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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
UBC #14: A Brother's Price 
5th-Jun-2006 08:49 am
Sidneyia inexpectans
UBC #14
Spencer, Wen. A Brother's Price. New York: ROC-Penguin, 2005.

Clair is the opposite of noir.

A Brother's Price, like Her Majesty's Dragon, is a very clair book. As most of y'all have probably guessed by now, my preference is for noir. Which doesn't mean I didn't enjoy ABP--because I did--but does mean that there's a limit to how useful it can be for me to talk about, because at a very fundamental level, I'm not in harmony with its goals.

Which is also not the book's problem. It's mine, and I'm well aware of it.

I galloped through ABP with pleasure; I'm just left with the awareness that most of the things I would say about it are predicated on the fact that I'd have taken the basic concept--gender role-reversal in the Wild West with some vaguely medieval trappings to keep the government working--and done something very very different with it. And avoided the category-romance tropes like the plague. Not because there's something "wrong" with them, but because they just don't do it for me. Again, that's on my side of the net, not the book's.

But I found the gender reversal very surfacy: Jerin's a little more emotional than most fantasy heroes are allowed to be, but other than that he's indistinguishable from Ren and Halley (the alphas of his five adult wives). Which in another kind of book, would make me give three loud cheers, but in this one--where the POINT is that he's been socialized to be analogous to a C19 middle-class woman and they've been socialized to be men--it felt like ducking the problem. It always feels more like Jerin is humoring his sisters and his wives than like he genuinely believes himself to be defenseless, helpless, and "naturally" inferior. The other trappings of a society in which women outnumber men by some astronomical rate felt equally tacked on. The heteronormativity is oppressive; we learn only very late in the novel--and in essentially a throwaway--that the women of this world indulge in same-sex relations at all. And she doesn't explore at all how this cultural structure is maintained. What she's positing, after all, is a reversed harem (one husband, many wives, but the wives in control) with creche-type child-rearing. Since our paradigm tells us that, yes, the fact that the women outnumber the man doesn't necessarily mean thing one about who's got the power, I really would have liked to have seen at least a demonstration of the kind of gender-politics doublethink necessary to keep an entire society complicit in pretending that one sex is inferior to the other. Spencer's book gives lip service, but it's mostly just tired male chauvinism with the pronouns reversed. And not even very much of that, since she's very careful to keep her protagonists sympathetic to her audience's (presumed) C21 feminist sensibilities.

The gender-reversal feels like a gimmick, not like world-building or like a thought-experiment.

But, as I said, I'm asking for things the book isn't interested in giving.

ETA: spoilers in comments, also.
5th-Jun-2006 02:36 pm (UTC)
If it's any consolation, I am sympathetic to its clair intentions, and I had most of the same problems with it -- that the worldbuilding was not carried through. And the same enjoyment.

I need to remember that contrast, noir and clair. V. useful.

5th-Jun-2006 02:55 pm (UTC)
You know (having bounced over to read your post), I totally didn't read ABP as science fiction. I read it as fantasy. Which, combined with my general tech illiteracy, glossed over some of the problems you had.

But the dropped plot-thread thing drove me crazy, too. I kept expecting Corelle to DO something (especially after the elaborate maneuvering to get her sent along on the journey), either prove herself redeemable or prove herself the conniving, conscienceless bitch Spencer sets her up as--but nothing. Pfft. She and Jerin didn't even interact the rest of the book, and the whole problem got dismissed as if it'd actually been solved.

I really quite liked Eldest Whistler, though. My brain insisted on casting her as Yvonne Suhor from The Young Riders and was promptly and irremediably smitten.
5th-Jun-2006 03:12 pm (UTC)
Ooo -- good casting.

Actually, I was reading it as a Regency romance as much as science fiction. There were several plotty structural issues that bug me more and more as time goes on: there's Corelle, there's the trial, there's problems with the villianous plot. I'm really wondering where the editorial direction was on this one.

5th-Jun-2006 03:31 pm (UTC)
It also just occurred to me that a world in which you can name your eldest daughter "Eldest" and assume that she will in fact survive to adulthood (Ren is the only example we see of the eldest surviving daughter not being Eldest) is a world with a shockingly low infant mortality rate.

... what magic hat are they pulling that bunny out of?
5th-Jun-2006 04:04 pm (UTC)
From what I remember, it wasn't clear whether Eldest was a name or a title for oldest unmarried sister. I seem to recall a chance, ambigiuous reference to Eldest Whistler's personal name -- or maybe that was to when the oldest mother Whistler was called Eldest? Been too long.

Though that merely makes the problem why Ren isn't called Eldest now.

5th-Jun-2006 04:19 pm (UTC)
I heard a very similar comment about the book on a panel at WisCon. It occurs to me that things like this may act more like a safety valve than challenging stereotypes - it is OK to read about it as long as we all accept it can never happen. I've seen similar things said about the prodigious amounts of gender changing in anime/manga, which seems at odds to the fairly rigid sex roles in Japanese society. (Although of course not being an expert in Japanese society I may be talking rot here).
5th-Jun-2006 05:00 pm (UTC)
Japanese society is actually in a bit of a transition/crisis right now. Nobody wants to get married! A few years ago I sat down to dinner with three Japanese students at a pub (we were all in the same Mandarin class and our teacher gave us a bit of crap because she said we thought knowing kanji gave us an advantage) and only one of them wanted to get married--and these were all guys.

Basically, the Japanese work place hasn't evolved to meet the needs of working women and young people find it easier to live at home and not get married, particularly since living at home as singles they have a great deal of disposable income, and then suddenly when two people get married that drops precipitously--after the birth of a child, with the lack of childcare, it drops again. The birthrate is falling and the government has no idea whatsoever how to address this.
5th-Jun-2006 04:46 pm (UTC)
What do you think about Catharine Asaro's gender reversals, or have you seen them?
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