When I find myself in such a situation, I often double-check my reaction against those of other readers and reviewers. If others have seen something that I've overlooked because I've been too focused on a book's pleasures to pay attention to the more analytical parts of my brain, on Goodreads or amazon or other romance review sites, I'm certain to find at least one other reader whose pleasure centers light up for different reasons than mine do, and so will see a book's flaws more easily than I.
The first Goodreads review that pops up under A Kiss of Shadows helped me to understand both my hesitations, and my fascinations with Hamilton's fantasy. Kat Kennedy's review points out many of the book's flaws, flaws that I hadn't given much thought to as I greedily sucked up the book's pleasures. On the level of mechanics, the writing has real problems (a penchant for the comma splice, and an annoying tendency to repeat a key word in a sentence in a failed attempt to sound artful). Not much happens, plot-wise, over the course of the 48 hours during which the story takes place: Merry, a detective in the human world, gets involved in a sex-abuse case that causes her previously dormant fairy powers to emerge, which draws the attention of her Aunt Andais, the Unseelie Queen, who sends a group of male fey to bring her back to the fairy court. Lots of fighting ensues until Merry agrees to return. After arriving, negotiations, threats, and punishments ensue; after Merry agrees to the role her aunt wishes her to play in court politics, she returns to her human life, albeit with her own personal male fey platoon of bodyguards. On the ideological level, one of Merry's emerging powers seems to be an ability to physically (and perhaps emotionally?) heal men with whom she has sex, a trope that Kennedy finds rather disturbing. Worst of all, Merry's polyamorous sexual interactions, far from demonstrating her sexual liberation, in fact show the opposite: "I was hoping that this book, unlike Anita Blake [the heroine of Hamilton's first fantasy series], would actually show Merry CHOOSING to have sex with a bunch of men, but not really. Once again circumstances and people more powerful than herself force her to do it. Really. She's just a victim here, guys."
Cause for pause, indeed. Yet even after reading Kennedy's review, I still couldn't shake off my liking for the book. And even though it is not a romance novel in the traditional sense, I hope you'll forgive me for using the blog to figure out through writing just what it is I find so intriguing, and even potentially feminist, in Hamilton's book.
Hamilton also questions another basic tenet of romance novels: that of the one true love. The sexual predator whom Merry's detective agency is pursuing uses the lure of romance's one true love, particularly the lure of the reformed rake, to reel in unsuspecting victims:
I looked up at him. "Are you buying [a house] with an eye for the future? Munchkins and the family thing?"
He raised my hand to his lips. "With the right woman anything's possible."
Lord and Lady, but he knew just how much carrot to dangle in front of most women. Imply that you could be the woman to tame him, make him settle down. Most women love that. I knew better. Men don't settle down because of the right woman. They settle down because they are finally ready for it. Whatever woman they're dating when they get ready is the one they settle down with, not necessarily the best one or the prettiest, just the one who happened to be on hand when the time got to be right. Unromantic, but still true. (42-43)
Merry's pragmatic attitude does not change over the course of the novel, nor is it significantly challenged by any other character in the book. Polyandry is considered the norm for those of the Unseelie Court, at least until one marries; even then, marital sexual continence is not valued for itself, but for its reflection of one's honesty: "The sidhe don't worry about fornication, but once you get married, give your word that you will be faithful, then you must be faithful. No fey will tolerate an oath breaker. If your word is worthless, then so are you" (41). Merry's attitude toward sex is part fey, part human, but as far as premarital relations go, the fey side seems to win out: "I like sex, my queen, and I have no designs upon monogamy," Merry tells her aunt when the Queen makes her a political offer that rests upon Merry's choice of sexual partners.
Merry has, in Kennedy's words, a "magic cooter": sex with Merry can heal the wounded male. Kennedy is bothered by Merry's power to heal through sex, feeling that it "sends a message when Merry has so little self esteem and values her body so little. In fact, I worry about the disconnected way that Merry uses her body—as if it were just a tool to share around for the greater good." Merry never struck me as lacking in the self-esteem department, or careless of her own body; must having multiple sexual partners always equate to a disregard for one's own body? I myself found Merry's sexual healing powers both interesting and amusing; they seem to make explicit the implicit assumption of many romance novels, that sex with one's true love grants one, in the words of Smart Bitches Candy Tan and Sarah Wendell, a "Magic Hoo Hoo," a vagina that, through sex, is able to "heal all ills, psychic and sexual" (Beyond Heaving Bosoms 38). But Merry's sexual healing inverts the traditional romance trope. Said "Magic Hoo Hoo" typically serves to bind the romance hero to the heroine. But when Roane regains his sealskin after having sex with newly-empowered Merry, it allows him to leave her: "He was in the ocean with his new skin. He hadn't left me unprotected, but he had left me. Maybe it should have hurt my feelings, but it didn't. I'd given back Roane his first love, the sea" (87).
|One of many fan-created visions of a powerful Merry|
|Merry and her harem|
It also suggests a role as protector; the head of a harem is responsible for keeping its members safe. Even though her fey guards return to the human world with her as bodyguards, Merry takes her own role as protector quite seriously. As she explains on the book's final page, "I don't want the throne if I have to climb over the bodies of my friends and lovers to get it. I don't want anything that badly—I never did. I always thought love was more important than power, but sometimes you can't have love without the power to keep it safe. I pray for the safety of those I care about. Maybe what I'm really praying for is power, enough power to protect them. So be it" (435). At heart, most fantasy novels are about power: its use and abuse, whether a hero or heroine defeats a villain who has allowed power to corrupt, or embraces his or her own power it in order to shape a better world. I'm looking forward to reading the next books in the Merry Gentry series, and seeing if, and how, Merry chooses to use her power, and if she does so for feminist goals.
A Kiss of Shadows
Unseelie Court: IMVU
Selkie: Merlyn's Musings
Merry Gentry power and seduction: Fair Cruelty at Deviantart
Merry and her harem: Aurora30 at Deviantart
Next time on RNFF: