Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sinews of the Heart by Cody L Stanford

Artifical genetic viruses were a whole new crazy – viruses that changed people into half-man, half-beasts. People could be half-tigers, anthro-wolves another luxury, extreme, but controversial body-modification.

Until the virus got out of control, until it spread – and suddenly huge swathes of the population were changed whether they wanted to or not. War followed and the planet was quickly devastated – humanity on the losing side.

Nikki is living proof that the virus keeps mutating as she was born an anthrotiger and taught by her father to hate and fear humanity. But contact with humanity shifts a lot of their viewpoints – and also causes her father to confront his prejudice towards his own daughter - who insists on calling a son.

The world is an interesting one – I like the concept of humanity meddling with their genes for fun and aesthetics – and the technology getting completely out of control and creating lots of unwanted changes. The Anthros are born, human animal hybrids, and they face a lot of mixed reactions – including a whole lot of hostile reactions. There’s a lot of parallels to real world oppression. Some of it is well done – like reflecting even with the world completely transformed, they still find new ways to be prejudiced (feline anthros vs canine anthros) and how the story of the war is very very different depending on who is asked and how it may just be more complicated than good guys vs bad guys. And some of it less so – there’s a lot of using slurs and elements of real world prejudice for the anti-anthro prejudice (such as using “furf@g”).

This setting presents the backdrop of the character’s growth – challenging their beliefs about both Anthros and humans, working past their prejudices, challenging their heroes – or their monsters.

I think the story, in places, was perhaps more clumsy. I think the world was well set up with a lot of interesting elements but it was ultimately designed to show case the characters and their struggles, especially Nikki, more than it was to tell the story of battle and resistance. It’s a character driven story – and that’s not a bad thing, not even close – so the story is less of the focus and falls along some relatively well travelled grooves; the originality comes from the world setting and the characters not the action itself.

There is a lot of powerful discussion and writing about Nikki’s conflicted view of her gender (I use “her” because throughout she expresses a preference for female pronouns) and her journey of discovery as her narrow world expands to more and more ways of being gender variant, of being attracted to men she starts from a very narrow standpoint and still has the courage and determination to assert her personhood according to the terms she knew. As her world view expands, as she sees beyond the few people she knows, as she learns things are more complicated than she was initially presented, she expands her sense of self in a long maintained story of excellent growth as she learns the concepts and the language that define who she knows herself to be and sees past the assumptions and narrow definitions that she has been challenging and working round. She comes to her conclusion through personal analysis, through deciding what she is and what she will or will not hide.

She also shows remarkable courage – she never tries to hide who she is, she outright draws attention to who she is when she feels her gender is being discarded or ignored. She has one excellent, wonderfully supportive parent who fights every bit as fiercely as you’d ever want her too. But her father is also an interesting character – like so many he refuses to accept Nikki’s gender and fiercely tries to force her to conform to his views. His evolution adds a lot of complexity in and of itself

There are three elements I didn’t like, though.

Firstly, when one of the love interests is playing sports and being “macho” it is assumed that he must be doing it to pretend, to “butch up” for his father. The idea that a gay man may actually be interested in sports or may actually enjoy traditionally “masculine” pursuits is never even considered – the idea is ridiculed. The book presents just one way of being a gay man and presents that as universal.

Secondly, the most violent, adamant and unredeemed homophobes in the book are either overtly said or implied to be gay themselves. I hate this meme, this idea that all homophobes are closet GBLT people because it puts the blame of GBLT oppression back on the community.

Thirdly, there’s a moment when Nikki was fully presenting as female and confident and comfortable as a woman when a gay man says he doesn’t love her because she’s a girl not a boy. And this is presented as cruel and trying to force things on Nikki – but he is a gay man. A gay man who fully accepted Nikki’s female gender – to say he should pursue a relationship anyway is either to deny Nikki’s gender or demand he discard his sexuality.

There were several POC in the book – including the leader of the human settlement and one of Nikki’s love interests. They dodge a lot of the usual stereotypes. The main indicators of difference in the book remain the furry vs the non furry.

In all it’s a very personal book – it’s a book about one person’s growth and development, their confidence, their strength and them learning about themselves – all with an utterly alien backdrop that brings a splash of originality to what could be a very clichéd coming of age story – it’s coming of age with fur, analysing the complexities of gender identity without sounding like a manual and focusing on GBLT issues without it being a lecture –it’s a nice balance.