A Sword That Could Do With Sharpening

by Arthur B

Spirit of the Sword: Pride and Fury by Frances Smith really needs a bit more work before it's ready for prime time.
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Spirit of the Sword: Pride and Fury was offered up for review by author Frances Smith; it is (so far as I can make out) a self-publishes piece, set in a fantasy world which draws heavily on the Roman Empire for inspiration but throws in a substantially greater level of gender equality and a heap of magic, fantasy races, and magic. The story starts off in Corona, a province of the Empire. Coronan names are clearly based on Hebrew names, and the province's history riffs on the history of Roman-occupied Judea here and there, though the Coronans aren't quite monotheistic so much as they practice monolatry - they acknowledge the existence and respect other gods because in this world their existence is an objectively observable fact, but they have a Covenant specifically with Turo, god of the seas, and worship him with sufficient unwavering loyalty that they tend to just think of him as "God".

And just like Judea in the buildup to the revolt, the region is terrorised by fanatical, murderous rebels who are out to win Corona's independence and don't care how much blood they spill to do it. In our timeline they were called the Zealots; here, they are called the Crimson Rose. The two main characters of the novel, sibling duo Michael and Miranda, are Imperial loyalists who have taken very different courses in life ever since being bereaved by Crimson Rose action; Michael signed himself into slavery to compete as a gladiator in the arena, feeling that this in some small way allows him to emulate the heroes of Corona's past, whilst Miranda uses a mysterious magical ability she was born with to work as a healer.

One day, Miranda receives a mysterious commission from Lord Quirian, one of the greatest political movers and shakers in the Empire, who seeks to cultivate her untapped magical abilities for his own ends. Miranda chooses just the right time to move to the Imperial capital to take up this job, for after she leaves the Crimson Rose rises up in full-on rebellion and Michael is forced to fight for his life and the defence of those who want no part of the Rose's violence and mayhem. In doing so, he encounters the mysterious Gideon, a former captain in the Imperial Legions and disgraced noble, who claims to be on a sacred mission from the Divine Empress herself - to track down the lost city of Aureliana and prevent Quirian laying hands on a magical blade hidden there, a blade with which Quirian could sacrifice Miranda, consume her power, and become unstoppable in his evil goals for the Empire.

The novel jumps back and forth between sections from Michael's point of view and those following Miranda, highlighting the basic difference in temperament between them. Michael is distinguished by an excess of idealism - he passionately believes in the Empire, he passionately believes in Corona, he ends up passionately believing in Gideon, and he even passionately believes in the institution of slavery. This makes him something of a master manipulatee for Gideon to mould as he wills, and also means that Michael tends to beat himself up and complicate his relationships with others by holding himself to a rigid standard that doesn't allow him to ever give himself a break. In particular, Michael is messed up largely because his mother taught him a simplistic idea of the role of a manly man which doesn't quite hold water when faced with the complexities of the wider world.

Miranda, conversely, is an arch-cynic, and whilst this does mean that she recognises a lot of the problems with Imperial society and doesn't follow Michael's tendency to see life as a story in which he and his loved ones are the main characters, it also has its own burdens. For one thing, she seems inclined to take the view that one Imperial politician is as bad as any other, and it takes her a good long while to realise that, for instance, one particular character's ostentatious adherence to the old Imperial virtues is not a mere act (though there is a great deal of ostentatious performance involved) but a genuine and sincere belief. What's more, she can sometimes belittle others simply because they don't share her worldview - there's one part where she pretty much directly declares that Michael has the mind of a gullible child, and suggesting that someone is developmentally disabled just because you disagree with their outlook on life ain't a good look.

On top of that, if you scratch her surface she's actually much more idealistic than she initially appears to be - it's just that she doesn't expect anybody else to share her priorities, though this is partly fair enough since that includes a principled objection to the institution of slavery that will please modern readers but is wildly out of step with the realities of the Empire (or its real-world inspirations). I quite like how Miranda's modern attitudes like her objection to slavery explicitly mark her as an eccentric, because it's a neat illustration of how having a protagonist with values that modern readers can get behind isn't necessarily incompatible with a historical setting (or a setting drawing strongly on history), and if you highlight how unusual their views are considered as being that makes the society in question seem more vivid and real, not less.

On the other hand, the historically-inspired-but-not-actually-historical approach to setting construction carries with it its own problems: in particular, once you've borrowed a certain amount from a particular historical society, the aspects in which you deviate from how it existed in reality end up standing out all the more and end up feeling strange and inconsistent. For instance, Imperial politics features gangs of chariot race hooligans doing the bidding of the sponsors of their favoured teams, which was an actual thing and is a cool feature to highlight, and at one point an explosion is described as being like what would happen if you tossed a lit torch into a vat of wine, which I thought was a mistake because typically wine isn't very flammable except wine in the Classical era was much stronger than the stuff we drink today and is documented as catching fire when a candle flame is applied, so fair play to Smith there.

At the same time, there's all sorts of little setting features that bug me here and there. You've got a pseudo-Roman empire where the Imperial office is hereditary and there is a stable law of succession and one single dynasty has held the throne for centuries, which is such a fundamental change to the way Roman politics actually works it's kind of jarring. Similarly, Michael is kept in tiny cell "half again as wide as his shoulders" (so presumably he can't even lie down to sleep) and is escorted to his fights like a death row prisoner being escorted to the electric chair, but that just isn't how gladiators were kept. In particular, since Michael entered slavery voluntarily, chose to be a gladiator, and seems to be a popular draw (he's sort of like the Stone Cold Steve Austin of Corona), he should really be kept in better conditions - in Rome even those forced into the profession tended to be treated comparatively well compared to other slaves, not least because healthy and well-exercised gladiators would just plain put on a better show, and those who voluntarily went into that life could expect a pretty nice level of treatment.

Also, there's a widespread church given to witch-hunting, because that's what mean, authoritarian churches do, even though early Christianity was far more concerned with policing its own theology and witch-hunting wouldn't become a big deal in western Europe until a good millennium after the Western Empire fell. On top of that, the church's witch-hunting activities don't quite make sense within the setting; they go after sorcerers because sorcerers worship the elder gods, and apparently the Imperial authorities go along with this and in most parts of the Empire (save for a few places like Corona where the church in question does not enjoy popular support) the Imperial authorities go along with this - but the Empire also has an official policy of freedom of religion, which seems to fly in the face of it. It seems to me that you can't have a Classical system of polytheistic and henotheistic religions existing cheek-by-jowl whilst at the same time having the sort of dogmatic inquisitorial activities on the part of one particular church getting official sanction.

Things are complicated by the inclusion of various fantasy races, several of whom have cultures distinct from anything seen on Earth back in Classical times. Perhaps the group we see the most of are the naiads, the sea-dwelling emissaries of Turo, since one of them - Amy - is Michael's childhood friend-turned-badass knight who joins the party early on. Amy says that the party can't expect much additional support from naiad armies because to go on the land is forbidden on pain of death - except her dad was sent on land specifically to observe humankind, as were numerous groups of naiads throughout Corona's history, so obviously an army of naiads could totally show up if it were ordered to do so.

On top of that, there are references to naiad gladiators rounding out the ranks of the rebel army, but no comment from Amy or anyone else as to what the deal with that is. Here, Smith might be playing on the Roman tendency to refer to gladiators by kayfabe nationalities based on the weapons they used (with each set of weapons being the archetypal arms associated with the nationalities in question). If so, however, this point isn't actually explained (or at least, if it is it isn't done so in any proximity to the naiad gladiators showing up) and I think it's a needlessly confusing convention to actually deploy in this context. Even odder, naiad society seems to be based around a feudal, medieval society, with knights and squires and all that, which feels incongruous when sharing a planet with Classical cultures when in our world the collapse of said cultures was a necessary prerequisite to the emergence of feudalism in the first place.

My issues with the book aren't just limited to historical quibbles, though - there's points where, even accepting the premises of the setting as given, the internal logic could do with tightening up - the inquisition I mentioned earlier being a prime example. There's also an incident where Revenue garrison in the provincial capital of Corona are apparently so naive that they imagine they could hold the treasury building whilst the rest of the town was taken by the Crimson Rose. Amy eventually persuades them to defend the town in the name of Turo, but surely they would have figured out by now that the only effective way to obey their master's orders to keep the treasury secure was to pitch in with the defence of the town?

And how about the character of Jason: he is introduced to us as an avowed republican who wants the destruction of the Empire and independence restored to all its constituent parts. I realise having a party member with radically different goals and ethics to the others is a well-trod tradition, but even so and even considering the fact that the goddess Silwe directs Jason to the party it makes almost no sense for them to welcome him into their ranks, and less sense for him to want to help in the first place (especially since he serves the Elder Gods and so has no particular reason to trust or like Silwe). Why isn't he with the Crimson Rose, since they seem to want the exact same things he does - and why are the rest of the party members so quick to trust him and act like they are good buddies with him, their initial objections apparently forgotten after he is first introduced?

About halfway into the book, Gideon gives Michael leadership of the party, presumably to test out his abilities as a leader so he can pass on to Michael his sacred office under the Divine Empress. Gideon then immediately utterly wrecks the whole point of this experiment by turning around and overruling the first substantive decision Michael makes as leader, in a dispute concerning the route they will take to Aureliana, and abjectly fails to explain why. Is this deliberate? On the one hand, it could be taken as a sign that Gideon isn't as sincere as he pretends to be, but even so it seems a bit much that a) none of the party members object to Michael's authority being cut out from under him less than five minutes after it is conveyed and b) nobody insists that Gideon actually properly explain his objection rather than making pointlessly mysterious pronouncements about how dangerous the forest Michael wanted to take a short cut through is.

As well as various nitpicky things like this which kept tripping me up as I read, there were also more general issues with the book that I found difficult to engage with. For one thing, there's the anime stylings. On the one hand, having various characters having hair colours not encountered without the use of dyes in the real world is fair enough for a fantasy world. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure "character sees other character in sexually exciting context, has nosebleed as a result of arousal" is a visual shorthand used in manga and anime to indicate said arousal in a comedic context. This actually happens in the book when Octavia, Miranda's secretly-winged bodyguard who's clearly her love interest, happens to see Miranda naked, and it's a really jarring incident because taking such visual shorthands into a prose context feels weird and clumsy and draws needless attention to how artificial they are in the first place, and also because when I read a book I don't visualise the action in my mind's eye as being animated in the style of Escaflowne or something - especially not when the cover art doesn't really convey this influence.

Also, the Underwater realms of the naiads include realms of a people known as the "hen'tai". Just saying…

The thing is, I'm making this book sound like a huge joke but I did actually enjoy it a lot… up to a point. The setting is vividly described and is genuinely interesting, the characters are well-realised and show a fair amount of diversity, the plot is fairly standard adventure story fare but done vividly and excitingly enough to sweep me along, and so on and so forth. But at the same time, I couldn't get more than halfway through the book because I kept being hit by this maddening drip-drip-drip of little issues and nitpicks like the above. I think there is a certain extent to which the book suffers from being self-published, because I think a lot of the issues I've identified might be the sort of thing a good editor would highlight to the author.

In fact, I'm pretty damn sure that either this book has never been looked at by a professional editor and proofreader (other than Smith - and anyone who writes to any extent knows that you are your own worst proofreader), or if it had they've either done a terrible job or Smith has gone and ignored their advice. There's simply far too many typo, awkwardly constructed sentences, and classic blunders like the whole to/two/too thing; the book isn't absolutely riddled with them, mind, but there's enough of them for it to be distracting, and at points there are exchanges which really could do with a rewrite. For instance, there's a bit where Quirian talks about how he is going to craft Miranda into a weapon, and Miranda is like "Er, excuse me, I do not want to be a fucking weapon", and Quirian is like "Heeeeey, who's talking about weapons?", and you're left with the impression that either Quirian is the worst liar in the world and Miranda is humouring him for his money or Miranda is the most gullible person in the world and Quirian is running rings around her, neither of which I think is intentional.

My major advice to Smith would be this: put your hands in your pocket and get a professional editor and a proofreader to look over your work if you haven't already. If you have, and you weren't foolish enough to flat-out ignore their proposals, take your work elsewhere and don't trust them with it again because they aren't doing their job. I'm not saying this because I think your writing is bad - I am saying this because I think it is good, at points very good, and a good editor will help its best aspects shine and improve the shaky parts greatly.

In its present state, though, your book just isn't ready to shine to the extent that it obviously can, and that in itself is a huge problem - it feels like a promising rough draft, not a completed product. It's one thing when a bad author takes shortcuts in self-publishing and offers up a clearly unfinished, unpolished piece on the market, because it isn't as though editors or proofreaders will have been able to magically turn their crap into cream. But when a good, genuinely promising writer ends up taking such shortcuts and puts out a work on the market which quite obviously fall short of the standards they are seem to be capable of attaining, it's kind of a tiny tragedy.

Thanks for the review copy, though, it's appreciated.
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Comments (go to latest)
Ronan Wills at 11:03 on 2015-11-27
Submitting a self-published novel for the consumption of The Ferret sounds terrifying. Kudos to Smith for doing it, although that said I lost all interest in the plot description as soon as I got to the part about the quest and the magic sword.

The anime stylings seem to be a feature of certain online writing communities; a long time ago I used to read and post stuff (which, if there's any justice in the world, has been thoroughly erased from the internet) to Fictionpress and the like, and it was very common, especially in the genre categories, to see stuff like "he sweatdropped", meaning that thing where a giant cartoon sweat-drop appears over someone's head.

I think it's a kind of myopia where someone is so immersed in a particular genre or medium that they forget that elements of that medium aren't universally understood or appreciated. Needless to say, unless your target audience is exclusively anime viewers I'd advise Smith and any other self-published authors to thoroughly remove any such tropes from their work. If people recognize what you're doing they're going to roll their eyes, and if they don't they're just going to be confused (to someone who's never watched anime "hot woman = nosebleed" would be completely incomprehensible).
Orion at 22:01 on 2015-12-19
I have to say the premise, both setting-wise, and split-siblings-manipulated-by-rival-figures-wise sounds like it could be pretty cool. I would definitely be interested in whatever else this guy does / a revision of this.
Robinson L at 22:30 on 2016-02-10
Coronan names are clearly based on Hebrew names, and the province's history riffs on the history of Roman-occupied Judea here and there, though the Coronans aren't quite monotheistic so much as they practice monolatry - they acknowledge the existence and respect other gods because in this world their existence is an objectively observable fact, but they have a Covenant specifically with Turo, god of the seas, and worship him with sufficient unwavering loyalty that they tend to just think of him as "God".

Major tangent alert, but my sisters and I were over at my dad's apartment for Passover ceder with him and his now-fiance last April. It had been a few years since I attended a ceder, and I was struck by a passage where God mentions something to Moses about how He will give the Egyptian gods what for if they try to make any trouble, implying He acknowledges the existence of other gods.

When I brought this up, my dad said that originally, Jewish people weren't monotheistic - they recognized other gods, they were just forbidden from worshiping them or giving them offerings or the like. I haven't gotten confirmation on that from anywhere else, but if so, perhaps the depiction of the Coronans is closer to the original source material than it first appears.

Ronan: Submitting a self-published novel for the consumption of The Ferret sounds terrifying. Kudos to Smith for doing it

Yeah, agreed.
Arthur B at 00:01 on 2016-02-11
I know about the ancient Judean drift from henotheism to monotheism, I'm just not sure how far along that drift was when the Roman occupation was still a thing - I was under the impression that it was quite far along, particularly once Judaism reasserted itself after the Maccabean revolt.
Daniel F at 03:25 on 2016-02-11
When I brought this up, my dad said that originally, Jewish people weren't monotheistic - they recognized other gods, they were just forbidden from worshiping them or giving them offerings or the like.

This is, as far as I'm aware, probably true. (Theology degree speaking, if it means anything.) It shouldn't be particularly surprising: the sheer amount of vituperating at polytheism in Tanakh suggests that polytheism was a common practice, and that the God of Israel was worshipped alongside other gods. Consider e.g. Deuteronomy 16:21. You would not need to forbid people from putting up a pole sacred to Asherah next to the altar to the God of Israel if people were not already doing it. So it seems likely that the God of Israel (Yah, YHWH, etc.) was once worshipped within polytheistic and henotheistic contexts. A monolatrist cult, blurring the lines between henotheism and monotheism, probably arose in ancient Israel and grew in stature over time.

By the time of the Second Temple and the eventual Roman occupation, though, it's pretty safe to say that the shift to monotheism had completed. Jews in the first century AD comfortably asserted that no gods existed beside the Lord, the God of Israel. Here's a short summary; you might also like Bauckham here.

All that said, of course, one can easily imagine Israelite history taking a different course and retaining a henotheistic or monolatrous approach. Nothing about Smith's premise here breaks my suspension of disbelief, and of course the benefit of using a culture vaguely inspired by Judaism, rather than Judaism itself, is that it gives you leeway to make these changes.
Arthur B at 10:00 on 2016-02-11
True, but I think it's a bit trickier to on the one hand have your not-Judea avoid the drift into monotheism but on the other hand throw in a revolt that is clearly drawing heavily on the Zealots, who were a product of the more robustly monotheistic occupation era.
Robinson L at 18:02 on 2016-02-11
Ah, good points from both of you. And actually, from my own forays into Roman history, I do recall that one of the major points of tension for the Jews under Roman rule was that the Romans really wanted their subjects to pay at least perfunctory respect to the Roman pantheon, and the Jews were all like, "Sorry brah, no can do; there's only one God."

I still think it's an interesting historical note that Coronan's monolatry has precedent in their real-world counterpart culture. On the other hand, while I'm less familiar with the Zealots than some other aspects of that period, yeah, it's a bit hard for me to imagine a group like them arising in a context which doesn't have the same strict monotheism / polytheism conflict going on.
I can see why a lot of authors stick of medieval England :)

I know it's terribly bad form to comment on a review of your own work, but I would justify myself by saying that I'm only commenting on the comments, not the review itself which was well done. Plus who doesn't like to bloviate about their own work, when given the opportunity?

I would say that, although there is clearly a lot about the Coronim and their situation in the Empire that was designed to evoke Jews under Roman rule, it is a little misleading to say that they are...fantasy Jews, if that doesn't evoke too many ghastly wagnerian stereotypes. I'm pretty sure that the Israelites never conscripted the firstborn son of every family into the army, for instance.

As for the Crimson Rose, while I am aware that there were Jewish Revolts, and that the Jews were quite unique in maintaining armed resistance against Roman rule after occupation, I don't know nearly enough about the rebellions themselves to say that anything about them really inspired the Rose. The arguments that the Voice of Corona makes are entirely political, not religious, and his first appearance places him outside the temple, trying to get in and kill everyone, while the doors are defended by Michael, the model of piety within the story. In terms of their behaviour I'd say I was more inspired by the slave revolts of the late republic than anything else, although a lot of detail about what the Crimson Rose is actually offering got cut out of the finished product, which is starting to look a little unfortunate.

I suppose this is what you meant when you said that it's a bad idea to stick very closely to a historical model, and then sharply diverge from it. I can see what you mean by that, even if I can't say that I'm entirely convinced by it, especially since it strikes me that the argument that 'I have to follow my historical model' have been used for years to try and justify casual sexism in the genre and have been rejected for nearly as long. Did you give up before you reached the same sex marriage bit, and if you got there, what did you think if you don't mind me asking?

Okay, that's a lot longer than I thought it would be. I haven't come here to pick a fight, honest; I just don't get the chance to talk about my writing very much.
Bill at 21:19 on 2016-02-11
the Jews were quite unique in maintaining armed resistance against Roman rule after occupation


Not unique, there was the Boudicca revolt in Britain.
Arthur B at 21:42 on 2016-02-11
Did you give up before you reached the same sex marriage bit, and if you got there, what did you think if you don't mind me asking?

If there's an actual wedding, I don't think I reached it.

I did note (and quite liked) passing references to characters being in same-sex marriages.

I take your point about unwavering following of historical precedent leading to rote reiterations of old prejudices and well-worn ground. I guess the issue I had here wasn't so much that there was a mixture of historical and ahistorical features so much as some of the ahistorical bits ended up looking like wobbily-implemented historical bits, if you see what I mean - like the Crimson Rose reminding me inadvertently of the Zealots. I think the problem is that, though they aren't Zealots, they end up fitting into a sort of Zealot-shaped slot left by the historical scaffolding you've drawn on in crafting Corona, but end up fitting it awkwardly.

In particular, I see the point about them rocking up outside the temple trying to get in, rather than being besieged inside it - though actually, before they were besieged by the Romans, the Zealots and Sicarii invaded Jerusalem, seized the Temple by force, and killed anyone who tried to object to their coup. I understand that the Talmud and Rabbinical Judaism in general doesn't hold them in high regard. So I don't think it's entirely off-base to interpret that as Michael knocking his local equivalent of the Zealot revolt off track by his intervention.
Robinson L at 22:15 on 2016-02-11
Hi there,

I can see why a lot of authors stick of medieval England :)

Perhaps so, but I'm really glad to see authors venturing out of the same old tired territory. With so much history and so many fascinating societies and cultures to draw upon ... constantly regurgitating 12th-15th Century Western Europe just seems awfully provincial.

it is a little misleading to say that they are...fantasy Jews, if that doesn't evoke too many ghastly wagnerian stereotypes.

Okay, I apologize for any contribution I may have made to this characterization in my earlier comment.

For myself, I have not read the book, and may or may not at some point in the future. I rarely buy books, since libraries have always kept me more than amply supplied, and I hardly ever feel the need to own what I read (I don't even own a copy of On the Jellicoe Road, for heaven's sake). I also only read books which are available in either hard copy or audio formats.

So I'm coming into this discussion as an interested observer rather than a reader, and my only knowledge comes from the review and what people who have read (or, in your case, written) the book have to say in the comments. So I apologize if I misconstrue at all.

I suppose this is what you meant when you said that it's a bad idea to stick very closely to a historical model, and then sharply diverge from it. I can see what you mean by that, even if I can't say that I'm entirely convinced by it, especially since it strikes me that the argument that 'I have to follow my historical model' have been used for years to try and justify casual sexism in the genre and have been rejected for nearly as long.

You raise a good point here.

I have two thoughts which come to mind, the first of which is that at least some (and perhaps the greater part) of the criticism of sexism in historical fantasy I've seen isn't so much "this story contains sexism" which may (or may not) be accurate to the historical period the story was inspired by as "this story contains sexism which is not criticized or is actively reinforce by the text itself." A story can contain sexism without actively or tacitly endorsing it, and I think it's the endorsing that has a lot of people justifiably angered.

Second thought: but some people want to have stories about cultures which are in many ways closely similar to historical cultures for aesthetic reasons, but with certain of the more despicable aspects of that culture removed. (I'm reminded of Vic's Jazz Bar, a holosuite program from Deep Space Nine. At one point, Sisko points out to his love interest, Kassidy, the historical inaccuracy of a white 1950s Jazz establishment where black people are treated as honored guests no different from white patrons. Kassidy responds by urging him to see Vic's as a depiction of how things should have been.)

I guess an author can handle this situation one of two ways, depending on what tone they're going for. If it's just a light-hearted bit of escapism or a full-blown farce - what Wodehouse termed "a musical comedy without music," then I guess it's a fair play.

If, however, the author intends for the story and the setting to be taken seriously, then they need to have a sit down and think about how this one difference (e.g. more egalitarian gender roles, greater queer positivity) changes the shape of the fantasy culture as a whole. What other institutions, customs, and mores are affected by this difference from the real world culture which inspired it, and how? (The same questions an author must ask for changing or adding any other major element, such as tossing in magic or photographic technology, or taking out the use of ranged weaponry.)

I just don't get the chance to talk about my writing very much.

I hear that, and as long as everyone else is okay with it, I'm happy to welcome you to the discussion.
Arthur:

If there's an actual wedding, I don't think I reached it.


No, I was referring to the bit where Miranda is offered a public horse by the Emperor, but declines in order to retain her right to marry at some point. They don't get married, although Octavia certainly wouldn't say no.

there was a mixture of historical and ahistorical features so much as some of the ahistorical bits ended up looking like wobbily-implemented historical bits, if you see what I mean


Yes, that's certainly clearer now, thank you, and I do take your point now that I understand it better.

Robinson:

Okay, I apologize for any contribution I may have made to this characterization in my earlier comment.


No need to apologise, there is a lot of Jewishness about them and I did choose a lot of that, so I can't really complain when people notice the paralells.

I have two thoughts which come to mind, the first of which is that at least some (and perhaps the greater part) of the criticism of sexism in historical fantasy I've seen isn't so much "this story contains sexism" which may (or may not) be accurate to the historical period the story was inspired by as "this story contains sexism which is not criticized or is actively reinforce by the text itself." A story can contain sexism without actively or tacitly endorsing it, and I think it's the endorsing that has a lot of people justifiably angered.


I understand, and to be honest that was the reason for the queer positivity, such as it is: having made Miranda a lesbian, I didn't want to have to confront homophobia on her behalf, because it wasn't a story that I was interested in telling, and so the easiest way to not tell it was to make the Empire a tolerant society, within the bounds of its class/bloodline hangups.

I think you're right about the important thing being the tone the author is going for, but I might phrase it a little differently. I've been writing with these characters (the men anyway, a lot of the women are more recent additions) for years, and the tone has gone all over the place, but I eventually decided that I wanted to write family friendly fantasy in the Brooks/Jordan/Feist vein; and once you've made that decision you can't really have rapists on every street corner* or the main character having to hide her orientation, it doesn't really fit the mood.

*Arthur may disagree based on the later Feist reviews, but I'm mainly thinking of the early books when he was still writing unabashed adventure stories.

Not unique, there was the Boudicca revolt in Britain.


How did I forget Boudicca? Honestly.
Arthur B at 22:09 on 2016-02-12
I eventually decided that I wanted to write family friendly fantasy in the Brooks/Jordan/Feist vein; and once you've made that decision you can't really have rapists on every street corner* or the main character having to hide her orientation, it doesn't really fit the mood.

Agreed, and for what it's worth I think you hit that mood more or less exactly. ("Hen'tai" is probably pushing it a mite on the "family-friendly" angle, though on balance I think it's the sort of joke which will sail over the heads of the innocents in the audience.)
Daniel F at 04:57 on 2016-02-14
Robinson:
If, however, the author intends for the story and the setting to be taken seriously, then they need to have a sit down and think about how this one difference (e.g. more egalitarian gender roles, greater queer positivity) changes the shape of the fantasy culture as a whole. What other institutions, customs, and mores are affected by this difference from the real world culture which inspired it, and how?

This is the big issue for me, I think. Sadly I can't comment on Spirit of the Sword, but if the setting is to be taken seriously, it needs a certain degree of internal consistency. A setting that is, for example, very closely based on Augustan Rome, but which also includes same-sex marriage, which is treated pretty similarly to opposite-sex marriage and seems to involve modern sexual mores would probably break my suspension of disbelief. You can't throw a distinctively modern concept like same-sex marriage into ancient Rome without changing the entire way ancient Romans thought about sex, marriage, and family. The idea of same-sex marriage only has meaning in the context of certain framing ideas about what sex means, what marriage means, what the purpose of marriage is, how people select sexual partners, and so on. How does the idea of same-sex marriage apply, for instance, to a society which has absolutely no concept of sexual orientation, certainly doesn't see sexual preference as an identity, which doesn't necessarily see sex as expressive of love, which tends to practice arranged marriages (at least in upper classes), sees procreation as a basic marital duty, and which views marriage as obligatory for almost all adult men and women.

Very serious worldbuilding questions, of course. I can skip past most of them if none of those questions are important to the plot, but I would certainly be jolted 'out' of a text if in an otherwise fairly-close-to-Roman-culture story, a character identified homosexuality as part of their identity and mentioned being in a same-sex marriage. I don't know if I'd be able to read that as anything other than an intrusion of contemporary mores into a setting that cannot sustain those mores without substantial revision.

I suppose there are various responses to that. An author might just say that they want to represent gay people in their story in a way that is recognisable to contemporary gay people, but they still want the basic elements of Roman society to be recognisable. But I might also wonder: if that author wanted to write about people who are gay in more-or-less the same way that some modern people are gay, why did they pick a setting that can't handle that? Or if they wanted to write a story about a close analogue of ancient Rome, why do they want to compromise that analogue with these anachronisms? It's one thing to skip over or politely ignore bits of Roman society that are discomforting or irrelevant to the story being told; it's another to specifically include anachronism.

Tone and genre can affect it a lot, of course. There's a whole genre of fantasy writing I tend to think of as 'medieval America' that I think gets away with hand-waving contemporary American social and sexual mores into fantasy, but it usually does so by being relatively light-hearted and relatively unconcerned with approximating any historical culture. The closer one gets to trying to reproduce the mores of a historical culture, the more concerning minor anachronisms get, I suppose.

Well, I don't have a strict answer, and I definitely don't want to make any demands of Ms. Smith. But the worldbuilding questions are interesting, aren't they?
Arthur B at 12:18 on 2016-02-14
@Daniel F: of course, it's also worth noting that heterosexuality as an identity is just as modern a construct. There is potentially a danger in being oversensitive to ahistorical depictions of non-heterosexual behaviours and relationships but turning a blind eye to ahistorical takes on heterosexuality.

And also, "medieval America" (good term!) isn't entirely unconcerned with historicism because it's got all that medieval aesthetic all over the place. Why shouldn't you be able to have a "Roman America"?
Oh, please, demand away.

How does the idea of same-sex marriage apply, for instance, to a society which has absolutely no concept of sexual orientation, certainly doesn't see sexual preference as an identity, which doesn't necessarily see sex as expressive of love, which tends to practice arranged marriages (at least in upper classes), sees procreation as a basic marital duty, and which views marriage as obligatory for almost all adult men and women.


It's class dependent.

I'm not blind to the concerns that you raise, and I attempted to square that particular circle by saying that same-sex marriage is an option for the plebeian classes but not for the nobility or those whose famillies have been granted a public horse or public arms by the state in recognition of their services. Those famillies, whose lines and lineages are deemed notable and important to the Empire, are considered to have an obligation to bear children and continue their famillies and have heirs who will inherit the virtue of their famous forbears.

It is a fudge, and more unrealistic than just gay marriage I suspect, but I have a slight obsession with noble bloodlines and I think the Roman idea of inherited virtus is really cool, so I wanted to preserve it in some form.

And medieval America is a very good term. I'm actually trying to write a deliberately medieval America novel now (it's a roman a clef about the Hugo awards, or started out that way) and what's really tripping me up is the style of speaking.
Daniel F at 00:47 on 2016-02-15
Arthur:
of course, it's also worth noting that heterosexuality as an identity is just as modern a construct. There is potentially a danger in being oversensitive to ahistorical depictions of non-heterosexual behaviours and relationships but turning a blind eye to ahistorical takes on heterosexuality.

I think this is true. The concept of heterosexuality brings its own baggage along with it. Homo- and hetero- as distinct identities form each other. There is no homosexuality or heterosexuality as such prior to the late 19th century or so, and the terms are introduced in distinction to each other.

It's correct that importing modern frameworks of opposite-sex sexual expression into ancient Rome is also extremely misleading. My immersion would suffer if I saw characters in a text purportedly set in ancient Rome policing the straight/gay divide in the same way as us moderns. Their borders between proper and improper sexual behaviour are slightly different.

And also, "medieval America" (good term!) isn't entirely unconcerned with historicism because it's got all that medieval aesthetic all over the place. Why shouldn't you be able to have a "Roman America"?

You can, of course. I suppose I'm thinking about attempted historicity. I don't mind characters in, say, the Forgotten Realms acting just like contemporary Westerners, since that setting is primarily interested in medievalism as an aesthetic, not anything deeper. When dealing with a text on that level, there's no reason why you couldn't substitute a Roman aesthetic instead, or any other aesthetic you liked.

But when the entry-point to the discussion is fiction that aims to have a historical mood, I think the questions about historical authenticity are more pressing? A few posts up there were comments about the overuse of medieval England, but I would almost say that there are relatively few fantasy novels actually attempting to depict medieval England (or a close analogue thereof). There are lots that are interested in a superficial medieval aesthetic, but relatively few that seem to want to go beyond that. I suspect the same is true of Rome. Rome as an aesthetic is popular (cf. Codex Alera?), but Rome as an entire alien culture seems less so.

Frances:
I'm not blind to the concerns that you raise, and I attempted to square that particular circle by saying that same-sex marriage is an option for the plebeian classes but not for the nobility or those whose famillies have been granted a public horse or public arms by the state in recognition of their services.

It definitely sounds right to me that the lower classes would have more freedom from social pressure to marry; but have you thought about economic pressures as well? A free farmer, as I understand it, has a very strong incentive to have children and have lots of them, as they need the additional labour in the fields and will need their children's support as they grow old. (Even with most farmers working until their deaths, the need for younger helpers becomes more acute as they age.) Same-sex marriage might inhibit your ability to build a multi-generational household like this.

And medieval America is a very good term. I'm actually trying to write a deliberately medieval America novel now (it's a roman a clef about the Hugo awards, or started out that way) and what's really tripping me up is the style of speaking.

It was definitely something I noticed when I went from reading modern fantasy novels to reading medieval romances. Some of the stylistic differences are just due to genre, but genre helps evoke a setting (I don't know if you remember this older review?). Genuine cultural differences come through as well: the way they talk about God was particularly fascinating for me. It would be really interesting to see how you might approach some of those differences.
Arthur B at 00:52 on 2016-02-15
It definitely sounds right to me that the lower classes would have more freedom from social pressure to marry; but have you thought about economic pressures as well? A free farmer, as I understand it, has a very strong incentive to have children and have lots of them, as they need the additional labour in the fields and will need their children's support as they grow old. (Even with most farmers working until their deaths, the need for younger helpers becomes more acute as they age.) Same-sex marriage might inhibit your ability to build a multi-generational household like this.

Of course, in a fantasyland where there is a literal god of fertility and agricultural folk magic actually works, this may be less of an issue.

From a history-nerd perspective I'd actually find more noticeable the way the emphasis on siring your own heirs in this world establishes a striking difference with the way the Roman patrician class was entirely happy to use adoption as a way of obtaining heirs that biology did not provide. Worked fine for Julius and Augustus, after all.
Daniel F at 02:00 on 2016-02-15
Fair point about adoption. Again, it's something that can be modified by magic, if you have supernatural bloodlines, but it is worth noting that in the ancient world family involves culture and habitus as much as it involves genealogy. Bloodline should be considered one aspect of a cluster of traits all of which contribute to family identity.
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