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How not to write, part seven zillion and one in an infinitely extensible series

How not to write, part seven zillion and one in an infinitely extensible series published on No Comments on How not to write, part seven zillion and one in an infinitely extensible series

I picked up Eon by Alison Goodman after reading some laudatory reviews on Amazon and also being marginally intrigued by the concept, in which a young woman adopts a boy’s identity to compete for the chance to communicate with dragons and wield great magic, which is, of course, reserved for men. Of course, Eon wins the chance to communicate not just with any dragon, but with the super special awesome Mirror Dragon, the most powerful of all. Then she becomes involved in imperial politics, and eventually the fate of the emperor’s succession and the kingdom depends on her. Of course it does. :p

I did not expect this book to be quite so shitty. It really reminded me of The Diviners in that it was a textbook example of how not to tell a story.

Do you need to learn how not to write, kids? Okay, then pay attention to the following precepts, in no particular order.

1. Appropriate someone else’s culture. Goodman’s world-building is basically the authorial equivalent of Chinese food in the U.S.: it’s a bastardized mockery of actual cuisine from that country based less on authenticity and more on what "Westerners" think is the "quintessence of the Orient." She uses, for example, the Chinese zodiac, the traditional Chinese concept of chi and the historical fact that some southern Chinese people used to refer to "Westerners" as gweilo or "foreign devils." But Goodman doesn’t care at all about actual Chinese people and culture.

There’s no understanding, insight or sympathy in her portrayal. In fact, there’s just the opposite. Goodman files off the serial numbers off everything Chinese by renaming it. For example, chi becomes Hua [why is it capitalized???] in her copycat universe. Her insistence on making up her own terms for concepts that already have perfectly good labels comes across as her way of claiming someone else’s material as her own. You can tell she made it up because she named it, right? Right???

Furthermore, Goodman’s style actually exoticizes her characters. Eon tells the story in first person, but Goodman writes with info-dumping specificity that makes no sense, given Eon’s familiarity with her own milieu. Eon should be saying things like, "We left an offering before we went." Perhaps a little contextual conversation could then establish that the offerings have something to do with altars, respecting dead ancestors and/or petitioning for good fortune. But instead we get explicit weirdness like, "We placed an offering of rice on the altar of our ancestors so that the ghosts would be honored." Nobody talks like that unless they’re addressing clueless outsiders. Eon’s explanations of everything make both her and the reader into observers of her culture, rather than sympathetic participants.

Completely flunk the portrayal of characters with disabilities. Eon has a disability supposedly; she has a lame leg. Eon’s master deliberately broke her hip so that she would be reviled as a "cripple" and therefore escape close physical examination; thus her status as a woman would not be found out. Her disability manifests in the story as periodic hip pain and a need for warm baths, public contempt for her "crippled" status, surprisingly brief rage when she learns that her master deliberately disabled her, etc.

Then, at the climax, when she finally connects with her super special awesome Mirror Dragon, the dragon magic heals her leg and erases her disability. That’s right, folks; not only does Eon’s dragon magic make her the specialest girl in all of Bullshitlandia, it also renders her physically "perfect" as well. She spends a mere moment noting her physical change and then returns to kicking ass.

Cheater! Unthinking, ableist, narratively lazy cheater! I thought that Tragic Cripple Who Overcomes Adversity To Walk Again trope was bad enough, but this is worse. At least the Walking Again argle bargle recognizes that people have to exert effort to change their physical status. This instantaneous Disability Deletion As Reward crapola just completely flies off into the la-la land of wish fulfillment where no fucks are given about REALITY. Significant change in one’s physicality has significant psychological effects, a fact that appears to escape Goodman.

And then there’s the minor character Chart. [Why is his name a proper noun? WHY??? No one else’s is.] He is the disabled son of Eon’s closest servant Rilla. He lives in Eon’s master’s kitchen, doing…uh…apparently nothing, as his unusual appearance, mobility impairments and speech impediment cause people to flip out.

I think he is supposed to function as Eon’s only friend in her master’s household. However, Goodman’s obsessive harping on Chart’s deformity and her insistence on rendering his halting speech verbatim, with many ellipses and dropped words, only accentuate his physical differences. Since the reader is hearing the story from Eon’s point of view, the author’s obsession with Chart’s disability becomes Eon’s. Eon’s objectification of Chart by focusing solely on his unusual body creates emotional distance, rather than a bond of intimacy, between them. Thus Eon’s relationship with Chart is characterized not by reciprocal friendship, but by condescending pity.

The true nature of Eon and Chart’s relationship appears toward the end of the book when Eon’s master dies, leaving Eon his money, estate, servants, etc. Out of the noblesse oblige of her disgustingly condescending heart, Eon buys freedom for Rilla and Chart and lets them go.

I could write an entire essay about how problematic this development is. I think Goodman expects the reader to give Eon plaudits for her manumission of Rilla and Chart, but I can’t. First, she seems to do so less out of caring for Rilla and Chart as people and more out of a) being guilted by Rilla and b) being motivated by the thought of their gratitude. Second, it’s implied that Eon manumits them less out of a belief in the integrity and autonomy of all people and more as a reward for them being such obedient servants. Third, she replicates the oppressive system by turning a servant [Chart] into a master of those he previously served with. I’m not asking for a critical examination of structural inequality here; I’m just saying that Rilla and Chart exist basically as props to demonstrate Eon’s virtue and to make her feel good about herself. Goodman’s deployment of them as scenery causes her to perpetuate unexamined stereotypes.

3. Fail to establish a comprehensive naming scheme. If there’s a culture dominated by one language, that language’s patterns and conventions tend to show up regularly in that culture’s names for people, places and things. I assume that Goodman’s Bullshitlandia is dominated by one language, though God knows what that is, as her characters’ names come from all over the map, even if they’re supposed to have the same cultural background. Eon’s the protagonist; Ido’s the antagonist; Kygo’s the prince heir; Ranne is some evil guard; Dela is Eon’s palace advisor; Rilla and Chart are props Eon’s servants, etc., etc., etc. Where are all these people supposed to come from? How did they get this hodge-podge of naming conventions? This irritated the fuck out of me, especially because, once I picked up on it, I couldn’t stop seeing it everywhere.

4. Make the secondary characters much more compelling and sympathetic than the protagonist. Eon is not an original story. The protagonist lives in a society full of sexist oppression, so she follows the tired narrative course of becoming Stupendous Token Exceptional Female Character. She starts off a poor, reviled, friendless servant and ends up rich, accepted and practically royal. [Why is it such an unexaminedly awesome reward in so many stories to discover that one is royal or to attach oneself to royalty? Do hereditary monarchies have some amazing secret virtues I’m unaware of?] Goodman interrogates absolutely nothing about this trajectory. It’s the most boring plot ever.

By contrast, let’s look at Lady Dela. When Eon enters the Emperor’s court as an overwhelmed newbie, the patient, savvy and witty Lady Dela immediately attaches herself to Eon. Turns out she’s a trans woman from some foreign culture, which was either unspecified or so sparsely described that I completely forget its name, where trans women have societally validated roles and acceptance. She grew up rather happily with a supportive mother, then somehow ended up as a courtier in Bullshitlandia, where everyone has rigid, unhealthy hangups about sex and gender. Forget Eon. I want to know how Lady Dela got where she is. What motivated her to leave her trans-friendly culture for anti-trans Bullshitlandia? That’s a much more interesting story. When you consider that Lady Dela is commonsensical, matter-of-fact, sensible, open-minded and brave where Eon is condescending, panicky and prone to repeated stupid decisions, you can easily see who the real heroine is.

5. Deprive key characters of backstory and psychological grounding. The reader knows very little about Eon when starting the book and ends up knowing just about the same amount, mostly because Goodman provides few details about Eon’s life before the time covered by the book. When Goodman does supply memories for Eon, she fails to give them the emotional heft that demonstrates how strongly they affect Eon nowadays. Eon’s  most significant moments prior to her purchase by her master apparently occurred at a salt farm where she was enslaved. She made a friend there, another girl who taught her that her sexuality could be both an asset and a liability, but then this friend died under cruel treatment, about which Eon strangely does not give a shit. Or, if she does give a shit, it is given such short shrift that it doesn’t register as an experience that changed her emotional state, thoughts or actions.

The book suffers from this type of emotional imbalance throughout. We get blow-by-blow, multi-page reports on Eon’s anxious reactions as she watches all the other dragon magic candidates go through their rituals, but only a single sentence about the death of her supposed best friend at the salt farm. And, mind you, we’re not getting a single sentence because Eon is repressing deep wells of grief that she doesn’t wish to speak of. There are no indications that Eon, a remarkably bland character, has deep wells of anything because Goodman can’t effectively tag any of her protagonist’s experiences with the proper emotional weight.

Well, okay, I lied. Eon does have a deep well of loyal, uncritical attachment to her master. Fine, I can deal with that. We have a desperate, formerly enslaved young girl willing to mold herself into anything — even a different identity — at the prospect of someone, anyone, taking an interest [even an exploitative one] in her.  It’s rather depressing, but, given her history, rather realistic. It’s also psychologically rich and compelling stuff…at least in potential.

Goodman, though, refuses to engage with the complexities of Eon’s relationship with her master. For example, Eon’s master blatantly admits that he’s manipulating her for his own selfish ends, but Eon accepts this without a problem. While she does experience a moment of rage when she discovers that he purposely lamed her, it blows over quickly, with no lasting effect on her. Overall, Eon venerates her master as fair, kind, generous and altogether wonderful. So does everyone else; even the crown prince dons mourning clothes when her master dies, without even an acknowledgment that the dead guy may have been important to Eon, but he was also a greedy, sadistic, manipulative bastard who broke little girls’ legs for fun. I guess the reader is supposed to accept Eon’s master as a good and kind character because that’s how she interprets him. However, I refuse to trust the judgment of a character who conspicuously lacks a past, motivations and, you know, a psychologically convincing character with a modicum of emotional freight!

6. Deliberately decide to write a story about a society so sexist that the protagonist is a) intentionally disabled and b) pressured to take on trans status in order to find her place, and then say nothing novel, insightful or even mildly interesting about sexism, misogyny, disabilities and/or trans identities. Goodman could have chosen pretty much anything as Eon’s major obstacle to overcome. Eon could have been from an oppressed race or social class. She could have been a sea or air dweller adjusting to life on land. But no. For some reason, Goodman specifically chooses to make Eon a protagonist with both a physical disability and a trans identity.

Great! Now do something with it.

Goodman does nothing with it. As I detailed in criticism #2, Goodman treats Eon’s disability as entirely incidental to her character. Eon remarks that people avert their eyes from her, but she doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it. Anger, resignation, a desire to prove herself, rage at structural inequality, confusion…we get none of it. We just get occasional insertions of hip pain at inopportune times and a token moment of rage when Eon remembers the source of her disability. Actual people with actual disabilities experience their disabilities as actual parts of their lives that actually affect their experiences. Meanwhile, supposedly disabled characters like Eon, created by someone who, I can only conclude, has no experience whatsoever with people with disabilities, have immaterial "disabilities" with no significant bearing on them or the story, except as minor plot points.

Goodman also does nothing with the societal sexism that Eon struggles against. It just exists as an obstacle for Eon to overcome with her amazing dragon magic.  There is an interesting story rattling around in here somewhere, about a centuries-long suppression of female dragons, magicians and warriors undergirding the current virulent misogyny in Bullshitlandia, but Goodman doesn’t seem to care about why this suppression occurred and how the effects of this suppression mess with the minds of Bullshitlandians today. She’s too busy making her macho male characters say laughably sexist things. Apparently her trenchant observations on sexism are that it makes people say really stupid shit. Whoa, that’s so deep.

And Goodman does nothing with Eon’s trans identity, which remains uninterrogated as a regrettably necessary means for Eon to attain the proper recognition for her innate badassery. Goodman mentions in passing that, in the salt mines, Eon learned to perform stereotypical feminine sexuality, but then quickly had to switch to performing stereotypical masculinity. A page-long scene in which she secretly tries on some of Lady Dela’s jewelry in front of the mirror suggests that she misses her gendered presentation as Eona, but, other than that, we are offered no clues as to the emotional challenges faced by a young woman who has disowned her femininity to the point where she believes in her internalized misogyny, yet also yearns to express this aspect of herself. Also I imagine that constantly performing a gender other than one’s preferred would be exhausting, but Eon seems more preoccupied with the logistics of hiding her periods than with any prospective emotional turmoil.

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