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[personal profile] renay
cover of Eon with the silhouette of a girl wielding dual blades against a red background emblazoned with an iridescent dragon

Eon, a Dragoneye candidate, has spent years dedicating himself to the study of magic, blade and dragon arts in order to become the new apprentice Dragoneye of his year. With a disability from an accident in his youth, a hard master and little support, Eon seeks the power of the dragons while carrying a secret, one that could result in death. Eon, twelve year old Dragoneye candidate is actually Eona, sixteen year old girl, disguised as a boy because female use of Dragon Magic is forbidden, even though she has the power to see all the dragons. All her hopes and entire future is centered on keeping her true identity a secret.

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn had a lot of elements that intrigued me and sat on my reading list for ages while I pined for it and read Stanley Fish instead. I especially love stories where people hide in the performance of other genders. I fell in love with the trope after I saw an excellent performance of Twelfth Night at my local university in 2007. For awhile there I was all over the concept. A girl, determined to fulfill her dreams regardless of social rules or how she is looked upon in society? A girl parading as a boy, fooling everyone and playing politics and amassing power? It's like catnip. So why didn't this book work for me? There are a few answers and two are full of spoilers.

Everyone has probably heard of Avatar: The Last Airbender by now, as the show has surpassed its targeted Nickelodeon audience to become a critical success with adults as well for it's nuanced and respectful portrayal of a culture that's nothing like I've ever experienced in my rural United States upbringing. Avatar blends thoughtful characterization with a plot so finely arranged it makes me flail in joy as well as grind my teeth in jealousy. It's set against a back drop of a fascinating and obviously well-researched fantasy culture inspired by East-Asian societies, plus tons of references to others that I am unable to pick out. I'd never experienced fantasy that's not flavored with medieval European monarchies before Avatar. I'm lazy and finding it is hard for someone like me, who is way more likely to stumble across as many problematic things as possible, love them, then discover how skeevy they actually are because I'm culturally illiterate (not a great reason, but an honest one). Avatar was a first for me and what a first it was. It's proof that non-white stories can be told well and be successful within the white media ocean we're up to our necks in. It's infinitely re-watchable and full of fun and joy and drama and political intrigue without ever recognizing that it's one of the few representations of non-white culture in the media landscape it inhabits. It doesn't explain itself; it just is. Ana and Jodie reviewed the first season in January and I sincerely hope they continue with the remainder of the series so then we can all watch Korra together and squee about it.

My problems with Eon began immediately. Part of the reason I loved Avatar was the way the Asian-inspired cultures were woven into the world-building and narrative. Things were explained, but in very natural way that spoke to the excellent story-telling Avatar episodes boasted. Although Avatar was created by two white men, it's extremely clear that they took pains to be respectful, thoughtful and subtle in how the narrative and the world unfolded. Unfortunately, Eon does the exact opposite. There's no discovery of the world. Eon spends the first two hundred pages in constant informational dumps that made me feel more and more uncomfortable. I don't claim to be knowledgeable about the East — my university had a gaping hole where those classes should have been. The farthest they went was Afghanistan in their course offerings, so most of what I do know is a cultural diffusion, a collection of stereotypes and shorthand that is no doubt wrong, incomplete and definitely offensive. I don't want to damn the book for not being Avatar because the mediums are different and thus, the experiences are going to be vastly different, but I didn't want China 101 to replace it. That's what the book felt like until midway through when it finally eased off to only crop up a few times every chapter; someone explaining a culture to me instead of telling a story. Instead of building these things into the narrative, it often feels as if Eon is explaining them, when this is the world in which he lives. I discussed this with [personal profile] samjohnsson, who asked me, "does the cultural flavor help with the immersion, or hinder."

The world-building, the very thing so many found exciting and interesting, kept me from investing in this book and tossed me constantly from the story. I could never dive in because it felt so much like "white person writes fantasy based on China! Look! ~Energy dragons~!" There was no immersion for me at all. I kept stumbling over commentary where it felt like Eon was talking to himself to explain the world he lived in, on and on throughout the story that yanked me immediately out. There was no discovering this world, this culture. It's going to be delivered to you in as many information dumps as possible under the guise of "explaining" things that it seems like someone who had spent their entire lives in a culture would already know and the reader could pick up on without being treated like they're dense. There has to be some element of explanation for a fantasy culture but surely there's a better way to integrate the explanations with the plot. I just find it boggling that although Eon studied so hard, and that his (abusive) master took so many risks, that he would still need things explained to him so thoroughly even up until the end of the book. The borrowed cultures are always being commented on, always aware of their difference and foreign nature to people who are likely reading the book. Thus, the comparison to Avatar which was never self-conscious about its story, tone, or world building. Eon is very clearly aware of itself and then fact that its readers are not as familiar with the specific culture beyond shorthand of the Chinese Zodiac and a general idea about how ancient Chinese and Japanese cultures worked. It doesn't feel genuine. The story would have been stronger if it had started at a different point, as well, revealed all the secrets Eon was keeping in a different way, and trusted the reader to pick up the vagaries of the culture as the story unfolded.

Of course, the book did attempt some interesting things with gender. Eon struggles with his identification throughout the novel, making it fairly obvious why the Mirror Dragon is unavailable. How do you live in a world in which your personal identity is a constant struggle, even beyond trying to hide it? Eon attempts to suppress Eona all through the story, denying every aspect of Eona's actuality. Because I am so uneducated on these types of issues I really have little right to comment on them at length, because I left the book more confused than anything else at the way gender binary is both subverted but then re-enforced. I couldn't figure out if the book was attempting to show that there was no reason for Eon to choose between the two identities because both were a part of him and important. There was also Lady Dela, a person with two spirits, who seemed to deal with the pressure of being physically male but spiritually a woman in a way that was extremely well done and nonjudgmental, to show Eon there is, as Ryko says at one point about the sexual proclivities of eunuchs, more than one way to skin a cat. I am more familiar with Native America versions of this, but I found it very ambitious and really liked her character. She was a mentor, smart, loyal, helpful, she doesn't die horribly, and she creates interesting discussion about gender that didn't feel like I was being bashed over the head with a lecture. It did, at one point, come down to a "I knew because I didn't like traditional boy things!" which I find hard to unpack for my own purposes. I have no clue how right/wrong a portrayal like that is — I am woefully undereducated about these issues. Of course, at times she suffered as a mouthpiece for the aforementioned "Let's Learn About China!" problem, as did the other character I liked, Ryko, a eunuch guarding Lady Dela at court, who was very obviously in love with Dela. I would definitely read a book about them on adventures, that's for sure. >.>

Now we come to the end, full of spoilers!

Read more... )

Eon didn't work out for me, but I am happy to see more books dealing with gender commentary and fantasy drawn from different cultures. I hope there will be more in the future, now that this series has proven so popular. But maybe next time we could get a story like this minus the terrible rape and erasure of disabled character parts.

That would be awesome.

Other reviews:
Fantasy Cafe, Stella Matutina, Calico Reaction, Tempting Persephone, yours?


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