This is more of a critical analysis than a review, and includes discussion of a number of plot surprises, both for this book and for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman story, A Game of You. Don’t read any further if you are allergic to spoilers.
Amanda Downum’s second novel, The Bone Palace, has received a significant amount of praise around the Internet for its feminist content and treatment of gender themes. It also found its way on to the Honor List for this year’s Tiptree Award where, “One juror noted that this book came closest among the honor list to meeting her Tiptree ideal.”
I would like to add a dissenting voice. The Bone Palace certainly has some very interesting discussion of gender, but far from representing anything ideal it actually represents the latest salvo in the ongoing feminist assault on trans women that draws a direct historical line from Janice Raymond down through Mary Gentle’s Ilario and Julie Bindel’s current attacks on trans people in the UK media. (I am exempting Joanna Russ’s The Female Man here, because Russ has stated publicly that her views about trans people have changed significantly since she wrote that book.)
Before I get started on the gender aspects of the book I would like to note that in many ways The Bone Palace is an excellent piece of feminist fiction. Downum makes use of the fantastical setting to create a world in which women have a much more prominent role in society than they do in our world. She also makes liberal use of brown-skinned protagonists. In addition her plotting is fiendish. I very much enjoyed her first novel, The Drowning City, and for about half of its length I loved The Bone Palace as well. Little did I know that my faith in Downum was about to be viciously betrayed.
One of the disadvantages of reading on an iPad is that, no matter how much you want to, you can’t throw the book against the wall. I am tempted to buy a paper copy of The Bone Palace just so that I can do extreme violence to it.
As with The Drowning City, the central character of The Bone Palace is the necromancer, Isyllt Iskaldur. In one way the book is a sort of CSI Fantasy, with Isyllt playing smart forensic scientist and her friend, Khelséa Shar, the loyal but less bright police inspector. The book opens with a crime to be solved, but this quickly evolves into a classic fantasy plot with the city of Erisín menaced by vampires and an undead sorceress bent on revenging herself upon the arrogant King Mathiros.
Set against this is the story of Crown Prince Nikos, an altogether more likable, if less macho, royal personage, and his mistress, Savedra. It is this story that I want to focus on. Savedra is described as a hijra, an Urdu word which, in South Asian countries, means roughly what trans means to us. Modern hijras exhibit a range of gender identity and sexuality, though I believe that they are all either biologically male or intersex. I am unsure what the equivalent of a female-to-male trans person would be in that society.
It is clear from the book, in particular the introduction of the intersex girl, Dahlia, that hijras in Erisín also exhibit a range of identities. However, Savedra is introduced to us as a person with a solidly female gender identity, someone we might recognize as a transsexual (see here for discussion of different types of trans people). As a royal mistress, she is required to look gorgeous at all times. She comes from one of the leading noble families of the kingdom, and is fully accepted as a daughter by them. This is very much in keeping with the liberal sensibilities of the rest of the book.
The main problem in Savedra’s life is that, as a hijra, she is unable to bear children. Thus, for the sake of the kingdom, she and Nikos cannot marry. Instead King Mathiros arranges for his son to marry a barbarian princess from the far north, a woman with pale skin and blonde hair. The situation is likely to bring a lump to the throat of any heterosexual transsexual woman, especially one who, like me, is in a long-term relationship with a man. But it is also one that will have meaning for many other women. Being put aside for being barren is a problem that is by no means confined to trans women, after all.
Initially we are given no insight into the details of the relationship between Nikos and Savedra. Nor is there any sensationalist prying into Savedra’s anatomy. We are told that she has an Adam’s apple and slightly large hands, but other than that we are given the impression of a beautiful courtier. Savedra and Nikos appear to be an ordinary heterosexual couple who love each other dearly but who, for political reasons, are unable to marry. It is all very respectful.
At this point I need to make a digression to discuss the issue of transsexual women and their bodies. You will doubtless all have heard the expression “born in the wrong body”, which the media are fond of using to describe transsexuals. It is a clumsy simplification, but it does at least convey the idea that such people have an uncomfortable relationship with their bodies. For trans women (of all sorts) the issue is magnified by the way that society polices female bodies in general. Women are under an enormous amount of pressure to be beautiful, and trans women an order of magnitude more so. It is harder for them, if they have been through puberty, and they are held to a much higher standard of perfection.
The biggest problem for transsexual women, however, is between their legs. There is no more obvious reminder of one’s indisputable maleness than possession of a penis. Not only is it very clear physical evidence, but it has a bad habit of jumping up and demanding attention whenever its owner becomes sexually aroused. This makes it very difficult indeed for a trans woman to have any sort of heterosexual relationship prior to surgery. Testicles are a problem too. They might not be as obvious or attention-seeking, but they are a source of male hormones. If you get rid of them, your body becomes more feminine in appearance.
These days we have gender reassignment surgery, which can do far more than simply remove the unwanted bits of anatomy. But down the centuries trans women have always altered their bodies to match their identity. The ancient world had the priests of Cybele. Some hijras in modern India still practice castration, and even in the West trans women are sometimes still driven to self-castrate if they are unable to obtain medical help. For a trans woman with a strong female gender identity, there is generally only one thing she wants to do with her penis, and that is get rid of it as soon as she can. (There are exceptions; more about this later.)
Given that Erisín has hospitals, and has healing magic, and given that Savedra’s family is incredibly wealthy, any trans woman reading the book is going to assume that Savedra has had some sort of surgery. There is mention in the book of “alchemical” treatments to remove facial hair, and it would not harm the fantasy ambience at all to postulate a natural source of estrogen that would help hijras further feminize their bodies. The treatment Savedra could have had might not be sufficient for conventional penetrative sex, but it should at least avoid too much embarrassment when she and Nikos get naked together, which they surely must do.
Now back to the story. As I noted, poor Nikos has been married off to a barbarian woman. Princess Ashlin turns out to be a right tomboy. Her favorite hobbies are riding horses and sword fighting. Left to her own devices she would probably round up a bunch of young hot heads from the royal guard and head off to steal livestock from the estates of other noble families. She knows that she has a royal duty to perform with Nikos, but she has to get very drunk before she can submit to it. The reader might be forgiven for suspecting that she is a lesbian. (If she had turned out to be a lesbian the book would have made a lot more sense to me, but that wasn’t the story Downum wanted to tell.)
What is clear is that Ashlin is enormously grateful to have Savedra around to do all of the royal wifely duties: everything from keeping Nikos amused to sipping tea with the women of the court and organizing grand balls. Savedra, in turn, is enormously grateful to be allowed to continue her relationship with the Prince. Against all odds, the two women have become firm friends.
At this point the book is still very much a fascinating exploration of gender roles. Unfortunately this is also the point at which Downum begins her assassination of Savedra’s identity.
The complications of the plot lead to Savedra and Ashlin going off together to do a bit of amateur sleuthing. It goes rather badly and the ladies get a nasty fright. Safely back at one of Savedra’s family estates, they feel in need of a little mutual comfort. Now, suddenly, we discover that Savedra not only still has a penis, but she enjoys using it as well. Both women make a point of stating that they don’t normally go for girls. From Savedra’s point of view this has some legitimacy because Ashlin is a very macho woman. But from Ashlin’s point of view the statement can only be seen as implying that she sees Savedra as male. This seems to cause Savedra no great anxiety, which suggests that she has no great attachment to her female identity. She is initially reluctant to have sex, but mainly because of the personal and political implications for her relationship with Nikos. However, after some token resistance, she participates willingly.
There are two issues here. Firstly our image of Savedra has suddenly been switched from that of a woman to one of the “she-male” characters so beloved of porn magazines. Her unusual anatomy has now been sensationally fore-grounded in the narrative, and readers are likely to now see her as a freak. Secondly the lack of concern shown by Savedra about this apparent assault on her sense of self makes us see her very differently. Far from someone who is convinced she is a woman, she is apparently quite comfortable being thought to be a man. Presumably this is the “real” Savedra we are now seeing, and the one we saw initially was just an act. But who was Savedra lying to: the world, Nikos, or herself?
Had this been a one-off event I might have turned a blind eye, but it wasn’t. The two women decide to continue their affair, despite the obvious political danger. The second time around Savedra makes sure to use a condom, which tells us that she hasn’t taken any “alchemical treatments” to curb her male fertility, and clues the reader in to what will happen next.
Yes, you are right, Ashlin is pregnant, from that first encounter. By now it is very clear that Savedra’s role in the book is not to allow Downum to explore the complexities of trans identities, but to play the part of a convenient plot device. For reasons that I don’t need to go into, the fact that Ashlin is pregnant by Savedra rather than by Nikos is key to the resolution of the story.
Even then, Downum might have stepped back from the brink, but she doesn’t. Our evil sorceress, Phaedra, is about to complete her plan for conquering the city. Savedra and her friends and headed off into the catacombs to confront their enemy. Savedra, of course, doesn’t have the sense to change out of her court robes before doing so, though I’m sure that Ashlin could have loaned her a more sensible outfit. There is a common stereotype that trans people always overdo the performance aspect of femininity (Julie Bindel once wrote that a convention of trans people would look like the set of Grease, with everyone horribly over-performing their gender). Here Downum is playing straight to that stereotype.
Eventually it all comes down to Savedra against Phaedra, but our villain has a cunning plan. She has kidnapped Savedra’s pretty young friend, Ginevra. As an undead sorceress, Phaedra has the ability to move her soul between bodies. She offers Savedra the same deal: switch sides, and she can have a real female body to inhabit. Isn’t that what she has always wanted? Ginevra would have to die, but that’s a small price, right? It is an horrific suggestion, and one that Savedra declines, but not quite for the obvious reason.
Madness, Savedra would call it. Abomination. Temptation.
Nikos had always said he loved her, not the flesh she wore. Did he really mean that?
“No,” she said at last. “I can’t”
So yes, there are moral considerations, but the main reason Savedra says no is that being given the choice has forced her to confront the “reality” of her relationship with Nikos. For all her fine fantasies, she is forced to admit that when it comes down to it Nikos wants her as she is, not as she imagines herself. If she had a female body, Nikos would not love her anymore.
This is a well known issue for transsexual women and relationships. Back when I transitioned almost all of the advice I saw on the subject was not to start a relationship with a man (assuming you wanted one) until after surgery. Any man who was interested in you beforehand, so the accepted wisdom went, would probably dump you once you no longer had a male body, because it was that male body that he wanted. Thankfully this is not always the case, but it is exactly the situation that Savedra has found herself in. What is odd is that it doesn’t seem to worry her.
That does allow us to have a happy ending, with the royal threesome getting a baby to raise in a genderqueer household. But it also establishes a very clear image of transsexuals that comes straight out of the most transphobic elements of gay and lesbian society. This theory holds that there is no such thing as transsexuals. There are just gays and lesbians who “go too far”, or who can’t accept their homosexuality and so adopt the clothes and mannerisms of the other gender so as to appear straight. According to this theory, gender identity is simply a convenient lie told to cover up the shame of being homosexual.
That’s an ideal exploration of gender? My sweet fucking arse it is.
I should note, by the way, that if Downum had portrayed Savedra in the same way all through the book then I would not have had an issue with it. There’s nothing wrong with being a gay man in a dress, or with being entirely gender fluid. These are perfectly valid identities for someone to have. The problem here is that Savedra is presented to us as one thing — a transsexual woman — and is then shown to be “really” something quite different.
Of course I have no idea why Downum wrote the book in this way. She could think that this is what trans people are actually like, and that she has portrayed Savedra accurately and fairly. Certainly she has got a lot of approval for it. Given how varied the trans community is, she may even have met someone who is just like Savedra and based the character on her. Or she could be pushing the standard transphobic feminist line and be trying to convince her readers that trans people are liars and/or deluded.
I should note that Downum is by no means alone in suggesting that trans people are “really” what their bodies define them as. Mary Gentle’s Ilario, which I mentioned above, is an ongoing demonstration of the “legitimate” transness of the central character (who is intersex, and therefore has biology on her side), and the “fake” transness of the transsexual supporting character, Neferet, who is shown to be “really” a gay man in a dress.
Even trans allies are prone to this obsession with physicality. At the end of an otherwise excellent discussion of Neil Gaiman’s A Game of You, Matt Cheney appears to do exactly the same thing.
Spoilers are again in order. One of the main characters in A Game of You is a trans woman called Wanda. Although Wanda is almost certainly on hormones (she has luxurious hair and breasts), she has not had surgery because she has a pathological fear of doctors with scalpels. It is not what you would expect, but it is entirely legitimate because such people do exist. Other trans people are prevented from having surgery because of medical problems. So I have no problem with Wanda as a character.
Another central theme of the book is that of people’s “true” identity, and the relationship of this to religion. During the book, Wanda and her friends need to go on a magical quest, but Wanda can’t go because the world they need to travel with is ruled over by the Moon Goddess who is a biological essentialist and refuses to allow the “male” Wanda into a women-only space. Some people in the trans community have got very angry with Gaiman about this, but that’s confusing the opinions of a character with the opinions of the writer. Gaiman has a much more complex story to tell.
Because Wanda is unable to travel to the magical world, she ends up dead when the shit hits the fan in our world. At this point religion enters the story yet again. Wanda’s parents are fundamentalist Christians who insist that she is buried as “Alvin”, the son they believe they had. After the funeral, Wanda’s young friend Barbie writes “Wanda” on the tombstone, using Wanda’s favorite shade of pink lipstick. It is a beautiful moment.
Barbie also imagines Wanda in a heaven that accepts her as she believes herself to be. We see Death welcoming a Wanda who looks like a princess out of a Disney movie. And it is this that Cheney takes exception to. He writes:
Her dream of Wanda as a “perfect” woman shows she still holds on to some belief in nature and its righteousness, but that’s also a result of her good-heartedness. She dreams of a body that would have allowed Wanda to be remembered by everyone as her self, a body that might have let her identity be less fragile. We could all wish this for Wanda, but it isn’t nature that makes identity. [...] Barbie has let the hatred and repulsion of Wanda’s family color her own reaction to the friend she valued for who she was. She imagines forcing Wanda into a form that would better fit the desires and expectations of the villagers…
So even in death Wanda cannot be who she wants to be. She has to be tied to the physical form that she had when she was alive, and she has to accept that because that’s who she “really” is: a transwoman, not a “real” woman.
I think that what Cheney has a problem with (he quotes the passage) is when Barbie says about the Wanda-spirit, “there’s nothing camp about her, nothing artificial.” Cheney objects to this on the grounds that there is nothing wrong with being camp, and he’s quite right. But Wanda doesn’t want to be camp, what she wants is for people to accept her as the woman she believes herself to be. In saying that Barbie, and Wanda, should be content with Wanda’s camp artificiality, Cheney is doing much the same thing as Wanda’s parents when they want her to remain Alvin: he’s trying to claim her for the identity he most approves of.
Of course the appearance the spirit-Wanda takes is one that would be more acceptable to people she meets. It is also more acceptable to Wanda herself because she, like them, has grown up in a society that has particular expectations of what a “woman” should look like. Barbie also has those expectations, and by seeing Wanda as beautiful she is recognizing the identity of the friend she knew, not the physical reality that so marred Wanda’s life. Nothing could satisfy Wanda’s family except the restoration of the son they believe that they have lost. In their visions of heaven, “Alvin” will be a fine, strapping lad, and proud of his masculinity.
Had she lived, Wanda would have spent her life coming to terms with the fact that her body could never look the way she wanted. Lots of other women have that problem too, and as we get older other concerns take priority. But my own experience of getting old is that, despite the aches and pains, you don’t think of yourself as an “old person”. Perhaps this is further evidence of my self-delusion, but I have met many non-trans people who feel the same way. Ask people how they think they will look when they get to heaven, and many of them will describe someone who is young, fit and good-looking.
So how about that, in death, we allow Wanda to be the person she believes herself to be, not the person that other people see because of her unusual biology? After all, if we are to force Wanda to be who she “really” is, as defined by her physical nature, the only people who will win are her parents. Forcing her to be “really” a camp man is just a step on the road to that conclusion.