Review: Beauty and the Clockwork Beast by Nancy Campbell Allen

This was written a while ago, after our move, but I only got around to posting it in its edited and spellchecked form like half a year ago. Then there was some catastrophe and I lost a bunch of posts. So this is it again!

I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks recently. We recently moved, so I’ve been working on the various paint and plaster projects necessary to make this house not be the godforsaken beige that the previous owners thought was a good idea. Which means I have hours and hours of monotonous work that is perfect for audio. I listened to an urban fantasy trilogy I’ve read before, hit some China Miéville because rwrrr, and then moved on to midlist steampunk.

Beauty and the Clockwork Beast by Nancy Campbell Allen is one of those titles that promises some stupid stuff. I am sometimes in the mood for stupid stuff, and I felt reasonably sure I knew what I was going to get, given my experience with steampunk on the romance end. There would be an inventor’s daughter, one of those irrepressibly zesty daughters of the upper class who be impressed upon to find her father’s killer / continue his work / fall in love with the staff / automaton / vampire / werewolf. I once read a short story collection of steampunk stories where two thirds of the entries went this way. Two thirds.

But that is not what I found in Beauty and the Clockwork Beast! Or it is, just a very little, but the bulk of the novel is character study, riffs on Gothic fiction, and well written prose. Jeez, who even does that?

The plot follows one Lucy Pickett as she goes to stay with a cousin who is more like a sister to her. The cousin, Kate, was recently married to the younger brother of an earl, but has been ailing since she took up residence as the lady of Blackwell Manor. The earl himself, Miles, has a pall upon him, after his wife and sister died within a day of each other half a year ago. The wife died in a manner befitting the Blackwell curse, and the sister was torn apart by wild animals. It’s all pretty sketchy.

Lucy is a botanist herself, and a member of a society that is working towards the usual medicinal uses, but also pharmacology that is useful against vampires. This is a world with magic and animal shifters (of which Miles is one) and vampires. But it’s not a world with ghosts, so it troubles Lucy some to encounter the ghost of the earl’s sister for several nights running. She and Miles end up playing detective in the earlier deaths, Lucy’s sister’s illness, and Miles’ blackmail.

While there are many things about the detective plot that make me want to tear out my hair — there are ONLY TWO OR THREE VIABLE SUSPECTS JFC — I was so in love with Lucy. She’s no inventor’s daughter, an appendage on a Great Man, but a scientist in her own right. I do want to acknowledge that in the world this fantasy is based on, women really didn’t have many opportunities to education short of what they could filch from their fathers and brothers. That often steampunk girls have mad scientist or inventor fathers is not my issue. It’s that most often the father is a Great Man, and the daughter-protagonist a mere shadow of his genius or keeper of his legacy, without a lot of agency in her own vocations or avocations.

This might be a little harder to explain, but hear me out: she’s also not gadding about in trousers because she’s so transgressive zomg, but a careful woman of her class and station. Look, I love me a firebrand, a character who smashes shit and gets stuff done. But I weary of 1) characters who haven’t earned it and are just middle class fantasies of rebellion dressed up in pantaloons 2) Strong Female Characters ™ who do everything in their power to shit on girlishness, the trappings of femininity, and any woman who might still live under its aegis. Lucy is often well and truly frustrated by how she as treated as a scientist and a woman, but she’s got good table manners, and knows how perform a perfect curtsy. She has good relationships with other women — not just one, but several — and even treats unlikable female characters with kindness and empathy. In short, she is a good person.

Aspects of her prescribed gender roles chaff, absolutely, but some don’t, which make Lucy an altogether more believable and nuanced character than someone wearing a leather corset on the outside of her clothes shooting out the lights all the time or whatever. She’s not someone’s bondage fantasy of a Strong Woman. Moreover, her worth isn’t predicated on her father, or her magical powers (she has none other than education and experience) or her anachronistic badassery. It comes from her diligent work ethic, loyalty to those she loves, and innate kindness. Which, whoa. I was well pleased to encounter someone of Lucy’s mettle in this sort of steampunkery.

There are things to complain about, for sure. The detective plot is almost offensively stupid, even while the technical details of this specific steampunk world are careful and considered. Miles holds onto his secrets 80 pages past when he should. People almost never ask the obvious questions when confronted with a mystery, and blithely go about their business like idiots. At a couple crucial points, characters forget important details like wow. Oh, and the most childish complaint: dude is not a clockwork beast, whatever that means, just the regular kind. (Of course I know writers rarely have control over titles; chill.)

That said! I feel like this was ahead of the curve. Lucy is such a practical, well drawn character, and she acquits herself with grace. May we all, etc.

Review: Big Bad Wolf by Suleikha Snyder

One of the strengths of the paranormal fantasy is its ability to make the metaphors manifest, and then play with them in really concrete terms. One of my favorite werewolf stories, for example, is Ginger Snaps, a turn of the millennium film about two pubescent sisters, one of whom begins turning into a werewolf. The lycanthropy in Ginger Snaps works as this really extreme metaphor for all of the dangerous becoming that happens to girls in puberty: sexually, personally, socially. One of the reasons it works so well is that the actuality of puberty is going on as well — the lycanthropy is a metaphor, yes, but the real world thing exists too. The metaphor doesn’t erase the reality, it heightens it.

There’s this really great scene where the younger sister goes to the school nurse and begins describing the changes in her werewolf sister — sexual awaking, blood, hair growth — and the nurse clucks knowingly and gives her a pamphlet about “Your Changing Body!” or somesuch. It’s a gesture to how the literature about puberty is both accurate, physiologically speaking, and absolutely misses the mark when it comes to the lived experience of the average person at that vulnerable period. I don’t remember getting a pamphlet about dealing with sketch dudes on the bus when I was 14, but unwelcomed sexual attention is, unfortunately, a very real aspect of puberty for many girls & people assigned female at birth. The way the werewolf is used in Ginger Snaps doesn’t erase or replace the experience of puberty, it heightens it.

Anyway, point being, for every story like Ginger Snaps — which flawlessly combines both the metaphorical and the actual — there’s a dozen which treat the metaphor of the paranormal other as somehow more real than actual, legitimate, real world problems, prejudices, and bigotries. This is especially true when the paranormal identity is understood to be a persecuted minority and acts as a stand in for race. I’ve seen many fictions erase systemic racism in lieu of the simplified and ahistoric “prejudice” against their made up whatsit. It’s not that I don’t think people wouldn’t be bigots about werewolves/shifters/vampires should they be revealed to be real, it’s that I think they’d be racist about them in addition to all the stuff they’re already racist about.

Which is why Suleikha Snyder’s Big Bad Wolf is such a godamn breath of fresh air. So much — so much — paranormal fantasy takes place in a magical America which isn’t riven by bone-deep, brutal, and violent disagreement about who gets to count as a person. We’ve all seen the state violence — children in cages, Black people murdered by the police with no accountability — and that’s not even getting into the stochastic terrorism that makes up the background radiation of the Trump years. If, somehow in the last four years, supernatural beings were added to the population as a category of persons who exist, they would have been subject to the exact same treatment as every other minority. Which is to say: poorly, and worse and worse for intersectional identities.

Big Bad Wolf focuses largely, though not exclusively, on the relationship between Neha Ahluwalia and Joe Peluso. He’s a white former soldier who murdered six Russian mafia dudes, and she’s a Desi lawyer who’s been tasked with defending him in court. He was part of a super secret military unit which was changed through scientific fuckery into a wolf shifter, but for unknown reasons he never used his shifting abilities when he smoked the mafia dudes. Neha has a PhD in psychology in addition to her JD, so she’s sent in to try to get him to cooperate with his legal defense. So far he’s been anything but cooperative.

Joe and Neha have an almost immediate connection, one that discombobulates them both. He’s got a healthy dose of self loathing going on, both because of his military service and because he legit murdered 6 dudes in cold blood. Her motives are a little less legible — he is, after all, a murderer — but their dialogue is snappy and I’ll allow a lot of emotional latitude setting up a world this complex. At a certain point Neha has to decide whether to follow her intense reaction to Joe, or stay on the straight and narrow. She makes the leap, and ends up on the run with Joe, dodging the cops, the Russian mafia, and possibly the military.

Because that’s the thing: this novel takes place firmly in Trump’s America (though I’m reasonably sure he’s never named). As the child of immigrants and a lawyer, Neha has a richly textured understanding of how scary it is out there for brown people, for women, for non-Christians. Early on, Joe tries to pull some economic anxiety bullshit on her — you’re just into me because I’m working class — and she’s like pffffft, that’s nothing. I’ve survived the last four years; slumming doesn’t factor. Yes, absolutely, he’s seen some shit, and what was done to him was wrong. But his experience of being hung out to dry as a shifter once the military was done with him is just one injustice. There are so many others, and there’s no rules that say you only experience the one.

As the first in a series, there are a lot of people, organizations, and lore that need explaining, and the narrative feels occasionally cluttered with their introductions. Relatedly, because there are so many people, the character sketches of anyone but the leads are pretty rudimentary. This is less a complaint and more an observation. Even though there are a lot of moving parts, Snyder has a firm hand on her exposition — I never felt like, who the hell is this person, I have no idea how they fit in. Given the size of the cast, that’s no small feat.

Yesterday, I bolted down all 6 episodes of Staged, a pandemic-produced BBC series starring David Tennent and Michael Sheen. I’ve watched a couple other shows produced during the pandemic, stuff like Host (a pretty cute found-footage horror film about a tele-séance) and Locked Down (which I turned off after 15 minutes because of its fucking awful script.) Staged was absolutely pitch perfect, the pandemic production I didn’t even know I needed, coming at just the right time. Big Bad Wolf is exactly like this for me, a corrective to the sometimes ahistorical metaphorical landscape of the paranormal, coming at a time when history demands accounting. Put less douchily: It’s so welcome to see family and friends on the pages of of a novel, living in the same conflicted and dangerous reality, but intensified by a paranormal element that gives the everyday that much more freight.

Stormsong by C.L. Polk

I’m going to date the hell out of myself with this anecdote, but it can’t be helped. It comes as likely no surprise that my family can get a little ranty, my mother’s side anyway. Just to rely on some specious ethnic stereotype: Mum’s side is Welsh, who tend to be known for their voluminousness (and for their drinking, alas.) That was certainly true for the Welsh ancestor who emigrated to the States, likely because he’d knocked up the neighbor’s daughter. Late in his life, my grandfather would get calls to come pick up his grandfather at the bar where he was singing Welsh hymns at the top of his voice. As a consequence, Grandpa was a lifelong teetotaler.

Anyway, before I get too far down the rabbit hole of Depressing Tales of Victorian Drunks, let me get to my point. Grandpa had a tendency to go on about various topics, often to the great irritation of my mother and grandmother: they’d heard every single one of his disquisitions before. (Somewhat tragically, he wrote two volumes of memoirs filled with this stuff, and not one of us has read them. We heard it all when he was alive.) Mum took to calling them his “cassette tapes”: simply load up the tape, and let the bullshit flow.

I tell this story because I, myself, have a number of cassette tapes, rants I can just load up and spool out like a magnetic strip. One of them has to do with hereditary magical systems, and how they are inevitably racist, eugenicist, and gross as hell. So many writers just gloss over the inexorable disgusting consequences of having magic be something in the blood. I mean, that I’m using language like “in the blood” just illustrates how nasty this all is. This is the language of tiki-torched racists. It turns the divine right of kings into “good blood”, a semi-scientific justification for social injustice.

So I pretty much freaked when I read Witchmark, which addresses the nastiness of heritable magical systems straight on. (It’s also steampunky as hell and also seems to invoke the Crimean War, which always gets me hot and bothered, because it’s like WWI but way, way less legible and more about how incomprehensible war is.) The lead, Miles, was a member of a magical family, one of a discrete number who have been indefinitely detaining & using other magical people, forcing their children into political marriages, and using their surplus number as magical batteries. It seemed better to him to run off to an unwinnable war than live in the pampered yet obscene comforts of his family of origin.

So I was well excited to read Stormsong, C.L. Polk’s follow up to Witchmark. Stormsong follows Grace, Miles’s sister. She was the heir apparent, the one who would wield the power of both herself and her brother. She was instrumental in bringing the whole rotten system down, but the way it played out, not even a large minority of Aelanders know the particulars of how the magical system worked and its human cost. She’s still in government, trying to “change the system from within”, which is going about as well as one would expect. Which is to say: not well.

Stormsong ended up giving me serious Amberlough Dossier vibes, which I count as a very good thing. Lara Elana Donnelly’s trilogy (the latter two books anyway) deal with that indefinite period after the old regime falls but before the new one has entrenched. It deals with the people who, when the fit hit the shan, had motivations that were murky, conflicted, or self-serving. This is a tricky as hell period to write about successfully, which is why pretty much no one bothers to try. It’s so much easier to write the period where everyone knows, down to the reader, who is righteous and who is a godamn fascist.

Stormsong ended up feeling not as strong as its predecessor, but then, as my anecdote of the cassette tape illustrates, I do have my predilections. That said, I was completely able to start, middle, and finish reading this novel during the coronavirus times, something that I cannot say for much literature that has even slightly dark themes. Polk has this incredibly light touch with what can be unapproachably intense subjects. It’s not that she’s treating them lightly — not at all — but that she can slide them into a story with a conflicted prime minister and the girl reporter she can’t stop thinking about. I’m 100% there for Sapphic yearning, maybe especially because it’s the bait for deeper meaning. I’m decidedly on the hook for book 3.

I received my copy from Netgalley.

Just Regular Terrible: Red Hill by Jamie McGuire

So, I’m going to admit right off the bat that I only read Red Hill because I hate Jamie McGuire’s writing. When I was researching zombie novels for this other thing, I discovered she had written a zombie novel. So, seriously, how can I be expected to stay away? I just had to see how bad she failed at something I love. Turns out, her zombie novel is just the regular kind of terrible, not the fancy kind with raisins. I’d honestly hoped for more schadenfreude. Alas.

Red Hill is purportedly a zombie romance (in the sense that there is romance amongst humans during the zombie apocalypse, not zombies fucking, to be clear.) The first 60% is taken up with three point of view characters — Nathan, Scarlet, and Miranda — as they bop around through the zombie apocalypse. The last 40% is where the “romance” takes place, with an entirely unconvincing love triangle. The other couple has third act turn that is such a drearily pedestrian romance trope that it was actually alarming to see it deployed during the zombie apocalypse. Don’t you fuckers have priorities? 

No, is the answer. The answer is always no.

Scarlet is a pretty typical McGuire heroine, in that she’s a malignant narcissist, self-involved in such a way to be dangerous to any and all empathetic characters around her. She’s going the throw you under the bus whether it’s necessary or not — she just likes to watch the tires roll over skulls. From the very very beginning of the zombie apocalypse — which starts while she’s working as a nurse, I might add — she helps absolutely no one. She watches dispassionately as someone she knows dies, and then takes his keys. Whelp, I guess he won’t be needing these anymore! She’s the worst.

Miranda is also the worst, but I actually feel a little bad for her. McGuire has set Miranda up to be the fall guy in a morality tale about sluts and how they get what’s coming to them. Felt downright Victorian, honestly, but with well fewer classical allusions. (Indeed, none at all.) 

The third point of view character is Nathan, a man who plays weary parent because his bitch wife spends all her time on the internet. Weirdly, there were points when I honestly and truly liked Nathan and how he was characterized. His daughter Zoe has some kind of sensory integration disorder (I recognized it because my son was like this as a toddler), and the ways he worries and managed her felt real. Too bad about all the hateful shit he said about his wife, who even he admitted was suffering from depression. I guess people with clinical depression should just walk it off? Whatever. I might almost argue that McGuire should stick to stories only with dudes in them, because the weird hatred expressed for women just taints everything. But then for sure even a dudes-only narrative written by McGuire would be choked with toxic masculinity and hateful gender essentialism, so that’s not a real fix. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph do McGuire’s characters hate women though, even (and maybe especially) the ones who are women.

Just as an aside, my favorite moment in the novel is when Nathan gets a letter from his wife and then complains she could never get your/you’re right. Immediately, there was a grammar error in the text. I’m completely ok with certain errors, like the kind that were invented by 19th C language assholes. Split infinitives, sentences ending in prepositions: that’s all fine. What’s not fine is using someone’s grammar as a measure of their worth. One of my besties from middle school cannot be relied on to use the correct iteration of their/they’re/there, but this makes her neither stupid nor unworthy as a person. I cannot spell for shit, and this doesn’t meaningfully detract from my criticism of this here mean-spirited, uncharitable novel. So when I go to slag some typos in the text, I don’t intend it as an ad hominem attack, to whit: this novel is bad because a proofreader didn’t catch x error. Instead, I’m slagging Nathan’s grammar fascism in a text riddled with errors. He’s supposed to read as righteous, but considering the context, he just comes off as a dick.

Anyway, alas, mostly this book was just boring, not scary, and not convincing. I said this before in a review about zombie romance, but it’s true here too: love is just another word for no one left to kill. It’s honestly frightening, but not the way the writer intends. 

Go Large or Go Home: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness was a real oddity to me, because it felt like that class of Gothic fiction that attempts to take things seriously — like, the scholarship was spot on, as was the description of academic research, historical detail, and just general academic jockeying — but then the serious tone slips to the soporific and everyone falls asleep. This book is crazy boring. Gothic fiction tends to have a lot of blood and violence in it — both metaphoric and literal. Wuthering Heights is a fucking bloodbath, an absolute hatecast where very few make it out alive. I mean, sure, Cathy and Heathcliff are terrible people, but hot damn are they fun to watch. If they weren’t terrible people there wouldn’t be any heat and there wouldn’t be a story. High passions are the bloody engine; this is Romanticism run feral.

So when the writers of modern Gothics try to make everyone sensible and reasonable, I wonder what the point it. People have to be a little touched just to get the juices flowing. Stephenie Meyer, in New Moon, tried to make everyone a good person, which would have been boring, but it turns out her sense of what makes a person worthy is so completely bonkers that the book still kind of works as a Gothic. Edward, Bella, and Jacob are all terrible people, so the hatecast can work its Gothic magic. The Demon Lover by Juliet Dark strives for a sensible, measured tone and its characters mostly don’t act like twats, but two things keep The Demon Lover from being a snoozer like A Discovery of Witches: There is a real current of high emotions, even if the prose is measured, and the metafictional elements make the narrative satisfying on a different register. A monster yoga class is most bananas thing in A Discovery of Witches, but it mostly reads as silly and incongruous, not the Gothic kind of bonkers. Mostly people sit around, read, and drink absolutely prodigious amounts of wine.

But A Discovery of Witches? Yawn. The lead, Diana is the scion of two seriously important magical families, but she won’t use her magic because reasons that make almost no sense. I can see, given her childhood, why she might reject her witchy powers. Her parents died young under cloudy/tragic circumstances, and she was raised by fun witchy aunts after their deaths. I can imagine a psychological mechanism by which she rejects her parents’ origins because she believes that this got them killed or some other pop psych nonsense. But that is not her professed motivation. Instead, she wants to succeed in academia on her “own merits,” question mark? Which, isn’t magical ability one of her own merits? She’d regularly prissy and condescending to her aunties about their magic. I grew right tired of how helpless she was, and how she was simultaneously a big deal Chosen One type. Her love interest is a fancy vampire tosser, and their courtship is spent talking about antiques. When they confessed their love for one another, I was like, did I miss something? You’re in love with each other after having a not very interesting sounding dinner? Which is not something I should ever be saying reading a Gothic; go large or go home.

I’ve seen a lot of people dismiss this novel as “like Twilight” or “just a romance”, but I think that might be both wrong and kinda sexist. Twilight, for all its stabs towards real world resonance, is absolutely fucking bonkers. You may have trouble getting through the prose, but the book fairly teems with Bella’s anxieties and passions and emotions. While Diana shares Bella’s almost sneering condescension to everyone around her — Bella doesn’t like anyone — she doesn’t share Bella’s high emotions, or, dare I say it, clumsiness? Meyer’s over-reliance on Bella’s propensity to the faceplant as a meaningful character trait is sloppy and ridiculous, of course, but it does gesture to the ways her relationship with Edward disorders her world. Diana is prim and priggish through the entirely of her interactions with the supernatural. There is precious little fascination; mostly magic is a pain in her ass. And as I’ve said before, her relationship with vamp dude is based on so much Tory smugness that it completely lacks juice. Most romance novels I’ve read, even the boring ones, do a better job of stoking the heat. If someone slags A Discovery of Witches as “just a romance”, that pretty much tells me all I need to know about their understanding of both Gothic and romance novels.

Anyway, I don’t want to put the knives in too hard. I think the exercise of trying to make rational grownup type characters plot their way through genres that tend to fall more on the Romance end (by which I mean in the Nathanial Hawthorne sense, not like modern romance novels, exactly) is an interesting one, but this outing is not a success. I don’t particularly like Diana — she’s a unappealing mixture of conceited and useless — but I get the distinct impression I’m supposed to. Frankly, if this were written in such a manner that we were expected to laugh at her self-satisfied bullshit instead of cheering it on, A Discovery of Witches would be aces.

History and Historical Romance: It Started With a Scandal by Julie Anne Long

I tend to get all breathless and twitterpated when I discover a new historical romance writer I enjoy, sending out profligate hold requests at the library. That was the case with Julie Anne Long, whose Lady Derring Takes a Lover was so beautifully choleric on the ingrained sexism of the time, and features a found family plot and exquisitely rendered female relationships. I maybe don’t need to say this, but I will anyway: as much I enjoy a historical, the baked in acceptance of social norms which are, to put mildly, antique, and to put more specifically, fucked beyond the telling of it, makes me often quite itchy while I read. Lady Derring was a salve.

This is figleafed in ur average historical romance: industrialists are all, to a man, fair minded and generous, having acquired their fortunes without being the rapacious monsters they all, to a man, were. The aristocrats — the dukes and earls and the like — may have daddy issues, struggling under the injurious regard of their Old Testament fathers, but these paternal and paternalistic dinosaurs are emblematic of an outdated mode of lording over great swaths of land and hundreds, maybe thousands of people. These new sons are embodiments of a New Aristocracy, one that views its marriages as meritocracies, the perfect embodiment of noblesse oblige. 

I was just reading one recently where the industrialist romantic lead mentioned offhand his ownership of cotton mills, and my mind leapt right to tour of Lowell, MA I took some years ago. Lowell is a locus of both early American industrialization, and the inevitable labor movements that follow once people grow weary of being ground down by engines, spitted by the spearpoint of progress. (It is also the hometown of Jack Kerouac.) That’s the problem with historicals: they are inescapably based on history, which features a boot on a throat in one permutation or another for as far back as one can manage.  

So, the endgame of this little sermonette was some dissatisfaction with It Started With a Scandal. On every objective metric, this is a fine novel, with excellent characterization, smooth pacing, and well drawn sexual tension. Long is a smart, interesting writer, and I will continue to read the shit out of her back catalog. However, I was never quite able to get over the fact that our romantic lead was a prince of Burgundy or Bourbon or somesuch, a French aristocrat who fled France during the Revolution. He’s very put out by the fact that his ancestral lands are not in his family’s possession anymore, and spends much time glowering and throwing vases in fits of pique. The leading lady, his housekeeper, vouchsafes to feel bad for him quite enormously. She is herself just weeks from penury — she and her child — so she knows what it is to lose things. 

To which I say: bah. The French aristocracy deserved to have their heads separated from their necks. They were indolent, greedy, dissolute shits whose venality resulted in the abject poverty and misery of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people. So boo fucking hoo about getting run out of the country where our hero was born into incredible wealth and privilege. (I may have my back up after seeing some billionaire — there are only 600 or so in America, a listable group of people — literally crying on television because someone might tax him commensurate with his wealth. Meanwhile millions of Americans go bankrupt or just fucking die due to a medical insurance system designed to maximize profits at a brutal human cost. Fuck, and I can’t stress this enough, every single billionaire.) 

I am aware of, and engage in quite happily, the sort of historical blindness required to enjoy a historical romance. I am not going to nitpick inconsistencies unless they are egregious and/or not in service of the final resolution. But sometimes I’m in my own place in history, where I cannot unsee the parallels to current, ongoing, often fatal injustices in the world. I am not going to waste time feeling bad for people who have had everything and then some given to them by accident of birth who, just occasionally, feel thwarted in their every impulse. Our heroine’s soft-heartedness looks soft-headed.

I’ve said this before, but I’m going to repeat it: every romance has the echoes of a less satisfactory conclusion embedded within it. Without the invisible authorial hand, our housekeeper’s life would end in brutal poverty, discarded by a “polite” society predicated on systematic exploitation. Mostly I’m satisfied with these romantic revisions — that is the point of a historical romance novel, n’est-ce pas? I can and do acknowledge this freakout is largely on me — I do not want to enbussen Long, who seems a very fine writer, because of a personal convergence of things. But sometimes I just can’t. The romantic conclusion ends up seeming such a petty, priapic thing, the tumescence of love blotting out all impediments to our lovers, even the important, necessary, and structural ones. 

Probably I should just back way from historical romance for the time being, library holds notwithstanding, until some improbable time when our brutal history is less brutal. I’ll be busy holding my breath. 

I Knight Thee Good Fun: Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals Series

I started reading Alyssa Cole a few years ago. I think I saw her name on a list of women of color writing contemporary romance, and given how tragically white much romance is, I thought I should give her a shot. I read her Off the Grid series, which, in addition to being both science fictional and post-apocalyptic (these things are not necessarily the same things, a distinction I’m happy to fight about), also include a gay romance and one with an Asian dude as the hottie, neither of which are necessarily standard in contemporary romance. Additionally, the apocalypse in those novels is a Carrington Event, which is one of my favorite apocalypses. (Yes, I have favorite apocalypses.) Oh, and Cole is clearly a nerd and a geek, and she is not afraid of some pop cultural jokes or meticulous research. Really good stuff.

I didn’t read more, at the time, because I’m, like, not as interested in modern day princess stories, and Reluctant Royals was what was popping up as read-next. (Cole also has a historical romance series, but I’m not sure the first had been published when I picked up Duke by Default.) I tend to get all pissy about the whole rubber-necking industry that has grown up around the English royal family. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that I grew up in the Anglican Church, which is peopled, unsurprisingly, with a fucktonne of anglophiles. Like, commemorative plate style anglophiles, so simultaneously snotty and trashy, which is a neat trick.

But also: I once went regularly to this open mic at an Irish bar run by a Welshman, and there was this woman who showed up regularly in full on tartan explosion. (Yes, I recognize that’s all very Celticly confused, but this is America; none of this stuff has any meaning). She tended to sit in the booth behind mine, and we were nodding acquaintances. She drove me absolutely fucking bananas with her bullshit.

See, she claimed to be some sort of Scottish royalty, like maybe not a duchess, exactly, but more like a countess? Honestly, I find it hard to give a fig about titles so none of that stuff is going to track for me. (This isn’t really getting into the retconning of the Scottish royalty, especially after the Battle of Colloden which put down the Jacobite rebellion and lead to the Highland Clearances. After the English depopulated Scotland of anyone who might complain, they went in and prettied up the Scottish clan system, which heretofore had been families of cattle thieves who tended to dress alike, but otherwise wasn’t codified. All that tartan stuff is nonsense.) Anyway, she had this younger dude who liked to do sweeping bows and a bunch of hand-kissing, probably because he spent too much time at the Ren Fest. Once, he tried to drag me into it, and I was like, sorry, I live in a representational democracy* which threw over a monarchy for a reason.** I have zero interest in kowtowing to someone because of who their grandparents are.

There was a record scratch noise and some people got pissed at me for being a buzzkill, which I admit I was being. But also fuck royalty. Some of my people were hapless drunks, others were fleeing various wars, some just hated their hometowns. I feel neither pride nor shame about my ancestors; they were just people: good, bad, and indifferent.

Point being, I have something of a chip when it comes to the concept of hereditary monarchy. Sure, fine, if they’re figureheads like in Denmark (though I’m still not bowing and scraping), but actual ruling dynasties like the al Saud family are monsters, as one recently brutally murdered journalist could attest if he hadn’t been dismembered and murdered, not exactly in that order. Which is to say, I’m a fucking crank about a little subgenre of romance novels with lighthearted wish fulfillment about being a princess.

I recognize I have issues.

So, it came as something of a surprise when I actually earnestly enjoyed Duke by Default. Cole dives right into the class issues of the peerage, and doesn’t cut those assholes any slack. Her Duke character is actually the child of a Scottish Duke and a refugee, raised by a step-father and with half siblings who are straight up black. He’s not some ponce, and more’s the better. Oh, and his love interest is coming to terms with an ADHD diagnosis, which was sensitively written. All told, well done. 

Princess in Theory, I was less enamored of, but it’s still a good read. (Note: I read these books out of order.) The main character, who has aged out of the American foster care system and is struggling to make it in the STEM field as a black woman of no means, was a fucking great character. Prince what’s his face from an imaginary African country, him I did not like as much. (Sure, some of this is intentional: he’s to have a redemption arc from being a rich dickhead to monarch with a heart of gold. But I just couldn’t get fully on board, though of course some of this is my aforementioned issues. And Princess in Theory is still a well written novel with an admirable heroine, so do not credit my bitching too much.

Anyway! So, one which didn’t work so great for me (due mostly to me), and one which knocked it out the park. I would totally read number three, A Prince on Paper, once I’m back in the mood for smart contemporary romance. Alyssa Cole is pretty great.

*Snort; as if.

**Actually a lot of those reasons were shitty and self-serving, George III notwithstanding.

Writing Sex into the Classics

This was originally written a couple years ago after reading two erotic updates of English literature classics, which seemed an inevitable outgrowth of the monster mash-ups that became something of a fad after the surprise success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I was reminded of its existence when I ran across a Northanger Abbey with sex writing mash-up recently. I haven’t gone back to see if my little theory about Austen and sex writing works at all, but I do applaud the mash-up writer for taking on one of my favorite Austen heroes. He was just the kind of gentle and mansplainy that I would expect.

A quick disclaimer: this isn’t really a “review”. That’s generally true when I’m writing “reviews”, but I felt squeamish reading through it for spelling errors and the like. This is a complete and total overreaction and overthink of some very silly stuff, and I just want to be clear that I’m aware of that. If you really give a shit about whether you’ll like a smut version of “Daisy Miller” by Henry James, or the continuing erotic adventures of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, I will repeat this quote attributed to so many people as to be a mysterious aphorism: people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. I mean, seriously. 

I get why contemporary writers do pulp retellings of 19th Century literature. So much of what gives the original stories juice is the unspoken or the alluded, all that subterranean emotion thrumming through the stories like blood. The thing I remember most from Wuthering Heights, for example, is Cathy running out into the moors, tearing all her clothes off, and becoming a werewolf. And before you get on me, yes, of course I know this didn’t happen. But the image is what my mind makes of all the subtext, all this howling and brutality and half-creatures. While Wuthering Heights is an absolute hatecast, there’s a lot of ambiguity there, a closed mouth about certain things which isn’t so much coy as withholding. I can see the instinct to nail it down, to make it be one thing and not all the others. So of course it’s dumb and painful that Stephenie Meyer, in Eclipse, remakes this story of blood and revenge into a doddering middle class non-problem, but she absolutely gets the werewolf right. She makes it one thing and not the others.

Conversely, let us consider Austen, who probably has the largest body of retellings of her works. (Interestingly, these mash-ups tend to be either horror or romance; maybe it’s the embodied angle of both genres? Or, wait, there are some mysteries, which I tend not to read, so this theory is more about my predilections than anything. Carry on.) Unlike the Brontës, Austen is very rarely, and only under the most dire of circumstances, a Romantic — heed my capital letter, friends — even while her stories are intensely domestic. It has been observed that no two men speak to one another without a woman present in all of her novels, as she has the concision of the documentarian. She has never seen two men speak without a woman (herself) present, and she’s hard-headed enough to stick to the things she’s seen, rather than the things she can imagine.

She’s got a mercantile bent, so much so that one almost despairs ever meeting the principles of Sense and Sensibility when one picks it up, given the reems of description of everyone’s financial state. Observe:

By a former marriage, Mr. Henry Dashwood had one son; by his present lady, three daughters. The son, a steady, respectable young man, was amply provided for by the fortune of his mother, which had been large, and half of which devolved on him on his coming of age. By his own marriage, likewise, which happened soon afterwards, he added to his wealth. To him therefore the succession to the Norland estate was not so really important as to his sisters; for their fortune, independent of what might arise to them from their father’s inheriting that property, could be but small. Their mother had nothing, and their father only seven thousand pounds in his own disposal; for the remaining moiety of his first wife’s fortune was also secured to her child, and he had only a life interest in it.”

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Zzzzzzz. 

Look, I love Austen like the catty, introverted cousin I hang on the wall with while at family functions, drinking — which is to say: a lot — but this is some bloodless stuff. Much as the mistaken asshole plot from Pride and Prejudice has become a mainstay of romance novels, Austen herself would not particularly care for the high emotions of such a thing, especially if the principles failed to take into account or straight up flaunted social/economic/racial divides. Which happens often in romance novels because the driving considerations of a match are emotional; love trumps all incompatibilities. Education heals all, to Austen, or possibly one’s good nature, or manners, or all three, but then only provisionally, and only for the narrowest of slices of society. Maybe. Money is most definitely very large factor. 

So I can see why people want to sex her up. Austen doesn’t give us much to go on, in terms of physicality: Elizabeth has “fine eyes” and Darcy, honestly I don’t know if he is short or tall or blond or what. Elizabeth even pokes at the Romantic sensibility right before she gets her own moral/economic slapdown at Pemberley, so awed by her would-be lover’s stuff and things she doesn’t “know herself”:

“My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.” [all sic, because Austen can’t spell, bless her heart]

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

What are men, indeed, Elizabeth? The romance novel heroine might protest in much the same way: no, of course I do not love Slade, who is either wealthy or secretly wealthy. But her revelation that she loves him would never come at observing Slade’s tangible wealth; that would be too bald, strangely. Indeed the opposite is more often true: the romantic heroine’s lack of care for his wealth is the test that paradoxically provides her worthiness. She is no golddigger. She does not consider such hard, true, palpable things as money in her calculations of her happiness, except insofar as her poverty is a virtue. There are roughly one million romance novels that pair the noble poor woman with a dickish billionaire, running a redemption arc for the wealthy while both volorizing poverty and slyly denigrating the poor. The worthy poor get a hand out; the rest of you lot are probably getting what you deserve.

In some ways, adding sex to Austen balances the scale. All scandals, my dad once told me, have to do with either sex or money. Austen’s scandals tend to be about money. Though sex occasionally factors, money is always the prime mover, that thing that bends passions and taints the tentative beginnings. Austen is no Victorian: This isn’t because she’s squeamish or a prude. The bone fide sex scandals in her novels do not result in redemptive death for the woman; neither Lydia Bennet nor the Bertram sister from Mansfield Park get consumption and die as punishment. The consequences of their actions flow naturally, and are not there as moral instruction (which is actually astonishing, considering.) But latter day stories featuring Elizabeth and Darcy often find them, post nuptials, engaging in all the hard passions denied the satirist, because Austen’s aim is not moralizing but satirizing.

The latter day erotic retelling aligns Austen to more post-War middle class American sensibilities: you can talk about money, but only as a metric for plucky self-determination, or for virtue-signaling purposes. Virtue is rewarded, often materially, in the narrative, which is something that often doesn’t happen in Austen. Elinor Dashwood and her beau are quite impoverished, in the end, as are Fanny and Edmund. And sex in a certain species of boilerplate romance novel — the kind you find on the spinning rack — is weirdly morally pure. I once spend a wedding shower in the company of born again Christian in-laws, who regaled me with their sexual exploits in terms far too explicit for this humble humanist. Sex in the confines is exalted, apparently. It makes sense, theologically: emotions are more important that fact, faith more important than works, at least in ground game American evangelical Christianity, which I think has tangible impact on the morality of your average romance novel. Fuck all you want; you’re married.

This sainted carnality is well more important in the contemporary erotic retelling than Austen’s uneasy broodings about education and morality, the subtle differences between good breeding and good manners, with all the attendant, antique and oft unpleasant implications of such concepts. I like Austen because I do not agree with her in many things (insofar as anyone can “agree” with a society 200 years distant) but I adore how serious, subtle, and nuanced her considerations are. Austen’s creatures do something more interesting than fucking, but I get how people want to see the fucking as an outgrowth of the more interesting, how they want to see it flat and straight. How fucking simplifies all the problems brought up by Austen, makes them cleanly dirty.

Which brings me rather long-windedly to these two fictions: Daisy Miller: The Wild and Wanton Edition by Gabrielle Vigot and Henry Miller (snort), and The Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray by Mitzi Szerto. Both of the original works are fictions with thick erotic subtexts, something near satire, almost didactic, definitely a hard examination of the author’s social milieu. It might be unfair to compare these two latter day appendage fictions: wild & wanton Daisy Miller is a mash-up, stitching sex writing into James’s short story, while Wilde Passions is a continuation, imagining the later day travails of the immortal Dorian Gray. I think it works in the way that Pride & Prejudice & Zombies sits uneasily yet surely with its inferior prequel: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. These are all fictions tied to the trajectories of larger gravities, unable to be considered as separate works by even the most New Critical of folk. 

So. Wild & wanton Daisy Miller is probably easier to consider, what with its brevity and large chunks of the original text. I can see why it’s attractive just to stitch fuck sequences into 19th century lit — like porn, you don’t have to mess around with actual plot, etc — but such an enterprise becomes stylistically dodgy when dealing with an author as distinctive as Henry James. I have never read the original Daisy Miller, and I could tell, down to the sentence, where the graft occurred. But the early sex sequences were honestly adorable, with Daisy and Winterbourne enacting fantasy and reverie at the edges of James’s work. This dreamy, half-imagined fuckery seemed right in line with James’s aesthetic, with a brooding, half-real cast to it. It was only as the story unspooled that things got dumb. I guess what bothers me about the new Daisy Miller is that Winterbourne wins in the end, and that dude should fucking get it. Not that he gets it in James’s version, exactly, but he sure doesn’t get the girl. Wait, let’s back up.

Definite spoilers ahead. 

In James’s version of Daisy Miller, a boring cipherous New Englander named Winterbourne meets the lush and lusty daughter of American industrialists in Geneva. They have a boring and cipherous semi-courtship, until they decamp singly to Italy. She falls in with Italians (gasp!), with whom she is either having sex, or having the socially disastrous appearance of sex. (Same/same.) Winterbourne is a dick and a bro about the whole thing; Daisy delivers some speeches about freedom (O, America); then she dies because sluts always die of the fever. The story reads as this weird superimposition of New York Belle Epoque morality, where the girl gets it because she’s a slut and/or the wrong class (same/same), and a criticism of that, because the industrialist son who oversees this tragedy is a drag and a buzzkill. (Should we be outside? Should you even be talking to me? Omg, this is all soooo informal; that’s hot but I’m scared.) You want to fling yourself at Italian men at the end, because godamn is society cold and cruel. 

In the lush & lusty version, Daisy delivers her speeches, and instead of Winterbourne magically not be the worst (which he’s pretty much been in all the Henry James parts of the story) he discovers his love for her and rescues her from fucking Italians. (I mean “fucking” to mean “having sex with”, not as an intensifier, to be clear.) They make out and she’s cured of the Roman Fever, the end. Oh, also, her mom has a lot of buttsecks with the butler. I don’t really have a problem with that either, other than the usual squeamishness about, like, fucking the staff. But, you know, this is fine work if you can get it.

Winterbourne and Daisy getting together is the kind of end that makes me feel icky in my tummy. Sure, in the original, Winterbourne is an officious dick and Daisy a sheltered fool, but their ugly ends (while completely incommensurate) taught me something about rigid, boring, horrid class systems based on the finest of gradations. While I’m fine with Daisy surviving the usual Romantic illness that overtakes all fallen women since Victoria took the throne (at least), I am mos def not okay with Winterbourne being treated like some kind of romantic hero. Fuuuuck that guy; he is the embodiment of mediocre conventionality. Team Daisy. 

This seems an altogether different kind of American social message to have Winterbourne win out against his girl fucking Italians. Instead of some quaint 19th century examination of the grasping newly middle class tripping over its inborn lusts in front of the more second generation moneyed asshole, we have the second generation moneyed asshole being redeemed by the quaint notion of love erasing all impediments, even the bone-deep character ones. Daisy opens her legs and her heart, and Winterbourne is tugged dickward towards his inevitable romantic emanation. (I love you. Daisy, and your fucking of Italians in the square is simply performance to my voyeurism. What happiness, etc.) It’s a petty, priapic kind of love, one where romantic love brutally wins over literally everything else.

Everyone forgets that Romeo and Juliet were the exact same damn thing, and that their thwarted romance had nothing to do with class or race or anything. It is the narcissism of small differences: that the more similar two people are, the more they are likely to focus on the points of divergence, sometimes to animosity. (Which explains things like, say, the conflict in Northern Ireland, which to outsiders looks like an pointless ginger fight.) R & J would have cemented a dynasty had they had text messaging, and I gotta say, that’s not a play I want to see. It would be gross to watch two rich, white assholes get together, and it’s a damn good thing they died. So too, in the updated Daisy Miller. Daisy survives Winterbourne’s bourgie morality so they can canoodle, pretty much destroying all actual criticism of James’s social milieu. I really haven’t got a lot of time for this, but then I also admit I’m a vicious crank. Someone has got to die to prove the situation serious. All the unintended consequences to the shifts in Daisy make it kind of a bummer.

I also admit I’ve entirely overthought just about everything. Lighten up! It’s just a bit of fun! And look, I know. And I did have some fun, mostly because of the dizzying whiplash of stewing in James’s page-long sentences, and then being treated to rapid fire anal sex scenes. There’s something charming about how silly the whole prospect is, which is why I undertook this at all. Brontës and Austen make sense to me to graft in some love and zombies, but James? Is there, like, wild & wanton versions of Melville? Ethan Frome? They’re both stories with thick erotic subtexts, and even some unrequited love! (If only that big white Dick would put out, sigh.) It takes stones to take on James with a project this goofy, and I do earnestly applaud the effort. You’d never get me to set my prose style against James’; no fucking way.

And so, to move on after far too much ado, a quick google unearthed for me the latter day adventures of Dorian Gray. Unlike Miss Daisy, Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray is not a mash-up, but a continuation. Szereto rewrites the very end of Dorian Gray (the only novel Wilde ever wrote), rescuing Dorian from death by his own hand, and recounting the plot of Wilde’s novel though flashback and reference. Dorian bottoms through the next century or so, moving from various literary and/or exotic locales: Paris in the beginning, where he runs with Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds (though why they are never named confuses me); on to Marrakesh, where he enacts an ooky Orientalism; then to South America, where he tempts the faithful, and finally ending in New Orleans in an unconvincing redemption of sorts. With vampires.

While the wild & wanton “Daisy Miller” feels like a goof or a lark — hey, let’s stitch some fuckery into Henry James! That’s hi-larious! — I get the distinct impression that Wilde Passions is rather serious. Wilde Passions is not simple stroke material, but an earnest grappling with the ambiguous messages of Dorian Gray. This is odd, really, because Wilde, as you may be aware, was one of the funniest dudes ever, and the shift in tone is notable. I scanned a little of the original Dorian Gray, and shit, yo, is that man droll. At least Wilde Passions doesn’t have the source material cheek to jowl with the continuation, because that would be ruinous. As it stands, the different tone is not distracting, and trying to write like Oscar Wilde, one of the great comic writers, is probably doomed anyway.

So, I guess what I want to talk about is the erotic, and sex writing more generally. Sex writing is one of those things that is more variegated that it would appear from the snickering. It’s probably harder to pull off than a fight scene, which I would say is damned difficult to do well, because even just the writer’s choices for body terminology can turn a reader off. I know I have the words I cannot take seriously in a sexual context, which is not the same for “arm” or “leg” or “knife”. The verb “to lave” doesn’t get much play beyond sex writing, and feels both clinical and euphemistic to me. I’d much prefer cunts and cocks to honey pots and manroots, but I know many readers of sex writing, almost ironically, find these terms far too aggressive or smutty or something. 

It seems to me we’ve ceded sex writing to romance novels, and I don’t mean this to be an indictment of romance novels, but an indictment of literary fiction. Most of the best sex writing I’ve read has been in a romance novel, because that’s where sex writing occurs most often. But romance novels generally present a very, very narrow slice of the stunning variety of human sexuality. I’m not just talking about kinks or whatnot, I’m talking about how it’s generally middle class white women knocking boots with middle class white men, all between the ages of 25-35. The sex is going to be good, mind-blowing even, and no one has tired, married sex to get it over with. I’m not saying romance novels should start depicting that, necessary, though some older, less white folk would be greatly appreciated. I get that they’re wish fulfillment narratives. But it’s notable to me, for example, how many people shit the bed over the tampon scene in Fifty Shades of Grey, wherein dude removes her tampon before banging her, when, right now, literally thousands of people are having sex on the rag. Tens of thousands. It’s such a mundane, everyday detail to freak out over. Romance novel sex is often weirdly prissy.

But it’s dreadfully hard to find sex in literary fiction, and when you do, it’s often just painfully bad. The British literary magazine Literary Review does a Bad Sex in Fiction prize every year, and the esteemed and prized writers who make the list make one wince. From Ben Okri, a Booker prize winner, and the Bad Sex in Fiction winner for 2014:

“Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail … The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.”

 I mean, really. This is what sex would be like on Monty Python, the bombs bursting on air and all that. I can think of some really cringy sex scenes from literary novels, with this just terrible mix of platitudes and overwrought metaphors. And this is of course when there is any sex writing at all, this vital component of many relationships simply elided. 

The sex — and there is a lot of it — in Wilde Passions cuts a weird middle distance. It’s not explicit enough to be stroke material — it’s not erotica — but then it’s too omnipresent to be truly literary. Dorian enacts just a host of transgressions in his quest for hedonistic sensuality and fading youthful beauty, like he does in Wilde’s novel. He ruins a Marrakeshi prostitute boy with shame and drink; he seduces a monk, which leads to the monk’s suicide. He brutalizes and murders women in New Orleans. But, here’s the thing: I just kinda didn’t get why.

Wilde somewhat famously added a preface to Dorian Gray after Victorian critics got all up in arms about its “sham morality”. You’re just writing smut with the lamest of censures tacked on the end, they said, to which Wilde replied: all art is quite useless. Morality or immorality has no place in the process of creating beauty. Art is a not a tool — it should not have a use — or it is not art. I can’t say I agree, but then I also understand where he’s coming from, and why he’s putting it so starkly. He goes to explore a life decoupled from consequence, driven by an amoral worldview, and then a bunch of howling censors accuse him of corrupting babies. Fuck you, I’m not making tools for your morality. Make them your damn self. 

Continuing on Gray’s amoral quest, after removing what you could even consider a moral, is an interesting experiment, honestly, but I have some reservations about how successful this is. His transgressions are all sexual in nature, and I begin to weary of the fuckery. Why can we not change up his violations of the social contract with, say, a Ponzi scheme or selling cancer cures made of chicken bones? I guess what I’m saying is it seems a failure of imagination to cast all his amorality in terms of the bedroom. He even killed a dude directly in Wilde’s tale. Sure, you could argue that it’s the culture around Dorian which casts his homosexual sex acts as villainous, but, as a first person narrative, that doesn’t really work. He’s pretty gleeful about the ways he ruins people through buggery, and, ultimately, it reads a little like, omg, the homosexual agenda! I don’t think that’s the intent, not at all, but it can be read out of the text pretty easily. 

But, my disquiet aside, Szereto is clearly grappling with something here, something real. And let’s put my disquiet back into it: Wilde Passions invoked for me the same brutal, chilly eroticism of mid-century fiction by women — stuff like The Story of O and Ice by Anna Kavan — and that shit frays me. She takes this odd, amoral remnant from the most squeamish of times, Victoriana, and then runs him like a VHS tape on fast forward. Wilde Passions ends somewhere in Anne Rice’s vampire eroticism, all kudzu and rot, which would be relevant 20 years ago but feels weirdly antique now. All of it feels antique: the Fitzgeralds, the Orientalism, the Thomas Mann inflected monastery, New Orleans before Katrina. Hell, maybe this takes place after Katrina, but that wouldn’t rightly be the point.

On some level, Wilde Passions is a catalog of the literary erotic, and the ways it doesn’t work are indictments of the form. The erotic in literature is built partially on shame, and shame is a sad, lonely, and conservative beast, more worried about body parts than injustice, more worried about degradation than violation. So Dorian’s burgeoning, transformative love for a girl he both brutalized and terrorized is part and parcel of the romantic narrative: love is redemptive, and requires no agency in its actors. You will be an ideal person whether you like it or not. You are simply a player in someone else’s story. Once again, love brutally wins over literally everything else, only this time, you’re not supposed to see that as a good thing. God help us all.

It’s intensely clever the way Szereto removes the Victorian “moral”, weak though it is, and then runs Gray’s amoral sensation seeking through changing literary erotic landscapes. She then ends with a modern “moral”, which looks just a weak as the Victorian. You rarely notice how blinkered the idea that romantic love is a moral agent, but boy can you see it here. Wilde Passions was a very pleasant surprise for me, an essay on sex writing and morality which is deeply considered. Who knew?

The Star Thief by Jamie Grey

The Star Thief by Jamie Grey is a hugely silly and energetic romp around a space opera playset of no particular note, and, as such, was utterly charming to me. Just about every single trope of the genre is deployed with extreme prejudice – the MacGuffin (actually, several), technobabble tech, mercenaries (with or without hearts of gold), tough but caring sergeants, mad scientists, bad childhoods, indistinguishable same-language speaking planets, aliens, empaths, slums, the Fate of the Universe, etc etc. The plot is pure Scooby Doo, with Bad Guys and Red Herrings playing a game of idiot poker with the reader; I can see the cards you have, friend. But it starts fast and does not ever slow down to whinge about, like, politics or needless exposition or, god help us all, philosophy, which I actually count as a good thing. There’s a lot of cut-rate philosophizin’ going on in space opera, and reading one that wasn’t fussed about that jibber-jabber felt like a breath of fresh air. Just set the reactor to explode and haul ass.

Renna Carrizal is a 23 year old master thief who’s pulled off the most famous heist in the ‘verse (of course). She’s on one last job which will give her the money she needs to retire (of course) when it all goes wrong. She’s to pick up some technonanablasterthing, and (of course) is sidetracked in the rescue of a young boy she finds locked in a cage (of course). She has no particular maternal feelings (of course), but this kid is Different Somehow. Of course. From then on it’s all bew bew as she’s more or less blackmailed by some kind of military slash secret government outfit (?) to go get this one thing and bew bew bew. Also, there’s a Captain Tightpants with whom she has a history. Hubba hubba.

Frankly, there are a lot of things that don’t make a lick of sense about the plot. The somewhat snort-worthy named MYTH is an organization which is somehow both a Star Fleet-ish governmental agency and a secret organization with terrorist-style cells who don’t know one another because…? How does that work, exactly? Generally terrorist-style cells are used by terrorists, and all the military boy-scouting and honor of the soldiers just felt weird and wrong. People who are supposedly hardened mercs are a lot more gormless and guileless than I would expect. But whatever. The prose is just gleefully patchwork, tossing in all manner of hat-tips and allusions to other space operas, from the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver to BSG’s frakking. It’s not particularly well synthesized, but then it’s also hilarious and awesome.

It is my understanding that The Star Thief is an indie title, and it shows. I didn’t notice any copy editing errors, but it did have some rough edges on it that a story editor would have ground off. Lines such as, “The entire word had shifted, like she was fucking Alice in Wonderland…” seriously cracked me up. If you want the f-bomb there to be read as an intensifier and not as a transitive verb, I humbly suggest rewriting the line as, “The entire world had shifted, like she was Alice in fucking Wonderland…” You’re welcome. There were some cut-and-pasty seeming conversations and thought processes, although some of this could be attributed to the conventions of the romance plot that’s wound through the proceedings. Boy, can romance heroines wheel-spin if you let them, though, admittedly, the spun wheels here weren’t lingered on too much. We’ve got explosions to walk away from, after all.

And while it may seem I’m praising this with faint damns, I’m really not. I’ve been hacking my way though the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey recently, and while that series is just brilliantly plotted and meticulous about its geo-slash-solar-system politics and world building, on some level it lacks the rough energy of something like The Star Thief. A better edited version of this book would not have the same slapdash charm. Jamie Grey was having just a helluva good time writing The Star Thief, working the kind of nerding that’s more interested in gameplay than rolling up the characters. No, this isn’t better than Leviathan Wakes, but on some level it’s more fun.

Which is not to say that the plot coupons and convenient Chekhovian guns couldn’t rankle in the wrong mood. The sheer tumble of the plot means that brutal, terrible things like watching the destruction of your home town are not given the emotional resonance they deserve, but then it’s not like this hasn’t been a thing in space opera since Vader vaporized Alderaan while Leia watched, and likely before. (I like Carrie Fisher’s quip from a 1983 interview with Rolling Stone that “[Leia] has no friends, no family; her planet was blown up in seconds—along with her hairdresser—so all she has is a cause.”) I also recognize that it is a dick move as a reviewer to praise a book for its lack of emotional depth, and then cut it for the very same reason. These are the cards I’ve been dealt.

Renna is nastier than Leia, more Cat Woman than Princess, not troubled too greatly about using her sexuality as a weapon or shanking assholes who deserve it. (You know, not that Renna is a better character or anything.) I could do without Renna’s casual girl-hating in the beginning, and the general non-importance of female characters other than Renna. Again, this is a general problem with space opera, which tends to fail the Bechdel test much harder (as a genre) than just about any other I can think of, short of werewolf books. At least the girl-hating seems to dissipate by the end; she has learned a valuable lesson about women in authority. Or something. Bew bew!

 

Magickal IreLand: Dark Witch by Nora Roberts

When I read romance, I tend to gravitate to the paranormal ends of things – steampunkery, werewolves, (less so) vampires, superpowers, alt-histories. Some of this is just basic reading proclivities. I’d rather read science fiction or fantasy in general, so it makes sense I’d go for that edge of a genre. The other thing, for me, is that paranormal romance often allows the writer to slip her bonds and do a bunch of crazy ass shit. One a writer can start messing with the rules of physics or magic(k) or whatever, she has the opportunity to pull some compelling gedankenexperiments, but you know, about sex and the interpersonal, not about whatever SFnal idea. A lot of these thought experiments can seriously, seriously piss me off, but they tend to produce a lot of friction, a mainline down into the hind brain. When writers can rearrange the rules of the world, or your body, or the history of it all, what they reconstruct and reconfigure can be really telling.

Take, for example, Breaking Dawn, which includes about a 50 page span that is hands down the scariest thing I’ve ever read. The rest of that novel is a Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light painting wrapped in a snuggly blanket of No Narrative Danger, and ends, for this reader, in the most chillingly inert vision of family perfection I’ve ever seen. The mate-for-life trope gets me chuffed every time I see it – why would the removal of emotional agency be a desirable thing? – but it’s especially fucked in Meyer’s universe. There’s all this weird heat in the narrative, this danger that might just claw out of your stomach like a blood-covered baby with a mouth full of teeth. That you could look down on that and become suffused with love, like Bella does, is a deeply kinky thing to admit to, which is likely why the second half of that novel is an arm-wheeling attempt to cauterize the bloodletting through a bunch of speachifying and absolutely nothing happening.

Whether I like all this is not my point; my point is that is fascinating. I could reel off a dozen other examples of paranormals that have gotten my blood boiling, dropped my jaw, or otherwise surprised me with the parameters of their wish-making and the oddities of the wish-fulfillment. Which is why Nora Roberts’s Dark Witch is notable, in a way. Dark Witch is the coziest, most frictionless paranormal I’ve ever had put me sleep. The heroine is literally given a pony in maybe the second chapter she’s in, after being given a family, a love interest, her dream job, just the cutest little apartment in a cottage she’s ever seen, best friends, a sense of purpose, and magic(k)al abilities. This all occurs in the first half of the novel. By the time she’s given a new car – a Mini Cooper, squee – I was straight up laughing. I guess there’s some bother with a Voldemort-ish sorcerer, but I wouldn’t be too fussed with him until book three, when he will be – spoiler alert – defeated.

Dark Witch opens with a couple of chapters of 13th Century Ireland, where, apparently, all the kids are amazing, precocious and well above average. I mean, there’s a baby riding a stallion! I know! Anyway, housewife slash dark witch Sorcha is having problems because the evil witch Voldemort wants to fuck her or something. I’m not entirely clear on what this will accomplish, other than the obvious, and it’s the usual mumble mumble magic POWER mumble RULE THEM ALL of paranormal bunkum. (Even Tolkien, I hesitate to say. Quick: explain Sauron’s motivations, and “he wants power” is not a motivation. Why does he want it?). I’m also not entirely clear why Voldemort’s constant offers to impregnate Sorcha make her even slightly consider his offer, which it does. Sorcha has three children under the age of 7 and lives alone in a cabin in the woods with no running water in 13th Century Ireland. I would imagine that not being impregnated by an evil sorcerer would be like a get-out-of-death-in-childbirth-free card in medieval Europe, but what do I know.

Fast forward to the here and now, when Iona Sheehan has arrived in Ireland to find her extended family and, like, herself. Her parents have always been withholding jerks, but she’s still irrepressibly optimistic and zesty. She heads out to find the O’Dwyer siblings, Connor and Branna, who are third or fourth cousins of some stripe. Branna runs a candle and hokum shop called The Dark Witch, and Branna is a falconer. (I know!) Iona is immediately adopted by the siblings, who are all like, you’re our lost sister, would you like to live in this adorable room and have a pint of Guinness and scones, sláinte, Irish Irish McIrish. Then they do a jig and play the fiddle, and shamrocks explode into sparkling green confetti. It’s really cool, very Irish.

My friend Mike has this theory that we should just turn England into a theme park which would be called EngLand. There would be people in plushy Queen Elizabeth costumes (both original and New Coke flavors) hugging babies, and rides around sets of various historical periods. It would all be clotted cream and nevermind all the bother of Thatcher and Blair and the fact that England isn’t frozen in the mythic past full of stallion-riding babies. And that’s more or less what the tourist trade will sell you, if you want them to, and you probably do. Mike’s theme park is more-or-less a reality in certain tourist districts, this Disney cottage sold to visitors who pay well for its clapboard authenticity.

This is even more fraught when it comes to Ireland, as the Irish diaspora after the Famine “returns” to the Old Country looking for connection and explanations, often bumbling into political realities that surprise. My sister-in-law whose maiden name has a Mc in it was blithely amused that her family in Ireland had been Catholic, and that they were a little taken aback by her family Protestantism. How would I even know that? she asked me, and I was like, um, because…just…nevermind. There’s a great album called “The Crossing” by folk musician Tim O’Brien (no relation to the writer), which is about the immigrant experience several generations on, the Return to Ireland, and what a bust it can be. Ireland will not adhere to your grandparents’ extremely suspect idealizations of lies their parents told them, mixed in with a bowl of Lucky Charms. In the song “Talkin’ Cavan,” an Irishman says to O’Brien, “A Cavan man then…you know, a lot of people wouldn’t admit to that,” after O’Brien cheerfully relates his family line.

“Then the very next day in the hardware store
I found a cousin ten times removed or more
But he was no apparition, he wasn’t a haint – he was sellin’ nuts and bolts and paint
I told him about our family connection, and he kinda stood there still, reflectin’
I could tell he wasn’t that much impressed when he asked me with nary a trace of jest
He said, ‘How exactly may I help you, sir?
I just bought some nails and got the hell out of there.”

The Ireland that Iona has traveled to, the one with the Branna and Connor hawking and making their little charms and soups and playing fiddle certainly must be a magic(k)al one, because ain’t no Ireland ever looked like that one, not in the here-and-now, not ever. How exactly can I help you, Iona?

But it’s a cozy painting nonetheless, this IreLand. All of the characters are relentlessly kind and decent people who enfold Iona into the warmth of their collective bosom. (Not that the guys have bosoms. Maybe it could be said that the love interest enfolds her onto the warmth of his collective…well, you catch my drift.) Everything anyone says to anyone else is devoid of subtext, just a bald and accurate statement about their internal state. Even Iona’s second act “misunderstanding” with her lover is handled with maturity (despite the stupidity of its underpinnings). I did really get a hoot out of the guys’ night/girls’ night out after said misunderstanding, and that I just called it a “hoot” is indicative of how much of a hootenanny it was. Gosh, those Irish know how to have a bottle of wine split between three women and joke about becoming lesbians and wake up with killer headaches. Golly.

It’s funny to me to read a paranormal novel so completely without high emotions of any kind, this soporific round of walks in the misty Irish spring and mature, adult conversations. There was one chapter, in particular, that detailed the making of a soup so closely that I thought maybe the soup was significant and it would burst into flames or something. No, it was just soup, which they then ate. Later I breathed a sigh of relief when a visitor interrupted a similarly detailed assembly of a pan of scalloped potatoes. (O, would that he had hailed from Porlock.) The wish-fulfillment is all front-loaded, not functioning as narrative reward. And if it’s not narrative reward, then what is it? I just don’t get it.

Dark Witch is a strange one, to be sure, almost tired of itself, of its forgone conclusions and lack of real conflict. Let’s just give the heroine a pony first thing and see what happens. It’s sweet that Roberts portrays this battle between good and evil as so forthright and cheerful, but it also isn’t any fun. Codladh sámh, dear reader.