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!


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.”

10 thoughts on “Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay (20/107)

  1. Oftentimes, the use of feminine wiles in fiction doesn’t bother me as much on the part of the women, so much as the totally disgusting brain-dead idiocy that occurs within the men, and especially if the women using the wiles are as disgusted with the results as I am. After all, the wiles wouldn’t need to be used in the first place if the men they’re directed at knew how to maintain a semblance of intelligence in the face of omg boobies. In fact, I say more power to women for realizing that men are going to be gaping idiots in the face of their bosoms and taking advantage of it, instead of just letting it happen (because it’s going to happen anyway).

    That said, there’s always the extremely disgusting annoyance of taking that too far, and it happens way too often. How is a character supposed to be relate-able when all we’re faced with is “Manipulative Slut” or “Sexy Lady” or “Unconsciously Voluptuous Virgin”? This is when the characters become stereotypical cliches of people that you will never find in real life, and always fully reveals the writers inability to portray or even understand women. The men get all the character intricacies and development. The womens gets to sexes the mens. And possibly has the babies, if the womens are good enough.

  2. 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)

    I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. Unfortunately, that was Chinese society, and Under Heaven rang true for me because that was just the way it was. It wasn’t _right_, no. But it was the way it was.

  3. Oh I agree — I don’t think anyone would argue that historically most of women’s power came through men, and a great deal of that through sexual channels. Right or wrong has nothing to do with it, and I’m not suggesting that Kay should have given his women greater agency for modern notions of political correctness. It’s just that there are other routes to power, which Kay doesn’t really acknowledge in this book, and I would have liked to see a woman whose political power was not seated in her good looks. A powerful dowager empress or somesuch would have been fun.

  4. *laugh* It wasn’t as easy in the imperial courts, which is where Under Heaven basically takes place. Women who even got close to the court were always stunners, so beauty was an assumed given for any courtesan. If you weren’t a stunner, you were a servant instead of a courtesan. Maids had to be good-looking, too–homelier girls were banished to the kitchen or other non-outward places, or transferred sold to non-royal places.

    (Dowager empresses existed, but they were always exiled as soon as their husbands died.)

    Now, the commoners’ tales do have a lot more stories where women showed strength and cunning (among other virtues), and it usually had nothing to do with their looks (occasionally it helped to be pretty, or at least not ugly, but it worked the same way for men–some look untrustworthy or just weak.) But those are commoners, not royalty or their retinues.

  5. I know I was reading this one story awhile ago where I was enjoying the plot well enough and liked the male characters, but the treatment of the female minor characters soured it so much for me I had to put it down. Usually the series just doesn’t include women, and I am comparatively fine with that.

    But no, they’re the leaders of this group because of their magic powers, except the male main character has much stronger magic than the lot of them, as does pretty much everyone else with magic in the wider canon. They’re nominally in charge, but none of the male war leaders respect them in the slightest and they have no military training or skills whatsoever themselves, even though there are female soldiers existing in plenty of other places in the setting. And they’re all obsessed with sex “because they can’t get pregnant”, and their magic fades by the time they’re twenty-five or so, after which they’re old and ugly and useless. And they’re all catty rivals who do nothing but snipe at each other and try to steal each other’s lovers. Argh. Why would someone do this?

  6. Well, Kay does better than that, at least, but I do think he handles female characters better in his other books.

    I would also much prefer a book with no women at all, to one where the only women are handled badly.

    That book you describe sounds like a train wreck. Do you remember what it was?

  7. Reading about the kind of female character you find interesting made me wonder whether you find Neal Stephenson’s younger female character(s) relatable. One of the things I love about him is that he sets down characters that feel like absolutely fascinating individuals. The Baroque Cycle was a sausage party apart from Eliza, who I found interesting but not particularly relatable, but some of my favorite chicks are his, specifically YT, Nell, and everybody from Reamde — Zula, Olivia, and Yuxia.

  8. Legion by Dan Abnett, a Warhammer 40k novel. I was particularly disappointed because the handful of female characters in the one or two other books of his I’ve read were perfectly fine, and the rest of the plot and characters were reasonably adequate, though I’m sure there were other things rubbing me the wrong way about the book that I can’t remember other than the specific excuse that made me quit.

  9. Neal Stephenson! Apologies in advance for bad formatting, I’m writing this from a gay bar on my phone, because I keep meaning to get back to you but I’m always elsewhere when I remember.

    I liked Eliza, though I also found her “cool but not relateable.” I suppose my favorite of the bunch would have been YT, although I can’t pinpoint why. Quirks? Weaknesses in her character? I don’t know, but she felt the most real to me. The whole time I was reading Reamde, by contrast, I couldn’t help noticing how little I connected to the female characters — actually, let’s scratch “female characters” and make that “anyone except Richard.” There’s nothing wrong with any of them, they don’t hit the tropes that I hate, but they don’t do anything for me either. I honestly have no idea what it is that makes a female character “work” for me or not, but no one in Reamde did it.

    And I think that is the extent of my drunk lj-answering fu. I’m going to go hit on hot dudes now, bai bai!

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