Tuesday, May 03, 2011

I've been reading the Merchant Princes series recently, and it's been downright harrowing.

Partly that's just because this is an unusually good series of books, I'd say. It's a fantasy/sci-fi (blurs the line) series about a normal person from the real world (sort of) who stumbles on another world where magic is real (sort of) and gets caught up in that world's power politics and becomes royalty (sort of) herself. So when I put it like that, it's a very standard plot. Narnia, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Harry Potter, plus dozens of fantasy stories that don't actually have multiple worlds but do have the same "rags to royalty" idea, like the Lord of the Rings or the Wheel of Time series where they all start out as farmers and wind up as ruling monarchs. I like fantasy books in general, and this one seems to have unusually smart, plausible characters, and an interesting premise (I phrased it vaguely above, but there are lot of twists), and a good mix of action and intrigue and a little humor here and there. I had heard and read good things about the author, Charles Stross, and when I found myself in a bookstore I gave a book of his a try, and really liked it, so I went on to this.

So why do I call it harrowing? Because the main character has been threatened with rape dozens times, it actually happened at least once and got her pregnant, and no one cares about that, even herself and people who really, really should.

That summary is overly simplified. And long before Miriam's fertility was a plot point the series was making it clear that the other world is close to hell for commoners and women of all ranks, like real-world feudal societies and unlike the societies in a lot of fantasy fiction. Kudos to the author for not chickening out on the premise. And there was a period in the books that was really uncomfortable to read because it seemed that everyone but Miriam knew and condoned what had happened, but by where I am now in the book, it's much better. For a while, though, I was fully expecting her to go postal or even go Lizzie Borden (since her mother, ostensibly a perfect parent until the second or third book, was definitely involved in the rape somehow), and I'd still find it believable and her a likeable character if she does. It was uncomfortable to read, but at the same time, hard to put the book down just because I had to see what would happen next.

My extreme reaction is partly just general modern sensibilities offended by a Dark Age culture, especially one contrived to put a particularly sympathetic character in a particularly bad situation. But now that I've thought about it, another thing that bugs me is the fact that she seems to be adapting for the sake of her family, the Clan. She never knew her biological family until the events of the story (sort of). They've treated her like shit by the standards of the world she's familiar with, and even a person from a feudal culture would probably be paranoid and gunshy after what she's gone through. She knows that even the "likeable" Clan members can be incredibly cold-blooded. But because they apparently need her, she is apparently willing to live like a medieval lady 90 percent of the time with all the hardship that implies. This is bizarre to me. I seriously think that I'd take the money and run, money optional. As cynical as I am about the U.S. government, with reasonable precautions I'd feel slightly better about throwing myself on their mercies than on those of the super-Mafia, and she has half a dozen other options as well.

I get that family is important, and that in a feudal culture it's a lot more important than it is in real life today, and also that in the story Miriam has few good options right now, but even considering all that it boggles my mind how easily Miriam is accepting being treated like a brood mare just because she is assured she can leave whenever she wants. Either there are big twists to come in this area or I'm unusually callow about and unsympathetic to family ties or Stross really screwed up on the characterization.

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