Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Chapter 12, Part Two

The Evil Red Queen is standing in her turret of wickedness, gazing upon the lands below and fretting that she hasn’t found Kelsea yet. She can see all the borders of her land, from the Tear border to the west to the borders with other generic fantasy lands to the north and south. Wait a second, how high is this turret? Iron is a hot commodity in this world, so I’m assuming that there aren’t giant steel-and-glass skyscrapers dotting the landscape and this is your standard-issue medieval tower. Is Mortmesne really tiny? Does the Red Queen have magic sight? So many questions!

Apparently the Mort economy is so dependent on human shipments that the lapse of one shipment has caused internal unrest. Some young radicals are protesting, as are the Queen’s commanders. Oh, here come more questions. Why does the Mort economy need so many slaves, anyway? Do they run plantations? Are there just not a lot of Mort? Do they not have a permanent slave class, with children born into slavery? I’m surprised that Mortmesne has to kidnap all these people, frankly—you’d think that folks would voluntarily leave the shitty, starving Tearling to work in more technologically advanced, prosperous Mortmesne.

Anyway, the Evil Queen decides that she needs the aid of “the dark thing” to find Kelsea. She instructs her guard to drug a child and bring the child to her rooms. Oh, they probably need all these slaves for child sacrifice, right. Because slavery isn’t terrible in and of itself.

There’s a hint of backstory for the Evil Queen, something about her emerging from a prison stronger than before and some vague plan, so I suppose she is using evil spirits to prolong her life and overcome her past, yadda yadda. I wonder if Kelsea will be offered the same choice through her sapphires? Hmmmmm.

For some reason, the queen notes that one of her male guards is eying a female guard’s shapely posterior. I’m not sure why this matters, except that OH NO IT’S TIME FOR SEXUALLY DUBIOUS MAGIC.

She didn’t particularly like children; they made too much noise and demanded too much energy. She’d never wanted a child herself, not even when she was young.

Oh, my god, a woman who doesn’t want children! It’s a slippery slope from this perversion to associating with pedophiles and committing child sacrifice!

No, really.

There were several pedophiles in high positions in her military. The Queen felt a strange, sickly contempt for these men, unable to understand what was wrong with them […] But she needed them, needed them badly. When they weren’t being what they were, they were incredibly useful.

Why on earth are pedophiles so useful to our Evil Queen? The ready response is that she can blackmail them in case of emergency, but actually, it seems as if they’ve forgotten all about that and have started planning to overthrow her. The other reason that comes to mind is that 99.9 percent of the people who read this book define pedophilia as the most disgusting sexual perversion possible, so it’s being thrown in as a sort of local color. You know, in case you didn’t think some evil shit was going on already, let’s include pedophilia as well! The weird extension of this line of thinking is that what Mortmesne is doing is evil because of the private lives of its citizens; if the generals who previously invaded the Tearling and raped and slaughtered its population had respected the age of consent at home, I guess everything would have been cool.

Whatever. It’s time to stop asking questions and… get naked? Yes! The Evil Queen slashes her child sacrifice and sops some of the blood up with a towel. She then takes off her clothes to start her incantation.

The stone of the floor was hard and sharp, digging into her knees, but the dark thing liked that, just as it liked to have her naked […] If she kept her panties on, or put down a pillow to soften the floor, it would notice.

In my last post, I conceded the point that, while Johansen was including a lot of gratuitous evil violence against women in this chapter, at least it wasn’t gratuitous evil sexualized violence. Aw, damn, can we at least get through one chapter without some ludicrous fuckspell?

She leaned forward, as far as she dared, and threw the bloody towel into the fire. Despite the heat, her nipples, had hardened to tiny points, as though she were cold, or excited. Crackling sounds filled the room as the flames consumed the towel.

Innocent blood,” the dark thing remarked. “It is good to taste.”

Oh, well, I guess not. Also, this dark thing is cheesy as hell.

Dark thing and Evil Queen bicker a bit, and he hits her with a bolt of fire, so that her hip “squalled in agony.” What the fuck does that even mean? Anyway, this evil spirit not only makes words lose their meaning, he’s a looker, too.

When she looked up, the black mass in the air was gone. Instead, a man towered above her, handsome beyond words. His pure black hair swept back from a perfect patrician face, gaunt cheekbones offset by a thick, full-lipped mouth. A beautiful man, but the Queen wasn’t fooled by that beauty anymore. Red eyes glittered coldly down at her.*

Oh, he’s sexy evil, do you get it, everything to have to do with sex is vile and abusive and evil, we’re going to make sure this isn’t mistaken as YA by replacing the soppy romance with absolute sex negativity. Is this really what writing a “grown-up” book is about? This land needs some sexual healing, like the arrival of a magical fuck wizard. Like Annie Sprinkle, only wearing one of those princess cone hats.

The Evil Queen asks dark thing to help her, but the dark thing is like, eh, no, you can’t harm Kelsea. Why not? Who knows, but that does mean that the entire child murder ritual scene was for nothing. Well, it did kill the plot, because now we don’t even have a proper adversary for Kelsea. We know that the Evil Queen will fail if she attempts to kill Kelsea, and we don’t know dark thing’s plans well enough to see it as a proper threat.

We do get a loving description of what the spirit does to the child sacrifice, though. I’ll spare you the details—basically some vampire shit goes down and dark thing sasses Evil Queen a bit about how she’s not to touch a hair on Kelsea’s head. Again, why?

Who needs to know why, when you can enjoy this sort of deathless prose:

Harm the Tear heir, and you will feel my wrath, darker than your darkest dream. Do you wish that?”

The Queen shook her head frantically. Her nipples were rock-hard now, almost aching, and she moaned as the thing slithered off her, licking the last of the blood off its lips.

Well, at least we know exactly how hard this lady’s nipples got. And really, who needs a functioning plot when we have rock-hard nipples?

Dark thing goes back to its dark place.

Evil Queen looks at the remains of the child. It’s gross.

The Queen turned and ran for the bathroom, one hand clamped across her throat, her eyes wide and hunted.

She nearly made it.

Aaaaaaand end of chapter. Finally!

Isn’t that the most bathetic last line ever, though? I admit, the first time I read Queen of the Tearling, I was skimming by the end, and I thought that this last line meant that the Evil Queen had been caught by the spirit and destroyed—he was lurking somewhere and caught her when she was off guard. Big plot point, right? But on a re-reading, I think that it just means that the Evil Queen puked on the floor. I’m personally disgusted by vomit, but even I think this is an anticlimax. I mean, Johansen just thoroughly described sexual humiliation (including blood play!), Satanic worship, and the horrific murder of a child—but the real horror is that somebody was sick and missed the toilet. Won’t somebody think of the precious carpet fibers?

(A similar, slightly less ridiculous example of this sort of writing occurs in Chapter 10, which also involves Evil Sex—did Evil Uncle Thomas have sex with his sister and breed Kelsea? Is this a plot point, or confusion over the object of a verb? Ooof.)

* Digression: wouldn’t red eyes be incredibly unattractive? He’d look like a man-rabbit.

Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Chapter 12, Part One

Another chapter split on my part… I swear we’re almost done here. It’s just that again, there’s so much in this one chapter alone.

Kelsea has set off with her guards to chase the slave shipment. Her jewel is guiding her—if she goes in the wrong direction, she feels sick. Her guards, of course, aren’t at all curious about this GPS jewel. I mean, it’s a fucking magic jewel that glows and can knock people over, which you would think would be enough to inspire a little bit of interest, but they’re entirely dismissive. Instead, the guards think that Kelsea is mad. However, they’re too lazy to restrain her and prefer to just belittle her instead.

It had been more than a month, and many of them had come to know her, but nothing had really changed. She was still the girl they’d brought like a piece of baggage from Barty and Carlin’s cottage, the girl who couldn’t ride, who could barely be trusted to put up her own tent. It was Mace they listened to, whose word counted, and in the final judgement even Mace had treated her like a wayward child.

Yup. I also wonder why these guards expect the queen to put up her own tent. She’s a hereditary monarch, not a Girl Scout leader.

Anyway, Kelsea and her guards track down the secret slave shipment and attack yonder evildoers. Kelsea hangs back from the fighting as she’s not experienced enough with weapons yet, and lo and behold, guess who shows up? It’s the Fetch! He’s been tracking the slaves as well, and takes the opportunity to give Kelsea back her necklace that he took from her chapters and chapters ago.

I’ve waited a long time for you, Tear Queen. Longer than you can imagine.”

He also insults her haircut, but whatever.

With the second necklace, Kelsea suddenly gets super magic powers and can see glimpses of other worlds. Back in the real world, she notices that a slave cage has been set and fire and darts towards it with super speed.

The narrative changes to the point of view of Javel, the gate guard, who was in on that whole conspiracy that involved evil and slutty albino ladies, chapters and chapters back. He feels rather bad about this whole thing and kills one of his fellow guards, who has been being a total rapist lately because what’s a fantasy novel without lots and lots of rape? Oh, and dead women and children.

The second woman was nothing but a blazing torch, a dark, writhing shape with arms that waved madly from inside the fire. While Javel watched, in a span of time that seemed endless, her arms sank to her sides and her body simply collapsed. She had no face anymore, ony a blackened thing that burned madly, spreading flame along the cage floor… Jeffrey and William’s mother was burning now, her hair and face on fire. Her dress had gone up first and Javel knew, in the part of the mind that remained cold and suspended in such situations, that the baby inside her was already dead.

How on earth does he know? Does he have a special grimdark sixth sense? Anyway, if miscarriage doesn’t quite sate your need for the horrific deaths of children, there are more dead kids later on in the chapter. No, really. Anyway, Javel has a last-second change of heart and attempts to open the cages.

I don’t think that Johansen means these particular scenes of violence to be titillating—they’re presented as genuinely horrific, not as pornography for people who can’t admit their tastes to themselves. Nobody’s getting whipped to death by a convenient sect of nude, pert-breasted ninja assassins. However, every live woman in this book, excepting Kelsea and her elderly mother figure, Carlin, is either a heinous, murderous, oversexualized bitch or the victim of severe physical and/or sexual abuse. The closest we get to a woman who escapes those categories is Andalie, and she’s a literal witch.

What’s even more annoying is that these women’s suffering is used as character development for the men—the Regent abuses Marguerite to confirm that he’s an awful person, the suffering women in the cages spur Javel’s moral redemption, one of Kelsea’s guards has absolutely no characteristics at all except a beef with Evil Arlen Thorne over a woman, and so on. None of this abuse is central to the story—we know that the Regent is corrupt, and that slavery is bad, and that Evil Arlen Thorne is, well, Evil with a capital E, what with the whole slavemongering thing.

Anyway, Kelsea is able to use the power of her jewels to bring water down from the sky in a great storm, extinguishing the fire, then passes out from the effort. This is pretty cool, and it opens up a lot of new directions for the narrative—how can Kelsea use these powers? Where do they come from? etc. I have to give Johansen points for not including a wise old mentor who, despite supposedly being wise, solely dispenses information after the fact.

Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Chapter 11, Part Three

End of the chapter, I swear.

So the audience winds up, although not without another reference to how gross old people are.

Lady Andrews snatched the dress back and stomped away with her neck hunched into her shoulders, her gait showing her age.

Kelsea asks the Mace about where on earth her adoptive parents have gone—the Mace and co. are supposed to have found them by now. The Mace seems to be sidestepping Kelsea’s questions, but she gives up on it because it’s not time to reveal that they’re dead yet, oops, I mean, she’s hungry (yes, this is the reason given in the text).

Kelsea and one of her guards, Pen, stumble upon Andalie speaking with her one of her daughters. Andalie tells her daughter that they’re sticking around because Kelsea is a true queen, and one day they might be part of a legend. This somehow confirms to Kelsea and Pen that Andalie is psychic, because it’s not like Andalie might just have opinions or something.

They discuss the mysterious Andalie. It turns out that not only was Andalie’s husband a wife-beater, he also was a child molester, preying on his own daughters and other young girls in the neighborhood. Andalie’s neighbors tried to “take care of him,” but Andalie stopped them somehow. Holy shit, Andalie is a piece of work.

That night, Kelsea has an elaborate dream vision of a woman being kidnapped and dragged into a cage. She wakes and realizes that she’s had a vision—a slave shipment is being put together behind her back. It’s time for a rescue mission!

Except that nobody believes Kelsea except Andalie. Andalie and the Mace bicker for a little while, and when Kelsea tries to leave to get shit done, the Mace and Pen grab her to keep her from going. Fortunately, Kelsea has her sapphire, and uses it to slam them up against a wall. This moment of anger would have been so much cooler if I hadn’t realized that the sapphire is basically the decorative equivalent of Richard Rahl’s sword of truth. Thanks a lot for ruining my moment, sword of truth.

The Mace, gem of a human that he is, decides to take this moment to prepare Kelsea for her mission… by telling her to cut her hair so she’ll look like a man. Don’t they have to figure out how to get to the shipment and who they’re going to take? You know, get some weapons together? I don’t need to read this all in detail, but maybe a nod to logistics? Is anyone in this kingdom competent at anything other than being an asshole?

Anyway, Andalie cuts Kelsea’s hair, which gives them time for some girl talk.

Why’d you marry him, Andalie?”

We don’t always make these choices ourselves.”

Did someone force you?”

Andalie shook her head, chuckling mirthlessly, then leaned down and murmured in Kelsea’s ear. “Who’s the man, Majesty? I’ve seen his face in your mind many times. The dark-haired man with the snake-charmer’s smile.”

Kelsea blushed. “No one.”

Not no one […] He means very much to you, this man, and I see shame covering all of those feelings.”


Did you choose to to feel this way for this man?”

No,” Kelsea admitted.

One of the worst choices you could have made, no?”

Kelsea nodded, defeated.

We don’t always choose, Majesty. We simply make the best choices we can once the deed is done.”

Uh, all right. So Andalie’s been reading Kelsea’s thoughts, and she’s using Kelsea’s teen crush on the Fetch to justify her marriage to a man who beat her and raped her daughters. You know, Kelsea may not have chosen the way she feels, but she can choose how to act on her feelings. But whatever, women are just slaves to their passions, even queens! Females!

Well, I guess Andalie’s not using her unfettered access to Kelsea’s mind to be the perfect spy. Which is totally what I’d do if I were Andalie! Just saying!

Anyway, Kelsea is sad, not because she’s fallen in love with a shady man and distrusts her own emotions or because she feels violated by Andalie’s psychic prying, but because the Fetch won’t ever like her without her hair. Isn’t this the same kind of vanity that every other woman in the book gets slammed over? This book.

Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Chapter 11, Part Two

Having pondered her issues over Marguerite, Kelsea is finally holding her royal audience. First up is Andalie’s husband, who has come to claim her as it’s his Biblical right as a husband; Kelsea tells him off for having beaten his wife, and he slinks away.

Then a noblewoman, Lady Andrews, comes up to speak with Kelsea. It turns out that Kelsea stole this noblewoman’s tiara for her crowning. Unsurprisingly, this Lady Andrews is not in a very good mood. Also, Lady Andrews is old. Really old.

She was much older than she’d seemed in the dim light of the throne room, perhaps as old as forty, and her face appeared to have been pulled unnaturally taut. Cosmetic surgery? There were no plastic surgeons in the Tearling, but it was rumored that Mortmesne had revived the practice.

But… but they don’t have plastic. Or antibiotics. How do they have plastic surgery?

Anyway, Lady Andrews has a smoker’s voice, or a drinker’s voice, in case we can’t figure out that she’s an awful human being simply by her age alone. She uses her nasty voice to ask Kelsea what she intends to do about Mortmesne; it turns out that Lady Andrews lives near the border and therefore is very worried about an invasion.

Kelsea isn’t humoring her. Kelsea’s jewel informs her, through a vision, that Lady Andrews locked herself up inside her tower while the Mort came through her territory; she and her guards survived, but everyone else wasn’t as lucky.

Do you have children, Lady Andrews?”

No, Majesty.”

Of course not, Kelsea thought. Children coneived by this woman would only be cannibalized by her womb. She raised her voice. “Then you don’t risk much in the lottery, do you? You have no children, you don’t look strong enough for labor, and you’re really too old to appeal to anyone for sex.”


Lady Andrews is understandably a wee bit upset when Kelsea tells her never to come back to court.

Lady Andrews’s hands had clutched into claws. The nails were long hooks, manicured a bright purple. Deep pockets of red had emerged in the fleshless crescents beneath her eyes […] What does she see when she looks in the mirror? Kelsea wondered.

Ok, this is when I thought that Kelsea would come down hard on Lady Andrews for being a greedy, selfish biddy who spends her money on magical plastic surgery while letting her peasants die in a ditch.

How could a woman who looked so old still place so much importance on being attractive?

Well, that was a surprise. I guess the worst part about Lady Andrews isn’t that she let a bunch of her own people suffer horribly when (presumably) she could have helped them into safety. It’s that she thinks she’s still hot when she’s over the hill.

And for all the anguish that Kelsea’s own refletion had caused her lately, she saw now that there was something far worse than being ugly; being ugly and thinking you were beautiful.

I would have thought that the whole being-responsible-for-masses of people dying-thing would be worse than being ugly, but never mind that. The characters are female, so they don’t need to be judged on their actions, just on their appearances. So feminist.

Lady Andrews may be an old bitch, but she does have a good line in comebacks. I suppose with age, she’s had more time to think about these things.

And what have you to lose, Majesty? You spent your childhood in hiding. Has your name ever gone into the lot? […] In fact, Majesty, you risk less than any of us, don’t you? If she invades again, you merely barricade yourself in your own tower, just as I did. Only your tower is even taller.”

Kelsea has absolutely no answer for this, which is sad, as it’s a legitimate question. Not everyone is going to have access to the safety of a tower or a keep, and those who do are going to have to decide how to share that access without imperiling everyone involved. Johansen attempts to get round the problem it by making the nobles uniformly corrupt, awful people who positively relish murdering peasants, but that’s a con; Kelsea has created a situation that poses a dilemma for even the ideal noble. A lord or lady is sworn to obey their ruler, and the lottery system is inhumane and humiliating. But a lord or lady is also supposed to protect his or her people and property. If obeying the ruler means the total sacrifice of the people and land—and, based on the description of the last Mort invasion and the quality of the Tearling defense, it’s going to be an absolute slaughter—then how should a noble act? Is it right to disobey Kelsea’s orders? If not, how do they decide which people to protect and which people to leave to their fates?

But for Johansen, none of these matters are of any significance, and she signals that by putting the questions in the mouth of an old, ugly woman. Because the value of a woman’s speech is directly linked to her youth and appearance, of course.

Unfortunately for Kelsea, not all of the other nobles attending the audience seem to get that basic fact, and she appears to be losing their support. Why can’t they just forget all their problems and concentrate on how much of a dog this Andrews woman is! Fortunately for Kelsea, one of her guards, Mhurn, was one of Lady Andrews’s villagers, and he calls her out on some of the actual shitty things that she did, like locking out the poor people who attempted to find sanctuary in her household.

I’ve known the Queen barely a month, but I promise you, when the Mort come, she will try to cram the entire Tearling into this Keep, and she won’t care how recently they’ve bathed or how poor they are. She’ll make room for all.”

I hope that Kelsea has enough food for all, because otherwise that’s going to go south pretty quickly. Anyway, Lady Andrews demands the guard be whipped for his insolence, and Kelsea tells her to get the hell out once again. This time, she complies.

In the space of seconds, a thousand tiny lines sprung up in the taut skin of her face.

Yo, I hope you didn’t forget that this lady is old! And therefore bad!

I’m still not done with this chapter, which is really something of a gold mine. There’s some freaky stuff coming up involving child abuse and psychic friends that deserves its own post. Mercedes Lackey would blush, that’s all I can say.

Why Is Edward Heath Being Exposed Now? The Answer May Surprise You (Or Probably Not, I’m Just Posting This Because WTF, Jimmy Savile’s Walls)

Hands up, who here is surprised that Edward Heath has been named as a kiddy fiddler? Boo hiss to him, and all. Of course, this raises the question–he very well might have been, but why bother exposing him now?* Ken Clarke’s in the news for for accusations of approximately the same sort of thing, and he’s inconveniently alive and walking, so that might be one reason. However, there’s another reason I can think of, and while it may not be the primary reason, maybe just a convenient side effect, it is a subject that’s near and dear to every Tory’s heart–property.

Specifically, Edward Heath’s house. Unlike Gary Glitter, with his haunts in the far East, and Jimmy Savile, who seems to have literally lived in Hell House (it had black walls! for fuck’s sake!), Heath lived in a pretty corner of England–a listed Georgian house near Salisbury Cathedral. The house was originally cathedral property and Heath only held the lease, but through some dodgy dealing, he bought the house outright. However, as we all know, Heath had no close family, so after he died, that should have been an end to it.

But Heath left behind a substantial amount of money, and willed most of it towards keeping the house as a shrine to his own achievements. It would be kept as it was when he lived there, and people would trot through and admire his achievements.

Understandably, visitors weren’t beating down the doors to share Heath’s vision. After a series of closures and reopenings, it seemed like the shrine was about to put up the shutters. The property would finally be sold, all the memorabilia cleared out, and the house could revert to its normal function as a residence. However, some last-minute funders stepped in and by late 2013, the museum’s supporters finally had managed to establish the house as a permanent tourist attraction.

Imagine the feelings of the people of the cathedral close. First, Ted had swindled the church out of its rightful due, and now his ghost would squat among them permanently. Forever. Until the last syllable of recorded time.

And imagine the feelings of well-heeled denizens of the property ladder, knowing that that particular attractive rung was off limits, dedicated to storing the personal effects of Ted Heath, of all people. When there could be a family there… your family. (Granted, your family if your family had millions, but still.) If only there was a way to get that house back where it belonged…

But what a reverse! Now the innocuous spot where elderly day-trippers could look at Sir Edward’s piano and yacht paintings has turned into a den of pure kiddy-fiddling evil. Which is sad for all those abused kids, but is the exposure really such a tragedy from the point of view of the aspiring property owner? I suppose they’ll have to break up the contents and sell the house now, to protect the property from vandalism if nothing else. Whatta shame… Don’t run to the estate agent’s too quickly, dears. At least buy some sage first!

* If you’ve read this far, have a reward–this is probably and hopefully the most embarrassing thing I’ll ever admit on this blog, but I’ve read a biography of Edward Heath, and this Mirror rape story accusing Heath of rape doesn’t completely add up. The accuser says that the rape occurred in 1961, in a fancy flat full of yachting-related knickknacks. In 1961, Heath didn’t live anywhere fancy, and he didn’t start sailing until later in the 1960s (Private Eye suggested Heath’s yacht was a public relations exercise to get people to warm to the new, waxen Tory leader). So, unless Heath had a secret early passion for yachts along with his secret passion for kids, and he was borrowing his rich friends’ flats to pick up tricks, the dates are off.

I mean, I don’t want to trash a victim, because memory can be hazy, and it still could all be true. In which case, fuck that dude, once for being a kid rapist and once again for using some presumably unwitting friends’ flat as his pretend home/curio case/junior rape center. He broke ALL THE RULES, and not in a bodacious way, either.

Let’s Read Queen of the Tearling: Chapter 11, Part One

Why has it been so long since I updated this readalong? Well, I’ll admit it: I lost the damn book in my book hoard. What, you don’t have a giant pile of half-read books that can completely conceal a large hardback? It’s just me? Anyway, it’s all good, I guess, because we’re coming up to a real disaster of a chapter here. Gave myself a breather and all. And now I’m back to tackle Chapter 11. Continue reading →

Alice + Freda Forever

Just finished up Alexis Coe’s Alice + Freda Forever. I thought I would really enjoy this book—it got good reviews, and, you know, lesbians! murder! insanity!—but I found it difficult to read (the chronology of events is confusing, and some of the design choices make it difficult to read on a computer) and, worse, it’s oddly patriarchal in its views.*

The historical event behind the book: In 1890s Memphis, Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward, fell in love with each other at school. After Freda moved away, the two made plans to marry—Freda would sneak back to Memphis, Alice would disguise herself as a man, and they would get hitched at their local church. After Freda’s sister discovered their letters, she revealed the plans to Alice’s family and the relationship disintegrated. The heartbroken Alice waited until Freda made a visit to Memphis, then slashed Freda’s throat.

The book covers the girls’ relationship, the murder, and the subsequent insanity proceedings, in which the defense argued that Alice’s same-sex attachment proved that she was out of her mind and not fit for trial. Alice is obviously the more interesting figure of the two, just by virtue of living longer than Freda. But Coe valorizes Alice—a woman who dared to want to escape her mandated future of marriage and motherhood, who would love who she wanted to love, who supposedly screamed “I’m going to do just exactly what I wanted to do, and I don’t care if I do get hung!” as she dashed away from the murder scene. By doing so, Coe whitewashes that Alice’s rebellion against gender roles meant that she took on the worst of what it meant to be a “man,” ultimately leading to her lover’s death.

Alice may have wanted to escape her future as a wife or old maid, dependent on the whims of a man, but she didn’t extend that same freedom to her own lover. By planning on transforming herself into a man, she also planned to transform herself into a patriarch, assuming her rightful power over a wife-to-be. Alice’s letters reflect this view: Freda should be a model wife, a woman who never deceived, who was her spouse’s first and last love, who cooked and sewed buttons for her one and only. Freda enjoyed flirting and dreamed of going on the stage, but after she had promised herself to a future “husband”—whether that husband was male or female—she would have to forsake all others, even before marriage, and confine her dreams to the home. By transgressing those boundaries, Freda became a “bad woman” in Alice’s eyes. As her fiance and the “man” in the relationship, Alice had the right to kill her, a right which she made very clear in her various death threats to Freda, in letters or face to face. When Freda removed herself from Alice’s life, whether by choice or by force, Alice took advantage of her rights and killed her.

Coe’s depiction of Freda reinforces this old pernicious view, that a woman who isn’t fully submissive and loyal deserves to die. Coe describes Freda as “an incorrigible flirt” and states that Freda “callously” wanted to go on the stage despite her engagement. It’s especially troubling because Coe is describing a 17-year-old, barely out of girlhood even by 19th-century standards.

The whole courtship seemed to be a game of youthful dalliance that Freda greatly enjoyed; proposals were like trophies, accolades she enthusiastically accepted without seriously considering what came after. And yet, Freda continuously assured Alice—or rather, Alvin J. Ward, her fiance—that their marriage would inspire fidelity, and she would embrace the virtues of true womanhood. Freda blithely encouraged the transition, never truly grasping the peril the terms of her engagement put her in.

Yeah, no shit, it was a youthful dalliance because Freda was youthful. And she probably didn’t expect that her peril would include her being murdered in the middle of the street. Way to blame the victim, Coe.

I’m being a bit harsh, I guess—it’s not like I don’t enjoy sordid murder stories, I just don’t like sordid murder stories transformed into cri de coeurs for a higher cause. Coe uses the whole affair to argue for the right to same-sex marriage (which, at the time the book was published, was illegal in Tennessee), utterly ignoring what Alice’s treatment of Freda says about the concept of marriage in itself. There have been plenty of committed same-sex partnerships throughout history, partners who uphold our best ideals of Western, modern marriage—a union that reinforces the love between two people. But this particular relationship highlights the dark side of marriage: the idea that partners somehow become each others’ property, and that there’s a “male” power role that somebody has to play. Do same-sex couples now have the same right to destroy their partners as men have over women in heterosexual marriage? Same-sex marriage is now legal in every state, but really… who would want to get married after reading this book? Are you sure that you’re not entering an outmoded institution that oppresses women and all those who have to play the “female” role, the female who must be dutiful at all times, who has to hold up the world but never leave the kitchen? Are you sure that you want to enter this patriarchal death trap? I’m tempted to side with the anarchists of old and declare for free love only.

* Also, there’s some really inept dropping of Foucault bombs, which makes me think that this was somebody’s Women’s Studies 102 final paper before it became a book. Girl, don’t think I don’t know you! With your Madness and Civilization!