Author Kameron Hurley is in the middle of a blog tour to promote her recent fantasy release, THE MIRROR EMPIRE. If you are not familiar with this book, here is the plot synopsis courtesy of Angry Robot Books:
On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past… while a world goes to war with itself.
In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin. As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress.
Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.
In the end, one world will rise – and many will perish.
Sounds epic, right? I have read it and I can testify that it is, indeed (I will post my review of the book in the next few days). One of the more interesting points about the book is how gender roles are reversed in some cases. Whereas many fantasy epics have a stereotypical male protagonist who is bloodthirsty and daring, Hurley gives us an interesting look at what a world would be like if some of the men were the ones staying behind while their wives were off doing battle. Hurley was kind enough to write up a short piece about her views on this subject, which you can read below. Afterwards, hop over to Amazon and snatch up your copy of this excellent fantasy thriller.
Anavha’s Lament: Gender Expectations for Male Characters in Epic Fantasy
Of all the responses to my new epic fantasy novel, The Mirror Empire – with its multiple genders, the biologically sex-changing character, the sentient walking trees, the flesh-eating plants, the satellite magic, the parallel worlds, the blood magic – I admit the reactions that amuse me the most are the reactions to Anavha.
Anavha is the husband of a genocidal general in a country dominated by a brutal Empress. He is controlled by his wife much the same way as a general husband would control his wife in a pseudo- medieval patriarchal fantasy novel. He has been raised from birth to believe that his sole purpose is to give his wife pleasure, and children, and obey her totally.
If Anavha was a woman, I suspect few people would have made a peep about him. But, being a man in the position he is in, in the society he’s in, has shocked some people. Those with no experience of abusive relationships, of structural oppression, have gone so far as to think “a man would never put up with that!” But I’d counter that as a woman, as a human being, I’d certainly hope *I’d* never put up with that either. But the truth is that the way our society is structured, with men making 30% more than women, and domestic and sexual violence against women left largely unpoliced and even encouraged through joking, harassment, and an inability of our legal system to take these threats seriously, that no matter how much I’d like to think I wouldn’t put up with abusive behavior, the truth is that I have. I got stuck in an abusive loop, cut off from family and friends, thinking it was all normal until I woke up one day and realized I’d rather be dead than be the person I’d become.
It’s this insider view of abuse, and how the abused react to such abuse, that perhaps makes Anavha’s chapters rather harrowing for folks. I know what I’m talking about. I know how society wears us down. I know what it is to be angry, and realize I’m not allowed to be angry without being monstrous, and breaking down into tears instead, because that’s all that society allows me without repercussion. It’s the expected response.
I know what it is to be coerced into sex, to feel that I financially have no way out, to feel that I’m stuck alone in a corner by myself and there is no one to help me but the one person who insists that they love me; the very person who abuses and cages me.
By comparison with his female counterparts in other fantasy novels, Anavha’s journey is not so bad. He is, indeed, coerced into sex, most properly called rape. He is, indeed, sexually assaulted by a family member. He does, indeed, engage in self-harm. And he loves the woman who abuses him, completely and totally. But he is not brutally raped, mutilated, and murdered, his body strewn across the pages of the novel to titillate and propel the stories of others. His story is his, as every other character’s story in the book is theirs: male, female, other, between..
I paid particular attention to my other male characters in The Mirror Empire as well, working hard to create people instead of stereotypes – the same why I created my female characters, and everyone along the spectrum. I wanted Ahkio, brother to his kingdom’s dying ruler, to be a pretty fair representation of his culture overall: nonviolent, traditional, deeply religious. He identifies as male-passive, one of the five genders used by his people, but passive doesn’t mean he rolls over and lets things happen to him. Passive, in this culture’s sense, has to do with what, perhaps, we’d call conservative. Just as we attach certain types of behaviors to genders in our culture (men like sports, women like makeup, men are more prone to violence, women are more likely to cry), they attach gendered behaviors as well. So if you’re a conservative sort of person who likes tradition and constancy, you’re likely going to identify as male or female passive. I wanted him to get his way through diplomacy and relationships – the primary way that this nonviolent culture has gotten everything done for the last 500 years. It’s what they’ve built their whole society on. While I’ve gotten some folks balking at the fact that he freely goes to bed with several people and is intensely concerned about personal and sexual relationships, few seem to remember he’s 19 years old, and his entire society is built on family ties and relations, sexual and otherwise. These are important things he needs to pay attention to in order to survive.
On the flipside, we have Roh, who identifies as male assertive – he likes to buck tradition, has no time for worrying over his fate, and wants nothing more than to escape his society’s tight restrictions and go off and learn how to become, of all things, an assassin. Who needs an assassin in a pacifist society? He is selfish and self-serving – very negative traits which are also associated with the “assertive” gender identity.
None of these male characters are abusive, alpha male bullies. Not one. That’s not the behavior their society encourages as the sort of behavior that will get them ahead. One of the things I wanted to explore in the book was not just gender but expected behavior by gender and how those behaviors change based on what we deem socially acceptable.
In our own society, my mother can remember a time in television when men weren’t allowed to cry. The only emotions men were allowed to show were anger and maybe happiness. Grief could only be expressed as anger. Weakness, vulnerability, aren’t allowed. Anger is all.
There’s a popular story told about a baboon society in which all the big alpha male monkeys died off after gorging first on bad food. When they were dead, it left the older female monkeys and young males in charge, but most importantly, it reduced the amount of power disparity between those at the top and those and the bottom. What the researchers found was that when the abusers were gone, those who remained completely changed their behavior. With the massive power discrepancy gone, and with those who remained rewarding different types of behaviors, the behavior of the young males and females who grew up in the society was no longer bullying and abusive.
Behavior shifts in society, even and especially shifts to behaviors we believe to be gendered, is not only possible, but absolutely documented across a variety of cultures over a very long time. History is not static. Things have not always been the way we think they were.
In building new and different societies in The Mirror Empire, I knew I needed to step away from the idea that not only is much of what we consider “feminine” behavior constructed, but “masculine” behaviors are constructed too. After all, it wasn’t that long ago when women were considered the oversexed, sex-hungry and uncontrollable ones and men the colder, less interested ones in the bedroom. I’d argue actual behavior didn’t change at all, merely our perception of how much certain behaviors were tied to gender identity, the same way we decided that pink was for boys and blue was for girls and then changed our minds again.
There’s no reason our fantastic stories can’t interrogate the ways that we, as human beings, organize ourselves into societies. It should, in truth, interrogate our belief in the normal – whether that’s our geography, our technology, or our societies.
What I continue to find fascinating is that people will buy the satellite magic and genocide and blood mages in The Mirror Empire without a hitch, but the idea that a man would put up with an abusive relationship, or that a society could produce a man who valued personal relationships over war and violence, was absolutely inconceivable to some.
It turns out that my knowledge of what is possible, what has actually happened, and the men who do actually live that way in real life, means I don’t have the same sort of dissonance. No, what worries me far more is that we create so many stories that write these men out. That pretend they don’t exist. That can’t create worlds where men aren’t always dominating, on top, aren’t always winning, aren’t always superheroes. Where men aren’t always the brutish thugs of the story, and the primary driving force behind the narrative.
The reality is that we need more diverse male characters as much as we need more diverse female characters, and all the types of infinitely gendered people in between. We need them to help us tell better, truer stories of the world. To give us more examples. To help us push the boundaries not only of our imagination, but of our empathy.
If we cannot imagine a world, a behavior, we can’t combat it, and, in the case of men like Ahkio, if we cannot imagine men like him, societies like his, how could we possibly build anything like them?
If we cannot imagine a better world, how can we build it?
About Kameron Hurley
Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy, comprising the books God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture. She has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. Hurley has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, EscapePod, The Lowest Heaven, and the upcoming Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women.