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.

A Truly Marvelous Book

Last time I talked about a Truly Terribly Book, but tearing things down isn’t generally my preferred MO.  So this week, I thought I would talk about a Truly Marvelous Book.  Marvelous is quite a word to live up to, but I just finished reading The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, and I did a lot of marveling, both during and after reading it.

The world Liu builds is dense and vibrant, breathtakingly so.  It includes a rainbow of lands and cultures, alongside wonders both natural and mechanical.  There are falcons who nest and drink at springs filled with lighter than air gas who can thus fly longer and farther than any other bird; there are mechanical whales powered by steam and painted for camouflage from airships.  There’s much more.  The very richness of the setting makes the book difficult to get into at first, but the payoff is well worth it.  And the gorgeous world is only the beginning of what makes this book marvelous.

One thing that impressed me was that Grace of Kings manages to be both epic and, for lack of better word, human at the same time.  The story focuses on both ordinary people and heroes – and blurs the lines between.  Yes, there are great warriors, great intellects, powerful rulers, bloody battles and more.  However, heroes are ordinary people, too, with ordinary desires and flaws and insecurities.  And ordinary people prove themselves remarkable, doing great things and changing the flow of history.

Liu’s book subverts the usual trope(s) of the hero.  While there is one character who seems to fit the archetype, the book repeatedly shows the less-than-heroic repercussions of a person who sees the world in black and white and whose greatest ability is for violence.  And even this larger than life figure is only human in the end.  Conversely, the other main “hero” of the book starts out as a drunken ne’er-do-well, who becomes a petty bureaucrat, who becomes a bandit…  He repeatedly compares himself to a dandelion, a common weed.  But the various parts of the dandelion have a surprising number of useful properties, and its seeds fly far and wide as long as there’s wind to carry them.  His willingness to see the world in new ways and consequently to do things no one else will ultimately catapults him to greatness.  However, he unquestionably commits problematic acts on the way there.

Which brings me to something else I really liked about Grace of Kings: ultimately, there are no pure “good guys” or “bad guys.”  The major characters all have powerful virtues as well as powerful flaws.  Some of them are easier to praise or condemn than others, but it’s never possible to do it completely.  For example, the story starts with a promenade by the Evil Emperor, who is doing a victory lap after conquering most of the known world.  He’s widely hated for abusive taxes, conscription, and harsh penalties for failures in either.  Later in the book, though, it’s revealed that he’s also a visionary.  He wanted to take every sword and spear in his new domain and melt them down to be made into statues of the gods; he wanted to promote the flow of commerce, culture, and ideas between different parts of his new empire.  He succeeded in the latter.  Obviously, ideals don’t excuse actions, but the point is that he isn’t just an Evil Emperor.  He’s a powerful but fundamentally human person driven by desire and fear.

Unsurprisingly, the plot is as complex as the characters.  Multiple threads of stories weave in and out of one another, reflecting and transforming each other.  As a simple example, I can think of at least three or four variations of brothers (by blood or otherwise) who become estranged from one another.  Each variation is different.  The causes, consequences, and emotions shift in each, and each story rises, peaks, and concludes at different intervals in the book as a whole.  However, there are similarities in each, and they subtly influence each other.  Taken together, they seem like ocean waves rolling onto shore: none is the same as the one that came before it, but each is similar to and connected to the others.

Here, too, Liu subverts the usual tropes of epic fantasy.  Ordinarily, the plot hinges on the defeat of some great evil, with lesser evils to be fought along the way.  When the final foe is defeated, the story is more or less complete.  In Grace of Kings, however, the story is as much about conflicts within and among the heroes (or “heroes”) as it is about the conflict between them and the Evil Empire.  Arguably, it’s more about those other conflicts.  Not only that, but the empire is actually defeated with a large chunk of the book to go.  What happens after the heroes defeat the ultimate foe?  Grace of Kings delivers the answer, and how.

All of this makes the book feel remarkably real.  It’s perhaps a surprising thing to say about an epic fantasy, but Grace of Kings feels in some ways more real than many other stories I’ve encountered.  There are events in the book that shake the foundation of the world, yet these great events are just as often driven by accidents and mistakes as they are by the deliberate actions of heroes leading the charge.  Everyone is human.  Over and over again, the book shows how a minor failing – or a simple virtue – in the right place at the right time can change the course of history.  And Grace of Kings feels like history.  History is not simple; it is made up of a dizzying number of stories woven together into one long tapestry.  Some parts of it are obvious, others subtle.  There are no neat endings.  Like waves coming into shore, one story is always rising as another is subsiding.

If you like epic fantasy, if you like gorgeous world-building, if you like complex, believable characters and stories – and if you’re not looking for light reading – I highly recommend this truly marvelous book.

There was so much more I wanted to talk about in this post, but one can only include so much.  I’d love to discuss more, in the comments or elsewhere, if anyone’s interested.