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TRIGGER WARNING: rape discussion in review and comments.

cover of The Tainted City

Dev is a desperate man. After narrowly surviving a smuggling job gone wrong, he’s now a prisoner of the Alathian Council, held hostage to ensure his friend Kiran — former apprentice to one of the most ruthless mages alive — does their bidding.

But Kiran isn’t Dev’s only concern. Back in his home city of Ninavel, the child he once swore to protect faces a terrible fate if he can’t reach her in time, and the days are fast slipping away. So when the Council offers Dev freedom in exchange for his and Kiran’s assistance in a clandestine mission to Ninavel, he can’t refuse, no matter how much he distrusts their motives.

Once in Ninavel the mission proves more treacherous than even Dev could have imagined. Betrayed by allies, forced to aid their enemies, he and Kiran must confront the darkest truths of their pasts if they hope to save those they love and survive their return to the Tainted City. (source)

Spoilers for The Whitefire Crossing.

Last time on Renay Has Explosive GIF-laden Feelings About a Book, everything was painful and heartbreaking. Courtney Schafer is THE WORST. Surprise! She still is.

everything hurts and I'm dying

Pain — noun
1. physical suffering or distress, as due to injury, illness, etc.
2. mental or emotional suffering or torment

There's really not enough #sobbing gifs in the world, okay? It's hard to be calm and rational in the face of this book because what I really want to do is type ;sdlka;skda;lskdaksd;akjsd;jdasda;sdjjdfjfjfff for 7000 words and hit publish. IT WOULD BE WHAT SOME CERTAIN AUTHOR DESERVED.

When I read The Whitefire Crossing, I alternated between shrieking glee and fabric-rending frustration. My problems with The Whitefire Crossing remain, but the second book is stronger, especially in the main cast. As much as I appreciate the way the alternating points of view work (and they do haul a lot along), oh my gosh. It's the largest reason this book took me so much time. My brain is so tired. I'm just really bad at switching POVs this way. This is graphic novel level effort. Maybe this means I am secretly a lazy reader?

The last time the majority of my frustration was the writing. Oddly enough, when I reread the first book last year it didn't bother me that much; so much of it folds easily into Dev's characterization. This time the continuing adventures of same-sex relationships between monstrous people are still present (relieved only very briefly, and only in the context of utter heartbreak). I don't know what to do about this or why this keeps jumping out at me. I'm overly sensitive to stories where there are queer characters but they are all evil abusers/die horribly/betray people/are not fans of informed consent. Of fans of consent, period, an issue reflected in both Marten, a "good guy", and Ruslan, who I want to stab with 10,000 knives then stuff in a teeny tiny rocket and launch into the sun. I'm just sensitive, okay? WHY ARE ARE THE QUEER CHARACTERS IN THIS BOOK SUCH DUPLICITOUS ASSHOLES WITH SECRET AGENDAS THAT DEHUMANIZE PEOPLE? brb throwing myself off a cliff onto sharp rocks below.

Even more than its predecessor, The Tainted City is a particular type of dark fantasy I somehow didn't expect going into the series. Courtney told me this isn't grimdark and that grimdark is actually much worse.

DEAR SF WRITERS: HOW DOES IT GET WORSE THAN THIS? WTF ARE YOU WRITING OVER THERE? Wait, no, don't tell me — I don't want to know. The other day in the library I physically recoiled from a copy of Mark Lawrence's book and scared the shit out of a library page who was just trying to shelve in peace. My body is not ready for Mark Lawrence and his soul destroying posse of contemporary grimmark writers. It may never be ready. Ever.

The Tainted City is a fantasy novel. But the fantastical portions, although integral to the plot, characterization, and motivations of our heroes, take a supporting position to the overarching narrative of politics, trust, and friendship. What comes to the forefront is the veracity of memory; emotional, verbal and sexual abuse; blackmail and coercion; informed consent and the lack of it; and the complicated relationships people who are abused have with their abusers or situations in which they were abused. This book starts out bleak, gets bleaker, takes your soul out and dumps poison on it and forces you to watch, and then gives you hope the size of a bean. I'm talking about a lentil here, not a butter bean. And I had an awesome author-written coda to see me through the pain. What if I hadn't had that coda to assure me that yes, eventually, things would be okay, for relative values of "okay" when the main characters in the book are dealing with crippling loss/depression/betrayal? I REFUSE TO EVEN CONSIDER IT.

After spending an entire book running away toward Alathia to find freedom for Kiran and then separated and imprisoned in Alathia as political capital, Dev and Kiran end up back in Ninavel. Their friendship and sympathy for one another is used against both of them to lead them directly into the gaping maw of doom and destruction. I don't know why I thought at the beginning, "okay, maybe it will be fine and full of intrigue! maybe they'll play spies and bond and make out in an alley!" This was, of course, not meant to be. Once they arrive in Ninavel, the other shoe drops. Or is thrown in your face at high speed; your mileage may vary. Kiran is ripped away from the dubious safety of the Alathians and the security of Dev's friendship. Dev becomes powerless to help him and powerless in the face of so much mage-juice when all he has is his knowledge of the city, simple charms, and a battered reputation. He has to play fast and loose with the magic and resources he can get his hands on, often playing multiple sides. And surprise surprise, Ruslan and his minions are still super skeevy. Ninavel as a home, although richly imagined, is not a happy place even at the best of times. It's a place where those with power come to find even more power. It's a place of excess for those with money, of scheming to survive, of fear, and of getting by on luck. There's much more of the city itself in this book, its politics and policies, its people and its life, as well as its bureaucracy, tangled with the magic that pervades every class level.

Sechaveh is a dick, though. Screw that guy.

Spoilers. For months I've considered how to write about this book. Although there's a mystery and murders to be solved that are magic in origin, threatening both Ninavel's tenuous freedom and Alathian border wards and the people of both, mage and otherwise, it's not really what I walked away from this story thinking about. Much like The Whitefire Crossing, The Tainted City is a narrative about abuse (experiencing it and surviving it) wrapped in an epic fantasy package. In the first book, the spectre of the abuser was more distant, via Dev's experience as a Taint thief and the narrative culminating in Kiran's second rejection of Ruslan when he learns the truth of his escape. In The Tainted City, Dev's past and former skills haunt him, and Ruslan's right there all the time. He puts his hands back on Kiran, and Kiran is lost to his (of dubious quality) allies and his friends.

This book is about what happens when they find you or you make a mistake that puts you back in their path; when you know better than to go home again because if you know if you do you risk losing yourself and all the freedom, however limited it was. You risk losing yourself to the power they have on their own terms in their spaces. Magic and emotion aren't very different in this sense. Ruslan gets his hands on Kiran and obliterates him. He takes away his power: to protest, to know his own self, to decide his own destiny, to be his own person to make choices about his body and his mind. Ruslan erases Kiran's memories of every awful thing Ruslan did to continue using him, to continue abusing him, and friends, this is where it became sexual abuse, too. Ruslan is Kiran's father-figure, and Lizaveta and Mikhail, ostensibly Kiran's family, are both complicit in the emotional, verbal, mental abuse that Kiran has no doubt been subject to all his life, and they take part freely (or suggest they plan to) in, well, rape. Because that's what this was to me given the lack of context Kiran has about his past. This glimpse into Kiran's world before the freedom Dev helped him win is horrifying. I had to put the book down for several weeks because I just couldn't.

Paul Weimer wrote about the choice to erase Kiran's memories as a plot device, and said it felt like a reset button, which I've been thinking about for awhile because initially I agreed that it was an odd choice. It does shift the balance of the relationship between Dev and Kiran; we're left adrift, knowing what they mean to each other and knowing that Kiran is trapped in a situation where he's powerless to remember. It acts as an easy in to explain things that might otherwise have resulted in an infodump. But after considering it for weeks, I'm not sure if I agree. Memory is powerful, and if Kiran can't remember that he ever wanted to leave while Dev has to watch knowing that Kiran desperately wanted out, even if it's a plot device, is it one without any value when considering the implications of Ruslan's abuse? Abuse is about power and control, and once Ruslan knows he can control Kiran's mind, and through it, control his body (both political power and sexual power), how horrible is that for those of us who know the truth? Knowing that you may have lost someone forever to their abuser? Knowing they've gone back unwillingly but can't escape? Knowing that they can't put together the pieces properly to remember they wanted to leave and you don't have the power to help them? And who can go to the authorities when the abuser is the authority?

This choice made me shift my perspective and look at where and who Kiran comes from and why Alisa's death made him run. The people who raised him did so so he could to be a tool, an object, and a plaything. The final resolution and Kiran's unknown origins makes it clear that to Ruslan, he's a path to power and not a person, and the people he might be a person to are guilty of lying to him and gaslighting him at every opportunity. And yet, Kiran is good person. He's kind and generous and warm-hearted. He loves so, so deeply, and he's unflinchingly determined to do the right thing as best he knows how, even if the right thing changes everything. What's right when the war is for yourself? For other innocents? For friends? What's the right thing during war, when the battleground is your own sense of self, battered and bruised and weak?

Kiran's doubt of himself and his goodness is heartbreaking. They used him and lied to him and erased him and lied to him more — all for power or the promise of having more one day. They wanted him, but on their terms, and never his. His lack of desire to hurt people and forcing himself through it to win the adoration of his abusers and his distrust of himself is wrenching, made all the worse now as he can't even trust his own mind. They tried to make him into a monster; in some ways they succeeded — he's a murderer and will never not be one — but in all the ways that mattered, they failed.

Memory is integral to who we are. Our memories make us people. Our memories are our personal history and our internal lives. We're unmade by the lack of them. We have to recreate and fill in the blanks and struggle to learn who we were, and maybe we'll never be able to find that person again. Memories are power and knowledge and the first step in accountability, and the loss of them at the hands of someone else is unforgivable. "Of course he wasn't Ruslan's equal, inexperienced and damaged as he was.", Kiran thinks at the end of this part of his story, and even armed with the truth about what his family did to him shortly after, will this ever really go away? Will he ever be able to recognize that the damage is something done to him for someone else's gain, and not inherent to who he is? Not something he has inside him that made other people treat him so horrendously? I'm not sure.

This is a complicated book to read and it was hard for me to finish. Bad things happen and terrible revelations change everything, but good things happen, too. People are saved, Kiran and Dev both come out the other side, but that's not necessarily the point. The point is the price we pay when the powerful hoard power and the stark lines between too much control and anarchy. Looking back, Dev's love of the mountains makes sense. They're the most brilliant metaphor for the series so far that I've found, the wide, open space of possibility between one country that would bind its citizens down to the service of state until their scheming costs them love and lives, and another who would let powerful, dangerous people do whatever they wanted in the service of themselves, at the cost of even more, countless lives. There's freedom and choice in the unforgiving mountains in a way there can never be in Ninavel or Alathia.

In the end, it turns out that Kiran would have been trapped in either place, and after finishing this book, I've discovered that's my favorite thing about Dev and Kiran's friendship. With Dev, even if it's short-lived and a broken, incomplete reprieve...Kiran is always free.


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Other Reviews:
Liz Bourke, Fantasy Cafe, Staffer's Book Review, Fantasy Review Barn, yours?

Date: 2014-02-05 04:44 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Wow, great review. It made me really think about my own reactions to the book's events and characters, and why I had them. I'm curious about one thing. Do you not see Kiran as queer? I thought from his response to Ruslan and the way he thinks about Dev that he's bisexual, so to me he's the counter to your question about the queer characters. (I have my suspicions about Dev too, who thinks an awful lot about how pretty Kiran is. But I'm less sure about him.)

I'd ask a slightly different question, actually. When I tried to think of a character that hadn't been duplicitous or betrayed another's trust, the only one I could come up with was Cara and maybe Lena. All of the male characters, including Dev and Kiran, have lied or betrayed each other in some fashion or are just straight-out assholes like Stevan. So I'd ask: why are all the men - whether queer or straight - duplicitous and/or jerks?

About grimdark, I think the difference between Schafer's series and grimdark fantasy lies in the likeability of the POV characters. Dev and Kiran go through hell in this book, but they are both essentially good people at heart which makes them sympathetic to the reader. Grimdark is the realm of antiheroes, where the characters are often as monstrous and dark as the world around them. Lawrence's Jorg is near-sociopathic in a Clockwork Orange sort of way. Or take Joe Abercrombie's books. I appreciated the black humor and deliberate subversion of epic fantasy tropes in his First Law series, but none of the POV characters were what I'd call likeable people. They're either viciously selfish or casually violent or sometimes both. Personally I prefer to read about characters I'd want to actually spend time with, but plenty of people seem to feel differently.


Date: 2014-02-05 09:13 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I agree that Ruslan raped Kiran. Yet in Kiran's POV, he doesn't know what we do, and he responds with evident arousal to Ruslan, and even in a later scene initiates the contact if I remember right. I read that as Kiran is capable of attraction to both men and women, which only reinforced the impression I'd already gotten from him that he's attracted to Dev. (Maybe that was just my wishful thinking? Yet it seems so obvious to me in how Kiran thinks about Dev and responds to him, even after he's lost his memories.) But I see your point about neither Kiran or Dev having any explicit consensual same-sex relationships in the story. And I will be hugely disappointed if the rape doesn't get addressed in the third book, because that scene was just too awful not to have consequences.

You're right that there are plenty of not-nice women too. It's just that when I tried to think of someone unequivocally good, it was only female characters that came to mind, and I thought that was interesting.

Date: 2014-02-06 12:22 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Okay, I can see your point. I think it doesn't twig me quite the same way because I'd already decided Kiran was meant to be bisexual long before I ever got to that scene. (I thought the author was just being subtle about it, which I kind of liked, because then it's just part of who he is as a person and not something that he or anyone else should be upset over. Argh, I don't think I'm explaining myself well. One of the things I very much liked about Marten and his lover (crap I'm blanking on the guy's name) was the way same-sex relationships seem to be considered completely normal in both Alathia and Ninavel and nobody blinks an eye. So I guess I just considered Kiran's bisexualness part of that, and never thought about it in the context of Ruslan's abuse. But in thinking back I can't point to any specific line prior to the Ruslan scene that made me so certain he is bi, so maybe it was just me projecting my own wishes for the character on him, I don't know.)

Oh yes, and in rereading the review I have one more question. What's this author coda you mention? Is it something she released as a short story somewhere? I can't find any mention of it on her website and I would love to read even a smidgen more of Dev and Kiran while I wait for the next book. (I know it's been all weird with her publisher and I don't want to be one of those annoying demanding fans but oh it is so hard to wait!)


Date: 2014-02-06 05:31 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I'm so glad I don't watch tv. Written SF seems to be far less shy about having explicitly queer protagonists. If you're looking for fantasy with no-question-about-it LGBT POV characters, I'd recommend Lynn Flewelling's Nightrunner series, Sarah Monette's Doctrine of Labyrinths series, Elizabeth Bear's Stratford Man duology and Edda of Burdens books, Kari Sperring's Living With Ghosts, and Amanda Downum's The Bone Palace.

Thinking of the relationships in Schafer's books, it strikes me that pretty much all of them are either unhealthy in some way or end horribly or both. Kiran and Alisa never made it past the infatuation stage before Ruslan killed her. Jylla used Dev and betrayed him. Talmaddis betrays Marten. Ruslan and Lizaveta and Kiran...ewwww. Sethan and Melly's mother...nope. Closest to healthy may be Cara and Dev, but even there Dev is busy doing his best to screw it up. I take it back, closest to healthy is Dev and Kiran! Maybe that's why I'm rooting for them, assuming Kiran can make it past his trauma before the series ends. Seriously though, I do begin to wonder if anyone in Schafer's world ever has an ordinary happy relationship.

Wow, you are so lucky with that coda. If I had been to Worldcon I would have eaten a bug for it. Maybe. If I had enough vodka to wash it down. As it is I will just keep waiting and reread the first two books when I can't stand the wait anymore!


Date: 2014-02-06 04:50 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
What I loved about this book is that Schafer doesn't shrink from the hard choices. I was a bit skeptical about the return to Ninavel and how it would play out, but immediately the ground was shifted beneath my feet. Kiran being sent back to Ruslan -- whoa! And then the subsequent sexual issues -- as I was reading that scene, as it works up to that point -- I was thinking "she's not really going to go there, she's not really going to go ..... OMG SHE WENT THERE!"

I have a couple of thoughts about this.

I can understand why some might not have like the magical amnesia but it worked for me because it felt true to the way Ruslan has consistently manipulated Kiran. Ruslan is just using him and doesn't really think of K as a person, but Ruslan is also twisted enough that he WANTS DEVOTION. It appeals to him. It's really grotesque and it makes me love to hate Ruslan as a villain (and, unusually, it makes Ruslan work even better as a villain for me than he did in book one when we didn't see as much of him).

For me there's no question that the sexual interaction is a form of rape since Kiran can't truly consent. Kiran's own sexuality seems complicated to me, and in part complicated by his desperate need for affection and connection (what drives this will, I assume, be revealed in book three).

I'm assuming the fallout from this will also be dealt with. Schafar has not glossed over consequences in any other part of the book so far, so I can't think she would skip over this now.

Very much looking forward to book 3.



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