Thursday, June 5, 2014

Reign of Ash Review Pt 1: A Gendered Reading of Vampire Fantasy Fiction

I've decided to break this year's review of Gail Z. Martin's latest fantasy gem into two reviews, a regular review, and a gendered reading.

No one does a gendered reading because it amuses them; one performs a gendered reading unconsciously because they've been taught to. Not many casual readers are conditioned to do a gendered reading, and so many won't take interest. So, I've broken out my usual gendered reading of Gail Martin's novel, Reign of Ash. However, I feel it's important--especially these days--to remember that the United States--where I am from--has a culture of stringently defined gender roles, gender roles that are growing rapidly decadent. In order to discourse in gender politics (grossly oversimplified), one must realize that gender politics touches every aspect of our lives, even genre fiction, and that our political view points do much to shape our rhetoric, and our written works do much to strengthen or weaken our world views.  

I normally perform a gendered reading of fantasy fiction on traditional subject matter: the role of the female in fantasy fiction. However, fantasy fiction is not as often meshed with vampire fiction. Horror fiction can be meshed with fantasy and science fiction, but I do not usually see so obvious a connection. To give you the idea of a subtle connection, I reference Cat Valente's Deathless, in which the Lord of Life, Kosche, has also been interpreted as a vampire. A far more obvious gender reading of vampire science fiction could be seen in Brian Lumley's Necroscope series, more specifically, Blood Wars (the male/female interaction being my major point). In this respect, a gendered reading can also be easy or difficult. A gendered reading of R.A. Salvatore is simple, given the fact that the race of Drow is matriarchal. Cat Valente is a feminist author. A difficult gendered reading can be done to Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, since a feminist or gendered study of the text will likely also be psychoanalytical. 

What I'm not often privy to is the exclusive bond between fantasy--sword and sorcery fantasy--and vampire fiction. In fact, that's what I love about Gail Martin's books, outside of the other stuff. Vampires are often the subject of urban fantasy (like Twilight or The Coven of Shadows series), and if I'm missing something, I would expect someone to set me right. 

Gail Martin has married two societies in a fantasy setting that, traditionally, are kept apart, hidden by either necessity or stigma. Here we see vampires--or talishte--living and working among mortals, and having a presence in court politics and academics. Of course, that is they live and work among mortals until the reign of the old king, and his descending bloodline. Forced to play nice with the nobles, waging their own secret wars are the lords Lanyon Penhallow and Pentreath Reese. I'll expound upon Lanyon Penhallow's character and everything unimaginably cool about him in the next review. 

What Martin has also done is reinforce some very traditional vampire lore: vampires cannot appear during daylight; vampires may only be killed by being stabbed through the heart or decapitation; vampires possess a form of flight. However, much is left to fictional license: vampires can produce a bond similar to creating a fledgeling without turning the human. This process is called the kruvgaldur, and saved numerous characters, but is particularly useful to the character Bevin Connor. 

And so, our gendered reading commences. 

The Talishte: General Sentiment

Despite the general tolerance for "biters" who can prove themselves respectful, there is a stigma attached to being talishte, as well as a certain burden. There is an inherent lack of trust that must be associated with something that looks like people but also feeds on people. There are other burdens as well. Trapped within their forms, the talishte can live for as long as they please to, or are condemned to. Penhallow asserts ferocious tenacity, but has also been living with the fact that he has watched kingdoms come and go, and remembers the exile of the fabled Knights of Esthrane. It haunts him. For Pentreath Reese, eternal life is a chance to see his every ambition come to fruition.   

While Lanyon Penhallow was busy cultivating a relationship with humanity, Pentreath Reese preferred haunting humanity's footsteps, giving his entire race a name the vast majority of them did not deserve, at least in this story.  

Subjugation and Penetration: The Kruvgaldur

Which brings me to my next numbered point on my rhetoric outline. Man or woman, ugly or beautiful, the vampire is the masculine, dominant figure. Make the vampire as effeminate as you want, you only increase the allure, for now beauty and masculinity are combined. In anime, we call this "bishonen", the transcendence of beauty beyond inherent sex (not gender. Sex and Gender are different). A powerful female vampire is also masculine in nature. She is the combination of sexual power and masculine strength. Vampires, therefore, are probably the most dangerous sentient creatures in our lore, and it is no wonder that we are at once attracted to them and afraid of them. 

The vampire breeds hermaphroditically by virtue of the way they feed and propagate their species: the penetration of teeth into the skin. Yes, fangs are phallic symbols regardless of the sex of the vampire. For vampires, feeding and sexual intercourse are linked. "The blood is the life." Bram Stoker had no idea he would be creating the definitive vampire character and it's much-sexualized nature.

Gary Oldman's Dracula is apparently a diva, taking drop-dead-sexy vampirism to a whole new level.

 A vampire draws blood in order to live, and also exchanges blood to create a new vampire. Bram Stoker created a creature that was very sexualized, combining the sexual pleasure of the flesh with propagation and the act of feeding parasitically on human beings. It is arguable that Stoker's Dracula was an allegory to the spread of venereal disease. The vampire's "curse" or "the dark gift" or "kruvgaldur" can only be transmitted by the full-on exchange of blood, just as venereal disease are exchanged through the swapping of fluids, often during sex, but not exclusively, as we know. If Brian Lumley has
taught us anything is that, depending on the vampire, it doesn't take much. Most blood-born diseases are communicable by the accidental swapping of fluids, like using a dirty tattoo needle. Lumley used this liberally. Even the saliva or sexual fluids of the lord Nephran Malinari was virulent enough to make the change. 

The human, by virtue of being not only essential to a well-balanced vampire diet but also the most similar in evolutionary status to the vampire, is  the vessel through which vampirism continues. It is no wonder, then that the superior species can so easily manipulate the inferior one. Vampires of popular fiction possess at least some form of guile, telepathy or compulsion that can remove the willpower of the inferior species--and even inferior vampires. The kruvgaldur is the talishte's bond to non-vampire lieutenants. The kruvgaldur is brought on by a small exchange of blood. The more often the blood is exchanged, the more powerful the kruvgaldur

Many times throughout the novel, the kruvgaldur is administered without permission, as in Blaine's case, in an attempt to save a stricken individual. The human is at their most vulnerable when they receive the kruvgaldur in this manner. The scene that comes most readily to mind is that of Bevin Connor's encounter with the vampire Wraith Lord, when he must channel the Wraith Lord in order to defeat an ambush by Pentreath Reese. We'll get to Kierken Vandholt in a second. I want to focus right now on how Lanyon Penhallow saves Connor. 

Connor and Penhallow have been connected by the kruvgaldur since the last novel, Ice Forged. Connor suffers the kruvgaldur as a necessary evil, until as a last resort, Penhallow must administer a large dose of his blood to anchor Connor's life force. Penhallow uses his compulsion to calm Bevin Connor to a semblance of reason, as obviously the boy is panicking. For all of Connor's protests, he allows the kruvgaldur. Penhallow assures him he will remain human, but begs him to see reason. There is a massive sense of urgency, and the language of the kruvgaldur exchange is quite sexualized, "There was a moment's pause, and then Connor felt cold flesh pressing against his lips (Martin, 396)." Despite the fact that the reader is thoroughly aware the "cold flesh" is Penhallow's wrist, Martin leaves this sentence remarkably ambiguous. These two men, one the vampire lord, and the other a supine human, locked in the vampire exchange, Connor naked to the waste. The kruvgaldur is very homoerotic, though neither of the participants are necessarily homosexual, and though the language is sexualized, there is no sexual pleasure taken. Unlike some writers of vampire fiction, I feel Martin does not take the exchange "all the way." Anne Rice's two homoerotic characters take decided pleasure in the fluid exchange. In Charlane Harris' own work, the vampire, Eric, takes direct sexual pleasure from the exchange, regardless of purpose. Martin's description of the scene seems to imply that Penhallow and Vandholdt whisper near Connor; my mental images were a bit more sexual. Of course, I'm familiar with other vampire tropes, and I found the distance between these characters uncomfortable. I may have filled in those gaps myself. I felt Connor's clinging to his own life force as a sort of...pleasant boundary, separating these characters from a slightly less homoerotic scenario, like a woman just layin' there and thinkin' 'bout all them pretty flowers, a sort of falling inward to escape outward trauma.  We know Connor doesn't want the exchange. He has no choice, and now it's possible this has become a rape-like scene, a scene in which a struggling subjected individual fights the advances of his savior/rapist. Add to this the masculine vampire and the feminized human, and the tone of the scene changes entirely. I doubt our author had this in mind, and it seems a more direct interpretation is in order. Martin does not seem to have an issue with sexual characters. Her characters are not chaste saints. One of her characters is a courtesan. I dare you to look that up and tell  me you can dance around what that entails, and I doubt Kestle laid back and thought about all those pretty roses. Yet the obvious male/female romances juxtaposed to the distanced homoerotic vampire scene leaves me wondering if something about the exchange disconcerts our author, or if it's never occurred to her. Psychoanalysis gave birth to gender studies, so I'll just leave this on the table: why are female/male love scenes okay, but male/male ones are kinda not the same? Vampires allow authors to fudge gender roles. It's difficult for me to fathom the distance without reading to much into it. 

Possession, Vulnerability, and the Othering of the Latent Consciousness: Kierken Vanholdt "The Wraith Lord" 

Poor Connor. No matter what, some creature was going to take advantage of him for the greater good of the dungeon party. I imagine playing Connor's PC goes something like this:

Connor roles his twenty-sided dice.

"I make a fortitude save."

He roles a 0. His dungeon master shakes his head.

"Actually you don't make a fort save. A monster inhabits your body, burning you from the inside and taking over your entire consciousness, pushing you to a far corner of your brain. You can't even hope to save yourself, because the other guy is also slowly killing you."

Sounds like my luck when I play D&D, or even better, when I play Minecraft. 

There is a loss of "self" involved in the possession process: the act through which Connor (or whoever else is possessed) can make no decisions or actions of their own volition. The aggressor: Kirken Vandholt, the much-feared "Wraith Lord". He is no longer a being of corporeal form. Unable to assist in the destruction of Pentreath Reese and the restoration of magic in his current state, Vandholt must take on a corporeal form, or temporarily take control of one. This is dangerous. At any point, Vandholt could have simply chosen not to leave. He could have burned up whatever was left of Connor's life force and taken the body for his own. The shot at pretty much being handed a body to inhabit was tempting, but true to form, Vandholt was as good as gold. 

Connor is the definition of vulnerable, but he is also inferior in status as well. He is low-born, a squire to Lord Garnoc. He lacks skill with a sword, strength of limb or even much in the way of worldly intelligence. He's a cutie-patootie stuck in the horrible aftermath of the Cataclysm. Worse, he's a Medium, able to channel spirits of the dead, the ultimate form of physical violation short of being force-fed the kruvgaldur--a Medium who cannot stop an attack. Kirken Vandholt is wizened; he was present at the raising of the magic at Mirdalur, and he is a former Lord of the Blood. He is Connor's better in every feudalistic way, and then his superior in masculinity by virtue of being a wraith, not to mention a vampire, capable of entering poor Connor's body, thrusting his own consciousness to the fore, reducing his host to a puppet--but only when invited, like a good wraith lord. There is a sexualization of the act of possession taking place, a dans macabre of mores and social contexts that keeps up the pretense of civility, trying to wrap up the brutality and horror of the act itself in pretty language and "please" and "thank yous". Connor is aware that it's a very thin disguise. 

 Vampirism and psychic interference have long been held as acts of violation. A vampire violates it's intended victim by thrusting the force of its essence--sometimes willingly, but also unwillingly--on a new thrall or fledgling. A psychic may break down barriers and reach into our deepest thoughts, where the idea of privacy is abandoned. However, Connor is unique, in that he seems to have  no control over the spirits who possess him. Much like in real life, there is no natural defense or shield against invasion. I find Martin's use of possession to be more than an apt allegory for sexual assault. I defy any rape victim to claim they attempted to keep their aggressor out, but their shields couldn't withstand the onslaught, so they ended up getting raped. That's simply not how it works. Connor is constantly threatened to be consumed by spirits in an area. In this case, I one might not think of Vandholt as an aggressor, but of Connor as chronically fragile. Connor and Vandholt parlay this obvious vulnerability through give-and-take. Only Connor's ability to be possessed by the Wraith Lord saves him and his companions from the Guardian in Valshoa. Even in this, though, the risk is dire. Connor is constantly being confronted with choices: let my friends perish, or come close to dying myself; accept the kruvgaldur and risk the change, or die as a result of refusal. There is no symbiotic relationship between Kirken Vandholt and Bevin Connor. 

For Connor, even for his conscious mind, there is a constant othering, a constant displacement. In this context, almost every scene of possession is a rape-scene. I am not saying a literal "Connor was raped!" scene. I mean a rape scenario harkening back to when Paris brought Helen back to Troy with him. Even if she left willingly, the fact that she was married to Menelaus made Paris the aggressor (boy what a firebrand he turned out to be too). Connor lacks control over everything around him, even his own body. The significance lies in the fact that Connor is male, broadening the gap of sexual assault to men. I compare Connor to Adainne from The Sworn and The Dread. You may remember my rather cruel, "herp-a-derp, I'm just a whore," rant. Adainne was not just a prostitute, but a ghost-whore, someone who's mind was violated and othered by an invading force, but then who's body was violated through sexual intercourse, often resulting in both mental and physical trauma. Her consolation: it paid well. How much you wanna bet not every one of those encounters were heterosexual? Possession is a common denominator for this author, it seems, the great equivocator. What hope has any human for physical safety in a world where anyone can be possessed, or taken by a vampire? I'm suddenly lacking my carefully crafted desensitization. I'm very scared right now. 

Connor is deeply feminized: he is constantly under the threat of violation; he has no control of events, decision making or even where he's going next. His arguments constantly come to naught, and some mage rooted around in his head with a Sharpie and left him dozens of notes for others to decipher. Again, I maintain that, for a fantasy character, Connor is chronically fragile. 

Thus, Connor becomes the party whipping boy; his vulnerability made him an excellent mark for both Vigus Quintrell and Lanyon Penhallow. It seems the only use a human has to a vampire is through some sort of service. We must admit that a human being is inherently inferior to a vampire, and assume that subjugation is in their nature. They are at the top of the food chain, so to speak. A vampire's ultimate goal is to fulfill their own ends, which take precedent over other creatures' needs. A vampire is the ultimate administrator: thralls do their bidding, lesser creatures come when they call, and if this does not occur through the natural order, then through compulsion or guile. We see this most dastardly of vampire traits in Pentreath Reese, who's subjugation is not apologetic or accidental. Lanyon Penhallow and Reese are both aware of their power; the difference lies in how it is used. Reese forces a powerful man, Vedrand Pollard, to his knees regularly, a fact that Martin makes a point of reminding us. I'll resume this line of thinking in the next review, but to return: vampire subjugation is not limited by sex or gender. A male may subjugate a male (Connor and Vandholt);
a female may subjugate a male (Claudia and Louis in Interview with a Vampire, where Claudia is often depicted above Louis in some way, even when he plays the father-role). Traditional gender roles simply do no apply. 

Conclusion: The Bad Vampire Never Left

As our society moves closer to equal rights, it has become more and more common to see authors take advantage of gender roles and twist them to the psychoanalytical rhetoric being exercised in the text. This is not always done consciously, thus it is not always read consciously. A reading of Stephanie Myer or Anne Rice will both render different results, but contemporary fiction takes shifting ideas of gender roles into account. Without performing a psychoanalytical analysis of the text, it's difficult to pin point exactly what purpose Connor's vulnerability holds for the author or the reader, or what it means for gender roles in fantasy fiction in general.  

We must then look to the vampire for our analysis. The vampire's role in fiction has always been one of subjugation, a mix of awe and horror that both excites and frightens us to our core. A vampire is welcomed with open arms and, "Come and take me," followed by, "Please don't hurt me." It could be that vampires represent what we fear most: our darkest desires, the most basic Id that cannot be expressed because of social mores or learned behaviors. It could be that vampires are a reflection of our own sexual repression, that vampires can take our sexuality where we fear to let it go. Another argument can be made that we project our vanity, our fear of our own mortality, and our fear of our own sexuality onto vampires. Do our warped psyches stare back at us from the page? Where will vampires go when we no longer need to fear sexual "deviance", or practice sexual repression? Will they continue to have power over us?

Taking the vampire into consideration, we examine a very human character, something that even seems to be lacking in a fantasy fiction--a very real human, a human that is vulnerable, average, terrified, feminized in the context of the rest of the characters, the Ned Brookshire of Fantasy Fiction. Bevin Connor is so human it's frightening. I believe that this is the reason Connor disgusts me as a character, and why Penhallow and Reese remain so attractive. Who wants to be human? Connor. Connor wants to be human, and he is probably the most sane character in the entire novel. 

In our curiosity for answers regarding the future of gender roles in fantasy fiction, we have only to look to the present. Our poor Connor is subjugated and othered by a vampire presence of male sex, a thing outside fantasy fiction that would quickly garner scrutiny if not outrage. One has to ask: why is it okay for this to be so in fiction, but not so in reality? Why is it okay to condemn homoerotica in real life, but allow it as a Freudian exercise in fiction? Why do we mirror rape, subjugation and othering of ourselves in our fiction? One has to wonder about the nature of a society who has come to love and admire a scapegoat creature, who we hated and feared in our ancestry, but who now holds so much power over us. Do we fear death so much that the idea of being young forever drives us into the arms of the only species on the planet--short of ourselves--that is capable of wiping us out? Our ideas of beauty, youth and worth are all called into question by the way vampires have changed in lore since they first began to plague our sleep and haunt our steps. 

The deconstruction of gender roles through the use of characters to whom sex or gender does not matter is changing the way we think of fantasy fiction. However, the way we view sexual equality is also changing, which in turn changes the way we represent people of different sexual orientation outside of the traditional one. Will the vampire revert to it's previous form? Probably not, for now those who struggle with sexual equality have found themselves another scapegoat. We are both repulsed and jealous of this creature. We fear their touch, and require their power, their freedom. The character has embodied everything we hold dear, and yet we instinctively hide from it, and it may be we are only hiding from our primitive selves.

The subjugation and oppression the vampire is capable of, now more than ever, should once again remind us that vampires are but demi-gods who are at once terrible and beautiful. Our dependence on them only works their favor. For this reason, if for no other, they are to be feared. We'll be doing gendered readings of vampires until we no longer have a need for them--so probably until the end of time. 

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