More Thoughts on Ace and Aro Representation in Clariel

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

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

Have you read Goldenhand?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*GROAN*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you going to re-read Abhorsen too?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what about the TRAGIC ENDING?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, Clariel subverts the premise of the stereotype.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I’m bracing myself for Goldenhand.

Review: Seven Way We Lie by Riley Redgate

The cover of Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate

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

What is this novel about?

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

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

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

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

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

Tell me more about this novel.

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

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

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

So, which of them was the ace character?

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

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

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

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

Ummm, this novel is not like that.

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

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

How about you let me get on with the review?

Fine, get on with it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s just typical.

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

Asexuality?

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

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

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

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

Then, in a later scene, there is this:

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

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

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

Was this written by an asexual?

I don’t know.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

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

Review: Clariel by Garth Nix

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

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

What is this story about?

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

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

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

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

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

I did. Here it is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, so now talk about Clariel.

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

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

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

So, Asexuality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few chapters later, it comes up again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A good friend,” she repeated.

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

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

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

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

“Oohh,” said Bel, blushing again.

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

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

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

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

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

Was this written by an asexual?

I don’t know.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

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

The Most Different Kinds of Ace Characters I Can Think of

This is for the January Carnival of Aces – Many Ways to Be Ace.

As anyone who has been following my blog for the past few months knows, I’ve been binge-reading ace fiction lately. So, in response to the prompt, I was thinking ‘which of these ace characters is the MOST different from the others?’

Of course, there are many ways characters can be different from each other. A 6000 year old elf who lives in Seattle in 2013 is really different from a human detective for hire who lives on a different planet in an age of interplanetary travel, but that’s not the kind of difference which I consider interesting for this kind of question.

Going through the list from the prompt – “ethnicity, religion, romantic orientation, gender, background, career, etc.”

1) Ethnicity – a plurality of the ace characters in the fiction I’ve been reading lately are white people from the United States who seem to identify more strongly with whiteness than ethnicity.
Now, here it’s tricky. I don’t want to imply that USA-white people who do not identify strongly with an ethnicity are a default, and that everyone else who deviates from that, whether they are white people who do identify with an ethnicity (Italian-American, for example), or who are not white, or who are not American, are some deviation from that default. On the other hand, there is a reason why lists such as ‘Murder Mystery Stories with POC protagonists’ are more useful than lists such as ‘Superhero Stories with white protagonists from the USA’.
So, to acknowledge that being white from the USA is not at all a default, I will throw in one story with a white-from-the-USA ace character: Crush.
Then, I offer a list of characters from stories who are either a) white yet non-American or b) are not white (note: this list is not exhaustive because characters’ ethnicities are not always clear OR I’ve forgotten):
Ball Caps and Khakis, ace character is Korean-American
Candy Land, ace character is from post-USA North America (i.e. the United States no longer exists as a nation)
Fourth World, ace characters are Martians, one of the Martians is of Mexican descent
Blank Spaces, ace character is white Canadian
The Painted Crown, ace character is from pseudo-medieval-Europe
We Go Forward, ace character is white Australian
To Terminator With Love, ace character is Asian-American (most likely Chinese-American, but it would not have made much of a difference to the story if the ace character were, say, Malagasy-American as opposed to Asian-American)
The Life and Death of Eli and Jay, ace character is Siksika (a First Nation ethnicity in Canada)
The Zhakieve Chronicles, both ace characters are from (and live in) pseudo-medieval-Eastern-Europe
Open Skies, ace character lives in space opera with fictional planets
Quicksilver, ace character is Canadian and, well, to say more would be spoilerish.

2) Religion – the religion for most of the ace characters in the fiction I’m reading is not defined. The only ace fiction story I’ve read in which religion is significant to the story is “Cold Ennaline”.

3) Romantic Orientation Aha! Jackpot! Most of the ace fiction stories I’ve been reading are published by LGBTQ+ presses which require or at least strongly encourage romance. Thus, it is no surprise that the most common romantic orientation in the stories I’ve been reading is homoromantic. Even though most of the LGBTQ+ presses would accept a M/F romance as long as the characters are not cishet (for example, an M/F romance featuring trans characters), they definitely publish way more same-sex romances, even for ace characters. In fact, I can’t think off hand of any fiction stories I’ve read with a heteromantic or biromantic ace character off-hand (though maybe I’ll remember something later). As far as, say, demiromantic, or quoiromantic … well, there are characters which arguably fit those labels, but none that I would feel confident putting on a list.
There have been a few stories with aromantic characters, which I will list here:
“Any Way the Wind Blows”
Open Skies
Cracked! A Magic iPhone Story
Lone Star on a Cowboy Heart
“The Galloway Road” (actually, I’m not sure, but IIRC, the character seemed aromantic)
We Go Forward

4) Gender – well, some ace characters are (cis) male and some are (cis) female. More male characters than female characters (probably because I’ve been mostly drawing from LGBTQ+ presses, and they publish so much more M/M than anything else it’s ridiculous), but still plenty of ace female characters to choose from. The only genderqueer ace character I’ve encountered in fiction so far is Blake in the Assassins series. I’ve only read the first book, in which Blake is just a minor character and SEEMS to be male, but the second book supposedly reveals that Blake is actually intersex, agender, and greysexual.

5) Background – this one is so broad I am not even going to try.

6) Career – hmmmm. I don’t want to list out all of the different careers I’ve seen ace characters have, so I’ll just select a few which jump out at me.
Blank Spaces – art gallery worker / painter
“Any Way the Wind Blows” – farming
Assassins: Discord – assassin (which is what one might expect from a novel called ‘ASSASSINS’)
To Terminator With Love – electrical engineering student at MIT
“Bender” – BDSM rent boy (notable mainly because rent boy is a rather unusual career for an asexual to pursue)

7) etc. – in here, I am going to put in Personality.
Ace characters in fiction tend to be intellectual, not be very social, not have many friends, be ‘introverts’, tend to be emotionally reserved, etc. To be fair, a lot of people who identify in real life as ‘ace’ are also like this. However, I like seeing ace characters … who are not like that. I’d like to see more ace characters who are loud, bold, brash, socially engaged, etc. – which I suppose I could sum up as being ‘extroverted’ (though I don’t particularly like the term).
Here is a list of stories where the ace character breaks out of the most common personality molds of ace characters in some sense:
How to Be a Normal Person (ace character is more sociable and socially engaged than the non-ace protagonist)
Lone Star on a Cowboy Heart (ace character thinks acting like a vigilante – including shooting people with his gun and interrogating witnesses even though he is not a law enforcement officer – is a good idea)
“As Autumn Leaves” – ace character used to be a cheerleader, and though she has a lack of friends, that is not due to her social inclinations

So, there you go. I hope that this is useful, or at least interesting, to somebody.

Review: Cracked! A Magic iPhone Story

The cover of Cracked! A Magic iPhone Story by Janine A. Southard

This review is part of my month of asexual fiction from Smashwords.

What is this story about?

Morena, a 40-year old Brazilian-American, lives in Seattle (year 2013) with her cocaine-using roommate Suzyn and works in logistics and distribution for Starbucks. Both Morena and Suzyn go to story-gaming meetups, where they hand out with Magic Guy, who they believe is a regular human, but is in fact a 6,000 year old elf. Morena gets an iPhone from her ex-boyfriend who had kept on fetishizing her Latin-ness and forgetting that she doesn’t speak Spanish (she speaks English and Portuguese). What Morena doesn’t know is that it is a magic iPhone which will compel her to keep on using dating apps to meet guys, even when it is clear that it is not good for her.

What the *****?

The story is called “Cracked”, okay? It is obviously an example of crackfic as original fiction (as opposed to fan fiction).

By the way, you put in five stars, not four, in your question.

I put in FIVE stars because it’s supposed to replace a FIVE letter word.

Well, I suppose there is no problem with using five letter swear words instead of four letter swear words. Assuming that what you are blocking out with stars is in fact a swear word.

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

There is no sex in this story, and … not much discussion of sexual topics, actually. There are guys who try to hit on Morena in creepy ways, such as asking her to take a shower with them, and sometimes there is sexual innuendo in the jokes, but that’s what I can think of off hand. As far as violence, hmmmm, there is a prank which ends up killing a innocent woman in 19th century England.

I thought you said the story takes place in Seattle in the year 2013.

I also pointed out that this is essentially crackfic.

So tell me more about this crack-original-fic.

Contrary to the title, it’s really more about Seattle than iPhones (magic or otherwise). On the one hand, I have never been to Seattle, or anywhere in the western United States north of Eugene, Oregon. On the other hand, I was born on the West Coast of north America and have spent most of my life here (I am going to define ‘West Coast’ as everywhere between San Diego and Juneau, including coastal British Columbia). So in some ways, the culture of Seattle as presented in this story is familiar because I am from West Coast culture, and in some ways it is not familiar. So I found the ways it was familiar-yet-unfamiliar to be interesting.

A lot of the prose is like this:

There are few things in the world more relaxing than curling up with a mug of tea and watching horrible TV on Netflix while you fiddle with a smartphone or laptop and chat with a friend. Some people believe that’s too much to do all at once, but those people are all too old to have done collaborative homework over the phone (or, at least, don’t have as many attention issues as does the author of this book).

I recognize that this style is intentional, and that this novel wouldn’t be what it is without it. At the same time, I sometimes felt that it went too far for me, and that I would have preferred this aspect of the novel to have been pared down.

The major theme of this book is that friendship can be more valuable than romance. This point is hammered in when Morena, during a crisis, tells her friends that she needs a romantic partner because she needs someone who will always be there. She persists in believing that a romantic partner will be the one who will always be there, in spite of the fact that her friends are there to support her through her crisis, and her boyfriend is not. It’s ironic.

Asexuality?

I actually think this novel is more relevant to aromanticism than asexuality (especially since the moral of the story is ‘friendship can be more valuable than romance’). That said, on the asexuality scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content) I would rate this novel as a 2.

The aromantic asexual character is Magic Guy. Yep, it’s the non-human character. However, even the asexual readers who get annoyed with the frequency that asexual characters are non-human admit that the trope can be done well and that it’s not necessarily a bad depiction of asexuality. I would put this is the ‘not bad’ category.

The first mention of Magic Guy’s asexuality is in Chapter 2:

“Besides,” said Morena, “you’ve never tried to pick me up.”

Magic Guy laughed. “I wouldn’t. I’m asexual and aromantic, so it seems horribly unlikely.”

“Of course,” said Morena, oh-so-put-upon. “All the good ones are taken, gay, or ace.”

It is mentioned again in Chapter 14:

“I know.” She sat up and twisted to look at him, her eyebrows screwed together in confusion and slight derision. As if to say duh! Though he was pretty sure kids didn’t say that anymore. “You said you were ace.” Which was true, he had told both Suzyn and Morena that he identified as asexual way back in Chapter Two – Let You Tell Me a Story.

Magic Guy, at one point, is in a situation where a father has caught him with his daughter, and the father is angry at him because he believes that Magic Guy has stained his daughter’s honor, and it’s treated as humorous that an asexual aromantic guy is accused of disturbing a young woman’s sexual purity.

Oh, and there is also this:

He shrugged, and if it was more bravado than surety, no one had to know. “What’s the worst it can do to me? Make me go on a date?”

They both laughed at the idea of an asexual aromantic being forced to go on a date.

The writer herself has said here:

I like to think, though, that by adding characters who are ace-spectrum, more readers will see that as a normal state that coexists with the mainstream. I once had a reader tell me that he’d never heard the term “ace” for asexual before reading one of my books. (This one isn’t YA, but does have an explicitly asexual character: Cracked! A Magic iPhone Story.)

Was this written by an asexual?

Janine A. Southard is demisexual.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

I … suppose I do. The style did annoy me at times, and I wish that it were about 25% shorter, but I guess even with the aspects I didn’t like, I still like this novel overall.

One may buy this novel from Smashwords and various other book retailers.

Review: We Go Forward by Alison Evans

The cover of We Go Forward by Alison Evans, which shows the blue silhouettes of various famous tall buildings.

This review is part of the series of reviews of asexual fiction published by LT3 press which I am doing for Asexual Awareness Week. Today is double-review day, and the review of Lone Star on a Cowboy Heart has already been posted. This is the second review of the day, We Go Forward.

So, What Is This Story About?

Rosalyn has never left Melbourne before. Naturally, this means she goes by herself all the way to to the other side of the world, Berlin. She has a hostel booked for a few days, and is going to return to Melbourne in about three months, but other than that, she has no plans.

Christie is also from Melbourne, but she’s been in Europe for about two years, ever since her father died and she inherited his money.

They happen meet each other in Berlin and hit it off.

What Kind of Sexual and/or Violent Content Does This Story Have, If Any?

Basically none. There are references to violence – for example, the protagonists visit Dachau (yes, the concentration camp), but nothing violent or sexual happens in the story itself.

Tell Me More about This Novel

Hmmmm, this is a novel about young women who spent most of their lives in a single English-speaking cosmopolitan city and then went to a different hemisphere for budget travel, and one of them stayed in that hemisphere, in non-English-speaking countries. And one of them is even aware that she is asexual and aromantic. Does this sound like something I’ve done? (For those of you who don’t know me, yes, I spent most of my life in a cosmopolitan English-speaking city, and yes, as a young woman I went to a different hemisphere – alone – and spent a few years living in a non-English-speaking country, and I did this while identifying as asexual and aromantic).

I could relate to a lot of the content of this novel, especially Christie’s POV because I have a lot more in common with her experiences than with Rosalyn’s experiences. Sometimes, that meant I was thinking ‘awww, it’s cute how inexperienced these protagonists are.’ Sometimes, that meant I was thinking ‘hey, this is a little like this thing that happened to me.’ On the one hand, I like the milieu, on the other hand, I am a bit jaded.

I admit that I felt that the ending is a bit … inconclusive. I cannot be more specific than that without getting into spoiler territory.

So, Asexuality?

On the asexuality content scale described in the introduction, I would rate this as a 3.

Asexuality first comes up in the story in this passage, written from Christie’s point of view:

“Sorry,” she says. “You’re not into girls?”

“I’m not into anyone.” I shrug. “I’m asexual, and aromantic.”

“Ohhhh.” She laughs once at herself. “Sorry, my bad. I’m not very good at reading situations.”

“S’fine. I’m actually surprised that I don’t have to explain it to you?”

Usually me coming out is followed by a barrage of weird questions and me leaving, or kicking people out. And the same things repeated: maybe you just haven’t found the blah, blah, blah. Ugh, spare me.

“I might not know a lot, but I know a lot about queer things.” She gives me a knowing look, then drinks more wine.

And I’ve been included in the queer umbrella. I definitely need to be friends with her. Or maybe I need to stop clinging to the first person who isn’t a complete jerk.

So there you have it – Christie is asexual and aromantic.

For the most part, this story is not about asexuality. I suspect that Christie’s loneliness issues have as much to do with her dad being dead as with her asexuality/aromanticism, though being asexual/aromantic is also a contributing factor (and also – this is mostly speculation on my part, since this is not really discussed in the story – maybe Christie’s non-fluency in German is also a factor, though maybe not if most of the Germans/Swiss she has encountered can speak decent English).

There is more to say about how asexuality is depicted in this novel, but as it often is, that’s in spoiler territory.

Was This Written by an Asexual?

I don’t know.

Hey Sara, Do You Like This Story?

Yes, I do. The fact that there are a lot of parallels between my life experiences and Christie’s life experiences definitely complicated my reaction to this story. There is a lot I recognize, which I like. At the same time, there are some major differences between me and Christie (for example, I have never been to the southern hemisphere, let alone Melbourne).

One may get the eBook here and at various other retailers of eBooks, and one may get the print edition here.

Tomorrow will be the final review for Asexual Awareness Week, and instead of reviewing a novel(la), I am going to review a series, The Zhakieve Chronicles by A.M. Valenza.

Review: Lone Star on a Cowboy Heart by Marie S. Crosswell

The cover of Lone Star on a Cowboy Heart, which shows two handguns pointed at each other against a dark blue background.

This review is part of the series of reviews of asexual fiction published by LT3 press which I am doing for Asexual Awareness Week.

So, What Is This Story About?

Sam, a deputy in a rural Arizona town, is off-duty and unarmed when he witnesses and armed robbery. He reveals himself as law enforcement officer, and one of the robbers threatens to kill him. Then a Mysterious Stranger with a possibly Texan accent shoots and kills one of the robbers, saving Sam’s life. The other robber gets away.

It has just been a few months since Sam moved to this Arizona town, leaving his life with his ex-wife in California, so he’s a bit lonely. Sam becomes interested in the Mysterious Stranger who saved his life, and tries to learn more about him. The Mysterious Stranger (actually, he has a name – Montgomery) is also interested in Sam, but he does not want to show his interest, because he’s always been disappointed in his attempts to have a close friendship.

Man, I wonder if that robber who got away will stir up any plot trouble…

What Kind of Sexual and/or Violent Content Does This Story Have, If Any?

There is a sex scene described in a paragraph’s worth of detail. As far as violent content … see above.

Tell Me More about This Novella

There are two main plotlines – first, there is the plotline around catching the robber who got away, and second, there is the plotline around Sam and Montgomery’s relationship. I liked the relationship plotline (described more later in this review). As far as the robber plotline … I had trouble understanding why Montgomery was so determined to get himself involved (okay, I get that it had something to do with his feelings for Sam, but … well, it still did not make complete sense to me) and why Montgomery does what he ends up doing.

I was enjoying the immersion in the rural setting. Unfortunately, there was this bit broke my suspension of disbelief:

“We never had any murders in Lassen County, while I was there. Or child abuse. Rape. Even the domestic calls were all pretty tame … even in the county seat, where we were headquartered, violent crime has always been low. And there’s about eighteen thousand people in Susanville.”

Huh? This guy was a sheriff’s deputy in Lassen County long enough to have bought a house there, and there were no reports of murder, rape, or child abuse, and the domestic calls were ‘pretty tame’ during his time on the job? This felt so off that it yanked me out of the story. I admit that I haven’t been to Lassen County, but I have been to other parts of rural northern California, including towns with much less than 18,000 people, and I couldn’t buy this. And I know Susanville is a prison town, and prison towns are noted for having higher levels of violence, especially domestic abuse and suicide (that is not including what happens inside the prisons).

But maybe my gut feel was off, and Lassen County, in spite of its prisons, had a dramatically lower level of reported violent crime than what I imagined, so I did a quick internet search, and found that the reported violent crime rate in Lassen County is actually higher that the USA average.

Since the writer lives in Arizona, the story probably depicts Arizona much more accurately than it depicts California. Unfortunately, this bit about Lassen County broke the spell for me.

So, Asexuality?

Actually, this feels more like a story about aromanticism than a story about asexuality, since there are two characters who seem to be aromantic, whereas there is only one character who seems to be asexual. On the asexual content scale described in the introduction, I would only rate this as a 2. However, if it were an asexuality + aromanticism + romantic orientation scale, I would rate it a 6.

Why do I say ‘seems’? The words ‘asexual’ and ‘aromantic’ are never used in the story. Since the words ‘asexual’ and ‘aromantic’ are never used, it is very difficult to declare absolutely that these characters are aromantic and possibly asexual, but given that they behave in such an aromantic/asexual way, and the Word of God, it would be very difficult to interpret these characters as not being aromantic, and in one case, asexual.

It seems the main purpose of the sex scene was to distinguish the non-asexual characters who were not asexual from Montgomery, who is asexual.

The characters certainly grope a lot for vocabulary for describing themselves and what they want, which is realistic for people in the rural United States who most likely have never heard of asexuality as a sexual orientation, let alone romantic orientation. That was one of the most touching parts of the story for me. I could also relate to Montgomery’s sentiment that, since he could not make a (sexual) marriage work, and he could not remain close enough with his friends, he would not be able to get the companionship he yearned for. This is my favorite passage in the book ends with this paragraph:

He’s wondered one too many times since he left [his ex-wife] in Texas, if he’s selfish for wanting somebody to be happy with him, to love him for what he can give and not for what he can pretend. He’s never met anybody like him, and maybe that’s what it would take for partnership, a friendship, to work out. Somebody like him. Only problem is he doesn’t know where to look and he’s not about to advertise his oddities.

Was This Written by an Asexual?

Yes, Marie S. Crosswell is asexual.

Hey Sara, Do You Like This Story?

Yes, I do. This story was a mixed bag for me, however I did like the way it presented aromanticism and asexuality, so reading this was a net positive experience for me.

One may get the eBook here and at various other retailers of eBooks, and one may get the print edition here.

In order to squeeze all of these reviews into Asexual Awareness Week, there is going to be a second review today, about We Go Forward by Alison Evans.