Leaves of Grass

Normally I really hate writing in books.  It’s totally irrational, I know, but for some reason it just feels somewhere in between crass and sacrilegious to me.  Plus, marked-up text badly interrupts the flow of my reading later.  Leaves of Grass is the first book I can ever remember that’s made me want to scribble all over.  I couldn’t even get through the first stanza without wanting to jot half a dozen notes in the margins.

Of course, I didn’t; even if I’d completely overcome my instinctive aversion to writing in books, it’s a library book.  But the experience reminded me of how much I love reading actively, taking things apart and analyzing them.  I don’t usually examine the books I read line by line – it’d take forever, after all – and I don’t usually do it deliberately and consciously as I read.  Right now, though, I’m taking a lot of pleasure in doing it with Leaves of Grass.  I’ve filled eight pages in my little pocket-notebook with thoughts so far, and I haven’t even gotten out of the first section, Inscriptions.  I don’t have a lot of background on Whitman or his time period, so I’m sure I could fill just as many pages with the things I’m missing, but I’m enjoying myself too much to care.

My favorite thing about the book so far is the sense of vitality permeating it.  In the first section, Whitman speaks of a “Life immense in passion, pulse, and power.”  He really seems to believe that the world and people themselves are boundless and wondrous, filled with potential joy and energy.  The feeling resonates with me, so deeply I almost feel as if I can taste it.  I want to sink into the words, drink them in, get drunk on them.

There are disconnects, though.  I think they’re mostly a matter of our respective time periods and history.  Whitman is a big fan of the ideas and of democracy and liberty, which I can’t fault him for, but he conflates them a lot, I feel.  Mind you, I might just be cynical about it because lately neither our democracy nor our liberty have been doing so hot, so it’s harder for me to be quite so optimistic about it as he is.  More problematic for me is that he keeps coming back to this image of a war for liberty.  He seems to mean it more or less metaphorically, as a struggle both individual and national.  But he paints it in the same shining light he does nearly everything else, and that bothers me.  I don’t believe in glorious wars.

In between the moving and the problematic, though, there are parts of the book so far that are just plain fun.  It’s surprisingly self-referential, which I think may just be because the section I’ve been reading is ‘Inscriptions.’  I think this is Whitman’s equivalent of a dedication or foreword.  If so, it’s my favorite I’ve ever read.  But then, I like self-consciousness in books (and other things); I like meta.  (I like postmodernism!)  Beyond that, though, there are times when I just have to laugh at Whitman’s sheer audacity.  Like “To Foreign Lands”:

I heard that you ask’d for something to prove this puzzle the New World,
And to define America, her athletic Democracy,
Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted.

Hey, guys, I heard you just don’t really get this America thing, so here, read my book, it will explicate it for you perfectly.

Or “Shut not your doors”:

Shut not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill’d shelves, yet needed most, I bring…

Libraries, wow, you have so many great things, yet somehow you’re missing the thing you need most – but don’t worry, it’s right here in my book for you!

I don’t know if the rest of the book will continue this way, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to enjoy it.


Thoughts and thought-wrangling on fanfic

Lately I have been reading a truly copious quantity of fanfic, and not many actual books.  Mind you, plenty of fanfic winds up book-length, or even series-length, so that’s not what distinguishes it from “actual” books.  Quotes point to my internal debate over whether or not to write about fanfic here, which I’ve been having for a while now.  Well, I say I’ve been having a debate – I’ve been waffling about it mentally without ever pinning down and organizing my thoughts.  Really, what it comes down to is the little voice in my brain listing off reasons why fanfic doesn’t count versus the rest of my brain saying those reasons don’t actually hold up.

  1. Fanfic isn’t published.  Well, not traditionally, no, but what counts as “publishing” is expanding and growing more flexible all the time.  Loads of people have begun self-publishing e-books, and entire books have even been posted online in serialized form before going to print in more traditional format.  Once upon a time, before the internet, books used to be published chapter by chapter in magazines and the like, which people today would probably consider a bit weird.  So the fact that fanfic isn’t published in a particular way doesn’t seem like a good reason to brush it off.
  2. Fanfic isn’t book-length.  Touched on this one already, and no, a lot of it isn’t – but then, some of it is.  Also, other stories aren’t required to attain a certain word-length before anyone pays attention to them; that’s where the words “flash fiction,” “short story,” “novelette,” and “novella” come from.
  3. Fanfic isn’t creative; it just re-uses other people’s characters, settings, etc.  Sure, but so does basically everything else ever written.  I’ve never heard of an author saying, “I create all my works in a vacuum, without any influence or inspiration from anything or anyone else that makes its way into my stories, ever.”  Most of them say the exact opposite.  And sure, the little voice in my head can pitch a fit about how fanfic is more directly and obviously derivative than most of literature, and I suppose that’s probably true, in general.  But not entirely.  I have read more works than I can readily name which are deliberate retellings of someone else’s characters and stories.  I just finished reading a whole anthology of short stories called Rags and Bones in which the entire point was for authors to take a story that they loved or that deeply impacted them, boil it down to its essence, and then re-write it.  It can even be done from, and become, what the canon has elevated to “great literature” – Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, anyone?  No one tells those authors their works don’t count because they drew on another author’s work to create them.
  4. Fanfic is just bad!  This is the last (least rational) redoubt of the little voice in my head.  Frankly, I think it’s just an urban legend, a la “D&D will turn your kids freaky and evil.”  I mean, I’m sure there’s terrible fanfic out there.  But there’s also really good fanfic out there.  And the fact that absolutely terrible works exist in the world of traditionally-published books does not, again, render all other works in that world worthless.  I mean, wow, there are some absolutely terrible books out there, and I question how they ever managed to get published, but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating the other books out there.  Fanfic doesn’t have to be universally good to be worth talking about.

So maybe, at some point, I will write about fanfic here.  Hm, maybe Luminosity

An e-reader’s dilemma

When I first started this blog, one of the things it occurred to me I might write about at some point was the e-books vs. paper books debate.  Such as it is these days.  But I realized that, honestly, I don’t care.  I like paper books.  I like e-books.  I like books.  Format is not a criterion.  What annoys me, however, is that I cannot seem to get all of my e-books in the same place.  Years ago, when I got an e-reader for Christmas, my mother-in-law decided it would be a good idea to give my spouse a Kindle and me a Nook because that way if there were ever a book one of us wanted that wasn’t available in one place, we might be able to get it from the other.  This was a nice theory, I suppose, but now that we’ve both left actual e-readers behind and use apps on tablets, we still have two separate libraries that we can’t integrate.  Then, of course, I get e-books in other ways – primarily through Humble Bundle – and those open in yet another program or app.  I just want to access all my (e-)books in the same place, but I feel as if I’d need a fairy godmother to make it happen.  E-books are certainly convenient in some ways, but not in others.

It seems as if there ought to be a solution to this dilemma out there somewhere.  I can’t be the only one annoyed with this situation.  On the other hand, capitalism doesn’t exactly run the world sensibly, so maybe there isn’t.  If a solution exists in some magical kingdom somewhere, however, would a good fairy please give me directions?

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.

Some travel books

Travel for me always means loading up several books to read along the way.  This week, I traveled home to my parents for Thanksgiving, and my book loadout included Reflex, Impulse, and Exo by Stephen Gould.  I’d read the first book in the series, Jumper, a while back.  I really liked it, and wanted to read the later books, but found to my disappointment that my beloved public library didn’t have them.  They sat on my (extensive) to-read list for a while, until finally I bought all three for this trip – and read all three in approximately three days.

I was surprised to find that although I liked all three, they felt like very different books to me, both from each other and from the first book.  Jumper is a story about a scared, angry, messed-up kid trying to deal with abuse and loss – who just happens to be able to teleport.  Davy’s ability does drive some of the plot of the book, but it’s clear he would still be the same troubled kid getting into trouble without it.  He’d just be getting into different sorts of trouble without it.  He’s a great character.  Davy is obviously struggling to cope and figure out what sort of person he wants to be, let alone become that person.  Sometimes he falls apart or lashes out, but in spite of that he also demonstrates clear strength of character.  He’s thoughtful and generous, and he tries hard to be just.  Jumper is a painful sort of coming of age story.

Reflex, on the other hand, is set over a decade later, after Davy has clearly dealt with the worst of his psychological problems and settled into himself.  He’s gotten married and primarily uses his teleportation ability in secret for rescue and charity work.  Unfortunately for his happily adjusted life, some unscrupulous people find out about what he can do and decide they’d like to make use of it, with or without his willing cooperation.  The result is a much more thriller-like story of kidnapping, captivity, and resistance on his part.  But the book also introduces the perspective of his wife, Millie, who learns to teleport herself and uses her new-found skill to track down and help rescue her husband.  Reflex is thus much more oriented towards action and external conflict than Jumper.  While there is of course still character development (I wouldn’t like it much if there weren’t), it’s less in center stage.

Impulse is once more set a significant period later, after Davy and Millie have had a daughter and she’s grown to teenager-dom herself.  Her name is Cent (short for Millicent, like her mother), and Impulse is told primarily from her perspective.  Because of the events of Reflex, she’s been largely raised in isolation, but she’s well-adjusted aside from that.  In this book, she faces problems more typical to teenagers than those her father had to deal with – she’s attending school for the first time, with the accompanying concerns of fitting in, making friends, handling bullies, and coping with crushes.  And unlike typical teenagers, learning to teleport, just like her parents.  Unsurprisingly, this helps with some problems (handling bullies) and creates others (having to hide things from new friends).  In all, Impulse feels more like a typical YA novel than either of the books before it.

Exo breaks the pattern of the previous books in being set almost immediately after Impulse.  Accordingly, the two are closer in tone than any of the others.  Cent seems to be pursuing her interests more directly, however.  Instead of going to school, she’s going to space.  I am learning to love what happens when science nerds get magical powers.*  The bad guys from Reflex put in an appearance again, too.  That’s actually something I like less about the book because we don’t really learn anything further about them.  They just remain inexplicably sinister bogeymen.  Still, Exo is full of smart people doing cool things, and I had fun with it.

I hope Gould will write another book in the series eventually.  I’m curious to see the repercussions of events so far, and I’d like to know what’s up with the bogeymen.  Plus, I’ve enjoyed the first four, and I’d be happy to read more.

* Okay, the teleportation is never presented as a magical power, but since it’s never explained, either, it might as well be.

Human and not-human

A few days ago I realized I’d never mentioned Ancillary Justice here.  It’s an excellent book, and much metaphorical ink has been spent on it – it’s won several awards.  In all, I probably don’t have much that’s new to contribute.  On the other hand, if I wanted to be the first to have any given idea about most books, I’d be doomed to perpetual disappointment.  So here is what I love about Ancillary Justice: it has a really excellent main character.  A unique idea, executed well.  

The main character is a ship’s AI.  The ship is called Justice of Toren, but the ship itself has been destroyed (a story that unwinds slowly through a series of well-executed flashbacks), and the AI remains only in a single human body who calls itself Breq.  I’m sure this sort of thing has been done before, though I haven’t personally encountered anything similar.  It’s just so well done in this book.  Toren/Breq is human and not-human at the same time, and not just because she/he/it is a ship in a human body.  Breq has very human values, unsurprisingly slanted towards qualities like service and loyalty, but s/he doesn’t express them in the same way that humans do.  Justice of Toren has emotions, but it doesn’t emote.  I felt as I read that no matter what Breq was doing, s/he always seemed calm.  The feelings that motivated his/her/its actions had to be inferred.  Toren/Breq goes on a twenty-year quest across the galaxy, which must be driven by some stupendous emotion, yet that emotion is difficult to see.  Toren itself doesn’t really seem to feel it, exactly.  It seemed calm even as it told another character it hated him, even as s/he flung itself off a bridge to save him, even as its heart raced knowing s/he was discovered and killers were coming for him/her.  At times it almost seems that the character must be in shock, because s/he’s clearly acting under the influence of powerful emotions, but doesn’t seem to truly feel them.  Breq isn’t in shock, though; s/he’s just not human.

The other major way this shows up is that Toren/Breq doesn’t care about most human distinctions.  Class, race, gender – s/he’s aware they exist, they just don’t particularly matter to it.  Obviously, they don’t apply to Breq itself, so much so that I can’t even figure out what name or pronoun to use for the character.  Breq is a pseudonym and not the right name.  On the other hand, Justice of Toren doesn’t quite fit either because the character isn’t a ship any more.  Toren/Breq isn’t an it because it’s clearly a person, but male and female are just as clearly meaningless categories to him/her.  As for other people, Toren/Breq seems to view these distinctions simply as data, information that’s important only for its importance to others.  Physical descriptions are rare in the book, though the few scraps that appear make it clear that the confluence of class, race, and beauty standards don’t match up to those in our world.  More radical, however, is the fact that the book uses only female pronouns.  In the world of the story, this is justified by the idea that the dominant language doesn’t have gender-distinguished pronouns, but for the reader, it becomes one more way to elide what are, to Toren, meaningless distinctions.  It works, too.  The categories clearly matter to human characters, but to the reader, they’re immaterial.  It’s a fascinating and surprisingly refreshing perspective, being human and not-human at the same time, looking at human society when people are defined primarily by their actions.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Romance in non-romantic fiction

This topic has been stewing around in the back of my head for a while now.  I hadn’t written about it because I really wanted to post something intelligent and thoughtful, and that seemed so difficult.  I also didn’t want to just put it off indefinitely, though, so finally I decided to jump in, even if it came out warty.  Disclaimer: this is primarily about straight romances, mostly because I’ve read a lot more of those so the patterns are more obvious to me.  There’s so much swirling around in my head even just with that that I doubt I’ll be able to fit it all in one post.  Probably I’ll just make a start on the parts that most preoccupy me today, and come back to other bits later.  

What I keep circling back to when I think about romance in non-romantic fiction is how compulsory romance seems, even in stories that aren’t about romance.  I feel as if it’s worse for women than for men – that not only is it rarer for female protagonists to have a story without romance, romance has to be a bigger part of their stories when it’s present.  Women are more defined by their relationships with men than the reverse.

For some reason this came to a head for me when I was reading Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.  I felt a little bad for being so frustrated because I very much liked the book otherwise.  Now that I think about it, in fact, it’s probably because I liked the book otherwise that I got so hung up on the compulsory romance aspect.  Particularly, I was a big fan of the main character.  She’s clever and determined and compassionate and of course she winds up in a romance with the mysterious vampire guy.

It’s not that I objected to him, specifically.  I actually liked him as a character as well.  But after reading uncountable stories in which women just always wind up having (male) love interests, I snapped a little bit.  Why does she have to have a crush on him?  Why can’t she just be clever and determined and compassionate – and be complete without a love interest?

I don’t object to characters having romantic relationships in general.  (Some of my best friends have romantic relationships!)  People have romantic relationships; therefore, characters have romantic relationships.  It would be ridiculous if they didn’t.  It’s the ubiquity of it that bothers me, especially for women.  It’s as if there’s no comprehensible way for a woman to exist without being involved with a man.

This means that books without compulsory romance (especially for women) appear like oases in the desert.  Reason number two why I absolutely adore Dealing with Dragons and always have is that the main character is a princess who doesn’t have to get married.  And it’s not just that she doesn’t get married.  She doesn’t have a crush.  She doesn’t go adventuring with a guy and realize how great he is.*  There’s only one male character with whom she might conceivably have any kind of relationship, and she’s not interested in him.  It’s not even an emphatic lack of interest – she’s not rejecting him for any reason.  She’s just not interested, and she has other things to do.  I really have no words for how amazing, how refreshing, how completely delightful that is to me.

That’s sad.

It also leads me to something else that bothers me: usually, when characters (both men and women, but again, more so with women) don’t have any sort of romantic interest, it’s an emphatic lack of interest.  That is, they actively reject the possibility for some particular reason.  A highly non-scientific survey of my bookshelf suggests that for men it’s most often that their prior (female) love interest died.  Women’s (male) love interests are usually gone in some other way.**  But the possibility that a person (especially a woman) might just not be that interested in the people around them and have other things going on is practically unheard-of.

This drives me crazy.  Like I said, it’s not as if there’s anything wrong with any specific example of having a romance or pining for a lost love.  But frankly, I’d like a little more variety in my reading.  And sure, I can go searching for it – but it’d be awfully nice if I didn’t have to search.

* This does happen in the second book – that is, she goes adventuring with a guy, realizes how great he is, and marries him.  I know it’s not unreasonable.  Expecting people to never change and develop is just as unrealistic as expecting people to always have a romantic interest.  I still found it disappointing.  On the other hand, in the third book she goes on an adventure (while pregnant!) while her husband stays home to take care of the kingdom.  Which is pretty great, and couldn’t have happened if she hadn’t gotten married.  Second book is still my least-favorite.

** This probably says something (probably lots of somethings), though I’m not sure exactly what.  Female characters being killed off to serve as motivation for male characters is a well-documented trend in a variety of media, but the reverse doesn’t seem to happen as much.  Maybe it’s a bigger deal for a man to be unable to protect his love interest, but for a woman it’s a bigger deal to not be able to hold onto hers?