Thursday, March 20, 2014

Book Update: Kushiel's Dart, Paris Was a Woman

Well, in my 2014 Reading Experiment, I have finally finished Kushiel's Dart and Paris Was a Woman.

I will discuss the latter first, as it's a bit more simple, for me, to summarize. Written by Andrea Weiss, Paris portrays the community of artistic women, many of whom were queer, during the 1920s. Women profiled include Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Djuna Barnes, and more.

In all, I found it interesting. Weiss relied on letters, photographs, and original writings to paint a lively picture of what these women's lives might have been like. Some of these women formed lifelong relationships with one another, with some even wishing for legal marriage rights for same-sex relationships. A large subtext of the book, to me, was that it was these women's detachment from heterosexual marriage and relationships, in addition to having financial means of their own, that enabled them to have independent lives and careers in Paris.

Yet, that this community of women existed who rejected traditional gender roles was not something I had ever learned about in my years of formal education, where most women were presented on the periphery. Paris does mention male artists and writers such as James Joyce and Pablo Picasso as being in these women's lives yet, in contrast, their presence in the book was peripheral.

Kushiel's Dart is a bit more difficult for me to summarize easily as, at 900+ pages, author Jacqueline Carey built a rich, morally-complicated world that rivals George RR Martin's Westeros. Spoiler alert!  I will gear this post more to people who have read the book and, as such, are familiar with the plot points.

I will start by noting that I mostly enjoyed the book. For me, it started slowly and introduced many characters that were very difficult to keep track of. Yet, in looking back, I wonder if the overwhelming amount of information and detail the reader is bombarded with, was intended to mimic how Phedre, the first-person narrator, must have felt as a young girl trying to get a handle on the politics and relationships of her world. For, over time, as Phedre grew and interacted with more people, her narrative and perspective became more compelling, perhaps because we came to know more about these people who were so often talked about.

Secondly, the setting is a world that parallels medieval Europe, albeit with significant differences. Phedre is from Terre D'Ange, where the dominant religion is based on the single commandment "Love as thou wilt," which is in contrast with the religion of the "One God." Under this religion, sexual behaviors that, say, Christianity, often considers shameful, sinful, or deviant, are instead non-issues.

Phedre, for instance, has a genetic inclination toward masochism (with Josceline being perhaps the conscience of some readers who are squicked by it). And, while I wouldn't consider the book to be overly erotic, she is presented having sexual encounters with men and women, as are other characters in the book. Homosexuality is simply presented as a non-issue in her culture.

[Content note: sexual assault]

Rape, however, is presented in a more complicated manner, in my opinion. On a surface level, Phedre notes that, under her religion, rape is the most serious sin that one can commit, violating the "Love as though wilt" rule. Rape is, I believe, in Terre D'Ange, a capital offense. Thus, when Phedre is sold into slavery and raped by two Skaldic leaders, Carey presents these occurrences in a judgmental manner with explicit commentary about Phedre feeling shame and about the sinful nature of this type of assault. This portrayal, I think, comes in contrast to George RR Martin's portrayal of rape which, in my opinion, has more of a non-judgmental "welp, rape happens" tone.

Yet, Phedre's consent to sex as Delauney's indentured servant is tenuous, in my opinion, and I question what other choices she has in life to survive, at least in the beginning before she becomes politically adept. She is cast off from her family of origin, taken in as an outcast member of a House, and then bought as an indentured servant by Anafiel Delauney, who then trains her to be a sex worker and spy for him. Yes, she lives in physical comfort, if not luxury, with Delauney and seems eager to engage in the work, but her ability to give meaningful consent seems to be lacking in her society.

It is only near the end of the book, after she has established herself as having other useful skills - spying, politics, strategy - that she seems to acknowledge that she can make a choice about what type of work she will engage in the future.

Other features of note about sexuality in Terre D'Ange are that (a) I'm not sure how Phedre avoided pregnancy throughout her many sexual encounters with men throughout the book (was that discussed? did I miss something?); (b) the religion also seemed to encourage polyamory without sexual jealousy; and (c) marriage is not viewed in this society as the "be-all" type of human relationship.

In all, the book is a lot to take in. Like Martin, Carey is not afraid to let bad things happen to major characters and, yet, she is able to do so in ways that don't feel too contrived for some other character's "personal growth saga." #HeyJoss:I'mStillNotOverTara

I'm curious what others think - share your thoughts in the comments!

Next up: Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and Octavia Butler's Bloodchild: And other stories. 

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