#REVIEW: Queen of the Unwanted, by Jenna Glass

So, if you’re going to make a series switch from hardcover to softcover after the first book comes out, which already guarantees the books on my shelf aren’t going to match, and then you’re going to compound not-matchiness by making sure that the cover design changes radically from the hardcover to the softcover editions, the least you can do is make the softcover editions awesome. And I have to admit it: this has me considering buying the first book again in paperback just so that they match, since the new versions look so Goddamned good.

This is one of the tricky ones. If you look at Goodreads reviews for either this book or the first book in the series, called The Women’s War, you’ll notice that they’re … we’ll say messy. The basic premise of this series, boiled way down, is that a group of women, forced into prostitution when their husbands chose to divorce them or they were deemed unnecessary in other ways, manage to make a fundamental change to the way magic works in their world to give women more agency. To wit: among other things, sexual assault now causes little bursts of magic to be released that can kill the man performing the assault. Magic is explicitly gendered in this series, and without going too deep into the weeds there is women’s magic, men’s magic, and ungendered magic, and while women’s magic has historically been suppressed and devalued, this spell also kicks women’s magic into much higher gear, also creating a wellspring of feminine magic in the middle of what was formerly a wasteland that quickly becomes a feminist kingdom. The main characters are all royalty of some stripe or another, although several of them are former royalty who have been forced to be Abigails (their word for the prostitutes,) one way or another this book is not especially concerned with regular people.

It’s also not especially concerned with gay people, or trans people, or people of color (but more on that bit in a moment,) and two of the three most evil people in the series are the only fat person (we are reminded, Bomber-like, of his fatness every time he is mentioned) and a woman with a facial disfigurement. There is also a blind woman who is One of the Good Guys, but it’s made clear very quickly that she’s not only Not Really Blind, but she’s quickly offered a cure (which, to give some credit, she doesn’t take.)

You can probably imagine that this has caused some controversy, particularly for a book that is pretty explicit about being about high-fantasy feminism. Like, when you tell me that whether you’re male or female can not only affect what kind of magic you can perform but what kind of magic you can see (magic, in this world, is performed by combining “motes” of what are basically magical elements that float around in the world, and so certain kinds of magical motes are easier to find in some places or another, and part of what determines your skill as a mage is how many different kinds of motes you can perceive in the first place,) I’m going to immediately start wondering about how trans people fit into your world, and I’d almost rather you terf it out and go strictly biologically than completely ignore that trans people exist.

And even laying aside the identity and representation concerns, there’s a persistent feeling throughout reading this book that Jenna Glass really didn’t bother thinking super hard about the aspects of her worldbuilding that she wasn’t interested in. For a book that is all about shifting alliances between rival kingdoms, a book where the phrase trade agreements shows up on nearly every page, she doesn’t seem to have much of an idea of how trade works, unless her various principalities and kingdoms are unimaginably small. One of her kingdoms is repeatedly described as the sole source of iron and gems for all the surrounding kingdoms, for example, and you get the feeling that the “trade agreements” between these countries are sometimes over a few pounds of metal. It’s surprisingly low-resolution compared to how well she brings in the political implications of, say, marriages between warring families. But trade? Just say “trade agreements” on every page or two and let the audience fill in the details. At one point after a book and a half you find out that two of the countries speak different languages, and I swear to you that she decided that on the spot so that she could have one character not quite understand what was going on around her. I’m not going to reread the first book to confirm that multiple languages hadn’t ever been mentioned, but they certainly hadn’t come up in the second until it was convenient. Stuff like that.

The thing is, though, IF you can get past all that– and I absolutely would not blame you for a single second if you declined to even try— the book that is here is pretty fucking compelling. What Jenna Glass does really well is write characters, and she’s done a good job over these two books of filling her pages with characters with competing and overlapping sets of interests and national cultures and setting them against each other. It took me forever to get the second book ordered and then to actually pick it up once I had it on the shelf, but now that I have, I feel dumb about taking so long and want to quickly order the final book of the trilogy, which is already out. So it turns out to be one of those books that I can’t really recommend, because of the various bits of sleeve and sloppiness, but I can accurately report my own reaction to the book and let y’all decide, right? So, yeah: I read this, and I enjoyed it, but it’s a mess, and it might be worth it for you to check it out and maybe it might not, so make your own call.


Let’s talk about the race thing for a second. It is interesting to me that the only characters in this book who the book takes care to describe physically are people from Nandel. Nandel is in the north– it’s the iron-and-gems country– and it’s the most openly misogynist of all the various cultures that exist in this book. Nandelites are also repeatedly described as being blonde, blue-eyed, and pale. Over and over again, in fact, and any time anyone else is referred to in terms of their skin color it’s always a shade of brown, although frequently Glass also tosses in a reference to working outside or something, so you never know just what anyone is supposed to look like. I’m going to point out real quick that a world where only whiteness is considered interesting enough to comment on might be a world where brown skin is the default, and then also point out that if everybody is brown except for these handful of characters (none of whom are primary POV characters) then Glass could certainly have been a hell of a lot clearer about it, as this is roughly akin to J.K. Rowling suddenly claiming that Hermione was always meant to be black because her hair is curly.

I will leave it as an exercise to the reader whether that makes any meaningful difference. I suspect not, but YMMV, as always.

Neck-deep in human waste, underneath the jail

This post has almost been about several things already; Gift of Gab, one of my favorite hiphop artists, passed away earlier today, and there will still likely be a post about him in the next couple of days. I’ve had a post about critical race theory brewing as well.

And then this murdering shitbag cop’s sentencing came down, and, well, that’s probably the most timely thing I could be writing about right now.

270 months. He murdered someone he knew by kneeling on his neck for nine and a half minutes and for that he will serve 22 and one-half years in jail. If the crime hadn’t been filmed, we’d likely never have heard of it, and he would no doubt have continued to be a murdering, racist asshole for the rest of his career.

I’m of two minds– well, several, really– about all this. He was convicted of second degree murder, for which the recommended sentence was 10 years, and the prosecution was pushing for probation. So the fact that he got over twice the recommended sentence is a good thing even if the defense was hoping for 30 years. I brought this up on Twitter earlier about an entirely different criminal; I don’t know that I’m any good about determining how long sentences should be for crimes.

The person I was talking about then was one of the Capitol rioters; she was in the building for around 10 minutes and committed no acts of violence while she was in there, and she got three years of probation. Is that “enough”? Hell, I don’t know. Would jail time have been better? 3o days of jail, to pick a number, instead of three years of probation? Six months? Is that too much for participating in an insurrection for ten minutes and not being one of the ringleaders of the crowd?

And this man gets 22.5 years for cold-blooded murder in broad daylight. Which doesn’t sound like enough; life without possibility of parole sounds great to me. Sure, there are more direct ways he could have murdered George Floyd; he was convicted of 2nd degree and not 1st for a reason. But George Floyd will still be dead when and if this man gets out of jail.

Well, okay, but he’s going to be spending that entire time in solitary, and when I am in a less bloodthirsty mental state I recognize that any amount of time in solitary confinement in America’s jails amounts to psychological torture, to say nothing of fifteen years, which is what I’m seeing would be the minimum amount of time he’d serve (who knows if that’s right, because Twitter, but whatever.). Fifteen years of solitary confinement 23 hours a day is not a sentence that many people can be expected to survive, and if they survive it, what emerges is not the person that went in. And I’m strugging, right now, to balance that need for justice and vengeance (not the same thing) with my disgust at the carceral state in America. I would prefer that jail be a place for rehabilitation and not for punishment. But it isn’t, and it likely won’t be in my lifetime. And this creature is not about to be the hill I choose to die on to fight the badly broken American justice system. The fact that he was convicted at all is remarkable, to say nothing of the sentence being more than the bare available minimum.

So.

I don’t want this to happen to anyone, but if it’s going to happen to anyone, it may as well happen to him. I’m not sure how that stands as a moral position, but it’s what I have at the moment. If he doesn’t like it, he probably should have listened to the crowd of people begging him to stop strangling another human being under his knee until that man died crying for his mother.

On terrible people and my time & money

While I’ve been doing some DMing for my wife and son lately, the last time I spent serious time playing role-playing games was in college. I lost my group when I moved to grad school, and basically never tried to find another one after that. My college group mostly bounced back and forth between Call of Cthulhu and Dungeons and Dragons.

One of the best campaigns I was ever involved in was a published Call of Cthulhu game called Horror on the Orient Express. I have some of my best memories as a gamer from that campaign; it was a tremendous achievement in game design and, not for nothing, was expertly run by our DM as well.

I recently discovered that Chaosium, the company that owns Call of Cthulhu, was planning on updating and republishing Horror on the Orient Express in a new, two-volume, 700-page, ludicrously expensive version for their 7th edition rules. It’ll be out in a couple of months.

Did I say ludicrously expensive? I don’t care, I’m buying it anyway. This is why I have a job.

Well, it’s for the seventh edition, and while I doubt that the seventh edition is all that different from the rules I’m familiar with (and it’s not like I intend to run this; I’m buying it for nostalgia value and to reread it) it felt weird to think I was going to buy an adventure for 7th edition Call of Cthulhu without actually owning the core rulebooks for 7th edition Call of Cthulhu.

So I spent a hell of a lot of money at the Griffon yesterday. Because these damn things are pricey, even under normal circumstances.

Let’s talk about H.P. Lovecraft a little bit.

Just in case you’re not familiar with him (although I doubt that’s going to be the case for too many of you; after all, you’re here,) the Call of Cthulhu game is based on a mythos created by the works of an author named Howard Phillips Lovecraft. H.P. Lovecraft’s influence on fantasy writing and specifically the horror genre is kind of difficult to overstate. His work is a big deal, and damn near everybody who works in genre has read him. He was also an enormous, disgusting racist, and his racism bled into a lot of his work. Now, when I say that about somebody who was born in 1890, a lot of people are going to shrug. “He was a product of his time,” they’ll say. “We can’t judge people Back Then by our modern moral standards.” Nah. H.P. Lovecraft was so much of a racist that it was notable in the 1920s. Like, ordinary run-of-the-mill 1920 white people thought this guy’s ideas about race were kinda fucked up. Google the name of his cat sometime. The guy was a hell of a writer, but he was trash as a person.

Typically I do not like to spend money that will trickle into the hands of giant fucking racists. However, in the case of Lovecraft, while the overall picture is complicated, his work is mostly in the public domain by now. Furthermore, Lovecraft had no children and his wife divorced him (well, sorta) a few years before he died, so there’s not even a family that money spent on Call of Cthulhu is going to go to.

But the guy’s legacy still has to be grappled with, right? The World Fantasy Award used to literally be a bust of his head; it was remodeled in recent years to a (much better) excellently creepy full-moon-behind-a-tree version after Nnedi Okorafor, who is Nigerian-American, won the award and pointed out that the greatest award of her literary life meant that she had to look at the face of a dude who literally didn’t think she was human every day. There is a long, ongoing, and very likely never-ending conversation about whether we can separate art from artist, but we can definitely avoid literally honoring the artist when that artist turns out to have been a terrible person. If that person is still benefiting from the sale of their art, then you need to have a deeper conversation. H.P. Lovecraft has been dead for 80-some-odd years and buying his books doesn’t send money to anyone connected to him, so reading his stories isn’t as problematic as, say, reading the work of still-living garbage humans John C. Wright or Orson Scott Card.

(“As problematic,” I said. And I’m not going to spend one second trying to talk someone out of feeling otherwise; if you feel like I’m making a distinction without a difference, let me know.)

All of this may be more lead-in than this issue deserves, but I was leafing through my new rulebooks last night and, as one probably might expect, Lovecraft’s name is all over this thing. And I thought about that for a bit, and went to the first few pages of the book, looking to see what they had to say about the man himself. And I was startled to discover that the official 7th edition Call of Cthulhu rulebooks devote two sentences of a chapter called “H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos” to talking about Lovecraft’s racism, and those two sentences are basically there to utterly dismiss it. The game, remember, is traditionally set in the 1920s, not exactly a great time for American race relations, to say nothing of the sexism, and the author is one of literature’s most famous racists.

I’m a little surprised and more than a little disappointed that the game doesn’t address this more directly, is what I’m trying to say here. The newest edition of the Dungeons and Dragons rulebook has a whole section at the beginning of the book about how players of all races, genders and sexualities are welcome in the game and theirs is set in an explicitly fantasy world. Call of Cthulhu is not only based on the work of a racist but is set in the 1920s, when any number of people who might be interested in the game now might face some issues playing characters who reflect them. I can easily imagine a Keeper making the life of a Black or gay or Asian or enby or hell even female player miserable because That’s How Things Were Back Then. Maybe, in our pair of oversized-hardback, two-column, 400-page rulebooks we should take at least a few paragraphs to talk about how to navigate that? Particularly in the Keeper’s Handbook, the book for the person running the games? This hobby has kind of a reputation for being a little exclusionary; can we take some time to push back on that, please? Just a little?

I dunno. I’m not– at least not without further reading, and again I’ve only skimmed these books since buying them– accusing the Chaosium writers of being racist or sexist. Right now what I’m specifically saying is that there’s a huge blind spot here, and it’s kind of made me uneasy about shoveling more money toward this company. I may feel differently once I’ve read through the rulebooks; if I discover I’ve missed something important (and there’s 800 pages of material here, so this is entirely possible) I’ll update later. But this is squicky, and I don’t like it, and I thought that was worth talking about a little bit.

On Captain America and racism

First things first: I’ll keep this as spoiler-free as I can, and really, Episode 5 of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is not really an episode that can be spoiled, but something minor might slip through here and there if you haven’t seen the episode yet.

So, the whole thing about this show is this extended meditation– and, to put it out there, it’s a process I’ve very much enjoyed– on what the idea of Captain America is, and on what America itself is, and what it means when America’s so-called ideals don’t match up with America’s actions. We’ve been repeatedly reminded that the super-soldier serum makes you more of what you already were, and we’ve had the moral exemplar of Steve Rogers hovering over the entire show as someone everyone on the show is trying to live up to. Left unclear is whether Rogers is actually still alive; Sam and Bucky have both used the word “gone” for him several times, and everyone else thinks he’s dead, but I don’t know exactly what the situation is there.

They’ve done a good job of making John Walker a character who people can empathize with to some degree without making him sympathetic, I think, and it’s clear and getting clearer by the moment that he’s not up to the job of Captain America. But is anyone? Is Sam, who Steve Rogers actually gave the shield to, worthy of it? Is Bucky, for that matter, who doesn’t seem to want the job but also seems more than anyone else in the story to need there to be someone out there called Captain America? (Bucky, by the way, has served as Cap in the comics. So has Sam.)

And then there’s this specter of racism that’s hung over the entire show. Early on, Sam and his sister Sarah are denied a loan by a bank officer. He blames it on the effects of the Blip, and of course they leave that frisson of deniability in there, but you wonder. There’s Isaiah Bradley, a Black man experimented on in the process of developing the super soldier serum and later locked in jail and forgotten. Walker literally tells Sam to his face that America will never accept a Black Captain America– and, hell, judging from the reaction when he was Cap in the comics, America had a lot of trouble with a comic book about a Black Captain America. And then there’s Walker himself, a less-than-great white man propped up by a Black wife and a Black best friend, introduced to a screaming crowd by a Black marching band, and who only has the shield in the first place because a Black man gave it up and the government stole it.

All this is leading into me wondering why the hell Bucky and Steve aren’t big racists.

Now, okay, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: these versions of those characters can’t be racists, and that’s why they aren’t. Marvel needed Chris Evans’ Captain America to be all-caps-and-italics CAPTAIN AMERICA, and while Bucky is allowed his dark side, what with the decades of murdering, we still need him to be sympathetic and a hero. Both Rogers’ and Barnes’ man-out-of-time thing is played mostly for laughs and nothing else; Cap doesn’t understand pop culture references and doesn’t like to swear, and Barnes read Lord of the Rings when it first came out, because he’s a hundred and nine damn years old. So we’re just going to choose to ignore certain aspects of being a white man in 1945 who suddenly wakes up in 2015 (or whatever year Captain America: The First Avenger was set in) and is immediately confronted with a Black man in a position of enormous power and has absolutely no questions about it. Bucky Barnes grew up white in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 40s but he has a date with a Japanese girl in the first episode and has immediate chemistry with Sam’s sister in the fifth, and never once treats his Black Best Friend ™ with a drop of paternalism or condescension or anything.

Well, okay, he won’t move his seat up, but I don’t think that counts. And maybe you’re wondering Wait, Luther, are you seriously saying that every white person in the 1940s was a racist? To which my answer is, yes, I absolutely am saying that, at least by modern-day standards. And Steve and Bucky haven’t had eighty years of changing society to drag them along, they got plucked out of one timeline and dropped into another with no time to adjust in between.

But, to be clear: I don’t actually want Bucky accidentally dropping the n-word about Sam’s sister and having an episode where he apologizes. I don’t want Steve Rogers calling the Black Widow “Toots,” or blowing the Scarlet Witch shit for being Jewish, assuming she actually is Jewish in the MCU, which is sort of up for debate.

But it would be damned interesting to see a sort of What If? or Elseworlds-type series where Cap gets brought back by the type of person who is always holding up the forties and fifties as some sort of American Golden Age, something we should try to get back to, only to find out that the guy who was such a big hero in World War II is a massive asshole by anything approaching modern standards. The Ultimates universe leaned into this a little harder than the regular Marvel universe ever has; their Cap was jingoistic and a sexist and a whole lot of other things, but it was mostly played for comedy and/or shock value; what I’m looking for here tilts closer into villainy, and I want to see a story where America’s reaction to Captain America is part of the story. They got into that a little bit when Sam Wilson became Cap in the comics, now let’s see what happens when Steve Rogers himself is held up as this great guy and turns out not to be. What if Cap came back to modern-day America and rejected it? What if America rejected him, and said this is not who we want to be?

It’s been fun to think about, at least.


A quick social media note: I shut down my Facebook and Instagram accounts yesterday, at least temporarily, and as such blog posts won’t be shared there any longer. We’ll see if this hurts traffic or engagement on the site; you can still share posts yourself with the social media icons below, and sign up for email updates somewhere in that list of boxes on the right there.

Adulting!

Pictured: my aesthetic

Well, we talked to the bank today, and we talked to the contractors on Thursday, and it looks like in addition to the new roof that is Definitely Happening in less than a month we’re finally fixing our master bathroom up this year, and at a cost that has us looking around and thinking about ways to make it more expensive than what our estimate was. I have discovered that I have strong opinions about our standalone shower. I want some shit in there, y’all. I want body jets and lighting and shit, and if we can figure out a way to hide some speakers in the walls that would be awesome too. But yeah, apparently at … how old am I? 44? I’m not 45 yet, right? Right, at 44 I want to be able tot take a shower in the dark with LED lights color-shifting in the water and high-pressure body jets massaging my various nooks and crannies.

Oh, and throw a bench in there, too.

The actual visit to the bank was at once both deeply annoying and aggravating and super easy. First of all, the lady who was taking care of our application not only wasn’t wearing a mask but had a Goddamn two-foot-wide sheet of plexiglass taking up maybe a third of her desk, but since there were two of us on the other side of her desk only one of us could partake of its utter lack of actual tangible usefulness. Then she very much did the “talk to the man” thing throughout the process, including at one point actually asking my wife, who makes a lot more than I do, if she had a job. Not what her job was. Did she have one.

And then we hit this weird point in the interview process where she had to ask us if we were male and female? And she apologized in advance for “all the questions” she was going to have to ask us and then that was it, and she was so apologetic for it that it managed to come off as transphobic? By this point in the conversation I was thoroughly ready for the whole thing to be over and so I didn’t ask a whole lot of questions, but if you need to get verbal confirmation of whatever, just ask and let’s all move on with our lives. But why would it just be gender? What the hell does that have to do with anything?

(ETA: My wife reminds me of something I’d forgotten, which was that she also asked about our race, which means that this was very likely the bank tracking who they’re giving their loans to, and not actually part of the application process per se. It was still very, very weird.)

Oh, and never once were we asked for ID, which strikes me as … odd. Like, my credit got a hard pull today, and while there’s supposedly going to be an appraisal of the value for our house that we more or less made up on the spot and gave her, it might be a drive by? As in the appraiser might never enter the house, and might just be making sure it exists? And, boom, $30,000. And no ID. I verbally gave her a Social Security number, and so did my wife, but never once did any paperwork more complicated than a pay stub come into the picture.

Kinda wondering right now, honestly, what sort of experience a black couple or a gay couple might have had in the same situation.