The second book in Amanda Downum’s Necromancer Chronicles, The Bone Palace, was released a few weeks ago. I had enjoyed The Drowning City (first book in the series) for its strong female lead, Isyllt Iskaldur the necromancer, and its political-adventure plot; because of that, I had this book on my to-be-read pile. I was expecting it to be good, but The Bone Palace knocked me out of my proverbial shoes, as a critic and as a queer woman.
One of the things that became clear to me when I counted up the reviews done in last year’s Queering SFF posts was that I needed to engage with more transgender narratives. Part of the problem is that, despite the increasing availability of queer speculative fiction, there still seems to be a dearth of good trans stories in the field. So, I’ve been on the lookout for more texts, and was pleasantly surprised to discover one hiding in my to-be-read pile.
There aren’t any hints on the back—it talks mostly about vampires and mysteries—but with The Bone Palace, Amanda Downum has contributed a new story to the field of trans-related science fiction/fantasy. (And it’s pretty awesome.)
Two leading women share The Bone Palace: Isyllt, strong though emotionally compromised and deeply flawed, and Savedra Severos, willing to do what it takes to protect those she loves and thrive in a difficult situation.
Savedra is a transwoman, figured in Erisin as “hijra” (the third sex). (The choice of word and their social status are reminiscent of South Asian gender constructions in our world, though both male-to-female and female-to-male transpeople are considered “hijra” in Erisin.) While the culture of Erisin is in many ways egalitarian, its treatment of transgendered people is not—they are a recognized part of society, but as a thoroughly Othered group. Their only employment option is generally that of temple-prostitution and “mystic guidance” for the curious masses. It is because of her social station that Savedra can have the life that she does, and she’s constantly, intimately aware of it. As she says, “My family accepted me. Most androgynes have nowhere to turn when they discover the truth of themselves.”
One of the things I often fear in reading fiction with trans and queer characters is that the author will include them in name only and fail to actually imagine their pains and joys; that the character will be labeled but no thought put into their inner self. Or, worse yet, that they will be treated as a scapegoat or freak by the narrative.
Thankfully, that isn’t a problem in The Bone Palace.
Downum delivers a satisfying story driven by and deeply interested in a transgendered woman. Savedra has both a leading, active roll in unwinding the mysteries of the book and a richly developed interior voice. Her tenacity and bravery, faced with social derision and nastiness from much of the court as well as regular assassination attempts on her prince and princess, are breathtaking. She’s a strong and believable character, so sympathetic that a reader would be hard pressed not to love her. The courage it takes to simply be who she is in the world she lives in is admirable.
Downum also never forgets the pressures and passions that inform Savedra’s choices and her interactions with the world around her. She is, at all times, a full person. She has desires, fears, needs and wants—and her struggles, socially and personally, aren’t glossed over or ignored. The brief mentions of and engagements with her adolescence and transition are an excellent touch that breathe reality into her as a character, and also show that Downum as a writer has tried to create as realistic and empathetic a portrayal as she possibly can.
There is one other trans character in the book, a young woman who becomes Isyllt’s apprentice. She is still of an age to be considered “androgyne,” but as she explains, when she reaches sixteen she will be truly hijra in the eyes of society. Her only choice at a life she wants is Isyllt’s sponsorship. Dahlia’s story is that of most transgendered people in Erisin: she has no fortune or family ties to support her. It provides a sharp counterpoint to Savedra’s social privilege.
The Bone Palace also, with much success, explores the fluidity and expression of human sexuality. Savedra’s developing relationship with the princess, Ashlin, in addition to her love for the prince, Nikos, is fantastically wrought. I could happily read an entire other book on their lives after the end of this one. Their decision to pursue a nontraditional relationship with each other is particularly satisfying—no one, least of all Savedra, is left out in the cold. Savedra loves Nikos, and she has always been attracted to men, but she falls for Ashlin, and Ashlin for her. Without melodrama, Downum explores the possibilities and stretches a person can experience in their attractions and relationships. Ashlin and Savedra’s relationship is further complicated by the fact that, at the end of the story, Savedra has gotten her pregnant. They must deal with the sometimes-awkward intersections of gender, sexuality and identity in their relationship. Nikos’s love for them both brings him to accept the possibility of a three-sided happy family. It is unconventional, even in the more sexually open world of Erisin—but he’s the king, and it’s not likely anyone is going to be able to pull them apart.
Isyllt’s explorations of her sexuality, too, are interesting. She has multiple relationships at any given time, including one with a vampire of Erisin. They are, to most people, monstrous and strange, but Isyllt isn’t one to let societal expectations determine who she wants. Her friend the policewoman is a lesbian, which is perfectly acceptable in Erisin’s culture, as is every other stripe of queer identity.
It’s an engagingly constructed world that doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to pretend that people have no prejudice or distrust, despite its more equal social structures. Erisin’s bigotry reveals itself in other ways; toward immigrants and refugees, as well as its transgender citizens. It is wonderful to read a text that imagines a more equal world but still acknowledges that it has sharp and ugly edges, edges that can cut an unwary or unwanted person. And, while there is huge value in a text that deals with a queer character in a homophobic society, it’s also excellent to read about a somewhat queer society where sexuality is (mostly) unremarked upon. Gender is a sticking point for Erisin, but not sexuality.
For a third angle, the book is doing more work in addition to its position as a fulfilling trans-narrative and queer story: it’s full of women. Working women, poor women, rich women, many women of color, women in positions of power, women with physical prowess and also women without it, disabled women, secondary and primary and even background characters who are women—and they interact. In a second world fantasy, especially, the value of this can’t be understated. There are also well-fleshed and wonderful male characters, but it’s so great to have a book that doesn’t pit one or two good female leads against an army of male characters.
Aside from all of these fantastic elements—because, after all, elements don’t make a story work—Downum’s writing has taken a leap in quality, too. The descriptions are frequently breathtaking and the characters are so well-developed that they seem to reach directly out and grab the reader by the scruff. The story is full of twists, turns and hard decisions. It’s about shades of grey in morality, and making choices that can’t be unmade, and the power of love—for good or ill. Downum balances her tale flawlessly; it’s a character-driven story, but it also never loses its fast pace. I was never certain what I wanted to see more of next, the unfolding plot or the interactions of the characters and their personal struggles. I was always eager for the next page, and I find myself already missing Savedra and co., especially considering that Isyllt leaves Erisin at the end of the book.
It is, I suspect, one of the best books of 2010—queer or otherwise.