What the fuck even is this? It’s like this one line of interesting shit and a whole lot of uninteresting shit. And the interesting stuff is right at the top. It’s distracting. If I was going to make something people wanted to look at, I’d fill the whole canvas up with that part.”

“Imagine what that would look like.”

Jonah could. The whole canvas would be covered with the bright colours and slashes and it would look— “Crazy,” he realized. “Even more of a mess. Like too much to look at.” He frowned. “Wait, is that a thing? Limit the crazy so it’s a pretty mess instead of a huge one?”

“That is indeed a thing.”

“So, mess is nice but in small doses?” Jonah gazed at the cream colour. It was so . . . so . . . “It’s bearable when everything else is quiet,” he said slowly. “It’s easier to enjoy when the rest of it is calm.”

Why did I choose to highlight this scene rather than other scenes? Because the novel is called BLANK SPACES. And these excerpts explain the benefits of BLANK SPACES in art. This is obviously tied to the overall metaphor of the story.

One of the ways the ‘blank space’ metaphor is built into the story is Jonah’s personal life. He has an extremely active sex life (creating ‘busyness’) partially to compensate for the ‘blank spaces’ in his personal life (such as the lack of reliable parental figures). That’s not to say that he is in constant angst mode over his childhood – he mostly prefers not to dwell on it. But, errr, during the course of the story, he hears news of his mother for the first time in almost twenty years, which forces him to deal with emotions drama.

I felt that the whodunit of the stolen art pieces was too obvious for that storyline to be fully satisfying, but who are we kidding? This is a romance novel, and the stolen-art plotline is mainly a device to get Vaughn and Jonah to meet under plotty circumstances.

So, Asexuality

On the asexuality content scale (1 = minimal asexual content, 10 = maximum asexual content) I rate this story as a 6.

Yet another way the ‘Blank Spaces’ metaphor shows up in this story is as the absence of sexual attraction and sexual desire, specifically with regards to Vaughn.

Vaughn’s had sex, didn’t care for it, so he stopped having sex. Since he assumes a boyfriend-style relationship isn’t possible without sex, he tells Jonah that he isn’t into ‘relationships’. Jonah also is not into ‘relationships’ because he prefers to have sex without commitments, so he mistakenly thinks that Vaughn is into casual sex, just like himself. Cue comedic misunderstandings (and yes, there are quite a few bits in this novel which made my laugh out loud).

Vaughn’s known for years that he is ‘different’ from other gay men, but did not really know how to describe it until, during a toga party, he overhears a discussion of queer politics:

“Oh, shut up. We’re talking about asexuals, not gay guys.” She scowled at him. “Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you can define what queer is.”

“Just because you’re queer doesn’t mean you can tell me where my identity fits in the entirety of the LGBTQ umbrella or that my opinion is invalid,” he responded. “And if we’re talking about asexuals, I don’t think they should be included at all.”

“Oh really?”

“Abstinence doesn’t mean shit to anyone except right-wing loons in the US.”

She grinned in triumph. “Asexuality isn’t abstinence.”

“Sure as fuck looks like it.”

“Abstinence is behaviour, which isn’t what asexuality is about,” the girl continued. “It’s about the direction and manifestation of your sexuality. Gay guys are attracted to men, right? And you have a libido, ergo, you want to sleep with men. But what if you got drunk and slept with a woman? Are you still gay?”

“Yes.” He scrunched up his face. “No. I think it depends.” He shook his head as if to clear it. “You got a point?”

I like this twist on the ‘ace explanation’. It gets the key points across for the readers who really don’t know about asexuality as a sexual orientation, yet because it’s mixed into a political discussion, it’s also offers something to readers who are more interested in 201 level discussions of asexuality.

I do not want to get into too much detail about how Vaughn and Jonah react to this discussion of asexuality because that would be spoilerful, but as a member of the asexual blogging community, I have to quote this section:

On a whim, he’d typed asexuality into the search box, which, like most whims related to the Tumblr search engine, proved an excellent idea. Soon he’d followed about a dozen new blogs with names like queenieofaces and gaybeard-the-great, some of which even seemed to be based in Canada. Promising.

Yes, an asexual blogger I follow (Queenie) is specifically mentioned in this novel. Gaybeard-the-great, on the other hand, is a character in Finding Your Feet, another novel by Cass Lennox which I will be reviewing this month.

Was this written by an asexual?

Yes, Cass Lennox is asexual.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

Hell yes! Ever since I started doing these reviews of asexual fiction in October (and no, I had no idea that it would turn into this big of a thing – honestly, back in October, I just thought I would read about 10 asexual novels/novellas and be done with it) I have read over 30 asexual novels/novellas/short stories, and this is one of my top favorites.

Blank Spaces may be purchased at the Riptide Publishing Store or at various book retailers. One may also get it from most public libraries in California via Link+.

Asexual Fiction from Riptide Publishing Month

So, on this blog, the madness started when I got the “brilliant” idea of reading a ton of asexual fiction novel(la)s from Less Than Three Press for Asexual Awareness Week, and then I dedicated a month to Harmony Ink Press, and then I dedicated a month to Dreamspinner Press, and finally I dedicated last month to the self-publishing platform Smashwords. Unsurprisingly, I am going to dedicate this month to Riptide Publishing, the last LGBTQ+ publisher which has put out a significant amount of ace fiction (there are other LGBTQ+ publishers which have put out at least one work of ace fiction, but AFAIK, only Less Than Three, Harmony Ink / Dreamspinner, and Riptide have published more than two ace titles).

These are the titles I intend to review:

Blank Spaces by Cass Lennox
Assassins: Discord by Erica Cameron
“Labyrinth” by Alex Beecroft
All the Wrong Places by Ann Gallagher
“Making Love” by Aidan Wayne
Far From Home by Lorelie Brown
Finding Your Feet by Cass Lennox

Admit it Sara, you’ve turned this into an ace review blog.

No, I will not admit it! If readers start viewing this as primarily a review blog, I am going to quit. If I start getting offers of advanced reader copies or free review copies, I am going to quit (note: I have no objection to reviewers who accept free review copies, I just don’t want to go there myself).

Furthermore, I think next month (March) will probably be the last month when I do a formal ‘Ace Fiction from X’ month deal. I think the theme for March will be “Previously Ignored Publishers” – either works of ace fiction from small publishers who I have ignored until now, or works of ace fiction from mainstream publishers, which I have also ignored until now.

And you all can help me by giving me recommendations. What are the great works, or the less-than-great works, or even the terrible yet interesting works of ace fiction you have read, that you want me to review in March?

Does that mean you will never ever again review any ace fiction after March?

No it does not. What it means is that I will probably only review ace fiction on an irregular basis, rather than doing the whole ‘Month of Ace Fiction from Blah Blah’ shebang.

But you’ll probably write more rants about ace fiction.

Well, yes. One of the reason I’m reading all this ace fiction is so that I get a good idea of what’s out there. Now that I have a much better idea of what’s out there, I have a lot more to rant about.

As always, I am curious about what the works of ace fiction from the publisher du mois, in this case, Riptide Publishing.

Review: Interface by Lucy Mihajlich

The book cover of Interface by Luch Mihajlich

This is the last work of fiction I’m reviewing for my asexual fiction from Smashwords month.

What is this story about?

The year is 2048, and the company Interface – which is essentially Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon combined – has a monopoly on all computers and electronics based on computer technology, and also basically owns the economy of the United States. Oh, and Interface is also a religion, much more popular than Christianity in the year 2048. Interface is run by a man known as ‘the Father’.

Pen Nowen is the younger daughter of Interface’s founder, who died seven years earlier. Her older sister is a popular model, and the Nowen family lives a life of luxury. Thus, Pen is not too surprised when she is kidnapped, since it’s happened before, and the cost of ransoms are basically pocket change for the Nowen family. But her kidnappers don’t want money. Instead, they want a recording of her dead father’s voice, because aside from the voice of the Father, it is the only other voice which can be used to hack into Interface company headquarters.

This is the beginning of how Pen ends up going on a road trip with her kidnappers from Portland, Oregon to New York City.

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

The sexual content is limited to jokes about how autocorrect mistakenly change’s Pen’s name to ‘penis’ and porn on the internet.

As far as violence, there is the video of Pen’s father committing suicide, as well as attempted assassinations (revealing whether the assassination attempts lead to deaths would be spoilerful, so I will merely note that there may or may not be murder in this story).

Tell me more about this story.

Even though it’s set in the year 2048, it’s really a book grounded in this decade (the 2010s) which takes current trends to absurd extremes. Which I think is the writer’s intent. For example, franchises such as Survior and Star Wars, are still popular, with Survivor: New Jersey and Star Wars Episode XXXVII: The Return of Jar Jar (though, considering the long-lived popularity of pop culture icons such as Sherlock Holmes, this is not unrealistic).

However, aside from the pop-culture references, it delves into themes which are very relevant right now – such as monopolization/power concentration among technology corporations – by taking the current situation and making it even more so.

And we see this world through the perspective of a teenager daughter from an elite family who has a penchant for sarcasm.

Here is a sample of the style:

Lui’s voice was more familiar to me than my sister’s. It was more familiar to me than my own, and I talked a lot. He was the voice of elevators, iTeachers, school interComs, robot guidance counselors, robot cops, robotic guns, semi-robotic guns, robot cars, robot cabs, robot buses, robot airplanes, robot skycaps, robot charging station attendants, robot bathroom attendants, robot shrinks, robot surgeons, robot orthodontists, robot nurses, robot nannies, domestic robots, iSuck robot vacuums, iSquirt robot mops, salesrobots, robot waiters, robot concierges, robot bartenders, robot baristas, Starbucks drive-thrus, McDonald’s drive-thrus, McMansions, high-end hotels, transit systems, airplanes, alarm clocks, crosswalks, and Furbies.

Most of the time, Lui was the one taking directions, but he gave them often enough. Reminders, calendar notifications, alarms. Actual directions, when it came to GIPs. He told us to turn right now, to turn off our phones in the movie theater, to drink the Chianti with dinner. We were used to obeying that voice.

I admit the transition between the more satirical parts of the novel and the more serious parts of the novel seemed a bit … jerky. I also admit that I do not entirely understand why Pen goes along with the kidnappers even though she could get away. I mean, according to the blurb, she does it so she can learn about the truth about her father’s death but somehow … I did not feel that motivation, even though the motivation is stated.

As an action-adventure story, well, it’s nothing to write home about. If a reader wants action and adventure, there are novels which deliver much more satisfying results on that front. However, the action-adventure plot does work as a frame to hang the satirical parts of this novel.

Asexuality?

On the asexual content scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content) this novel gets a … zero.

This is just the first book in a series, and Lucy Mihajlich has said that the protagonist will realize that she is asexual in the third book. Fair enough. I admit that I was hoping that there would be serious hints of her asexuality even in this first book. That said, I think it’s fine that a series featuring an asexual protagonist is NOT beating the readers over the head with it from the very beginning.

One could argue even this book has asexual/aromantic representation by absence, in that the female protagonist never displays any sexual or romantic interest in anybody, which it unusual in YA (especially for female characters). I do not consider this or word of ace alone enough to earn any points on the asexuality content scale (hence the zero), but it is definitely more ace-reader (and aro-reader) friendly than, well, a lot of other fiction.

Was this written by an asexual?
Yes, Lucy Mihajlich is asexual.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

You know, when I wrote the first draft of this review, I said ‘no, I don’t like this novel, it’s not my cup of tea’. But in the process of writing and revising this review and thinking more about the novel, I changed my mind. I think I do like it after all.

“A Life of Fighting Is But a Dream” – Taking a Tour through Sinophone Pop Culture with “Dao​ Jian Ru Meng​”

There is a very popular Mandarin pop song called “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​”, and I am going to use it as a theme for a little tour of Sinophone Pop Culture (why ‘Sinophone’ rather than ‘Chinese’? Because China is not the only place where Chinese is spoken, and some of the artists who are mentioned in this very post are not from China).

What does “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” mean? I’ve encountered the following English translations of the title:

“Sword Like a Dream”
“Dream of Swords and Blades”
“A Life of Fighting Is But a Dream”
“Sabers and Swords Are Like a Dream”

The most ‘accurate’ translation is “Sabers and Swords Are Like a Dream”, but I prefer the translation “A Life of Fighting Is But a Dream” because I feel it’s closest to the spirit of the song and the story which inspired this song.

So, for those of you who have never heard the song, or who just want to hear it again, here is Wakin Chau’s original music video. Wakin Chau both wrote the song and was the first singer to record it. (If you don’t understand Mandarin, don’t worry, I will later link to videos with English translations).

This song was originally one of the theme songs of the 1993 TV adaptation of The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber (HSDS).

A dying woman holds her 9-year-old son in the 1993 adaptation of The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber. Even though I haven't seen any of the TV adaptations, when I see clips, I can often identify which scenes are being shown just from my recollection of the original novel.

A dying woman holds her 9-year-old son in the 1993 adaptation of The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber. Even though I haven’t seen any of the TV adaptations, when I see clips, I can often identify which scenes are being shown just from my recollection of the original novel.

I have not seen more than twenty minutes of any TV adaptation of HSDS, but I have read the original novel. One of the most memorable scenes in the novel (actually, it is one of the most memorable scenes I have read in any work of fiction) is as follows (violent melodrama alert): many people hate and want to kill a certain man because he has killed their loved ones. Two of the very few people who know this hated man’s whereabouts are a husband and wife. However they refuse to reveal the hated man’s whereabouts because they consider him to be their sworn brother, and they are forced to commit suicide. Their nine-year old son watches this happen. Right after his mother plunges the dagger in herself, she tells him that must remember all the people present so that, when he is grown up and strong, he can avenge her and his father. The boy says no, he does not want revenge, revenge will not bring his father back, all he wants is for his father to come back to life (he does not quite understand yet that his mother is also dying). That scene illustrates one of the key themes of the novel – people get incredibly wrapped up in cycles of avenging the wrongs done to their loved ones, but in the big picture, what is the point of all that violence inspired by love and hate?

Why did I share those bits of plot from HSDS? Because I think that background helps the song make more sense. To see how this song goes with footage from the TV show, here is here is the song with footage from the TV show.

[aside/rant: if you look at the above music video, you’ll notice that female characters have a large presence in HSDS, which is typical of wuxia fiction. In fact, one of the reasons I am so fond of wuxia is that it the wide array of compelling female characters. Yes, there is plenty of sexism in wuxia – HSDS itself has some misogynist content – but even sexist wuxia male writers tend to have more female characters who have more interesting roles in the story than some female ‘feminist’ writers of speculative fiction in English, let alone male writers of speculative fiction in English.]

A picture of Dong Zhen

A picture of Dong Zhen

Recently, a lot of singers have been covering this song. One singer who has become well-known for performing this song is Dong Zhen. She mostly does singing for video game songs. She has built a fanbase by developing her public persona as being like the mysterious maidens one often finds in Chinese fiction. I’ve read that the ‘mysterious maiden’ stock character has been around in Chinese fiction since the Tang Dynasty (over a thousand years ago), but I know little of Chinese literature which is more than a hundred years old. I can say that the mysterious maiden continues to be a very popular stock character. She generally was raised in isolation from society (for example, Lian Nichang, one of the most famous examples of this archetype, was raised by wolves), is generally an amazing sword fighter or has some other fantastic skill, is gorgeous, and seems like someone from out of this world. Ironically, the only character in HSDS who fits the ‘mysterious maiden’ archetype, the Yellow Dress Maiden (she’s so mysterious that nobody knows her given name!), is just a minor character.

Anyway, here is Dong Zhen singing “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” (and yes, this version has an English translation).

A picture of Kris Wu promoting the game 'World of Sword'

A picture of Kris Wu promoting the game ‘World of Sword’

In the past few years, Kris Wu has become one of the most popular celebrities in China. I admit that I have not seen any of his movies, but in terms of singing and looks … I don’t get it (China has way better singers – Dong Zhen for example – as well as actors who, IMO, are much more aesthetically/visually appealing than Kris Wu). Interestingly, even though Kris Wu is Chinese-Canadian, he first got into show business in South Korea, and started his rise to fame as a member of a popular K-pop band, EXO. And he definitely continues to have a strong K-Pop vibe … which might be why I don’t care for him. I don’t like K-Pop music, and no, it’s not because I don’t understand Korean, since I don’t like K-Pop even when it’s sung in a language I understand (English or Mandarin). I like Mandopop, Cantopop, and even J-Pop more than K-Pop.

In any case, Kris Wu recorded his own version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” to be the theme song for a mobile game called “World of Sword” (the lyrics are the same as Dong Zhen’s recording, it’s just a different English translation).

The Kris Wu version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” is my least favorite because … I feel that it misses the point of the song. To me it seems like ‘hey, I am a guy with a sword, cool!’ and yes, I admit that it is cool when he’s wearing that costume at the end of the music video and swinging that sword around, but the song is about something more.

Here is the Taiwanese band Last Day of Summer. It looks like the guy second from the left is holding the Heaven Sword, and the guy furthest to the right is holding the Dragon Saber.

Here is the Taiwanese band Last Day of Summer. It looks like the guy second from the left is holding the Heaven Sword, and the guy furthest to the right is holding the Dragon Saber.

Anyway, in addition to being the theme song for ‘World of Sword’, “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” is also the theme song for a new Taiwanese mobile game adapted from HSDS. Or, rather, the theme song is “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​ 2.0”. It’s performed by a Taiwanese band whose English name is The Last Day of Summer / 831. I know very little about this specific band, but the music video of their version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” feels Taiwanese too me. First of all, there are the traces of Japanese culture (the kimono the little boy is wearing, the tatami mats in the room) which are casually thrown into the video. Taiwan has been more heavily influenced by Japanese culture than any other place where Chinese is the dominant language, and the heavy Japanese influence is one of the things which distinguishes Taiwanese culture from other Chinese-speaking cultures. There is also something about the hairstyles and the way the singers dress … I can’t put my finger on it, but it feels Taiwanese to me. It’s certainly more the way Taiwanese ‘idols’ dress than the way Korean, or Japanese, or Chinese ‘idols’ would dress. The music video, of course, has footage from the mobile game. 831 also added some new lyrics/melodies to the song, which are about chaos and fighting one’s opponents with a little bit about love and hate, which makes sense for a mobile game which is combat-heavy.

[aside #2: I never thought about it before, but looking at the footage from the mobile game, I notice that none of the characters have any particular ethnic markings, even though they are all Chinese or Mongol. Yes, even the blond guy is ethnic Chinese according to the novel. Though the novel also says that his eyes were impaled by darts causing permanent blindness, whereas his eyes look just fine in the mobile game. By contrast, the the 1994 DOS game adapted from HSDS shows that the blond guy does not have functioning eyes. What was I saying? Oh yeah, you can tell that this game was made by Asians, in this case Taiwanese, because they don’t put ethnic markings on Chinese characters. It’s like what this blog post discusses.]

And now, for the final version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​”…

Riceboy Liu appearing in The Voice of China 4

Riceboy Liu appearing on The Voice of China 4

Riceboy Liu is a Los Angeles rapper who specializes in multilingual rap songs. I’m not into rap music, but I have a thing for polyglots, so I happen to like like some of his songs. He was also a contestant on Season 4 of The Voice of China.

I have never seen an entire episode of The Voice, just clips. That includes The Voice of China. As it so happens, Dong Zhen appeared in the first season of Voice of China, and sang “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” in the blind auditions, but none of the judges picked her for their team. The song came back in Season 4, when it was used for the battle round between Riceboy Liu and Queen T, which you can watch here.

Queen T won the battle and stayed on the show (she eventually was the runner-up in the entire competition), which isn’t surprising since she’s the better singer, but I feel that I enjoy this version of the song so much thanks to Riceboy Liu’s creative contribution. I never imagined that I would enjoy a hip-hop version of “Dāo​ Jiàn Rú​ Mèng​” but I really like this one.

Of all of the versions of this song I’ve heard, this is the one with the strongest American influence (which is what one would expect when one of the performers is American). It’s not just that it adds a bunch of English lyrics (which don’t have much to do with the original song, but at least it’s different) and that it’s done in hip hop style – Queen T sounds like she also has an R&B influence on her singing style. Now I’m wondering what it would sound like if Aretha Franklin sang this song.

Anyway, if you contrast the Riceboy Liu / Queen T version of this song with Dong Zhen’s version, you can tell that they represent two different trends in Sinophone pop culture. Dong Zhen represents the trend of drawing upon a distinctly Chinese cultural history, whereas Riceboy Liu / Queen T represent taking popular styles from somewhere outside of Asia and making it their own. Wakin Chau, the songwriter, embodies the fusion of both of these trends, since he both draws from traditional Chinese culture and absorbs lots of influences from outside of Asia (especially rock music). Of course, influences from non-Chinese parts of Asia are also significant, as evidenced by the Korean influence on Kris Wu and the Japanese influence on Last Day of Summer / 831.

So that’s the conclusion of this little tour through Sinophone pop culture centered around a single song. I don’t know who will read this, but I enjoyed putting this post together, and if you got this far, I hope you enjoyed reading it.