I visited the main branch of the Denver Public Library this week, so naturally I left with armfuls of books. Bless you, library card. One of the books I checked out was Daughter of the Blood by Anne Bishop, the author of The Others series, which I adore. Daughter of the Blood is a markedly different type of novel, more high fantasy, but I quickly noted one very similar characteristic of Bishop’s writing.
*Spoiler alert* Both central protagonists in the series are young girls who have suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of depraved men and this hampers them from developing their powers and forming friendships, familial bonds, as well as romantic and sexual relationships with the intended love interest of their respective series, all of which are much older than their object of romantic and sexual desire, and take the role of guardian, mentor, and at times, paternal figure.
It bears mentioning that I stayed up all night long to read this book. It is good, but I do find the choices made in regard to character development a bit disturbing, mostly because I recently encountered it while reading nearly the entire published works of author Connie Suttle, whose female protagonists are, without exception, victims of mental, physical, and sexual abuse. Notice I didn’t say survivors. The abuse is continual throughout the entirety of their story arcs.
When I examine my reaction to the use of abuse as a plot device and character development, most of the aversion comes from the fact that it is extremely common in Western Literature. Anne Bishop herself makes reference to the archetype of Cassandra, Princess of Troy, who in the myth was punished by Apollo, the Greek god of light and music, for refusing him as a suitor. Cassandra was cursed with prophesy that no one would heed, and was later captured by the Greeks during the Trojan war and sold as a slave. In Bishop’s The Others series, the cassandra sangue is a female seer who prophesies through self-mutilation, which will ultimately kill them. In addition *spoiler alert* the majority are enslaved and used for sexual pleasure in addition to having their visions sold for profit.
Daughter of the Blood starts in a world that is tenuously clinging to a magical and political matriarchy that is slowly being dismantled by a tyrannical female ruler bent on complete domination of her world, at the cost of killing every woman with enough power to challenge her. She’s enslaved the most powerful living men of the Blood (a magical nobility) and as a result the entirety of their magical lineage is declining. The book centers around a young girl, Jaenelle, who is a, or the, Queen of the Blood. She is only seven years old at the start of the series, but already possesses the power of the Black Jewels, which are a combination of indicators of power and also like magical power banks.
The entire plot line of Daughter of the Blood revolves around three powerful men who are determined to shape her future to become the Queen the realm needs. Their names are Saetan, Daemon, and Lucivar. I am not kidding. Only Saetan and Daemon have much of a part to play in this first installment, but the enslavement of Daemon and Lucivar is a major plot device, in that both are fitted with “Rings of Obedience,” magical metal cock rings controlled by the women (witches) who command them as sex slaves. The men take great pleasure in killing the witches, and do so many times throughout the story, and the sense I perceived was that the reader was expected to condone their homicide as justifiable because of the cruelty they experienced in being used as sex slaves. Many, many times throughout the book the term “shave” or “shaved” is used to refer to genital mutilation. It is used as a form of entertainment by the more despotic members of the Blood. This practice is reacted to with much more horror than that of sexual assault, with a subtle implication that the value of the person lay fully in their sexual commodity. Daemon is repeatedly noted to be impotent, and experiences no small amount of self-hatred because of it, even going so far as to compare his lack of sexual arousal to being shaved, though it is made clear that his flaccidity is due to his contempt and hatred for the women who use him.
Throughout the book, the men often express a desire to serve a worthy Queen, but every single adult witch of the Blood introduced is either cruel (those who use them), or a victim of sexual or physical abuse. Tersa, the first character introduced, has slid into madness because of a violent rape. Bishop uses the euphemism “spearing” to describe the act of rape, and witches of the Blood may be “broken” and lose their powers as a result of rape. This is problematic given the removal of agency of the women, many of whom possess powerful magic, but only until the loss of their virginity. Without exception, none of the rape survivors are able to mentally or magically recover from their assault. Whether this was intended to underscore how severely the culture of this world has backslid in terms of gender equality, or Bishop deliberately constructed the nature of the female power this way is unclear in this book. Perhaps this will be further developed in the series. I doubt this however, given that one of the major point of view characters, Surreal (yes, that is her name), a high-end prostitute, is repeatedly told her profession is shameful and immoral, and despite being powerful and well educated, she is looked down on by her society, including by men who patronize her services.
Another troubling element is that Jaenelle is a child throughout the entire book, making her first contact with the three men at age seven and then for the majority of the story at age 12. Daemon, as previously mentioned, feels no arousal with any of the women in the books, except for this child. He repeated chastises himself for his sexual attraction to a child, but continues to think of her sexually and romantically throughout the book. He is territorial and jealous of the other men who pay her any attention, despite the fact that Jaenelle is the bastard child of a man who refuses to claim her, to the point where Jaenelle is punished for revealing her paternity to her mother, grandmother, and uncle. In addition, the unprecedented acquisition of enormous power at an unheard of young age sends the major players in her world scurrying to form some sort of authority or control over her. Even the most benevolent characters, in terms of Jaenelle’s mental and physical well-being, Saetan and Daemon, both step into roles of mentor-ship, the former more paternalistic than the latter, given his romantic and sexual desires. Both set rules and chastise her for her behavior, while acknowledging how beyond their knowledge and control she is growing, refuse to give her the information she might use to make determinations for herself, such as explaining innuendo or the nature of romantic and sexual relationships, and about the dangerous consequences of misusing her enormous powers. This contrast is troubling because the male characters often note that they find her oddly precocious, and that her stare seems “ancient,” yet they make many attempts to retain her perceived “innocence.”
The penultimate plot point is that the hospital where Jaenelle has spent much of her childhood is discovered to be a front for many of the male antagonists to gather female children, under the guise of treating them for emotional disturbance, and then sexually assaulting and killing them. Jaenelle is drugged and brutally raped, and it is inferred that this particular assault, the loss of her “virginity,” though her innocence was probably lost years earlier, will cause her to slide in to madness if her body doesn’t succumb to the mortal wounds she has suffered.
Rape as a plot device is unfortunately common point of character development in fantasy. The fear of rape equally so. I don’t say this to downplay the horror of such an act, but to point out how misogynist it is that the ultimate violation is that of being treated as a sexual object. Women can be equally traumatized by other violence, but the continual removal of agency, and the fact that in this case and many others the female characters are never able to overcome the circumstances that led to this trauma paint the characters as intrinsically weak.
That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy this book. I did. I stayed up all night reading it. I devoured all of Bishop’s The Others series, and I have read numerous other books that employ the same tired tropes, and enjoyed them. But I do find it concerning that modern writers are still writing for medieval readers, no matter how well they do it.