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.

Review: Kindred Spirits by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel

This is what the cover of my copy of Kindred Rites looks like.

This is yet another review for my Mystery Grab Bag Ace Fiction Month.

What is this novel about?

Alfreda Sorensson, who lives in the Michigan Territory in the early 19th century, has begun learning how to her her Gift (i.e. magic) from her cousin, Marta Helgisdottir Donaltsson. They come from a long line of ‘practitioners’ i.e. magic users – from Sweden. The descendants of European immigrants living on the frontier rely on magic to defend themselves from the hostile Indians, specifically the Miami and the Shawnee. Since Alfreda is entering puberty, she has attracted a poltergeist, which constantly annoys her.

However, there are worse things out there than an annoying poltergeist. In the Indiana territory, there are the Hudsons, a family of British sorcerers – that is, practitioners of evil magic – led by an immortal patriarch. They kidnap girls around the age of thirteen who possess the Gift to take as wives to steal their power and ensure that their children will also have strong Gifts. And Alfreda is exactly the type of girl they want to take.

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

There is no sex. The protagonist is going through puberty (she is thirteen), there are threats of sexual violence, there are vague allusions to sexual violence off-page, and there is an instance of non-consensual kissing. There is a graphic childbirth scene (which is not sexual or violent per se, but has a lot of pain, danger, and bodily fluids). There are also instances of on-page violence in the story (drugging, strangling, etc.), but nothing more gory than the childbirth scene.

Tell me more about this novel.

It’s the second book in the Night Calls series.

Have you read the first book?

No.

Why didn’t you start with the first book?

Because I don’t have a copy of the first book.

Why do you have a copy of the second book in the series but not the first book?

Because someone gave me a copy of the second book in the series, not the first book. And I recalled that it worked pretty well as a standalone, since I did not feel I missed much by starting with the second book.

‘Recalled’? Is this the book that you first read back in the 1990s?

Bingo! At the time I first read this, I was younger than the 13-year-old protagonist. In fact, I distinctly remember the protagonist being older than me, so this time around it was weird to read about this 13-year-old who I am used to thinking of as being ‘older’ than me.

Anyway, I decided to re-read this one not just because I conveniently still have a copy of it, but because I have a nostalgia for this one which I won’t have for the other books in the series.

So spill it! What is the novel like?

The novel can be split into two parts – the first part is mainly about Alfreda learning about the Wise Arts (i.e. magic) as well teaching her younger brothers about mundane survival skills. The second part is about Alfreda and the Hudsons. However, the two parts are connected – in the first part, we learn about Alfreda’s skills, and in the second part, we watch Alfreda put those skills to use.

I remember, when I read this as kid, I thought it was pretty cool that there was a fantasy story set on the American frontier. Now, as a more educated adult, I think I better appreciate some of the historical subtleties – for example, instead of following the current convention of white people be a monolithic group, it clearly presents different groups of European immigrants as being different (which is consistent with how people in the 19th century United States viewed race and ethnicity). Also, having read about MammothFail, I appreciate that not all white authors who choose to write fantasy on the American frontier include Indians in their worldbuilding. I am not giving Katharine Eliska Kimbriel a cookie for this, simply noting that others have done much worse than her in this regard.

I also found the dynamics of the Hudson family very interesting. Of course, they are creepy as heck – they kidnap, marry, and rape 13-year-old girls to sustain their power – but that leads to a complex set of relationships. Some of the Hudson women have attained a degree of power within the family, some of the kidnapped brides have found ways to resist their captivity, some of the young men are afraid that they will be preyed upon by their elders and respond by trying to dominate the young women OR forming alliances with the young women, and so forth. I like Felicity, a captured bride who seems mentally ill and is secretly using wild magic to protect herself, and it’s not clear whether she is able to use wild magic because she is really is mentally ill, or that she feigns mental illness to prevent the Hudsons from figuring out that she can use magic beyond their control.

And overall, I enjoyed re-reading it, just as I had enjoyed reading it the first time.

Asexuality?

This is a bit tricky … on the asexuality content rating scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I am rating this as a 1 * – yes, that is an asterisk.

The asterisk means that, in the absence of Word of Ace, I would think ‘hmmmm, I suppose it’s possible that Alfreda is on the ace-spectrum, she does seem more ace than most 13-year-old girls, but it’s not conclusive’. As it so happens, Word of Ace states that Alfreda is demisexual. This novel, in isolation, suggests asexuality more than demisexuality to me, but it’s the nature of demisexuality that it can look an awful lot like asexuality, especially at younger ages.

So, what are the things in the novel which makes me think “hmmm, maybe ace?” Mostly, it’s Alfreda’s relationship with her friend Idelia. Idelia is just a year older, yet she is already engaged, and is very enthusiastic about marrying this boy. Alfreda does not relate to the enthusiasm.

That was hard for me to understand, her longing for marriage. Yes, I could see wanting your own home, but I had so much still to learn, I couldn’t imagine getting married yet. Marriage was followed by babies, unless you used a decoction of Queen Anne’s lace to keep from getting pregnant. And a baby would slow my lessons.

A mistake about a man could be a nightmare for a practitioner. I was in no hurry – I didn’t want to make any mistake.

Of course, the reasoning in the above passage could also be used by a non-ace 13-year-old, but the subtlety I noticed is that Alfreda does not list having a mate in the ‘pro’ part of her thoughts on ‘pros and cons of marriage’.

There is a later scene, when two handsome young men are visiting. Alfreda’s reaction, after having her friend Idelia walk her through how to receive them, is:

I had no chance of learning this game. Could it ever matter to me more than my lessons?

Only a little while longer. I might have been the only girl in a week’s riding who was trying to get rid of two good-looking young men, but there you have it. The struggle not to say anything odd always tired me, and they’d stayed almost an hour.

In the scenes with the young men, Idelia and Marta seem to assume that Alfreda will enjoy the attention of the young men, whereas Alfreda mainly finds it really awkward. Furthermore, she finds the situation confusing, and needs Idelia to explain it. This to me is a sign of possible aceness.

In short, the most ace thing about this novel is that Alfreda and Idelia seem like a mild version of the Ace Foil trope.

Was this written by an asexual?

I don’t know.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

Yes! It’s not one of my favorites, but it was a pleasure to re-visit this tiny little corner of my childhood.