Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Polyamory Pleasures: Laurell K. Hamilton's A KISS OF SHADOWS

Do you ever find yourself doubting your judgment of a romance after you turn its final page? Especially one that's given you great pleasure? As a literary critic, I was trained to recognize not only the pleasures texts have to offer, but also how a text's pleasures can work to draw your attention away from ideas or values within the book that you might otherwise find objectionable. So sometimes, after I shut a book's cover and find myself in an end-of-the-book-pleasure-wallow, doubt start to creep in. Did I let pleasure dull the thinking parts of my brain? If I end up reviewing said book, am I going to be horribly embarrassed when a blog reader comment points out some horribly obvious plotline/character/underlying ideology that calls this book's feminism into question?

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.

Reading A Kiss of Shadows (2000), the first book in Laurell K. Hamilton's Merry Gentry fantasy series, put me smack in the middle of such a situation. I had ILL'ed a copy from the local library during a quest to find BDSM novels with heroines, rather than heroes, in the dominant sexual role (a post on this topic will follow at a later date). Hamilton's Merry, an exiled princess from the Unseelie Fairie Court, admits to liking a bit of pain during sex, but this first book in the series contains only hints of dominant/submissive sexual dynamics. Instead, I found myself reading about a powerful but self-deluded Queen, an outcast princess on the cusp of coming into her long-overdue supernatural gifts, and a collection of damaged, strange, and often intensely sexy male fey faced with choosing which of the two women to serve. Not what I was expecting, but quite pleasurable, so much so that I was seriously tempted to feature the book on RNFF. But a small corner of my mind said "wait just a minute, now, girl, not so fast..."

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.

At the start of the novel, Merry is in the midst of a sexual relationship with Roane, one of the seal people. Because a fisherman had found his sealskin and burned it, Roane can no longer return to his seal form. Though the two share sex, they don't share secrets: "Roane couldn't breech my shields, but he knew they were there. He knew that even in that moment of release, I held back. If he'd been human, he would have asked why, but he wasn't human, and he didn't ask, just like I never questioned him about the call of the waves" (29). Sex is separate from emotional intimacy for Merry and Roane, a  separation that in most romance novels would be seen as a deep fault (usually in the hero-as-rake figure, but occasionally in a female self-punishing slut heroine), something that needs to be corrected in order for true love to flourish. But Hamilton does not suggest that sex for sex's sake, sex without sharing deep emotional intimacy, is a problem.

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
Kennedy suggests that Merry is a victim because she is forced into having sex, rather than choosing her own sexual partners. But Merry herself agrees to the Queen's bargain, and chooses which of the Queens' Guards will become part of her retinue, and which will never see her bed. And Merry gains a boon from the Queen in return. It is true, the Queen does physically coerce Merry at the very end of their negotiations, but not because Merry has refused to have sex; instead, Merry objects to the Queen's control over when Merry will begin to implement her side of the bargain. It struck me as a breath of fresh air, having a fantasy novel feature not just one, but two women, one in power, another just coming into her own, fighting and negotiating to gain the upper political hand. So very different from the typical power struggle between two men, fighting over a woman, or the romantic struggles between a man and a woman, using sex to gain or manifest power over one another...

Merry and her harem
Finally, Hamilton also offers her heterosexual female readers another, far more rare pleasure: the pleasure of the male harem fantasy. While the words "harem," "seraglio," "serail," and "zenana" have historically referred only to groups of women focused on serving the sexual needs of a man, in the realm of fantasy (written as well as daydreamed), a harem can function just as well when the sexes of its members are flipped. And being the head of a harem by its very definition means being able to choose one's sexual partner.

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
Ballantine, 2000

Photo/Illustration credits:
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:
Merida's Makeover


  1. I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on the details therein, but it is striking - very much so - that the disconnect that reviewers (and admittedly, myself) seem to experience stems from our preconceived notions that sex cannot be sex without emotion. And yet, if we accept that it can be so, then the plot you describe is as empowering as success at any other goal might be. Of course, that is if we view healing and whole-selfness as important.

    However, that raises the question of: what is important because we have culturally deemed it so, versus what is important because it is simply nature. I would argue that becoming emotionally involved through sex is natural, and therefore this novel is truly fantasy, albeit feminist fantasy if you are able to rid yourself of that inclination to tie emotions with sex. But it's possible that it is because I have been conditioned so well to believe that emotions and sex are inextricable to the point where I cannot conceive that such a link is contrived.

    1. Pauline:

      Thanks for adding your thoughts, especially when they are at odds with mine! Do you think that sex without emotion is not possible for men, as well as for women?

      And can there be emotion in sex, other than romantic love emotion?

  2. That book sounds good, I'll have to check it out. Have you read The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff? it sounds like it has a similar type of heroine and attitude to sex.

    Pauline - I see what you are saying. For me, sex can be purely physical (although it doesn't have to be). Personally, I find these types of books refreshing. One of the things I find frustrating in romance is the One True Love trope. In probably 99% of romance novels, the hero and heroine are each other's One, and any previous relationships were mistakes. Love just doesn't work that way in my experience.

    1. Vicky:

      No I haven't read THE ENCHANTMENT EMPORIUM. Thanks for the recommendation.

      I'm with you on the one true love trope. Why do you think it's so appealing to so many? What desires does it fulfill?

  3. Hmmm... Good question. Maybe it's just that the more alone and isolated people feel, the more they wish they could find someone who will understand them perfectly and fulfill their every need.

    1. Vicky, I think you're right that the "one and only" trope connects to the "I can find someone who will fulfill my EVERY need" desire. A feminist romance goal, then, might be to find books that disrupt both of those ideas, but still argue in favor of the positive force of romantic love.

    2. Yes, I like that! Also, a romantic relationship should complement or supplement a person's existing relationships with family and friends instead of supplanting them entirely. I'm not sure if that makes sense.

    3. Yes, that totally makes sense. A romantic relationship can give you some of what you need, friends and family can give you other things that you need. One person can't and shouldn't have to do it all.

  4. I know exactly what you mean about "how a text's pleasures can work to draw your attention away from ideas or values within the book that you might otherwise find objectionable." I finished Emma Chase's debut, Tangled, late last night, and I've never encountered a book that bothered me so viscerally on so many levels--it hit all my misogyny/homophobia/sexual harassment warning buttons, over and over again--and yet despite making me *so* uncomfortable, the story was undeniably fun to read. It's just that now that I've slept off my book squee, I feel so dirty!

    1. Yeah, that morning after "ick" factor isn't so pleasant, is it? Time for a shower...

  5. Well, I got this as an audiobook and then got sucked into the whole series. I did like the series overall, but I don't love it. The plot moves with excruciating slowness and I find Hamilton's writing style overly descriptive. There were a couple of things that bothered me from a feminist standpoint:
    - Meredith is supposed to be the leader of the group, but the men constantly undermine her, test her authority, try to protect her from being upset, and talk over her head. I wish that I had counted the number of times Meredith says, "I'm missing something here." I'm sure that it would add up to a lot.
    - Meredith seems to be doing all the emotional work of the relationship(s). Frost in particular is very broody and irritating.

    1. Vicky:

      I just got book 2 from the library, and am looking forward to reading it with your comments in mind. Looking at who really has the power, instead of who supposedly has the power, in a relationship, and whose power the text validates and whose the text undermines -- an important avenue of feminist analysis.

  6. My wife and I have been married for 5 years and poly for life. We initially had difficulty navigating the issues that tend to come along with being polyamorous such as jealousy or insecurities. Over time we got through the issues, but still had some emotional insecurities. After coming to the conclusion of just being open and honest with each other about everything the insecurities went away. We both love reading about polyamory and the people involved. Thanks for the post, it was a great read!


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