Friday, January 8, 2016

Queen of Shadows (Shadow World #1) by Dianne Sylvan

Trigger warning for discussion of gang rape, racism, and violent homophobia.

In a city known for it's musical talent, Miranda Grey is a rising star.  Each night when she gets on stage, she somehow manages to channel the emotions of the crowd into her performance. Some songs are so moving that people end up weeping and some so euphoric that the audience leaves in a state of complete ecstasy. As much as Miranda loves her time on stage, it comes with a personal cost. Miranda is slowly losing her grip. At the beginning the emotions of others only invade her mind when she is onstage but now, the only place where she can be safe is in her apartment and only after dulling her senses with booze. Now cut off from all of her friends, Miranda cannot even bear to make eye contact with someone lest she be shown their darkest secrets.

What Miranda doesn't know is that all of her troubles are about to change and that she is going to be challenged in a way she never imagined.  One faithful night, Miranda is attacked and gang raped. After she manages to fight off her attackers, the mysterious vampire prime David Solomon arrives and whisks her away for her own safety.  When Miranda awakes, she learns that a shadow world of vampires exists and that in order to survive, she has to learn to control her gift.  The task seems insurmountable and made even more so by the prophecy of her death and a looming vampire rebellion. Can Miranda fight off her demons, her awakening attraction to David and somehow survive?

This series was recommended to us in 2014 and it is absolutely the worst book that I have read all year.  The premise of someone being able to use emotion as a weapon is certainly unique; however, at least the vampire section of the story felt too similar to Chloe Neil's Chicagoland Vampires. The vampires are organized into territories and each territory has its Prime. The vampires must go through initiation to join each each territory and swear allegiance to their Prime. There isn't a general ruling body thus far but we very strongly pick up that something far older than vampires created a ruling structure.  I can live with the similarities to Neil's series, the majority of my problem with Queen of Shadows stems from its gratuitous rape, homophobia and racism.

As  aforementioned in the description of this book, Miranda is gang raped.  Absolutely nothing is left to the imagination.  Miranda's attacker even stands above her broken and bloodied body, masturbates and then ejaculates on her face. At first Miranda does not fight back believing that if she is compliant that her attackers will just go away and finally when it's clear that they plan to kill her, Miranda uses her power to turn the emotions of their victims on them.  This is a fitting end to these rapists.  The problem however is the suggestion throughout the book that if one does not fight back during an assault then one remains a victim.  People survive rape any way they can and there's no correct reaction to being violated.
"Had the other women begged? Yes, most of them had.  They hadn't fought, but they had appealed to hearts, that were little more than lumps of rotten wood.  Women always went for emotions.  Men went for fists.  That was how the world worked."
Clearly Sylvan has an extremely dichotomous view of gender, evidenced by the position that women are always the victims and men are always the oppressors.  Such a position ignores that intimate partner violence also happens in same sex relationship.  It also ignores that while women are overwhelming in the position of victim in this situation, it is not uniform and there are women who are abusive to their male partners.  Further, the problem of continually positioning women as victims absolutely negates the strength of women and the various ways we have learned to cope with the untenable. David taunts Miranda with remaining a victim when she has trouble learning how to cope with her powers.  For Sylvan, it's not enough to survive, one must absolutely fight

Miranda is plagued by her rape throughout the story. This is not something she can just get over except of course when it comes to David. Even the flashbacks of Miranda's gang rape are graphic with her remembering the sound of her attacker's zipper being lowered and being told, "You know, baby, you've got just about the sweetest little pussy I've ever fucked."  For some reason, with David, though she is initially scared, Miranda is able to overcome her fear of intimacy.  Miranda however is the only woman David actually allows to have affirmative consent.  He uses his power on those he chooses to bite and manipulates their sexual feelings.
"He drew Maria to the corner and pressed against her, feeling her small hands and long fingernails clench his upper arms.  She had no intention of saying no, but still, he turned so that if she wanted she could still get away, even as he took firmer hold of her mind and titled her chin back. " (Page 45-46)
David tells himself that he gives these women room to reject him but this is not possible given the effect his presence has on them. How exactly is David giving women a chance to consent to his sexual overtures?  It is sickening that he even congratulates himself for feeding from a lesbian instead of having sex with her (read: raping her) because of her sexual orientation. The women David does arose with the exception of Miranda are not interested in sex because of a place of agency and desire but because of David's manipulation of their minds and the use of his powers.  He's hardly any different than a serial rapist himself.

David also considers himself a champion of women. He is astute enough to refer to high heels as "patriarchal masochism" yet, cannot see that his own violation of women.
"He also had another image of her: so drunk her eyes rolled in her head, being held down and fucked by the group of frat boys he'd seen moving in on her. Maybe she would remember, maybe it would just be a haze of booze and Rohypnol, but in the morning she would wake up hung over with the vague feeling that someone had been cruel to her, and it would never occur to a poor immigrant girl to get the police involved over being treated like a gutter whore.   
He'd seen it a thousand times. They came to Texas for something better, and perhaps they found it - but the milk of human unkindness was as bitter in Austin as it was in Mexico". (page 45) 
Even as David saves this poor hapless woman from potentially a gruesome gang rape, he cannot connect his actions to a form of violation. The fact that he manipulates her arousal and then feeds on her also does not consider his victim's agency or right to consent and yet, as a reader we are meant to see David as somehow evolved when it comes to gender. In this scene, David is meant to be viewed as a hero for intervening in a gang rape even as he violates his victim.

Miranda isn't even the only rape survivor in this book.  Faith, David's second in command was raped as a human.  When her father couldn't find anyone to marry her because she was no longer a virgin, she became a Geisha.  Here's the problem with this analogy.  Western people tend to think of Geisha as fancy prostitutes when the word Geisha actually means artisan. To become a Geisha takes years of training and they specialize in things like classical dance, music, games and entertainment. While the Geisha historical only entertain men, it doesn't necessarily mean that they have sex with their customers.  In fact, it wasn't until the arrival of the Americans at the end of WWII that the term Geisha really became associated with prostitution.

Faith is strong and reliable.  In fact, Faith is the only person whom David trusts but that is not enough to stop him from throwing Faith's rape in her face when she questions the sensibility of David giving Miranda sanctuary.  What a great way to reward loyalty. If that were not enough, David then commands Faith to throw her experiences at Miranda, so that Miranda can work on her shields, knowing full and well that it will force Miranda, a recent rape survivor, to experience the pain that Faith felt when she was assaulted and for Faith to relive her own rape.

Queen of Shadows does include some GLBT characters.  David's sire Devon is the prime of California and is married to Jonathon.  Unfortunately, they fall into a stereotype.  While Devon is the Prime, he is also extremely delicate physically and Johnathon towers over him with a very masculine appearance.  Sylvan repeatedly reminds the reader of how different these two men are and it seems very much like an attempt to insert heterosexual gender norms into a same sex relationship.  Unfortunately, neither Devon or Johnathon have a large role to play in this story and show up only long enough to support David in his battle against the antagonist and to assure David that he is meant to be with Miranda.

Part of how David defines his supposed goodness is the fact that unlike the Blackthornes, he doesn't see humans as disposable, nor is he homophobic.  Not wanting to kill innocent people or believing that GLBT don't deserve to die because of their sexuality or gender identity should be a default position and not something which makes someone a good person per say.

The Blackthorns want to dethrone David because of his beliefs but they specifically target GLBT people believing them to be sinners. This involves cutting off genitals, setting them on fire, imprisoning them and torturing them and then killing them.
She removed a small photo and held it up, showing Kimberly, Charlie and another woman smiling for the camera at a lakeside picnic, probably that very summer.  "This is Susan Davis, her partner."
The link among the victims had arisen after he'd put a team on researching their identities: most of them are gay or lesbian; one was transgendered; one woman worked at Planned Parenthood. The rest were Jewish.  It was classic Blackthorns, purging the world of perceived sin via a blatant disregard of the Sixth Commandment.
When Scott is grabbed after failing to find a partner for the night, he is certain that he is going to be gay bashed.  This isn't far from the truth because the Blackthorns want to kill Scott because he is gay. When Scott pleads for mercy he is told, "Shut up faggot. If you're good, we'll make it quick." (185-186) David comes to the rescue and kills Scott's attackers.  David however doesn't take the time to explain to Scott what happened and simply uses his power to make Scott believe that in the morning, he will not remember this incident.  It seems almost like a kindness doesn't it, the ability to have one's assault erased?  The problem is that it's a disingenuous way of dealing with assault and if the mind blocks it out, the body always remembers.

GLBT people exist in this world with the exception of Devon and Johnathon to be victims and for David to feel that he is superior to his enemies.  I further don't understand how homophobia is employed in this world. We know that vampires essentially keep to themselves and were once human but it doesn't explain how it is that the Blackthorns end up reading like Westboro Baptist Church.  If vampires isolate themselves and largely see humans as prey, why are they taking on the morals of religious extremists? In fact, a Christian vampire for that matter makes even less sense.  Why wouldn't the Blackthorns see themselves as devils or demons? It's selectively choosing zealotry. Even if we assume that because these vampires were once human that they held onto homophobia, why then does it take this form? Homophobia has been with us a long time but it has not always manifested the same way, even if the results are akin in many ways. Sylvan didn't have to erase homophobia but she certainly could have done a better of job of explaining its existence in her world, along with a stronger call out than having David simply declare the Blackthorns antiquated.

People of colour don't fare much better than GLBT people though they are allowed to live.  Faith is indeed David's second in command and the most trusted of his vampire but she essentially is little more than a servant, there to follow orders and encourage the white protagonists.  Other than Faith, when people of colour exist, it's usually for sake of the casual inclusion of racism.  A vampire on the run for his life actually takes the time to think about the Mexican neighbourhood he is running through.
He hated this neighborhood and the people in it. Working families lived here, mostly Mexican immigrants and the sons of immigrants, fat wives who come morning would herd their children and hungover husbands out the door to mass en espaƱol. 
There's the jovial Latino bus driver who jokes with Miranda now that she can finally make eye contact with people, a Black male and a Latino male elite initiate and the aforementioned Mexican maid, who David saves from being raped by frat boys, only to violate himself. Faith is told to be thankful that she wasn't fired by Arrabicci during WWII, naturally playing upon the racism Asians faced thanks to the war with Japan. This is pretty much the extent of racial inclusion in this story.  It's very much limited to casual racism for no reason than I can fathom, disposable characters and Faith who is the go between and confidant of Miranda and David.

Finally we come to ableism.  For much of the book, Miranda is haunted by the specter of her dead mother whom she believes went insane before her death.
"Who in the world would understand what was happening without thinking she was crazy?  You are crazy.  They're not wrong. They'd commit her. They'd lock her away just like her mama, and poke and prod her and drug her until she was a drooling mass of atrophied muscle and brain. No. Never. She'd die first." (page 20)
It seems that just like her daughter ,Miranda's mother had the ability to read minds and pick up on people's emotions and because she couldn't block them out, she lost touch with reality and had to be institutionalized.  It is also heavily implied that because Miranda's mother's mental illness got her father fired that she was insitutionalized, at least in part because of vengeance.  Here's the thing, mental illness is not caused by some kind of mystical woo woo and it certainly shouldn't have been treated as some specter to haunt Miranda.

This review is already long and yet it barely scratches the surface of the many things that are wrong with Queen of Shadows.  It's literally filled with gratuitous rape, violent homophobia and abelism. David, the male protagonist is hardly a romantic figure given that he takes from women without their consent, all the while deluding himself into believing that he respects the agency of his victims. There's absolutely nothing redeemable about this story whatsoever and several times while reading it, I simply had to put it down and walk away.  I don't know why more readers don't point this out on Goodreads but I absolutely must say that the portrayal of GLBT people, rape, race and disability are among some of the worst I have seen. This is certainly a case of read at your own risk.