To my main man, ARTICHOKE,
It is never a great sign when, about fifty pages into a book— a book with four main characters, no less, each describing their own lives through first person perspective— a little alarm bell goes off in the back of your head and says, “Where are all the lady characters?”
Which is not to say that there were none. There was, after all thewoman with no name and no dialogue who sets events in motion by making a false rape accusation. There was also the sister-in-law of another main character, who serves the story as a shallow, bugbear-esque strawman of conservative countryside homophobic values.
In the interest of fairness, in the latter half of the book— after the plot starts, that is, which happens about a hundred fifty pages from the end of a book that is nearly four hundred pages long— we do get a couple lady magicians, who even get names and some dialogue. One of them is mysterious and helpful, and the other one is a sassy bitch who treats her poor male counterpart unfairly, and then dies. But to be honest, by the time we got there, that almost looked like equality. Still, I doubt a single one of these characters got more than two hundred words of dialogue, and I would be very surprised if it turned out that they got five hundred words combined.
Lest I forget, there is also the dragon and the titular character of the book, mechanical magician-made dragon, Havemercy. The rule stands again: If you must be female in SFF, it is best if you can at least avoid being human.
Writers have been accused of misogyny for considerably less. As it so happens, Havemercy was written by two women.
Also, I was not the only one to pick up on this particular feature:
From Publishers Weekly
…. The insular corps culture of combative homoeroticism and masculine archetypes dominates the book, as female characters fade far into the background. Despite few surprises or original flourishes, Jones and Bennett credibly bring the decadent empire and its inhabitants to life. (July)
Not a great sign when someone who seems to be trying to praise your book feels compelled to bring this up.
The thing is, I don’t really feel all that much like pulling this book apart as I could do. Yes, the writing was uninspired, the world building inoffensive at best, and the characters spent a great deal of time navel-gazing, and no, it doesn’t help that they were gazing at each other’s navels instead of their own. Sure, the book doesn’t earn the emotional highs or lows that it tries to cash out on. True, that I didn’t see the twist coming, but that’s because there were literally no goddamned hints. The beginning takes approximately a thousand years, while the ending wraps things up so quickly that we can’t even be bothered to mention the names of the dead.
But the thing is, Havemercy is the first- attempt novel of two college kids, and that is precisely what it feels and looks like. It feels pointless to pull it apart, because of course it is exactly what it is.
Criticizing young writing is never a good feeling. First of all, it’s pointless; people learn through a process of learning, and me saying that they should have used more show and less tell isn’t exactly going to prevent future writers from having to go through being a bad at writing before they can become good at it. Secondly, it takes absolutely zero skills as a reader or a critic to point out everything that’s bad, and no insight or really thought at all. Thirdly, and riding off that second, it feels mean-spirited. I know that the writers of this book are much more likely to see this than if I were to write a scathing review of, say, GRRM’s latest masterpiece, and they’re probably not nearly so insulated in a comfortable armor of having seen it all before, and no more fucks to give as the likes of GRRM. (Although, Havemercy came out in 2008, so they’re probably not watching the hashtags with quite the same attention in 2015 as they might have done once)
All of this is simply to say that I’m not going to go into any great length about the flaws of this book, or my feelings while reading it. The female characters, though, that I can’t let go. Oh my god, a false rape accusation? Against our most dickish but poor-put-upon of four male protagonists? Oh my god, really?
Compounding this, is that what actually is interesting about Havemercy is that the protagonists are gay.
I’m going to state the obvious to anyone who’s ever seen Tumblr here: people want to see stories about gay people wherein the story is not necessarily about their gayness (eg, a coming out story). Piggybacking on that, people want to see stories about gay people that are genre stories, be that fantasy, science fiction, superheroes, vampire love, what have you. The Internet is chock-to-heaven-full of every possible variety of same sex love and relationship that you could ever possibly ask for— probably in greater amounts of fan fiction than original fiction, but who’s counting?
I don’t want to say that published examples of gay-themed genre fiction are few and far between, because I do think the small pool of such books that do exist are a large enough pool to constitute a sub-genre… but I will say that the demand as implied by the Internet’s voraciousness and the supply, as implied by the tiny number of books any publishing company of note has churned out, are vastly different.
One thing I was wondering, as I read, was just what made this book among the treasured few who actually got into that oh-so-coveted status of published. Was it of a better quality than the generally unedited Internet fare? Was it compelling, interesting, otherwise good enough that a publisher felt it worthy of taking a chance? Conversely, was this a toe-in-the-water experiment, an if this sells well, we’ll try out more like it kind of test product? Did it have something to do with the fact that the contentious same sex love in question is so utterly without desire or lust or anything regarding human physicality that it might as well have just been two pure-of-heart genderless alien amoebas pining for one another from afar?
My conclusion is that, while all readers are welcome (probably), at the end of the day, this was a book written by women for a primarily female readership containing almost no female characters. And while I may want to see two guys rolling in the proverbial hay just as much as the next Tumblr Jane… ouch, dude.
Keeping it real two cubes over,
PS. Talk more about that contentious issue— gay romance for lady viewers— later.