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Book Report: The Hallowed Hunt

Having recently reread both The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls, I thought I may as well finish up and reread The Hallowed Hunt. And so I did.

It was fun, a perfectly entertaining book. I don’t have any insight on reading it a second time, other than that the hints of Our Hero’s masochism are a trifle queasy-making.

You know, thinking about it, there’s an odd thing about this sort of book, by which I essentially mean genre-ish action/adventure books, Ms. Bujold’s or Mr. Crichton’s or Mr. Ludlum’s or Mr. Scalzi’s. Our Hero (in books of this sort) can have a thing for red-haired women, he can have a thing for long-legged women, for busty women, for slender women, for muscular women, for long-haired women, for mature women, for brainy women—he can be attracted to (or vulnerable to) almost any particular variety of female charms. But he can’t have a thing for (f’r’ex) cunnilingus. He can’t be into bondage, or public places, or spanking, or even prefer a particular position. Or at least, none of that will be admitted to in the book, or have any bearing whatsoever on his relationships with actual women. Our Heroine, in books that have them, is even more constrained, as she can be attracted to smart guys, big guys, older guys, dangerous guys, sweet guys ... but not (generally) guys with tight bottoms or enormous privates or other relevant assets. And she certainly can’t have actual sexual preferences.

Now, some of that is necessary because putting in the actual sex scenes involved would turn the book into a different kind of book altogether, and I understand that and am fine with it. But you can have a sexual relationship with some specificity even without having the actual scene where the sex takes place. That is, when Our Hero, who really is into getting blown, discovers that the Bad Girl gives really marvelous head, and loves to do it, and is betrayed by that seeming compatability into her clutches, etc, etc, the reader doesn’t need to have the sex actually described, any more than we need to have it described when the exact same scenario happens without any specifics at all. There are plenty of ways to get around it.

The result of all this vagueness, I think, is a general sense (in these books, and in the world, because I’m not really blaming the books) that any two good people are compatible, mostly because neither good person will have any actual sexual preferences of any kind. Now, it’s possible that the real world is actually like that—not that people don’t have sexual preferences and interests, but that a couple who are more or less compatible will find sexual fulfillment even if one likes to have hot candle wax on dripped on his thighs and the other finds that a turn-off. Not only are there accommodations, compromises, acquiescences, but there is a kind of synergy (if you’ll excuse the word) involved in a good relationship. She may not get off on tickling, but she may get off on his being tremendously aroused, and the tickling accomplishes that, so there it is. Or rather, she may not get off on tickling, but she may get off on tickling him. Which is interesting, and human, and you won’t read about it in this sort of book. Despite some fairly clear hints.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

John M. Ford's _The Last Hot Time_, a (splendidly written, as is all of the late Mr. Ford's work) urban fantasy set in Chicago, is an action/adventure book that does not subscribe to the limits you describe. Our hero's sexual preferences, and his own struggle with them, are directly described, but there are no (iirc) scenes of explicit sex in the book.

Then, of course, there's the _Kushiel_ books, but maybe those, although marketed as action/adventure fantasy, are another kind of book altogether, though as I haven't been moved to read them, I couldn't say for sure.

It seems to me that either standards in action/adventure are changing, or the standards are quite different in different subgenres. Perhaps both, in some measure.


Fascinating entry.

It makes me think first, of course, of my SH editorial "The Future of Sex" from a few years back, and of people's reactions to that editorial, the most common of which was "You can't mention that someone's gay in a story, because if you do that focuses the reader's attention entirely on the gayness, and the story becomes all about gayness." I disagree with that idea, of course, but I found it interesting how many people seemed to believe it.

(Note, btw, that there are some actual romance novels with actual queer characters in them these days. But I'm drifting rather far afield.)

Anyway, that's not what you're talking about, but I think it's relevant. If your detective main character has a foot fetish, then even if it's only mentioned in passing now and then, there will be some audience members who may unfortunately think of the book as "the one about that detective with a foot fetish" even if it's the least important aspect of the story. (Which I realize contradicts my claim above to disagree with this idea, but cut me some slack; I'm barely awake.)

I think part of what's going on is that, in current American society, no matter how common it is to be into kink or fetishes or even have specific sexual tastes, the unmarked state is still that a character's only sexual interest is heterosexual, missionary position, PIV sex. In my experience there aren't all that many people for whom that's their only or even primary interest, and there are quite a few who aren't interested in that at all, but my experience is probably pretty atypical in a variety of ways, and anyway my point is that that's our shared cultural idea of what "sex" is, regardless of how widespread it is in practice. (Um, I don't in any way mean to suggest that there's anything wrong with such an interest. I'm in favor of it myself.)

As you pointed out, there's a fair bit of variation allowed within that unmarked state--a guy can prefer redheads or "legs that go on forever"--but most of it is variation that can be described without actually having to bring up even the idea of sex per se. I think America is a kind of prudish country on the whole (an sf novel I'm currently reading describes 20th-century America as the only truly puritan nation) (um, again, I don't mean to be insulting; I'm pretty prudish too in some ways), and I think a lot of readers who go into a book expecting an action-adventure story don't want to hear TMI about the characters' sexual tastes. Which I think is unfortunate, because as far as I'm concerned there's pretty much no such thing as TMI, but I think a lot of people do feel that way, and thresholds for TMI may vary widely from reader to reader.

(Insert comments about genre expectations and conventions here, but this note is already too long.)

Chris, I'm surprised to see you say the Kushiel books are marketed as action/adventure fantasy. I haven't read 'em either, but I always hear them discussed as BDSM-focused fantasy. But I don't actually know how the publisher is (er) positioning them; you may well be right.

Another series that's focused quite a lot on sex, so I hear, is Laurell K. Hamilton's work. Some readers love this focus; others are really angry that Hamilton seems to be drifting further and further into (what they consider to be) porn.


And then the very next thing I read was Mary Anne's comment to Scalzi about addressing racism in fiction, which touches on several similar/related issues. (Which is not to say that kinky people are discriminated against in society to the degree that people of color are, of course.)


Jed wrote:

Chris, I'm surprised to see you say the Kushiel books are marketed as action/adventure fantasy. I haven't read 'em either, but I always hear them discussed as BDSM-focused fantasy.

I would agree that the Kushiel books are regularly _discussed_ as BDSM-focused fantasy, but they are _presented_, really, as world-building, epic fantasy. The cover art and the promotional materials (and I saw a lot of them since the series was released while I was reviews editor for SH and Tor was promoting them in a BIG way) were not playing up the BDSM element and use the conventions of fantasy art. By contrast, Laurel Hamilton's books have been marketed in a way that plays up the erotica/porn aspect of their content. I know very little about her books. (Horror as a genre has never appealed to me at all, and, as her books are presented pretty much as "vampire sex!" I have given them a pass.) But they look, visually, as if they could be easily interfiled into a bookstore's "erotica" section instead of its speculative fiction section. They wouldn't look at all out of place in either location. The _Kushiel_ books would. The visual permeability of the generic boundary between horror and erotica probably reveals as much about the marketing and cultural atttitudes that characterize erotica as about the marketing and cultural attitudes that characterize horror, but insofar as epic fantasy and horror are parts of speculative fiction, they nevertheless differ signficantly, I think, in the visual coding of their sexual content.


Jed, I think your point about the unmarked state is an excellent one, particularly as unlike with race or sexual orientation (purely of the straight/gay kind) the unmarked state is, I think, not the one that most readers actually inhabit. But it's presumably the one they think they ought to inhabit, for some values of ought to. Which is interesting... Also an excellent point, Chris, about marketing, subgenre and sex.

I don't entirely mean to say that such writing is non-existent, nor that all novels should detail the sexual tastes of their heroes. It was that in this book, there is a hint that what our hero finds exciting about The Girl is a certain violence. A very delicate hint that, in certain circumstances, such violence directed at him would not be unwelcome...

Thanks,
-V.


I *have* read the Kushiel books. :^) There is a fair bit of sex in them, much of it of the BDSM variety, but I agree that it's a level consistent with "action/adventure/fantasy/romance with BDSM" rather than "erotica in a fantasy setting" -- that is, there's not nearly enough of it to satisfy an erotica fan. But there is enough to turn off a fantasy fan who finds BDSM (or polyamory, or same-sex relationships) distasteful.

I don't know if it counts as an exception to V's observation.


The visual permeability of the generic boundary between horror and erotica probably reveals as much about the marketing and cultural attitudes that characterize erotica as about the marketing and cultural attitudes that characterize horror, but insofar as epic fantasy and horror are parts of speculative fiction, they nevertheless differ significantly, I think, in the visual coding of their sexual content.

I'm stealing the first part of this and using it in lieu of making my own thoughts verbal over in this thread: Erotica, and When It Isn't.


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