renay: Pink pony with brown hair and wings on a yellow background bucking hind legs in the air. (Default)
[personal profile] renay posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
Sometimes I read books that get under my skin. They make me feel happy, angry, or ignorant. Surprise, fiction makes you feel things! But the ones that cause negative emotions tend to stick around and poke at me. I want to move on, book! But the book (in this case, Daughter of Mystery) is determined to make me unpack whatever it is. It's like my brain is mocking me with the fact that I didn't get it and didn't understand something and therefore look how dumb I am because all the book was doing is using basic knowledge about the world.

Perhaps! Is knowledge of how regency England worked basic knowledge? Is there a nonfiction book that can explain the mystery of Seasons and coming out and the frankly ridiculous social stratification that happened because white people needed to feel important? But also: should I feel guilty that I don't want to learn about this particular thing and find it boring (obviously no, but anxiety doesn't care about my opinion) when the rest of the world feels as if it's gaga for it?

(It's not just me, right? Because the regency romance section of any library or bookstore I go into makes me feel like it's just me.)

I wasn't going to discuss Daughter of Mystery anymore (one badly contextualized, rushed podcast was likely enough), but I am foolhardy and decided to do it, anyway, because I planned to and drafted stuff and everything. I had to delete the previous drafts because they were mostly me just whining about my freshman philosophy classes (summary: I failed the first one in a spectacular explosion of hubris and now would rather go to the dentist for 67 extractions with no drugs than read about philosophy). Plus, a new angle appeared! Having an opinion about it on the podcast through a series of events resulted in me being an asshole because it triggered me so hard, and lo, now I can talk about something other than my misogynistic philosophy professor. I hate feeling dumb and also hate asking for help because then people will know I'm dumb. I went through this with The Other Half of the Sky, so you'd think I would finally recognize what was happening, but no! On some counts, I don't allow myself to go "but I was triggered!" as an excuse to be an asshole over anything, because that's a manipulative way to weasel out of being held accountable for my often terrible behavior as Anxiety!Renay (like the Hulk, but with anxiety? AND NO SPANDEX.). But on others, holy moly, was I ever angry (I am still, in fact, angry). Also resentful: people who criticized me (thankfully, not in public, which I and my Xtreme Anxiety appreciated) over my critique of this book were...something I don't have a word for right now. They made assumptions about me because I read a book differently than they did, had different expectations that were not met, and said so. Aside: I hate the term "cishet" and the way it is often deployed as a rhetorical cudgel.

Pie metaphor: if someone goes, "hey, here's an apple pie! It's great!" and I happily take it home with a pint of vanilla bean ice cream (the best kind of vanilla) and plop some into a bowl and take a bite and it's blueberry? I'm gonna be annoyed and probably need some time to adjust to the fact that my tastebuds were HYPED for that apple flavor and have been denied. Anyway, now I want some pie, which is just great. This metaphor is over.

Here is a fact about me: I am asexual. But I also sort of identify as bisexual so maybe demisexual? Gray ace? Ugh, I dunno, humans are weirdos who contain multitudes or whatever. I'm not part of the community, because my first introduction to any sort of organized community of asexuals was Tumblr so….yikes, anxiety. Also, I feel like, hell, I cannot believe I'm afraid to have an opinion about a random small press F/F regency fantasy novel without stating my sexuality up front. But you know, I want to put up the defenses early, since if I get accused of ~denying the experiences of asexuals~ I can go, well, I am one so that's kind of weird that it's okay to deny my experience. I mostly believe my sexuality, complicated, messy, and superfluid, is no one's business but my own and my partner's. AND YET.

I'm aware that I can be asexual and still do acephobic things. I can be a jerk, because I am a human being. And I'm outside this community, so I miss things. If someone comes to me and says, "X makes me feel bad!" then they felt that way and I've gotta deal with it, figure out how to marry my good intentions with the words that come out of my mouth in specific contexts, and not be an asshole to people. But I am also a human being that doesn't deserve to be called names over books. All right. Good disclaimer talk.

Daughter of Mystery was advertised to me as an F/F regency fantasy romance. Keyword: romance. I have, whether I want them or not, certain expectations based on this term. We're all in thrall to marketing! Even when we think we're above it and no tricky publicist can get into our brains. Sorry to say, we're all suckers. It's fine, they use some kind of neat eyeball science! Science is powerful and we are sacks of yammering, porous meat waiting to be influenced.

Daughter of Mystery is definitely regency, the fantasy is a little tangled with religion but I'll give it points on creativity even if I understood maybe 50% of it, and the romance exists, even if it doesn't exist at the levels of explicitness I would prefer. They do not bone on the page, even though I believe the book suggests they bone plenty, which conflicts with my Romance Marketing Training. But it is not an asexual romance to me, Newly Minted Public Asexual. It was not pushed to me this way. It was not evident to me in the characterization. It is simply not the way I read the book nor do I see it reflected when I look back on it. I hope everyone appreciates that I'm not digressing into a long section with quotes and analysis.

I'm a big believer in multiple readings, though, and representation is so fraught these days that it's fine to read a novel whatever way we want. What is not fine: telling other people they need to read it a certain way, which happened to me several times with this novel. Two strangers (okay, disclaimer: I recognize people who hear my voice every two weeks feel like they know me but NEWSFLASH they don't actually know me) called me a acephobic monster who kicks asexuals until they're metaphorically bleeding out on the floor because I discussed the novel as I read it: a romance novel. But they were meaner about it, and also, that term, cishet, I hate it now at least 9000% more than I did two months ago, it's a description, not a verbal missile. Like, the only pro was that they did it to me alone instead of also targeting my ESL co-host with their absolutely over the top language policing. I guess this goes back to the issue of things being fraught: tension is high so tempers flare.

Also, this book had already stumbled over my fear about being too stupid to understand something. The world building made me feel silly because I lack a lot of basic knowledge about a) regency society, b) religion, c) philosophy. That's all on me; I forgot it all (good riddance, Southern Baptist upbringing!) or skipped it. Some of it deliberately! (I really wanted to take a Civilizations of Africa course instead of one of five zillion courses about the UK, okay?) I went into the novel and got immediately sideswiped by this. We didn't get off on the best foot, Daughter of Mystery and me. Instead of going, "Yikes, I need to read this slower and take notes!" I...did the opposite of that because I had a recording deadline. I freely admit mistakes were made, about 80% of them by me.

I went in expecting a fantasy romance novel and got a novel that shied away from sexual chemistry, physical intimacy, and explicit sex. I may be some mutated form of asexual but I go into romance novels for specific things. Like sex! I'm one of Those Asexuals! Although maybe the time for slagging folks like me off is over? We've won our freedom to enjoy things in literature that we don't enjoy in real life without being traitors? It's been awhile so I'm behind on The Discourse™. Anyway, the romance plot in this book didn't fully work for me as a romance and I didn't really feel obligated to go back to adjust my expectations on that score because this book was hard enough, thanks. This is a valid criticism when I was recced a fantasy romance novel. Please see: yammering meat sacks, marketing science, etc. It is entirely possible that I would now read further work by this author educated about this aspect of their work, and would have a different set of expectations and assumptions.

The romance isn't really a big of a deal as I was led to believed/assumed. This book is about women finding ways they fit in the world as individuals, discovering things about themselves that were lost or hidden, and creating safe, communal spaces where they can be themselves (and then realizing, oh hey, this other lady is pretty great! SUPER GREAT, EVEN.). It's the detailed, super knowledgable world building and the careful, intricate way the author lays out a mystery to be solved which develops the main characters that's the point; the romance is sort of incidental to everything else going on. It's important but it's not the point. Or, tl;dr: marketing is Hell, this is a fantasy novel with romance, not a romantic fantasy novel. I should have been reading this like I read the Spiritwalker series, for instance, not the Brothers Sinister series, but I was sold the latter via recs, possibly due to miscommunication.

Reading is an intensely personal thing we do alone, by ourselves, inside our own heads. It's ~intimate~ because we're letting someone else's ideas live in our brains for awhile. Every book we read is unique to us because no one can read a book the same way we do. Our interpretations and our emotions about the plot and our connection to the characters belong to us. And of course we can share them (see: Fandom, Fanfic, etc.) but the great part is that there's room for all of our different readings and reactions and critiques. No one gets to force theirs on someone else. Well, you can but then you've recreated the worst parts of Tumblr, oops. We all get to choose what we let change those interpretations outside the canon on the page. But it's not something that should be brute-forced.

The version of Daughter of Mystery I read wasn't an asexual romance novel. I wouldn't read it as one now, although I see how other people can now that I have escaped from the claws of Marketing. Our readings don't cancel each other out! They can both exist together! For me it was a regency fantasy novel with a magical realism bent that perhaps needs another edit or two to get the philosophical musings under control and accessible for us plebes who are like ?!?!?!?!?. It has an underdeveloped romance plot with a sweet mystery that I was totally floored by! In fact, I now like the mystery the best more than the relationship between the ladies (don't ask me to explain it, though), and I really did like their relationship. And beheadings! (Okay, just one off-screen, but it was Great.) And that's not me, Newly Minted Public Asexual using my Cred (ha ha, fake out, I have zero cred, I can't even choose a label properly). That's me, Romance Novel Reader. You can make a novel whatever you want after you read it if you have the inclination and saw things specific to yourself. But before, you're at the mercy of that Abyss known as Marketing, staring back at you, going "Read This Book You'll Like it Because Ladies and Romance I.E. BONING". Because, you know, words mean things, but context also matters.

But Renay, someone out there is asking, do you recommend this book? And that is the question I have been asking myself, because it's become one of those books I want people to read so they can come tell me what they think and we can unpack their reactions and my reactions and I can feel less like a gigantic moron. That's not a recommendation and it would be disingenuous of me to call it one. It's a need to have a discussion about the book that doesn't revolve around my newfound identity as a Mean Asexual Kicker Who Thinks Asexuals Are Grody and Wrong and a book doing its job: encouraging me to challenge myself and what I know about building and sustaining stories. But overall, this novel was probably a mismatch for me with its current marketing. I wanted ladies boning and what I got was something quite different that I would need more time and discussion with others to unpack.

Anyway, I still think Barbara is the coolest. I could totally fancast this novel, no problem. Just imagine Gwendoline Christie, glammed up, but also wielding a sword. You're welcome.

Date: 2016-11-22 12:53 pm (UTC)
ursula: (sheep)
From: [personal profile] ursula
Hey, I was forced to re-assess my own personal-identity labels due to discussion of a later book in this series. Whee!

My understanding is that the characters in Daughter of Mystery wouldn't identify as ace if they were working with a modern system of labels, but that one of the heroines of a later book might, as the author does herself.

This book is very heavily influenced by Georgette Heyer, who more-or-less invented the Regency genre, and introduced to it a number of tropes which draw more on her own Edwardian childhood than on actual Regency history per se. There are a bunch of older fantasy novels which draw directly on Heyer, including Sorcery and Cecilia and Swordspoint; the Swordspoint sequel Privilege of the Sword is a definite influence on Daughter of Mystery.

But Heyer doesn't put sex on the page. And I honestly don't think [ profile] hrj knew, when she was thinking about which publishers might be committed to her text, that explicit sex scenes are central to so many people's post-Heyer Romance expectations.

Date: 2016-11-22 02:33 pm (UTC)
ursula: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ursula

I think a book-pairing of Elliott/Rasmussen's Labyrinth Gate with Heyer's Devil's Cub and maybe Novik's Uprooted would make for a really interesting conversation about genre conventions and consent. (I personally enjoy Heyer from an anthropological-sf "weird social expectations" angle, but I didn't grow up with her books and tend not to find them romantic exactly.)

Date: 2016-11-22 12:55 pm (UTC)
rymenhild: Manuscript page from British Library MS Harley 913 (Default)
From: [personal profile] rymenhild
I had a different response to Daughter of Mystery, which is fine! To each their own! I mean, I found that the book was personally microtargeted to me, and I know that my particular obsessions are unusual. The thing is, Heather Rose Jones herself says that she isn't trying to write romance, but for publishing reasons, her books ended up with a lesbian romance small press. She doesn't hit the romance genre conventions at all. I think part of the problem might be that the book's marketing (such as it is) doesn't mesh with its actual content, so it's hard to get the readers to expect the right kind of book... which is what you said at the conclusion of this review.
Edited Date: 2016-11-22 12:57 pm (UTC)

Date: 2016-11-22 04:23 pm (UTC)
hawkwing_lb: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hawkwing_lb
I read Daughter of Mystery, and I loved it. (I'd never have read it as an ace romance, but more of a "sweet" one - fade to black, whee! But there are always multiple ways to read a text.) But despite its publisher, it's not conventional romance at all, and the series can't really be read using romance conventions. Daughter of Mystery can, just about: The Mystic Marriage has romance in, but it's much closer to the conventions of a family saga, or a literary novel about intellectual women, than it is to romance. And then Mother of Souls defies expectation in other ways.

Also I am really sorry you had people yelling at you about your opinions on this book. You deserve better.

(Okay, if Barbara's Gwendoline Christie, which oh god yes, who's Margarit?)

Date: 2016-11-23 01:01 am (UTC)
hawkwing_lb: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hawkwing_lb
They're basically my catnip, so I'm hardly a neutral observer.

(I'd cast Alicia Debnam-Carey as Margarit, me, but I won't argue that there are many excellent possibilities.)

Date: 2016-11-22 08:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I haven't read Daughter of Mystery, but was interested when you were discussing it on the podcast, and now, with this post, I'm all the more intrigued.

Isn't it funny how words can mean the same thing, and yet the opposite, because when I hear "romance" I think of books with very little, if any, sex. Think Austen or, as mentioned above, Heyer, (I love Heyer).
So it's always strange to me when I'm cataloguing Mills & Boons at work and come across a sex scene. To me, Mills & Boons are nice little stories that grannies read. Which is true, but they also have loads of sex in them. And *that* is what most people think of when they hear/read romance.

Date: 2016-11-25 07:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Well, if there is a beheading I'll certainly have to try it :)

I read my first (and only) Mills & Boon when I went to the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking region where loads of Irish kids go to help learn the language before our exams), and as we weren't allowed to bring anything English language I was without books for 2 weeks (maybe 3, it was a long time ago). The house I stayed in had Mills & Boons, so I tried one in desperation. It was grand :) But nothing I particularly wanted to revisit. Of course I probably had very snobby attitudes towards them being a know-it-all teenager

Date: 2016-11-22 08:45 pm (UTC)
stardreamer: Meez headshot (Default)
From: [personal profile] stardreamer
Okay, I'm going to take a stab at clarifying a couple of things which seem to be tripping you up. Apologies in advance if I do it clumsily -- we seem to be awfully far apart on this book, and I'm having trouble figuring out how to word things.

First, I haven't heard the book being marketed as anything having to do with asexuals. Everyone I know who's read it considers it to be a mystery with added lesbian romance, and that fits with my own reading of it. Perhaps more to the point, it's lesbian romance in a setting where lesbianism is both Scandalous and Not Talked About, and both of the protagonists have a lot of difficulty in both recognizing and, once recognized, accepting their attraction to each other.

Second... since you say you don't read Regency romances, you don't know this. But explicit sex scenes are NOT something that happens in Regencies! If it's got explicit sex, that moves it into the category of "bodice-rippers", which have very different story conventions. In fact, most Regencies stop at the point where you would expect sex to begin (i.e. marriage).

Third, I am frankly bemused by an interpretation of "romance" (Regency or not) which considers explicit sex scenes to be essential. OTOH, I will freely admit that my formative reading experience is from the time when any kind of explicit sex scene turned a book into porn, and that I didn't get into fanfic until the last 15 years or so. I enjoy romance crossover elements in my reading, but unless I'm specifically reading a romance novel I don't want that to be the focus of the story. (And sometimes I cheer loudly when the ending utterly spurns the romance trope, such as Ursula Vernon's Black Dogs duology.)

Heyer is indeed the place to look if you want to get a grounding in Regency-romance story conventions, but recommendations are tricky; the books are old, and some of them have had visits from the Suck Fairy. Here are a few of my favorites that I don't think have major problematic elements:
- A Civil Contract (this is probably my top favorite)
- Cotillion (includes a good trope-inversion which will be spoilery if I identify it)
- The Masqueraders (includes cross-dressing and high-stakes politics)
- The Quiet Gentleman (mystery crossover)
- The Unknown Ajax (mystery crossover, with some in-universe poking at stereotypes)

Once you're read a few of those, you may also enjoy reading A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold, to see how she uses Regency-romance elements and tropes in a story which is ostensibly about something else altogether. (You don't have to have read any of the other Vorkosigan novels to follow the main story -- it stands alone quite well.)

If you're looking for non-fiction surveys of the period, here are two that might be useful:
- Georgette Heyer's Regency World by Jennifer Kloestner
- An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England by Venetia Murray
- The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England from 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes

Reading the reviews will probably help you figure out which one is more what you want.

Date: 2016-11-23 06:52 am (UTC)
stranger: Why no, that's not Gwen's dress on my floor, Silly Arthur (Gwen's Dress)
From: [personal profile] stranger
I was glad to read your reaction to Daughter of Mystery, since while I liked it, it was a lot thicker and chewier than all descriptions suggested, and had even less romantic content than I'd expect. I did expect more emphasis on the f/f plotline, but I enjoyed the magic-mystery elements very much. And, even as a sideline, the love plot was frankly as good or better than anything in the few f/f genre romances I've seen. (I may be missing something important from the past few years of e-publishing, of course.)

[personal profile] stardreamer says most of what I'd want to say as a(nother) long-time Heyer reader, about the lack of on-the-page sex and all that. It's still more or less a Regency-style romance (despite the Ruritanian setting), but with so much more fantasy development than a traditional Regency would support that it morphs into something else. The religion-with-magic and philosophic development and the world-building overwhelm the other story elements a lot. This is, from one point of view (possibly HRJ's) a feature, not a bug, but it means Margerit's love affair is rather sidelined by several other life-and-death series of events. I'm not sure I mind, but it does tilt the book toward historical fantasy rather than historical romance.

Do I understand that some readers see the book as having asexual characters or themes? This didn't occur to me, either.

Date: 2016-11-23 06:01 am (UTC)
jb_slasher: melissa mccarthy (warrior)
From: [personal profile] jb_slasher
Just imagine Gwendoline Christie, glammed up, but also wielding a sword. You're welcome.
Indeed, I wish to thank you in an appropriate fashion! :D


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