Touched by Venom by Janine Cross
Reviewed by Liz Henry
06 February 2006
From the snarking frenzy that consumed the blogosphere in the wake of last year's World Fantasy Convention, I expected Janine Cross's first novel, Touched by Venom, to be a badly written, laughable book. Something on the order of Slave Women of Gor, perhaps, or at best, those trashtastic Sharon Green soft-porn books about blood-drinking Amazonian women who ride around on giant lizards and rape men in their spare time. My reaction to the bad reviews went a bit like this: "OMG, sex with dragons, guys with dragon-viagra hardons, probably so bad it's funny, I must read it!"
So I did. To my surprise, I found a thoughtful, enjoyable work of feminist speculative fiction. It is a woman's hero-tale, the story of a survivor; a true dystopian fantasy, and one written with an awareness of non-Western cultures.
Zarq, the heroine, grows up in dire poverty. Her clan of potters are serfs of the dragon-owning aristocrats and the high-ranking priest caste. Women and men live apart, in barracks. The men own the women and children, though no one really has any rights. My first reaction was that the "village," as Cross described it, simply composed of slave pens, was so squalid and dehumanizing that I was shocked the people living in them had any culture, art, or tradition—any identity—at all. Yet that level of violent squalor was nothing compared to what followed. Over the course of the novel, Zarq, her mother and sister, other relatives, and friends suffer terribly.
As a dystopia this is already disturbing enough, but it seemed even more so when I realized how close it comes to what women in the world experience today. I came to realize, while reading the book, that my initial reaction of shock and disbelief was the result of my own happily ignorant privilege. For example, take the fate that threatens Zarq and her older sister, being sold into low-status public prostitution and dying young from "mating pustules." Not a problem for us in the U.S., but all too real in many countries. Similarly, there are clitorodectomy scenes which could have easily been depressing, unrealistic, or sensationalist. Yet it's a real-world problem; the World Health Organization's current estimate is that 130 million young girls have been genitally mutilated, usually by their own female relatives or with their mother's approval. The mutilation is often referred to as "cleansing," just as in Zarq's society.
Many books that deal with similarly disturbing, brutal, "adult" themes and issues have met with popular acclaim. Suzy McKee Charnas's Holdfast series takes place in an extreme post-apocalypse patriarchal dystopia where women are raised in filthy slave pits. The free women, partly parthenogenic, have sex with horses to start their pregnancies. Ayla, the heroine of Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear, is subject to extreme brutality. (In fact, Ayla was raped repeatedly, routinely, as a very young child, while Zarq, who is of comparable age, is never raped.) Bagoas, the hero of Mary Renault's Alexander The Great books, is castrated as a young child and sold into slavery, but he still has a story (and a sex life). Severian of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is taught as a young child to be a professional torturer, and is raised by the very people who tortured and killed his mother. Such books are not limited to the 20th century, or to speculative fiction: consider Clarissa or Moll Flanders as picaresque tales of women's lives in oppressive societies.
Cross has done something still too rare in fantasy and SF, despite these precedents—she's dealt with very hard-hitting, difficult issues, distancing them from real-world cultures and pushing them to extremes, forcing us to think. Zarq suffers trauma to an extent that's hard for me to imagine: starvation, abandonment, mutilation. Yet these terrible experiences don't leave her a helpless victim. She continues to live. In fact, I found it notable that a large number of the women who are un-sexed by genital mutilation in the book continue to have a sex life. This is the real "gone too far" moment. On one level such characters are grotesque starving nuns, hallucinating on dragon spit in the midst of a weird bestiality-focused ritual orgy. On another they're visionary, strong women engaged in a collective revolutionary act, bonding with the dragons who are perhaps not domestic animals, but sentient creatures, and fellow slaves.
As in many books with feminist themes, the line between human and animal is disturbingly blurred; Carol Emshwiller's Mount, Carmen Dog, and Mister Bones spring immediately to mind, as do Geoff Ryman's scenes of homage to Carmen Dog in his recent novel Air. Venom's ferocious female dragons have their wings clipped at birth and are used as brood animals; once they stop laying the eggs that are the society's primary food source, they're used as beasts of burden. Similarly, the women we see in the book, even the upper class women, are enslaved. There are parallels here: both groups can be seen as slaves, domesticated animals, possessions, and sacred objects. Anyone familiar with, for example, Gayle Rubin's early anthropological work, or with a book like Johanna Sinisalo's brilliant Troll, will recognise what's going on: the treatment of groups as currency.
Books like Touched by Venom that push boundaries of human/animal relationship past our comfort level do something very interesting for readings of more comfortable ones and what the desire for them reveals. I'm thinking of the stereotypically FSF-chick-lit "telepathic companion animal": the horses in Mercedes Lackey books, the dragons of Anne McCaffrey, or Tamora Pierce's characters' purple-eyed kittens, abused horses, and flocks of brave sparrows. In all these cases, the telepathic animal companion functions to split off all the object qualities of the female, to put helpfulness, empathy, and subservience outside of the female protagonist. She "has" those qualities, which are those of female goodness and virtue, without the tedium of having to embody them. In short, the heroine with companion-animal gets the qualities of the Perfect Wife at her service, a soulmate bound in an eternal marriage. And along with this comes freedom from the guilt of exploitation, since the "wife-work" is done by a non-sentient being.
Cross has also written an insightful exploration of women's relationships with each other. Touched by Venom passes the Dykes to Watch Out For test with flying colors. If you don't know what that test is, it asks whether there's ever a scene where a) there's more than one woman b) they're having a conversation with each other c) that's not about a man. Popular works that pass the DTWOF test are astonishingly rare. Touched by Venom centers around the relationship between Zarq, her sister Waivia or Waisi, and her mother Kavarria. In scenes again reminiscent of Ryman's Air, Zarq is possessed at times by the ghost of Kavarria, with Kavarria's memories. Zarq struggles deeply with what it means to see through her mother's eyes, just as the heroine of Air struggles to integrate her mind with the memories of her dead 93-year-old neighbor. Blurred identity, of course, is another common trope of feminist SF. In his analysis of race in the United States, Henry Louis Gates labelled it as "double consciousness," but it is also often what happens when women begin to go through the process of consciousness-raising and learn about feminist history; it creates a sense of intolerable internal paradox.
Many other subtle touches demonstrate the sophistication of Cross's feminist analysis. For example, Zarq's older sister, Waisi, has a feral core of anger, ambition, and cruelty. As the book unfolds, the initial, simplistic explanation of her character as a smart, talented woman, terribly oppressed, is explored and deepened. Kavarria had the mottled green skin of a jungle woman (savages! perverts! inhuman!) and so throughout Waisi's childhood, the other women of the clan never helped co-parent her. This excerpt is in the voice of the mother-possessed Zarq:
When my piebald babe cried, no mother in my new clan dried her tears. If she fell, no hands but mine picked her up. Her prattles, however earnest and sweet, went ignored. Sometimes I found bruises the size of an adult's fingers on her underarms.
But I tried, oh, I tried! I loved and caressed and soothed the other children, trying to buy a measure of acceptance for my own babe with those kindnesses. Yet how often can a toddler fall down and be stepped over and walked away from before hurt is a fluid as constant in the veins as blood?
I'm a mother myself, in a community of mothers of small children, and this struck me as beautifully perceptive of women's social dynamics.
Touched by Venom addresses gender, power, and sexuality; slavery and prostitution; class, religion, and feudalism; racism; questions of the sacred and profane; the general oppression of children; women's solidarities and their cruelties to each other; mother-daughter-sister dynamics; damage to men done by patriarchy. The cover illustration shows a bejewelled, porno-posing fembot caressing herself in a sexy gown; it should show a violent revolutionary, emaciated and wild-eyed, with a buzz cut and a rusty, bloody machete, stabbing an aristocrat. Zarq's liberation and happy ending, if it is possible, would come not from the establishment of a secure nuclear family, but from revolution.
Yet despite all this, it seems to me that the book is being misread; seen not as the deeply political and feminist work that it is but as a sub-par, status-quo-reifying, conventional fantasy. For instance, in an interesting and serious review at Romantic SF & Fantasy, Preeti complained that the book was too depressing, the oppression of the heroine too relentless. She compared it to Jane Gaskell's Atlan saga: "[Atlan] had incest, bestiality, corrupt priests, slavery, Atlantis ... but it was total guilty fun." She wishes that Zarq, Venom's protagonist, were more Mary-Sue-ish; "But no, this was a really earnest, depressing look at a repressive, unjust society where a litany of ugly things happen to people." To my mind this is a recommendation of the book as an interesting dystopia. Perhaps fantasy as a genre has not pushed the boundaries of utopia/dystopia, has not (at least until Jacqueline Carey's recent books Banewreaker and Godslayer, and China Miéville's Bas-Lag novels) caught up to the sophisticated level of playing with political awareness that science fiction has developed. But just because there's no way to make patriarchy, brutality, slavery, and clitorodectomy "fun" doesn't mean they don't belong in a fantasy novel.
In fact, the critical discussion of Touched by Venom is fascinatingly polarized. An excerpt from the book's first chapter made the rounds at World Fantasy Con, where people were giggling over the words "venom cock" and the idea of sex with dragons. Then on Cheryl Morgan's Emerald City blog a publicist from Del Rey objected to the public mockery. It only made people laugh harder. The reviewer for Kirkus, John Joseph Adams—The Slush God—called Touched by Venom "wretched drivel of the sort that gives fantasy a bad name", adding that it is "not only a bad book, but it's one that's damaging to the genre as a whole." Adams compared it to expecting a sip of tea and getting a mouthful of battery acid. He concluded that Venom is "turgid fantasy (first of a trilogy) in which humans worship and have a sexually-perverse relationship with dragons; puerile dreck that's emblematic of everything that's wrong with fantasy."
Many readers have said they were disgusted by the violence in Venom, or by its obscenity. Numerous questions present themselves here. Consider other books dismissed for obscenity, and the ways that accusations of obscenity fall out. What's obscene? When a character is raped? Is it how the rape is described? Is it the point of view or the level of detail that describes the rape? Is it the eroticization of violence? Is it the eventual fate of the perpetrators or the target? Is Lolita obscene? Is Ulysses? The Book of the New Sun? The Kushiel books? Obscenity itself does not make the book of low literary quality. All of these books contain disturbing scenes, but we can react to them in two ways. We can dismiss them; or we can analyze them, and see the disturbance as an opportunity to learn.
Other reviewers have critiqued the novel's plotting, objecting to the story "not going anywhere", or have characterized it as a pointless revenge novel. In the wider blogosphere discussion, Nick Mamatas used the Great Venom Cock Controversy as an occasion to lament poor literary quality, the publishing industry in general, and the big egos of bad authors—again, despite not having read the book. A good-natured response from Cross drew further venom, such as this strong outburst by Haddayr Copley-Woods:
The exact pretend-good-humor-mixed-with-pretend-Big, Important Words and Ideas-and honest-to-goodness-pretentious-condescension talk I'd expect from a hurt little girl who just found out lots of folks think she's a shitty writer.
I haven't had time to read the excerpt, but just from her interview it's clear she's a shitty, shitty writer.
I'm sorry her feelings are hurt. But if she didn't want people to laugh at her writing, she should have become an accountant or real estate agent or any one of the hundreds of well-paying and decent jobs to be had out there which do not involve writing.
On the other side, I found people who read the book and loved it, who call it (in various Amazon reviews) "fascinating and disturbing"; who compare the book to Delany's work and talk about the ways in which it pushes at genre boundaries. Alice Page called it "a provocative read—humorous, disturbing, and harrowing—often at the same time." A reader in British Columbia considers Venom to break old cliches: "It challenges us, disturbs us, and expands our definitions of what it is to be human .... In a field overwhelmed by unambitious variations on too-familiar themes, Touched by Venom is a refreshing shock to the reader's sensibilities. The language is rich and compelling, the writing confident, Zarq's grim alternate world imaginatively conceived. Cross's characters may be difficult to admire, but they are also difficult to forget." I agree with this anonymous reader and with others who find Cross's world-building "richly interwoven" and "lush." I don't think these readers can be dismissed as simply people who are blind to the book's inherent bad literary quality, or who are willing to forgive poor quality for the sake of politics, or as people who don't understand the true nature of the fantasy genre.
What I see in people's reactions to the story is not Cross's sensation-seeking, but the discomfort of the very privileged when they are made to look, or tricked into looking, at something terrible. I suspect it is less the brutality and violence in this book that gives some readers the heebie jeebies, and more the thought that violence is all around us. Violence is complex; it does real damage to people, damage beyond the physical, damage that isn't easily fixable. I realise that I'm coming dangerously close to saying I'm right and those who disagree with me are wrong, which is not my intention; of course tastes differ. But I can't let Cross's work be as easily dismissed as it has been. Instead I'd like to encourage readers to consider Touched by Venom in the context of dystopian novels, as true dystopian fantasy, rather than as an example of Bad Writing or a simple attempt to shock the bourgeoisie. It's not satisfyingly escapist or comforting. It doesn't have even the possibility of a happy ending. But that in itself doesn't make a book unpleasant to read, and Touched by Venom's virtues make it a book that deserves a closer critical look than it's been getting, and further investigation by feminist critics (and, I think, by women of colour). And beyond my appreciation of its thematic and political complexity, it is also a book that I enjoyed on the simple level of story—of dying to know what happens next. Books two and three can't come soon enough.
Perhaps as readers and critics we should talk more about what is enjoyable or not about reading dystopias, and about questions of of obscenity and acceptability. What about a story makes it go too far, makes it untellable or unreadable to us? Part of my own readerly discomfort during Touched by Venom came from thinking about reading as a perverse enjoyment of someone else's misery. However, another part of my enjoyment came from the release of anger, of a response to clear injustice, a clean violent joy at the murderous anger felt by Zarq and at her strength and determination in the face of that injustice. After reading Janine Cross's novel, I read Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward's book Writing the Other; but as I continue to come across misunderstandings of Touched by Venom, I'm starting to think there should also be a book called Reading the Other.