Chrysanthe is a sprawling novel, filled with criss-crossing realities, timelines, and myths. It is also beautifully written. Unfortunately, this intriguing novel is marred by its author’s odd fixation on rape as a kind of imagined event, as well as its initial focus on Christine, Chrysanthe’s kidnapped princess. Indeed, the philosophical implications of Chrysanthe as a fantastical real world, and on worlds like ours as the true fictions, are at times obscured by the artificiality of the novel’s treatment of rape and rape culture.
One of the foundational premises of this novel is that Chrysanthe, stuck in a sort of medieval fantasy moment, is the real world. There are cracks within its environs, such that the unwary traveler may accidentally enter a “made” world, which will seem quite similar to Chrysanthe. However, each step away from the reality of Chrysanthe will take that newly unfortunate traveler into a new world, slightly different from the one before. These differences increase exponentially and infinitely, so there is no end to the variety of worlds possible, and it is possible to become lost in that infinity. The world as a whole gets larger the deeper one penetrates, with Chrysanthe, the real world, stretching to accommodate this infinite internal regression. Interestingly, the steps taken into made worlds mirror both geography and time.
The differences between Chrysanthe and the made worlds of its interiors are manifold. Some of the major differences include the non-flammable nature of fossil fuels, which keeps Chrysanthe in a permanent pre-industrial era, and the stars and sun truly being balls of fire in a touchable vault of sky. Each step into the made worlds moves the walker into various ages in the evolution of the West, including the Age of Discovery and the Age of Oil. Oddly, one of the other major signs of the gulf between the made worlds and the real is the lack of racial diversity in the real world. When Melogian, the acting court wizard, describes her experiences in the made worlds, she says, “I’ve been to worlds where some people had skin nearly coal-black, noses like knife blades, and pointed ears, and others were ruddy pink, short, and round all over. . . . There is only one strain of man in Chrysanthe because the land is too small for more. . . . The world is small” (pp. 278-9). The artificial scope of the made worlds leads to racial, ethnic, and national diversity. The real world of Chrysanthe itself is too small for there to be more than one type of people within its bounds. Their existence as fantastical people, however, does not mean that the bodies of women of color are not eroticized within the structure of the novel. One knight of Chrysanthe reflects on the women of one made world, “whose skin glowed honey-brown and whose exotically slanted eyes sparkled with foxglove. Local mores placed no restrictions on unmarried people” (p. 208). The knight almost abandons his quest to save Chrysanthe’s princess because of “[losing] himself time and again” in the “flesh” of a “girl of twenty named Oru,” (ibid) in a passage creepily reminiscent of Victorian-era Orientalist fears of the oblivion available in opium dens. Later, when Melogian is talking dirty to her lover, she says, “I will do things with you that you’ve never dared imagine . . . or perhaps you have. Your eyes say you have a wild imagination; and you’ve been among the made worlds. Did you have many lovers there? Women with blue-black skin and heart-shaped nipples?” (p. 236). Again, racialized descriptors of skin and sexuality hint at the erotic, enticing dangers of the women of made worlds even as that danger is locked away through the narrative insistence that such women are fictions. Later, when Melogian has a vulnerable moment, she tugs off her robe, and her lover notices her “pale pink nipples, burnished gold in the lamplight” (p. 237), as this woman from the real world of Chrysanthe talks about her personal reality: constant isolation, too much knowledge, and great power. The narrative reminder of her whiteness becomes conflated with the narrative revelation of her real, true self.
When Christine, Chrysanthe’s lost princess, is stolen away, deep into a made world, by a rival royal faction, she grows up in what appears to be the heightened moral panic of the North American 1980s, with its fixation on ritualized childhood sexual abuse, demonic worship, and recovered memories. Indeed, the wizard-cum-businessman tasked with her guardianship eventually takes her to Dr. Almand, whose therapeutic techniques and professional trajectory mirror Dr. D. Corydon Hammond’s—the psychologist whose work helped create a frenzy of Satanic ritual abuse allegations in the US and the UK—including Hammand’s insistence that the body remembers more accurately than the conscious mind. The memories Hammand uncovered all proved false; the victim-survivors were encouraged under hypnosis to remember rapes and abuses that never occurred. Unfortunately, popular history of these events focuses on the pain and emotional trauma experienced by the accused, instead of the deep violation and sexual abuse of these patients at the hands of trusted medical professionals. In-text, Christine’s legitimate struggles with social anxiety (a problem she suffered from before her sessions with Dr. Almand) and the presence of men (a newer anxiety as a result of her false memories), as well as her fear of her own sexuality (presented as the natural state of young women) are treated as the results of a milksop, overly sheltered, and mousy girl’s manipulation by an incompetent therapist. “She had made it all up, out of her inchoate child’s fears of sex, out of a bottomless well of imagination, and it had all been molded by Dr. Almand’s questioning into something that fit his preconceptions” (p. 124).
As Christine notes, every one of Dr. Almand’s patients is a sexual abuse survivor. In the hands of a more feminist author, this would be a telling indictment of the world of the reader herself, where the abuse of children is depressingly common. Unfortunately, this book is not engaged in that kind of critique. Dr. Almand is just wrong, mining the innocent anxiety of young girls for his own financial and professional well-being. In her therapy sessions with Dr. Almand, Christine is made to remember her father raping her, pimping her out to strangers, and killing her mother. She becomes even more reclusive, obsessing over cartoons, science fiction, and her own loneliness. All this changes when she meets Quentin, a knight of Chrysanthe who has spent the last decade searching for her. Quentin and Christine escape to Chrysanthe, where Christine struggles to accept that this strange world, where the sun is literally extinguished at sunset by the ocean’s waves, is the real one. Christine struggles to recover from the false memories of her multiple rapes, growing over the course of the novel into the ruler Chrysanthe needs.
This really should be a tale of triumph, but it’s hard to find Christine’s recovery from psychological trauma believable. In fact, pivotal moments in the text, such as Christine using a hairbrush as a masturbatory aid to confirm that she was never raped, ring profoundly false, particularly because the experience of being brutally raped as a child would not at all be similar to masturbating with a hairbrush alone and in the safety of one’s bath. Further, the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and rape as real-world concerns is consistently negated, treated as repressive political cant or normalized. Christine’s teachers in the made world “intone” that all men are potential rapists, even when they themselves may not believe the “official line” (p. 28), echoing the content in the multiple classroom sessions devoted to childhood sexual abuse and the need to protect oneself from sexual assault. In contrast, when Quentin tries to apologize for kissing one of his old friends from Chrysanthe without her permission, she says, “I wasn’t comfortable with it. . . . I was still a tomboy then. But I never was angry at you. It’s normal to want a kiss from a friend before you leave for a journey you might not return from” (p. 220). When Quentin protests that he wants to apologize for not respecting her desires and for making her uncomfortable, she says, “You make it all about you: your betrayal of a friend. Your terrible secret! Come on, Quentin. You didn’t rape me; you stole a kiss” (ibid). At another point in Chrysanthe, Melogian, the court wizard, describes meeting Casimir, the evil wizard working for Christine’s rivals for political power. Melogian says, “I’m terrified of Casimir. . . . Did you ever meet him? I did, when I was twelve. He was fifteen years old, already tall and stout. There was something about him even then that I could sense. . . . It’s easy to think it was just the normal fascinated dread a girl that age feels about older boys” (p. 390). She goes on to describe getting drunk for the first time, and Casimir’s attempted rape of her twelve-year-old self. “Now that itself is nothing; since the world was young, men have seduced through alcohol . . . [but] I had the feeling he would enjoy forcing me . . . because it would make a nice entertainment to see me weep and bleed” (ibid). My concern here is that for Casimir’s attempted rape of a twelve year old girl to count as horrifying in-text, it has to be accompanied with brutality. This is echoed in the few rapes described in-text. These rapes are accompanied by grotesque mutilations, including gouged out eyes, brutal phallic penetration, and murder. It is also sensationalistic stranger-rape: Mathellin, Christine’s guardian during the years she was abducted, rapes and murders sex workers, and Casimir, the wizard working for Christine’s enemies, rapes and mutilates ghosts.
The real disappointment here is that this odd focus on the false nature of rape anxieties distracts from the emotional trajectory of one of the major secondary characters, Melogian. She has become the court wizard in her mentor’s absence. She’s very aware that she’s not as powerful or as knowledgeable as Casimir, and that she’s probably going to be single for a very long time. That does not mean she does not have sex. As she tells one lover, “I am afraid I am the kind of woman who will lie casually with a man. . . . I’m not a whore just because I indulge my sensuality” (p. 238). Meloginian is an amazing character: funny, emotionally complex, refreshingly adult. She is deeply aware that she’s not at all qualified to be the court’s only wizard. Her mentor Orion has disappeared, and Casimir has discovered some old magics buried deep in space and time. Melogian’s social isolation as the only trained wizard in Chrysanthe, her awareness of her status as a semi-permanent apprentice, and her own wry wit make her a profoundly relatable character. However, her complexity as a character and the evolution of her strengths as a wizard cannot redeem a narrative whose central focus is the tragedy of false rape accusations and an essentialist presentation of teenaged girlhood as a world of sexual anxiety.
Chrysanthe is filled with gorgeous prose and compelling characters, and set in an intriguing world. The use of false memories of rape as a plot point, as well as the author’s preoccupation with gradations of sexual assault, distract from what is otherwise a solidly constructed high fantasy novel introducing an exciting world. Ultimately, the intriguing premise of an expanding multiverse with one real world cannot save Chrysanthe from its own ambivalence about sexual assault and rape culture. It is this ambivalence that proves the novel’s undoing, rendering Christine’s journey to emotional wellness into a prop in others’ stories and distracting from Melogian’s heroic work as an undertrained court wizard. Those aspects of Chrysanthe that should emerge as a triumph of modern fantasy become bloated and underwhelming because of their absorption into a flawed plot point centered on the 1980s panic surrounding childhood sexual abuse and Satanic worship.
Maria Velazquez is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research interests include constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality in contemporary media, as well as community-building through technology. She serves on the board of Lifting Voices, a District of Columbia-based nonprofit that helps young people in DC discover the power of creative writing, and blogs for The Hathor Legacy, a feminist pop culture blog. She recently received the Winnemore Dissertation Fellowship from the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.