Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay (20/107)

Not my favorite of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books (that laurel goes to either Tigana or his Sarantine Mosaic duology), but far from his worst either. I think Kay handles the Chinese elements of the story very well, without making the characters feel like westerners in funny hats, or exoticized into something completely alien. Here, as in all his books, Kay shows that wherever, whenever you go, people are still going to be people. It starts off kind of slow, but once more characters get introduced it picks up, and by the end I was very moved by the story. Kay has a true gift for showing the grand sweep of a lifetime, how every life is destined to have grief and happiness both, and all you can really hope for is that, ultimately, the joys will outweigh the sorrows. That you may not get what you thought you wanted, but sometimes that’s alright.

However, it was my initial impression of Under Heaven that provides the springboard for this discussion:

“Wow, this book is very….. heterosexual.”

At first I was bored, bored, bored, because the action-plot hadn’t really gotten started and the protagonist was spending most of his time thinking about the ladies he’d like to shag, which is pretty much every woman he meets. (To be fair, he had been living in the mountains like a hermit for two years, but it’s still incredibly tiresome.) He is also preoccupied with a courtesan he used to know, but since we haven’t met her yet, I don’t give a fuck.

Kay also pulls something that’s a particular pet peeve — which is that all the women in the book are beautiful and desirable, and all the men are… okay? I guess? Come on, what does it matter, they have other attributes to make them interesting!

…Indeed.

My least favorite of the lot was the emperor’s concubine, who was like Alixana from the Sarantine Mosaic, only annoying as fuck, absolutely bludgeoning the protagonist with her sex appeal, which left me disgusted with both of them, her for doing it and him for falling for it.

I am not heterosexual. In fact, I am staggeringly immune to feminine wiles, and so the use of them as character motivation is something that I find extremely alienating. It throws me right the hell out of a story when some vamp is flashing her cleavage and crossing-and-uncrossing her legs at the protagonist, and instead of being like, “Get your foot the fuck off my lap,” he turns into a steaming pile of idiot. It’s so fucking stupid, and not even the kind of stupid that I can empathize with.

And yeah, I’ll totally own my bias — I like guys. I like hot guys, so I’m more willing to read depth and nuance into underdeveloped characters who happen to be male and hot, more willing to like them for being assholes instead of hating them for it. But sexy and smug about it, or sexy and shallow, are such goddamn turn-offs, in either gender, in fiction and in IRL both. I am completely ballsy enough to be the one to go up and talk to hot strangers in bars, because they’re hot and I’m drawn to their flame like a very shallow moth. I am willing to give them the initial benefit of the doubt, that I might not give someone else, because they’re good-looking and we can’t control the hormone rush that says “tapthattapthattapthat!!!!” However, I guarantee you that I won’t stay interested if they’ve got nothing else going on, or they’re obviously expecting everyone to fawn over them because they’re hot, I will excuse myself and go back to hanging out with my friends. (The hilarious part is when I can’t lose them after that.)

So not only is going durrrrr, stupid for manipulative hot women a trope that I have absolutely no common feeling with, it also plays into that patriarchal idea that women’s only route to power is through their sexuality (because everyone’s lives revolve around straight dudes, amirite), which is not only wrong but also frustrating to find in this book of all books, because Kay has proven he can do so much better than that. (Although, hm, now that I stop to think about it, I think all of the women in the Sarantine Mosaic and Tigana also use their sexuality as leverage at some point. It was just less overt and most of them also had other tools at their disposal and more depth to their character.)

I don’t know. There are a lot of other half-connected thoughts floating around in my head — such as how the characters we tend to like are those we want to be and those we want to do, which has always made it more difficult for me to connect to female characters, particularly ones whose salient feature is being hot. The female characters I like tend to be older — Julie Taymor’s Shakespearean movies are excellent for that, with Jessica Lange as Tamora in Titus and Helen Mirren as Prospero — because they have a very strong sense of self, of who they are, what they want, and how to go about getting it. And not every writer is Shakespeare, but even in something like Supernatural, it’s telling that the only female character who isn’t an obnoxious walking WB cliche is Ellen, because she’s old enough that the writers can’t use “sexy” as a substitute for character development. (Although Bella redeemed herself in my eyes, right before she died, for declining to justify herself to Dean about why she’d killed her step-parents.)

I’m also thinking about the perceived need for rivalry between women, the expectation that of course every woman will hate and resent someone she thinks is more beautiful than her. And thinking that maybe men are missing the point, and that what gets other women’s backs up about a beautiful woman isn’t that she’s beautiful, but because she’s being manipulative with it. People immune to feminine wiles can see that, and it annoys the hell out of them, but straight men are oblivious to that distinction and assume that the resentment is born of simple jealousy.

Lots of stuff to unpack; I don’t understand it all and I don’t pretend to. (Although that doesn’t stop me from inflicting my opinions on the internet. :P) In any event, I was reminded several times of something that Joanna Russ had written: “The beautiful woman who knows beyond a doubt that she is beautiful exists aplenty in male novelists’ imaginations; I have yet to find her in women’s books or women’s memoirs or in life.”