South Park Self

my, what big teeth you have

The tottering piles of unread tomes which festoon my study are reaching critical mass. On my to-do list for this six weeks of leave: read them into submission, by processes of stern self-discipline and rejection of distracting fluff. The problem is that in my current chronically fatigued state I'm really drifting inexorably into the fluffy, on the grounds that it's all my tired brain is really fit for. Any inroads into the Bookshelf of Unread Reproach are thus hard-won, spasmodic and somewhat few and far between. In addition, while most of the BoUR is composed of fairly worthwhile literature, some of it is downright intimidating (I still, for example, haven't dared crack open Anathem on account of the fear), so if I do finish something, it's because it bloody well gripped me enough to make me do the work.

This is thus already a point in favour of the two novels I've just finished, which are in the Iskryne series, a collaboration between Elizabeth Bear (whose lj, as matociquala, I very greatly enjoy) and Sarah Monette. I don't know Monette's writing at all; I know Bear's novels from the cyberpunky Jenny Casey series, Hammered et al, which are fun, and from her rather entertaining take on urban fantasy and mage/fay wars in Blood and Iron. (On my to-acquire list: the slashy Shakespeare/Marlowe ones). She's a deceptively solid writer - the prose feels plain and sturdy, until you look at it more closely and realise how carefully crafted it is and how hard every word is working. She's also deceptive on the level of plot, as these apparently straightforward character-driven adventure narratives tend to be packing serious political teeth.

The books I've just finished are A Companion to Wolves and The Tempering of Men. I thoroughly enjoyed them, but they've stayed with me in a not entirely comfortable sense: in the final analysis, I'm still not sure if they completely worked. The Iskryne world is a sort of alternate-fantasy Viking-based civilisation, in which the early-medieval Nordic homesteads are regularly threatened by trolls and wyverns. The task of fighting off these supernatural depredations is taken by the wolfcarls, warriors telepathically bonded to wolves, who form their own sub-society revolving around the pack. The harshness of the setting - ice and snow and advancing glaciers, and marginal existence scratched out in the face of it - contributes to the overall feel of the books, which is gritty, bloody and occasionally brutal.

Telepathic bonds with animals are so much of a fantasy cliché, you're probably groaning as you read this. Fortunately the authors of this series are absolutely and intrinsically aware of the cliché, and are deliberately setting out to turn it on its head. What above all I adored about these books is the absolute poke in the eye they are to the fluffy teen romanticism of things like McCaffrey's Pern series. The books set out to logically work through the implications of two basic premises, viz:
  1. Telepathic bonding with animals renders the human bondmate open to the unconstrained sexual impulses of the animal in heat, with whatever that realistically implies in terms of loss of agency; and,
  2. Bonding with wolves is about being better equipped to fight maurauding trolls. While a wolfcarl may bond with a male or female wolf, in a civilisation based on Norse mythology and Viking civilisation, the people doing the fighting are going to be exclusively male.
You can see where this is going. Inescapably, this premise followed with any degree of consistency is going to lead to really an awful lot of gay sex. Which it proceeds to do, not always comfortably, but always with complete conviction.

I was impressed with the world-building here. The cultural consequences of a separate, wolf-pack-based, homosexual society for a subset of the culture's warriors seem to me to be well and convincingly delineated. The writers are not shy when it comes to depicting both the consolation of such a setting for its participants, the strength and support of its relationships, and the less comfortable tensions - not just in interaction with a heterosexual meta-culture, but the implications for a heterosexual man who is nonetheless drawn to the wolf-bond enough to accept the sexual imperatives that come with it. The whole set-up has a beautiful logic, and its working out is consistent and satisfying even when it touches on brutality and limitation of choice.

But I'm still not sure it completely works, and I rather suspect that some of the point of my disquiet is in the genesis of this whole thing in two female writers writing about male experiences of homoerotic encounter. When I flippantly refer to "slashy" takes on Shakespeare and Marlowe, above, I am quite deliberately invoking the whole subculture and creed of slash fan fiction, in terms of its production of male homoerotic encounters by, largely, female writers and for the benefit, largely, of female readers. I'm doing it deliberately because at times this is what Companion and Reckoning feel like. There is an awful lot of homosexual sex, inevitably given the set-up, but more importantly, there's a huge amount of focus on male feelings - love, angst, conflict. At base, quite apart from the smut elements, this is what slash is about, the exploration of male emotion expressed outside normal cultural contexts and expectations, and this series does that in spades. The problem - and this may simply be the result of my over-exposure to slash, and thus somewhat dubious - is that it somehow feels as if its address is the same as that of slash, towards a female readership.

So, however much I enjoyed and respected Iskryne's world and achievements - and I did - there's still an ambivalence in my response. Part of me is responding with an awareness that this is serious world-building and cultural exploration, and is doing mental pompom routines on the sidelines in recognition of the simple elegance of the setting's inversions. Hell, if you want a truly poignant window onto the probable experience of gay men forced to hide inside heterosexual marriage, try looking at it through the eyes of a heterosexual man forced into homoerotic relationships solely because of his love for his wolf.

But there's another aspect to my response which is quite simply to feel as though some of the things the series is doing are about objectification, pure and simple - men put through their sexual and emotional paces by and for the benefit of women. And pure titillation aside, some of those paces are nasty - if you let the animal lust thing run its course with men standing in for the wolf bitch in season surrounded by males, what you have is a gang-bang. However rational the steps which have led to that outcome, and however much the focus is on cultural necessities and the emotional consequences of the choices they force, the upshot is deeply unpleasant, and the slashy conditioning makes it feel slightly as though the characters are being put through trauma because it gives rise to interesting angst.

Which is, of course, deeply illogical: to return full circle, what I really like about the series is its ability to insist that animal life is not clean or pleasant or romantic, that Pern's dragonriders largely got away with soft-focus hawt dragon sex rather than having to face the reality of sexual coercion via involuntary participation in an animal's responses. The angst is entirely necessary and justified. Likewise, if slash interests me, it's mostly because of the extent to which it seems to function as a genuinely female pornography, written by and for women and about men. If I don't have a problem with Harry/Draco, why should I have a problem with conflicted homosexual wolf-carls? Because it's "serious literature" rather than "fluffy parodic self-indulgence"? Way to be consistent, there.

Nonetheless, there is disquiet, and I'm not entirely sure it's the disquiet the authors intended to create with their deliberately provocative premise. It's not enough to prevent my enjoyment of the writing, and it won't stop me from acquiring the third in the Iskryne series when it turns up - this is a compelling world and I really like these characters. (Quite apart from all of the angst and trauma and bloody fighting, these books still manage to be occasionally funny). But I have, let us say, small political reservations. I shall watch the direction taken by the third book, and my own responses to it, with baffled fascination.
  • Current Mood: contemplative randomly analytic

I heart your book reviews! I've just downloaded Companion to my Kindle to see what I think. Though of course, I won't be able to analyze it the way you have so eloquently done. :)

Cry Wolf
Judging by that book cover, the wolfcarl spends a lot of time in the gym too. ;-)

Interesting review however.
Re: Cry Wolf
I suspect that "gym" actually means "fighting trolls energetically and more or less continuously while not having a lot to eat in a very cold climate", which suggests that on the whole gym would be an easier way to achieve that rippling six-pack...

Glad you enjoyed the review.
Well! I read Companion last night. I have to say I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said...and I plan to read the next shortly.
I do feel useful now :>. Also, very glad you find the reviews helpful and the books enjoyable, even with reservations. Are you joining me in a mild crush on Isolfr...? He's so... serious!