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ariel view of red and white spaceships hovering above a landing pad which is above a planet with craters

On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.

Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren--a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.

An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose--to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

In 2013, Sam Killermann produced the handy Genderbread Person V2.0. This easy to understand diagram helps clueless people like myself follow conversations about gender that sits outside of the cis-gender male and female binary. In 2014, the SFF community finds itself considering Ann Leckie’s debut novel "Ancillary Justice", a book about a genderless society. After reading (and adoring) "Ancillary Justice" it seemed like the perfect time to dust off Killermann’s reference guide and use its helpful breakdown to examine Leckie’s novel. The novel's blanket use of female pronouns has been criticised and I hoped that using the Genderbread Person as a reference guide would help me to understand that criticism better.

Huge disclaimers before I edge into my resulting analysis – I am a cis-gender woman and anyone with personal experience of non-binary gender is of course welcome to provide useful correction to my views in the comments.

Breq, the protagonist of "Ancillary Justice", is a complicated character to understand as she used to possess a linked, multi-layered, multi-body identity and consciousness. Breq was originally one of a multi-bodied troop of soldiers, linked by a shared consciousness, and each soldier's mind also sort of contained the consciousness of a spaceship, The Justice of Toren. Following a betrayal, this identity is now condensed into one brain and one body. While the body belongs to an individual slave who was pressed into service as One Esk, one of the linked soldiers I mentioned above, Breq’s consciousness is not made up of the memories and past of that slave. Instead, memories of being a spaceship and a multi-bodied military force inform her background.

So, how does The Genderbread Person model apply to Breq? How do you go about fitting a multi-conscious, multi-body being who has been pushed into one body into a real world model? Well, I chose to stick close to the diagram and tried to work out Breq's gender identification, presentation, sex and sexuality. First I looked at how she identifies. Breq tells the reader that the, 'Radchaai don’t care much about gender, and the language they speak – my own first language – doesn’t mark gender in any way.'

That sounds like Breq is saying she identifies as genderless.

How does Breq present? The people Breq meets perceive her as female and have no problem fitting her into their (presumably) binary definitions. So, outside of Radch space she presents as female while still identifying as a genderless person. There's a split in this book between feelings about personal presentation and the perception of gender by others.

The third Genderbread category looks at biological sex. Neither Breq or the other characters discuss their sex, which could mean a whole range of things: their approach to sex is similar to their approach to gender (they don't notice any differences); maybe they are intersex; maybe biological sex works differently in this world than in ours; maybe the subject just never comes up. There's no textual evidence so that leaves sex unknown.

So far, we’ve got identity: genderless; presentation: female; biological sex: unknown. The Genderbread Person also includes a section on attraction; labels for relationships and attraction can change dependant on the other factors that go into creating your gender identity. Breq doesn’t talk much about attraction. I could either guess what Breq’s attraction might look like to the outside world (her feelings for Lieutenant Awn can be read as attraction, for example). Or, I could take the genderless identification of the whole Radch community into account and guess that Breq would probably only be attracted to genderless members of the Radch. Or, I could assume that because Breq is asexual and that's why she never explicitly talks about being attracted to anyone. I kind of expect Seivarden and Breq to end up together in the final book, but don’t want to use predictions to classify a character’s sexuality. Attraction – unknown.

That’s my best assessment of how Breq fits into the Genderbread Person model. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Breq personally identifies as non-gendered, unless you want to make an argument that Breq isn’t personally anything. As a former slave overtaken by a multi-consciousness, who was then broken down into a singular identity bent on revenge, it's possible to read her as some kind of biological machine I guess. I don’t personally like that reading though; Breq has so much motivation and is so sharply observant I find it impossible to see her as some kind of removed entity.

Now we come to the tricky part, the part that has got the internet buzzing. How do we reconcile a character who identifies as genderless, but who looks female to others, with the author's choice to use a set of binary female nouns to describe a whole empire of genderless citizens? You can see from my own comments above that it presents difficulties. It’s fine for me to use ‘she’ to describe Breq as that’s how she would identify herself, because in Radch space ‘she’ carries no gender markers. However, calling a genderless character ‘she’ feels uncomfortable for obvious reasons. So, what does the novel’s decision to use female pronouns, almost to exclusion, do when this novel is presented to real life readers? Has enough complexity been factored into this fictional world? Or, has the book simplified non-binary gender and fictionally re-shaped genderless life, in order to comment on mainstream society’s obsession with binary gender classifications?

I have a lot of thoughts and concerns about the use of female pronouns to describe a genderless society, but first I would like to say that from a personal perspective I found the use of the female pronoun device amazing. It is wonderful to walk through a book, especially an SF book, and see the word ‘she’ used almost to exclusion. It feels great to see a society which doesn’t devalue female language. I have spent so many hours feeling excluded by little everyday things because I’m a woman, and I’ve spent twice as many hours reading about women being excluded in much larger ways because of their gender. To find a story that not only filled its world with female characters (something a ton of other writers are also doing, thanks so much other authors) but also takes a deliberate narrative stand that says ‘I see sexism in SFF and I’m going to write it a detailed go fuck yourself’ is just amazing.

I will never stop linking to Leckie’s "It’s not a real heart, it’s an artificial heart" because yes, this. Exactly this. Eventually you get so used to being punched that you automatically absorb the everyday jabs. Maybe it takes a real whammy to make you realise that you’re actually badly hurt. Maybe realising this slightly terrifies you.

Yes, lots of other SFF authors have re-worked gender in their novels and provided spaces that give male dominated, sexist culture the finger (Ursula Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas, Joanna Russ and Sarah Hall to name just a few). That doesn’t mean we can’t use another voice telling us similar things.

However, because I felt so embraced by "Ancillary Justice" I am sad about its particular limitations. I wish everyone could find a safe place in "Ancillary Justice" but unfortunately I don’t think that will be the case.

"Ancillary Justice" includes a non-gendered society in order to comment on our own society’s attachment to a rigid binary system of gender. A fictional construct of non-binary gender is used to comment on women’s issues and to advance the cause of women in SFF. And so, "Ancillary Justice" incorporates a common feminist blind spot; feminist issues which affect one group of women do not translate directly to every group involved in the feminist struggle. Essentially, "Ancillary Justice" may be feminist and progressive, but like many texts its feminist intersectionality is missing a few connections.

It’s no surprise then that things get a little sticky.

"Ancillary Justice" seems set up to subvert binary 101 – the idea that male is the default and that gender affects female behaviour in particular, negative ways. In order to suggest alternative ways of thinking it creates a world where, outside of the central Radch, binary gender is the norm. "Ancillary Justice" then positions its protagonist outside of this binary conversation, and provides readers with an outsider’s view of how ridiculous and difficult binary gender classifications are if you aren't born knowing the code. The trouble is that this book is so concentrated on binary gender, and critiquing the problems of socially constructed gender, that it misses the opportunity to explicitly investigate other parts of the gender conversation.

No society outside of central Radch appears to deviate from the male/female binary. No one that Breq meets appears to have constructed their gender outside of the easy to recognise male/female binary. The Radch also contains a homogenous gender culture. Citizens don’t chose a non-gendered life; ancillaries are given non-gendered identification through slavery and the whole Radch embraces non-gendered identification which seems to imply it is a societal norm they are born into. Breq never gestures to the fact that there may be others like the Radch who don’t identify in a binary manner, or that there are people within the Radch who subvert that society's gender norms.

And while the Radch are a fictional non-gendered society they do a poor job of representing the non-gendered of our society. This is down to the linguistic set up Leckie has used. The repeated ‘she’ that the Radch use to describe people of all biological sexes produces so many interesting results when examined from a female point of view. However, it just doesn’t work practically when applied to our real world where many different kinds of non-binary people have created new ways to describe themselves.

As Alex Dally Macfarlane says, 'The previously mentioned power of using ‘she’ as a default instead of ‘he’ comes with the cost of non-gendered people’s erasure.' "Ancillary Justice" is a book that frequently seems to make direct contact with our own society’s arguments about female and male gender, yet it completely fails to connect with the real life existence of a non-gendered or gender queer community. Its character’s statements also sometimes seem to erase the complexities of real life gendered society. For example:

“The society she lived in professed at the same time to believe gender was insignificant. Males and females dressed, spoke, acted indistinguishably. And yet no one I’d met had ever hesitated, or guessed wrong. And they had invariably been offended when I did hesitate or guess wrong.”

This does relate, in broad terms, to mainstream society’s perception of gender. I can easily tell you which of my co-workers present as male and which present as female, for example. Still, this piece of cultural commentary doesn't acknowledge that in our real world it can be hard to guess gender clues and that sometimes typical gender clues are misleading. Having encounters like this may depend on who you socialise with, or where you live, but they do happen and it seemed a little too much like fictional convenience to have them cut out of "Ancillary Justice".

I ended up accepting the linguistic side of "Ancillary Justice" for what it is; a fictional criticism of how society perceives gender as a strict binary, and a device which discards parts of our world’s reality in order to make broad, feminist points. It’s almost meta – a book about the problems of binary gender which ends up largely presenting non-binary existence through a limited, binary view.

As I said above though, Breq and the rest of the Radch do identify as non-gendered. Their use of the female ‘she’ instead of a non-binary construction does nothing to change that. So Leckie may still have created a space that tries to give non-gendered readers something. I wonder though, does this blanket non-gendered identification make Radch society as different as the Radchaai citizens like to think it does? Does removing gender remove difference, or does "Ancillary Justice" show us that the Radchaai’s attempt at building a non-gendered society may be in some ways as hollow as their attempt to build a society with no status?

One of my favourite details from this book is that although the Radchaai use the female pronoun to describe everyone, when it comes to indicating status (that staus they're not supposed to have) they use titles which are associated with the male gender in our world. Military titles are all gender neutral, as they are in our society. The words ‘Captain’ and ‘Lieutenant’ may be sloppily lined up with ‘male’ in many people’s minds but they actually imply no particular gender. However, what about ‘Lord of the Radch’? ‘Lord’ is male and ‘Lady’ is female in our world. What does the use of one of our male status symbols, in a supposedly genderless society, imply?

I’ve come up with a couple of readings. In one, the use of 'Lord' indicates that although the Radch encourages its people to believe there are no gender markers its leaders do not take this position to heart. In this reading we have an interesting, subtle rebuttal to the idea that a ‘gender-blind’ society is possible or desirable. There’s not much textually evidence for this opinion though.

In my second reading, Leckie is poking readers with the linguist stick again; reminding us that the Radch is a different culture with a language very different from ours, and that this language has only been rendered into English so readers can understand this novel. Does the book's use of 'Lord' show that the language barrier between us, the Radch and other societies in this novel may alter the exact meaning of the words on the page? In one exchange, Breq talks about having guessed the right gender to use, but in the text she’s actually used ‘they’, a plural word which has no particular gender connotations in English.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that exchange – does it show that languages in this fictional universe can have plural words which change depending on gender? When Breq expresses relief at using the right gender construction is she misunderstanding how this language works? Is Leckie making a point about ‘they’ and ‘them’ as non-gendered singular forms? Do the Radch claim a lack of gender markers, and use ‘she’ as a genderless word rather than as a female universal? Do the Radch just adopt one gendered word at random, or because of a complex linguistic history that isn’t present in the novel? And if so, what does that mean when we relate this book, and how it presents non-binary gender, to our own world? Fascinating! I don’t pretend to be any kind of linguist so I’m just over here waiting for someone to come enlighten me.

After all that chat, I would say that "Ancillary Justice" runs its conversation about gender within very particular parameters. It's engaging in a very specific conversation with its readers and this does leave it rather partial in some places. From my point of view, as someone who knows zero about linguistics, it looks like Leckie sacrifices fictional building to make this element work.

I’ve seen a lot of people comment that this book is dull once you take away the novelty of exclusive female pronouns. I do not even come close to agreeing with this view. I know that not everyone is using ‘dull’ as a stand in for ‘all these female critics only like "Ancillary Justice" because of the female pronouns’. I mean some of them are, but others - really, I get that you are not being sexist and have other reasons for finding this novel boring. I just have to disagree because I found this novel thrilling. As long as I got to keep Breq, I would probably have read it even if it had been stripped of its linguistic device. Although I’m a fan of literary fiction, and new, deliberate use of technique and structure, I’m not part of the SFF movement that places invention at the very top of its list of requirements. Give me a great story and I will probably find something to love about it.

It’s fair to say that "Ancillary Justice" is well suited to my own particular tastes. I do like a bit of a complicated concept, as long as I have time to focus on a book. The idea of a character who used to be a spaceship and a multi-bodied, converted military unit gave me something satisfying to puzzle over. How does that work? And don’t even talk to me about domestic times in space! I love them and the abundance of domestic life in this novel gave me great satisfaction: One Esk and Lieutenant Awn “working together”; Breq dragging Seivarden through recovery; One Esk's singing; a spaceship that expresses its favouritism through passive aggressive, poorly done domestic tasks! I also like stories that focus on character struggles. And I’m one of those people who gets really into revenge stories (to a point - humiliation stories do not fit with me). There’s even a political thriller element to the story. I think I’ve been pretty clear before about how crime puzzles + science fiction are my jam.

I take the point that interesting several areas aren’t explored more in the text – religious implications of the ancillary system, and the Radch’s policy towards gender in colonies. However, I think this book works perfectly well in terms of plot, characters and relationships: strong first chapter; engaging characters; interaction between these engaging characters; action (the scene where Breq falls from the bridge is one of my favourite action pieces in the novel); intrigue; deception; and a plot that made as much sense to me as any SFF story I've read so far this year. It’s all subjective of course, but the building blocks of a solid novel seem to be in place, and "Ancillary Justice" fills its writing with details and a recognisable humanity which carried it right into my heart.

Edited to address misgendering of Seivarden, pointed out by jinian: Speaking of feels, I’ve come to the point where I have to talk about Seivarden. Seivarden is my favourite subversion of the book. Leckie makes the decision early on to reveal which binary gender he presents to non-Radch characters – it’s male. Breq presents as female and well *bam* went my hopes of the book pushing readers to really engage with a female romance or a non-gendered romance. And yet, even after the reveal, Seivarden’s behaviour conflicts with traditional ideas about male gender and plays a different role in subverting expectations. Seivarden, coming down from a serious addiction, does not act in a traditionally masculine way. I do not think many addicts uphold the unrealistic expectations of traditional masculinity – drugs strip all your pretensions. He often cries and is clearly dependent on Breq.

Breq is often dismissive of Seivarden, but the reader is allowed to sympathise with him. And readers are shown his weaknesses, but that frailty is never linked to a more serious, ingrained personality deficiency. We live in a world where men aren’t encouraged to be vulnerable. Mainstream media struggles to portray masculine vulnerability without linking that vulnerability to a venal weakness and contrasting that unforgivingly with other men's behaviour. So, Seivarden is kind of like a unicorn. All this to say Breq/Seivarden – I ship it beyond words.

Speaking of feels, I’ve come to the point where I have to talk about Seivarden. Leckie makes the decision early on to reveal which binary gender she presents to non-Radch characters – it’s male. Breq presents as female. While Breq and Seivarden do represent a non-gendered potential romance *bam* went my hopes of the book pushing readers to really engage with any future romance between them as a romance between non-gendered people. Breq/Seivarden though – I still ship it beyond words.

It’s complicated to analyse the ramifications of this reveal about the way other people read Seivarden’s gender presentation. On the one hand, people see Seivarden as male but she displays behaviour which conflicts with traditional ideas about male gender and which plays a role in subverting expectations. Seivarden, coming down from a serious addiction, does not act in a traditionally masculine way. She often cries and is clearly dependent on Breq. However, while Seivarden is classified as male by people outside the Radch she identifies as genderless which means that calling her actions a subversion of traditional male behaviour doesn’t make a lot of sense. Still, I felt like the book was pushing its readers to identify her behaviour as just such a subversion.

There's a possibility that my judgement of this element of the novel is clouded. Once Seivarden was fitted into a binary gender classification by others, I often found myself fitting her into a binary gender classification until the text reminded me otherwise. As the strike through sections above show, once characters in the novel decided to assign a gender to Breq and Sievarden I had trouble not following suit. I think this shows that Ancillary Justice makes it easy for its readers to slip back into using binary gender classifications, but my own experience writing this review tells me it’s not all on the book. "Ancillary Justice" is very clear that Radachaai citizens do not identify as either male or female, I even made that point above, and yet it was very difficult to hold this in my head once anyone else in the novel made a snap gender assessment about a Radch character. It is exceptionally easy to fall back into misgendering genderless characters when you’ve been raised in a society that is all about binary gender, even when a novel constantly reminds you how the characters actually identify. This experience reminds me that as always I still have a lot of work to do to keep myself from using incorrect, binary gender words when talking about genderless and non-binary characters. I'd like to thank jinian for being patient enough to help me adjust my perception this time.

As for my hopes for the next novel, they do extend beyond Breq and Seivarden makeouts, I promise. More of the same great action, more back-story feelings, and extra world-building complexity would all be very welcome. But, y'know the makeouts - they wouldn't exactly go amiss...

Other Reviews

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Cheryl Morgan
Liz Bourke
Kameron Hurley
Foz Meadows
The Literary Omnivore

Date: 2014-04-18 01:02 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] jinian
I actually get mad when people call Seivarden "him" just because we know her biological sex, and it was especially shocking in this case, where you've said unambiguously that you believe imperial citizens self-identify as genderless. (It's also possible people will disagree with my choice of "her", but I think the pronouns from the text are the best choice in this case.)

Date: 2014-04-18 02:04 am (UTC)
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
Why does it make you angry, exactly? (Not trying to upset you any further, so feel free to ignore! I'm just genuinely curious, and don't want to make assumptions about why it might since I'm not quite sure I parse the reasoning.)

I edited this review before Jodie posted it, and now I realize I totally didn't catch the use of male pronouns for Seivarden at all. I got curious and checked my many many many email discussion threads and discovered something interesting: I gender Seivarden "she" and "he" equally in those discussions -- sometimes within the same sentence. I didn't realize it at the time, either, and so now I'm wondering if this is just another aspect of how people react to the book itself, bouncing between those binary choices, choosing "he" unconsciously because it seems "correct" based on what we know and then shifting back or not depending on how close attention is being paid.

Of course, I can't speak for Jodie's intentions at all, I just thought it was notable because I know a lot of folks reading this book did that with Seivarden. I wonder if Leckie revealed enough about Seivarden on purpose to create this exact discussion scenario. Authors, so tricky.

Date: 2014-04-18 02:30 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] jinian
You have totally got it, thank you! Sorry I was too busy yesterday to respond sooner. I don't actually know whether Seivarden would mind, but it seems almost certain to me that she doesn't identify with a particular gender, so although I find her annoying I feel defensive about her pronouns -- and, I guess, in this case, interpreting her as "a man" per se, though your analysis of our response to thinking of her as one is quite interesting.

Another element of the situation is that Breq's nature as an unreliable narrator seems to leave open the question of whether other Radchaai have quite as much trouble with gender as she does, though [personal profile] rushthatspeaks had a brilliant idea about social engineering of the Empire to make its citizens incompetent at gender and thus othering them with respect to their neighbors.

Date: 2014-04-18 02:20 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] jinian
No worries, I'm not hurt, just have kind of a defensive reflex about it that feels angry in the moment. It's because I also believe that Seivarden doesn't identify with any gender, so it seems disrespectful to start gendering her based on our ideas about people with her biological sex.

That's fascinating about your alternation, especially since it's a strategy a few non-binary people use on purpose!

Date: 2014-04-19 12:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Fascinating thoughts! I loved your application of the gingerbread person thing early on. I'm with you in finding it super exciting book. I think the gender dynamic added to its interest for sure, but it was definitely exciting even if you set aside that whole discussion. (Here via a retweet of your link to your review)

Date: 2014-04-19 05:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Great point about Seivarden and Breq's relationship. Even though we're shown early on that Seivarden is male-bodied, their relationship subverts any stereotypes we, as a gendered culture, might anticipate.
From: [personal profile] wordwizard
I don't mean to be rude, but there are passages from the book that seem to contradict your basic assertion/assumption that the Radch are genderless, as opposed to having a language that does not distinguish gender. Here are some:

Chapter 1 page 3:

Radchaai don't care much about gender, and the language they speak—my own first language—doesn't mark gender in any way.

[Note that that does NOT say they HAVE no gender, only that they don't much care about it.]

Chapter 1 page 4:

I knew Seivarden was male, that one was easy—

[Easy because the ship had monitored Seivarden's vitals constantly when he served on it.]

These following passages state that the Radch are of the human species (and specialize in conquering/annexing humans only), which species is (for the most part) binary in gender.

Chapter 2 page 19-21 and Chapter 15 page 230 are discussions of the Presger and the Rrrrrr, versus Radch/humans.

"Radchaai have few qualms about killing humans, especially noncitizen humans, but you're very cautious about starting wars with aliens."

Chapter 7 page 104:

"I used to wonder how Radchaai reproduced, if they were all the same gender."

"They're not. And they reproduce like anyone else."

[This is the single passage that most clearly states that the Radchaai are NOT genderless.]

Chapter 13 page 184 has a discussion about speculation about the location of humanity's original planet. This seems to show that the annexation of the Radchaai is of humans only.

Chapter 15 page 232:

It started when the Lord of the Radch multiplied herself and set out to conquer all of human space.

Chapter 16 page 235:

When most people spoke of the Radch they meant all of Radchaai territory, but in truth the Radch was a single location, a Dyson sphere, enclosed, self-contained. Nothing ritually impure was allowed within, no one uncivilized or nonhuman could enter its confines.

From: (Anonymous)
It's pretty clear from this book, but even more so from the later books, that Radchaai don't have social gender.

“The Athoeki weren’t very civilized.” Not civilized. Not Radchaai. The word was the same, the only difference a subtlety expressed by context, and too easily wiped away. “They mostly aren’t even now. They make a division between people with penises and people without. ”
- Ancillary Sword.

They know that *other cultures* define gender on the basis of whether they have penises or not, but this appears utterly meaningless to Rachaai. Less relevant than what colour eyes you have, because people change eyecolor in the name of fashion, and they aren't displaying their crotch.

You entirely missed the context of that question about reproduction - The sentence, which you cropped (which seems weird), continues:

“I used to wonder how Radchaai reproduced, if they were all the same gender.”
“They’re not. And they reproduce like anyone else.” Strigan raised one skeptical eyebrow. “They go to the medic,” I continued, “and have their contraceptive implants deactivated. Or they use a tank. Or they have surgery so they can carry a pregnancy. Or they hire someone to carry it.”
None of it was very different from what any other kind of people did, but Strigan seemed slightly scandalized. “You’re certainly Radchaai.”

The point here, is that gender is entirely irrelevant to Radchaai reproduction. With their level of medical tech, either gender can carry a baby, use a tank to grow a baby, or use a surrogate.
Cultures with social gender roles see that as weird, as exemplified by Strigan's response.
From: (Anonymous)
Sorry, I should have said, biological sex in quite a few places there - biological sex is "having a penis or not".
Gender is the social construct of caring about that, e.g. deciding that one biological sex is more associated with particular traits, social behaviours, colours, fashions etc.
Gender says that "blue is for boys, pink is for girls".
Blue and pink have diddlysquat to do with biological sex.

So you can have a biological sex and be utterly uncaring of gender.
From: [personal profile] wordwizard
You're correct—I misspoke, saying gender when I meant biological sex. Sorry! However, I didn't crop the sentence. What I quoted ended with a period. I think you are mistaken that either social gender can carry a child the old-fashioned way—Since they don't have social gender, saying "either social gender" is meaningless when referring to Radchaai. I think you may have meant either biological sex, but I don't believe that passage supports that conclusion. I think it is still only the biological females who have the option to do that. After all, "they reproduce like anyone else."

Identifying Seivarden

Date: 2015-11-24 03:49 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I found it interesting that you had trouble seeing Seivarden as anything but male, because I had trouble thinking of any of any the characters, including Seivarden, as anything but female. The "she" pronoun is so attached to femininity in my mind that I had to consciously remind myself that Seivarden was male sex and readjust my mental image of every scene.

For me, all the Radich characters presented as female in my mind.


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