Archive for May 29th, 2009

May 29, 2009

The Poison Throne and gay men from abroad

I stayed awake most of last night reading Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne, which was much more gripping than I’d bargained for. It’s the first of a fantasy trilogy, set in an unnamed kingdom (I think?) in fictional Europe. Some of the most important relationships in this book are between friends – Razi and Wyn (who have been raised almost as siblings), Razi and Christopher, and Wyn and Christopher, who first bond over their shared love for Razi.
There’s a lot about the dynamics of the connections between these three characters that is interesting, and I think Kiernan does this brilliantly. But the relationship that interested me most was the one between Razi and Christopher.

I don’t want to give away plot details, but the threat of Christopher being harmed is frequently held over Razi’s head to manipulate him. When Christopher is injured, Razi nurses him. They live in the same rooms. It’s clearly a very intense friendship, and they’re open about how much they care about each other.

And for a good chunk of the book, it was unclear (to me) whether this relationship was also a physical one. It could be; and while I didn’t particularly want descriptive sex scenes (or any, really, what with all the plot-stuff going on) I loved that the possibility was left open. I thought Kiernan might be doing something really interesting and unusual by not attempting to define this relationship, not slot it neatly into some easily definte place.

Then page 313 happened.

Razi moves out of their shared quarters because ‘people’ have been saying that Christopher is his catamite. And suddenly this all becomes very familiar to the reader me. Razi is horrified, Wyn is horrified, Chris is amused and informs them that among the Merron (his own people, who do not live in this country) homosexuality is acceptable. Kiernan turns it into a teaching moment – Razi’s disgust is seen as irrational and rather stupid, and Wyn is made to realise that she too is prejudiced. And certainly the reader isn’t left in any doubt that Kiernan thinks homophobia is wrong. Yet it’s still deeply disappointing to me.

This is mostly (I think) a literary thing – she re-establishes conventional definitions of relationships, and the Razi-Christopher bond remains unusually strong but stays within those limits. But ideologically, too, it’s not entirely satisfying. The whole thing reminds me far too much of this exchange from Tamora Pierce’s Page.

She stopped and turned back. “What you said about Garvey and Joren – it’s not an insult in Yaman. Some men prefer other men. Some women prefer other women.” Kel shrugged.
“In the Eastern Lands, people life that pursue their loves privately,” replied Neal. “Manly fellows like Joren think it’s a deadly insult to be accused of wanting other men.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Kel said.
“It’s still an insult on this side of the Emerald Ocean, my dear.

I like Pierce. I reread her frequently, and many of my friends claim that she was crucial to them when they were growing up.

But it is rather convenient to have all these openly gay people (who of course aren’t doing anything wrong, and you shouldn’t discriminate against them) in countries other than the one where all the action is based. The author’s praiseworthy politics are established, the young reader learns its valuable lesson, and all this without anyone who isn’t heterosexual even entering the text; much easier than, for example, writing a queer hero.

Pierce and Keenan are both writing about feudal societies feeling the impact of comparitively progressive governments. This gives them plenty of opportunity to play around with race/class/gender and how prejudice works. I don’t think it’s as easy to play around with sexual preference though. Perhaps if they’d both chosen to set their books in ancient Greece.

I live in hope of Pierce coming out with a Tortall book that addresses this, and I know that Kiernan’s next, The Crowded Shadows, contains an important gay relationship. But it’s obvious that we’re all not quite there yet.

Edit: It occurs to me that the sort of relationship I was hoping for for Razi and Christopher (including the purposefully unaddressed question of physical intimacy) has been done. It’s original series Kirk and Spock!