This piece contains FULL spoilers for The Last Jedi
It’s been a week since The Last Jedi came out. There are petitions on Change.org to have it stricken from canon and to have Rian Johnson issue a formal apology for it. The Rotten Tomatoes differential between the critic and audience score is a mind-boggling 38 points. Fandom dialogue, even for this one, is at its most heightened state yet. And I don’t understand a word of it.
I sat in the theaters on Saturday morning with my breakfast popcorn and a huge smile on my face. This was a perfect movie. The character arcs were tight and meaningful, the setup was perfectly logical and focused, the force mythos was expanded upon, and the themes toyed with were thoughtful and uplifting. This was exactly what I wanted in a Star Wars film, and I couldn’t wait to revel in that excitement with everyone else.
Only it wasn’t there.
Now, I want to say right here that I’m not taking aim at all criticisms. For instance, as a white woman, I lack the background and experience where, say, the imagery of Finn being tazed would be viscerally upsetting. There’s a fair bit of discomfort being expressed at the treatment of POC in the film—from feeling like Finn and Poe were sidelined, to Rose/Finn dipping into tokenism territory, to Poe’s writing being stereotypical and formulaic. These are unfortunate implications, whatever Johnson’s intentions, and it’s important that we leverage voices of marginalized viewers so that this kind of stuff gets addressed. Or at the least, so Abrams feels a bit more compelled to have a diverse writers’ room with Episode IX.
It’s also not like there’s only some valid criticisms. At the end of the day, there’s no accounting for taste; if people felt the writing was bad, the characterizations were poor, or the story was uncompelling, then that’s the way of it. It’s just that when those are the types of complaints, I can usually at least understand where it’s coming from. Legend of Korra is a perfect show to me, but I know it’s also a hot mess and I get why people pan on it.
So I did what I always do; I tried to dig into these complaints and really come out on the other side of hearing it. I guess Luke’s scripting could be seen as sitting in contention with his attitude in Return of the Jedi. (Even if to me, his success in “redeeming” Vader set UP these events, and if he saw the horrible pain and suffering at the hand of Ben that was basically inevitable in his mind, then his instinct wasn’t exactly unreasonable, especially since it also meant the protection of his other students.) I guess Finn and Rose’s subplot technically wasn’t necessary. (Even if it was the thematic center of the entire movie.) I guess we needed more answers as about the politics behind the First Order and who Snoke was. (Even if these were problems Abrams introduced with The Force Awakens, and it’s simply not the focal point of this story, just like Palpatine’s backstory hadn’t been in the original trilogy.)
I just couldn’t do it! I can’t even write a paragraph out explaining the complaints without adding my own justifications. And to make matters worse, the longer I’ve thought about this movie, the deeper it gets, and the more I like it.
I have no clue what these “twists” are that people keep referring to; there was a deconstruction of standard Star Wars storytelling conventions, but everything was born from the characters, and it came together with a message that was complete in-line with the originals. I understand not connecting with Rose the way I did, or wishing Luke had been more optimistic, or wanting Kylo and Rey’s dynamic to be painted in a different light, truly. But the virulent hatred is not something I understand at all.
Until it hit me: I’ve seen this before. A piece of hotly-anticipated media that subverted expectations and broke down the core of the story being told? That forced the audience to pull back and consider foundations, while focusing on character arcs that parallel and complement each other with remarkable cohesion? A story that the more you think about, the more there is?
Yeah, that’s A Feast for Crows from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. You know, the “boring book” in the series that is usually cited as the worst one, again, to the confusion of me.
Now look: I don’t want to pretend Abrams or Johnson are even half the worldbuilders that Martin is. I also don’t want to pretend there aren’t flaws in Martin’s writing, or that The Last Jedi couldn’t have done with tweaks. But I do think the strong reaction against the newest Star Wars film bears a striking similarity to Feast’s polarized reception as well, and for many more reasons than the fact that there is a polarized reception in the first place. So let’s dig into Johnson’s work.
Focus on Themes over Plot
I’ll be honest here—the talk about all the “plot holes” in The Last Jedi really confused me. There was a bit of an inconsistent timeline (nowhere near the full-blown wonkiness of Empire Strikes Back), but otherwise we were looking at a bottle episode. The Resistance was on the run from the First Order. There were specific logistics with their ships that prevented them from escaping. To escape, they had to disable the First Order’s tracking. This went poorly, so they took a Plan B (or C or D maybe) and made to hide on a planet.
The worst that can be said about this movie’s plot was that it’s not incredibly interesting, though in my opinion, these types of movies are when characters are able to shine. Kind of like how they did in Empire, with the main plot being “Leia and Han crash on a friend’s couch.”
No, the creative energy was not spent solving J.J. Abrams’s annoying mystery box for him. It was spent instead on delivering us one of the most thematically packed Star Wars movies to date.
Some bash you over the head. “Failure is the best teacher.” Yes, there’s a lot of failure in this movie. Finn and Rose’s “heist” doesn’t work, Poe’s mission to take down the dreadnaught leaves the Resistance exposed, Holdo’s transport strategy was found out, and oh yeah…Luke couldn’t save his nephew, or the entire concept of the Jedi Order.
Interestingly, I’d argue that Rey doesn’t exactly fail, unless you consider it her role to redeem Kylo. I suspect many do (let’s not), and that is ironically everything Kylo’s scripting takes a shot at, given that he’s a not-at-all-subtle embodiment of white, male entitlement.
It is likely for this reason that the movie also hammers home the idea that it’s our choices and actions that have consequences, regardless of intent. Luke’s internalized guilt over “failing” Ben was part of this; it didn’t matter why he ignited his lightsaber, but he did that thing and it brought everything down. Poe and Finn both learned that good intentions can result in people getting hurt, though from opposite angles. Even Kylo’s “kill the past” drives home the idea that he’s sticking to his choices.
We’ve also got the good ol’ balancing of the personal and political, which is a particular favorite of George R.R. Martin’s. Finn’s focus went from being entirely about protecting Rey, to seeing the systemic injustice and willingly putting himself in front of the barrel of that gun, only for Rose to show him the balanced path, as Gretchen pointed out in her review of Cobalt Squadron—fight for those you love, and inherently consider yourself. Poe’s arc handled the topic in a similar way, though he had started out all guns blazing against the First Order, without a focus on the individuals. Holdo’s course of action was more “do what you can to fight another day,” but she ultimately threw herself into the fight to allow others that opportunity. Luke had to grapple with the personal grief within his family to show Rey a path.
And Rey, our main protagonist, was in the center of all of this, struggling to understand who she was and her origins to find some place in all of this.
Parallels on top of Parallels on top of Foils
I actually have to stop myself here from getting too deep in discussing the themes, because they are so intimately and thoroughly linked to character journeys and overall messaging that I’m more or less in danger of upstreaming my own points.
Like A Feast for Crows, most of The Last Jedi deals with identity. This is most explicitly Rey’s journey, since she literally stumbles into a vision centered around that question, but it is present in every facet of this movie. And like A Feast for Crows, she is hardly alone in this.
Poe and Finn are the Jaime and Brienne of the tale in terms of how closely they mirror one another. It’s true that neither could be considered to have a slow-paced travelogue; as described above, they came from opposite angles of how to view the Resistance and their place in it, ultimately to settle into a point of balance that took the big picture in mind, over their impulses. Finn, being a former stormtrooper still coming out of conditioning, has an opening mentality that feels better-seeded than Poe’s. However, I do struggle with claims of Poe being “out of character” when the man was more or less a complete MacGuffin in The Force Awakens. And in the case of the narrative, it is the whole and not the sum of the parts where the takeaway can be found.
This is where Rose steps in. Her line, “We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!”, is the moral center of The Last Jedi, and really the original trilogy, when you think about it. However, Rose is not merely a font of thematic wisdom; she has her own arc that solidifies this. We’re shown how she feels about Canto Bight. How her own deeply felt sense of loss—raw from her sister’s death—makes her want to “put her fist through this beautiful city.”
The fathier race through the city does cause damage, and we see her enjoying it, but the moment she cites as making their (failed) excursion worthwhile was when she freed the fathier she and Finn rode. It’s about empathy and love, not fleeting revenge (however justified), which both Finn and Poe fell into. DJ is the one who allows Rose to put it into words in the end, since he breaks down the illusion of “sides” being the all important dialectic.
All of this, of course, is exactly what Rey and Luke grapple with. Luke fears her going “straight to the dark” when she first reaches out with the force, but yet the absolutes he held dear quite literally went up in flames. Rey, meanwhile, embraces the darkness as a quest for answers, yet stays committed to an empathetic course of action. That’s the goodness. That’s the only “side” worth fighting for. It’s the side that makes her believe Ben could turn away from the pain and destruction he’s caused, and the same side that makes her immediately rebuke him when it’s clear that he’s still committed to it. Luke sees that this new path Rey carves out is the one of the future, and ultimately sacrifices himself to see that through, saving his sister in the process.
Holdo is seemingly the odd-man-out in this tale, but she parallels Rose and Leia and Rey in finding that middle balance between intention and action. At the same time, she, Leia, and Luke all redefined what success was for the Resistance and adapted to the new situations. Yeah, they were so badly beaten that they all fit on the Millennium Falcon; but hope, centered around caring and balance, lived on. And it loops back to Canto Bight, where the poorly treated stable boy, inspired by Finn and Rose, has that same drive for justice and same commitment to empathy that keeps the resistance alive, no matter how many die. Oh and he also has force powers.
(As a side note, this is why I have extreme confusion about people who consider The Last Jedi to be depressing in its message, just as I believe there’s a romanticism and faith in humanity underlying A Feast for Crows.)
The only person you could say doesn’t have a character arc is DJ, but he is most decidedly a character to frame this message, in the same way the Elder Brother frames Brienne’s journey. Simply put: in a Martin-esque novelization, he’s not a PoV character. Neither are Hux, Snoke, Phasma, BB-8, or Billie Lourd (was she named yet?).
Kylo Ren is though, and to equate him to Cersei Lannister would frankly be an insult to her character. However, there’s one commonalty they share: they are foils to literally everyone.
See that’s the thing: Kylo Ren is our antagonist. I’m firmly of the belief that this story should not head towards a redemption for him, which I’ll elaborate on a bit more below. But he’s a brilliant antagonist for the precise reason that he is a foil. There’s the obvious way in which he acts out of revenge over compassion. He’s also the “opposite” of Rey in terms of background and view of his role in this narrative. He tells Rey she has no place in it, while he is the one who claimed to be entitled to Luke’s lightsaber in The Force Awakens, for instance.
All failure on the part of the characters in this resulted in a readjustment or reframing of the issue…except for Kylo, who doubled down. He learned Snoke had been pulling strings to make him believe he could “turn” Rey, but after cutting down Snoke, merely took his place. Shockingly, Rey was less than wooed.
The Last Jedi’s tension was really just every character defining who they were to themselves and what their place was in this. Seriously, every character. Kylo chose who that was for him, and of course in true poetic justice, his desire to free himself of the past (double parental issues!) more or less guaranteed it would always haunt him and likely lead to his downfall. “See you around, kid.”
He’s a self-made villain in a Cersei-ish way, and as the audience we are invited to understand what that battle within him looked like. It’s just that unlike Cersei, he’s also the embodiment of entitlement. Luke is too, on a narrative and meta-textual level. But Luke’s arc had that readjustment; he changed with the times and redefined the Jedi Order, as well as his own narrative participation, by what was now needed.
Women Take the Reins
This movie is just…very relevant to our times. And apparently Rian Johnson got the memo that “the future is female,” though without the usual Hollywood infantilization that accompanies it. Or perhaps, “a woman’s place is in the Resistance” is more on the nose.
Commodification of political activism notwithstanding, The Last Jedi had absolutely no chill about women driving not only the plot, but the solutions.
Rey’s approach to being mentored by Luke was more or less her going, “That’s interesting, but I’m not going to listen to you at all because you have weird absolutist views on this stuff as a result of your own baggage.” Rose saved Finn with the decided message of “you matter,” because she had been able to redefine what success and justice looked like for her. Leia literally stun-gunned Poe and yelled at him until he got a similar message, which was validated by Holdo’s sacrifice. (This is not doing anything to prevent me from running away with Leia/Poe headcanons, I should note.)
Perhaps the best bit is Rey’s own refusal to engage with Kylo. She was primed to take Luke’s place as the one to drive a redemption, only to realize that it wasn’t her burden or role, and that if he was going to choose to be an asshole, then she was going to quite literally shut the door in his face to any further interaction. His “you don’t matter except to me” attitude was fully rejected. She knew she had a place in it, one that she chose and earned, and that will become her story.
I don’t want to belabor this point, especially since it bleeds into the next one. Also it’s been rather obvious from the get-go that Rey is our central figure in the trilogy. I suspect some of the push-back may be due to this fact, in the same way it’s hard for me to ignore that 57% of the chapters A Feast for Crows are a female PoV.
However, while that might be a shade to dialogue about both pieces of media, I believe it’s more a case of…
Deconstruction of the Rules of the Universe and Subverted Genre Expectations
We’ve discussed before how A Feast for Crows sort of switched genres on the reader. Granted, the A Song of Ice and Fire series is all about a subversion of genre expectations. But the fourth book was also the one where we were forced to sit with the fundamental nature of fantasy stories and truly crack into what it meant. As I wrote:
“Through broken characters and a broken landscape, Martin was able to hold a light up to the inherently unsustainable nature of the feudal order. Violence wasn’t worshipped, and pacifism was often far more daring.” —AFFC is the Best of ASOIAF and I’m That Person
This was always the case in A Song of Ice and Fire, though the lens was not held up explicitly until the “action-packed” first chapter (the War of Five Kings) concluded. Here, book readers were not able to escape the fact that this series—which could easily be read as awesome twists and messed up moments in a quasi-medieval setting—was created to take aim at all of those moments. Or, they did escape it by focusing on the lack of action, instead of what was now filling the page.
(Despite what it might seem like, I’m not judging anyone with this reaction; I too found Feast dull on my first read through, and didn’t really “get” it, or really the series, until my reread.)
I suspect strongly that opinions on The Last Jedi will warm with multiple viewings. Because it did break the paradigm of this franchise. Kylo Ren won’t be redeemed (or, if he is, it will sit in contention with everything this movie introduced, and the new trilogy will end up being the most fascinating game of tug-of-war between Rian Johnson and J.J. Abrams). Skywalkers aren’t the center of this story, and nobodies earn their place as the heroes through actions. Yoda lights the old ways of the Jedi Order on fire, and tells Luke to get over it because times change. Luke chucks his lightsaber over his shoulder and refuses to take part as the mentor.
On a Doylist-level, the two white men hand off the narrative. Luke does so willingly and sacrificially, while Kylo takes himself out of the running as a hero. This is a story that belongs to women and POC, our decided heroes, with an East Asian woman explicating the thematic core to the audience.
“It’s Star Wars! It’s about how nobody is a lost cause and anybody can be redeemed!” Is that the case? Because as Gretchen so eloquently stated to me, redemption as a foregone conclusion can’t actually be a redemption. Star Wars has really been about giving people the opportunity to change, and Rey did that here. Hell, she assumed the same thing as Star Wars fans; the Skywalker gets redeemed. It was going to be like poetry and rhyme.
So yes, it was a rug pulled out from under the feet of some viewers. But it really isn’t counter to Star Wars ethos. Instead, it was a deconstruction of what this really means, and a bit of a spiritual successor, like Legend of Korra was to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Once again, it was Gretchen who put into words exactly what was discovered: “hope is communal, not individual.” Yup, that’s the core of this franchise.
Maybe I’m incredibly wrong about where Kylo is headed. It is clear, however, that The Last Jedi took aim at the Skywalker legacy with an assertion that this story didn’t belong to them. Rey had a place in it, whatever Kylo told her about her parents. The fact that they’re morally bankrupt nobodies? Even better. It also took an even stronger aim at the “chosen one” trope. Yeah, that was what the original trilogy was structured around. But was it necessary?
If anything, Luke’s headspace and guilt shows the damaging results of buying into it. He was “Luke Skywalker,” so of course he was going to restore the Jedi and be the perfect instructor. His success in Vader’s redemption juxtaposed with his failure to save Ben sets up his alienation. And the fact that he finds hope not in perfectly correcting mistakes, but in learning from them, growing, and adjusting? That’s the point.
The world doesn’t need Luke Skywalker, because there can’t be a chosen one with that burden on them. It’s not sustainable or healthy. Instead, the world needs those who will fight for justice when the time comes, and who place empathy in the center of their morality.
The now-stricken EU had historically painted Luke in a different light, as more of a classic action hero. But that was never him. He was always a bit of a trope-buster, and the absolute perfect person through whom the paradigm could be deconstructed. Just like Rey, the nobody from nowhere who hadn’t wanted to leave for an adventure at all, became the perfect person to embody the change.
Everything you just said is wrong.
If you didn’t like The Last Jedi, try rewatching it. You still might not enjoy it, or you might see better potential in other directions. That’s perfectly fine. But I highly encourage trying to engage with its thematic core. I promise, that extraneous Canto Bight theater is suddenly going to start looking very relevant.
Images courtesy of Disney
In Scorpion, I like my women…oppositional
Scorpion had many flaws and there were plots that could have been handled better. Thankfully with a small exception they were able to write decent female characters which gave us a variety of characteristics and strengths. While leaving the characters on opposite sides of the spectrum.
The waitress liaison
When we meet Paige she’s a waitress at a diner who’s barely getting by. She works two jobs and everything she earns goes to her son Ralph.
We know very little about Paige. There were just a few details that we know. Her father died and her estranged mother is a con women. Their relationship wasn’t the best but they managed to repair it. (Although Veronica leaves at the end of episode 3×14.) Not without leaving some cash for her daughter and grandson. It’s clear to see that Paige tried very hard not to become a mother like her own. She’s very attentive to Ralph’s needs and even though she isn’t aware that he’s a genius in the beginning, she tries very hard to connect with and understand him. She protects her son fiercely.
Paige is a college drop out. During the show she took some night classes in European history to finish her education. Although Paige isn’t a genius, she often contributes some useful ideas to solve problems or offers a comment that helps the others to find a solution.
Throughout the course of the show, she starts understanding and learning more of the science. Her main area of expertise is communication with clients and other people that the team meets. That’s why Walter hired her. She’s supposed to be their liaison to the normal world. She also often takes charge and helps the team to refocus as their minds tend to wander. Paige isn’t a mom only to Ralph—she has to take care of the whole team as they do things like forget to eat.
The waitress had some problems fitting in at the beginning. She didn’t really know her place or role, but with time she became a natural at her job and solidified her position on the team. She did have some trouble with Happy, but they worked it out while dangling on a broken cable in the air.
As wonderful as she sounds, Paige is only human and has flaws like any of us. She is stubborn to a fault and doesn’t like to admit defeat, which doesn’t always sit well with Walter. She can be overprotective of Ralph. Paige has abandonment issues. They can originate from her mother or Drew leaving her when Ralph was little. She was also cheated on. Even though she had abandonment issues, she often used her own fear against Walter who has the same problem. She left him at the end of season 1…which was understandable since Ralphs life was in danger but after that she did it again. Sometimes she lets her emotions cloud her judgement.
Paige is the epitome of a struggling single mom who pushes trough no matter what. Most of her actions are dictated by her heart and the love for her son. Although flawed, she is an excellent example on how to master life’s challenges
The mechanical prodigy
Happy Quinn is a genius mechanic with a rough exterior. She often seems as if she doesn’t care or feel. It’s not true because under the tough shell hides a loving women.
She grew up in a foster home after her mother died. She didn’t see her father until she grew up and found him. Her dad (Patrick) has an Auto repair shop, which can be viewed as the source of her mechanical talent. Repairing stuff is also how she bonds with him.
Her father isn’t the only special man in her life. She shares a profound bond with Cabe, who has kind of stepped up to the role of her father. He was the one who gave her away on her wedding.
Although she may not seem like it, she cares about a selected few very much. Especially team Scorpion. She nursed Walter back to health after he spent some time in the rabbit hole, showcasing her gentle side. She even married him so he didn’t get deported to Ireland.
Happy shared a special relationship with Toby. They got married after she divorced Walter and planned to start a family together. They tried to get pregnant but even then they met another obstacle. Sadly we’ll never know how that plot ended because of the shows cancellation, but I digress.
What I find special about their relationship is the strong foundation in friendship and how well they know and trust in each other. Toby is the only one who didn’t abandon or betray her.
Happy is a representation of every women who makes it in a field dominated by man and was hurt by life. Regardless of that she, was able to build a family and gain success.
The new chemist on the block
We meet Florence as the new chemist who moves to the building next door to the garage. She isn’t a genius, but she’s very smart. She started her own company but lost it. She then moved to start a new business venture.
She can’t really get along with the team in the beginning. Within the course of the show, however, their relationship starts to get better.
Personally, I didn’t enjoy this character. She was created to be a competition to Paige and to show a really smart individual who isn’t a genius but has the same problem as them. Sadly the character comes off as inexpressive and bleak. Her story and problems didn’t manage to get my attention or interest me.
I enjoyed her growing relationship with Sylvester, but it went down the drill since Flo had to have a crush on Walter. The character had potential and maybe with time she could grow on me but alas we’ll never know
The genius whispering sister
Megan was Walter’s older sister. She was a sickly child with a happy attitude. She was one of the few people who understood or tried to understand Walter and build a relationship with him no matter how different he was. She was very ill. She had multiple sclerosis (MS), which eventually killed her.
Even though she was deadly ill, she soldiered on and always saw the glass as half full. She was always kind and lived her life to the fullest. Megan inspired everyone around her, and comforted them when needed. This included Walter and Sylvester in the same episode, at one point (1×12).
She always supported and stood by Walter. Megan was her brother’s biggest cheerleader. Being ill didn’t stop her from having her own opinion. She didn’t want to be on a respirator and she got her way.
Something worth mentioning is her relationship with Sylvester. This particular romance was sweet like a middle school one—the feeling was strong and build on a foundation of trust. Megan gave Sylvester enough strength and courage to go against Walter’s wishes and marry her. Even if they only had a short time together, they were very happy and Megan died having lived a full life.
Megan was the character that showed us that even in the darkest times there’s always hope and a chance to be happy.
Although the woman of Scorpion are on opposite sides of the spectrum, they are united by one characteristic. Strength. Every female character showed strength in her life and soldiering on, making them prime examples on how to handle obstacles.
Images courtesy of CBS
Game of Thrones 3×02 Rewatch: Long Things, Dumb Words
Tuesday means one thing on TheFandomentals: we’re back with another installment of The Wars to Come, a deep dive into Game of Thrones early seasons in an attempt to understand what happened. Last week, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss (D&D) penned a fairly competent opening to the third season. This week, Kylie, Julia, and Jana are ready for another of Vanessa Taylor’s finest, with “Dark Wings, Dark Words.”
Beyond the Wall, Mance makes it clear to Jon that he won’t hesitate to kill him if he finds out he’s faking his allegiance. After all, the reason he united everyone was to get them to understand they’d all die if they didn’t move south, so he is very focused. Mance then takes Jon to meet Orell, a skinchanger who entered the mind of a bird overhead. Once he comes back to, he informs the group that he spied “dead crows.”
Speaking of those crows, the Night’s Watch brothers began their slow journey back to the Wall. The exhaustion gets to Sam, who kneels down to give up after some taunting by Rast. Edd and Grenn do what they can to rouse him again, but it’s Commander Mormont who gets them all moving by assigning Rast to Sam. If Sam doesn’t make it back, then neither will Rast.
Heading up to the Wall meanwhile are Bran, Rickon, Osha, and Hodor. Bran is still having his crow dreams, though in this one, a strange boy about his age appears, telling Bran he can’t kill the crow since it is him. Later in real life, the same boy manages to sneak up on Bran’s camp. When Osha threatens to kill him if he takes another step towards Bran, the boy’s sister holds a knife to Osha’s throat. He introduces himself as Jojen Reed, with his sister Meera. He explains to Bran that he does have prophetic dreams, though Bran is also a warg thanks to his ability to control his direwolf. He also says the raven is something else entirely, and that it “brings the sight.” Osha tells Meera it’s shameful that she has to protect her brother, though Meera just shrugs it off.
At Robb’s camp, news arrives from both Riverrun and Winterfell. The former is that Hoster Tully, Cat’s father, has died. The second letter explains about the burning of Winterfell, and no sign of Bran and Rickon. Robb tells this to Cat, who grieves and asks if she’ll have to wear manacles to her father’s funeral. Robb turns his army to march to Riverrun, though it’s clear not all the Northern Lords want to go. On the way, Talisa approaches Cat to try and talk to her. Cat makes it clear that she blames herself for everything that’s befallen her family and cites her treatment of Jon Snow as her selfishness that doomed them.
Someone whose self-blame is a bit more deserved is Theon, who finds himself tied up in a dimly lit room underground. He is tortured, while he is asked his motivations for taking Winterfell. However, it’s clear they’re not interested in his answer. A man sweeping the floor comes up to Theon after the others leave and slightly eases the tension in the device for him, saying that he was sent by Yara and plans to save Theon later that night.
Elsewhere, Arya continues her travels with Hot Pie and Gendry, the latter of whom teases Arya for her terrible choices in the three names Jaqen gave her. They are soon found on the road by a group of men who easily outnumber them, including Thoros of Myr and Anguy. They call themselves the “Brotherhood without Banners,” and quickly piece together that they escaped Harrenhal. The brotherhood buy the trio food at an inn, and Arya lies about their escape, saying that Gendry forged them weapons and they fought their way out. Thoros says they’re free to go, but just as they’re heading out, Sandor Clegane comes in, who instantly recognizes Arya and identifies her to the room.
Speaking of trying to avoid tension, Jaime and Brienne continue their travels, as Jaime tries to make conversation by figuring out Brienne’s former allegiance. He guesses that she was in love with Renly, though the mocking stops when an old man with a loaded horse passes by. Jaime says Brienne should kill him, but she refuses. Later, they have to cross a bridge together, and Jaime sits down, purposely dragging out the process. Brienne tries to rush him up, but Jaime manages to grab hold of one of her swords. They fight, and just as Brienne manages to best him, a group of men displaying the Bolton sigil appear. As it turns out, the old man did recognize them, and they are taken captive by the Bolton troops.
Finally, down in King’s Landing, Cersei tries to talk to Joffrey about his view of Margaery, no doubt concerned at her son’s fondness. She points out that Margaery had been engaged to Renly not so long before. Meanwhile, Shae tries to warn Sansa of Littlefinger, implying that he wants to have sex with her. Their conversation is cut short when Sansa is summoned by the Tyrells. Loras walks her to where Margaery and her grandmother Olenna wait. Olenna is very critical of the men in her family and makes it clear that she has a strong grasp of the political situation. The two women ask Sansa about Joffrey, since Margaery is to marry him. They promise no harm will come to her, and Sansa tells them that he’s a monster.
Margaery gets to see that fully on display, when Joffrey summons her and ask if the bedside of a traitor was her proper place. She quickly turns the conversation around, puffing up Joffrey’s ego and feigning interest in his new crossbow. She then hints at killing something with it and letting him watch her do so. Shae is also trying to sort out sexual interests in a conversation with Tyrion. She goes to him to try and figure out what to do about Littlefinger because of Ros’s warning, but quickly becomes jealous of Tyrion’s past purchasing of Ros’s services, as well as his comments about Sansa being attractive. However, they have sex, temporarily resolving that situation.
Does Tyrion want Sansa? Did Cat doom everyone? And will Margaery really have to kill something for Joffrey’s enjoyment? We’ll find out next week, but for now, let’s break down what we just saw.
Initial, quick reaction
Kylie: Well, there’s that cliff the show begins to fall off in Season 3. There were a lot of parts of this episode that worked well, and I genuinely enjoyed. But there’s just so much invented that doesn’t quite work, and it’s quite obviously done with the intent of “improving” the plots. The drop in quality is not subtle for those moments. In fact, just writing that recap the drop in quality is not subtle, but how the hell else do you frame that Shae conversation?
Jana: This is where you start getting whiplash from the draaaastic fluctuations in quality between scenes. I’d say about 75% of this episode was fine or even good, and then we have a self-flagellating Cat doing a crafting project on the road.
Julia: The one thing about this episode was how LONG it was. Seriously, it just kept going and going. There were actual highs this time, but my eyes hurt from all the rolling in other parts.
Kylie: Marg was my highlight last week, just for a pretty effortless performance that’s enjoyable to watch. This week that’s still the case, but my annoyance at her scripting has finally caught up. However, I will give a highlight to Jack Gleeson in his performance. I think the material is a little mixed in terms of how well it worked (and some of it is the result of trying to age up Joffrey), however he is such a talented actor that it makes up for a lot of it. He has this ability to turn the mood of a scene on a dime, and you see his entitlement, his cruelty, and his vulnerabilities all at once. It’s really brilliant.
My lowlight was the Reeds’ introduction. It wasn’t the most unpleasant thing to watch in this episode by a long shot, but just…why? What are we supposed to make of them from this? They’re mystical? Dramatic? It just came across as random, forced tension, when it would have been genuinely nice to have a pleasant interaction as an opening. A reminder why it is Northern Lords are so loyal and everything.
Jana: The Time Warp Trifecta was really working for it this week, at least for me. Though Margaery’s scene with Joffrey was supposed to be cringey, I guess. And Talisa was the least worst thing about her scene with Catelyn. That conversation between Tyrion and Shae, though… What even was that?
Julia: Omg, “The Time Warp Trifecta.” Thank you so much for being part of my life, Jana.
Jana: Nevertheless, nothing makes me scream more than Catelyn self-flagellating over… Not loving Jon enough? Even though in the same breath she mentions doing things for him most highborn women wouldn’t even do for their own children? And what’s this bullshit about wanting to ask Ned to legitimize him? And being jealous of Jon’s mother? Good god, what a mess.
(Never forget, three seasons from now, all of Book!Catelyn’s fears about Jon threatening her children’s claims will come true. Too bad Show!Catelyn had completely different concerns, apparently.)
Highlights… Hm. I mean, any scene that gives Sansa something to do that resembles her book storyline is nice, and Diana Rigg is a treasure. I feel like this Sansa maybe gave in a little too quickly, but other than that, I guess that’s my easy highlight to pick. Followed closely by Brienne and Jaime fighting on the bridge.
Julia: Lemon cakes is a very easy highlight. There were even some women doing needlework in the background! And cheese boy! Bless his heart. And it’s kind of all I can think of for an unironic highlight.
An ironic highlight might be the patriarchy magically appearing in King’s Landing, because god did it come hard. Wise women obey, guys! And what even is anal sex? Fun times.
The Cat thing was so horrible on many levels, especially the ones Jana mentioned. Legitimating Jon, Cat’s concerns being framed as primarily jealousy… but did we forgot the torture scenes? Maybe we tried to.
Quality of writing
Jana: Varied, is the word I’d use here. Some scenes were really well and tightly written and enjoyable, and then others, the quality just dropped. And there wasn’t even a Littlefinger around to blame! Though admittedly, the scene where Shae and Tyrion talked about him had probably the worst writing. Was anything Shae said even remotely coherent from one sentence to another?
Julia: Is she just really committed to the Girlfriend Experience or are we supposed to think this is a real relationship? Like, why is this sex worker upset that he once engaged the services of another sex worker?
I think it’s at least a soft original material-book scene dichotomy this week. The best written original scene was probably the one with
Carol Cersei and Joff, but then you had… all the other stuff. There were scenes that were just middling, I guess, like where Mance explains his backstory.
Kylie: The Jaime and Brienne scenes were some of the best writing in the episode, and also some of the only scenes that included book content as they were supposed to be. But Jana is right; we’d go from that one moment to the horror of Shae and Tyrion’s nonversation. Possibly the first true nonversation of the show?
Our 8th grade book report (on themes)
Julia: Well the title is kind of appropriate because Robb got those two bad news ravens. Not that they quoted the proverb. Also, why is Lord Karstark delivering messages now?
I’m kind of nowhere in terms of overall theme. The best I can do is that people are bonding and consolidating relationships. I’m thinking especially of Marg and Joff, Cat and Talisa, Jamie and Brienne, and Jon and Mance. There are also new relationships that will be important later; Sansa and Marg, the Reeds and Bran, Arya and the Hound, (who never really interacted before, as far as I can recall) Ramsay and Theon (barf).
Jana: Yes, I was considering something along those lines as well. Uneasy alliances, maybe? False friends? Though that might be more hindsight than anything substantial in this episode.
Kylie: “People in groups of varying sizes doing things.” No, “uneasy alliances” is the closest at making sense, and it actually works fairly well. Don’t forget Rast and Sam, too.
The Butterfly Effect
Kylie: Biggest one I see in effect here is with Cat’s scripting. D&D made no efforts to sympathize with her or her viewpoint in Season 1, which is why we get Cat telling Ned to stay in Winterfell. The political advancement of her family? The legitimate concerns over Jon’s potential claim? Never in evidence, so now we get her mistreatment of him played as just…she was petty and jealous and couldn’t love a baby because he had a stranger’s brown eyes.
Jana: No kidding. If I didn’t know any better, you could almost say that Catelyn’s dynastic worries were completely taken out of the show to make it more palpable for the average watcher when Jon becomes king, and that’d be a great move. But that’s also assuming the writers planned more than one season at a time, and, well…
Julia: They just don’t see Cat as a political actor at all. Even when she went to talk to Renly it was only because Robb asked her to, remember. All this personal and political stuff goes right over their heads. The closest they ever got was with Theon, and we all saw how that turned out.
Kylie: It’s early Season 3 and we’re already at the point of legitimizing a bastard being painted as an unquestionably good thing. GAH.
Julia: Okay, I know I’ve been mentioning this every week, but why do they continue to dig this Shae hole? Now she’s defending other woman from sexual exploitation?
Jana: I actually kind of like the scenes with Sansa and Shae, at least right now. I mean, it is clearly a different Shae than the one in the books, and those moments at least make her somewhat likable. I also think that in theory, having someone for Sansa to bounce her inner monologue off of could have helped the show, a lot, with its portrayal of Sansa, buuuut that sure as hell isn’t happening here.
Kylie: I do think Sansa needs someone for that (and why Dontos couldn’t have fill the role is beyond me). But it’s not really in the service of Sansa at all. In fact, the scenes are mostly just Shae imparting worldly advice on the continually naive Sansa, and then whipping out some weird ‘empowered’ lines, like how she’s totally going to make Littlefinger stop. I guess because she runs around with daggers? Or goes to Tyrion with her problems?
I guess I’m torn on it, is what I mean. I like Sansa having someone she can be nice to, even if this is all going to get thrown out the window. But Shae’s scripting is a sore thumb for this worldbuilding.
Jana: They’re doing an all in all okay job with Jaime and Brienne. Yes, she’s more of a brute, and yes, maybe he goes on about Renly being gay a little too much, but other than that… Or maybe I’m just distracted by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (NCW) getting to actually do something again. God, he used to be so good as Jaime when he was allowed to be kind of clever and not just Carol’s beleaguered brother-lover.
Julia: You mean befuddled.
Jana: Larry was very much both beleaguered and befuddled.
Kylie: Agreed. And to be honest, I adore the way NCW and Gwendoline Christie play off of each other. This is what happens when you give actors actual content and motivation. From what I can tell NCW still tries to make sense of things. Poor guy.
Jana: Don’t mind me, I’ll be over here yelling about how they’re PERFECT AND THIS COULD HAVE BEEN SO GREAT AAAAAH but instead we try to normalize twincest for a few years, no biggie.
Julia: I just realized that the changes to Shae and her foregrounding have effectively made Sansa’s plot all about Tyrion even before they get married. But can we please indulge me and talk about why we think the stuff with Shae is happening?
Jana: My best guess as to why the Shae stuff is happening is basically that Tyrion, the precious saint-like audience avatar main protagonist hero, can’t just be fucking a regular sex worker who doesn’t care about him and his amazingness, which is why Shae is given a personality, traits that make her likable (see above points about caring for Sansa), and an informed knack for intrigue. And like, if it didn’t end the way it did, having Ros and Shae meddle with the politics of the big boys might have been a worthwhile plotline. Shae might have been a really nice example for how ladies-in-waiting are used to spy and all that. However, there was still an endpoint to get to, so all the crumbs we’re thrown here are completely meaningless in the long run.
Kylie: It’s so hard for me to understand what they were trying for with Ros in this. Because there is a bit of a throughline about maids and sex workers spying and having outcomes on the politics of the Highborn for sure. But yeah, it was a plotline without space for it, so it just ended up being this…weirdness that gets thrown out the window.
The most confusing part for me is how Martin has praised Shae’s scripting, and not an inconsequential number of times.
Jana: Eh, he is good friends with the actor. And to be fair, Shae is an actual character who at least occasionally seems to genuinely care about Tyrion and has character traits other than being out for self-preservation and good at playing the role she’s being paid to play. It paints Tyrion in a better light and make him more likable in the long run. But that only work if that was GRRM’s actual goal for Tyrion, which I doubt. I’m pretty sure Tyrion being flawed the way he is is very much the point of the character… Or maybe not. It’s hard to say at this point. The Shae thing is going to collapse hard next season, so for now it just seems like too much effort put into the wrong thing.
Julia: Right!? She just has so much screen time. Is it true or apocryphal that she has more lines than Cat this season?
Jana: I don’t have the numbers, but she definitely…does more than Cat. Has more agency than Cat, which is admittedly a low bar to clear, but nothing an ascended extra should be able to do next to a POV character.
Kylie: If it helps, Catelyn’s end tally is more than Shae’s across all their seasons? I feel like it doesn’t help.
Carol Watch: who is Cersei this week?
Kylie: I’m leaning towards Carol. We had nice slut-shaming digs at Marg’s wardrobe that could have gone either way, but we’re beginning to get that sad mom who can’t control her wild kid framing of it all.
Julia: Yeah, I’m going for full Carol. She’s totally right about the sinister nature of Marg’s risque wardrobe. And the patriarchy!
Jana: No kidding. And Joffrey yelling at her about what wise women do is very much like how people are going to be mean to Carol in the future. What happened to the woman who slapped Joffrey for talking back to her last season?
Kylie: It’s official then:
Exposition Imposition: good or clunky?
Julia: Um, Jojen gave us some myth arc exposition, I guess. We learn about anal sex? And FYI, Lord Karstark, it probably snows all the time in Dorne. They have mountains.
Jana: The guy yelling at Sam was kind of telling us What Happened So Far, but it made sense in context, I guess, and the only reason I noticed it was because I was looking for it.
If you’re generous, Joffrey tries to give us exposition about Westerosi views on homosexuality that are somehow not shared by anyone else making fun of Renly and Loras this episode. Did we mention that in the themes? People make fun of Renly and/or Loras being gay a lot this episode.
Kylie: The most seamless exposition was over lemon cakes, when Olenna was complaining about her various family members and her views on their political alliance. But we can’t exactly credit Vanessa Taylor for that one, can we?
I will say one bit of subtle exposition was that Theon is captive of the Boltons. He was on the wooden cross, and then we see the men displaying that later, which Jaime calls attention to with his, “a bit gruesome for my taste.” It was enough to preserve suspense, but it rewards a close watch, which is not anything I can say about the show now.
Julia: The problem with good exposition is that you don’t always notice it.
Kylie: Why do I feel like we should make that into a shirt?
How was the pacing?
Julia: This episode was 57 minutes long, so maybe it wasn’t the pacing that made it feel like it was taking forever. Though I do remember screaming, “am I seriously only 25 minutes in!?” at one point.
Jana: They had a LOT of scenes that were just going nowhere, or had especially frustrating content like the Cat Self Roast and Shae wildly fluctuating between actual nagging girlfriend and the girlfriend experience bought and paid for. Those scenes and the torture scenes dragged somewhat, the rest was fine.
Kylie: It was endless, absolutely endless. Griffin asked me, “Is it over now?” about three times, and I was just as horrified to discover it wasn’t too. It’s interesting, because the pace wasn’t slower in the way Season 7 scenes are slower, where people just walk across the screen for thirty seconds without saying anything. Instead, each scene itself felt pretty packed, but just packed with nothing.
Let’s talk about sex, baby
Kylie: Most sexual aspect of this episode was Marg explaining Renly’s gayness to Joff, and then getting him turned on with a crossbow. I guess there was also Shae’s blowjob to Tyrion after yelling about his attraction to Ros and Sansa.
I don’t know what to do with Marg to be honest. It seems so sinister now, knowing that Littlefinger will give Sansa the advise of “make him yours” to Ramsey, and her failure to do so resulted in her brutalization (at least, the framing of it). Here, we have the successful “make him yours” campaign by Margaery, and boy does she just wield her sexuality so effectively. I understand Vanessa Taylor wrote this episode, but this entire plotline was scripted by D&D, and it’s clear they think women really can successful control “monsters” if they weaponize their womanly bodies properly.
Jana: I’m also just gonna call it— Natalie Dormer already looks way too old for these interactions to not feel an entirely different kind of creepy than they’re meant to be. I know the show is very vague on their ages and all, but there’s at least a 10 year age difference there and Joffrey is in his teens. Not a good look. Nothing compared to what comes later, but already not a good look.
Julia: Does Shae explaining to Sansa “the only thing that men ever want” count as sexual content? Why am I so effing obsessed with Shae?
Kylie: Someone’s gotta teach Sansa about the awfulness of the world, since she’s sure as hell not learning about it inherently or having a survival narrative. Isn’t this the year where we find out she doesn’t know the word, “shit”?
Jana: Well, remember how Sansa is such a slow learner? How could she have figured any of this out if not for the help of others? But yes, the sheep shift scene is in episode 10, newlyweds being nice to each other for some reason, juuust before the news of the Red Wedding arrives. I have no idea why any of that happened, but hey. Eight episodes to go until then.
In memoriam…Hoster Tully
Julia: Did anyone die?
Jana: Catelyn’s self-respect and self-worth. That died. And from what I recall, also her relevance for the rest of the season.
Oh and I guess we find out about Hoster Tully dying off-screen.
Kylie: Just Hoster Tully. I actually liked Cat’s lines about her manacles in relation to that, though may have been more effective if the guy had ever been mentioned prior to this episode. I miss the Whispering Wood monologue.
Julia: I just miss Cat.
Jana: I miss Cat’s plot.
Kylie: I miss Your Sister.
Maybe she’ll be back next week? We’ll have to wait to find out, but that’s a wrap for today. What did you guys think of the episode? Did the Cat/Shae/Margaery stuff overshadow everything else for you, or were they not as bad as we were making them out?
We certainly look forward to continuing on in Season 3, to see what’s in store for us in The Wars to Come.
Images courtesy of HBO
My First Queer: 90s Fantasy Novels
This article is part of the My First Queer series, a site-wide series of articles written by some of our non-straight Fandomentals contributors. Each will contain their thoughts on their first experiences with queer media and what it meant to them. Enjoy!
Oh look, Gretchen is going to be writing about books, big surprise! Like Kristen before me in this series, I didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up. Books were my escape, especially fantasy books. As conservative evangelical Christians, my parents were all about making sure our little child brains were as free from the ‘corrupting influences of the world’ as possible, hence why I watched so little TV and why it took me so long to figure out I was queer. Fortunately for me, my parents trusted my instincts with books. Granted, I was a compliant child who didn’t go out of my way to find anything subversive. If the cover art wasn’t scandalous and the dust jacket seemed free of ‘questionable content’, I could read it.
With literally hundreds of books passing through my hands over the first decade and a half of my life, if I still remember a scene from a book I read only once and decades ago, it meant something to me. Sometime last year, I reflected on these handful of books seared into my soul. Once you look at them, it’s pretty telling why these are the stories I remember.
The Eagle and The Nightingales by Mercedes Lackey (1995)
Sometime in late middle school/early high school, I picked up one of Mercedes Lackey’s books at the local library and proceeded to devour every available book of hers I could get my hands on. I can’t remember which book of hers I read first, but they left an indelible impression on me.
Part of Lackey’s Bardic Voices series, The Eagle and The Nightingales tells the story of Nightingale a Free Bard (someone who wields magic through music) tasked with finding out why the human king and churches are growing overtly hostile to non-human sentient beings and other classes of people they cannot directly control. She joins forces with T’yfrr a member of the Haspur, a race of humanoid eagles who has an angelic voice. Over the course of the book, the two become not only quest partners, but lovers.
So what? I can imagine you thinking. What does a bard and a bird-man have to do with ‘my first queer’? Fair point, dear reader. On the surface, T’yfrr and Nightingale are differently gendered and so seem to fit a heterosexual mold. However, as a young teen, an interspecies relationship felt as ‘forbidden’ and ‘taboo’ as anything overtly gay. There was something…queer about it even if it featured a female human and a male humanoid eagle. Especially in the story’s context of non-humans being persecuted by the church (*cough cough*) and interspecies relationships being considered taboo by the church but accepted in T’yfrr’s culture. Conversations Nightingale has with T’yfrr mirror conversations Vanyel, one of Lackey’s openly gay characters, has about being attracted to men.
Ultimately, it’s a story about discrimination against marginalized people groups and finding love in unexpected places that your society might find taboo but that’s just their (wrong, bigoted) opinion. That struck a chord with me that I couldn’t label. I just really, really liked it okay? And it made a lot of sense to me and made me feel seen for some reason. (Like I said, really telling looking back.) It was also a really well-written story, the best of the Free Bard series (of which this is the third book), in my opinion. We won’t talk about Four and Twenty Blackbirds. I like to pretend that book never happened.
Admittedly, certain aspects of The Eagle and the Nightingales didn’t age well. While the complicated politics and theme of acceptance are still relevant today, the entire Free Bard series features ‘gypsies’ prominently. Lackey’s characterization of the culture she calls ‘gypsy’ is positive, if a bit stereotypical. The real problem is her use of the word ‘gypsy’ at all. I know, I know. This is a fantasy book from the 90s. In that context, her free use of that word to describe a nomadic, Romani-like people is understandable. At the same time, understandable doesn’t mean problem-free and I would be remiss, even in my reminiscences, to overlook that rather glaring issue.
The Last Herald-Mage Series by Mercedes Lackey (1989-1990)
This brings me to the aforementioned Vanyel. The three books in this series—Magic’s Pawn, Magic’s Promise, and Magic’s Price—tell the story of Vanyel Ashkevron, the greatest Herald-Mage in the history of Valdemar. He presents at first as a bored, coddled, vain pretty-boy disinterested in running his family estate. That veneer hides the reality that he’s an emotionally neglected, highly introverted and intuitive, sensitive child who suffers from his father being overbearing and believing he’s ‘not a proper man’. His homophobic father, who fears he is shay’a’chern, the in-universe term for gay, sends him to train as a swordsman to ‘make a man’ out of him.’
Vanyel meets a Herald-Mage trainee, Tylendel, who is openly gay and sparks Vanyel’s understanding of himself. The two become lovers and lifebonded (aka soulmates), but in a magical tragedy, Tylendel dies (don’t worry, I’ll come back to this). The event also awakens Vanyel’s mage gift. In the aftermath, he learns he possesses all of the Heraldic gifts and becomes the most powerful Herald-Mage to ever exist. Eventually he meets another shay’a’chern couple from the mysterious human clan of the Tayledras, the Hawkbrothers known as Moondance and Starwind. Being gay in their society is not taboo, so they teach him to accept his orientation as normal and beautiful. He also meets a bard named Stefan, the reincarnation of his soulmate Tylendel.
Vanyel dies at the end of the series fighting against Valdemar’s enemies. However, that’s not the end for him. He’s given a choice to continue protecting Valdemar, so he, Stefan/Tylendel, and Vanyel’s psycially linked horse Companion Yfandes (it makes sense in context, I promise; she’s like a platonic soulmate who helps him with magic) become spirit protectors on Valdemar’s border.
Admittedly, Lackey killing of Tylendel to awaken Vanyel’s mage gifts doesn’t sit well after recent conversations about the representation of queer characters. Maybe I’m nostalgic and too kind because of what these books meant to me, but the events never struck me as Bury Your Gays (BYG), even as a kid. Lackey goes out of her way to normalize Vanyel’s sexuality, villainize his homophobic father, an even reincarnates Tylendel in the form of Stefan.
Vanyel’s heroic sacrifice at the end doesn’t feel like BYG either. His death isn’t intended to punish him for being gay, which is the root of the BYG trope. In fact, he gets a happy ending, even in death. He, his soulmate Tylendel/Stefan, and his platonic soulmate Companion Yfandes live forever doing what he wanted most in the world: protecting Valdemar.
Oh, and he has four biological children to carry on his legacy, though I honestly can’t remember how the sperm donor thing worked. Twins Brightstar and Firefeather are raised by the Tayledras shay’a’chern couple Vanyel meets. He also fathers Avren, the daughter of lesbian swordfighters in his older sister Lissa’s command. Most important is Jisa, daughter of Shavri, the king’s co-consort. Basically, the king is infertile but no one knows that, so Vanyel agrees to be the donor in secret. As Jisa ends up marrying the heir, the entire rest of the royal line in the Valdemar series descends from Vanyel.
Plus, Vanyel’s story is so central to the worldbuilding and history of Valdemar that without him, the rest of Valdemar wouldn’t make sense. So even in hindsight, I have a hard time labeling this as BYG. He’s just too important a character and everything else about the story resists being boiled down to, “he and Tylendel died because they were gay.”
Anyway, back to why these books were important to me. I related to Vanyel on a deeply personal level. He was introverted, misunderstood, and suffered from both neglect and direct emotional and verbal abuse. He’s deeply emotional and struggles with depression. He’s mocked by friends and family for being ‘moody’ and not fitting into society’s expectations for his gender. Because of the abuse he suffered, he both feared and desperately wanted intimacy yet denied himself the opportunities to open up for fear of getting hurt. Hey! That was me. Reading about Vanyel felt like Lackey had peered into my soul and put what she found on page. And that was aside from him being gay.
Even though reading these books didn’t immediately make me understand my sexuality, following Vanyel’s journey of discovering his sexual orienation deeply impacted me. I got to read it in real time, watch him figure it out, struggle with the implications, and learn to accept and embrace it by being told it was normal. He gave me the first glimpse of something I didn’t realize was true of myself. I just really, really liked and identified with him okay? I was a shay’a’chern…ally.
Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy (1994)
Before Lackey, there was Lovejoy and Cohen’s Seven Daughters and Seven Sons. I read this in 5th grade, having picked it off of my teacher’s classroom library shelf because it was based on an Iraqi folktale. I loved (and still do love) all kinds of folktales, myths, and fairy tales, especially non-Western stories. Buran’s story became my favorite, though over time I forgot the title and it took me years to track it down again.
Buran is the fourth of seven daughters living in Baghdad. Everyone in the city shuns her father for not having sons; her uncle—father to seven sons—especially like to throw Buran’s family’s poverty and seeming lack of favor from Allah in their face. Not content to see her family suffer, Buran disguises herself as a man, travels to Tyre, and sets up shop as a successful merchant while maintaining her masculine disguise.
Mahmud, the prince of Tyre visits her shop often, and Buran finds herself falling in love with him and he with her, though she’s still disguised as a man. Soon after he realizes his in love with Buran-in-disguise, Mahmud has a moment where he begins to wonder if she is a woman. So, he sets about testing her to prove her gender. Fearing discovery and the loss of friendship and her business she uses to support her family, Buran uses her wits to pass Mahmud’s first two tests. The third, to meet him at the baths, she flees from as it would reveal her identity. Donning women’s clothing, she heads home, encountering two of her male cousins, whose position in life has much diminished since she left. Her family, on the other hand, is rich and her sisters have married well due to her business acumen.
Her family pressures her to marry, but her heart belongs to Mahmud, though she cannot admit it. Rejecting social expectations of her, Buran determines to never marry and leave her fortune to her sisters’ children. However, Prince Mahmud eventually finds her and the two get married and live happily ever after.
Stories about women who disguise themselves as men and have a prince fall in love with them exist in a strange limbo between queer and heteronormative, depending on how the author frames the prince. Lovejoy and Cohen straddle that line in an interesting way. On the one hand, the story lets the prince believe himself in love with Nasir—Buran’s masculine name—for almost two pages. There’s even a highly sexually charged scene between the two of them told from Prince Mahmud’s perspective. But then Mahmud has a rather convenient insight that Nasir is actually a woman in disguise. It simultaneously feels less homophobic than it could have been and as heteronormative as people who don’t want to acknowledge that Li Shang in Mulan was totally in love with Ping and flagrantly bisexual.
Still, as a child, it was eye-opening to read a story about a man who falls in love with another man, only to realize she’s a woman. And Buran was definitely a character I both admired and identified with. I, too, wanted to be more than what my conservative environment said a woman should be. I admired her courage, her intelligence, and her unwillingness to submit to societal expectations for what it meant to be a woman. There’s a bit of Not Like Other Girls, but no more than Vanyel felt like Not Like Other Boys. They’re both characters who didn’t quite fit in and found a way to embrace and celebrate who they were. Once again, to not-yet-aware-of-her-queerness-Gretchen something about Buran and Mahmud struck home.
And then there was the scene where Buran strips naked and looks at herself as a woman after living as a man for years.
“When I got back to my room, my own safe little room in Jihha’s house, I bade the servant leave the candle, and then I dismissed him. I took off all of my clothes, every single piece, and then I stared down at my naked self. I saw the gentle swell of my two breasts, small, but firm and high, with smooth golden flesh giving way to rosy nipples. I saw the slight curve of my belly, which would never, ever be absolutely flat, no matter how thin and hard the rest of me might be. Beneath my narrow waist, my two hips curved like two crescent moons and between my legs, black hair curled in tiny ringlets.” (p. 151-152)
Poor little 10-year-old baby bisexual Gretchen did not know what to do with the confusing feelings reading that passage awakened in her. I’ll be honest, this was the scene that stuck in my mind for years. Until recently, I had no idea why. Looking back now, I can 100% label it as the first viscerally, “Oh shit, I’m queer,” moment of my life. It only took me 20 more years to unpack it, but this book is the piece de resistance of young queer Gretchen.
So these were my first queer inklings. Strange, I know. Two of the stories weren’t even explicitly queer and the other featured a gay protagonist, not a woman-loving-woman (wlw). But they meant something to me. They planted seeds in my repressed, survival-mentality brain that would only come to fruition many years later. For a survivor of CSA and abuse who literally had no framework for understanding being a wlw, these books were the only shreds I had of a part of myself I didn’t have words for. Yes, they were problematic in some ways. Yes, they were imperfect matches to my own experience. But they were literally all I had.
As I said at the outset, these are stories I vividly remembered years later. Even if I couldn’t remember the name of the book, I remembered scenes or interactions that felt…significant to me in some unnamed as yet way. However flawed they are, they hold a special place in my soul.
They’re also the reason why I write mainstream SFF novels. I know there are other kids out there who don’t know they’re queer just like I didn’t. Kids who wouldn’t think to pick up a book explicitly labeled as ‘queer’ either because they don’t think that’s who they are or because their situation at home wouldn’t allow them to. (My parents would have banned any book labeled that way on sight.) Kids waiting to pick up a book about mages or queens or space colonists and see a protagonist who loves in a way they didn’t know was possible.
So in the end, they gave me even more of myself than I ever could have imagined. This is why stories matter.