…in which our heroine rides into the desert and we learn about the need for intersectional feminism.
Our focus is on books (and media) about characters with non-binary sexualities, gender identities, or gender expressions. That is, characters who are bi/pansexual/queer-identified, or whose gender expression or identity is not strongly fixed to the gender binary (may include agender, transgender, gender-nonconforming, gendervariant, genderfluid, intersex [as identity], non-binary, genderqueer, et al.). We tend to read speculative fiction novels (as opposed to non-fiction, including autobiographies), but other genre fiction, graphic novels, comics, and short stories may be on our list.
The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
Newly knighted, Alanna of Trebond seeks adventure in the vast desert of Tortall. Captured by fierce desert dwellers, she is forced to prove herself in a duel to the death—either she will be killed or she will be inducted into the tribe. Although she triumphs, dire challenges lie ahead. As her mysterious fate would have it, Alanna soon becomes the tribe’s first female shaman—despite the desert dwellers’ grave fear of the foreign woman warrior. [Editor’s note: even the back of the book is racist oh boy] Alanna must fight to change the ancient tribal customs of the desert tribes—for their sake and for the sake of all Tortall. [Ed. NOOOOOPE let Kara and Kourrem do it stop it Alanna]
Gender and Colonialism
LM: As much as I hate to compare the books, Leckie’s Ancillary Justice also features the theme of colonialism. Like Alanna, Breq is the same nationality as the colonists and, to some degree, participated in the colonizing. However, whereas Breq is extremely cynical of her own culture and its role the colonization of other worlds and frequently points out the racism of other characters in the narrative, Alanna doesn’t. Part of this is because Breq is the protagonist in a first-person narrative (and is 2000 years old and a spaceship) and Alanna is a protagonist in a third-person semi-omniscient narrator’s story (and is 18 years old in this book), but we do hear Alanna’s thoughts and we do have other characters who could tell her what.
Swords-and-sorcery novel or no, The Song of the Lioness series is, in many ways, very progressive for the 1980s: magical birth control, nonbinary gender expression, The Woman Who Kicks Ten Asses. But the snarky social commentary that Alanna uses when she defends herself as a woman knight doesn’t extend to examining her own privilege when it comes to the Bazhir. It’s very White Feminism: she allows Kara and Kourrem to wear their face veils but she frequently attests to disliking the veils; she wants Kara and Kourrem to be full members of their tribe but she also talks a lot about how their customs are strange, and so on. And if it were just Alanna being an ignorant white teen who had never left home before and discovering she had some internalized racism problems, and then learning about Bazhir culture and listening to them, that would be one thing. The problem is that the Bazhir, even when they do correct her, are narratively written as being mystical and inscrutable, given to superstition and sexism.
To me, Alanna and Jonathan definitely come off as White Saviors. I’m torn because on one hand, Alanna becomes the shaman of the tribe fair and square–the shaman attacks her, she kills him, there’s no other trained adult shaman–but on the other, she’s also an outsider. She’s just acting as a teacher for Kara and Kourrem until they can become the shaman and Alanna can leave them to lead their own tribe, but there’s also some awkwardness with change coming from Alanna and not from the Bloody Hawk themselves. Jonathan being The Voice of the Tribes would unify the kingdom and the Bazhir, but it’s practically like making Victoria Empress of India and declaring “peace.”
It’s really uncomfortable, and I wish that Bazhir/Middle Eastern representation were done better. It’s good for characters to meet and learn about other cultures, but not when they’re lazy stereotypes. And good on Kara and Kourrem for deciding on their own to wear their veils or take them off.
LKR: I read all four books in a binge around the time the first book’s club document was being opened, so I’m less grounded in specific details than people currently engaged. However, I think the issues with power, colonialism and the Voice of the Tribes (VotT) would in practice be really interesting and might not fit into established understandings from the real world.
Given LM’s example of declaring Victoria Empress of India I would wonder what would happen if Victoria had to listen/feel in her head, daily, the concerns of the millions upon millions of her new citizens (especially since she can’t feel her British citizens). I have a really hard time imagining that that wouldn’t rock her world and dissolve many illusions about people and conditions they live in that would affect her deeply and change her practice to be much less exploitative and colonial. Imagine George W. Bush having to hear the citizens of Iraq in his head day after day [after the invasion] with no electricity or running water and people with machine guns running around, and if every civilian casualty was someone he personally knew – something tells me the approach of the US might have been different after the invasion. The practical effects of this kind of communication with leadership seem pretty well tailored to guaranteeing a beneficent and truly well-informed dictatorship. I have a very hard time imagining not being a very different person and beginning to identify heavily with the people inside my head, if this was something that happened to me.
Back to the source material, I think Jon becoming VotT may lead to the Bazhir becoming a kind of privileged group in Tortall. Which other groups get a direct line to the king daily, making him understand and feel their needs and issues? Which issues would Jon (or a real person in Jon’s place) feel the need to prioritize with this communication in place? The Bazhir have been on the losing end of conflicts in the past and are in a less-powerful position than they previously were, but this move seems to put them in a very strong place going forward. The cost to them appears to be that they commune with someone who was not originally of their group. I am not sure of the cost or effect of this on people.
It looks and feels a lot like white savior / the chosen white dude (kind of like Paul Atreides in Dune) but because of the practical effects of it and the fact that Jon doesn’t then use this power to solve specific problems the Bazhir couldn’t solve themselves (that curse thing was an earlier book) but rather (as king and therefore the only one with real power anyway) to grant more access to people that after all are his citizens I’m not sure that fits. Is good governance and listening to your citizens ‘white savior’ if some citizens happen to be of a different culture than you? Since he was already born to be king, is his Tortall cultural background something he specifically pulls upon to show his power/superiority over the Bazhir in believing they need his help and can’t succeed without him? In a real sense, as by far the most powerful person in the society everyone is dependent upon him regardless of cultural issues.
I guess I feel this particular dynamic is complicated and I’m not sure it fits into established categories. I would be interested in hearing other ideas / perspectives in trying to understand how the VotT issue could be problematic or not.
Alanna being better at magic than the existing shaman and bringing her knowledge in seems like a much clearer-cut case of White Savior to me. I also checked TV Tropes for ideas on how this trope is played out in fiction, if anyone else wants to look.
AMR: I have to agree with LKR in that Alanna very much plays White Savior while Jon is…in a different category. In an earlier book he asks to learn more about the culture as they are a part of his kingdom. He’s not trying to be the end-all, be-all King, he wants to understand the people he’s expected to rule over. He doesn’t come in on his noble steed to bring the White Solution to the Backwards Other, rather, he is chosen by the last Voice to be the next Voice as a way to unite the tribes to each other and the throne, and didn’t get much say in the matter. It’s more of a marriage of convenience to unite the two different factions than a savior of any sort. Becoming the Voice opens him up the Bazhir just as much as it connects him to their concerns and culture, and while it is questionable, I don’t see it as a race/culture problem, mostly because he’s not coming to them to make any proscriptions but coming to learn from and join with their culture for the betterment of the kingdom as a whole. Whether he should have done that or allowed the Bazhir to separate and make their own country is another question.
Alanna, on the other hand, definitely plays White Savior and shows how “backwards” the culture is. She’s considered part of the tribe but won’t connect to them fully, keeping herself separate from the Bazhir in many respects. She won’t conform to their norms and even flaunts them, earning (as she sees it) respect from the men and disdain from the women. She encourages their girls to disregard custom and be more like she is (though we could unpack this further and question whether it’s White Savioring or Feminism, since she also goes against courtly gender rules…). The more I think about it, the more I am sure there is major culture bias, with the Bazhir obviously standing in for Muslim cultures, but I’m not sure that it’s White Savioring (even though she’s White) because of the fact that she goes against gender norms and roles in her own culture.
Wherever she is, in whatever culture she’s in, she goes against gender norms. She does so personally when learning to be a knight, and openly in this society that is written as more sexist than her own. Her goal seems to be making every option available to women wherever she goes – whether that’s choosing a career path or wearing culturally-specific clothing. Do the girls really choose to wear their veils, or are they too scared to go against their culture to the point they are visibly and openly defying their elders? Choosing to practice tzniut, wear a hijab, or other cultural and religious signifiers of modesty and/or faith are within the realm of feminism, as mentioned above, but the key here is choice. Pierce obviously wanted the reader to identify the Bazhir as Muslim-like and to be horrified by the sexist practices of the tribe, rooting for Alanna to come in and save them all with her gender-bending ways (and thereby praising White Savior efforts to “save” Muslim women in the real world). As written, there is no choice in Bazhir society until Alanna brings it to them. So many tropes and problems here, and yet, still a pretty good book that I plan to keep on my shelves for my own kids.
HG: I’m generally too blinded by the Mary Sue to do anything but ARGH at the plot, but that said, this is also an issue with the Mary Sue. It’s very White Saviory in tone, but like AMR just said, she acts the same way at home too. This is just another opportunity for her to be the Best at Everything and save everyone against their will. I saw more of a connection between the Bazhir and the Tortall being drawn in the narrative, that both cultures annoy Alanna with their sexism, not one more than the other. Of course it can be both — an example of a problematic imperialist tendency and also bad wish-fulfillment writing. The treatment of Jon was actually a bit better, because this conquest is presented as something nobody really wants, happening because of mass cultural forces, and he’s trying to make the best of it and be a good king for all his people. He’s a douchebag on a personal level, but he is trying.
In Which No One Ships Jalanna
LM: I was actually really pleased with Jon being a trash heap. I did like that, at the end of book 2, Alanna basically told him, “I’m going off to seek my fortune as a knight and do good works, bye, dudes,” and that Jon and George respected her decision even if they wanted her to stay. Good work, guys! However, it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to believe that Jon go from “awkward teen hookup” to “jerkface privileged ex who wants back in” instead of “that was fun and we’re friends now.”
I was really proud of Alanna for thinking carefully about marriage and saying no. Not just because she wants to wait to get married and isn’t sure about having kids, but because she also doesn’t think she and Jonathan would be good together as spouses. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT TO ME.
Also, I’m glad that when she hooks up with George, it’s on her own terms. The kiss scene in book 2 is hella gross, but George has been open with his feelings about her, unlike Jon, who seems to be mad she can’t read his mind in book 2 and then seems mad when she rebuffs him whenever he tries to turn their FWB deal into marriage when she doesn’t want that. On one hand the “friend who waited” trope is gross because it gets used to comfort men who get “friend-zoned.” On the other hand, on a personal note, I am actually the friend who waited, so I can’t really say anything here. :coughs loudly: I’m actually okay with the sentiment of “we should have done this a long time ago,” though I wish it had been followed with “but it wasn’t the right time.” Because when you break up with your trash ex and hook up with someone you’ve liked for a long time (regardless of whether it’s for sex or a relationship or whatever), it feels like that–“why did we wait so long?” + “this couldn’t have happened before now because past-us and now-us had different circumstances.”
Having read this book twice at two very different times in my life, and because my ex was like Jon in many ways, particularly about how I wasn’t doing gender in a manner he liked, because being non-binary hurt his man-baby-feelings, I think I was more okay with the George/Alanna pairing this time around. He gets her and lets her do what she needs and wants; even if he’d like to marry her, he drops the marriage thing when she expressed discomfort about Jon’s proposal. So, while Jon and George aren’t the best two choices ever and I wouldn’t want young readers to think that stealing kisses is how you win over a person, I like that Alanna actively chooses to be with him and that, the second time around, he respects her choices.
I also liked the description of how differently Jon and George treat her, mainly because sometimes you don’t know that your partner is shitty until you hook up with someone new. Hey-ooooo.
HG: Yes, Alanna was awesome here! She KNEW marrying Jon would be a bad choice and refused to let him nudge her into it, and that is awesome. And she’s matured enough from the last book to be able to go actively choose another lover, not just reject all love and sex just because she doesn’t want to get married. It’s perfectly fine to want a temporary relationship. (I still think the Mother Goddess is an awful person for pushing sex onto a young child, but Alanna’s an adult now, making choices rather than being totally emotional and reactionary.) The whole thing was just a lot less skeezy, partly because Alanna’s genuinely choosing, and partly because Jon is totally absolutely not portrayed as Prince Charming anymore.
Being “The Only Girl”
LM: Bless Kara and Kourrem forever.
“You know, it’s funny— I’ve learned more about other women since coming here than I ever did before. Pages and squires don’t spend much time with women, and besides—” She grinned. “I was notoriously shy when it came to girls.” Halef chuckled. “And so you’ve discovered you like your own sex?” “How can I not like other women?” Alanna inquired. “Particularly after knowing Kara and Kourrem and Mari Fahrar and Farda? I don’t feel nearly as odd about being female as I did before I came here.” (pp. 242-243, Kindle Edition)
I like that Alanna is shifting from “no, girl things are bad, if I have emotions and screw up everyone will think I’m weak” (which isn’t an unfounded fear) to “things that are considered culturally feminine are nothing to sniff at, and I will kick your ass using thread magic and also learn to weave, thanks.”
Although I did leave a comment in my Kindle version “DAMMIT ALANNA WHY AREN’T YOU QUEER.” I would be super into Alanna meeting a genderqueer shaman or a trans courtier and running away with them to adventure around the kingdom forever and ever, amen.
HG: I love that this development is present, that she explicitly affirms the feminine things she’s learned and their power. However, I’m not sure how well it works, because Alanna’s still off doing her fun sword things. When I was at that stage I had a lot more in common with Ishak than Kara and Kourrem — It was magic swords all the way. And what happens to Ishak isn’t really enough to dissuade a young person who’s rejecting all feminine things in favor of magic swords. There needs to be a balance and a de-gendering of “work” in that sense, not just a “Don’t get too excited about magic swords, boring things are ACTUALLY SUPER FUN.” One’s mileage will vary, I suppose.
I’m also kind of sad that Alanna isn’t queer, and that no one else in this entire planet seems to be queer either. It’s a contrast to a book like The Privilege of the Sword [LM: it’s on our list!] or, you know, real life, where meeting other people is a big part of coming out and learning to present how you want. In Tortall there are NO other genderqueer or nonbinary people and NO ONE who isn’t acting gender-specific. (Again, yet another example of Alanna being Super Speshul and knowing more about how everyone should behave than they do.) She’s inspired by female knights from hundreds of years in the past, but even though she spends a lot of time hanging out with thieves and prostitutes, no one is at all queer? Ever?
On the plus side, though, I still love the casual cultural attitude about sex that maintains sex’s emotional importance for the actual people involved. And Alanna’s line about the prostitutes was really interesting, “Some of the most intelligent women I knew as I was growing up were prostitutes.” (p. 126, Kindle) That says to me that part of her objection to the girls’ veils is that people shouldn’t judge prostitutes or “slutty” girls so harshly, not just that girls shouldn’t have to wear veils. A bit more nuance to the issue, although it’s a fleeting statement.
Courtesy of LM:
“You are a terrifying creature,” the Voice told her solemnly. “You do not take your place in your father’s tent, letting men make your decisions. You ride as a man, you fight as a man, and you think as a man—” “I think as a human being,” she retorted hotly. “Men don’t think any differently from women— they just make more noise about being able to.” As Coram chuckled, Mukhtab said, “Have you not discovered that when people, men and women, find a woman who acts intelligently, they say she acts like a man?” (p. 48, Kindle Edition)
Comments are open! Tell us what you think!
Next time: The Non-Binary Book Club concludes The Song of the Lioness with Book 4, Lioness Rampant. We will reconvene on  Nov. 3 to discuss!