Delan the Mislaid: an adventure with ambition

A while back I was looking for more books by an author I like, Laurie J. Marks, and discovered that she’d written a book that had resonated with me as a kid: Delan the Mislaid.  I’d forgotten the name and couldn’t find it again, so I was delighted to rediscover it, and to learn that it has sequels.  Unfortunately, since she wrote it in 1989, it’s been out of print for quite a while and my beloved local library doesn’t have it in regular circulation.  Eventually, I decided to just buy it used.  I haven’t gotten its sequels yet, though, because sometimes books we love in childhood don’t really hold up in adulthood.

I wouldn’t say this one didn’t hold up.  But boy, there was a lot I didn’t remember about it, and a lot I couldn’t appreciate or critique when I read it as a child.  The part that I remember, the part that really struck me, happens maybe a quarter of the way into the book.  The main character, Delan, thinks he’s some sort of deformed freak and then discovers he’s actually an immature member of a race of winged people, a caterpillar who was waiting to turn into a butterfly.*  The rest of the plot has to do with him being captured and used as part of a plot to destroy his people, learning more about his heritage, etc.  It’s all fairly ordinary as these things go, though still plenty enjoyable.

What was absolutely not ordinary that I didn’t remember is that Delan’s entire race is hermaphroditic and given to non-monogamous, non-binary relationships.  Delan isn’t actually male, or at least, isn’t only male.  It’s probably not surprising that I didn’t remember it; as a kid I didn’t have the mental framework to understand it, so my brain must have just skipped over it.

Now, it’s probably the most fascinating thing about the book to me.  Along with my reaction to it.  It was tremendously difficult for me to remember that all Aeyries were hermaphroditic.  Something in my head kept wanting to assign genders to them.  Delan was male; Eia, his first crush/love, was female; Gein, one of his first friends, was male; his long-lost parent was female; and so on.  This undoubtedly says as much (or more) about me as it does about the book itself.  At the same time, I couldn’t help comparing the handling of gender Delan the Mislaid to how it’s done in Ancillary Justice, in which all of the characters must have some kind of gender, but in which I never felt the need to assign one.  I wish Delan the Mislaid had been able to accomplish the same thing.  On reflection, though, that isn’t really fair and might not even be possible.  Ancillary Justice accomplishes what it does in part because of my (and presumably many other readers’) need to assign gender and assumption that by default people are male.  It deliberately disorients those learned biases by referring to everyone as “she.”  That isn’t really an option for Delan the Mislaid, however.  One race (Walkers, the human analogue) does have two genders and distinguishes between them in speech using gendered pronouns.  The Aeyries have effectively one gender and use their own set of pronouns: id, idre, ids (she, her, hers/he, him, his).  The book couldn’t make the distinctions it wants to by confusing and eliding gender.  Since the Aeyrie pronouns were basically nonsense syllables to me, though, I didn’t register them properly as a designation of the Aeyries’ unique gender.  In fact, whenever “id” was used, I had the persistent impression that someone named id was acting or speaking.  It was disorienting, but in a way that took away from the story rather than improving it for me.  I can’t immediately think of a better solution, though, and it might well work better for others than it did for me.  Still, I wish I’d gotten better immersion in that regard.

On the other hand, sometimes it really, really worked.  I remember one particular line of Gein’s: “It must be very strange to grow up in a society with two sexes.  To be forbidden to love someone because by some accident both of you can lay eggs, or cannot lay eggs.  What a strange and arbitrary notion!”  That line hit me like a lightning bolt, a sudden blinding shift in perspective.  It’s basically impossible to live in the society I do and not be aware of controversy around queer people and relationships.  Even for people who don’t take issue with them, they are still A Thing, separate from non-queer people and relationships.  It’s like race: some white people can claim not to see it, but pretending the distinctions aren’t there doesn’t make them go away.  They’re still here, even if we work to change that.  But for Gein, the world isn’t like that.  All relationships with all people are valid, and drawing distinctions between them seems random and bizarre to him.  For just a moment, I could see a world like that.  It would be like arbitrarily declaring that, say, each relationship must consist of exactly one person who was double-jointed and one person who was not double-jointed.  It would be nonsensical, proclaiming who could be in relationships simply because they were or were not physically capable of one thing or another.  Thinking of it in those terms makes the whole issue look different.  While I often wished the book did a better job normalizing various forms of queerness for me, I’m glad it tried, and I’m delighted for the moments it succeeded.

On that front, I’m still sorting out how I feel about the race/gender combined dynamics in the book.  As I said, not only are the Aeyries hermaphroditic, they’re also given to non-(human-)traditional relationships.  Forming long-term three-way relationships is common, and monogamous relationships are rare.  Plus, the Aeyries are much more casual about sex in general than Walkers, our human analogue in the book.  On the one hand, my initial reaction is that this is an interesting reversal of what’s normally privileged.  Aeyries are set up as the “special” race, fount of technology and culture and even hinted at being more intelligent than Walkers.  And for Delan, the perspective character, of course, they’re salvation from a life as a misfit outcast.  They’re even literally above the Walkers, since they can fly.  And because the Aeyries themselves are privileged, so is their queerness.  Which, on the one hand, is a positive reversal of what’s often denigrated in real life and is great for that.

On the other hand…a lot of things.  My thoughts are many, and my feelings are complicated.  Having a “special” race at all is deeply problematic for reasons that need no explanation.  On the other hand, is their “specialness” error or intent?  Maybe part of it is just my leftover childhood identification with a character who feels like a freak and then finds out there’s someplace he fits (better, anyway), so of course it feels fantastic and magical.  Plus, the book does show that while the Aeyries are perceived as special, some of that perception is inaccurate.  Walkers think the Aeyries believe themselves better because they hold themselves physically apart from other races, wear luxury fabrics, trade at high cost for their technological innovations, etc.  But when Delan talks to Aeyries for the first time, he hears other explanations for these facts: Aeyries stay separate because Walkers in general dislike or even hate them and are capable of harming them easily, so the Aeyries keep away to avoid being attacked; they wear luxury fabrics because they’re the only cloth light enough and warm enough to fly in; they trade at a high cost for their tech because it’s basically all they have.  They’re at an extreme physical disadvantage in farming because they’re built to fly, so they’re used to getting food from gathering, but Walkers accuse them of stealing and attack them.  Because of that, they live on the edge of starvation and have to carefully monitor their birthrate to ensure they won’t have more mouths than they can feed.  And individuals clearly exhibit plenty of negative traits, including their own xenophobia, pride, stubbornness, etc.  Some of this seems a little too pat to me, but with a grain of salt and the knowledge that this was Marks’ first published novel, I can accept it.  Mostly.

So maybe the problem isn’t so much that Aeyries are presented as “special” without nuance, as that Walkers are presented as bad without nuance.  The Walkers are, mostly, a faceless mass of unthinking bigots.  At one point, some of them are hunting Delan, and he says to one of them, “[Name], I helped you get rid of the pests in your garden just a few months ago.  I’m a person just like you.”  The guy basically just stares at him, which seems to underscore both the Walkers’ general lack of individuation and their seeming dullness.  There are a few who’ve made a community with some Aeyries, but it’s clear that most people of both races view this community as peculiar at best, definitely an exception to all rules.  Even then, only one Walker in the community is actually a named character with any amount of development.  She’s great and all, but she’s not enough.  The main villain, Teksan, is a Walker sorcerer, and he’s just plain Evil with a capital Evil.  Sadistic, frothingly bigoted, power-hungry, the whole bit.  And let’s not forget that the Walkers are the race that made our perspective character’s entire childhood a living hell.  Sure, his perspective is undoubtedly biased, but his is the perspective we have as readers.  That’s a structural decision that has consequences.  Similarly, Walker magic is presented as inherently evil.  It’s powered by pain, requires the infliction of pain to accomplish anything, and involves effects like enslaving people with insubstantial ropes of despair and conjuring horrible flesh-melting monsters.  By contrast, the book states repeatedly that “Aeyrie magic begins where Walker magic ends.”  What exactly Aeyrie magic is, how it works, what it does (aside from scrying), and so on aren’t really clear, but it is very definitely Not That Awful Thing that the Other Guys do.

So yeah, all together I do think the book presents Aeyries as better than Walkers.  Not deliberately, maybe, but even if it was just a clumsy mistake that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a problem.  Plus, the codification of racial differences in sexual mores makes me uneasy.  In real life, that often gets nasty very quickly, with a privileged group declaring an oppressed one debased or the like.  Of course, this isn’t real life, and the book at least tries to mix up oppressor and oppressed.  Both groups feel arbitrarily mistreated by the other, and the group the reader is inclined to side with and privilege corresponds with the group that’s underprivileged in real life, at least in terms of gender and sexuality.  And in those terms, at least, the privilege is less toxic precisely because it’s directly opposed to the direction of real life privilege.  I can imagine that for a queer child, this would be an even better escape into a world where suddenly who they are is right, not freakish.

And it’s not as if the book is totally devoted to this opposition and conflict.  The shared community does exist, even if most people of both races consider it an aberration.  It’s depicted as a happier, healthier community than either pure Walker or Aeyrie communities, in which people come together, learn from one another, and accomplish more together than they could alone.  The effective cold war between most Aeyrie and Walker communities, in contrast, is depicted as pernicious for both.  Still, it feels as if the book emphasizes immediate conflicts more than these bigger-picture concerns.  

Overall, I think Delan the Mislaid has ambitious aims and stumbles in the execution of them.  But from the synopses of the next two books, it seems the story continues to grapple with the same issues from different angles.  Since that’s exactly what I wanted to see after reading the first one, I’ll be picking them up at some point.  I’m curious to see what will happen and which of my impressions will be born out – or not.


* Later he finds out he’s a mage, and that he’s the long-lost heir of a ruler.  This is one of those parts that doesn’t hold up as well.  It was clearly a nice fantasy for a misfit kid, though.

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This is how it goes

Recently I reconnected with a good friend from middle and high school with whom I’d since lost touch.  That can sometimes be awkward, so I was a bit hesitant, but in this case it was easy.  That’s always a happy surprise.  Anyway, we chatted for a while, as you do, and I mentioned off-hand that I’d read a book that I really wanted someone else to read just so I’d have someone to talk to about it.  Naturally, she asked me what book this was, and naturally, I described it to her.  She said it sounded right up her alley.  And then, this exchange happened:

Her: I should have known that 20 minutes into the conversation you’d have a book recommendation for me.
Me: (laughing) You probably should have.  I probably should have!

Yeah.  This is how being friends with me goes.  I would say since middle school, but I was like that in elementary school, too.  Every summer from second grade to fifth I’d go strawberry-picking with my best friend’s family, and my friend and I would pass the time by talking about books.  I’ve been a ravenous bookworm for a long, long time.  Anyone who’s ever been friends with me has heard some variation on “That reminds me of a book…” or “You should read…” more times than they can count.

And that’s why I have this blog.

A love note

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I’m a big fan of public libraries.  I must have started going (or more accurately, my mother must have started taking me) fairly early in my life.  I don’t even remember the first time I went to one.  I do, however, remember my first “home” library.  It was a large, white (ish) building probably built sometime in the 80s based on the architecture.  The few windows were heavily tinted, so it was always dim inside, and it smelled fusty.  I remember the children’s room being brighter, though whether it was better lit or simply more brightly decorated I couldn’t tell you now.  I went every week when I was young.  I remember exiting from semi-gloom into brilliant afternoon sunshine, delighted with a fresh haul and eager to dive into it.  We would go with sturdy canvas bags to carry the books, and mine was always absolutely crammed.  I could fit perhaps six to ten books in one bag, depending on whether they were paperbacks or hardcovers.

Choosing the books was the hard part, however.  This was a relatively large public library – larger than most individual branches I’ve encountered since, anyway.  It had a correspondingly large selection.  I remember, once, sitting down in one of the back aisles of the children’s section in front of a whole series of books about different animals.  There must have been at least a couple dozen of them.  And there were so many I wanted to read!  My mother typically let me browse as I wished while she did the same, only coming to look for me if I hadn’t shown up at the circulation desk to check out in the usual amount of time.  So by the time she found me, I had pulled what seems like twenty of them in memory but might have been half that off the shelves.  Dismayed, she had to explain to me that I could not check all of those out, and I would have to put most of them back.  This was an exacting and laborious task for a seven-year-old, but my mother stood by patiently while I did it.

Some years later, a new branch of the county library opened up not five minutes from our home.  The building was brand-new, bright, airy, spacious, and clearly intended for growth, since half the shelves were still empty.  It was beautiful, but I never quite grew attached to it in the same way I did the old, dark, musty library I grew up with.  It wasn’t my library.  Still, I went there occasionally in my late teens, mostly during summer breaks when I was bored or stressed and didn’t know what to do with myself.  The librarians were always pleased to see me.  I gathered that most of their other teen volunteers were as much hindrance as help, and I was a shelving wonder – despite sometimes getting distracted by interesting-looking books.  I even managed to help patrons find books on occasion, like the man looking for a nonfiction children’s book about space.  I had just shelved a book there, so I was able to find the general section for him quickly, and felt quite pleased with myself.

Now, I’m fortunate to live in a large city with an extensive public library system.  New York actually has three: one for Queens, one for Brooklyn, and one that covers the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island.  At this point, I’ve visited more branches than I can readily count.  The most memorable, unsurprisingly, is the iconic central branch of the New York Public Library, on 42nd Street.  It’s huge and beautiful, so old and so well-traveled (well-loved) that many of the steps have been worn hollow with the passage of feet.  Most of the public parts of it feel like that – vast, lovely, venerable.  I went to the enormous reading room, filled out a slip to request a book decades old, and watched it whisked away by pneumatic tube.  When my book arrived, I sat down at a table in a hard wooden chair and read it cover to cover in one sitting, since the collection there can’t be checked out.

I’ve even seen parts of it most don’t get to, thanks to a friend who worked there a few years ago.  At a donor event to which employees could bring a guest, I had the opportunity for a short behind-the-scenes tour that included the stacks.  Unsurprisingly, the less-public parts are more workaday – less nice, even, than the stacks at other libraries, since the public isn’t admitted to them.  More surprisingly, they were incredibly hot, even in December.  I suppose such a large, old building has heating and cooling challenges, but it did make me worry for the books, especially because the collection there is generally older and rarer.  Still, I’m glad I had the opportunity to see the stacks.  Now, I donate regularly to the New York Public Library myself – not a large amount, but every little bit counts, as they say.

I still check out plenty of books, though not quite so many as in my childhood, and libraries are still my preferred place to kill time if I need to.  I was about to say that I appreciate them more now, but I think it would be more accurate to say that I appreciate them differently now.  As a child I loved libraries for the treasure trove of delights they offered me; as a teen I loved them for the refuge they offered me.  As an adult, I’m more aware of what they offer others.  Obviously, they still offer everything they did me: a tremendous variety of enjoyable media to consume, a safe and pleasant place to spend time for people of all ages.  But they also offer a great many other services that rarely if ever impinged on my awareness when I was young: classes and assistance on every topic from computers to job hunting to language learning to knitting; art, history, and culture exhibits; events with public figures, thinkers, and artists of various kinds; and probably far more that I still don’t know about.

All of which is to say that I am really, truly, deeply grateful for the existence of public libraries, and I hope they thrive far into the future.

The Right Books

I’m still trying to collect my thoughts on this one.  Since I’ve been on a kick about childhood books lately, something else has been drumming around in my head: How do people decide what’s appropriate for children to read?

I feel like that raises the looming spectre of banned books, and to be clear, I think banned books lists are a crock.  In my experience, most books wind up on banned lists because they make some groups of people uncomfortable.  This is not at all the same as saying they oughtn’t be read.  In many cases, quite the opposite.

But I’m mostly thinking about me, and about my parents.  Broad groups of people making sweeping statements about what complete strangers should or should not read is fairly obviously unreasonable.  On the other hand, parents make decisions about what’s appropriate for their children all the time.  It’s more or less their job, and since they know their children well, they’re in a better position to do so than strangers who want to prescribe what’s good for everyone else.  I don’t think most people would disagree with the notion of parents choosing what books their children read, though some people might object to the particular choices those parents make.

I was a fairly precocious reader.  By the time I was eleven or twelve, I had outgrown or voraciously devoured everything in the children’s section of my library and headed for the adult section.  (This was before YA exploded, so there wasn’t much of anything in between.)  At this point, my mother started to pre-read everything I checked out to make sure it was appropriate for me to read.  Mostly, as I recall, this meant ensuring I read nothing involving sex.  I do remember one book that slipped through the cracks.  I thought she had said I could read it, so I did, when she had actually said I couldn’t.  There was one sex scene in it, of the “evil temptress clouds the hero’s mind” variety.  I mostly found it confusing and skipped on past it to get to things I found more interesting.  I’m fairly certain that whatever impact my mother was trying to prevent, that wasn’t it.

My father had different worries.  I remember him expressing, at one point, the concern that reading science fiction and fantasy would make me confuse books with reality.  I found it incomprehensible then and still do, unless it was the only way he could find to voice some other anxiety.  Regardless, I fortunately never found myself restricted to realistic fiction only; my mother had no problem with the fantastic, and she was the one in charge of my reading permissions.

Obviously, I have some problems with (what I can discern of) my parents’ ideas about what was appropriate for me to read as a child.  But I understand the impulse: parents want to shield their children from bad things and ensure they get the right ideas, whatever those are.  There are a lot of things I wish I hadn’t learned from books – that boys are heroes and girls are damsels, that being pretty and even being good means being light-skinned and able-bodied, just to name the first that come to mind.  Those ideas are so widespread and so entrenched, though, that it’s incredibly difficult to avoid them.  I don’t think simplistic rules will do the trick.

I don’t mean to denigrate my parents or anyone else trying to raise children in the incredibly complicated, problematic world we live in.  And I know there are some great books out there, books that challenge toxic ideas endemic in our culture rather than reinforcing them.  There are people who do great work to promote them, like the We Need Diverse Books project.  Separating positive and negative influences is hard, however, since books are complex artifacts and many include both at the same time.  We expect stories to reflect the world, but to the extent that they do, they reflect it like a funhouse mirror, twisting and distorting so that what we see isn’t what’s really there.  And stories don’t simply reflect the world; they help create it.  Believing is seeing.  That’s why the lessons children learn from books are so important, and why so many people struggle so hard to make sure children learn the right ones.  We just don’t all agree on what “the right ones” are.

Well-loved

A few days ago I was thinking of what my favorite books from childhood were, thinking about how some books hold up when you’re an adult and some don’t.  After remembering how utterly fantastic Dealing with Dragons is and re-reading it in a blitz of about two hours, I asked my friends about their childhood favorites.  These are the responses I got:

“I read Black Beauty so many times that I went through three copies of the book just through wear.”

“I read I, Robot so much that the back cover fell off.”

“There’s a Helen Keller book that I read a lot and half of its pages are held in by tape…”

I replied, “My copy of The Blue Sword is basically broken in half.  I refuse to get a new one.”

My mother has a storybook from when she was a child called Once Long Ago.  At least, she claims it’s called that; it’s impossible to tell, since at this point the cover is basically two battered pieces of board (the one on the front has a vaguely discernible crest-type image on it) held together by the strip of burlap that’s all that’s left of the spine.  Needless to say, all the pages have fallen out.  They’ve mostly separated from each other, though clumps of two or three are still hanging on.  I’ve occasionally thought about having it re-bound for her as a gift, but I never have, probably for the same reason I don’t want a new copy of The Blue Sword: I feel as if it wouldn’t be the same, somehow.

I’m sure other people have other ways of defining just how much they love something than by clinging to timeworn objects.  I know my sister, who loved the book too, bought herself a shiny new copy of The Blue Sword when she moved away from home, saying it would be nice to have a fresh copy.  Still, there’s something about the book with the pages falling out, with the cover held together by tape, when it’s your book.  There’s a reason why we have words like well-worn and well-loved – and why they mean substantially similar things.  Worn books remind us of all the innumerable times the stories in their pages have brought us joy.