I came to this book in a less than an ideal way because Full Fathom Five is the third book published in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence. I read it first, of course, because there is a trans character in it, and I didn’t have time to read the two previous books first. I see that Gladstone says all of the books are standalones, and that the chronology within the book world is not the same as the order of publication, so maybe I haven’t missed anything. However, I’m still wary that I may have done so.
Part of my concern comes from the sense of disorientation I felt at the beginning of the book. Gladstone’s world just wasn’t working for me. The combination of a modern-day business thriller and a world full of gods and monsters was too off-the-wall even for me. I’m still not sure that I like it, but thankfully other aspects of the book pulled me through.
So what exactly is this world? On the cover of my copy of Full Fathom Five Elizabeth Bear describes it as “Moorcock meets legal drama”, and it does have that air of being our world except after the Lords of Law and Chaos have fought over it and achieved mutual annihilation. Accountancy has as much to do with souls as with money, possibly more.
The book is set on an island, Kavekana, that we instantly understand as Polynesian — Gladstone mentions Hawaii in his acknowledgements — where the local gods left to fight in a war and never came back. All that’s left are giant stone statues called Penitents, into which criminals are placed for punishment. And the mountain, of course.
At the top of the mountain, where there should be a lake of lava, there is instead a lake of magic. There’s a religious order that looks after the place. They have developed a method of using the Pool, as it is known, to create idols: fake gods with no self-awareness but enough godliness about them to satisfy the needs of people of faith now that all of the real gods are dead. On the one hand they cater to a very real need; on the other it is a magnificent, and very profitable, scam.
Our hero, Kai, works for the Order and is very good at the priestly business. As the book opens, an idol managed by her friend and colleague, Mara, is dying. Mara has perhaps not looked after it as well as she might, not invested soulstuff wisely enough. Unfortunately the client for whom the idol is being managed is a “family” of the type that is likely to say things such as, “that’s a nice little village you have there, it would be shame if anything bad were to happen to all of the people who live in it.”
Meanwhile it is clear that things are not entirely as they should be on Kavekana. A group of impoverished street kids led by a girl called Izza have found that local gods, who are supposed to be dead, have been reaching out to them and helping them. A third rate poet has found inspiration on the island and is spouting mystical verse of miraculous quality. People are taking notice. A foreign agent possessed of superb fighting skills plus magical armor and wings that vanish when she doesn’t need them has arrived on the island.
One thing that became clear very quickly is that Gladstone knows a bit about modern business. Like me, he has probably worked in a consultancy environment or something similar. He knows how quickly those things can change from a business about a product to a machine built on lies existing only to separate clients from their money. The sales people don’t even need to understand what the product does. Their job is to use a combination of incomprehensible jargon and psychological trickery to turn prospects into clients. As someone who believes in the work she is doing, Kai is very much out of place.
It took me quite a while to twig what else the book was about. It is a book about the power of faith. Gods, at least as far as some neo-pagan theology goes, are created by people to fulfil a need. If we believe in them, they work. That belief, of course, tends to come from genuine need, rather than the sort of cynicism you get in politics and religious orders. It comes from the poor.
So where is the trans character in all this? Surprise! It is Kai. Yes, the main protagonist of the book is trans. However, blink and you will miss it. Gladstone makes one specific reference to Kai’s trans status and how she came to Kavekana to use the power of the magical pool to remake her body to fit her spirit.
“The first time priests drive, we change — we fix the broken bodies we inhabit. These days most changes are small: one priest I know corrected her eyesight; another cleaned up a port wine stain on her cheek. In the past more priests went further, like I did. That’s where the tradition came from, after all. These days full initiates aren’t as common, but there are a few of us.”
“How did you remake yourself?”
“I was born in a body that didn’t fit.”
“Didn’t fit in what way?”
“It was a man’s,” she said.
There are occasional other references to remaking, but as far as the vast majority of the book is concerned Kai is female without qualification. This is, of course, the sort of transformation that can be done in fantasy. There’s no worrying about appearance or voice; no issues with biology. I’m sure that Kai could get pregnant if she wanted to. This is not the sort of trans character you would find in a non-fantasy world.
I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Surely the fact of Kai’s transness would eventually have an effect on the plot. But no, it never came. Kai’s psychological problems, in particular her bad dreams, are not a result of her being trans. The breakup with her boyfriend, Claude, is not a result of her being trans. There is no question of her not being a “real” woman because there are no ways in which anyone can say that she is any different from a cis woman.
So what was the point? Is this just like one of those SF novels where the author choses to make a character trans but says that the science of transition is perfect so there’s no need to write her in any way different from a cis woman? Why did Gladstone make Kai trans?
Well, being a good priest is all about faith and belief. To survive the book Kai has to be incredibly strong-willed and confident in herself. It seems to me that Gladstone has chosen to indicate her nature by making her trans because, as any trans person will tell you, surviving this life means you have to have faith in yourself and believe that what you are doing is the right thing to do, even though everyone else is telling you that it is wrong.
What Max Gladstone has done with Full Fathom Five is identify a trait of trans people that he deems heroic. He has then told a story that needs someone with precisely those heroic characteristics to center upon. He has written a book that is a better book because the hero is trans, while making the fact of her transition largely incidental to the story.
Reader, I cried.
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