On Queerness, Subversion, Autonomy, and Catharsis: B.R. Sanders’ Ariah Reinvents the Bildungsroman

Some books are so completely an experience within themselves, so wholly another world—a world that takes up residence beneath your skin, like an inverse tattoo, indelible and sacred—that it’s impossible to fully describe their impact. For me, B.R. Sanders’ Ariah is such a book. I can tell you I cried three times while reading it, twice in a gasping way where I physically shook; and they were happy tears, too, the kind that spring up when the right words in the right order and context burst in your heart like a comet.

I can tell you that Ariah embodies the true potential of Bildungsroman in terms of the protagonist’s journey to adulthood, and that its intelligent, powerful, emotive discussion of gender, sexuality, culture, racism, imperialism, language, family, love, autonomy and personhood, among other things, is evocative of the best aspects of both Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. That these books have been nominated for, and won, some of the most prestigious awards in the field should, I hope, convey my full meaning: that Ariah deserves a place among them. But none of that tells you how it made me feel.

Ariah, the novel’s titular protagonist and narrator, is a Semadran elf living within the Qin empire, a newly industrial power expanding across the world by dint of factory labour and railways. Raised in a small township outside Rabatha, the story begins with Ariah’s journey to the city to study magic with his appointed mentor, Dirva, of whom he knows little besides his gifts and name. The culture shock this entails is immediately apparent: suddenly, Ariah is a minority, visibly so, and subject to all the institutional Qin brutality this entails. Yet he is also very much a product of the same repressive culture that the Qin enforce: so much so that, on first meeting Dirva, who is mixed race—as, for that matter, is Ariah himself, though far less obviously, such that he’s internalised a mistrust of his own heritage—he hesitates to even speak to him:

“When you’re very young and you’re different, you begin to believe that no one has ever been as different as you and that no one has ever felt that difference as keenly as you. But there was Dirva… His blood was so muddled that my mother’s suspicions took root. I didn’t answer. It was the strangest thing, but I felt when I saw him that I’d seen him before. I knew I hadn’t, but I felt it anyway. It made me trust him less.”

Even within the first chapter, the contrast is striking. Only pages earlier, Ariah is horrified at his treatment by the Qin—“I was one of exactly seven elves on that train, and all of us were detained, and all of us were robbed”—yet here, we learn there’s also enough of a racial and cultural difference between different types of elves, and enough of an ingrained bigotry about those differences, that the irony passes Ariah by. Though a small example by the standards of the novel, this dissonance nonetheless sets the tone for the trajectory of Ariah’s personal growth: the steady erasure of internalised self-hated and small-mindedness in the face of a larger, more complex world than his younger self ever knew existed.

With Dirva, Ariah is set to learn how to manage his joint magical gifts: like his mentor, he’s both a mimic and a shaper, the former ability granting a facility with languages as well as spoken impersonations, while the latter is rather more complex. Shapers are empaths, able to read the feelings of strangers. Within Ariah’s silver elf culture, they often work as matchmakers, but aren’t allowed to marry, the peculiarities of their gift the subject of taboos and secrecy. For the same reason, shapers, and especially untrained shapers—those who, like Ariah, have internalised the need to hide and downplay their possession of the gift, even among their own people—are feared by the Qin, their invasive and misunderstood magic cited as one of the many “justifications” for elvish mistreatment. Ariah, therefore, remains in denial about his gift; as, indeed, he denies many true things about himself in the early sections, having been essentially raised to fear or loathe these integral parts of his identity.

As the novel progresses, however, we come to see Ariah’s shaping ability as a metaphor, not only for his sexuality, but his personality as a whole. When Ariah finally does try to learn to control his shaping, the problem he has—which is what ultimately drives him to seek further mentoring in the first place—is an inability to separate himself from those he reads. He becomes subsumed in, consumed by, other people: by their needs, their desires, their magic. He can’t build the necessary walls to divide himself from the feelings of others, nor break the usual, simple charms of attraction that are part and parcel of his new environment. His sense of self is utterly diminished, the problem a mirror for his relationship with Semadran culture, whose strictures have crowded out his ability to acknowledge his own desires.

Before all this, however, Ariah’s first step towards realising himself begins, not with Dirva’s teachings, but with Dirva’s family. Called home to the City because his favourite father—his da, rather than his pa, a terminology set to distinguish coparent from sire—is dying, Dirva gives Ariah the choice to accompany him. Though startled by the revelation of Dirva’s red elvish family arrangements, Ariah agrees, and so begins, quite literally, the journey of his life.

Written in seven parts and spanning well over a decade, Ariah is at once concise and sprawling, intimate and vast. Sanders writes with exquisite style, in terms of both prose and structure. It’s a not infrequent failing of narratives encompassing such a long period that the timeskips often feel abrupt or misplaced, either dragging the reader away from what felt like a consequential moment to an inconsequential one, or else leaping so far ahead that the characters become unrecognisable from one chapter to the next. Ariah has none of these problems: Sanders knows exactly where to cut and where to dig in, and though the progression of Ariah’s life feels natural throughout, the symmetry and catharsis of the conclusion is breathtaking.

Throughout the novel, Ariah’s repression and consequent fear of being outed, both magically and sexually, is a constant theme. On learning of Dirva’s longstanding relationship with a man, Liro—and still newly startled by the prospect of his own romantic feelings for Sorcha, Dirva’s younger brother—Ariah has the following fraught exchange with his mentor:

“’I didn’t know. And I-I thought… it’s strange here because sometimes you’re still Semadran and sometimes you aren’t. And if it had happened in the Empire, I thought you’d, uh, that you’d disapprove. Or, worse. You’d send me back to Ardijan, and people would know, and I’d be pushed out. Because that’s what we do, and that’s how we think.’

He looked at me. The brightness of his eyes in that moment was harsh, forbidding. ‘No, Ariah, that’s how you think.’

‘No! No, I mean to say that’s how Semadrans think.’

‘No, that’s how you think. You never stopped to wonder. You never questioned. You took what they told you, and you drank it in. You stand there, you who will never know, and you tell me that’s just how Semadrans think. Not all Semadrans are the same, Ariah.’”

At the same time, Ariah is also learns the extent to which language is a reflection of culture, and how being able to speak the former doesn’t automatically grant him a true understanding of the latter. He first observes this in the City, on meeting Dirva’s extensive family network:

“I was fluent in Athenorkos. I thought that meant I understood what those terms meant. I thought, as I stood outside the door that first evening with Sorcha, that my fluency with the language meant little would surprise me. But everything about these people surprised me.”

It’s a contradiction also expressed in Ariah’s relationship with teaching language to others. On his return to Rabatha from the City, he’s given a position teaching Lothic and Athenorkos to largely indifferent, predominantly Qin students—in fact, only one person in his class is elvish, a woman a decade his senior called Shayat. Though their relationship is initially prickly, tempestuous, they steadily wear into friendship through Ariah’s provision of private tutorial sessions; but prior to this, it’s Shayat alone who criticises his teaching methods, despite the fact that, as an elf in a Qin institution, Ariah has no ability to change how he presents his material:

“’Is this all the classes are to be?’ she asked. ‘Just lectures?’

‘That is how the Qin conduct them, yes.’ At least, that is how Dirva conducted his classes, and he had had no complaints as far as I knew.

‘What a stupid way to do it. How will you know we’ve learned anything? How can we learn a language if all you do is explain it to us in Qin?’”

As with so much in this novel, it’s a small point hinting at a larger one. Throughout the story, the Qin presence in Ariah’s life, and the lives of those around him, is a constant background threat; yet even when their menace is brought to the foreground through acts of institutional violence or corruption, Sanders is always clear to keep the narrative emphasis on how these actions affect and feel to those oppressed, rather than giving a platform to the oppressors. As such, we see the Qin entirely through the eyes of those they’ve conquered, never on their own terms: they remain, not alien exactly, but impregnable, visible primarily as a system of rules and biases expressed through the actions of individuals. That these actions include police brutality against minorities targeted because of race and sexual orientation only makes the novel more relevant; the Qin are never strawmen, never cartoonish, but brutally, frighteningly, bureaucratically real in their casual dehumanisation of those they deem other, even while employing them.

(Interestingly, this sets Ariah apart from The Goblin Emperor and Ancillary Justice: whereas Addison and Leckie follow uniquely sympathetic outsiders embedded in positions of high authority, thereby addressing how empire can be changed from within by those in power, Sanders focusses exclusively on how empire is subverted, felt and endured by those to whom such power is denied, whether they live within the empire or without its ostensible control.)

And thus, a moment of glorious catharsis in the final third of the book, when Ariah—having been forcibly conscripted to teach Droma to captains in the Qin army, the better to aid their violent, slave-taking expansion into the territory of the gold elves—is able to use the same system Shayat initially chides him for replicating to his own advantage:

“I bided my time, and I taught the captains Droma. They were not very good at it; it’s a strange language to someone who only knows Qin. I taught them badly, though, in that way they are used to. Lectures, just lectures. The Butcher sent them out into the grasslands on forays, or brought collected gold slaves to test their language acquisition, and grew more and more frustrated when they remained far from fluent. But I taught the way he had been taught, the way they had all always been taught, which works well for maths and spelling and history and very badly for foreign languages. He begrudgingly saw no fault in me. He demoted captains at such a rate and with such a vengeance that promotion to captaincy was met with condolences.”

What makes this such a particularly successful Bildungsroman is the difference between Ariah at the start of the novel and Ariah at the end. As he’s narrating from the position of someone looking back on his life, we’re given periodic clues that hint at where he ends up, but even so, the transition from one point to the next is extraordinary. On his first visit to the City, Ariah is so terrified of his own sexuality—so closeted and so new to the possibility that anyone could be otherwise—that he thinks of queerneess as deviancy, describing not only Dirva and Sorcha in such terms, but himself, too. But by the end of the book and his time with the gold elves, he happily takes sexual partners regardless of gender; indeed, as Ariah learns early on—but, as with Athernorkos, doesn’t fully appreciate until later—in Droma culture, there is no linguistic distinction between male and female:

“It took me some time to parse it, but it became increasingly clear that the Droma did not understand themselves as men or women, but simply as people. The slaves in the city, likely as a means of survival, acknowledged, that we divided ourselves as such, and they must have understood that we divided them that way, too, but in the conversations I overheard they only ever used variations on the word voe—the Droma word for ‘person’—to refer to other Droma and themselves… I wanted very much to understand it, but it was elusive and exotic and always just out of my reach. I couldn’t help but gender them while listening: that one is a male person who is speaking to a female person, went my thoughts.”

Having thus begun as a Semadran imposing his own upbringing on both a foreign language and its speakers, by the time Ariah finally meets the Droma in person, he has evolved considerably:

“I took a very small, very slow step towards the child. I remembered the strangeness of Droma gender. I tried very hard to ignore all the signs of biological sex, to see the child as a person, as voe… The words were easy, but the seeing was hard. It took a very long time before it was natural, and even then it was hard.”

It’s in these later sections particularly that the comparison to Ancillary Justice comes most clear, as, in keeping with this aspect of Droma language and culture, Sanders uses, not he or she or they, but ve and vis and vim as universal pronouns by which to refer to all the gold elves. Just as with Leckie’s Radchaai, the reader is put into the position of having to consider these characters sans our usual concept of gender; but whereas Leckie’s default use of the word she encourages us to first assume female rather than male, despite being a deliberate stand-in for an actual gender-neutral pronoun, Sanders encourages us to see further than that. This might, in fact, be the first published novel I’ve ever read to use alternate pronouns, and it does so in such a way—and at such a point in the story—that the reader’s introduction to and acceptance of them mirror’s Ariah’s own.

Sanders has many strengths as a writer, but arguably their greatest one is their keen understanding of and insight into relationships. The complexities of the bonds between Sorcha and Dirva, Dirva and Ariah, Ariah and Sorcha and Shayat are gorgeously rendered: poignant observations that resonate all the more profoundly for how often they sneak up on you within the general flow of Ariah’s narration. Consider this description of his relationship with Sorcha, for instance:

“He was my roots. I woke next to him and knew, with unwavering certainty, that I was more myself when he was there beside me. That with him it was not a matter of getting swept away, or lost: he pulled the slippery, shy me-ness to the surface.”

Of a significant conversation with Shayat, he reflects, “It’s one of those indelible memories that serves to organise a remembered life,” which is one of the most perfect encapsulations of that phenomenon I’ve ever read. There are many such asides—about grief, about family, about love; so much so that I can’t pick out a favourite. Sufficed to say that the relationships in Ariah are complicated and rich, and I loved every minute of it.

Speaking as a queer reader, and given especially my recent wariness around the opening chapters of Seth Dickinson’s forthcoming The Traitor Baru Cormorantmy thoughts on which, interestingly enough, were what prompted Sanders to offer me a review copy of Ariah—I feel it important to state that, though this is a novel which discusses oppression and homophobia, both internalised and from external authorities, it isn’t a queer tragedy; nor, significantly, is it a story which dwells on abuse. Though there are times, for instance, when Ariah is forced to work for the Qin in ugly capacities, these sections are given in brief, allowing us to understand their impact on him without being forced to endure their tension by proxy.

This is an important distinction to make: though Sanders doesn’t shy away from either acknowledging or incorporating brutal realities, a conscious decision is made to render them, not at a remove, which implies emotional detachment, but non-graphically, succinctly. Unlike Baru Cormorant, therefore, Ariah is a novel about oppression written for those who already understand that such evils exist, and who, rather than wanting to wallow in every horrific nuance of this fact, would rather see them overcome, not with violence and retribution, but steadily, personally, through the subversive construction of loves and hopes and families that defy the categorisation of bigots.

As such, the only moment in the book that gave me pause comes during Ariah’s shaper training, when the combination of his magical openness and his susceptibility to being charmed leaves him vulnerable to sexual predation. If someone charms him, and if he feels an attraction to them, he becomes physically unable to say no, waking afterwards with few and muddled memories of the encounter. Sometimes he initiates these encounters, but other times, he doesn’t, and while the word rape is never used to describe what happens, the hollowness and shame he feels afterwards—coupled with the fact that some people actively seek him out for sex this way—make it feel more applicable than not.

The fact that this isn’t described as rape is not, as is sometimes lamentably the case, due to any authorial failure to recognise this as a possibility; indeed, Sanders includes several lucid, powerful discussions of sexual consent, especially between Ariah and Sorcha, where the latter is shown to be scrupulously careful of the former’s negative experiences. Rather, it reads as being a consequence of this selfsame desire to acknowledge abuse without dwelling on it, coupled with the fact that Ariah, as narrator, doesn’t think to apply the word himself. Which, obviously, is by Sanders’ design, and therefore a conscious decision: it struck me as a potentially problematic elision, and yet also an understandable one, given the context of the character, his conflicted relationship with both sexuality and language, and the care otherwise taken to reassure the reader on the issue of consent. Your mileage may vary as to whether or not it bothers you, but in a novel this strong, it’s a comparatively small thing, and while I made a note of it, my love and enjoyment of the book remained undiminished.

There’s so much more I could say about Ariah—about the fantastic, powerful characterisation of Shayat; about Sorcha’s fluid, unashamed expression of gender and sexuality; about the nested complexities of Dirva’s relationships with his family and lovers; about the symmetry between Ariah’s life and Dirva’s, foreshadowed at the outset yet so gorgeously developed,it still took me by surprise—but ultimately, I couldn’t do it justice without dissecting the entire novel, spoilers and quotes and all. It’s a similar reaction, in fact, to my recent love of Sense8, of which I am a devoted, happily unobjective fan. Ariah is one of the most powerful and personally significant books I’ve ever read, and while I can’t guarantee that such an emotive reaction will be anything near a universal one, I will nonetheless remain firm in my advocacy of it. Ariah is an intelligent, powerful, skilfully written, diverse novel—exactly the kind of thing we need to see more of in SFF—and as such, I have every intention of nominating it for a Hugo Award in 2016.

Foz Meadows is a bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality. As well as being the author of Solace and Grief and The Key to Starveldt, she reviews for A Dribble Of Ink and Strange Horizons, and is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Black Gate; her writing has also appeared at The Mary Sue and The Book Smugglers, and in 2013, she was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer. She like cheese, geekery, writing, webcomics and general weirdness. Dislikes include Hollywood rom-coms, liquorice and waking up.

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