Fractal of Loops

Book Review: Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, by Ann Herendeen

This was originally published at in January.  And I’ve only just realized it never got cross-posted to this blog.

imageNote: This is a guest review from Rachel at dendritic-trees.   Rachel lives in Montreal and would read a lot more if she wasn’t so busy working on a PhD in Neuroscience.  She identifies as biromantic asexual.

It’s really rare to find a book where a man begins the story identifying as gay and then comes out as bisexual.

Andrew Carrington is the heir to an earldom and one of the most eligible bachelors in Regency England.  Unfortunately for both him and his potential brides, he’s not interested in women and much prefers the company of the men at the exclusive club, the Brotherhood of Philander, where men of similar tastes can gather.  Under pressure to marry and conceive and heir, he arranges to marry Phyllida Lewis, a young woman from an impoverished family who writes romance novels under a pseudonym.

Originally both partners are happy with the terms of their business-like arrangement, if not their actual marriage. Phyllida is financially secure and free to continue her writing career, while Andrew is free to start a relationship with Matthew Thornby, a handsome newcomer to London.  That is, if his enemies don’t discover and reveal the secrets of the Brotherhood of Philander while he finds himself increasingly and unexpectedly attracted to Phyllida.

The book gets off to a slow start that is driven largely by personality conflicts because none of the characters like each other very much, Andrew is rather misogynistic and Phyllida puts up with him because she has very little choice.  As Andrew spends more time around Phyllida and some of the other female characters, though, he revises a lot of his opinions about women and becomes a lot more pleasant.  Once it gets off the ground, it’s a very humorous Regency romance.  By the end I couldn’t put it down.

Andrew’s progression from perceiving himself as only being attracted to men, to realizing that he’s attracted to and falling in love with Phyllida is treated respectfully, but its also absolutely hilarious at times.  So is Phyllida’s developing attraction to Andrew, and, especially to Andrew and his male partners.  By the end of the story, he has shifted from a gay man who takes a wife for practical purposes, to a bisexual man in a polyamorous relationship with his wife and male partner.

The story never actually describes Andrew as bisexual, preferring period accurate language.  Ann Herendeen also provides a very thorough set of author’s notes where she explains both the history of gay and bisexual relationships and the language used to describe them and clarifies that she was specifically writing a bisexual romance.  This is one of the very few cases where having the author explain that a character is bisexual after the fact actually makes sense.  It keeps the historical detail intact but prevents any confusion for people who might have gotten a bit lost in the unfamiliar language.  Its also a great introduction to a some underrepresented history, and includes a few references for people who want to know more.

– Rachel

Master Chief is not like Grant Ward!!!!

So yesterday (well, it was yesterday when I started this, it’ll have been a few days by the time I finish it) my friend, and our resident loremaster Haruspis encountered a terrible thing. This terrible thing. Look at it. Its terrible.   So we had a little discussion about how terrible this was. Which is here, if the screenshot isn’t readable.

A screenshot of a tumblr post dicussing why master chief is not grant ward, there's a link to the same post in the line above.

But I feel like spending a little more time just expanding on all the many and varied reasons why this is terrible.

Let’s start with the basics.   Grant Ward is a Nazi. Hydra is a Nazi splinter group. Grant Ward is part of Hydra. Grant Ward is a Nazi. It is straight out stated by Skye IN EPISODE, so there really is no excuse for not grasping this. And this is a really inescapable fact about this character.

Master Chief is not a Nazi. I cannot believe I just had to type that sentence. But beyond this glaringly obvious fact, the two characters simply lack similarity. Master Chief is not like Grant Ward, because Ward’s a Nazi, but if Grant Ward were magically not a Nazi, Master Chief would still not be like Grant Ward.

For maximum contrast, lets think about Ward pre-reveal. The cover!Ward who we were first introduced to in the first half of season one was a pretty archetypal Manly Hero. He was a highly skilled secret agent. But he always worked alone. Because he had man-pain from his tragic past. And then he reluctantly warmed up to them as they slowly became a family (supposedly).

So even ignoring the obvious, it baffles me how you could compare Ward, even fake Ward, to John, whose relationships have always been central to his story. In fact, one of John’s key defining character traits has always been his deep capacity for personal loyalty and responsibility for his loved ones. The act that set John apart from the other Spartan-II’s and the reason he and not someone else is the leader of the Spartan’s is that during an exercise where the last Spartan trainee to arrive at a rendezvous point was supposed to be left behind to navigate down a mountain alone, John insisted that everyone be taken back, and then insisted that only he should be punished for the insubordination. And John’s commitment to the team he views as a family is repeatedly emphasized. He wishes desperately to stay behind on an exploding Covenant ship with Sam-034, to stay with his team on their suicidal mission to Reach instead of leaving for Halo on the Pillar of Autumn in Fall of Reach, to stay with Linda-058 while she recovers from surgery, and to bring home the body of Grace-093 from Unyielding Hierophant in First Strike and to remain with Cortana at the ends of Halo 2 and Halo 4 (the fact that he doesn’t do any of those things is a separate point and occurs because giving up the things you want is part of how heroism is constructed in Halo). John almost never operates alone and he’s never happy about it when he does. Not only that, but his approach to team leadership is characterized by constant care and attention to the physical and emotional states of the people he is commanding. First Strike illustrates this with a matched set of scenes, in the present, John takes control of the survivors from Halo, immediately trusting Polaksi and Johnson to work, but giving orders to Locklear because he correctly notes that that is what will keep the traumatized marine from panicking. In a flash back he flatters Fred (who prefers close quarters combat) into acting as a sniper-spotter and keeps his team from antagonizing their already angry live-round equipped opponents. His approach to leadership is emotionally competent, managerial and based heavily on paying close attention to his team’s preferences and emotional states.

Contrast this against Ward’s performative struggles to bond with his ‘new team’ in the first half of Agent’s of Shield and his loud protestations that he works best alone, rather than being forced to attend to a team.

Now, eventually it turns out Ward was deceiving, not bonding with his team, he was never a hero with an unpleasant exterior and a heart of gold, he was just unpleasant all the way through. But what has made Ward a compellingly terrifying villain during season two is that as he has descended further and further into villainy; attempting to murder Fitz and Simmons, manipulating and then betraying the brainwashed Agent 33, and eventually taking control of the remnants of Hydra, he remains firmly convinced that he is the morally complex hero he pretended to be. In Ward’s mind he really is a man-pain ridden hero forced to make difficult choices. When he re-encounters the team he betrayed, he seems baffled that they won’t accept a history of abuse as a literal excuse for murder, and forgive him.

And that behaviour, independent of the hero vs villain thing, is the second way in which Ward is the antithesis of the Master Chief. John has suffered huge amounts of trauma. The fact that he is very loved by his surrogate family; Dr. Halsey, Chief Mendez and the other Spartans does not change the fact that he is a kidnapped child soldier, he has been fighting a losing war for 27 years, encompassing a huge number of physical injuries and has seen almost all of his closest friends die in the process. His home planets (both the one he was born on and the one where he grew up) have been glassed and he’s been captured and tossed around by ancient and overwhelmingly powerful beings, on two separate occasions, at least one of whom (the Flood), he’s explicitly, enduringly terrified of.

But John handles his traumas with remarkable grace, and he does it largely without bleeding on other people.

Far from using internal pain to justify external violence towards all and sundry, outside of the purely professional setting of the battlefield, John is remarkably docile. He tolerates verbal abuse from Silva and Del Rio without comment. He willingly fights along side Thel’Vadam, the man who glassed his home, when many other (good, sympathetic) characters struggle to transition from thinking of the Sangheili as enemies to accepting them as allies (notably Vasily Beloi and Serin Osman in the Kilo-5 trilogy).

Given decades on the front lines of the Human-Covenant war a certain level of racism towards the Covenant from John, would actually be quite easily understandable, if not entirely excusable. Certainly it would be in no way comparable to Ward’s disturbingly casual alignment with one of the most notoriously hateful, racist ideologies of the 20th century. In the opening of Fall of Reach with the war with the Covenant still ongoing he even notes that “it wasn’t his job to make things suffer – he was just here to win battles.” And after a truce is established, he seems to have no trouble with Covenant allies.

So beyond the obvious differences between a character who is a hero and one who is a villain, any comparison between John-117 and Grant Ward is a profound and fundamental misunderstanding of John’s character. It not only erases all the things that make John a hero within the narrative he exists in, but, perhaps even more problematically, it also erases the what makes the Master Chief a unique and valuable character within his media landscape.

The Spartan-IIs were abducted and trained from childhood to be soldiers. To be totally comfortable and acclimatized to violence first towards human insurrectionists and then towards Covenant invaders. That is the basis of John’s story. So it would have been totally internally consistent with Halo: CE’s game mechanics, with the story, with the shooter genre and with the surrounding media landscape (the original trilogy of Halo games are roughly contemporary with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy), for John to be a vicious Dark Knight’esque anti-hero, or even a Winter Soldier-like semi-automaton (even as he is, agency is not is strong suite). It would have been boring and unoriginal, and it would have made Halo as a franchise unrecognizable, but John is not an inevitable part of his own narrative. He’s interesting and special as a hero at least in part because of all the ways he could have been different and in specific, in all the ways where he deviates from the cookie-cutter masculinity of the lone, angry action hero. And this is acknowledged within the Halo narrative. Jacob Keyes says outright that

“What makes the Chief so effective isn’t what he is, but who he is.   His record is not the result of technology – not because of what they’ve done to him but in spite of what they’ve done to him, and the pain he has suffered.”

And if you’re going to totally ignore or miss out on all that character development and at least half the story, then what is the point?

What Would Happen if We Got Paid for Fanfiction

Over the course of my life-time, I will only buy a certain number of couches.  Every couch I buy from Ikea, is one I’m not buying elsewhere, and every couch I find on the side of the road is one I’m not paying for at all.  This puts all couch sellers in competition for my couch buying dollars.  And the same goes for food, shoes, bedsheets, and most other commodities.

This children, is called Capitalism.  And its invasive and inescapable.

Read the rest of this entry »

Aimless Meanderings about Headcanons and Representations

As part of the current rush of pre-Halo 5 rush of information, Michelle Lukes, a mixed race British actress, was recently revealed as the new voice for Kelly-087.

A tweet announcing that Michelle Lukes will voice Kelly-087 in Halo 5, an image of Kelly-087 from Halo 5 aiming a pistol, and an image of Michelle Lukes doing the same.

Kelly is a long standing and beloved character in the Halo’verse and has, in addition to Ms. Lukes, been portrayed by voice actress Luci Christian (in Halo Legends) and actress Jenna Berman, who are both white.  This does technically leave a certain amount of room for interpretation of Kelly’s race.  But as far as I’m concerned, Kelly is now a canonically mixed race character, and I think you should all agree with me.

Read the rest of this entry »

Earthly Knights

John and Cortana’s relationship is, in essence, one long retelling of The Ballad of Tam Lin.

Read the rest of this entry »

Medieval Thought in High Fantasy

Inspired by this Tumblr thread and because I’ve started reading the Song of Ice and Fire series.

One of the more interesting courses I took during my undergraduate degree was called A History of Magic, Science and Religion. Which was about exactly what it sounds like. One of the more interesting things I learned during that course is that the modern idea of progress is relatively recent. Nowdays we tend to see progress as more or less linear. We assume that technology will get more advanced and society more sophisticated and just as time goes on.

But this originated sometime during the Victorian era (I can’t remember exactly when anymore). Earlier than that, and during the Medieval era especially, people believed the opposite. Most medieval scholars believed that the Greek and Roman eras represented a Golden Age, and that both people and society were deteriorating. So while a modern person given a time machine might be tempted to travel into the future to see the various innovations they would expect, a Medieval person, given the same opportunity would probably much rather travel back in time to see the wonders of the past. They would expect that the future would look very much like the present, if not worse.

Read the rest of this entry »

Golems of Reach

In Halo: CE the player is introduced to the Master Chief, the series primary protagonist.  Within the game Master Chief is presented as a singular figure, a faceless, nameless and seemingly emotionless being with physical abilities far beyond those of the regular human NPCs.  The limited amount of backstory that comes with the game explains that Master Chief is the last surviving member of a group of biochemically augmented super-soldiers called Spartans who were created and trained to fight the implacable Covenant, a group of technologically and numerically superior alien races who were on a religious crusade to destroy the human race.

This origin story bears a striking resemblance to the legend of the Golem of Prague.  The legend relates that the golem was created in 16th century Prague by Rabbi Loew to protect the Jews of Prague from anti-Semitic mobs, here corresponding with the religiously motivated Covenant.  The golem was a giant man made out of clay who was superhumanly strong and tireless, like the Master Chief.  The Golem also could not speak and while Master Chief can, he is also famously taciturn.  Eventually though, the golem was destroyed, according to one version of the legend, to prevent him working on the Sabbath, or in another, because he fell in love with the Rabbi’s daughter, but either way he falls apart and is stored in a box in the Temple so that he can defend the Jews of Prague when the need next arises.  This last element corresponds quite well to the end of Halo 3 where Master Chief, stranded in uninhabited space after the destruction of the Arc and the defeat of the Covenant, enters cryogenic stasis to await rescue, literally climbing into a coffin-like box.  Being a playable character, Master Chief is also controlled by the player.  In that context he becomes the player’s virtual golem.

Read the rest of this entry »

Villains of Narrative Convenience – A Rant

Where were the villains in Amazing Spiderman 2?  There were a whole range of supposed antagonists running around the screen, monstrous supervillains, common crooks, shady corporate big-wigs, mad scientists, all of them.  No really, all of them.  This film had more apparent bad-guys than it knew what to do with.  Which makes it kind of a mystery why the movie spends so much screen time on its least villainous supposed villains.

Read the rest of this entry »

Locating Intimatopia

Elizabeth Woledge, in her essay Intimatopia: Genre Intersections Between Slash and the Mainstream identifies two forms of romantic literature, described as “romantopic” literature, which occurs in the fictional universe of “Romantopia”, and “intimatopic” literature which occurs in “Intimatopia”.  Romantopic literature, which is the typical heterosexual romantic type plot found in Harlequin romance novels and are characterized by romance and passion in the absence of intimacy; “although sex might provide a temporary oneness, it is a oneness enjoyed with reluctance, for the hero and/or heroine are generally ambivalent about the love they feel.  It is also a temporary oneness that does not extend to other aspects of the relationship; “indeed, in romantopia, the heroine may marry the hero still marvelling at how little she knew him.”    Intimatopic romance, which was first described in the context of homoerotic “slash” fanfiction, arises out of prior emotional intimacy.  “Intimatopia is a homosocial world in which the social closeness of the male characters engenders intimacy…  In intimatopic slash fiction the use of a homosocial backdrop is the ‘logical’ way to explore a homosexual relationship… Sex in intimatopia is used, not unlike the homosocial communities depicted, as a tool to enhance intimacy.”

Woledge associated intimatopic romance with homosexual relationships and romantopic relationships with conventional heterosexual relationships and identified different genres in which the two tend to occur.  In her essay, Romantopiais associated with Harlequin, and Mills and Boon romance novels, and with mainstream romance more generally.  The same ideas are also present in most Disney princess movies where the prince typically rescues the princess then marries her more or less on sight.  Intimatopiais associated with slash fanfiction[1] and a specific subset of professional homoerotic and often explicitly homosexual texts, implying that the two ‘worlds’ are entirely separate constructions.

However the idea of the two approaches to romance can be constructed much more broadly while still retaining their original uses.  Stripped of their highly specific genre associations a romantopic romance is based on passionate love which develops despite a lack of emotional intimacy and is coded as heterosexual and broadly heteronormative.  An intimatopic romance develops out of previously established emotional intimacy and is coded as queer.  Which can be seen in the case of Sam and Dean Winchester in Supernatural.

Read the rest of this entry »

They Get You Coming and Going – The Problem with Subtextual Bisexuals

Media representation for minority groups is crucially important.  I’ve written about this before.  Over on my Tumblr Dashboard, there are two major discussions about bisexual representation occurring.  The first is a long-running debate about the canonicity of Destiel (the romantic relationship between Dean Winchester and Castiel on Supernatural).  The second is the increasingly common identification of Steve Rogers as a bisexual character.

Read the rest of this entry »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 174 other followers