I read this while I was at horse camp, where I found it on the shelf and picked it up because I had enjoyed some of Friesner’s comic fantasy when I was in high school. (She is probably best-known for the “Chicks in Chained Mail” series.) This was not comic. I read it in mounting amazement, recounted plot points to a fascinated [personal profile] coraa ([personal profile] coraa: “And then they ate her?” Me: “No, the cannibals show up later.”), and then promptly forgot about it entirely until it came up in conversation recently.

It is a feminist dystopia, which is a genre which has thankfully become less popular of late, but was relatively common up to about fifteen years ago. I’m not saying that it’s a bad genre. Many examples are good. But they are nearly universally awesomely depressing, often with addition Cement Truck depressingness slapped on to an already inherently depressing set-up, and if you read too many of them in a row, you will get the impression that the future is wall-to-wall rape, broken up by cannibalism, oppressive religion, slavery, and sex with horses.

(Before I go any further, I have to note that the book with horse bestiality is not only one of the well-written ones, but is, remarkably, not awesomely depressing. (Though it’s the second in a series of four, and the first one is.) The society of hard-riding lesbian clones for whom sex with horses is necessary to make the parthenogenesis work is surprisingly functional, and the characters even sometimes have fun. But it’s impossible to have a discussion about feminist dystopias without someone saying, “And then there’s the horse cock book!”

Those books are by Suzy McKee Charnas, and if you can get past the slavery and the horse sex, they are actually quite good. The third and fourth books are about rebuilding society, which is an unusual topic and one I like quite a bit.

The Slave and The Free: Books 1 and 2 of 'The Holdfast Chronicles': 'Walk to the End of the World' and 'Motherlines'

The Furies (The Holdfast Chronicles, Book 3)

The Conqueror's Child (The Holdfast Chronicles, Book 4))

I also read I Who Have Never Known Men, in which women are locked up for no reason, then an apocalypse happens and kills all the men, and then everyone mopes around until the heroine, the last woman on earth, ironically gets cancer of the uterus that she never used, having never known men, and commits suicide, and, of course, The Handmaid's Tale (Everyman's Library). Sheri Tepper practically made a career out of writing feminist dystopias.

I read all these because at that time it was more-or-less possible to read all the sf that was published that year or at least was available where I was, and I did. They did not make me feel like the future was anything to look forward to.

On to Esther “Chicks in Chainmail” Friesner’s cannibal apocalypse rape gang book!

The Psalms of Herod



In a post-apocalyptic society largely taken over by a whack-a-doo pseudo-Christian cult, women now can only have penis-in-vagina sex when they’re in heat – if it’s attempted at other times, they bleed to death. In a remarkable display of stupidity – actually, maybe this is why the society is barely surviving – any throwback women who are fertile all the time are killed as work of the Devil. Excess babies are left on the hillside to starve or be eaten by forest animals. And all women must give sacred handjobs or blowjobs (“the Sign and the Kiss”) to any man who requests them.

Becca, our heroine, is in love with a nice guy, but he’s raped and because gay sex (even if you’re raped) is a capital crime, her father kills both him and his rapist. (And is scolded because he doesn’t torture the raped guy to death, as he was supposed to.) Then she’s forced to partake in the annual gang-handjob/blowjob-rape festival when she reaches puberty. At this time she also fails to save her friend who’s being raped by her (the friend’s own) father, and the friend immolates herself, and, at the same rape festival, Becca nearly gang-raped in the way that would kill her, but her father saves her. The rapist then murders her father, takes over her home village, kills all the babies, and rapes her. But Becca has cunningly hidden her baby sister on the Hill of Dead Babies. But, alas, she can’t visit her for a while and her sister’s foot is eaten by forest animals. And then there is cannibalism.

I realize that I used some conjugation of the word rape eleven times in one paragraph, but that accurately conveys a small taste of what it was like to read the book.



These books were part of a fictional rape trend, especially in fantasy. If a female character had a dark secret, it would inevitably turn out to be rape. Even today, especially in TV and movies, a female character’s dark secret is typically rape. (If it isn’t, it’s probably child abuse or a Secret Baby.)

Why all the rape? In some novels, it's a lazy shortcut to trauma: what else bad could possibly happen to a woman other than something sexual? In a few, it's pure exploitation. But in the feminist dystopias, and in many other books, the thought behind seemed neither lazy nor sleazy. These writers are clearly deeply concerned about sexism. The ultimate expression of sexism is rape, so if you're writing a book about sexism... The problem, or one of the problems, is that while the intent of the books individuallly is to say that rape is bad, considered as a group, if practically every fantasy you read with a heroine has her getting raped, what tends to come across was that rape is inevitable.

I eventually made the conscious decision that my female characters’ dark secrets would not be rape, just so there would be some island of sexual safety in the middle of the sea of fictional rape. In my efforts to avoid it, I have resorted to everything from “my sister was killed in an accident and I blame myself” to “I killed someone in a fit of rage when we were both kids and I will never forgive myself” to “I became a cannibal to save my life (and I blame myself.)” I especially like giving female characters trauma which didn’t occur because they were female. Which is not to say that I’ll never write about rape ever. But probably not till I run out of other dark secrets.

On the other hand, Robin McKinley’s Deerskin is one of my favorite books of all time. So is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Mirror Dance (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures). I am a hard sell on fictional depictions of rape, but a soft sell on fictional depictions of trauma and healing. I’m less bothered by rape when that’s a large part of what the character’s journey is about than when it’s just lurking in the background or is a large part of what the setting is about.

One person’s deeply felt exploration of trauma and recovery is another person’s trashy exploitation, of course. But there is a place for rape in fiction so long as it exists in real life. That being said, I am rather relieved that I haven't read much written after about 1995 in which the apocalypse inevitably results in state-sanctioned rape, state-mandated rape, rape festivals, or roving rape gangs.
ellen_fremedon: overlapping pages from Beowulf manuscript, one with a large rubric, on a maroon ground (Default)

From: [personal profile] ellen_fremedon


I read Psalms of Herod! I even read the sequel, which I remember as being less rape-tastic. Though possibly I had just gotten inured to all the rape by then.

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londonkds: (Default)

From: [personal profile] londonkds


I remember a lot of crime fiction by women or pro-feminist men in the 1980s went for the same thing, to the point where for a while in a US private eye novel if there was a rich/rightwing/religious male character over 30 he was guaranteed to turn out to be or have been raping his daughter(s), or occasionally other young women.

I also must bring up Robert Campbell's "La-La Land" trilogy, which is my personal record for most rape and/or child abuse in any prose work I have ever read.
Edited Date: 2010-11-15 05:19 pm (UTC)
coffeeandink: (Default)

From: [personal profile] coffeeandink


I read either this or the sequel or both and have almost no memory of it. Friesner actually did a few serious fantasy/sf works, but the comic ones seemed to sell better. I have been meaning to check out her newest YA historical novels to see if she still holds up for me.

Ah, White Wolf's brief foray into literary publishing! With the back covers frequently so arty they were unreadable, the page margins too thin, and the headers/footers either missing or badly designed.... I think I still own some of the anthologies and William Browning Spencer's first novel.

Edited Date: 2010-11-15 05:56 pm (UTC)
oyceter: teruterubouzu default icon (Default)

From: [personal profile] oyceter


I feel traumatized just having read your summary!

Though curious minds are curious... Howexactly does the cannibalism fit in??

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From: [personal profile] sholio


I basically lurk because I love your book reviews (and this is no exception, despite the need for brainsoap now, holy moly) but I had to jump up and down and go YAY MIRROR DANCE. :D So nice to encounter someone else who loves it too! Most of the people I know who are into the Vorkosigan books aren't that fond of Mark as a character, but he's my favorite and that book is the one I loved best in the series; I am a terrible sucker for depictions of healing-from-trauma that don't gloss over the ugly parts.

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mme_hardy: White rose (Default)

From: [personal profile] mme_hardy


This is me laughing like a *loon*. Thank you for wrapping up the RAPE IS BAD feminist SF of the 1990s. And, oh, God, I think the book you're reviewing is the last Friesner I ever read. (The last Tepper was BEAUTY. I remember it vividly.)

Be happy, young feminists! You won't have to read this!
meara: (Default)

From: [personal profile] meara


Omg, I had managed to entirely forget the "we have sex with horses to reproduce" books!! I think I read at least two. Dear god.

From: [personal profile] vito_excalibur


The Charnas books really are great!

I was going to say more about this but Mr. E has just horrified me with a long recitation about the centaur sex in Titan, Wizard, Demon (Varley, I believe) and my train of thought is long gone.

Centaur sex. Yeeeeeah.

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ironed_orchid: pin up girl reading kant (Default)

From: [personal profile] ironed_orchid


It sounds, in outline at least, a bit like the Gor books, especially the mandatory blowjobs. Of course, in the Gor books the idea is that women are somehow fulfilled by sexual slavery, which is why the are a misogynist utopia instead of a feminist dystopia.
shewhohashope: moonlit forest/blossoms (Default)

From: [personal profile] shewhohashope


I am making a face right now, and I'm pretty sure that I'm stuck with it.
rosefox: Green books on library shelves. (Default)

From: [personal profile] rosefox


Woooooooooooow.

Oh, Auntie Esther. *sigh*

From: [identity profile] faithhopetricks.livejournal.com


'And then there is cannibalism'

...................................................................................................................................wow.

From: [identity profile] oracne.livejournal.com


I've often wondered about all frequency of rape in the dystopias of this type - is rape simply used as synechdoche for female oppression?

Shock tactics - knowing rape will likely hit the reader harder than, say, heroine being paid 50% less than her co-worker in the same job.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


is rape simply used as synechdoche for female oppression?

Yes, I think that's it.

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From: [identity profile] coraa.livejournal.com


knowing rape will likely hit the reader harder than, say, heroine being paid 50% less than her co-worker in the same job.

I think that's one of the thing that bothers me about them—I mean, besides the fact that I don't want to read about all that rape and don't like unrelenting grim at the best of times. The format of the Feminist Dystopia That Makes You Want To Die seems to be predicated on the belief that, if a woman is "only" disadvantaged or disenfranchised or stripped of agency, nobody will care; if you want people to care, it has to be rape camps and slavery. And maybe I'm too much an optimist, but I do think you can get people to care without beating them with the Sledgehammer of Doom.
Edited Date: 2010-11-15 06:24 pm (UTC)

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From: [identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com


When you mentioned Mirror Dance I was reminded of Shards of Honor, and how it's clear that Cordelia is affected much more by her bad earlier relationship than by her attempted rape. Which I think is a point that books like this are missing - God knows that rape has been and is prevalent, and is traumatic (often highly so), but the vast majority of the bad things that men do to women are not rape, but are subtler and more systematic. Which makes "rape 24/7" seem like a cheap, easy way of writing about the oppression of women, and therefore unlikely to say much that's really useful or interesting.

(Obviously I have nothing against fiction that is just fun and doesn't try to say anything in particular, but I'm not going to consider a rapetastic book for the "just fun" category.)

On an unrelated note, I think this post should have a "bestiality: horses" tag. And then you should read Tender Morsels and add a "bestiality: bears" tag.
ext_22548: (Default)

From: [identity profile] cmattg.livejournal.com


Huh. It occurs to me that Ekaterin's relationship with Tien, seen in *Komarr* and discussed in *A Civil Campaign*, falls into the "subtler and more systematic" descriptor.

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From: [identity profile] nihilistic-kid.livejournal.com


I can imagine the call from Georgia. "Hey Esther, I was wondering, can you do something for our new imprint? We were thinking something along the lines of A Handmaid's Tale but full of the stuff our Werewolf RPG audience would totally get into. You know, bitches in heat, cannibalism, lots of rape, blowjobs on tap, that sort of thing. Thanks baby!"

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


I am told that the second book features a slave class of "whorebabies," shortened to "hobays."

Yeah, I too am a little boggled by the publisher.

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From: [identity profile] coraa.livejournal.com


There are so many amazing things about this book! And I confess the one I keep getting stuck on is the biology: it makes no sense for a mutation to spread that doesn't increase fertility at all but greatly increases the death rate of breeding-age individuals! And if that did happen... somehow... a society that a) killed a lot of its women by accident or on purpose, and b) then killed a lot of the children that somehow managed to get born anyhow would die out, like, really fast, wouldn't it?

I realize that's a stupid thing to get hung up on amidst the whole buffet of wtf, but for some reason I keep sticking on it.

(This was also the book that brought me the epiphany that I find cannibalism far more palatable than rape. [In fiction, I mean.] When you were recounting the plot I kept hoping that the cannibalism would pop up because I much preferred that to the rape festivals. I think I am going to start a movement wherein, if one would have previously used "rape" as an easy depressing backstory/traumatic secret/constant grim threat, instead "cannibalism" should be used the same way. Like, instead of, "I am a brooding dark hero because my girlfriend was raped and murdered," we will have "I am a brooding dark hero because somebody ate my girlfriend for lunch.")

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com

Writers for Totally Fictional Cannibalism!


Mutations don't have to be beneficial, but they can't be both dominant AND frequently lethal. It makes no sense. People were selecting for the often-lethal trait, which I suppose helped it propagate, but you'd think it still couldn't have gotten that widespread.

I too prefer cannibalism! You can apply it to so many books:

This book: "Cannibals ate my sister, my boyfriend, my father, and my finger."

A Song of Ice and Fire: Women are repeatedly threatened with cannibalism.

Tiger and Del books: Del's brother, mother, and sisters are eaten and they get a couple bites out of her, but not enough to impair her swordfighting.

Vanyel books: "I was kidnapped by cannibals and forced to eat my Companion."

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ext_14638: (Default)

From: [identity profile] 17catherines.livejournal.com


Oh yes, I remember this book. Vividly. And it was such a horrible shock, too, because it isn't just the Chicks in Chainmail books; pretty much everything else Esther Friesner has written is very funny and very clever and pleasingly feminist. This... wasn't what I was expecting, to say the least.
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