I am an irritated woman.
Perhaps it's because yesterday I was home sick and today I have the sniffles. Perhaps
it's because today is Election Day, and I find myself inundated by people who presume that just because I have ovaries, I mustn't
be in charge of my life or health. Perhaps it's because this weekend
Amazon suggested this as my Halloween costume:
Seriously? I don't keep my brains in my boobs.
And Mark Smylie's The Barrow is taking the brunt of my irritation. It may be the single most irritating book I've read in months. It is not terrible. At least, not the most terrible thing I've ever read. It's just generally bad.
Let me and my ovaries tell you why. *Spoilers Ahead*
General male-heavy sword and sorcery "let's steal an enchanted sword lost for millennia" story. Lots of dangerous-yet-attractive men with individual moral codes that somehow transcend/transgress the laws of the land. And there's a magic map and a legendary sword they quest to steal. So far, so typical.
Which would be fine...if only. If only it were better written. If only it tweaked the typical plot just a little. If only it didn't treat every woman in the story as a receptacle (literal or metaphorical) for some twisted male fantasy. If only I enjoyed reading it, I wouldn't be so grumpy!
I am willing to overlook gender imbalance in my books, if they're good. Lord of the Rings doesn't piss me off, even though Eowyn is the only female of any real merit (don't even give me Galadriel. Doesn't count.). You know why it doesn't piss me off? Because it's too awesome to nitpick. I will overlook your book's flaws if it is amazing. The Barrow is not, and today it receives the fullness of my wrath.
All women characters fall into the madonna/whore complex. The only exceptions occur when we find out that a madonna character is (gasp) secretly a whore. Lots of whores. Naturally, one of our rogues is a whoremaster. There are lots of passages of attempted eroticism where one woman or another is being raped or is drugged and forced into very rough sex. One whore is even going to be the centerpiece of a black-magic ritual where she is forced to have sex with a bull. Who cares if she dies afterwards? *manly chortle* She's only a woman! I need to scrub my brain out with soap.
The closest thing Smylie gives us to a "female power" moment is when we realize that one woman having sex in front of a crowd is the buyer of sex rather than the commodity. Huzzah for women paying to be penetrated in public. Equality is delightful.
The most "well-rounded" female character is named Erim. She dresses and passes as a man. Which would totally be interesting if that had anything to do with her character. But she never does anything particular, she has no conflict (except secretly wanting to be a whore. No, really.), and no one ever discovers her secret. She's just a woman passing as a man. No complexity, no interest, no plot, no point. She is written quite literally as a man, with breasts.
Annwyn is the madonna figure, pale, blonde, perfect. Shunned for having sex out of wedlock (but it's OK; her brother killed her lover), she has been alone in her father's house for ten years. She's chaste and repentant, except when she's forced to enact twisted incest pseudo-sex with her brothers. Thanks to a spell, the map to the sword appears under her skin. The thieves must literally read her naked body to find the treasure. Oh, and then she becomes possessed and has sex with everything that moves, including a dead guy.
What the hell, Mark Smylie?
Yes, I am using you as a target for many of my issues about sword and sorcery novels, but I expect better from a book published this year (and not 1973). There is a way to write fantasy, even horror fantasy, that doesn't feel like a porn flick or an exploitation film. I shall not be reading any more of your work, and my ovaries are unimpressed with you. Thus endeth the rant.