Melusine and the romance of victimhood

I picked up Sarah Monette’s Melusine at the library, on the “recommendation” of this review. I admit I was tempted because I wanted to see how bad things got.

Here’s one thing I have to get out of the way first. Melusine is advertised as a gay romance. Melusine is definitely not a gay romance. There’s exactly one non-abusive sexual relationship between men in the whole book, and it’s broken up in the very first pages.* There are, of course, plenty of men forcing boys into child prostitution, men committing physical abuse against other men, and men coercing other men into sex acts. None of this is portrayed as part of a sexual fantasy where somehow there’s no harm and no foul, it’s all meant to be physically and mentally harmful to the victim. It’s a little like Sebastiane if somebody removed all the nasty kinky parts where men enjoy fucking each other and just left in the part with the arrows.

One of the two protagonists, Felix, is attracted to men. Felix is also described as clever, handsome, and very powerful, but he’s like this for about five pages before somebody exposes his Dreadful Past, which forces him to sexually degrade himself and eventually be Power Raped by his evil mentor during a magic rite, driving him into lovingly detailed bouts of madness that leave him helpless and infantilized.*

Once Felix is Power Raped, almost everyone he meets mistrusts and abuses him, even when it’s in their own best interest to treat him well. Example: Felix’s fellow wizards find him unable to speak or work magic in the company of his evil mentor, who is also a foreigner running off to an enemy capital after the destruction of the city of Melusine’s most potent magical artifact. Do the wizards bother to detain this man or examine whether Felix is under compulsion? No, because then they couldn’t sneer at him and send him to a creepy madhouse and sneer at him some more! This pattern repeats over and over—Felix manifests symptoms that are obviously a sign of compulsion or a change in his magic powers, yet the other characters ignore him and are obviously meant to be Bad.

A few characters display kindness towards Felix, most importantly Mildmay, fellow narrator and Felix’s long-lost sibling. Like Felix, Mildmay has a Dreadful Past—he was raised in a gang of child thieves and became a pickpocket, cardsharp, and assassin, complete with horrific, painful punishment curse for his crimes. However, once Mildmay encounters Felix, he feels compelled to take care of him, because Felix’s pain is so compelling and pure that it trumps everything else the presumably highly experienced Mildmay has ever seen in his life.**

Melusine does involve a romance, but it’s the romance of victimhood, where suffering is a sign of purity and goodness and a sort of aphrodesiac. Felix is a good person because bad people hate and persecute him, not because he demonstrates himself to be particularly smart, or clever, or kind.*** The blurbs on Melusine‘s cover compare it to Jacqueline Carey’s books, presumably because there’s “nontraditional” (whatever that means) sex involved, but I was reminded of Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels trilogy, which also has a protagonist whose main purpose is to be ultra-special and powerful while not doing much of anything at all except being a human litmus test (bad people hate the protagonist and want to kill them, and good people fall at their feet and worship their specialness and defend them against the bad people). It’s the ultimate devotion fantasy, in that the protagonist doesn’t have to do anything but suffer, beautifully, and this earns them the full devotion of the redeemable parts of the world world. Again, Sebastiane, except that St. Sebastian bothered to tell off the Roman emperor and did eventually die (if not from all those arrows).

This victimhood fantasy is very feminine, in that the protagonist isn’t supposed to, well, do anything except absorb the world’s blows. Their passivity reveals their goodness (in a book with a female protagonist, the reactive, passive heroine is usually contrasted with an active bitch of an antagonist, as if action makes a woman repellant). The protagonist’s very appearance and manner is supposed to reveal his or her superiority, without the need for any sort of corrupting action or decision on his or her part. Felix isn’t a man who wants to have sex with other man, he’s the traditional goddess-who-needs-constant-rescue in a man’s body. That homosexuality somehow gets conflated with this fantasy of passivity is just depressing for men and women both.

I don’t think I’m going to go on with the series, but apparently it ends with more gang rape and with the two brothers raping each other? Or something? Because it’s a world of rape magic? I don’t know, man. I just… I mean, even Danny de Vito knows that shit is wrong.

Just two men like loving brothers!

* The only fully portrayed romantic relationship is heterosexual, although the woman is portrayed as untrustworthy and ends up dead for no particular reason. But nobody rapes her! So that’s good!

** This pattern only changes near the end of the book, when Felix gets his magic powers back and the position of poor accused woobie falls to Mildmay. After a long quest, Felix and Mildmay are rescued from a storm by some magic types with cod-Greek names who somehow know that Mildmay is a murderer. Instead of being surprised that complete strangers on the other side of the world know about his past, Mildmay immediately begins to have the sad feelings, as if he just naturally expects to be abhorred. He also suddenly thinks of himself as his brother’s natural inferior, instead being of half-cowed, half-repelled by his brother’s upper-class manners. This is also after Felix feels desire towards Mildmay, feminizing him. Oh, this book is creepy.

*** He is hot, which seems to be a requirement for the ultravictim. Ugly people still look gross when they cry and suffer!

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