Feast of Souls, But Nothing For the Genitals
Per the cover blurb: I pay about $100 a month, but I live in a temperate climate and I'm good about keeping the thermostat turned down in summer. Click on the pic for a link to Amazon.com where you can buy the book at very reasonable prices.
So I have some Google alerts trolling the Internets for me, searching for articles about this and that which I can use for my articles or for Politically Sexy blog posts, or just for my own edification.
And one of them led me to an interesting interview of a fantasy author named C. S. Friedman. In the interview, she explained how various parties who had accused her of sexism and suchlike in her novel Feast of Souls were all wrong. That she so bluntly described the lot of women in her quasi-medieval society (including the widespread prostitution and the general tendency to vend women like sexual snack foods) because that’s the way it really was in such societies.
I had to admit, I was intrigued. This was the same sort of thing that had led John Norman to write the Gor novels the way he wrote them. In studying ancient cultures Norman had discovered that in most if not all of western history, women had had a status just a little above sheep and cattle. Fuckable sheep and cattle. The only thing that saved women from being herded about and kept in pens was their ability to produce male heirs and to talk (this probably accounts for women's general dislike of being gagged).
Women who didn’t care for this state of affairs were simply beaten until they saw things more clearly. (In fact, the Koran and the Bible both have things to say about the proper beating of slaves and wives, and they were CIVILIZING influences in their cultures, believe it or not.)
(I'm not saying this was a good state of affairs in the real world. I think it was a thoroughly miserable state of affairs. But I think it was the historical reality of the ancient world.)
So I felt it was reasonable to expect Feast of Souls to contain scenes of helpless females being dominated by sexually ruthless Gorean-type macho men. I was HOPING for some bondage, but I knew the chances there were kinda iffy.
I was feeling better about my chances when we were introduced to Kamala, the female lead, a former teen waif now grown to young womanhood. She’s been living in the mean streets the medieval city of Gansang since her mother sold her to a stranger for sexual purposes at the age of 10, and now she’s hounding a sorcerer to teach he how to sorce.
You have to figure that Kamala would have some mileage on her, sexually speaking. She’d probably start drooling at the sound of a codpiece dropping, just by reflex.
Well, I was wrong, so wrong. Feast of Souls is basically Andre Norton-ish, and Kamala has the basic Andre Norton Protagonist attitude toward sex: she’s Not Interested. Granted, your typical Andre Norton heroine is not interested in sex because she is fundamentally asexual, while Kamala is Not Interested because of her traumatic rape/sale as a 10-year-old.
I was not just disappointed but surprised about that. We are given to believe that Kamala has been knocking around the slums of Gansang (how do you tell the slums from the rest of a city when it’s medieval, anyway?) during all of her teen years, in a society where poor women without family support had just one way of making money, and it wasn’t being an administrative assistant. (It was being a whore, several steps above being and administrative assistant.)
Anyway, it was mentioned that the guy who first purchased Kamala considered any of a woman’s orifices to be fair game, so I figured that over the last several years all three holes had gotten a pretty good workout in the slums of Gansang.
But Kamala the young woman is still wigged out about her rape as a 10-year-old, suggesting that there hasn’t been a whole lot of sexual encounters in the intervening years to also be wigged out about.
Since we’re never given any clue as to how Kamala survived in the slums, not even a vague reference to scavenging the dumps and alleys, we’re left wondering what the hell she did do. Maybe that’s being saved for the second or third novel of the trilogy. (My guess, she was a barrista at a medieval Starbuck’s -- yes, they’ve been expanding in imaginary worlds as well as the real one -- who moonlighted as a Tarot reader in her spare time.)
In any event, Kamala is very much an Andre Norton heroine: determined, extraordinary, brave, self-contained, and very much an outsider with a strong sense of being an outsider.
Despite the fact that Feast of Souls is a book about a distinctly Andre Norton-ish heroine living in a medieval society where magic works and is in widespread use, Feast of Souls is not simply warmed-over Andre Norton, largely because it has an original and well thought out variation on the theme of magical powers.
To wit: there are two categories of magical practitioners in Feast of Souls. There are witches, who, whenever they use their powers, draw on their own soul’s power (they call it the “athra” in Feast of Souls) and in doing so, age prematurely, as the athra is what keeps people alive. Most don’t make it out of their 30s, and it’s not at all uncommon for them to die in their 20s. This doesn’t sound so tragic in light of what we know of life expectancies in medieval Earth, but there’s a difference in the world of Feast of Souls: witches can magically cure illnesses in themselves and others, so the life expectancies are much higher on their world than on Earth -- or would be if it weren’t for that whole “using up the athra” thing.
Witches can be male or female, rich or poor, it all seems to come down to a random genetic thing. (See: Star Wars, “The Force.”)
There are also sorcerers in Feast of Souls. The source of their sorcery is unknown to non-sorcerers, but it clearly isn’t their own souls because they not only don’t die young, they don’t die, period. That is, they are mortal and can be killed, but they don’t age (see: magically curing illnesses, including apparently aging) and they have so much magical power and experience that it’s really, really hard to kill them.
Sorcerors get their magical power by establishing a psychic connection with a random person (they can’t control who it is, and they don’t even know who it is) and draining THEIR athra of its power, eventually killing them, and not all that eventually if they use their powers freely. (The more you use magical powers, the faster the athra goes away.)
Males, of course, are the only sex mean enough to do such a thing -- very Andre Norton-ish.
Basically, their powers seem to be “whatever the plot demands” with the proviso that heavy-duty power over a prolonged period will kill or half-kill them (in the case of witches) or kill or half-kill their victims, in the case of sorcerors.
Witches try as hard as they can to limit their use of magic to essential things like curing disease and protecting the crops and livestock of their neighbors, but they are relatively soft-hearted folk whom peasants keep bringing their dying kids to, and so they tend to die young.
Sorcerers have tried very hard to keep anyone who is not one of them from finding out about the vampiric source of their connectivity, and they’ve been totally successful. A person who has fallen victim to the sorcerer’s soul vampirism is said to have The Wasting, an incurable disease, even by sorcery. The fact that for centuries no one has made the connection between The Wasting and the fact that sorcerers never die even though they seem to have the same powers as witches, who use their souls when they use their powers, speaks deeply of the incredibly stupidity of the common folk of this planet. (Not that we of Earth are in any position to criticize -- we elected George W. Bush President -- twice!)
This leaves us with two sets of magical beings on a planet of very stupid people, furthermore, the place is infested with evil dragons with psychic powers (why didn't they spray for them?). In fact, the dragons actually kicked human ass in the past, ending the First Age of Kings (though a gang of enraged chipmunks could probably take this particular batch of humanity).
Now humanity is in the Second Age of Kings, which is a lot like the First Age of Kings only sorcerers exist (they missed the First Age for some reason) and some people are scared shitless the dragons are gonna come back and kick human ass again Real Soon Now.
Friedman certainly knows how to get a plot boiling -- well, it WOULD be boiling if Feast of Souls were a single novel. But Feast of Souls is the first book of a trilogy, which means the plot is more of a low simmer. (Did I mention I don’t like trilogies because they strike me as slow-moving and padded?)
You might think I’ve given the whole plot of Feast of Souls away, but what I’ve given you here is the set-up for the book, and probably the trilogy as well. It’s an intriguing set-up that promises all sorts of possibilities, and in truth Feast of Souls is a fine exemplar of the high fantasy genre, with a Not Interested protagonist. I read the book cover to cover, long after I'd figured out there wasn't going to be any John Norman -ish fun to be had in it. It's a fine exemplar of its genre.
As for the charges of sexism? Get real. If this book is sexist, just about all books are sexist. If anyone wants a book to be less sexist than this one, they should do as Andrea Dworkin did and write their own damn book.
Unfortunately, I’ve read enough high fantasy (I read a LOT of it during my misspent youth, including most of Andre Norton’s ouevre and the works of many like her) that I am only interested in works by writers who rework the genre every time they set pen to paper -- people like Tim Powers, John Crowley and the late Roger Zelazny. (Well, there’s also John Norman but his work is more sword and sandal than high fantasy -- not that he didn’t reinvent the genre when he wrote “Captive of Gor.")
There’s an obvious and easy way to change Feast of Souls into something more to my liking, I just don’t know that it would result in a better book -- maybe just a different one.
A few scenes like these would have made Kamala's problematical early years in Gansang a lot more vivid. Image courtesy of Bondagerotica sponsor Public Disgrace.
All I’d have to do initially is recount Kamala’s adventures as a coin girl in the streets of Gansang. Show her being vended out sexually by her owner, indifferent to her now that he has fully used her. Show her wandering the streets with her hands chained behind her back, naked collared and gagged. There’s a metal box attached to the collar and anyone with so much as a penny to put in the box can legally use any or all of her orifices for their pleasure. (They have to remove her gag to use her mouth because, by municipal law, sexual vendors are gagged so their cries to entice men won’t disturb the piece (and their other cries as well).
They’d have to use body language instead.
Show her lying face down in the dirt in a public square, a man lying atop her, using her, while she moans into the gag, aroused despite herself, with the feet of unconcerned passers-by walking past just inches from her.
The young woman who goes to the sorcerer seeking training would be very different from the one in the novel.
This level of explicitness would add a lot of raunchiness to the story, and develop the character more powerfully in certain ways -- getting from the naked, chained woman groveling in the dirt underneath various men (and possibly women) to the determined young woman seeking a sorceror’s help would be interesting, but I think it would change the protagonist and the way that she deals with the world so much that it wouldn’t be the same novel at all. I might like it better, if it were done well, but I don’t know if fans of high fantasy would like it at all.
Still, it’s something for Ms. Friedman to think about. The success of Norman’s Gor novels can be at least partially ascribed to their originality, because Norman filtered his vision of Gor through the eyes of macho warrior slavers. Kamala’s world appears to have been filtered through the eyes of a middle class white American woman. It’s not really a new vision. If the story had been filtered through the eyes of a streetwise medieval slum girl, well, that would be something new in fantasy land.