Last Light of the Sun, by Guy Gavriel Kay (40/107)

This book is okay. I started off liking it quite a bit, thought it was going to rank up there with the Sarantine Mosaic, but then my interest lagged in the middle, and I probably would have put it down and let it stay half-unfinished forever except for the 107 books initiative, that says finish it or quit it decisively, and I feel like a loser when I don't finish books. So.

It's another of Kay's historical fantasies, this time set in Britain at the cusp of centralization and Christianization, about the tribal skirmishes they have with each other and with the vikings (called Erlings, in this) that regularly plague their shores. It has the ensemble cast that Kay's books are famous for, giving you a panoramic view of the conflicts and how they affect people at all levels of society, it has the excellent prose and mythic resonance that make lit-crit people sit up and take notice when Kay writes a book, and it has a number of capable and influential female characters. But really, the same could be said for all of his books (except possibly Ysabel, which was mind-numbingly dull), and this one didn't stand out. The characters couldn't compare to The Sarantine Mosaic, and the plot couldn't compare to Tigana.

So let's talk about his women.

Guy Gavriel Kay writing women is something I've given my stamp of approval to before, though with increasing apprehension in recent years. It's not that his portrayal of women has started to suffer, but more that I've started to question whether I'm qualified to judge that. I'm not a woman, I don't identify with femininity, how should I know whether or not he's getting it right? It's like heterosexual Orson Scott Card praising the realism and authenticity of heterosexual Michael Bishop's portrayal of gay men. (ahaha… go to hell.)

Kay is undeniably ahead of the curve, given that he has multiple major female characters in every book, with their own interior lives that don't necessarily revolve around men, they have female friendships, their choices and actions have a major impact on events, and their paths to power aren't limited to "feminine wiles" or "action chick." (Not sure if there are any warrior women in Kay's books, come to think of it.)

In fact, he writes historical fiction set in eras that other writers have frequently used as their excuse for not including any/more women, on the assumption that women weren't doing anything interesting, or that what they did didn't matter. One of the things I've always appreciated is that Kay does his level best to disprove that. He keeps everything grounded in the historical context, but shows that there were ways for women to accomplish what they wanted, ways that don't involve transposing modern ideas of women's lib in to a medieval setting, or thinking that "strong" has to mean "acts like a man." I like that his women are allowed to be feminine without femininity being portrayed as a frivolity or a weakness, or innately less important than what the men are doing. That Heinlein's infamous "boy scouts with breasts" model isn't the only way to write women with agency.

That's all rather objective, but then we're left with the much more murky and subjective question of whether his female characters think and feel like women, or like a straight man's assumption of what women think and feel. And that, I am in no way qualified to decide.


Gender politics has been much on my mind recently, thanks to a wildly misogynistic John Updike book I read twenty pages of before quitting, a review of it that absolutely panned said book but was weirdly defensive of Updike personally (read it, no really!), and spending the greater part of two days reading sci-fi/fantasy book blogs with a feminist/queer bent. I wrote a separate post about Updike and Wallace, will put it up in a few days.

Also because I'm writing a story with a heterosexual friendship/romance at the center of it, and I am so not used to this game. If you're writing a story with two dudes (of roughly equivalent dudeliness) and Because of Reasons one of them needs to get kidnapped, it doesn't really matter which — they're both guys, your choice isn't a commentary on gender relations, you pick based on the demands of the plot. On the other hand, if you've got a man and a woman running around together and one of them has to get captured, you're either playing into stereotypes by making it the woman, or deliberately subverting them by making it the man. It's not something I've had to pay attention to for a long time, and I find myself accidentally sliding, all unexamined, into tropes I'd rather not perpetuate. (My stated goal is to keep Anderson "no less awesome than she is in the movie.")

What doesn't help is that Dredd and Anderson don't interact as equals for most of the movie, though it's nothing to do with gender and everything to do with the fact that this is literally her first day on the job and he has decades of experience on her. She proves that she can make the right calls if handed the lead, can get herself (and Dredd) out of messy situations, and that she'll stand up to Dredd if she actually disagrees with him, but by default she defers to his expertise. Makes for… less than revolutionary reading when they're hanging out and everything's going smoothly.

11 thoughts on “Last Light of the Sun, by Guy Gavriel Kay (40/107)

  1. here’s the thing: i don’t believe it takes physically being a woman to be able to get a sense of when someone writes/creates a good female character any more than it takes physically being a person of color to tell if someone is creating good POCs, or being a queer person to see if someone is creating good queer characters. It *might* help, *might* make things easier from a writing/creating perspective, but at the same time it creates its own set of blindsides. I am a firm believer in *KNOWING* your privilege, yes, of course, recognize that you yourself are looking from a non-feminine perspective, from a white middle class perspective, from an american (and even state-based) perspective, and yes ask the question, but also answer it — you have a critical lens, use it.

    in other words:

    a) to *depend* on a synchronicity (似ている) with one’s own lived experience to assess a character is an entirely contingent method of assessment. there is no one female experience just like there’s no one male experience, so one reader might say ‘yes, my life is just like that, you write women well’ while the other says ‘no, my life is not like that at all, you write women badly’. Of course this individual perspective is ALWAYS a part of our reading experience, but so are my own associations with not ever having broken bones in my body or gone to war, and i think i can tell when a writer does either one of those well without resorting to having to break my own bones or pick up a gun to find out. and you start getting an ‘to each their own’ mentality if you take this up, which gets super essentialist and super scary super fast.

    b) (not to sound crazy pedantic or anything) we’ve all been domesticated by the patriarchy and its modes of reading. so i’ve been reading male-POV and identifying with it my entire life. sometimes *i’m* not particularly qualified to tell if the females are well written. But if you’re asking the question and using your criteria that you outline above, trust me, you’re qualified.

    c) the whole point of recognizing good authorship (IMO) is recognizing when an author creates complex, interesting, nuanced, not cardboard, not robotic, not stereotypical characters. And i think it’s really a matter of degree – how well do they get things right? when they do it wrong how do they do it wrong (like is it bearable or not)? and measure by a kind of bearability factor than anything else.

    but don’t remove yourself from the conversation just because you feel like your lived experience isn’t female. that’s ridiculous. you know tons of women who themselves have thousands of different definitions of female – there is no “one true woman” – and some women’s experience actually looks a lot like the straight man’s assumption of what female experience is. you don’t have to decide if those real life people are feminine or not, and you don’t actually have to decide that for characters in books either — more you have to decide on their believability as they are written.

    and, ok, let’s take that little piece:
    That’s all rather objective, but then we’re left with the much more murky and subjective question of whether his female characters think and feel like women, or like a straight man’s assumption of what women think and feel. And that, I am in no way qualified to decide.

    maybe, maybe, maybe i can see where you want to ask this question. And honestly in the GGK books I’ve read I’ve found the female characters to feel a little hollow — but I’ve also found the male characters to be the same — as if he was viewing them with the lens of history and not actually giving me living ppl who made decisions without foresight. I took it as his writing style, not as reflective of his ability to portray women (but again that’s also because i saw what i say in the male characters too).

  2. OTOH, have you read the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series? Because I would point to *that* series (particularly the revenge scenario in the first book that Lisbeth enacts on her rapist and Lisbeth herself reads as a prurient straight man’s assumption of what women think and feel. And not a well thought out one. I kind of think that’s part of that series’ popularity. And compared to that series, GGK’s books are LIGHTYEARS better. Because the Tattoo series *fails* some of the tests you outline that GGK’s characters pass. This is why objective criteria and (to paraphrase Cather) returning to the text to see what’s really there, to *prove* your point with the text, works.

    But that’s just one person’s opinion.

    also good luck balancing the inequalities with Dredd & Anderson. It is not gonna be easy…. (also i will say that although it was *perfectly reasonable given the universe*, i did hate her capture in the movie and the immediate threat of rape.)

    (edited to fix some grammatical stuff and add things cuz i can’t shut up, and apparently i went over the word limit)

  3. i actually agree with you about GGK’s writing style. i consistently want his characterizations to be more tangible and intense, to the point that i have trouble reading him. #sorrynotsorry, gabriel.

  4. Not gonna take offense. :P That distance between reader and characters is one of the reasons why I was meh about this book, and meh about a lot of his other books. His prose is great, but “mythic resonance” alone doesn’t do it for me, and I think the only books where he really succeeded in wedding the scope of the world with the individuals was in Tigana and The Sarantine Mosaic — and your mileage may vary. I think I keep reading his books hoping he’ll manage it again, and he sort of hasn’t.

  5. Yesssss, thank you for engaging me, you are my favorite. ♥ (Even though I’m having a lot of trouble articulating my response.)

    there is no one female experience just like there’s no one male experience, so one reader might say ‘yes, my life is just like that, you write women well’ while the other says ‘no, my life is not like that at all, you write women badly’.

    True and true — but I’ve been on the receiving end of this from straight writers, and there is a world of difference between a gay character who doesn’t think/feel the way I do, and a gay character who doesn’t think/feel the way ANY gay person would. There are plenty of instances of straight writers “not getting anything wrong” in their portrayals of queer characters; fewer that make me feel like they got it right, that they understand what it’s like to be someone in my position; and a hell of a lot where they got it totally, infuriatingly wrong.

    I’m well aware that there’s no single “female experience” any more than there’s a single “gay experience,” and that women reading female characters by female authors can be just as alienated by them as by female characters written by men. Or, alternately, can identify with a character so strongly that they’re surprised to find out it was written by someone with no experience being female, just someone with empathy and imagination.

    Like when I was reading The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan — I totally assumed that Morgan was gay (and he might be? idk) because when writing the protagonist Ringil’s complicated relationship with his sexuality, he got it right. And I say this as someone who’s not like Ringil at all — I’m not that butch and I’m not that confrontational — but the underlying anger and defensiveness rang very true, and very plausible as the strategy that this person would have developed for coping with a world determined to grind him down.

    Straight (white) guys aren’t usually good at capturing that feeling, because they have no experience with what it’s like to live in a world that doesn’t cater to their interests and validate everything they do. They have no idea what the world looks like from the margins, and worse, they often don’t even know that they have no idea.

    So, by extension, this is why I’ve become wary of praising male authors for their ~excellent~ and ~spot on~ depictions of women, because… who am I to bestow that laurel? I can’t even offer my own subjective experience as evidence of his veracity.

    On the continuum between “getting it right,” “not getting anything wrong,” and “getting it SO VERY wrong,” I’m comfortable enough identifying the latter two, but it’s the first one I balk at, and I think I’m right to do so.

  6. OTOH, have you read the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series?

    Have not, and have no interest in it, because of a lot of criticism saying exactly that. Also, that he wrote it as some bizarre expiation of guilt for having stood by and watched while a girl got gang-raped in front of him, which made me see red that he proceeded to reap a gazillion goddamn dollars from the experience. ffffffuck you, mister.

    i did hate her capture in the movie and the immediate threat of rape

    That and the in-Kay’s-head sequence both had me going “no no no no!” and bracing for Fail… and then kind of blinking in befuddlement when it didn’t happen. (The good kind of befuddlement, to be sure, just very unexpected, given the exploding-heads-action-movie genre’s history with gender relations.)

    Anderson and Dredd are a lot of fun, not least because Dredd is so beautifully free of all the usual machismo you associate with action dudes. He’s shown to have no problem following Anderson’s lead when she takes the initiative, and gender doesn’t even seem to register on his radar.

    You should come over and watch it again with me. You should come over RITE NAO!!!1 :D

  7. lol i’m not actually in sacramento anymore otherwise i’d seriously be tempted.

    (and yes, i was bracing too and VERY GLAD that it actually *didn’t* happen. now at some point i’d just prefer that everybody gets threatened with having the hell beat out of them instead of ONLY the female characters being threatened with rape, but i know the world is an imperfect place)

  8. Agreed. A lot of people have been experimenting with, instead of reducing the rape threats, trying for gender parity instead (again — Richard K. Morgan, who is apparently not gay, or so he says, I googled it), though I’m not much a fan.

  9. “that he wrote it as some bizarre expiation of guilt for having stood by and watched while a girl got gang-raped”

    It’s probably a fictious story invented by him in a private conversation with a colleague (which is still revolting, but… the story isn’t so simple, as you can see below).

    I’ve been interested in this book since many of my (female) friends and my father recommended it to me and it’s still on my reading list, so I’ll probably be back with a more facts-based comment in a month or two; but I’ve read up also on the author, Stieg Larsson, very popular in my country (we are almost Sweden’s neighbours :)
    “he proceeded to reap a gazillion goddamn dollars from the experience” -
    he did not, because the Millenium trilogy (The Girl is the first book) was published posthumously. The author was a Swedish journalist, very active in exposing Swedish racist and extreme right organizations, and also a lecturer which mission was to show Swedish people the threat represented by those organizations. For many years he lived under threats of death from those people, masking his (and his partner’s) personal data, changing addresses etc. An admirable person.

    In any case, in my country the book became so popular mainly because of the female protagonist. We’ll see :)

  10. he did not, because the Millenium trilogy (The Girl is the first book) was published posthumously.

    Ah, I see. I was aware that he died after finishing the trilogy, but I didn’t know if the first book had already started to gain ground. I’d heard about his other work too, so yeah, I’ve got mixed feelings about the guy, but the upshot is that I’m still not interested in reading his books.

    So hey, guess what I finally read, as per your recommendation? :D

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>