Be A Masculoclast

Usually the focus of my blog includes the representation of women and all queer people, as well as issues related to them. Trans people will be a regular topic here. The power we have to use art to shape culture, to create visibility, to shed light, is a valuable power.
How would you feel if I said that it’s important to use that power to represent men?

This raises questions–like how men, as a group, are under any kind of visibility razor, and why we should care about raising visibility for men when history and literature are overwhelmingly rife with stories that center on male perspectives and experiences. It also raises the question of why we have a responsibility to value an “equality” of visibility, and who we have that responsibility to as artists.

My curly, mystical answer is that our responsibility is to art itself–but that we cannot shoulder all of a burden individually. Art is personal, and thus can be political, but art is also not the same as a political thesis. However, on this blog I assume a certain interest of my audience, that the values of representation, of shedding light, and of envisioning humanity positively, are shared. That you don’t need explained why wielding your glaives in the name of many voices is a noble deed. So I must also answer that we have a responsibility towards ourselves. Because the mythology of our selves is part of the world we live in, and it speaks subterraneally to who we become.

A few weeks ago, a shooting took place on the UCSB campus in which a man killed two women and four men of color before killing himself. I’m certain many of you reading this now are well aware of the shooting and the firestorm that surrounded its coverage. The fuel for the killer’s violence was no mystery. In fact, he composed a sprawling, horrifically rendered “manifesto” about his perspective on the world, in which he believe women were the fundamental evil of society because of their supposed sexual power over men. He spared no effort to express how deeply, almost existentially, he despised women as not being sexually available to him, because he believed he deserved sexual attention and for women to have the power of “no” was terrifying. He also made clear how it appalled him that non-white men would be chosen by white women, as if this were a personal mockery of him for not being so “chosen.” In his mind, women were denying him his right to sexual actualization and men of color were taunting him by obtaining what he couldn’t. His answer was lethal violence.

That misogyny and racism underpinned his rage is plain. However, a perhaps subtler element to his violence is that to the killer, everything was external. All of his anxiety about his self, his identity, were to him problems with the physical world itself. It wasn’t merely that he saw the sexual attention of women as something he desired, or even deserved–he saw it as his identity. In the killer’s view of the world, ownership of others and their actions was more than a pleasure, it was a necessary part of being a man. This makes masculinity an innate property of the world itself, and one that other people can violate by having their own wills that contradict the desires of men who see those desires as fundamentally right.

What many commentators on the shooting missed was that the killer was not a Bad Apple. He was not an isolated incident. He was parroting how his own sexual and gender identity was trained into him–as revolving around naturally deserved ownership. I doubt I need to point to the cultural undercurrent that a man’s manhood can be altered by how people react to him. Our whole dialogue about maleness actually makes it a part of the world itself, as much to do with other people as with the man in question.

So while people may feel shocked at the killer’s violence, his belief system was far from fringe. This construction of masculine identity around recognition, status–and thus power–is part of what I term the masculinity mythos. A mythology that permeates society, couching history in terms of duty and ownership, and turning gender itself into a kind of class object. To the killer, women were enemies to the mythos he depended on to define himself, and men less white than him were akin to thieves in the night, stealing his right to a life on his terms.

Our illusions have consequences. Myths have hard edges. So how do we challenge this? Does it not throw the entire concept of male identity, of masculinity on all levels, into question?

Once I saw a blogger mention that they could not understand the motives of trans men. They wondered, how do you end up identifying with a gender partly defined by power, by violence, and misogyny?

Well, hell. What a way to put trans men on the spot, right? I’m not a man myself, and I’ve love to hear a trans man’s view on this–but for the moment, setting aside some of the transphobic aspects of that thought for now, I think I have a concept to add.

We need something I call masculoclasm.

Combining “masculine” and “iconoclasm,” it’s a term I’ve started using for the process of breaking up the mythos of masculinity. To our society masculinity is a gender identity alchemically fused with a language of symbols, of action over feeling, of images of grandiose battle, with an unwritten code of duty and power. The mythos is an association of maleness with dominance, with being the owner, the master, the decision-maker, and proliferator. This is the meaning of a gender role, such that it implicates a job given at birth, and you better you do it well–and everyone else had better not get in your way. If your job includes “winning” the attention of women, for women not to give that attention may feel, perversely, like a challenge to your very existence.

Masculoclasm dissolves the fusion. Let’s look at the elements combined in the pot of masculinity. Strength; ardor to exercise will. Stoicism; thought and action over emotion or reception. Determination; behaving as a problem solver. Competition; racing other men for status. Heterosexual achievement; not only attraction to women, but a centering of the emotions around women as an extension of the self. Independence; standing singular, valuing justice over compassion and self over other.

None of these traits truly need be gendered traits. Gendering in society of course entails attaching behaviors to a wholesale narrative of maleness or femaleness. By being masculoclastic, one reinvents what masculinity means. What does such an identity look like when these links are broken or remade–and who is going to show us?

Men will.

Not only men, necessarily. However, I rest on an observation that men to whom power is not so much a part of the package–who are alienated from the mythology as outliers, as failures–must always challenge the iconography in order to make a place in it. Throughout my life I’ve been surrounded by men who defy the mythology in some way–gay men, feminine men, bi men, or trans men. By the mythology, they fall short. Traitors to the cause, less than men, mockeries, eunuchs. As a trans woman, I can at least understand the traitor stigma. For me to not only reject the male role, but to say that I never was male to begin with, is a staggering contradiction.

Men like this often find themselves asserting along the divide of identities why their maleness is not about a role. The mythology tends toward defining femininity only as secondary, as a lack of masculine traits. Similarly, men “fail” the mythology by the mythology not accurately describing them. Once again, collectively we read our beliefs as part of the world. To be seen as weak, rather than stoic. Needy instead of strong and independent. To fall short of proper attainment of success with females, to fail at being a good stud. Or, more grave a sin still, to eschew male heterosexuality altogether. To desire men, to display sides of the self that other men may desire in return. How horrifying to the mythos, to not only set aside heterosexual success, but the whole business of projecting one’s desires onto women. And most shocking of all? To have a body that “should” be female. This reality delivers such a blow to the mythos that it is far easier to simply deny it, to paint such men as laughable girls, playing at manhood out of admiration or jealousy.

One of my best friends growing up is a gay man; he described to me his process of growing into an adult and slowly coming to terms with what it meant for him to be a man. For years, he only felt comfortable being identified as a boy, not a man. “Man” seemed to suggest a state not meant for him, one which he was simultaneously expected to fulfill and yet was unwelcome from. Identifying as male nonetheless, he eventually became able to say “I am a man” in a way that meant describing him as a person, rather than suggesting any tie to a role.

This type of journey is one all trans people, and most queer people, no doubt take in some form. And for those whose identity is male, masculine, it must mean reinvention from what is expected–because part of their identity, too, is that those expectations will not come to pass. They will not fall in line with the mythos. The mythos wreaks destruction and binds men to it as though it were desirable. As though they had no choice. Masculoclasts stand and say “we have choice.”

Masculoclasm can be both internal and external, a process of inner work and something expressed. It’s logical to say that most men, because of the mythos they’re immersed in, must break their own iconography, a path queer and trans men are pushed onto. It requires awareness and action, both for men who have to examine what their identities mean to them, and men who have been introspecting about it for years. But what does this have to do with art?

On a larger level, as I said above, it’s important to use our imagery. Use our swords. In this case, less to generate visibility as to change that visibility. We can rewrite the mythos, if we let people see. See not only examples of its artifice, but to narrate masculoclasm through lives, characters, victories, choices. It can be as elementary as depicting our male characters responsibly–breaking the associations with violence, showing them defy the male role without the connotation of failure. We need to show men giving up their mythos and being admirable in doing so.

But more specifically, this has a deep application to my own writing, which is why I began thinking so much on this topic. I spend a lot of time writing gay male characters. I write them romantically, from an emotional viewpoint, and their relationships are key to their stories. I’ve written men with a variety of gender expressions. Some of what we might call “successfully” masculine, in that they are rough-spoken, physical apt, assertive, stoical. Or, especially, that they are aesthetically masculine. Bearded faces, muscular forms, masculine interests like hunting or sport.

But I’ve noticed a pattern–that “successful” masculinity only flows to a point. Gay romance and erotic stories traditionally employ a role system of submissive, feminine partner and tough, masculine partner. I ponder which characters in a particular story might be seen as filling which classic role. However, I always reach a point with my men where I see the lines blurring. I see that I can’t really determine which is which role–and I don’t actually want to. The men who have a very masculine style still end up being tender. They cry. They say what they feel. They give up their own will. They become vulnerable. They give up violence. And they often find these the very means of their victory.

And they’re queer, for another thing. This means more than illustrating that men can be both queer and still men. It’s also a matter of story structure. Romance stories traditionally frame a female heroine in a way that society is assumed to be comfortable seeing a woman–as being in love, as wooed by a male love interest who we see through actions rather than feelings, and as being vulnerable. This isn’t to say that female heroes in romance stories lack agency, but that the the very style of storytelling is often relatively comfortable alongside our cultural ideas about women. They’re stories about love, about confessions, about relationships.

Don’t mistake me! I love the romance genre and the women that populate it. But part of what I find so enjoyable about the gay romance subgenre is how its very structure is inherently masculoclastic. We take a traditionally female-centered narration and apply to a male character. It paints men in terms of their feelings, their relationships, their potential for softness, and very importantly, their identities without the implied existential ownership of women.

As I said when I started this blog, I don’t know if fiction can save the world. I don’t know if fighting the masculinity mythos with my sword, flooding the false iconography out with my own images, will change the hearts of men like the killer. But I think it can change something. And I know that, as an artist, if nothing else, I can and will stand up and say “no” to myths I do not believe.

I bid you all, take up your implements of battle, and tear down the mythos. Be masculoclasts.

Words: 2297

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Unsheathed

I want to make some compelling narration of how I, with my artist’s blade, have been wandering out in some figurative desert, thus explaining my absence. The reality is I doubt so romantic.

I apologize to all my readers who have wondered where I went. I have been in a desert of sorts. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been going through some changes in schedule, which meant reworking how I approach this blog. However, what I didn’t quite expect then was how much I would have to examine. A depressive episode hit me much harder than I could have anticipated, and I’ve been working my way back out of it for what has amounted to a three week hiatus.

All my writing has suffered somewhat because of it, and first I had to focus on healing my connection with my fiction writing. But I’m also turning my strength back to this blog, because I love doing it. For a while, I may not post in the structure I’ve usually used, but I’ll be working on my weekly posts again.

A few changes are in order that I’ve had a chance to consider over my hiatus. I’ve made the decision to move to one review a month, rather than two, as well as one spotlight a month. However, I believe I’ll spend some more time on my feature articles and discussion posts.

This blog is about both fiction and identity, pertaining not only to writing but matters of social theory and justice. So, of course both elements have been at play in my work here. I’ve realized I enjoy the focus on social theory more than I expected, so you can plan on seeing more pieces about feminism, queer and gender theory, and trans issues. Sometimes they may not connect directly to aspects of fiction, making this a fully distinct theme of the blog.

As always, if you have any suggestions or comments, feel free to give them!

Author Spotlight–A Shot of Ginn Hale

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Key Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Brightest Stars: Worldbuilding Star, Tearjerker Star, Insight Star

Today I spotlight Ginn Hale, award-winning author of gay fantasy romance and standout member of the Blind Eye Books crew, as well the author of last week’s review.
Ginn Hale was among my firsts. Believe it or not, there was a time when I didn’t read gay fiction, and had no idea where to find it, which contributed to my malaise about reading for years. When I began plumbing the world of writers about gay-themed stories, Ginn Hale was one of the first I found. I saw her reviewed as possessing awe-inspiring talents and a fulminating, staggering imagination.
So who says reviews are never accurate?

This first and fateful encounter was a book which needs no introduction (especially since I just reviewed it), Wicked Gentleman. I can confidently name this book a masterpiece. But it carries an element that is almost more personal. I heard that Hale spent ten years, in the process of creating this book, finding a publisher before Blind Eye became available and took on the story. So, forgive me for filling in gaps as I imagine her tirelessly seekng out a space for her delicately crafted story centered on gay love that had to fight an uphill battle at every step. I feel no qualm in naming her one of the pioneers of gay fiction, and gay characters in fiction, increasing in visibility as we see today.

As gay romance authors go, I find her stories to be more to the romantic side of the romance-erotica spectrum, but this does not mean her couplings lack spark. Perhaps more traditional to formal romances, she nonetheless delivers in the buildup of sexual tension. Ironically, this is true despite the presence of rather early, and unambiguous, sexual encounters in the beginnings of her stories. Kiram and Javier are seeing each other naked rather early; and Harper and Belimai have their first drunken tryst before Act II. I find this is a twistedly enjoyable and distinct take on more familiar plot structures in these genres.

What’s To Love

I don’t even know where to start with Ginn Hale. Then again I feel pretty good about having that particular problem with my authors, which I typically do.

One thing you must absorb–you simply must, I insist, and chase it with a bit of gin–is that Ginn Hale worldbuilds. She worldbuilds like a boss. She sparkles and floats in a rarified aether of worldbuilding grace and creativity, and shimmering raindrops of crystallized fantasy realms patter across the pages of her stories.

Her creations always scintillate with insights, motes of vision and theory and possibility, about society, about freedom, about peace. I don’t mean only that her stories are thematic–they are–but that in exercising fantasy invention, she fleshes out worlds which are simply fascinating to consider.

One series, the Lord of the White Hell, exhibits a culture class between a society that is highly patriarchal, and one of arguable few fictional matriarchies. She spins this conflict largely in terms of religion; one religious tradition that is doctrinally centered on obedience and purity, and supports patriarchal dominance sentiments like lordship and the sovereignity of virtue and abstinence. The other is an existential tradition of spirit in life, of guardianship and ritual magic, replete with talking to trees. One is sharply heterosexist, the other more philosophical and fluid about human roles.

One could argue that this is stereotypy of East vs West, another battle of fictional Catholocism with fictional Buddhism with casualties of accuracy, but I don’t think so. Ginn Hale does not simply lift familiar concepts wholesale out of our minds and paint her own names on them. We’re not encouraged to idolize anything, any symbol we would make of liberation or compassion. This is my next great point about her; her glimpses of possibility do not come with a layer of instruction. She’s not insisting on her commentary, sitting over top of the story as if we were reading half novel and half treatise, a fear I’ve often known people to have about reading a “commentary” work. The characters live in these issues.

Part of this is how her stories never flinch in reporting the strident horror of oppressive or violent realities. In one series, the gay main character hides his relationship because the moment it is revealed, he will almost certainly be killed. I don’t mean to suggest that stories about gay love should always face that! We could certainly do without chewing on how real violence is. But this blistering gaze on oppression is valuable because it’s application. Today, including in places like the United States and Europe.

In fact, I’ve noticed that as her worldbuilding escalates, the grittier an eye she seems to take. I applaud that. Not because I fault LGBT fiction for being too mild, but because I want chances for straight readers to see the wicked underbelly.

Perhaps this bravura and insight is what gives her stories their sense of timelessness. Have you ever found an old book in, say, your grandparents’ basement, and the tone of the prose combined with the browned pages gives you a sense of a story that may have existed forever? I feel something like this with Hale’s books. Wicked Gentlemen strikes a chord somewhere between literary classic and past-life diary. Always these narratives slip under my memories and feel personal, transcendent, and difficult to place.

Brightest Stars

Worldbuilding Star: I’ve talked about her worldbuilding. If you’ve read my review of her debut novel, I think you can understand why. She has written a world where demons became Christian and spawned their own race of humanity, similar to the story of Lillith. She has a series in which a destiny of possession is filtered through religion, with white hells, red hells, Bahiim shajdi, and ghost lockets. In the Rifter series, she has invented a language which the characters actually speak, as well as a dearth of history chronicling war and religion, and one of the most compelling time-travel stories I have ever witness. Simply cataloguing the various trinkets, words, images, concepts, and other details of her settings is entertaining.

Tearjerker Star: I will say it again–the stuff fine-ass tears are made of. Her stories inevitably vary in their level of heartbreak, but they are always so visceral. The unflinching quality I spoke of above makes them feel emotionally constant, gripping, and effectual. Our world is full of harsh, soul-bleeding realities, ones we often dislike pondering–but she ponders them. This isn’t merely a contemplation on suffering, but a truth in which her characters must act on a level of need, compassion, and combat.

Insight Star: As I said above, Hale manages brilliant commentary with a subtle touch. She focuses a lens not theorizing society through a dogma, but on deconstructing and reconstructing identities, familiar concepts, and social norms over and over again. She engages in a literal pioneership of the imagination that any fantasy lover, and any seeker of symbolically filling work, will devour with hunger and gratitude.

Bibliography at a Glance
Wicked Gentlemen (Hell’s Below): As I said above, a book that needs no introduction, because I already gave one. Read my review! I awarded it the same stars I know her for.

The Lord of the White Hell: Kiram Kir-Zaki is probably the only mechanist at Sagrada Academy in Cadeleon, but one thing is certain. He’s the only Haldiim boy. A non-white people segregated not only for their ethnic distinction from the Cadeleonians, but their matriarchal and matrifocal society in which homosexuality is seen as relatively normal. This in no way prepares Kiram for a rough-spirited boys’ school where he hears tales of demonic possession, realizes the real danger of physical and sexual violence from the older boys, and being hit on by his surprisingly naked roommate, Javier. Kiram’s lack of superstition makes him the only boy brave enough to share a room with the Javier Tornesol, possessed of the white hell, a malevolent force which manifests in mystical powers that have arisen in the past to harm body and soul of those around him.
What Kiram comes to find is instead a young man protecting an endangered loved on, believing his own soul lost even as he submits it to the pleasures of despair. And a searing closeness and need that could prove deadly in the Cadeleonian world in which the bond between the two boys, and their cultural enstrangement, will be feared more than a hell of any color.

The Rifter Series: A staggering, intricate masterwork in which Hale imagines the world of Basawar, complete with a linguistic texture and classic elements of one our own transported to a strange other land. Reminiscent of works such as Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, John Toffler and his friends Laurie and Bill are lost in a strange alternate earth in which the transition is anything but easy. While many works using this trope understandably work around issues like language barriers and cultural disparities, Hale embraces them. John and his friends have only one choice, which is to figure out how to assimilate, and fast, into this land where religious warfare and threatening magic make everyday life rife with danger, separation, and unavoidable change in identity. They must carve a path across time in the spanning battle of the Rifter, the god who would bear down destruction on both their worlds.

Ginn Hale can be found at her site, her Livejournal, and as an author at Blind Eye Books.

Schedule Squishing

I’ve had some delayed posts recently, and I think I may be due for a few more. My work and writing schedules have both been in flux lately, so I think for the next week or so, I will adopt a more fluid schedule as situations allow.

I apologize for the delays everybody!

A Land With No Men

So, the mythos goes that the Amazons were a society with no men.

Whether the story has a historical root is not what I plan to address here, but I’ve always liked what an interesting thought this is. Moreso, perhaps, because of how we as a society react to it.

The first question is always: how does a society with no men exist? This has two layers. Firstly, we tend to assume heterosexuality is necessary for a successful social fabric (heterosexism). Secondly, we see our species as sexually dimorphic, so we question how any community can propagate and yet have no men.

Typically, I see the interpretations of Amazons as quintessential man-rejectors. They’re a mythic incarnation of straw-feminism, the notion that a women-centric mindset leads to distrusting, hating, and ultimately pushing out men. So the explanations tend to go thusly: that Amazons cast out any male children born to them, or that they kill male children. That they kidnap men from other communities to breed, but don’t let the breeding males have any power in their society (does that sound familiar?). The focus always revolves around finding ways to keep propagating but be as male-free as possible.

I don’t know, sounds like a lot of work to me.

A friend mentioned to me yesterday a theory about how the Amazon society could have existed, one that’s gained some popularity among a small number of DC Comics fans as they consider the cultural origin of Wonder Woman. The theory is not only intriguing but much simpler and more plausible than the man-rejection idea.

A society not having men doesn’t have to have anything to do with biology.

The man-rejector notion, spinning Amazons as the original “feminazi,” is obviously anti-feminist and misogynistic. But it also suggests that we can’t conceive of a society that has different definitions of sex and gender than we do.

The easy way to have a society with no men work is if that society simply does not use biology to determine if you are a man or a woman. The theory goes that Amazon culture still has “male” babies–with visible penises, usually the marker of a boy–born into it. But the Amazons simply don’t consider those babies to be male. They’re raised as women just like the “female” babies are.

So if the question is “what do they do with their boy babies?” the answer is “Nothing, because we don’t have them.” The result is–looking through our culture’s eyes–a community of cis and trans women who all consider each other to be equally women.

Discuss! What do you think of this idea? What do you think the consequences would be? What about a society of all cis and trans men? What do you think that would look like?

How Not To Talk About Trans People

So much of the very idea of being trans is tied up in definitions, of existence, of selfhood, or expression, that what a trans person actually is can be hard for some people to discern. I’ve found that many cisgender folks frankly just don’t have any idea of how to think about trans folks. Remember, coming out as trans often means a practice of self-depiction. So today my article is fairly straightforward: I’m going to mention a few ways not to depict trans people, whether in your speech or your writing.

Here are my don’ts.

Don’t talk about us in terms of transition. Transness actually surrounds and fills your whole life. It’s an identity, like being a cisgender woman or man is. You don’t become trans when you undergo a transition process.

In our society, it’s common for a trans person to undergo a transition process to represent their own gender identity better The classic thinking is that this is corrective, like curing a disease. But being trans isn’t a disease. I said before that we engage in self-depiction. This is a means of coming out, of communicating ourselves with our bodies, our actions, our words. We’re not becoming anything, except more open and accurately depicted.

In addition, being trans encompasses many experiencs besides the period of transition. I’ve heard some trans folks say they feel like they’re always in a form of transition, others not. But either way, transition is not the defining experience.

Don’t talk about us in terms of passing. Too often I see someone talk about a trans person’s “success” in passing well. Many articles could be written on why judging success by passing, and the concept altogether, is a problem. Suffice to say here that we don’t all pass as, meaning our transness is often visible. We shouldn’t have to make it invisible.

Being judged by aspects of your appearance that pass–or don’t pass–creates a queasy, invaded feeling to me. Trans folks I’ve known agree that it feels like being examined as chunks of meat. A disturbingly common experience is for cisgender people to mention us first by what they’ve noticed they can use to identify us. She had a big Adam’s Apple. You can tell he’s trans by his browline. His breasts are easy to spot. Her jaw is pronounced. It feels like a system is being transmitted for catching us in the act, or analyzing what we’ve “done” to ourselves, and often right in front of us like it was a public service we ought to permit.

So in a story, returning frequently to her mannish hands or his feminine stature feel like a rumination on incongruence. A reflection that the power to identify us is still available to others.

Don’t talk about us in terms of beauty. This is very related to the last one. Our whole lives are often structured around appearance. While appearance is big thing for many people, and for women in general, that should indicate why this is a no-no. In an attempt to avoid the above don’t, one might try to go in reverse. Instead of pointing out instances of “showing,” pointing out how seamlessly the person passes, and how attractive they are as a member of their identified gender. This equation of sexiness with success comes from an understandable desire, but it’s part of what I call the fetishizing-desexualizing dichotomy.

The fetishizing-desexualizing dichotomy is when a group is given no middle ground between being wholly unattractive–ugly, disgusting, monstrous–and being a sex object. The effect is an expression of those peoples’ sexuality as being entirely something for consumption. Something for observers to reject or enjoy on their own grounds and never to see as legitimately belonging to the actual person.

This dichotomy exists for all marginalized people and for trans people, it adds to a lifelong narrative of identity being equal to appearance.

Don’t talk about us in terms of victimhood. This is a big one. Trans people get victimized by many things, but the one thing we’re certainly not victimized by is our own transness. Being trans is natural and neutral. However, we depictions show how sad, rejected, abused, or abnormalized we are, often the tone is one of tutting at transness making life bad. No. Prejudice and oppression make life bad.

This is huge for everything this blog relates to: women of all kinds, queer folk, people of color, differently abled. Part of representing us with joy and honesty and compassion is not emphasizing our suffering. We are more than suffering. We’re creative and inquisitive and expressive and strong and free. We have much to do battle with. And stories are, inherently, about conflict. So let that conflict be shown with dignity. We don’t want to be sad kittens to inspire guilt.

As bell hooks said “If I never see another black woman being [tortured, beaten, and raped] on screen again, I’ll be happy.” By all means, write about us struggling. Don’t write about us failing. Don’t write about us only in terms of others’ actions.

This post is aimed at people who are already wishing to discuss, write about, or depict trans people with dignity, but feel intimidated on where to start. Keep in mind that I am by no means an “authority” on transness itself, so if you’re in doubt, ask any trans friends or acquaintances you have if they would be willing to help you understand something.

Reviewing: Wicked Gentleman–Welcome to Hell’s Below

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Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Punk/Gaslight
Themes: Gay representation, race and queer metaphors
Stars: Worldbuilding Stat, Tearjerker Star, Insight Star

Today I review Wicked Gentlemen (Hell’s Below), Ginn Hale’s flagship masterpiece about demons, sorcery, religion, and classism. This award-winning gay romance is a poetically dark yet tender highlight of queer-themed books of its time, as well as being an iconic publication of the LGBT fantasy themed press, Blind Eye Books. A relatively tiny book for a fantasy, at just over 200 pages, yet infused with such tightly-coiled intensity I found it difficult to read in one sitting. Its straightforward originality and brevity, combined with the subtlety of its backdrop and characters, render this in my eyes one of the most standout works of gay fantasy.

Imagine that all Christian narrative about Heaven and Hell has been proven correct, down to every Prince of the pit. Yet fear not; a profound victory has been struck for Heaven. The demons of Hell have been saved, abandoning their devilish ways in the name of God. This mass evacuation of Hell, an unprecedented event in the cosmos, has altered the whole story of Earth, beginning a new species of humankind. The Prodigals, humans descended from the salved demons rather than children of Eve.

With black nails and horns, fire-eyed and hot-bodied, and naturally connected to the sorcery of their progenitors, the Prodigals fill the Earth. Yet despite the salvation of their origin, and the significance of their name as having returned to the fold, their story among the childen of Eve is less hopeful. Ironic, really. Dubbed by a bishop as Hopetown, the lower city ghetto of the Holy City, the seat of the Church, is where Prodigals make their segretated society. The name does little to inspire hope–everyone knows its real name is more truthful: Hell’s Below.

Prodigals continually face suspicion of being demons yet, despite being fully and naturally human. The lineage of salvation does not protect them from the constant association with hell, the theory of their black hearts as the beating centers of the inferno. The Inquisition, the official law-keeping body of the Church, uses education to keep the Prodigals from sorcery and other sins of their kind, sins which they are no more likely to commit than the humans of Eve. A theology of hope does not save them from a reality of hate.

Belimai Sykes understands hell. He’s been through it. When a man from the Inquisition seeks him out, he doesn’t realize how much hotter the fire is going to get.

The Beats
Part of what fascinates me about this story is it’s liquid simplicity. Its form is actually two linked novellas, told back to back from differing points of view. The first perspective is Belimai, the Prodigal estranged from himself after falling into the hands of the Inquisition. The second perspective is Will Harper, the police officer under the Inquisition who has come to Belimai for a missing person’s case.

Belimai knows firsthand how unforgiving the faithful are. Disobedience stands above other sins for Prodigals, as sons and daughts whose very name suggests disobedience. Minor crimes, including using his natural ability to fly, put Belimai under the reeducation system, and then eventually into an Inquisitor’s cell. Prayer engines wrought their tortures on him, the imitations of hell reserved for the Prodigals. The clerics didn’t even really care about the information, just that it was being withheld. The engines left him with Scriptures scarred into his arms and torso and a forced addiction to ophorium that isolated him from his former life.

Years later, William Harper, a descendent of Eve, walks through his door with a brother in tow, a missing sister, and a cloak of insomnia, asking for Belimai’s skills and arts. Accepting for the sake of offbeat interest and drug money, Belimai follows Harper on the trail of a bloody murder, a shady business, and–interestingly enough–a drunken tryst. Tasting everything he wants of Harper makes him question his motives–which doesn’t stop him from following deeper into the mystery.

The second half brings us into the head of Harper, some time after his first collaboration with Belimai. Their ever growing, peculiar relationship only fuels his protectiveness for the Prodigal population. A hornless, smooth-fingered offspring of Adam, yet he has seen the pain Prodigals must take to avoid literal demonization–and as an Inquisitor, the hardship of avoiding murder and torture at the hands of the Church.

Belimai is a slippery character to keep hold of, so Harper doesn’t try to. He just accepts whatever closeness Belimai is able to give, and values it for what it is. One drunken night, and a promise that it needn’t mean anything more, has grown into something he can’t quite unravel but deeply treasures. However, a murder case leading the Church to round-up Prodigals as suspects leads Harper dashing to Belimai’s aid.

Helping his lover becomes a moment of choice for Harper to either leave the Inquisition behind or attempt fighting it from the inside. All the while, he has yet to know how high into the Heavens his association with Belimai can take him.

The Highlights

I feel like this book requires an in-depth critique and analysis that transcends the scope of a review. I plan to do that eventually, but for now I can tell you what is so strong about this book.

As I’ve said, the book is very short, and moreso, is really two shorter still books in one. This gives the story a distillation, a sense of precision and clarity like reading a haiku. Not one single line of prose is misplaced, not one word choice superfluous.

The bond between Belimai and Harper, at each turning, portrays a complexity not only of relationship but of character, with a portrait-like subtlety. Harper’s care for Belimai is nearly reverent, and both frustrated and strenghthened by Belimai’s thorny, labyrinthine nature. Harper gradually coming to understand Belimai more, including how much the young Prodigal mistrusts kindness, and watching Belimai learn to relax around Harper, is a very pure experience. One imagines the whole genre of gay fantasy romance immortalized in a classical religious painting. Ginn Hale captures these brushstrokes masterfully and with a mixed air of darkness and innocence.

The length belies the richness of the backdrop, the eye by which we see Hell’s Below, the Prodigal struggle, the silver halls of the Inquisition, and the magical revolutionaries kindling hellfire in the city. Each Prodigal has a lineage to a classical demon which influences their powers, such as Belimai’s gift for flight relating to his blood of the demon of the air. Prodigals vary in power and skill, and can work arts including divination and curses. Some are powerful enough to raze whole buildings in their rebellious acts.

I love the realization of the Prodigals as an image for religious persecution, ethnic oppression, and the constriction of gender identity. The efforts of Prodigals to pass as “normal” humans will feel familiar to many readers, and their existence in a ghetto state is comparable to the histories of Jewry and many people of color. Prodigals feel like a natural addition to our narrative of a religious world, and yet their plight is unprotestably human. This raises them above only an analogy into a distinct plausability in itself. What would we face within humankind brought out of Hell?

As a note, the term “children of Eve” is not used in the book; it’s just my way of indicating the “original” humans next to the Prodigal humans.

I award Wicked Gentlemen . . .

The Worldbuilding Star: Because this is such a sterling example of original worldbuilding that I use it as my example of this star. Reimagining Heaven and Hell reformed is inventive enough, but Hale’s grasp of the consequences of this upheaval, and the detail and finesse she applies to her unique Prodigals, adds a richness of both fantasy and philosophical critique to this impelling story.

The Tearjerker Star: Reading Belimai’s backstory alone was enough to make me tear up and have to put the book down. One of my favorite lines is a moment with Harper, remembering how he read of Belimai’s torture in the Church, and wishing with all his might he could have been there to protect him. This is the material Ginn Hale uses for her storytelling, people. This is the stuff fine-ass tears are made of.

The Insight Star: The social metaphor is strong but effortless. As I emphasized above, the Prodigals form a natural commentary on many aspects of society over time, from oppression of LGBT people, racism, Antisemitism, and classism. Ginn Hale always manages to construe her fantasy vistas with sincere spiritual overtones and implications, which adds to the sense of timeleness. I felt a sense of disturbance, in fact, with this book that I nevertheless describe as pleasant. It left me shaken but reformed, as if I had read a sepia-toned literary glance at wartime or culture.

This book fully deserves both the Novel of the Year Award and Lambda Award that it achieved, as well as a fuller analysis than I give it here. Yet I hope I can convince you to abandon your reserve and take a trip into Hell’s Below.

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