Part 2: Their Idea of Distinct Gender

Chapter Two – The Winds of Change

We’re now back with the Princess Adrina. She’s been wandering through the East wing of the palace all day. It’s getting close to dinner-time, and she needs to head back to her chambers. Apparently she’s been shirking her duties, although I’m not sure what ‘duties’ a princess has – stitching her samplers, perhaps, or taking curtsying lessons. One would assume she’s been thinking about what the old woman said to her. But Stanek doesn’t even touch on this. We don’t know what Adrina thinks or how she feels about this rather momentous event in her life. This would be a perfect opportunity for some character development, but instead Stanek spends the time talking about how Adrina knows her way around the castle extremely well. Exciting!

While we’re on the subject, how did that conversation end? Adrina was having a conversation with a mysterious old woman who had somehow crept into the palace, the scene ended…and that’s it? No explanation of who this old woman is or how she got into the castle? Adrina isn’t even going to wonder or think about what a strange occurrence this is? Nope, it’s in the past now, and Adrina has moved on. In Stanek’s world, there is no such thing as cause and effect. A monumental event can occur, and twenty minutes later none of the characters will even remember than it happened and it will never be referred to again. Why? I’m guessing because it’s easier to write that way.

She runs back to her chambers through the private royal access passageways. Nobody uses them but her. I wonder why? After all, if they’re only for private royal use, you’d think that the royalty, at least, would use them. It wouldn’t be hard to insert a line explaining why they’re not used anymore. I think that the only reason for their inclusion is to help Adrina be a Spunky Princess. She knows secret passageways throughout the castle that she can use to get around without being seen. She’s Speshul, in other words.

King Andrew Alder

King Andrew Alder

Adrina changes her clothes and heads off to dinner with her father. Keeping with Stanek’s…interesting…naming traditions, his name is King Andrew. Andrew and Adrina. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be clever.

“Good evening, father,” Adrina said, while trying to hide the sudden smile that came to her lips. “I trust I am not late?”

King Andrew swept his gaze around the enormous oblong table to the faces of the honored guests. “Only so, dear Adrina. Only so.” (page 35)

Why is she trying to hide the sudden smile that comes to her lips? What, exactly, is she smiling at? Her father? We don’t know what terms Adrina and her father are on, but having heard nothing to the contrary it’s reasonable to deduce that she loves her father, so what’s wrong with smiling when she greets him? Why does she want to hide this? Is she embarrassed? And if so, why doesn’t Stanek say so?

Also, Stanek just told us that Adrina knows that she’s not late. Why is she asking if she’s late, then?

Third – if these are ‘honored’ guests, why aren’t you telling us who they are and why they’re honored? If they’re being honored, shouldn’t there be a good reason for it? And no – in the next few pages, Stanek doesn’t delve into who these honored guests are. It’s just a throwaway line.

Chancellor Yi

Chancellor Yi

Lastly – why does he say “Only so?” What does that even mean?

Adrina looked to the stone figurehead that was Chancellor Yi. He stood rigidly behind her father in his rightful place as the king’s principal advisor. The old chancellor did not move as he stood there, nor did he ever unless summoned. This was a strange thing since otherwise he was plagued with a habitual cold. A cold complete with runny nose, continuous sniffles and sneezing. A cold that he could turn off and on at will. To Adrina it was a warning sign of the deadening effect of the dreary, gray castle upon the senses, numbing everything away, leaving only the dead and the dying (pages 35-36).

If he’s an old chancellor, along with the king’s principal advisor, why does he stand behind the king during dinner? Wouldn’t he have a place at the table, or have some time off to rest his creaking joints? Does the king need advice on how to slice his meat?

If he can turn his cold on and off at will, why doesn’t he keep it off? I’ve had a lot of colds, and I never like them. In fact, I hate them. Why would he turn a sickness ON?

If Yi has a habitual cold, why does Stanek say he never moves? Generally, people move when they sneeze.

Lastly…how is any of this a sign that the castle numbs everything away? He’s an advisor who doesn’t speak unless summoned. That’s pretty typical around kings. You keep your mouth shut unless you’re asked for advice.

A priest named Father Tenuus gets up and says a long prayer. Adrina thinks about him. It was Father Tenuus who put the crown on her father’s head. Reasonable, although usually the bishop does that, rather than an ordinary priest. It was Father Tenuus who presided over her parents’ marriage. Also reasonable. And it was Father Tenuus who brought her into the world. Wait, what? Priests acting as midwives? That’s a little weird. No, that’s a lot weird.

Finally the prayer is over and everyone is served. And:

King Andrew smiled as Adrina began eating without waiting for his approval (page 37).

Generally speaking, you don’t have to wait for ‘approval’ from the king before you start eating. But you do have to wait for the king to start before you do. It’s a sign of respect. In other words, Adrina doesn’t respect her father enough to wait for him to start eating. And King Andrew likes that she doesn’t respect him. Because it shows independence.

Adrina looks at her father. He’s lost in his own thoughts, and Adrina figures that he’s thinking about the search for a suitable husband for her:

She had heard that not a single one of the upper lords had responded. She wagered that presently he was considering which nobles of the middle and lower houses had suitable sons (page 26).

Bull. Shit.

Marriages in medieval times (and this world has shown every sign of being a typical medieval fantasy clone) between the upper classes were purely politics. Love was rarely involved. Princess Adrina would have no choice in her marriage, and every single nobleman would be dying to have one of their sons marry her, whether she was a ‘courtly lady’ or not. That marriage means an alliance to the throne, and that means power. And if there’s one thing that everyone in power wants, it’s more power.

Captain Brodst, with his nose in severe pain.

Captain Brodst, with his nose in severe pain.

Suddenly Captain Brodst comes in. He never interrupts unless it’s important, so Adrina perks up. Brodst tells the king that a messenger has arrived from the South. The king tells Captain Brodst to prepare the council chambers and he’ll be along in a bit. The Captain kneels down, preparing to leave. Apparently instead of just bowing when the king dismisses you, you have to drop all the way to your knees and then get back up and leave. That sounds…idiotic, actually. But before the captain leaves, King Andrew has one final command:

“Rouse two guards to council doors.”

A pained expression crossed the captain’s face. Captain Brodst took great pride in his position as captain of the king’s guard and being told to do the obvious was an insult (page 39).

I’m really not sure what to make of this. If this is obvious, it would be standard operating procedure. Therefore, King Andrew doesn’t need to tell Brodst to do it, which makes Andrew kind of a moron because he’s telling people to do things he knows they are already going to do. Maybe Stanek is letting us know that Andrew doesn’t think much of his captain, which is a pretty sure sign that you should replace him, or maybe Stanek is letting us know that Andrew is an undiplomatic dumbass.

The king slowly finishes his meal. Adrina thinks about what this means:

Sometimes it seemed that he mulled over the simplest of decisions for hours – like that color of a new flower to put into the gardens – and then those decisions that she assumed he would deliberate over for days were made in the blink of an eye. Still, she had seen him take seven days to contemplate a heated land dispute when a decision had been desperately needed that same day to keep two of the lower lords from mauling each other (page 40).

I’m not even going to touch the bit about the flowers – that can stand on its own merit, I think – but the rest of it is well worth my time. A king does what is needed for his kingdom. Andrew needed to make a decision immediately to keep a couple of lords from fighting each other. He didn’t make it. Ergo, his incompetence as a king directly resulted in the death of numerous people. Not that this is bad storytelling, per se – maybe Stanek is setting him up as an incompetent king – I’m just saying.

Finally the king leaves, and Adrina sneaks after him.

We then skip back over to the elf-story, judging by the appearance of the Queen Mother. She’s sitting in a empty room wearing a simple robe, meditating. Doing yoga, I guess. That’s cool. Elves doing yoga. I’m sure there’s a porn site out there for this.

Someone sends a message into her mind, which she ignores. I’m not sure why. It’s pretty clear that the Queen Mother is in charge of things. If someone is interrupting the queen during her yoga session, they probably have a very good reason for doing so. If I was interrupted during my special do-not-interrupt yoga session, you can bet that I’d jump right up, disturbed at what has to be news of vital importance.

She ignores the second message as well, but after the third one she invites Brother Liyan in. He’s First Counsel, whatever that means.

The walls of the elf-rooms change to reflect the elves’ moods. They change, showing Brother Liyan that the queen is getting annoyed. It’s a rather cool effect, but it does raise a few questions. First, how are the walls telepathic? Magic, I guess. Second, why do they need walls that reflect the people’s moods when all of these people seem to be telepathic? You don’t need to look at the walls to know that the queen’s pissed off, you can tell by feeling her emotions. Third, why does Stanek switch back and forth from different POVs within the space of a couple sentences?

Brother Liyan telepathically asks the queen why Brother Seth, the First of the Red (whatever that means) is getting ready for the journey, when they need him there? After all, the Queen knows that whoever is sent isn’t going to survive. How she knows this I don’t know, but I guess she can see the future. The Queen Mother tells Liyan he must not tell anyone that Seth is going to his death. Liyan protests and says that the Red are her protectors, and it’s soon going to be too late – the Queen Mother cuts him off and says that’s the entire point, which makes Liyan’s eyes widen. I must say, this would all be a lot more dramatic if I had some idea what any of this means, because I have no clue what they’re talking about.

The Queen then launches into a speech about how she fully understands her actions and knows exactly what she’s doing and she’s willing to pay the ultimate price and Brother Seth is their only hope.

We each know our parts in this and we must play them out. We have waited too long to act. Sathar has the ear of King Mark. Our people return to the lands of Man… (page 44)

So the first time I read this I was hopelessly confused because the Queen is referencing names that we have heard just once, and not important names, or names that have been stressed in any way, shape or form – names that were thrown randomly into a large block of text and instantly forgotten. But to recap – Sathar appears to be a bad guy who is in bed with King Mark from one of the four minor kingdoms. And the Queen is sending some Elves on a suicide mission to the lands of men, wherever that is, to do something, which isn’t explained.

We then cut over to Vilmos. I’m starting to get a little annoyed at all these chapter cuts. There’s no reason for it, as Stanek’s not telling the story chronologically – we’ll skip over to a character, spend several days with them, and then go back to the first character and pick up five minutes after we left off. It’s really not that hard to arrange things so you spend an entire chapter in one location with one character, and it makes the book a hell of a lot easier to understand. Then again, making things easy to understand is not one of Stanek’s strong points.

It’s a thirty-minute walk to the edge of the forest, but Vilmos runs and makes it in five, so he has time to goof off. Average walking speed for people is about two to three miles per hour, so let’s assume it’s a mile and a half to the edge of the forest. This means Vilmos can run at 18 miles an hour. That’s pretty fast for a 12-year-old boy.

Vilmos collects a pile of sticks and sets it down, and starts walking into the forest. Suddenly he sees a bear, and remembers that a couple days ago a girl in a nearby village was mauled to death by a bear, which is why his mother told him to stay out of the forest in the first place. God, this kid is stupid. The bear rears up on its hind legs, and Vilmos pisses himself. And I don’t mean figuratively:

Terror gripped Vilmos’ mind. Warm urine raced down his legs (page 45).

I laughed.

There’s a picture on the next page, and hilariously, it looks like the bear is pounding on his chest a la Tarzan.

Vilmos tells himself to run, but he can’t make himself move. He begins to ponder whether or not he should use the magic. Here is a situation where there’s no question at all: it’s a choice between certain death by bear-mauling, or possible death IF the priests decide that this usage of magic was the ‘one time too many’ and IF they actually manage to catch him. Vilmos keeps up the paragraph after paragraph of internal debate while any tension the scene had fades away. Not that there was a lot of tension in the first place.

The bear drops down from its pose and roars at him. Vilmos closes his eyes and waits to die. Nothing happens. He opens his eyes and sniffs. There’s scorch marks on the trees around him and the smell of burnt wood and singed hair. He conjured up the blue flames again. Wouldn’t Vilmos be able to tell if he was conjuring flames and frying a bear to a crisp even with his eyes shut? Wouldn’t he at least hear this?

We cut back to the Elves. Seth is reading a tome titled “Courtship rituals of the noble class”. Yes, with only the first word capitalized. And:

Yet, he wasn’t expecting to find a drawing as he turned the page to chapter four. Disgusted, he pushed the book away. There was no way he would continue to study such perversity (page 47).

I can only assume he found an illustration of a couple of people fornicating. And Stanek markets this series for ages 10 and up?

'Brother' Galan

‘Brother’ Galan

Seth thinks about the breeze for a bit. This calms him, so he picks up the book and continues reading. After a bit Brother Galan comes in and prepares for her bath. Brother Galan is female, incidentally. And:

For the first time as he looked at her, Seth saw Galan as different, beautiful. Suddenly uneasy and not understanding why, Seth stared down at his books. Their strange ideas pollute my mind even now (page 48).

So…reading about humans having sex is turning Seth on because he suddenly realizes that Galan is actually female?

Galan asks what is the most odd about the humans:

Everything about them. This notion of marriage. Their idea of distinct gender. Their class structure. They would find me calling you, Brother, very odd (page 37).

Which would be a pretty interesting distinguishing characteristic between Elves and Men, if Stanek actually kept it consistent, but he doesn’t. The Elves’ gender issues essentially stop at calling Galan ‘brother’. Seth uses the pronouns ‘her’ and ‘she’ when thinking about Galan, and he can tell that Galan is physically female. Yes, the men would find him calling her Brother a bit odd, but no more odd than a group of humans using gender-neutral terms for each other…which really isn’t that odd.

Also, Stanek doesn’t know how to properly use commas.

Also, this raises questions on how Elves reproduce if they don’t have distinct genders. Maybe they grow their young in pods like Saruman grows his Uruk-hai in the The Lord of the Rings movies.

Seth thinks about how Galan has only recently ‘ascended’, and still has many seasons of maturing ahead of her. And no, the ‘ascension’ is never explained.

Right. So. Two chapters in, we have our Spunky Princess, our Rugged Hero from a Distant Land who is the Only One who can Save the World, and our Young Wizard with Rare Powers that Mysteriously Work Exactly as He Needs Them To in Times of Crisis.


  10 Responses to “Part 2: Their Idea of Distinct Gender”

  1. She wagered that presently he was considering which nobles of the middle and lower houses had suitable sons (page 26).

    A wager requires two people at least. So with whom was the wager ? (Prince Joey ? Being in Stanek’s composition might at least get the little swine slaughtered….) If Stanek means “Adrina guessed”, “guessed” is a perfectly adequate word

  2. “First, how are the walls telepathic? Magic, I guess. ”

    ## If I were re-writing this – and it needs it – I would put that down to sympathy between the walls and the person, to make a point about how connected and interdependent everything is. Which would be a nice plot device, and might explain why King Andrew is so slow. An ingenious author could develop the idea.

  3. Lol, “The King’s guard” that’s taken straight out of “A song of ice and fire.” Stanek truly has no shame what so ever when it comes to ripping off other people’s work. Still, It’s not as bad as in “Ruin mist” where he named the region of Men and Elves “Middle earth”.

  4. So, kings never had guards before A Song of Ice and Fire? Sorry if I misunderstand.

  5. I think you confused “gender” and “sex.” People can reproduce even if they’re the same gender, as long as they’re of the opposite sex.

  6. I was skimming through the start of one of Stanek’s books on Amazon, and in the list of characters at the start, it described King Mark as being the ruler of the Elves of “West Reach”, which certainly adds sme desperately needed clarity to the intial Seth subplot. Is this fact ever actually stated within the book itself?

  7. Exactly. Sex is biology. Gender is socially-constructed (at least to a degree, depending on who you talk to) so it’s irrelevant to mating ability.

    Not that this lends any credence to this crappy book.

  8. Right, but it’d be kind of hard to date if you always had to ask which sex they were.

  9. …That bear was being the least threatening bear alive. First off, Stanek, when a bear stands on its hind legs, IT IS NOT ABOUT TO CHARGE. It is just trying to get a better look at whatever it’s looking at. Second, a bear dropping down from that posture and roaring at you is telling you to go away, which is what you should do. It is not necessarily going to charge, assuming that you leave.

  10. So… “humans” (all of them, apparently) have a rigid gender binary in which gender is assigned at birth based on genitals, various aspects of society and culture are wrapped in restrictive gender norms, and those gender norms cannot be violated.

    In contrast, “elves” (all of them, apparently) have a rigid gender binary in which gender is assigned at birth based on genitals, various aspects of society and culture are wrapped in restrictive gender norms, and those gender norms can, occasionally, be violated in some small ways when practicality demands.

    Way to develop your fantasy cultures there, Stanek.