I should start by explaining that Alison Goodman’s book has many different titles. As The Two Pearls of Wisdom it won this year’s Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel. In the UK the book is published as Eon: Rise of the Dragoneye, and in the USA it is Eon: Dragoneye Reborn. However, I believe that the book is also available outside Australia in the original title. I think what happened is that the book was originally released as an adult novel, but then someone at Random House realized that they had a YA winner on their hands and decided to repackage it. The important thing is that, as far as I can discern, the book is the same regardless of the title.
I can see why the book is being pushed as YA. It follows one of the classic YA conventions, being about a teenage girl growing up. Of course there is a lot more to it than that, but the core of the story is the girl and her life journey.
The book is set in a fantasy world that is based mainly on China but with elements of Japan and perhaps even a little India. That means that all of the characters in the book are non-white. The closest it comes to having a white character is, I think, Ari the coffee-seller, and I’m guessing that his our-world analog is a Turk. Of course there will also be people who read the book as being full of white people and asking white-person questions about society and gender. I’m not qualified to talk about how respectfully or otherwise Goodman has treated her source material.
The Emperor in Goodman’s non-China is a Reformer (Yes, I am using Gwyneth Jones’ terms here). He allows foreigners such as Ari into the country; he has his wives and daughters educated because he doesn’t want to be surrounded by stupid people; and he declined to have his brothers slaughtered when he ascended the throne. This latter decision may have proved rather foolish, because his brother Sefton is a hardline Traditionalist and ambitious to boot.
Of course there are different levels of adherence to Tradition, and one thing that no one questions is that the Dragoneyes, the twelve martial arts masters who control the dragon spirits on which much of the Emperor’s power depends, are all men. Except for our heroine, of course, who is in disguise.
By now you probably have a fair idea of where the book is going, and I have to say that I found it very predictable. If you have read other fantasy books set in ancient China then like me you will probably be able to guess the principal plot points well ahead of where Goodman reveals them. Younger readers, however, will not be so well equipped to second-guess the author.
So why am reviewing this book? Because of the gender aspects of the story, of course. Had I not had issues with US immigration I would currently be on my way to the States looking forward to presenting a paper at ICFA for the first time. The paper, which I finished some time ago, is an overview of the use of trans characters in science fiction and fantasy literature. I finished up by looking at some YA and children’s books (such as Cycler) that examine gender themes, and I suggested that it would not be long before we saw a YA book with an actual trans character in it. I was right: Eon is that book.
Eon herself (or more properly Eona, the female form of her name) is not classically trans. She is disguised as a boy, but her gender identity is firmly female and any exploration of gender that she undertakes is primarily to help her survive in her disguise. To stay safe she has to learn to behave like a boy, though she claims to be a eunuch to excuse her soft features. However, the book also includes the character of Lady Dela, one of the women of the harem, who was born male. Goodman describes her as a “Contraire”, a person with both male and female spirits. Such people are apparently socially accepted amongst the “Eastern Tribes” in Goodman’s world, although not at court except under this particularly liberal Emperor. I have no idea whether such people actually existed in ancient China, but the phenomenon certainly did exist in the Pacific Islands, and in parts of North America, before monotheistic religions arrived and stamped on it.
Dela, then, is a character with a classic transsexual background, having been convinced from an early age that she was female, and choosing to live that way. Like real-world transsexuals, her life is fairly precarious – so much so that the Emperor has to assign her a permanent bodyguard. However, because of the Emperor’s patronage, she is able to live as a woman.
Most SF&F novels that include trans characters do so because the authors want to make some sort of point about gender. Often the author has some sort of feminist message to get across, and the trans person is a tool to that end. As feminists are sometimes deeply transphobic these representations are not always very positive. Goodman, however, is not really making a point in Eon, save the usual one that girls can do many of the things that boys do. Rather the book asks its readers to think about gender. To that end Dela acts as a counterpoint to Eon/Eona. One is a girl disguised as a boy, the other, to use a tired cliché, is a woman trapped in a male body. Goodman is quite clear that Dela is not a man disguised as a woman. Indeed, at one point she produces this remarkable paragraph [Eona is exploring Dela’s rooms]:
I walked over to a plain wooden press and slowly pushed the door across with one finger. Underclothes. Embroidered silk drawers, diamond-shaped chemises that tied at waist and neck, even stuff breasts-bands. It was then that I realized that I was looking for something that was not female. What was I doing? Looking for a lie, like mine? But Lady Dela was the most truthful of us all.
Interestingly Dela is not a eunuch like Neferet from Ilario. She still has all of her male genitalia. Eona challenges her on this:
‘Why don’t you…’ I paused, wondering how to phrase it. How would a Moon Shadow [eunuch] phrase it? ‘Why don’t you get rid of the male parts?’
She looked away. ‘I don’t need to be cut to know I am a woman. And the Emperor prizes me because I am both Sun and Moon. If I go to the cutters, then I will lose the very thing he values…’ She hesitated then met my gaze. ‘In truth, I am also afraid of the pain. I am afraid of dying.’
So, echoes of Wanda from Neil Gaiman’s A Game of You. That will doubtless displease a few people. I have talked to Neil about Wanda and I know why he created the character in the way he did. I have no problems with the book. I also have no problems with trans people who choose not to have surgery. It isn’t as dangerous these days as it would have been for Dela, but it is still painful and very expensive. As to Goodman, I don’t know. I doubt that she read A Game of You and took the idea from there, although I suppose it is possible. I have a sneaking suspicion that for Dela it is primarily a plot device. That’s partly because so much in the book is there primarily to drive the plot, and partly because of some unpleasantness towards the end of the book that Dela, ever the survivor, goes along with because she knows the author has backed her into a corner.
You will probably have noticed the use of the terms ‘Sun’ and ‘Moon’ to denote male and female – that’s part of the astrological system that Goodman has built for her world. Another important plot point revolves around something called the ‘Sun drug’ – an herb that helps eunuchs stay strong and masculine. Goodman describes it as a type of steroid, but at times it sounds more like testosterone. Ordinary males who take it become reckless, short-tempered and violent.
By the way, when I ascribe specific motives to Goodman in this review I’m not drawing conclusion from the book. There are a couple of interviews on her web site that I checked out before writing this. The video one done by Sci-Fi London is not hugely revealing and is a pain to watch unless you have a lightning-fast connection. The podcast interview has a lot more information in it, but I don’t recommend listening to it. The interviewer has a bad case of fangirl squee, and seems determined to set a new world record for spoiler production. She also annoyed me by referring to Dela as a “transvestite”, though I suspect that was more from ignorance than malice.
It is worth noting that gender is not the only diversity issue that the book tackles. Eona herself is crippled due to a broken hip bone that did not heal properly, and the book also includes a minor character, Chart, who suffers from something that sounds like cerebral palsy. Most of the characters in the book, especially the Traditionalists, regard disabled people as “unlucky” and treat them badly. Eona is, of course, an exception.
Is there a Tiptree in this book’s future? I suspect not. I think that this year’s Tiptree jury will have some fairly heavy issues hanging over them. Also, from a feminist point of view, the book could do with another strong female character – having Dela as the only capable member of the harem probably won’t go down well. I’ll be pleasantly surprised to see Eon make it to the short list. It is, however, a very welcome addition to the universe of genre novels featuring trans characters. Sadly, in these days of identity politics, the reaction of the in-group to an outsider writing about one of them tends not to be thanks, but rather a furious denunciation of everything that the outsider got even the slightest bit wrong and accusations of “bad ally behavior”. Now I have seen some pretty bad ally behavior in my time, mainly from other identity politics groups who want to get a smaller group to support them but are not prepared to actually engage with that smaller group. However, when I learned to play Diplomacy the word “ally” did not mean “someone who abases herself before me and acknowledges my authority in all matters.”
Thank you, Alison Goodman. There will, I am afraid, be those who are not grateful for what you have done, but I am.