I went away for the weekend--and by "away" I mean "Went to a Harry Potter symposium and the new theme park, which made me feel eleven years old"--and as you do, I brought books to read on and between planes.
Chronologically, I read Jeff Vandermeer's Shriek and then Flesh and Fire by Laura Anne Gilman. But, while Shriek was a masterpiece of ideas and mushrooms and twisty, unreliable narrators, it is Flesh and Fire that I want to talk about, in relation to larger themes of fantasy literature.
The book at a glance: Wine, if made a certain way, has magical properties, which may be harnessed and used by those who know how: Vinearts. Jerzy, a slave, is chosen as a Vineart by his owner. But his trainings are interrupted by upheavals in their world, so off he goes to make his way as best he can.
It's a damn good book, in my sense of the phrase. It's gripping (read it over two plane rides, nearly nonstop), paced perfectly, good characters, and a wonderful, bright new magic system that involves no word stranger than mustus. It also works as "Winemaking 101". Gilman creates a very interesting world, the main area of which revolves around a slave trade (and oh, do I wish I could reveal a rather juicy spoiler about that. But I won't. Go read the book.) It's not a million pages long, which defies one recent trend in fantasy literature, and there's not one goddamn vampire in sight.
Wait for it...
But. The first interesting woman is killed off fairly quickly, and the next one doesn't appear until the three-quarter mark. And despite having invented a very new world, Gilman in this book is infected by that most insidious of fungi: Patriarchus Defaulcatus. Or, default patriarchy.
Men are in charge in this world, at all the high levels. No women Vinearts are mentioned or seen. The main continuous female character has power only within a household, as the firm, but nurturing, head domestic. One noble women dies, the other has rebellious princess syndrome (but at least she gets to live to Book 2).
This is something which I greatly dislike about a lot of fantasy: even in brave new worlds, in which there are fabulous beasts, wondrous magic, unearthly beings, authors continually revert to gender power structures so prevalent in our own world. Heteronormative (more on that in a bit) and phallocentric. And I just don't see why.
Be daring. Make the genders equal in your fantasy world, and see what comes of it. Reverse things, play with roles, make a new form of society. Read lots of Ursula K. Le Guin's Ekumen stories and see how she invents worlds that work on completely different gender systems than ours. Throw out the gender norms. Make me smile.
On sexuality: there's not much of it, and what there is leans negative and slightly homophobic. This is not to say I think Gilman is a homophobe; I've met her briefly, I regularly read her blog, and I truly do not believe this to be the case. But every sexual experience Jerzy (male) has is a) unwanted and negative and b) with another man. Gilman insinuates that Jerzy, as all Vinearts, is asexual due to the magic he uses, so his distaste for amorous activity has a base. But were Jerzy's squeamish thoughts about being touched by other men necessary? Did all this attention have to be somewhat forced, and unwanted? I don't think there was a consensual sexual relationship in the whole book, only brief glimpses into the molestations young, pretty slaves like Jerzy suffered at the hands of others. An unsettling trend, I'll call it, and one I hope not to see in the second book.
I can see, at certain angles, why this book was up for a Nebula last year. Very good writing, a fascinating new world, nice characters. Some of the "coming-of-age" plot points were a little predictable, I felt, as was a certain betrayal, but after reading books for even twenty years, most things are predictable. I have issues with it, but they are my issues as a liberal sex-positive feminist, which not everyone is and I don't ask them to be. Go and read it anyway. Then come back and tell me what you thought.