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: 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: 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.

Review: Clariel by Garth Nix

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

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

What is this story about?

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

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

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

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

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

I did. Here it is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, so now talk about Clariel.

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

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

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

So, Asexuality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few chapters later, it comes up again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A good friend,” she repeated.

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

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

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

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

“Oohh,” said Bel, blushing again.

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

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

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

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

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

Was this written by an asexual?

I don’t know.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

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

Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

The cover of Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

My place in the library hold queue came up much faster than I expected, so this is the second book I’m reviewing for Mystery Grab Bag Ace Fiction Month.

What is this novella about?

Once upon a time, Nancy went through a doorway, and ended up in the Halls of the Dead. She stayed there a while, and then ended up back in her native world. Her parents send her to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a school for children who have returned from various magical worlds. Like most of the students, Nancy wishes she could go back to ‘her’ magical world.

Then one of the students at the school dies. Since Nancy has already been to an Underworld, death is not as disturbing to her as it is to most people. But it is not just a death. It is a murder. And a lot of people suspect that Nancy, the new girl, is the culprit.

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

There is very little sexual content. There are multiple murders, as well as some gory descriptions of various acts of violence. In other words, it’s like Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Tell me more about this novella.

The premise of this story is basically “What would it be like for an Alice who had visited a Wonderland when she returns to this world? How would they be changed, and would they be able to re-adapt?” Of course, each child/teenager goes to a different ‘world’, and the story says at one point that each child is attracted to a magical world which fits them in some way.

The character I found the most enjoyable to read about, the mad scientist who went to a horror-inspired magical world, known as the Moors, and enjoys working with human bodies/corpses. Even thought most of the students consider the Moors to be, well, horrible, it suited Jack quite well. A lot of students suspect that Jack is the murderess, and Jack responds that, while she is not offended by the thought that they think she would murder someone, she is offended that they would suspect her of committing such pointless murders. Then again, I tend to like fictional characters who are … the best word to describe it is 邪, but unfortunately there is no direct equivalent of that word in English (邪 is sometimes translated into English as ‘unorthodox’ ‘evil’ ‘mischievous’ ‘demonic’, etc., but 惡 is another Chinese word for ‘evil’, and I generally enjoy reading about 惡 fictional characters less than 邪 fictional characters).

Overall, I thought this novella was a good modern extension of traditional fairy tales and children’s fantasy literature.

Asexuality?

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

Asexuality first comes up in this scene, when Nancy says that she is asexual:

“No. Celibacy is a choice. I’m asexual. I don’t get those feelings.” She would have thought her lack of sexual desire had been what had drawn her to the Underworld – so many people had called her a “cold fish” and said she was dead inside back when she’d been attending an ordinary high school, among ordinary teenagers, after all – except that none of the people she’d met in those gloriously haunted halls had shared her orientation. They lusted as hotly as the living did … She shook her head. “I just … I just don’t. I can appreciate how beautiful someone is, and I can be attracted to them romantically, but that’s as far as it goes with me.”

It does not come up again until much later in the story:

She didn’t mind flirting. Flirting was safe, flirting was fun; flirting was a way of interacting with her peers without anyone realizing that there was anything strange about her. She could have flirted forever. It was just the things that came after flirting that she had no interest in.

And then, a few pages later, there is this bit:

Nancy set her hand in the crook of her elbow, feeling the traitorous red creeping back into her cheeks. This was always the difficult part, back when she’d been at her old school: explaining that “asexual” and “aromantic” were different things. She liked holding hands and trading kisses. She’d had several boyfriends in elementary school, just like most of the other girls, and she had always found those practice relationships completely satisfying. It wasn’t until puberty had come along and changed the rules that she’d started pulling away in confusion and disinterest. Kade was possibly the most beautiful boy she’d ever seen. She wanted to spend hours sitting with him and talking about pointless things. She wanted to feel his hand against her skin, to know that his presence was absolute and focused entirely on her. The trouble was, it never seemed to end there, and that was as far as she was willing to go.

First of all, looking at those excerpts again, it seems that this writer seems to consider the dividing line between ‘romantic’ and ‘aromantic’ to be enjoying kissing and hand-holding. There is discussion of this trope in this comment thread.

Also, Nancy’s asexuality does fit thematically with the story. This is a story about children / young adults who travelled to magic worlds, and as a result, their families / native communities can no longer relate to them. Likewise, in these excerpts, Nancy describes how her experience as an asexual makes it hard for her to relate to her peers, and for her peers to relate to her. These theme is drawn out even more explicitly when it comes to Kade – Kade is not ace, but he is trans. His parents, on the other hand, believe they have a ‘daughter’. Just as many parents cannot accept their children the way they are after they travel to magical worlds, and are intent on fixing them so that they are like the way they were before, Kade’s parents do not accept him as a boy.

Was this written by an asexual?

No. Seanan McGuire is bisexual. Yes, Seanan McGuire is a bi demisexual.

Sara, do you like this novella?

Yes, I do like it.

Review: This Song Is (Not) for You by Laura Nowlin

The cover of This Song Is (Not) For You by Laura Nowlin

So, this is the first review for my Mystery Grab Bag Ace Fiction Month.

Hi Sara. What is this story about?

Two teenagers, Ramona and Sam, go to the same elite high school, and make music together. Ramona is in love with Sam, but does not tell him. Sam is in love with Ramona, but assumes that if she loved him romantically, she would have said so already, and is afraid to confess his own romantic feelings because he is afraid of ruining his friendship.

Then Ramona meets Tom. She decides immediately that they must get him to join their band. Tom does in fact click with Sam and Ramona, and their band becomes better than ever. Ramona also falls in love with Tom, even though she is still in love with Sam, and deals with being in love with two guys at the same time. She asks Tom if he will be her boyfriend, and he says yes. This makes Sam feel bad because Sam wishes he were Ramona’s boyfriend. Tom loves Ramona and wants to be her boyfriend, but his previous girlfriend broke up with him because he was not interested in having sex with her, and he’s afraid that Ramona will want to break up with him when she figures out that he is not interested in sex…

That sounds like a love triangle, Sara.

Yep.

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

There is no sex, though there is brief descriptions of kissing and hand-holding. A character does kill goldfish (not so much because he wants the goldfish to die, as that he wants to do something which has the effect of killing goldfish).

Sara, please tell me more about this novel.

First of all, it’s set in St. Louis. Even though I have only spent a little time in St. Louis, I do think the fact that I have been to St. Louis helped me appreciate this novel a little better. It particular, it helped me visualize some of the scenes.

It’s an easy, breezy read, and it took be a little while to get engaged. It did, eventually, engage me. One thing I really like about this novel is that it captures a sense of what high school and teenagerhood felt like for me which I find missing in most fiction about high school / teenagers (another work of fiction which I feel captures this sense is the manga Flower of Life by Fumi Yoshinaga). What am I talking about exactly? A sense of creativity and adventure and the exploration of which rules are necessary and which rules are made to be broken which I associate with high school life. I certainly found the arts (not music in particular, though I definitely attended more classical music performances as a high school student than at any other time in my life) much more interesting and a part of my life as a teenager than romantic drama. I realize that most teenagers are not as artsy as I was.

I caught the metaphor of Ramona having two instruments that she is dedicated to – the piano which she started playing at the age of four, and the drums which she started playing during her last year of middle school. It’s a metaphor for her being in love with both Sam and Tom. Just as she can love and be devoted to two different musical instruments, she can love and be devoted to two different guys.

I also related a lot with this part:

I want to be educated. I want to read books at the time of my choosing … I don’t want a career, just to be able to find work when I need it.

As it so happens, I did go to college, but when I was near the end of high school, I actually gave serious consideration to the possibility of not going to college. I have never had the slightest interest in attending grad school. While I will not say that I regret getting a bachelor’s degree, I think that if I were to do it over again, I would have stopped at getting an associate’s degree and not bother with a bachelor’s degree. And after I left college, I did in fact travel at lot. I also don’t want a career, just work when I need it. Education is important to me, but I prefer to educate myself by reading lots of books and experiencing the school of life to educating myself in a classroom.

There is also, throughout the novel, examples of lyrical language.

And here is a bit which really hit me in the feels:

Twice I had screaming meltdowns because Dad wouldn’t let us go to the hospital until I’d done that day’s reading.

Mom stopped responding to treatment, but there was an experimental drug doctors wanted to try.

When I told Mom about playing piano, she didn’t respond as eagerly as she always had before. She always wanted to know how reading was going. Stressful, upsetting reader – it seemed like that was all anyone cared about anymore.

Finally, Mom and Dad told me that the doctors were moving her to hospice. Hospice wasn’t a new way of fighting cancer. The fight was over; cancer had won.

Mom was still alive, but her life was over. She’d toured Europe as a professional musician; she’d had a husband and child. It wasn’t a bad life, but it was over, and it was all she would ever have.

Yes, I know that a lot of people ‘graduate’ out of hospice care (as in, their condition improves, and it turns out they are not going to die so soon after all). I think of this as a beautiful expression of what this felt like from a child’s perspective, rather than an absolute statement that the life of anyone who goes to hospice is over.

Asexuality?

The word ‘asexual’ is never used in the novel, but it is very clear that it is a part of this novel. This is the first scene where asexuality comes up:

“But you’re gay, Tom. And that’s okay, but-”

“I’m not-”

“We need to break up.”

“I’m not gay,” I said. I put my hands on her shoulders to steady both of us. “I just don’t feel that way about anybody.”

There.

I’d said it.

I’d told Sara what I had never said aloud to anyone ever before.

“You don’t…” She frowned and shook her head.

“I’m not gay. I’m not straight. I just don’t really care about sex.”

“You don’t care. About sex.” She said it like I’d said I didn’t care about curing cancer.

“I don’t know why,” I said. I tried to gather together my years of puzzling over this and lay it all before her. “I just never developed this obsession with sex that everyone else has. It’s never interested me, and it just seems to cause everyone else a lot of trouble. But I love you, Sara. I think you’re so smart and beautiful, and I love being with you. I just don’t want to have sex with you.”

I looked at her, and she looked at me, and I hoped that she could accept me.

“No, Tom,” she said. “That’s not possible.”

“It’s true, I-”

“You need to do some thinking, Tom,” she said. It was starting to annoy me how often she was saying my name. “Everybody’s sexual. You’re in denial about something, and it’s not fair to either of us to keep up with this charade of a relationship.”

Sara, you big meanie! How dare you say something like that to a guy who all but came out to you as asexual!

HEY! The ‘Sara’ is the novel is not me, okay? There are plenty of people in the world who go by the name of ‘Sara’. Some of us are ace, and some of us tell people who all but come out as ace that they are wrong and just in denial. Do not confuse the ace!Sara people of the world with the TellAcesTheyAintAces!Sara people of the world.

Fine, back to talking about asexuality.

On the asexuality content scale (1 = least asexual content, 10 = most asexual content), I would rate this novel as a 4.

Other than that … well, it’s pretty much what the excerpt above suggests. A big part of Tom’s plotline is being afraid that Ramona is going to dump him the same way Sara dumped him once Ramona finds out that he is not sexually interested in her. Worse, he’s afraid that Ramona will tell him that something is wrong with him, just as Sara did.

Tom feels like an authentic ace character to me, with struggles that many aces have.

Was this written by an asexual?

I don’t know.

Hey Sara, do you like this novel?

YES. I liked this novel. I really liked this novel.