King’s Dragon

The first 200 pages of King’s Dragon by Kate Elliot is about how boys get super-special inborn destinies and girls get raped, and I am just so phenomenally over this fucking plotline.

This book was exhausting to read, and not just because of the torture and rape. The setting is based on medieval Europe, because all fantasy is or else like the gods descend and murder you or something, and the way the author chose to emphasize this was by having all the characters talk about how great the church is, constantly. The male protagonist, Alain, is promised to the Church as a baby, and the way in which he and everyone justify this horrible thing is by going on and on about what a privilege it is and how great the church is and you wouldn’t want to make god angry and shame your family so you should just lead your life the way they tell you, mmkay? The book was far, far too comfortable with parroting uncritically the way the actual Church shames and indoctrinates people, and as someone who has had those kinds of platitudes weaponized against them a lot, it was actually pretty upsetting.

I guess there’s technically room for some big subversion considering this series is seven (7!!) massive books, but there was not really any inkling that the book saw anything wrong with any of it. Alain never considers running away or, like many people who strain under oppressive religions, suicide. Right up until a deus ex machina destroys the monastery he’s promised to, he plans to go through with it because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do. There’s no double-edge to everyone’s reassurances that the good Lord cares for his own, no hypocrisy in their actions. And we know the gods actually exist because this is fantasy and we see them, so there’s precious little room for dramatic irony, either. There’s just nothing in the first two hundred pages of the book that says ‘hey, maybe this kind of shit actually ruins lives and that’s bad.’

But fine, 200 pages into a bazillion page series, maybe this is actually all a brilliant satire, whatever, I’m willing to keep reading past this point.

The thing is: Alain’s plotline involves him finding out he has super special powers because he’s actually superhuman and his mom was super important and he’s just so special you guys.

The thing is: The female protagonist’s, Lianth’s, plotline is about her father dying and she gets sold as a slave to pay his debts to a man who’s been harassing her and that man physically and psychologically abuses her until she has to choose between freezing to death or letting him rape her and so she lets him rape her and he’s just so kind and warm and gentle about it you guys.

The thing is: 

And I don’t know what I’m more exhausted by, the fact that this is yet another story where a woman’s entire motivation is her inevitable backstory of rape, or that it’s another story where the author doesn’t even have the goddamn guts to name what they’re doing to the female character. There is one hit for the word ‘raped’ in this book: it’s in a passage where a soldier describes their enemies raping their way across the countryside, because in every world, inevitably, women will be constantly subjected to sexual violence, but remember, we only talk about it when we’re as far from it as possible and can make really oblique references to some vague enemy being the culprit. (There are, incidentally, no results for raping, either.)

The complicity of everyone in Lianth’s village with the abuse is as horrific to read as the abuse itself, but the book isn’t making any point here and, further, I don’t think it’s trying to. It’s just rotely recreating the very real experiences of women who are raped without any commentary or any room for there to be another way, because rape is inevitable, and it has to happen to motivate a woman like Lianth to be a protagonist in a story.

I think what’s noteworthy about King’s Dragon is rarely are male and female tropes held so starkly next to each other. Each of these stories is exactly how these stories goes for men and women respectively, and it feels like an extra screw-you to make it so clear what kind of path boys get to have and what kind girls are forced to.

This is so goddamn pervasive and I am so, so tired, you guys. I am so done reading about how I can only be a hero after I’ve been suitable raped. This has been done over and over and over. I can’t even write about it anymore — just read these thinkpieces about the motivational raping of Lara Croft back in 2012 for all there ever has been or will be to know about this, because it is the same every time and the responses are the same and yet we keep doing it, and you know what, I don’t want to fucking read about it anymore, so fuck this book.

…you know, I always think back to the Lara Croft Motivational Rape when I read these stories. I don’t know why that particular one made such an impression on me. Possibly it just happened to coincide with when I was seriously thinking about these issues for the first time. I think it also was put in shockingly plain language by the devs, which really drove it home. I also think going after Lara Croft, who was already designed around fanservice, made it feel like a double kick in the teeth: first we dehumanize you, then we rape you. Likely it was all those things in one horrific swirl.

But I also think it was at least in part the fact that it’s the same every time, and there hasn’t been anything new to say since then. The same thinkpieces I remember from that shitstorm work just as well now; they don’t need to be updated because nothing has changed. The situation is the same, the context is the same, people do it for the same reasons. King’s Dragon was written in 1997 and it’s the goddamn same. When I was writing my paper on motivational rapes I pulled examples from Shakespeare and the fucking Bible. We’ve been doing this for so long and I am so tired.

And yet somehow what gets me more than anything is the book’s cowardly refusal to use the word rape. Because even allowing Lianth to name her horror would be too subversive.

I don’t care where this series goes. I don’t care if it’s all a brilliant takedown of organized religion or if Lianth is the best rape survivor to ever survive rape and thus earn magic powers. I just want to read a goddamn book written on the premise that women are human.

This has been cancer!Act, spreading her increasing misery to everyone she can.

3 Comments

  1. Roarke says:

    Misery received, I suppose. The whole ‘holding the male and female tropes side-by-side’ thing reminds me of that Atelier game you reviewed, where the two characters’ backstories and interactions in ostensibly the same story just ended up wildly different because he man, she woman. Except, you know, even worse thanks to the outright rape and abuse.

    The whole treatment of religion is strange to me. You often get even actual religious authors who write fantasy still criticizing the church and actual human institutions for their very real failings. For an author to go all-in supporting it and echoing all of their abuse is scary as shit. That’s the real indoctrination right there.

  2. Keleri says:

    Elliott’s work was the first time I got hella burned by Tumblr Recs(TM); I was promised an extremely cool alt-history fantasy novel with characters of color in the form of Cold Magic/Cold Fire/Cold Steel, and a) nothing happened in the first one and b) the second one sucked ass with a dumb forced romance and rape outta nowhere and also similarly very little actually happened. IDK how it ended.

    Anyway, I assume all Tumblr Recs are full of weird fetishy dubcon pseudo-rape at the very least now and have not since been surprised.

  3. Gwen says:
    Crown of Stars is one of the many serieses that I started reading from book two due to circumstance and it sounds like this was not, perhaps, a bad thing.

    There is definitely a lot more bad shit to come for Alain and a lot more chosen one destiny stuff going on with Liath and some decently interesting worldbuilding going into making it “alt” Europe (OK I can mostly sum it up with: God are the Lord and Lady–but that was pretty novel for me when I read the books!) but it would definitely be a lie to claim that there is not just a lot, a lot, a lot more sexual coercion and assault of various types going forward through the books, not exclusively but almost toward women and girls. I don’t blame anyone for getting exhausted with that and quitting.

    They do say the golden age of SFF is about 12…. The one thing this series does have going for it is a lot of women POV characters, and that wasn’t something to sneeze at during my days of only really reading dead-tree stories.

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