This fantasy novella recounts a gay, interracial, intercultural love story. Two young men — one the son of a low-ranking aristocrat, the other a soldier accompanying an imperial delegation — secretly begin a sexual relationship and fall in love over the course of eleven days. The story is set in a place where gay men are impaled alive and left on display. So when the two are found out by the aristocratic youth’s older brother, he is held captive by his family until the soldier leaves to return home.
The story of this brief relationship is told in alternating sections with the story of the young aristocrat’s later life as the husband of the king’s daughter, a life in which he seems to have chosen to live in hiding by passing as a straight man. However by the book’s end, it is revealed that the technologically advanced geneticists worshipped as “gods” have, as a favor to his wife, erased his memory of the eleven-day love affair. In other words, the man has not passed; he has been trapped in self-ignorance and been made incapable of discovering the reason for the sadness and loss he feels throughout his life.
Combined these two stories are pretty bleak: the beautiful moments seem designed to set off the cruelty and ugliness of the surrounding culture. This is of course a political effect, and point taken. Homophobia sucks, especially for people born in a place dominated by its most overt and violent forms.
However, this clarity is thrown into chaos by the novella’s completely unexpected final pages. There, in a surprise twist of the sort I always dislike, the curtain is pulled back, revealing that nothing except the first ten days of the men’s relationship is true. What actually happened, is that at the end of that day, the two men fled to safety together. In the decades since, they have lived in what amounts to a loving marriage that includes family. The terrible homophobic story we’ve read, is just a vision of an alternate life, a “what if” offered up by a magical/advanced-tech being who is responding to a question posed by the curious and no-longer-young aristocrat.
This feels like a cheat. If the tragedy of the protagonist’s life isn’t real, why wallow in its ugliness rather than showing me the happier world he built with his lover? Erasing the cruelties of a terrible world with the narrative equivalent of “Surprise! Just kidding!” seems dismissive of the very real resonances between this fantasy’s horrors and the real world of some readers.
But perhaps, that’s me being dogmatic. And in the days that followed, I did see how if you’re a geeky queer kid reading the book from inside a situation that looks like the world of the young aristocrat, it might be liberating to discover after a long gaze in the book/mirror that this/your world is just “an alternative.” And perhaps focusing on the bleak world and leaving the geeky kid to imagine what a alternative might look like is empowering. Or at least, I can see how this might have been the case for me if I’d read this book in my early teens when I was dreaming (for reasons I couldn’t quite understand) of someday living in Atlanta or New York.
Whatever the case, the flipping narrative makes this book a complicated piece of writing that I have trouble deciding what to do with. Theoretically that complication is a good thing, but in practice and given this story’s chosen stakes, it doesn’t sit well with me.
UPDATE: or maybe the audience is non-queer fantasy fans, giving them a picture of how crummy the traditional world can look to the queer kids they live with (even if they don’t know they live with them)? In which case, that final twist shows that things can be different, that there are alternatives, and that maybe they could help makes changes?