The Bone Palace

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.

27 thoughts on “The Bone Palace

  1. Thank you for this review. I have not (yet?) read the book, but am always intrigued to see (reviews of) books that have gender/sexuality themes outside the mainstream norms.

    While reading, I got to this bit:

    “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. “

    I had two thoughts then. As I kept reading, I realised they were unlikely based on how you describe the rest of the tale to go, but I’d still like to throw these two things out there.

    I agree with your statement saying that ‘not going for girls’ makes sense for Savedra, since she is in a committed relationship with a man. However I don’t quite draw the same immediate conclusion regarding Ashlin.

    Earlier you describe her as being very tomboyish who needs to get drunk to get it on with Nikos, and ending with ‘The reader might be forgiven for suspecting that she is a lesbian.’

    I wonder, however, if there is another possibility, that she could be asexual, where she is not normally (sexually) attracted to either men or women. I do not the precise wording Ashlin uses in the book, but could she imply that she not normally goes for either? And that this time it only happens because she is in need of comfort and goes from there?

    Other thought was, could her mentioning that she doesn’t normally go for girls have meant ‘girly girls’ versus just ‘girls’. Could she normally be attracted to more butch looking girls versus the (based on your description) very feminine girl that Savedra is?

    Thanks for reading, and thanks for writing the review. I’m inclined to pick up the book now to do a proper read through myself to analyse/compare.

    1. Sorry, I should have mentioned that elsewhere in the book it is made clear that Ashlin is very heterosexual. I get the impression she goes for guys who are as athletic and adventurous as she is. So the metrosexual Nikos is a complete turn-off for her, whereas Savedra is brave and resourceful then they are off adventuring.

    2. This is so fascinatingly different from my own experience of The Bone Palace! As someone who is genderqueer but not trans, and who has struggled with questions of identity and debated surgery but ultimately decided to keep the body I have and equip/disguise it rather than permanently altering it, I found the depiction of Savedra really moving from start to finish. I liked The Bone Palace much more than The Drowning City in great part because it had a heroine I could identify and connect with in a way that I can’t generally identify or connect with heroines who never question or explore concepts of gender. On the other hand, I was not aware of a lot of the stereotypes you mention here, and I certainly appreciate the education.

      I read the “I don’t usually go for girls” scene as an affirmation of Savedra’s femaleness/femininity, not as a denial of it. If Ashlin didn’t see her as female, why would she call her a girl? (And I incidentally loved that the butch chick is almost entirely het, though I can see how that might lend some sense of Savedra being an exception solely because of her physical form.)

      I was not especially surprised by Savedra retaining her original equipment and being willing to use it, perhaps because I know more trans men than trans women; trans men have much less of a choice in that matter, and the ones I know have almost all opted to get use and pleasure out of the genitals they have, despite the cognitive dissonance. It seems to me that in a world that probably doesn’t have much genital reconstruction technology–healing magic is one thing, creating functional organs quite another–that’s the same choice Savedra is faced with.

      Your discussion of Savedra’s choice to stay in her own body is particularly illuminating. It would never have occurred to me to read that scene as “She knows Nikos only really wants her male body and wouldn’t want her if she were in a female body”. I interpreted it as her being tempted, trying to justify her temptation by telling herself that it wouldn’t interfere with her relationship with Nikos, and finally deciding that even though Nikos will love her no matter what body she’s in, she couldn’t live with herself if she took Ginevra’s body. But given the real-world context you mention, your interpretation also makes a lot of sense, and is rather more bittersweet. I wonder which the author intended.

      Thank you so much for writing this up.

      1. Hi Rose:

        Many thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’m not at all surprised that the book read very differently to you. I also think that there will be trans women who are quite similar to Savedra. As I said, my annoyance stems from the fact that I was led to expect one thing and got something quite different.

        Context is all here. When you read a book you always approach from within the context of your own life and experiences. The whole trans thing is full of minefields here because experiences can be so different.

        On the surgery subject, I take your point completely about trans men being different. However, trans women in our world have been subjecting themselves to castration for at least 2000 years, probably a lot longer. Reconstructive surgery may be difficult, but Cassius Dio tells is that the Emperor Elagabalus offered a small fortune to any doctor who could make an artificial vagina so the idea is not new. I find it hard to believe that, in a society that has healing magic and guns, someone as wealthy as Savedra would not have had surgery of some sort if she had wanted it.

        As to what the author intended, I have no idea. I’m hoping that this all stems from misunderstanding. But of course the book is now out there, and I suspect that most transsexual women reading it will react to it as I did.

      2. Rose, that was how I read the book originally, also, and found it to be pleasurable and fulfilling–but there are other layers and other readings, as Cheryl shows, and I think it’s really interesting to look at the multiple angles.

        Talking about the context and possible readings of this book has been enlightening as hell, and I’m glad for this post.

      3. I haven’t read the book, but I also read that quoted passage about Savedra’s decision to remain in her own body differently. Maybe the context of the book read more like the interpretation presented here, but my first understanding was that she doubted whether Nikos really DID love her, and not the flesh she wore. In that case, the temptation is to switch bodies to please him. That she remains in her original body then speaks both to her belief in Nikos’ honesty and love, and to her commitment to her own body.

        Admittedly, I’m cisgendered and I know my unconscious bias may offer me that reading based on a worldview where any man who says he loves a trans woman is lying. I don’t think that, but I’m trying to unearth any unconscious influences. I know that prevailing prejudices have more effect on me than I’d like.

        All told, though, I found this post extremely informative, and have appreciated the open, critical dialogue in the comments.

  2. …I’m kinda sad I don’t do the right academic subjects to steal quotes from this piece. It’s brilliant, interesting, well-written, and I absolutely hadn’t thought about the points you raise about Sandman (to be fair, this is mainly because I’d unconsciously fallen into line with you against Cheney on that point… but I’d not thought about it). So thank you.

  3. Thanks for this piece, Cheryl — I entirely agree with your final paragraph, and I did when I wrote the piece you criticize, so I’m sorry if my attempt to understand and explore A Game of You caused me to say anything in opposition to that. The experiment of these weekly Sandman pieces leads inevitably to hasty writing, and that probably most particularly injured my ability to write coherently and with adequate complexity about A Game of You.

    I’m horrified to think I wrote anything that implies I thought Wanda should “really” be a camp man, or perceived as such. I interpreted the Wanda-in-heaven scene as Barbie’s dream for Wanda, one that would allow Wanda to be more accepted by her old family, who have very strict ideas of what is and is not real and acceptable. I certainly don’t think the only options available to Wanda were either to be stuck in her male identity or to be campy; what a horrible world it would be if that were so! What a horrible world it is when anybody tries to enforce such a narrow view of human possibilitiy! I’m aghast that I said or implied anything short of that.

    1. Hi Matt,

      Many thanks for that, and my sympathy for the deadline issues. I see now what you were getting at, but the way I read those panels, and the way I think most trans people will read them, is that Barbie was imagining Wanda the way Wanda wanted to be remembered.

      Now you are right that Wanda, in part, wanted to be remembered that way for social reasons. She would have been much happier in life if she were prettier because more people would have accepted her as a woman (though the Moon Goddess would never have done so). But we would all like to be thought more beautiful, charming and sexy than we really are. It is a very human trait.

      I think also it is telling that Death appears in the scene, because in a way it is a stamp of approval on Wanda’s identity. The story is, after all, about competing mythical worldviews. The Moon Goddess rejects Wanda, and Wanda’s family imagine that their god will “fix” her, but the official mythology of the series is that of The Endless. Death is the being who really looks after the dead, and she accepts Wanda as Wanda.

      1. Is it really the Moon Goddess who rejects Wanda or is it Thessaly who rejects Wanda, though? Perhaps the Moon Goddess would accept Wanda, but Thessaly excludes Wanda twice, after calling her a man when talking about needing menstrual blood. The Moon Goddess only intereacts directly with Thessaly, not with the other women or with Wanda. I think it’s ambiguous as to whether the Moon Goddess would accept Wanda. ALl that is present is Thessaly’s belief that this is so.

        1. The menstrual blood thing is very interesting, because it turns out that only one of the women can supply it. Hazel is pregnant and Thessaly is way post-menopausal. I’m pretty sure that Neil did that deliberately to illustrate how daft Wanda’s exclusion on those grounds was.

          But the main biological essentialism speech doesn’t come from Thessaly, it comes from George, and he specifically says that it is the Moon Goddess who thinks that way, not Thessaly. Given that Thessaly has just murdered him, I suspect that if he thought Thessaly was taking the Goddess’s name in vain he would have said so.

          1. I must admit that I’d only gone back and checked Thessaly’s initial reaction against my memory and had completely forgotten about the interaction with George in a later section. George confirms Thessaly’s comment, but this is still hearsay. So, again we’re back to the interpretation of mortals (even dead mortals) of the attitudes of a goddess. However, I take your point that it’s not JUST Thessaly who believes this of the Moon, which strengthens the probability that they’re right. In the Sndman universe, of course, as in many muth cycles, the belief of the mortals has a significant impact of the immortal powers and hence the attitudes of the believers may encompass the boundaries of freedom of the goddess.

  4. Interesting that both of you take this as actually being Barbie’s dream. Is that simply because she says “I dream of Wanda”?
    I think it’s pretty well established in Sandman that things are not “actually” the way they are perceived by characters. The clear presence of Death in Wanda’s “dream” signalled, to me, that this was actually “real”. How Wanda looked in Barbie’s dream was Wanda’s essential self-image – or self – being inclusively welcomed (as everyone is) by Death. I can’t, therefore, see it as any projection by or of Barbie’s view of Wanda; to me, it’s always been Wanda’s view of herself.

    1. Well technically all dreams are under the control of Morpheus, so while Barbie may “dream” this it doesn’t mean that what she sees is her creation. That’s the point I was trying to make when I said I saw the dream as an official stamp of approval for Wanda.

  5. I’m going to have to dissent on this entirely with regards to The Bone Palace.

    To be perfectly honest, Savedra struck me as one of the best portrayals of a trans woman written by a cis person, well, ever. Downum threaded many fine lines that were intimately familar to me as a trans woman. The issues you raise as problems read profoundly differently to me.

    First off: the sex scene with Ashlin. You predicted that latent cissexists would respond negatively to the apparent foregrounding of Savedra’s penis and would be reminded she is a freak and “really a man.” Aside from not having seen or heard such things from either cis or trans readers of the novel, you are suggesting (in a way that deeply bothers me) that there is something wrong with showing trans women with penises being sexual. Far from being a problem with Downum’s story, this is a full blown victory. Not all trans women have or want vaginas (something your review implies, and it seems to dangerously reinforce a true-transsexual narrative; such a narrative does not belong to us, it belongs to cis men).

    Secondly: the climactic final scene in which tonnes of things happen, but there is a particularly moving moment where Savedra refuses Phaedre’s offer of a cis woman’s body.

    You seem to have had an entirely different reading of that line than I did and missed what was, for me, a resolutely trans affirming moment in that book. I was actually holding my breath knowing that this was a moment, a choice, that Downum could have supremely failed on in deeply transphobic ways. Instead she took the route of trans pride. Allow me to explain.

    In simply living I have had to confront and militate with the idea that my body as a transsexual woman was inferior to that of cis women; a fact which would forever mark me as a faker and a freak. This is clearly untrue, and clearly a bigoted operation of power, but it remains a fairly hegemonic idea. Loving my body has been one of the most supreme acts of resistance to this hegemony.

    Now, “loving my body” does not mean refusing to let it evolve and change, where ever things like HRT may take me, but it does mean accepting it at each phase of my lifelong evolution.

    Savedra was confronted with a choice between self-love and self-abnegation. She chose the former.

    This occasioned much cheering from me.

    Now, you mentioned that specific line about Nikos and suggested that what Savedra meant was that Nikos would no longer love her unless she had her present body. I read this line as meaning rather the opposite, that Savedra found the tug of temptation arising from the idea that Nikos would love her *more* if she had a “real” woman’s body, an idea she shut down very quickly as she stilled that doubt and affirmed herself.

    To be quite honest I found that your article, while well intentioned, reified the terms of trans women’s oppression. Some trans women do not have surgery. Even those who desire it may have sex lives that are perfectly valid and that deserve celebration well before the date of their SRS.

    That you could take Ashlin’s statement that she’s “normally not into girls” as proof that she sees Savedra as really being a man is also somewhat bizarre. I know many women, cis and trans, who thought themselves heterosexual yet had a powerful relationship with a woman that turned to romantic partnership. Why should Savedra and Ashlin- whose friendship, trust, and camaraderie are well established before they make love- be any different in this respect?

    The notion that trans women should be ashamed of having a penis, and that the sine qua non of transition is SRS, is a notion that belongs not to us but to cis men. It is not for our liberation but for the sake of their power and prestige that such notions exist. Trans women’s lives are lived, and we do exist sometimes with phalluses that- horror of horrors- can become part of sexual activity.

    Savedra’s portrayal was complex and flecked with much familiarity with regards to my own life. I felt Downum did the opposite of fetishsise us: she did her level best to portray Savedra as a character not completely defined by being trans. Her struggles, fears, and distinctions, could just as easily have belonged to a cis woman. I never felt Savedra’s transness was excessively foregrounded, nor, conversely, did I feel she was made *invisible* as a trans woman (which is the same problem in reverse). Downum walked a tight rope and surprisingly did not come crashing down.

    Savedra being trans was not an invisible matter. Moments of vexation were shown- yet such little moments are hardly unusual in my own life, or the lives of other trans women. Fears of discrimination were shown; yet who among us does not have such fears? About the only central thing that occurred that made her trans-ness very visible was impregnating Ashlin. But so what, is my question? I never got the sense throughout Bone Palace that Downum was inviting us to see Savedra as being really male. From the sweet introduction to the fact that Savedra is “she” “her” “a woman” throughout the book, with the sole transphobic snickers coming from people Downum clearly wishes us to dislike… to connect Downum to Janice Raymond is disingenuous to say the very least.

    Raymond’s writing left us with nothing approximating dignity, and with no sense that we had anything useful to contribute.

    By contrast I saw bits of myself and the people I love in Savedra. I study gender for a living and write about it from a feminist and academic perspective as a matter of course, yet I never once thought of the Raymond-set as a point of anything but the starkest contrast while reading Bone Palace.

    To be perfectly frank, if we are to exchange mutually thoughtful criticisms here, your suggestion that it’s transphobic for Savedra to be shown enjoying sex while having a penis is, *itself*, a transphobic idea. A woman is not a vagina, nor is she a womb. Far from your suggestion, I did not assume Savedra had surgery. I was curious about what correspondences there were for such things in Ersin but I kept an open mind, largely because I know from my own experience that things are rarely so cut and dry. I was pleased to see freedom from the stereotype was the result.

    The “one thing” a trans woman wants to do with her penis, if she has one, is up to her. It makes her no less a woman one way or the other, and I feel Downum shares that point of view and was trying to convey it in her work. You have a responsibility as someone speaking to large groups of cis people to not tell them, with such confidence, something about trans women that is patently false (i.e. that we pretty much all want surgery).

    The classical transsexual narrative has had its day and none too soon. Believing it delayed my own transition; seeing it for what it is (as a patriarchal operation of power on trans women) has allowed me to live a happier and fuller life.

    1. I’m not in the least bit surprised that there are people who like the character of Savedra the way we eventually find her to be. I don’t see anything wrong in being trans in that way. My objection to the book is that I felt I was being led to see one sort of person, and then having it shown that she was “really” someone very different.

      As I said to Rose, your reaction to the book is very much a question of the context from which you approach it. If you want to suggest that the context from which I am approaching it is somehow invalid, well I’m kind of used to that. Being trans is a life-long experience of being told you are “doing it wrong’.

    2. A couple of further points here. Firstly I have no objection to trans women keeping their penises, for whatever reason, or indeed enjoying sex with them if that’s what they want to do. What I objected to was the way in which this facet of Savedra’s character was revealed in the book. Doing it in a sex scene, with no prior warning, was, in my view, deeply sensationalist. It was also highly likely to cause the uneducated cis reader to think, “ew, what a freak!” I think it could have been handled in a much better way.

      As to your final paragraph, “a patriarchal operation of power on trans women” is exactly what Janice Raymond said about trans. I don’t think we can fight back against her by adopting her narrative. Not should we assume that the previous generation of trans women, who were by and large forced by circumstances to accept the classic transsexual narrative, were willing or naive dupes. That seems to me to be an error of the same class as the 70s feminists who dismissed the previous generation of women SF writers as “domestic”.

      As to “had its day and none too soon”, if what you are saying is that having a single, monolithic narrative that all trans people were obliged to adopt is a very bad thing then I’m with you 100%. The more choices people have as to how the live their lives the better (in general, with obvious exceptions, before someone accuses me of condoning serial killers).

      On the other hand, that classic transsexual narrative works for many people, so I don’t want to dismiss it. Trans narratives are so varied and fragile that we can’t afford to privilege one over another. To probably mis-quote Ben Franklin, we all have to hang together, because if we don’t we shall surely hang separately.

      Unfortunately, trying to privilege one form of trans narrative over another is what I felt Downum was trying to do with this book.

      1. I disagree on a couple points, just from reading over your reply to Quinnae.

        First, I don’t feel like the sex scene was out of place or sudden, or without warning. Mostly because in this novel sex happens rather frequently, it would be like reading Kushiel’s Dart and getting half way only to be surprised there’s an BDSM scene. Until then it was mostly Isyllt, but the tone of the novel to that point indicated that there’s quite a bit of sex. And also that, Savedra and Ashlin might not have rushed into their relationship, but it’s believable that after saving each other’s lives and surviving scouring those ruins together, they would have an attraction. It’s sudden in that Savedra was not expecting it, but it was in keeping about what we know of the two characters and wasn’t done in any particularly exploitive way. The fact that Savedra was shown to be accepted by Ashlin and while her phallus was paid attention to, it was just a part of how Savedra makes love to her. To ignore it would be erasing to who Savedra is and how she falls and enjoys her night with Ashlin. It’s sudden, but makes sense in the narrative and ends up being a very positive thing.

        The second point is that I don’t feel like this is privileging one form of trans narrative over another. Mostly because of Dahlia, who ends up becoming an apprentice to Isyllt, and this is seen as something Dahlia wants to do and which Isyllt supports. That’s also tied to Dahlia’s remark that one classic transsexual narrative (that of a sex worker) is not ideal and dangerous. “People have a habit of dying in Oldtown. I’d like to see something different before my turn comes.”

        Downum does portray Savedra as domestic and supporting the King and her Prince, but she’s not obligated to challenge it as she is happy within that space. However Downum doesn’t promote this as the way things should be, as evident with Dahlia who takes a very different path which ends up setting up the next novel as something to look forward to. Downum explains the situation of the Hijra, which is very similar to many trans experiences but never promotes that this idea of transsexual is how it should be. Savedra is happy where she is and Dahlia is on the path to becoming a mage herself, there are varied experiences in this book with characters that the reader comes to sympathize with.

        Just to throw my two-cents in.

        1. I’m very glad that there are some people who didn’t find the use of a sex scene for a shock reveal of Savedra’s anatomy offensive. I’m afraid I did.

          Dahlia is intersex, and intersex people have generally been considered more acceptable by hard-line feminists because it plays to their ideas of biological essentialism (see Ilario). And I was very pleased to see her wanting to avoid a life in The Garden. Again I have no objection to people engaging in sex work if that is a free choice, but being forced into sex work is an issue that affects all types of trans people, and indeed cis people as well. I find it very revealing that you associate being a whore as a specifically “classic transsexual” narrative.

      2. There are some points I need to clear up here.

        One, I was not suggesting your context was unreal or irrelevant or invalid. I *was* suggesting that statements like:

        “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.”

        Distort trans women’s experience and tells cis people what they think they already know about us.

        Two, your suggestion that I’ve borrowed Raymond’s narrative strikes me as odd- I will address that if you wish it but I’d prefer to talk about the book, so I’ll scratch that for now.

        Thirdly, as to the “suddenness” of the sex in the book, let me tell you exactly how I reacted to that:

        I was cheering for Savedra and Ashlin to get together since before I hit page 100. There was obvious sexual tension there, and Downum had already set herself up as a writer with whom sex (het and LGBTQ) was always a possibility, so I felt justified in anticipating what seemed to be coming. When it was finally about to happen I was quite girlishly cheering “Kiss her already, damnit!… Yes!” Far from the horror you experienced, I not only saw it coming, I *wanted* it to happen and I was quite giddy when it did (As a bonus, the whole thing also defeats the idea that trans women are asexual- it is very rare that we’re given a proper sex scene as might be given a cis character, whatever the configuration of our bodies, trans men, women, or genderqueer).

        In the end, you and I are debating interpretation. Such is the occupational hazard of lit crit. As an activist I’m always quite prepared to say something in the media is transphobic or otherwise hateful. I’ve been called “too sensitive” by a gaggle of privileged white boys. But even being as incisive as I can be, and even allowing for variance of interpretation and viewpoint, I do not see enough in Bone Palace to merit it being called transphobic. I honestly felt irked when you included Downum in a brief list of transphobic authors in your follow up post to this one.

        I do not see Downum as privileging one kind of trans narrative over the other as you suggest and your notion that Savedra is a ‘bait and switch’ again reads to me as finding something in the text that is not really there. After finishing the book it never occurred to me to think that Savedra began as one thing and ended as another, except perhaps a little more secure and mature (hardly an unusual arc for a character of any sort). There seemed to me to be absolutely no incongruence between how Savedra looked before her relationship with Ashlin took off, and after.

        If Downum *wanted* Savedra to be seen as “just a really gay man” she would not have been written as a *woman*. Cis people are, at present, still under no great pressure to do little courtesies like get pronouns right and the like. It makes next to no sense for Downum to have had a very old guard agenda with Savedra yet simultaneously go to such great lengths to portray her properly.

        Since we are talking about trans tropes I should also bring to your attention a couple of other things. A few “meta” points, if you will:

        1) Savedra’s transition was not a focus of the story. In most novels and movies, even those that purport to be sympathetic to us, the narrative is driven by transition. “Transamerica”, a movie that was far, far more offensive than anything in Bone Palace, had its main character pursuing surgery, with SRS being the climax of the film. In Bone Palace Savedra’s role, her motivations, and her goals have everything to do with the larger issues raised in the story. She’s a major player in a narrative that is not about transition, that is not a voyeuristic and privileged scopophilic look at “The Change.”

        2) Related to Number 1, Savedra is also many years post-transition in this story. Most stories featuring trans people, as I said before, focus on our transitions. That we have exciting and interesting lives post-transition is often elided. Downum shatters that elision.

        3) If you want to see how Downum would portray a gay cis man who loves to wear women’s clothes, she actually does you that favour. Mekaran, the proprietor of the Briar Patch, is clearly portrayed as a crossdresser. And not unsympathetically either, in my judgement, but clearly shown to be very different from Savedra in terms of description.

        4) You suggest that a transphobic or otherwise ignorant cis person would react badly to Savedra’s sudden genital reveal. I don’t discount that reality. What I do discount is the notion that we should orient portrayals of trans people around how the most bigoted, privileged person may react to them. No matter how sympathetic, how perfect, how reasonable, how real and just a portrayal is, if someone doesn’t like trans people, they will project that hate onto the character. It is certainly possible to have a scene that- minstrel show-like- *encourages* a bigoted response, but that sex scene isn’t one of them. Let the cissexists clutch their pearls.

        You don’t know me, so you probably don’t know how rare it is for me to go to bat for a cis author like this. But I have spent much time advocating for better portrayals of marginalised peoples in the press and fiction, so when I see it, it’s worth defending.

        As a sidenote, you seem to ding Jade Castillo for her suggesting that there is a stereotype of trans women being sex workers: there is, and while I might not use the phrase ‘classic transsexual’ to describe that, I understand what she was trying to say. She was, perhaps, using the phrase more in the sense that I use it: to describe a constellation of cis stereotypes about us.

        (Finally, I apologise for my replies being so long, there’s just rather a lot to say on the subject. 🙂 )

        1. I appreciate your input, but basically it seems to come down to telling me that my reading of the book was wrong.

          Like you, I was extremely enthusiastic about the book initially. I even recorded a podcast interview with Julia Rios in which I enthused about how good it was. Then I got past half way and was literally shaking with fury for the rest of the book. I only finished it because I knew I had to write this review. You spend a lot of time talking up your credentials, and I’m very pleased you do all of those things, but no matter how superior you think you are, no amount of you telling me I am wrong is going to change how I feel about this book.

          Where does that leave us? I’m pleased that the book worked for you. I stand by the statement that it didn’t work for me. If that means you think I am a bad person, or an idiot, or a dupe of the patriarchy, well I guess I’ll live with that. I have spent way too much time having other people tell me that my thoughts and feelings are invalid and one or two more makes very little difference.

  6. Thank you for the critical essay. I appreciated the grace and clarity of the writing, and also the strength and variety of the responses it has evoked so far.

    “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”

    I don’t think you’re self-deluded in any way. I have yet to meet anyone whose self-image ages beyond middle-age. Most seem to remain considerably younger than that, with all the attendant surprise brought by each morning and each mirror.

    Like you, I started referring to myself as “old” well in advance of being so. For me, that was partially bracing myself against the possibility that age would sneak up and surprise me, and partially a hope that other people would deny that I was old. (I am currently fifty-seven.) Should there be any of that motive in your referring to yourself as “old” (and there may not be, as you seem self-confident in exactly the right way), please let me say that you don’t look old at all. Last year’s Hugo Award dress was gorgeous, and you were gorgeous in it. I was deeply envious.

    One of the surprises that aging brings is invisibility. One ceases to be looked at; one ceases to be seen. Instead, one is glanced at, and everything else is inferred. (This happens to men, too, although not as soon as to women.) For women, most of whom have struggled life-long to escape invisibility, this result of aging is often bitter. For a transwoman, whose self-image and appearance–whatever they may be–are a victory won, the aspect of age that is the slow drifting apart of self-image and appearance must seem an additional, and perhaps unwelcome, challenge. I’d be profoundly interested in anything you choose to write about that challenge, however.

    1. One of the surprises that aging brings is invisibility. One ceases to be looked at; one ceases to be seen. Instead, one is glanced at, and everything else is inferred. (This happens to men, too, although not as soon as to women.) For women, most of whom have struggled life-long to escape invisibility, this result of aging is often bitter.

      Huh! Among my female and female-presenting friends, all of us reasonably successful professionals in our 30s, there seems to generally be relief that as we get further from the bloom of youth we are less often seen as easy prey or targets for men. We experience fewer leers and catcalls on the street, fewer furtive gropes on the subway, and so on. And now that the supposed ideal of youthful feminine beauty is very obviously unattainable for us, the pressure is off. It is a blessed relief all around, and quite conducive to self-confidence of the sort that I think makes us more visible, not less.

      I do know what you mean about the glance-and-inference; that’s one of the reasons I cut off all my hair, so that even at a glance I am obviously non-conforming. I refuse to make it easy or safe for other people to quickly put me in a box and move on.

    2. Susan:

      You are a little bit older than me, but not by much. If I don’t look old, well that’s a trick of the hormones, but I sure feel it in my muscles at times. My shower is precious to me because it helps soothe away the aches in the morning.

      I absolutely take Rose’s point. I am, of course, somewhat regretful that I was never young and pretty, but I know the price of that state as well and there’s no point in pining over something you can never have.

      As to looking old, it is probably something of a boon. The older you look, the less likely people are to judge you by your looks, and therefore the less likely it is that anyone will think you look suspiciously un-feminine. I’ll settle for being a wicked witch.

  7. Rose,

    I remember that relief in my late 30s, with some nostalgia. It lasted through my 40s, as well, and part of my 50s. Your point is well taken. Not being a target of unwelcome attention is good, very good. It isn’t the leering from youth that I miss. It’s the genuine visibility of the middle years.

    Not being seen as individual begins to be irritating, I find. People charge up to me and assume I’m someone else, frequently a friend’s mother or grandmother (depending on their age). And sometimes they won’t be dissuaded. We look just alike! (And, you know, I bet we really, really don’t.) All cats are black in the dark, and all fat old white women are your best friend’s mother, I guess.

    Also at a certain point medical professionals and bureaucrats begin to treat you as if you are a demographic rather than a person, and none too bright either. That’s downright annoying. And it gets harder to make eye contact. I’d never noticed before that some people just won’t look old women in the eye. I mind that quite a lot, really. All these things can be overcome, but it takes focus and effort that it never took before.


    It is certainly a relief not to be graded on your appearance.

    I’ve been looking for the place where you sign up for crone duty. Perhaps it moves. If you locate it, send me the address, please.

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