When friends urged me to read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, the pitch that sold me was this one: “Children are trained to play wargame simulations, which turn out to be actual remote-control combat. This book is about the main character discovering this, and coming to terms with the morality of it.”
Which, if you’ve read Ender’s Game, isn’t really the plot at all. It’s about the main character in military school, developing relationships with his peers and coming to understand what it is to be a leader. Unfortunately, it was that morality conflict that was so interesting to me. I spent the whole book waiting for it, and was disappointed when it never came. I wondered if those other people and I had read the same book.
When a friend urged me to read Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, it was pitched this way: “There’s this ‘You Gotta Believe Me’ weapon that’s really cool because it’s so diabolically unstoppable — someone can just zap you with the weapon, and you won’t oppose them anymore.”
I thought that sounded, indeed, pretty cool, and I was curious to see how the weapon was defeated, so I read the book. It turned out that the weapon was theoretical technology, and the book is ACTUALLY about the wide-ranging conspiracies to produce/prevent that technology. I spent the whole book waiting for the device, and was disappointed when it never showed up on screen. I wondered if that other person and I had read the same book.
Last week, while waiting for edits to come back, I finished Green by Jay Lake [Amazon | B&N | Powell's ]. Jay is a personal friend, and I thought Mainspring was pretty neat, so I wanted to dip a toe into his other series. All I knew from Jay was that the main character was an assassin, and was inspired by his daughter.
While on the Kindle page to download the book, I glanced down at some of the reviews. Many of them were insistent that the book was a trilogy compressed down to a single book. Some of them only liked the first part and wished the whole book could have been like the first part. Some of them panned the book for having gratuitous sexual slavery and orgies:
“It feels like an exhibitionist novel about a girl in her early teens and her sexual escapades.”
“thinly veiled child sexploitation novel with S&M thrown in.”
“trains as an assassin and randomly gets into lesbian BDSM.”
“Oh, and she has sex with a mouse.”
“I even made vomiting motions as certain [sex] screens (sic) were described.”
So, okay, I was forewarned.
The book *I* read was Green, by Jay Lake. It was a book about a girl from an impoverished family who gets sold and sent to the big city to be trained as a noblewoman to potentially become a consort to the city’s ruler. She is trained in all sorts of arts, not because she’s going to be performing them, but to cultivate the ability to judge quality, details, and context at a glance. Sex is explained to her in due course, along with all the other things a noblewoman might reasonably be expected to understand, but she’s never even touched, sexually, much less dropped into a child sexual slavery situation. I had braced myself for nothing.
In the book I read, Green’s rebellious streak is also being carefully, if secretly, groomed. It turns out, she’s been chosen because she thinks independently, and because, on the sly, she’s being trained to be brave and dangerous enough to kill the ruler once she gets close to him.
She kills the ruler and flees, hiding out with the help of her co-conspirators, and eventually satisfies her yearning to return to the homeland and culture from she was so abruptly taken. I suppose that’s the beginning of the “second book” in the trilogy that is this book, but in the book I read, it was just the next and necessary chapter of a character’s life. There would be no point in staying “in training” forever without any progress. Similarly, there was no way she could start into the life she’d been trained for and then change things from within, because that’s what her conspirators had planned. One moment changed everything and sent the plans she’d been groomed to execute out the window, exactly as it had to.
There was no large time jump, there was no shift in POV to another character. There was just Green coming full circle. There always has to be a homecoming before we can move on, and (speaking as the co-editor of When the Hero Comes Home) that homecoming is always jarring and almost always disappointing. In life as well as in fiction. It’s needed, to spur us onward instead of letting us just hide our heads in the sand.
So too for Green. She looks with the perspective of maturity on the things that sustained her through her childhood, and finds them pitifully life-sized instead of being the inflated images she recalls from her early youth. If you’ve ever returned as an adult to the neighborhood you grew up in, or seen a photo of yourself at age three with a dog that you assume in retrospect must have been a Labrador due to its size, but which turned out to actually be a Cocker Spaniel, you’ll relate to this. But Green has never experienced that before, and she’s pinned all her hopes on being able to integrate back into her family and culture, so she ends up at a loss.
Yet, the conspiracy she helped to set in motion is still brewing and darkening in the background. Facing a succession for first time in centuries, the city she’s left behind is a mess. And so is she. She’s killed, and she’s not at ease with that, but returning to her family isn’t an option, returning to the city where she’s probably wanted for murder is not an option, so she feels killing is all she has left. And she gets a break: a connection to a temple. The cost is training, and ultimately more killing, but it’s a place to stay and hide in safety for a while. And yes, while she’s there she beds down with another girl. It’s done in the vein of Victorian fiction where girls are bunked in the same bed, eventually get cuddly, and eventually start experimenting a bit as a way to cement their closeness. It’s dead common in certain genres, and to be honest, I didn’t bat an eye at it. It felt natural to me.
Also, the first time it happens is at the 48% mark. It’s just a passing mention with no lewd detail. So, clearly the book I was reading wasn’t the same as everyone else’s book, and I was cheated out of some hot lesbian sex and a novel about “sexual escapades.”
(n.b., I’m not on board with child sexual abuse. I’m very strongly against it, and I don’t like reading about sexual violence against anybody. But I don’t think Green was a child sexploitation novel. If you want to see what child sex in fantasy really looks like, read Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows and that series, where a gang leader younger than the character of Green makes his street rats bend over for him or suffer beatings. THAT’S child sexual abuse. It’s nasty and mean and scary. This is two teens consensually exploring together because they want to. The “sex training” she receives when she’s young isn’t hands-on, it’s on par with the sex ed that any responsible parent in Berkeley would give.)
So, okay, there’s sex at the temple. Again on par with the tales you hear of convents in the real world. I can see how it would make some readers uncomfortable that the young novices are having sex with the “Mothers,” but Mother is just a title for a priestess and it didn’t occur to me to take it literally.
The period at the Temple is necessary for the story for several reasons. It gives the conspiracy across the sea time to foment and get really nasty. It gives Green an introduction to the concept of spirituality, and lets her understand and give context to the existence of the divine. It gives Green the next phase of her training, and the coming-of-age of killing when it isn’t for self-defense and personal.
When Green makes her first kill for the Temple, it shakes her in a very realistic post-traumatic way. And the way the Temple teaches her to deal with it is by bringing her pain to the surface. Not unlike the scourging and self-flagellation that is documented in our own world’s religious history, she discovers that the act of being flogged helps to purge her of the numbness that follows taking a life.
This felt…I don’t know, real to me. As a PTSD survivor, I know what it’s like to feel insulated and shut off. Even Buffy, in the musical episode, echoes the sentiment: “I just want to feel.” So, again, I felt there was precedent and context for it. I didn’t feel that it made the novel a “Lesbian BDSM novel”; I felt that there was an established ritual to help deal with the stress, and a closeness among women in a shared living environment.
So, now the conspiracy conspiracy catches up with her again. The players from her past come to find her, in order to bring her back to help them finish what she helped to set in motion. Now she is fortified with an understanding of spirituality and gods, and the martial arts skills, which she needs in her toolbox to be able to do what only she can do. Her contact is a non-human (the source of the cries of “OMG furries, ew!”), but this has a place and a reason: they’re a different species with different abilities and different culture; significantly different that they wield a type of magic, and that this magic has been stolen from them is central to the plot. And, when thrown into a cell together, it isn’t unreasonable that a woman who has spent the last while learning that it’s safe to seek physical comfort from women after great stress, would seek physical comfort from a woman after great stress.
The conspiracy, which has been woven into the story in subtle ways from the start, comes to a head. Rather than seeming like a separate novel to me, it seemed like a fair conclusion: this is the full-circle. Green starts the revolution, and Green must end it.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m jaded. Maybe I’m more comfortable with LGBT and other counter- and sub-cultures. Maybe those other readers just didn’t “get” the book and got too bogged down in some of the worldbuilding choices instead of seeing the subtleties of the larger picture. Maybe I understand the independence and strength that impress Jay about his daughter, who will never have a chance to grow up in the culture of her birth. But I just don’t think Green was the book I was warned about. I spent the whole book bracing for all those horrible “nauseating” things, and was confused when they never came. I have to wonder if those other people and I have read the same book.