Bickering as Courting: The Native Star

This was another insomnia read, picked up in the dark hours when no one but me is awake. Pretty much with an insomnia read I’m just looking for readability, which is one of those terms that is probably not that helpful. Maybe I should go onto Karen’s Reader’s Advisory group and try to define this readable beast.

Tone: light to medium
Pace: fast
Setting: not contemporary, possibly with magic, aliens, gadgets or other neat ideas that are fun to watch play out
Romance: light
Narrator: inobtrusive

Admittedly, these are just my criteria, but this is my insomnia and I’m sticking to it.

The Native Star by M.K. Hobson, on the dust jacket, is likened to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which I think works insofar as they are both mild alt-histories with magic as the alternate part of history, but the tone and pacing are very, very different. I would not want to read anything with footnotes, as much fun as they are in Strange & Norrell, in the odd hours. And as much as I love Strange & Norrell , the pace is glaaaacial. (And not to be be bitch, I think Strange & Norrell is a better book, by whatever odd metric I have for judging writing and content, fwiw. Just not better in the middle of the night.)

But! The other thing I like about likening this to Strange & Norrell is that neither one is steampunk, a label I see applied to this one. Forsooth, arguing about genre is a losing business, but just because something is an alternate history set in the late 1800s, that isn’t enough to make it steampunk. Magic ain’t gadgets, and a certain kind of fetishized retro-technology porn is an inextricable part of the (sub)-genre. But! I’m willing to concede that this is in the odd dash-punk edge of alt-history. I noticed some similarities between the sanguimages from this book and the warlocks in Bitter Seeds – indeed, both are termed warlocks, a nice double entendre on their need for blood to perform magic, and their usefulness in wartime. Tregillis’s book also has magic and something like steampunk – though maybe it’s more gaspunk? Sorry, Ian, wherever you are. I don’t know how to class your book, or this.

It’s like there is a cluster of dash-punk genres – alternate histories that keep coding and recoding history with various magics and the magics of technologies, pushing the true history to reveal itself. Mike has noted that most alt-histories have alt-histories written within them, and Native Star is no different: here, it is a series of pulp novels that comment on the magic-working characters, which is not dissimilar to the pulp novels in Raising Stony Mayhall. I have said this a thousand times before, but I do not care about originality, so if it seems like my comparisons to other books are intended to cut this one down, that is not my intent. This is a genre exercise, whatever that genre may be, and the parameters of the world and characters are individual enough to put down any talk of being a poor copy. I mean, points for a giant oil-soaked killer raccoon alone, if novelty is your bag.

So far, this is the worst book report ever, me blathering about things only interesting to me. So, to the plot summary:

The Native Star starts with a small town witch, Emily, with money problems putting the whammy on the town babbitt, in an move that backfires into zombies and some irate townspeople. She ends up with a magical stone lodged in her hand – don’t ask – and then the story is off and tumbling in a post-Civil War Old West. Her compatriot through these tumbles is a man called Dreadnought Stanton, which is possibly the stupidest name ever, and I never did figure why Emily was the only character with a non-stupid name. The beginning rankled a bit, what with the silly names and the poor characterizations – yes, Emily is smart but uneducated; yes, Dreadnought (ugh) is a stuffed shirt patrician type, but with seeeekrits. But – and this so rarely seems to happen for me – the characterizations completely tighten up as the book progresses, the stock characters thawing into something resembling humans. The action is well-written, and the banter ranging from not-distracting to super fun. I was expecting certain inevitable twists that ended up being different enough from my expectations to be satisfying. I’ll just say: fuck yeah, hubris!

I even came to peace with the names, which end up being often Dickensian and sly. There’s a lot of really funny hat-tips in this book, like the bounty hunter with an Italian accent who seems to have walked off the set of a Spaghetti Western. I found this delightful, especially because it was underplayed. And – this is going to be huge tangent – but can someone please write on of these dash-punk action thrillers in the Reconstruction South? There seems to be a lot of fictions that center on the myth of the Old West in narrating our American discomfort with Manifest Destiny, the Civil War, and – you know – all that blood let to forge the melting pot in the first place. And how the culture wars still rage along lines set down at the time.

The bestest of these fictions, to me, is the HBO series Deadwood, but there’s plenty more stories in that well, from Eastwood’s Unforgiven to the sublime moody weirdness of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. This book opens with magical carpetbaggers slitting the throats of conciliatory but angry Southern merchants, and, hot damn, I really wish there had been more of that, as much fun as the Old West stuff was. But the dash-punk genre seems to encode these anxieties into magic or gasmasks or whatever, so I guess I can’t expect them to take on the Reconstruction South, when pretty much no one wants to touch that live wire, genre or not. Hobson does take on Grant’s presidency and the war obliquely, in a way I haven’t completely teased out yet, so that is something. (And I’m shit for history, really, so it would be cool if someones like Eric or Matt read this and gave me a book report. I’ll totally mail this to you. Kthxbai.)

So. There are things I could bitch about (not excited about the Native characters) and things I could praise (excited by the proto-feminist characters), but what it comes down to is that this was the right book at the right time. And not just to sound like I’m faint-praising this book for being a pretty midnight tumble, I spent the day thinking about the characters and the alt-history, unknotting some later plot developments and choices. There’s a lot of smart and funny here in all of the relentless action. Hot damn, that’s something, insomnia or not.

Geared for…What is Going On Here?

I think I’ve figured out my issue with steampunk. I’ve even said this before about the genre, but I wasn’t listening to myself too closely. Steampunk is defined mostly by gadgetry — goggles and steamships and corsets — and that gadgetry generally has this narrow aesthetic band. I’m nerd enough to have gone to my share of sf cons, and I get eye-rolling about how frustratingly similar all the steampunk costumes are — a corset (always with the freaking corset), a top hat (both genders), non-functional gearworks, maybe some anachronistic wings or those weird fox tails that all the teenagers wear with the weird muppet boots. (What up, teens? I don’t get your con boots.) But as much as I get irritated with the uniformity – seriously, why does “creativity” have to be so damned uniform – I get that the operative part of cosplay is play. Playing dress-up doesn’t have to make a big statement or blow my mind, and it exists as much for the performer as the audience.

That said, there are always flashes of the truly inventive in costumes I’ve seen: a woman in a gold Victorian-style dress that was designed to look like a Dalek; various steampunk takes on Stormtroopers; costumes using more working class Victorian sartorial iconography and mixed up with Marxist Freedom Fighter clothes. This last one especially, because so rarely do these steampunk characters hail from anywhere but the most rarefied upper classes, a fetishization of people who were on the whole a bunch of shitty, colonial asshats who enforced the crap out of social and sexual norms that are appalling to the modern person. Or freaking should be. Steampunk decouples the sartorial from the cultural, which in some ways can be wonderfully subversive in its own right, but also can be an act of la-la-la-la nevermind the horrors of the Industrial Revolution pretty dresses wheee!!

The gadgetry of steampunk can be part of a reordering of expectation, or they can just be there to look sweet. Either one is fine, though of course I have my preferences for the former. This is my problem with steampunk: I don’t know, often until very late in the game, which kind of book I’m reading. I read with different parts of my brain depending on genre, and it’s possible even to argue that genre is a shorthand letting us know what part of the brain to read with. I’m not going to pick up a fantasy book about elves and magic and start nitpicking that magic violates the rules of physics, therefore it’s a bad book. Or I could, but I would be lame. I approached Soulless looking for spectacle, which is exactly what I got. But I’ve fallen into the gap in steampunk’s split-personality ethos before with Meljean Brook‘s Iron Seas series. I read the first one with the part of my brain reserved for romance novels – not the dumb part or anything, just the part that isn’t going to nitpick world-building or plausibility – when I would have had a much better time reading with the SFnal part of my brain – the part that gets off on well-constructed alternate histories. Because, damn, she’s rocking the alt-history so hard in that series.

Having thought I learned my lesson about judging a book by its steampunk cover, I went into Geared for Pleasure by Rachel Grace keeping one eye open for some kind of coherent world or nifty alt-history. The alt-history idea was blown pretty soon, because this is more fantasy on steampunk planet, though there is some ornament about the horror of industrialization and the shittiness of enforced caste systems. The characters are inventive and the gadgets fun, with blue-haired badasses and spotted cat people, stealth airships and submarine brothels. In short, this book looks marvelous. The private guards for the immortal child-empress-like queen determine there is a threat to her, and go out into the world to nullify it. The novel is structured as two linked novellas, taking place one after the other about each of the two guards. The guards both seriously screw up their missions and end up falling in with pirates and pimps, who are also for some reason loyal to the queen. The writing is energetic and not faux-Victorian-purple, the last a serious problem I have with some steampunk novels. The first novella has some really ugly scene transitions, but I suspect this is more to do with bad formatting, though the writing could have been clearer.

However, even with my critical world-building brain mostly off, I have so, so many problems with this world. It’s not even so much nit-picking — going after details — as it is a fundamental incoherence in how this society is constructed. I was trying to explain the plot to my husband last night, and started in with bitching about the Queen. I likened her to Queen Amidala, even though their illogic is somewhat different. Queen Amidala is an elected monarch? How the hell does that even work? And why does she seem to have zero political sense and spends most of the movie running around pretending to be someone else? Presumably she’s got, like, actual work to do running the planet, even in exile, other than hair-brushing? Anyway, this queen was like that. Everyone loves the crap out of her, sees her as fundamental to the order of society, even though society appears to be a rigid kleptocracy that practices eugenics on a broad scale, has enslaved a whole race of cat-people, and is otherwise a total shitshow. All ills in society are blamed on some group called the Theorrean Raj — possibly a Senate or House of Lords? even though they often seem like a secret society? or possibly even just one evil dude who works behind the scenes? — whom everyone despises. Seriously, what the hell is the point of the queen if she can’t even run her own society? What is she even doing with her time?

And the principles — the two queen’s guards — are members of some racially constructed group, who, and I didn’t get this until way into the book, are understood to be an incredibly corrupt police force even though our two protags are all sweet honor-bound bunnies? Throw in a pimp-with-a-heart-of-gold, a piratess airship captain who, while being neat and badass and all, is a total psycho, murdering her crews almost casually. But everyone loves the queen! For no apparent reason! And this explains behavior that is otherwise absolutely confounding on a character level. Which is where my problem lies (lays? whatever; I hate these verbs): it wasn’t so much that the world didn’t make sense, it’s that it made so little sense that I couldn’t track why anyone was feeling anything about anything. This was less of a problem in novella one, which is a pretty solid virginal-type-learns-a-valuable-lesson-about-her-vagina tale, but in novella two I was so confused about the romantic leads’ cultural situation, societal placement, and what the hell their exact problems were that my emotional investment was pretty well fucked. If I can’t figure what’s going on, I can’t care about the outcome. I couldn’t even try to explain what that final reveal was, or what it might mean. No sense, you has it.

So why the three stars, you ask? Some of this is round up, I admit, because this as really just ok for me as a reader. But if I come at this novel with the romance reading part of my brain, there’s some interesting stuff going on. Waaaay back in the early days of my romance reading project, I complained about how some novel seemed to walk up to issues of domination and submission within sex writing, only to chicken out completely. (I think the exact scene was one where the heroine drove the hero to fuck make love to her so hard she bruised. And then nothing! No commentary about this desire for the hard fucking in the novel at all. Given Bella Cullen’s wedding night bruisings — complete with amnesia! — this seems to be A Thing.) While the set up to the sex-show thing that goes on in novella one is totally dumb and makes no sense, the ways that scene walked around consent and domination and voyeurism were pretty cool. There’s even some same-sex interactions that don’t seem to run TEH GAY PANIC, and gesture to the ways sex is often mechanically sex, while desire is a whole other issue. Neat.

Novella two’s romantical story was hamstrung by my not getting what was going on, but the themes of domination and submission, when I did get it, were handled credibly. Novella two has to do with a sexually promiscuous dominatrix thief cat-person, and I bitchily said somewhere that I expected her to get her spanks, and then love the dude for it. Which kinda happens, but then was more complicated than that. She’s having a crisis of conscience, and dude is confronting his own limitations as an alpha dude. I mean, there’s a fair amount of waaaaanghst here, but there was a charged push-pull that navigated personal sexual proclivities and personality pretty well. Plus, did I mention that she is a sexually promiscuous dominatrix thief cat-person? Who isn’t slut-shamed? Good lord, a star for that alone.

So, anyway, I can’t really say I’m going to bother with book two of this series — my problems with the world-building are probably only going to deepen — but I wouldn’t be averse to trying out some of Grace’s later books, if she writes them. She’s got a pretty inventive world here, even if it makes no godmamn sense.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone: Auspicious Beginnings

I think I made a mistake when I read Daughter of Smoke & Bone so quickly after coming off of the high of Lips Touch: Three Times. Laini Taylor’s got a hothouse style, bejeweled and voluptuous, but cut with a street level sense of banter. This really worked for me in Lips Touch, but here I felt the style was unsteady, or possibly just badly matched to the setting. I’ve complained at length about “poetic language” elsewhere, but the sort form of my complaint is how sometimes writers mistake ornament for essentials, writing a bunch of flower petals when you should write the rose down to the roots. This started reading like that at points: everyone an impossible collection of traits both exquisite and ravaged, rain-slick cobblestone, and an anachronistic American sense of the desultory charms of Europe. Sparrow in her review calls this the “American girl behind the curtain,” which is pretty freaking perfect, really. On the one hand, Taylor’s style is brilliant, making the nod to the readership, a sort of tuning fork with twin prongs of youth culture and diction vibrating against this dreamy vision of the exotic adult world. On the other…I don’t know, I don’t want to complain too loudly here because this worked for me more than it didn’t.

So. Karou is a magical teen in a parent-less Prague, living a double life of artistic adolescence and demonic purpose. Raised by monsters behind a magic door, she helps her parent surrogates acquire teeth for occult purposes by night, and has a tumbling, active teen life in the dreamiest of imaginary schools, with friends raised by gypsies and vagabonds. As I write this out, I’m impressed I didn’t throw this book down in a chapter, because a double special teen and her problems of not fitting in, especially in contrast with how fantastically desirable her beautiful boho-chic life is, this is not a story for me in the abstract. So, yeah, maybe all my bellyaching in the above paragraph is bs, because Taylor’s style is full-throated, strong enough to pull me through what is functionally a paranormal teen romance, and pull me through happily. She’s not making mistakes but choices in her writing manner, and they are smart choices. 

And, while I called this a paranormal teen romance, that’s not accurate either. Or it is for the first half, until some things change in a way that it is beyond spoiler to detail too closely. I’ll just say this: these are not simple reversals, where it turns out that good is evil and vice versa, where love conquers all. The last half does pull the flower out by the roots. The shape of Karou’s world expands and textures with her growing understandings, but it also becomes more limited, not just because all the magical doors close, but because of why those doors close, and how, even opened, the doorway will never lead to the same place. This is a nice metaphor, one that works well with the way growing up is an unwieldy mix of upped stakes and diminished prospects, how the open path of all possibilities shrinks once you understand where that path started. I am often bothered by paranormal stories because the magic is pointless, meaningless hokum – oh look at my pretty blue hair, which I have only to show you how special I am – but here the magic is hokum with teeth, and the blue hair isn’t just ornament but signifier of something true and awful: all magic, even the necessary magic of knowledge, comes at a price. 

The ending is both breathless and abrupt, the hammer hammer hammer of revelations held aloft in the moment that Karou has to decide what to do next. It’s not exactly a cliffhanger – the questions that fuel the plot have been solved, the riddles of childhood explained – but the story is far from done. I’m not frustrated so much as worried. I think I can trust Taylor, given how adept she is here at reordering the special girl paranormal narrative into something more…what…meaningful? complicated?, but until I know what happens next, where this story takes itself, I can’t say for sure. I pretty much hate when people say, oh but you have to read the whole series to know what you think of the first book, because usually those people are idiot trolls telling me I have to bump up a negative rating on some crapass thing I disliked. But, there’s some truth in it, even for things I liked, and liked a lot.* Star Wars is a kickass three-movie series, but the prequels, if you admit they exist, retroactively encrapify that ass-kicking a bit. (A bit more than a bit if I’m being honest.) So four stars, close to five, for my enjoyment of this book, for its masterful unfoldings. Pray heaven the next blooms that promise into something just as good. You can bet I’ll be reading it. 

*Though I’m not changing ratings on things I disliked, especially if I disliked them enough to stop reading and get to the 2000 page mark where I’m told things get awesome, thank you, just as I won’t change this rating even if the next disappoints.

Red: We Mate for Life and Suss out Clues, Just Like Scooby Doo

I’ve been re-watching Deadwood recently, because I have come across a couple of alt-history alt-West alt-magic-whatever books that have been really interesting to me. I’m no big fan of the straight Western – I was recently talking to a friend about the remake of True Grit, and admitted I had never seen the original, and he was like, well, it’s been nice knowing you. But I like that I have never seen a John Wayne movie, and I’m going to keep it that way – but weird, reordered takes on the American West? I’m all there. The West is where we Americans store our weird ideas about individualism and crap. It’s where we run after the Civil War to try to pretend that civilization is less than civilized, but better than the alternative of brutal, hand-to-mouth living. Or something. 

Anyway, Red by Jordan Summers has some Western ornament – a scorched planet after a third world war, some compelling description of dead, fragile forests that crack to powder as you run through, the United States broken into a loose confederation of territories with a sort of U.N.ish military that polices the boundaries between this dome-city and that. Our main character, Red, is part of this police force, out shooting at Unknowns, who are people who are not citizens of whatever territory, crossing wastelands to get to the still-poor, but livable areas left in the world. Hello, Arizona, how little have you have changed! Can I see your papers?

But this is backstory, not something we’re going to explore. Okay. Red goes to Arizona after some murrrderrrs that look like animal attacks, but Red’s spidey sense tingles, and she is going to get to the bottom of this. She shows up in [town name, something that sounds like Urea in my mind], and starts into some seriously Scooby Doo police work. Much as I love Scooby Doo, it makes me really sad when adult fictions follow the Scooby Doo protocol of meeting the villain first, only we don’t know it’s the villain, because we’re eight. I’m not eight anymore, so, thanks for being Captain Obvious about who the villain was. She meets the town sheriff, who is amazingly hot and makes her heart flip and stuff, but he has seeekrets, namely that he is a werewolf. And although it is obvious to him that the murders are caused by a werewolf and must have been perpetrated by someone he knows, he spends more time trying to cover up the other werewolf murders and managing his near-constant erection than spending any time trying to figure out the “mystery” of who killed them. Okay, hoss. That’s some good police work. 

Oh, which brings me to another thing. This is written in that third person pov character thing for the romantic leads, where we are privy to their head-thoughts and also descriptions of their clothes and relative desirableness, except for the killer-cam, which is written in the first person. The killer-cam parts of the book (except for when the killer narrates his motivations – that was crazy ham-fisted) were entirely the best written parts of this book. The book starts with a first person murder, which is tactile and seriously gross, centered in the body, upsetting. Summers, in these sections, really has a groove for the twisted, in a way that makes me hope she goes for body-horror in some later series. Body horror can get seriously boring – hello, Cronenberg – but the ways in which bodies, um, embody desire and revulsion, this can be some interesting stuff. The way the killer idolizes and then turns against his love interest, laid against the main characters’ biologically determined sexual obsession/compulsion, this could have been some interesting shit. Alas, for naught. Even though this book is trying to play hide-the-football with Red’s genetic legacy, I think we all know from the first page that she’s somehow part-wolf or whatever, so stop playing coy. 

And speaking of genetic legacy, that’s something that is dealt with funny in this book. So, there was a third world war that scorched the planet, during which some government or another sought to create super soldiers, Others, people whose DNA had been mixed with animals so that they ended up with vampires and werewolves and stuff. Okay, my disbelief is being suspending here. However, even though this is understood to be something that happened – oh, hai, the gov’t created werewolves – it is also understood to be secret, like no one knows it happened. Like, what? You can’t have it both ways. There’s this bad dude, a guy who is running for Senator (?? but there isn’t a national government? What office is he running for??) who is running on an anti-Other platform, and this is like someone running on an anti-chupacabra platform – oh noes! the Mexican goat-sucker! 

Certainly some people believe in el chupacabra (or ghosts, or space aliens, or…), and maybe if some politician used the chupacabra as some race-baiting tactic – Mexican goat-suckers are taking our jobs! Traffic stops for Mexican goat-suckers! – but the Senator’s rhetoric is entirely Triumph of the Will pure-blood stuff, and therefore makes no sense. If people do not believe in werewolves, then they are not worried about werewolf racial mixing. I’m not saying that people couldn’t work up a nice head of racism should werewolves turn out out to be real, I’m just saying they’ll probably confine their racist energies to people who actually exist when in the ballot box. And, speaking of, isn’t there an entire enormous problem of undocumented immigration going on here, embodied in the Unknowns? I could see him running on an anti-Unknown platform, at least how they are defined in this book, but the author drops them as a concern in a very, very frustrating manner. 

Which brings me to another thing. This book pretends to some measure of science fictionality – that these Others have been created by scientists using wolf DNA to make better soldier – but, and I don’t mean to be a dick here – the way the wolf behavior is presented is seriously lame, Romantic, half-googled crap. At one point, when Red figures out that there are werewolves, she thinks to herself, well, wolves have a hierarchy of dominance! Points, Daphne, for having a thought, but people have a hierarchy of dominance too! And does she do any research to back up this wild thought of maybe wolves would have specific social/biological ways of acting out their hierarchies? No. (This is despite the fact that she has some kind of digital assistant who is less useful than your average smart phone. Pretty much the assistant chimes in to alert Red when she’s getting all sexually aroused by hero dude, usually in socially awkward times. I wanted to smash that thing with a hammer until it was plastic grit. Siri, get me a hammer.) 

So okay, this is marginally science fantasy, not science fiction. That’s fine. But if we’re not using the wolf as a template for behavior, and instead using a Romantic/romantic notion of wolves which allows us to make up any damn thing about wolves and play out Romantic/romantic fantasy, why do we have to go for that stupid-ass mate-for-life garbage? The whole concept of life-long pair bonding is bullshit. Bullshit! No animal mates for life. And a woman can be marked in some unbreakable biological bond FOR ALL TIME by some teeth in her back? Fuck you, that’s horrible. Red’s nearly raped and “marked” by the bad guy, but the Romantic lead, while having consensual sex with her, marks her as well, even though she is unaware of the whole concept of marking, and for sure never said that was okay. So, by consenting to sex, she consents to her perpetual sexual ownership, something that can only be broken by the death of one of the partners? There’s a battered women’s shelter down the block full of women whose partners thought things like this. 

I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been uncharitable in this review, because much of my disappointment is based on my own misconceptions of what this book was going to be about when I came into it. I thought this was an post-apocalypse Western – and it is briefly, I guess – but it’s pretty straightforward paranormal romance with dome cities and digital assistants. Disappointing to me, but occasionally interesting to read. Could have been worse.

Fifty Shades of Fanfic

I’ve been writing this review for four hundred years. Seems funny, because this only came out whatever many months ago. But for real, I think this is the longest bother I’ve had with a review. This whole review is tl;dr, and a ton of it was written while drunk, although I’ve certainly had time to clean up the typing, given the 400 years. So the usual caveats are in place: I might talk spoilers, though I try to note them. I also cuss a fair amount, and there’s some sex-talk, but if you don’t like cussing or sex-talk, then you won’t like this book anyway, and what the hell are you doing reading reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey? You know what this book is about.

Some Blather about The Novel, The Romance, and The Fanfic

I’m not even sure it could rightly be called a novel, if you get right down to snobbish definitions involving, like, narrative structure and the experience of reality and stuff. Observe my man Nathaniel Hawthorne making the distinction between a Novel and a Romance in the preface to The House of the Seven Gables:

When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel.  The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience.  The former—while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably, so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.

Nate was living before the invention of the modern romance, so he can be forgiven in assuming his writers were dudes. (Although, according to this definition, extremely dude-y books such as Moby Dick; Or The Whale are Romances. So there.) I mean, maybe this crusty distinction between Novel and Romance – even the capital letters are an indication of moldering taxonomy – has been exploded by the contemporary creation of the romance novel. You got you peanut butter in my chocolate! Etc. And to digress even farther, this distinction between Novel and Romance becomes unworkable fast when you start factoring in any kind of genre fiction at all – scifi, fantasy, the detective novel, Noir, the post-modern novel, the action adventure, Westerns, (some) satires, parodies, the Gothic novel &c &c. Or maybe unworkable is the wrong word – maybe the word I’m searching for is pointless. So you’ve got an extremely small subset of books that strive for some kind of hewing to probable reality and psychological exactness, and then you have 95% of the books published in the world. Maybe even 95% is low.

I’m putting in a paragraph break here to indicate I just spent way too much fucking time screwing around on the Internet looking at various critical definitions of the novel, arguing and muttering with all of them, and realizing if I go with one to prove some amorphous gut reaction about how weird a novel this is, that’s not really going to get me anywhere. Mirriam-Oxford-Whatever defines the novel as a book of a certain length that goes on about some characters until it ends which is good enough for me. (As I’ve been recently called out for paraphrasing, be aware this is exactly that.) So. That doesn’t make this less of a weird novel, and that probably boils down to its fanfic nature.

So, fanfic? Much hay has been made about this being a work of Twilight fanfic. And much of that hay discounts all fanfic as a form of plagiarism, which I find a little severe. (I mean, this might be a straw man argument I’m fighting – that fanfic = plagiarism – but I’d be willing to bet a whole lot of bananas that many times it has been stated that if this started life as fanfic, it doesn’t deserve to be put to paper, cannot be considered as a work of fiction. I get a big stink eye when certain kinds of authorial motivations are used a priori to dismiss fictions. You can put in a big rampage about blurb-craft that seeks to equate everything dystopian with The Hunger Games  – everything with vampires with Twilight  – everything with wizards with Harry Potter. And then, while we’re at it, pretending that narrative similarities between these books and countless other fictions that predate them renders that book some kind of fiction crime. What is up with this?

I once had a dude tell me with absolute earnestness that Star Wars was “just a remake of The Hidden Fortress” which is near one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard. Yes, they have their similarities – in the same way that Battle Royale and The Hunger Games have similarities, both to each other and to dozens of other fictions, from Battle Royal – Ralph Ellison’s opening chapter to Invisible Man – Lord of the Fliesto Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome down to the freaking Theseus myth. It is the worst kind of authenticity-seeking hipsterism to treat books with similarities – especially freaking genre fiction which by its very nature deals in set motifs and narrower stylistic parameters – as failures if they aren’t so stunningly original that your face melts off. Originality is bullshit. For fuck’s sake, people, the ancient Greeks should be suing the shit out of the entirety of Western civilization – including Shakespeare, that rip-off artist of the first order – and on that level, and I have close to zero patience for it. There is nothing new under the sun. Get over it.

Which is not to say I don’t understand that there are complexities of race/gender/culture/placement that result in one thing being noticed and another falling down the well, and that can be monumentally unfair, awkward, or stupid. There are better romances out there. Hell, there’s better Twilight fanfic out there. We can wring our hands about why exactly this piece of shit got to be the biggest piece of shit since Twilight, but ultimately, that’s not really this book’s fault. It can’t bear up to scrutiny, but then I’m not sure it was even trying. Popularity isn’t a criticism in its own right. Though it does get people indisposed towards the fictions at hand to read them – resulting in some unfortunate book/reader pairings. It’s true that I probably shouldn’t have read this – I’m a crank about romance novels in the general, if not the specific. I’m no Twilight fan, even though I have some serious obsessiveness about that series and how nutty it is.

Anyway, point of massive digression being, I admit I’m the kind of girl who, when I hear the words “authenticity” or “originality,” I reach for my pistol. Which is not to say I don’t believe some books are total rip-offs of others – The Sword of Shannara (which I like to think of as the s-word of shannara) being a complete and unvarnished rip-off of The Lord of the Rings – but while I hate the shit out of that book, I hate it for being super crappy on its own terms – ripping off the bad parts of Tolkien and leaving the dross – not because the rip-off occurred in the first place. I know I’m an outlier on this one, but I perversely kinda liked Eragon – the first book anyhow – because while it’s Star Wars in Middle Earth with some Dragonflight thrown in for shits and giggles, it’s absolutely naively exuberant. That kid is having a freaking blast playing in worlds way, way above his pay grade, and the glee of his rip-off is both charming and infectious. (Though, of course, objectively fucking terrible, and to seasoned readers, a Frankenstein’s monster of parts ripped from other fictions.)

Because, probably, a lot of this snarling about fanfic has to do with the fact that Twilight is objectively terrible, and much more recently written. I can name you several hundred thousand retellings of Shakespeare stories, which, my friends, could be classed as AU fanfic (AU standing for “alternate universe”, something I learned because of this book.) A Thousand Acres, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, When You Were Mine, Prospero’s Books, Scotland, PA, “O”, et freaking cetera. But, first, Shakespeare is not objectively terrible, and second, he is out of copyright. But lord knows, hitching your cart to something that everyone knows sucks and is also insanely popular is so evil and an attempt at a cheap cash-in, which hitching your cart to something that’s part of the Canon is totally a’ight, despite it being an obvious attempt to add intertextual gravitas. I don’t want to get into it too far, but plagiarism and copyright infringement are two different things, though there is admittedly an overlap. I haven’t done an exhaustive analysis or anything, and I will bow to someone who does, but the AU-ness of this little world makes straight copying unlikely. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that while I can see the ways this narrative owes certain structures to Twilight – the gormless girl at the center, the stalkerish love interest, a catalog of secondary players  – I’m not sure these things are unique enough to say that Twilight invented them. By which I mean, Twilight didn’t invent them. This book is stupid enough in its own way to be, if not uniquely stupid, than differently stupid enough from Twilight to be its own stupid thing. And, like Eragon, Fifty Shades is absolutely bone-shattering in its love for its shitty characters, bad prose, and earnest enjoyment of its source material. Which, good for it, although I can see how this book is shittier than Twilight, on both prose and character levels. Which, wow.

Interestingly, while Ms. James’s crimes against prose are different from Ms. Meyers’s, there is a weird similarity to the enthusiasm of their badnesses. Maybe it’s tone? You can tell they are writing their little hearts out, thesaurus at the knee, cartoon sweat leaping off their brows. A for effort, and I actually mean that in a non-bitchy way. I don’t get the impression that either writer has delusions about their writing abilities – this isn’t full of attempts to pull a fast one or bullshit you about how they are deconstructing the form or some such nonsense – a clumsy plug I see trying to justify a lot of D-grade pulp. It’s a straightforward first person narrative with a narrator who claims to be exactly what she thinks she is. (Whether she is is another ball of wax.)

However, and this is a big however, that is not to say there aren’t some gaping holes in motivation and sense that can only be plugged if you consider this as a derivative work. There’s this pretty great review of the book City of Bones on Ferretbrain that defines how fanfic works pretty neatly. I’m just going to quote a little bit, but you should probably go read the article at some point.

Essentially City of Bones reads like fanfic – and I don’t mean that as kneejerk indicator of poor quality, I mean that it reads like something constructed for a different purpose, functioning on a different ruleset. […] I truthfully have no idea what it is that makes fanfic work but it seems to me to have something to do with potential plausibility. Scenes of certain characters doing things they never explicitly did in the books (even if this is fucking each other) resonate with you because it feels both novel and familiar […] Fan fiction, even if you’re looking at a 100,000 word AU fic, seems to be all about the establishment of moments, which need not necessarily (and probably don’t) exist as part of a continuum of moments.
This is absolutely the opposite to a book.

I mean, obviously, the thing I like about this definition is that the writer has the same qualm I do about how this work functions as a novel, though she uses the term book. I mean, obviously this is a book – I can shart out 50,000 words and have it printed and bound and call it a book – but it’s not a coherent narrative, either in terms of character development or in narrative structure – it’s a series of moments. I think it’s possible to break structure – I think the books in Karen Marie Moning’s Fever Series taken individually, especially after the first – don’t pull off the whole narrative unity thing that well – the fucking cliffhangers – but they do rise to believable crescendos within the terms of that world. There are stakes. People change. And ultimately, taken as a whole, the series constitutes a coherent arc. But the terms of this world have some serious split-personality which blows its potential plausibility. It’s not even so much that I think it’s tricky to add sex into a narrative that is functionally virginity porn and a morality tale about the female libido. It’s that the terms of the Forksverse and Shadeland are fundamentally at odds with one another, and that even in a Romantic sensibility, not a Novelistic one, this world’s order wobbles.

Bella, Ana, Christian, Edward

So, to the characters. Taken without her Bella-ish beginnings, Ana is a deeply nonsensical character. I mean, she is anyway, but her nonsense makes a little more sense with Bella in the mix. Bella is a pretty solid hot nerd reader-proxy just waiting for the make-over to release her inner Swann – get it? get it? I mean, it’s right fucking there in her name – whose inexperience and virginity is completely justifiable due to her age. Age her up a couple years to just-out-of-college, and you have some serious problems. Repeatedly, Ana says and thinks things – this is first person, so we’re privy to every single fucking thought – and thought while fucking, badumptss – that imply she has never had one single solitary sexual thought her whole life – up to and including the fact that she has never masturbated. Now, I’m not saying that 22 year olds who haven’t been kissed don’t exist, I’m saying that 22 year olds who have never once contemplated their own sexuality don’t exist. This is not some sly, damaged narrator who is playing coy about her motivations either – every thought is bald as a baby’s ass. But if that 22 year old is secretly a 17 year old from Forks, WA, then it jibes slightly better.

You know, until it doesn’t, because say what you will about Bella – and I’ve said my share – she is completely capable of expressing her desire for Edward. She’s the one pushing sexual contact every single step of the way. Both books spend a lot of focus on strange somewhat disembodied aspects of their mens – Edward’s skin, which you might remember is marble-like, alabaster and cold, or Christian’s long, elegant, tapering, ET-like fingers – and both these boys exist as a sort of libido-body for their female protagonists. Which is to say, both Edward and Christian are unicorns drawn to the virginity of the female character, with their horns a-blazing, and you may insert all the innuendo that you see fit. Edward though, however often Meyer tries to underline his predatory nature, is the poster boy for true-love-waits, the cauterizing masculine rationality that puts the brakes on dangerous, deadly female sexuality. Not to reiterate my Twilight review to much, but Edward exists to both canonize and criticize female desire – the male version of the Madonna/whore – the God/devil. But much more weighted to God.

This is where 50 Shades starts to fall to pieces for me. There’s this character in this little seen 90s movie played by Eric Stoltz – I can’t remember the name – who has been working on his dissertation for like ten years or so. His favorite phrase is, “and I’m paraphrasing myself here”. That’s what I’m about to do. I’m paraphrasing myself here, but I believe very strongly that the paranormal in fiction – that thing, like vampirism, that shifts a relatively boring ass story full of the ornament of everyday stew-making and class-attending to the red, the thing that makes a Novel a Romance – is something that allows story-tellers to explore the edges of cultural expectations. Zombies equal the fear of the mob cut with the theatrics of fear-based siege societies; werewolves equal the id/ego split; vampires equal the parasitic aristocrat and also, sometimes, the Freudian sex/death equation. Ghosts are our embarrassing angry pasts. So Edward’s vampirism is a heightened metaphor for male sexuality seen through a female lens, or a nod to certain theologies, or something. Whatever it is, it involves the cultural constructions of imaginary though partially agreed upon group identities. The group of vampires have these characteristics – let’s run them to their logical conclusions.

Twilight works, on the level it works, because Edward is unreal, this saint/stranger, vegetarian vampire impossibility. He’s obviously a unicorn, probably more likely than an under-30 hot-ass billionaire like Christian – because seriously, the only under-30 billionaire, hot-ass or not, I can think of outside of crown princes of women-hating theocracies is the dick who invented facebook. (Who isn’t under-30 anymore, but was once.) And no thank you to all. But Christian’s vampirism is not that he’s an under-30 hot-ass billionaire, it’s that he is a member of BDSM culture, a very real, very marginalized group of people.

I’m not competent to talk about how the BDSM community works, but I get very very fucking twitchy and worried when real groups of people are used in the fantasies of others, especially when those others are members of the over-culture. I might even go far as to say it’s shitty as shit to treat that culture like some kind of half-assed paranormal ornament on the par with vampirism. (This is not to say that BDSM culture can’t be criticized, just because it’s a sub-group or something. I am a sex-positive, kink-positive feminist – in that I think that our sexualities are vital and inextricable parts of our identities, and that kinks are a part of the typical variation of human sexuality, but I also believe that issues of consent can get very murky indeed once you start factoring in gender, class, and personal experience. I might be in full-on Minority Warrior mode – attempting to score points from my position of straight, white, middle-class comfort when I say things about the use of BDSM culture in this book. I honestly don’t know.) (I mean, maybe the real problem is that there’s just enough half-assed “facts” about BDSM culture for this to be a problem. Christian does a tolerable job of explaining BDSM, but everything he says is constantly undercut by Ana’s freaking out and eye-bugging. And undercut by how James seems to be positioning him to have a big “emotional break-though” when he explains what’s up with his refusal to be touched and the scars on his back and stuff. There’s a bright red arrow pointing to some heavily bullshit Freudian mama-hurt-me-so-I’m-afraid-to-loooooove thing, which makes me want to smash things with a hammer. Cheap psychology really pisses me off; we are all more complicated than this red arrow.) All of this hand-wringing and parenthetical bs aside, I get worried when we (whoever the fuck we is) start using real, non-imaginary people as sort of half-assed paranormal boogies, ascribing them stock psychological backgrounds. I’m not competent to talk about BDSM culture, and I get the distinct impression that neither is James. And, drawing conclusions about BDSM culture from this book alone is a huge, huge freaking mistake.

The sex scenes in this book are competently written, once you cut out literally every single thing Ana thinks while they are going on, and everything that happens before or after. All of the sex toys and contract stuff feels a little google-y – like James read some wiki articles about Ben Wa balls and hard limits and tossed those suckers in there – but in concrete, physical terms, there isn’t a lot of coyness and euphemism. Which is the sort of thing I hates in a sex scene – no “apex of her thighs,” no “globes,” no “manroots.” Good. Whether this sort of thing will turn you on is another issue entirely – and this is the goal of erotica, non? – and one that I can’t answer. Desire is a personal game, maybe even more so than comedy, which can factor in less id-based orientations like politics. And, I shouldn’t be swinging at this right now, but scoring point trashing other people’s sexual responses is lazy bullshit, my friends, and something I’ve seen happen far too often in reviews of 50 Shades.

Which is not to say there isn’t a lot here that is, as the term goes, problematic. But the sex is competently written, if you’re into super mild bondage, and contains just enough understanding of kink to pretend to be kink-positive, if you choose to ignore huge freaking swathes of the novel. And you can, absolutely. I got my copy from the library, which is a little eeww, because the book easily fell open to certain, ahem, passages. They were well thumbed, like you do. I mean, how many Ayla books were read solely for their poor sexual content? Or Wifey? or Flowers In The Attic? (Just because I’ve dated myself here as from the pre-Internet era, these books were heavily stolen from mom in youth, and read pretty exclusively for the sex scenes.) (Not my mom – no way – I’d more likely get some pomo behemoth– but as a generation.) I get the impression that beyond all the griping I’m doing about this being a fan-fic-y series of moments, 50 Shades is being read by a large number of people in an even more decontextualized manner: sex scene, sex scene, sex scene, end, like playing a video game and skipping the cut scenes, because who freaking needs ’em?

But let’s talk about Ana for a little bit more, hmm? I’ve said before that she’s a nonsensical character – she does not hold together – but the ways she fractures are completely, utterly fascinating. She’s got a “subconscious” and an “Inner Goddess” – fully embodied, fully voiced aspects of herself that she is in dialogue with almost all the time. She sees them tap their toes or hears them say things she can’t. It’s not exactly the angel/devil thing you find in cartoons – though the Inner Goddess seems to exist as a sexual id, mostly. I was most bothered by the subconscious because in almost all the contexts in which Ana talked about her subconscious, she was really referring to her conscious mind. These were thoughts that she was having. There was no sub about it, just to make the shittiest joke ever.

This analogy is going to be tricky to pull off, but bear with me. I think one of the reasons Bella’s voice worked so well for so many of the mom-set – of which I count myself a member, so this is not a disparagement – is that Bella thinks like a housewife. All the stew-making and worrying about her father Charlie’s diet/friends/whatever feels like the running background monologue I have about my family’s welfare, about the state of the fridge, about the fact that the car’s brakes are squeaky, and shouldn’t I figure how to take the car in? Edward appears, fully formed from the head of Eros in his marble-white armor, and distracts her from this everyday banality. He’s a daydream. A daydream with teeth.

But now we have Ana, who is the daydream of a daydream. A housewife dreams of a teenager who is secretly a housewife dreaming of an untouchable boy. Another housewife dreams that same teenager who is secretly a housewife dreaming of a boy, and she touches that boy, and he touches back. Eeeek! Bella doesn’t get her freak on until the last book, once she’s gotten married like a boss, but Ana dives in, um, like a boss. New simile please. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Ana is this sexual tabula rasa – an unwritten sexual being – and we get to watch while she is written into being. Ana would probably be a better character if she didn’t have Bella in her DNA – this moralistic over-presence that reads femininity in very conservative terms. Ana’s subconscious, in this reading, is the housewife split again, because they (we) are defined in many ways by our sexuality, but mostly in the negative. We’re the end result of the romance plot, glimpsed in the sequel smiling beatifically with an armful of babies, but never really considered again in depth.

I will say, overshare be damned, that sexual life post-marriage, post-children, is an endlessly complicated set of negotiations – not simply between the couple – what you want and how you want it – but also a negotiation with our aging bodies, the demands of the family schedule, the logistics of having sex in a house with children whom you don’t want to freak out too bad. I can understand the desire to return to origins and perfect them, or replay them, or reimagine them, or whatever. All the ridiculous (and frankly boring) consideration of the sexual contract between Ana and Christian may may not have the content of a boring married couple’s, but the contract is an unspoken component of boring married life, and as such, I can see why it appeals to so many of us smug marrieds. The funnest part of the book, as many have noted, are the emails flirting and teasing between Ana and Christian – “You hang up.” “No, you.” Silence. “Are you still there?” – which are on one hand emblematic of hazy courtship, but on the other mirror my day-to-day goofy texts and boring questions between my husband and me.

ceridwen: you got an extremely urgent ups envelope. Want if I should open it?
NSP: sure
I bet it’s spam of some sort
ceridwen: AHHH111!!! POISONOUS SPIDERS1!!
NSP: I don’t think I’ve ordered anything recently
ceridwen: Actually, it’s spam.
NSP: I knew it
ceridwen: I was hoping for the spiders.
NSP: I could order spiders
ceridwen: Then I could be a superhero!
NSP: Bitten by radioactive spam

I have been laughing about this exchange with my man for two weeks, but then, I don’t really get out much which is exactly why 50 Shades works, if and when it works. But Ana’s a total psycho because she’s being used as proxy for too many freaking things, and there’s no freaking way that a character as thin as she can bear the strain.


Oh, did I say thin? How clumsy of me. This is one of those half-assed thoughts, but I was bolted up by all the anorexic ideation in this book. It’s there in Twilight, all this food-worry – though mostly it’s located in Edward and his “vegetarian” vampirism. But here, good lord, Ana is the poster girl for the pro-Ana movement – I mean, it’s right fucking there in her name. It’s part of the sexual contract that she be more”health-conscious” – down to the hours she will spend exercising. And after Christian has put all these restrictions on her food, she stops eating because of how “emotional” she is, which gets him to spend all this time pushing food on her. I can’t even unpack it, it’s so fucked up. If he’s her sexual body, and he both restricts her food and tries to get her to eat? What the fuck does that mean?

I see a lot of weirdness in romance novels about the categorization and criticism of various female body types – male too, actually, but as these writers aren’t men writing for a male audience, I’m assuming it doesn’t affect dudes the same way – but the way it works here seems particularly confused. I mean, the target audience is likely like me: carrying a few more pounds than I’d like, slightly wrecked from child-bearing, unable to carve out the time for the gym. In sum, not 22 (or 17) anymore. So, on the one hand, Christian feels like a bodily superego, the one that criticizes when we get to end of our weeks and order pizza, too tired for sex, almost too tired for the parenting bullshit that must come first. On the other, I want to wring Ana’s fucking neck for all of her “too stressed out to eat” bullshit. That was probably a non sequitur, but whatever. I think what makes me irritated is that I know what anorexia looks like; I know how it thinks. (Caveat: I’m not an anorexic, but it’s gotten too close for comfort with too many people I love.) And while Ana’s thought processes hit that anorexic mindset with a flaming arrow, the whole thing was wrapped up in this breezily clueless “look at how cute and deep I am for forgetting to eat” thing that makes my head explode. No anorexic forgets to eat. She might tell people that’s what happened, but that’s not what happened. First person narrator fail.

And in these same lines, alcohol use/abuse also factors pretty strongly, as Ana is supposedly not a seasoned drinker, but gets blotto on at least one loud occasion – one that uses the Jacob character totally shabbily, I might add, but then, borderline-racist use of non-white characters is a Twilight mainstay, so it’s okay, don’t worry – and pours it down as liquid courage in several others. Just, what the hell is going on here? I don’t even have any conclusions to draw, I just want to point it out, this fluttering, strange disavowal of sensation by Ana – I never drink! Or think about sex! Or food! – and then the constant reality of the exact opposite – mediated by not one, but two! psychological others in this book. It dizzies. Maybe this is just the constant thrum in this book where we are obviously meant to take Ana at face value – the first person; the bald straightforward sequence of events – but over and over, she’s damaged as a narrator, unbelievable as a character – too many people in her mix – author proxy, reader proxy, Bella Swann, sexual tabula rasa, everygirl, inner goddess, subconscious, virgin, whore. That’s probably why this novel is both as successful and as derided as it is: Ana is incoherent as a woman, and that incoherence mirrors a basic facet of trying to live up the impossible, conflicted expectations put upon our gender. (Which is not to say dudes don’t have a set of fucked up expectations put on them too or anything, but, and I’m paraphrasing myself here,  things are about what they are about, not about other things. This isn’t about a male sexual experience, except as a female fantasy, and it is not being read by nor was it written by a man. Men can go elsewhere for their incoherent gender standards – oh, hai, Western Canon.)

Some Shit about BDSM

Anyway, on to Christian. Christian is all BDSM all the time. So much that, like Ana’s claim never to have had a sexual thought, he claims never to have had vanilla sex. Which, snort. I’m not bagging on kink when I say that sometimes, after a decade or more of sexual activity, you’re just not going to be up to busting out the swing every single time you have sex. There’s gonna be that time when you just do it, because sex is an important, but also a sometimes a mechanical part of a long term relationship. I mean, no one said that the sex in Romances, or romance novels, or whatever, had to hew to reality, but just, come the fuck on. All that aside, Christian is absolutely forthright and honest about his kinks – kinks which, as they play out on the page are not much more than the mildest of bondage play. Ana regularly and compulsively, possibly even willfully misinterprets his actions and statements, but again and again, what he says is what he means. Christian is incredibly forthright, and, even though we’re supposed to be rooting for Ana – that’s what the first person means here; root for me – I found it very difficult to side with her at any point, especially in the final “plot twist”.

Which is not to say that Christian isn’t a total abuser, which is what makes my antipathy for Ana kind of hard to deal with. Because Ana is absolutely a terrible person — she shits on her friends, she treats her family like crap, she hates literally everything in the world — but she also doesn’t deserve the abuse he doles out. The sex scene in her dorm room, when he comes in the window like a total creeper, feels just awful, Ana gritting her teeth through a debasement she doesn’t want. Orgasms aren’t consent; they’re just orgasms. He leaves her crying, bereft, which in my half-assed googling about BDSM makes him the worst dom ever. Whither your aftercare, asshole?

I’m nervous as shit about how this might play out in later books – I get the sincere impression that Ana’s irrational ideas about the sources of Christian’s kinks will be given credit – like she’ll cure him of his fucking abuse and kinks and they’ll ride off into the sunset of missionary style sex with the lights off. That’s the Romantic narrative, right? That true love can transmute the Beast into the God-husband, which is an okay, if silly thing to think about vegetarian vampires, because it’s not like they exist anyway. However, stories about “curing” deeply ingrained sexual proclivities through the power of love and magical ladyparts just smacks of reprogramming camps for gays. Is this a Godwin? Maybe. But the way Ana constantly conceptualizes Christian’s kinks as born in trauma, as a psychological knot to be cut, this makes me nervous. Even if his kinks were born in trauma, pretending like some Magic Vagina is going to untwist this wire between fear and sexual response for an individual is not just naïve, but narcissistic. A person is never a cure. I don’t even like that I’ve written that sentence that way, and I want to go back and throw a ton of conditionals on everything I’ve written, but whatever.

And if I go back and change the word “kink” for “abuse” in the last paragraph, it all gets a lot worse. Stories about about curing cruelty and possessiveness through the power of love make me nervous. The way Ana constantly excuses Christian’s abuse as born as his own trauma — which may be, strictly speaking, accurate — doesn’t make the abuse go away. She will never be able to love him enough, fuck him enough, or behave in just the exact right way to keep him from hitting her. To keep him from setting the terms to absolutely everything.

So, how the fuck long have been going on about this book? Too godamn long, that’s for sure. Hi. How are you? I’m feeling a little fatigued, but there are still a couple of things I wanted to touch on about this book. And what I want to talk about is tampons. I’m not putting this discussion under the spoiler tag, even though this takes place well into the book, because I’m not sure this “narrative” can be spoiled. So, fair warning, the spoiler averse – maybe my discussion of a discrete sexual encounter will ruin this book for you. (Lol, as the kids say.) (But also, seriously, spoilers on the ending in two paragraphs.)

Late in the book, Ana has a bunch of hand-wringing and Oedipal (Electral?) bullshit with her mom, which ends in a hotel room working out the final stages of her contract with Christian. So far, all the sex scenes have been pretty clean, in the sense that, even while there have been mild bondage aspects, everyone is beautiful, orgasms are simultaneous, and that even virgins can blow like Debbie doing Dallas. Not to be crude – too late! – but even though I said the prose wasn’t euphemistic, there’s a big freaking lacuna in the way a sexual neophyte deals with the sticky aftermath of…well, you know, spit or swallow? Also, how did she not drown giving that one blowie? Which, fine, this is not a frank sexual text. But in this later scene, intercut with some actually honest-sounding dialogue between Ana and Christian, he pulls out her tampon and then fucks her. In the aftermath, she looks at him, at his body covered in her blood, at her thighs streaked with it, and it strikes her as an image of nakedness. This is a moment of sexual, personal rawness, and the physical and the mental are both bloody with it.

Which, fuck yeah. Yes, this is absolutely a squeamish image. This is a little gross, or a lot, depending on how you feel about menses and all that. But taking you and your hang-ups out of it, this is an absolutely vivid character moment. This is something a character does and thinks – and absolutely astonishing to find in a romance novel, dealing as it often does with sexual encounters idealized or gauzy. This is both shudder-able, and shrug-able. It’s been a long time since we’ve had to live in tents during our uncleanness, and it should be no big shock that someone, somewhere, had sex on the rag. But that’s not even my point – my point is we have this moment where Ana and Christian are doing something both so usual, and so transgressive to say out loud, that it makes them momentarily look like people.

And then, my friends, it all goes to shit. I don’t even have this book anymore, which is why I can’t go back and figure what happens exactly, but once past this sanguine Rubicon of period sex and emotional nakedness, Ana goes completely fucking bonkers and ends their relationship? Honest to Christ, I have no idea what happens, but the book ends with her weeping about some damn thing and moving out, or something. The ending is where the fan-fic-y-ness is totally obvious, because this is just a quick, bullshit slipknot to tie the threads until Eclipse the next book, which will keep confounding these idiots in their quest for hetero sexual perfection using vampirism BDSM culture as a metaphor for heaven knows what. Which, fuck you. The stakes are way too godamn low for me to continue, even if I want to get to the Christmas scene I read in 50 Shades of Fuck All  standing in a bookstore well before I read this. Kiss kiss! Look at our perfect babies! Arrggghhhhhh.


I feel like I should come up with a coda on this review, but I’m not sure I have it in me. I feel like punching this book, and giving it a wedgie, and speaking softly to it, not to scare it, while feeding it formative feminist texts. I want this book to love itself more that it does. I want it to be less half-assed. I want us, by which I mean women, I think, but then maybe I mean everyone, to sit down and examine our kinks, and own those fuckers, and not have to get off to stupid fucking virgin-proxies who have embodied proxies themselves. I get why we’re doing it, but it would be sweet as fuck if we could all just move on.