Hello everyone and welcome to our monthly AAR blog column. The basic idea is we choose a book every month and have a discussion about it. We being Elisabeth Lane (of Cooking Up Romance), a long-time romance reader who now creates recipes inspired by books and then blogs about it, and Alexis Hall (author of, most recently, Waiting for the Flood), relative newcomer to the romance genre and occasional writer.
Today we’re joined by Willaful – yay! Willaful writes for Heroes & Heartbreakers and you can find her on her own blog here.
And we’re going to be talking about Ginn Hale’s two-part fantasy novel, Lord of the White Hell.
The story centres on Kiram Kir-Zaki, the first of his people to be admitted to a prestigious Cadeleonian boarding school. Cue: plots and swordplay and religious intrigue oh my. Plus love and friendship and the clash between cultures as Kiram falls in with a Javier Tornesal, a cursed Cadeleonian Duke, and his band of rapscallions.
Elisabeth: I’m so excited that Willaful is joining in our chat about Lord of the White Hell today. Say hi Willa!
Willa: Hi, everyone! I was wondering if you guys brought me in for this one because you know I love m/m romance in classic literature contexts. If so — well played! I was flashing back to Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall series, and other boarding school fantasies I loved as an adolescent. It’s all there: the strict class system, the bullying of the outsider, the misfit finding his place in the social structure (which almost always comes at a cost.) The explicit sex is new, of course!
AJH: Yes. *shifty look* That was exactly why we brought you in. Actually, it was partly your known fondness for queered-up stories – so there’s definitely some sort of method in our madness. Occasionally. LotWH really was like one of those classic school stories, wasn’t it? I was basically characterising it as “gay Tamora Pierce” while I was reading.
Elisabeth: Though the sex is quite a bit more explicit in this one than in the YA fantasy I remember from my youth. It took me by surprise actually.
Willa: Anne McCaffrey only wished she was this hot. It didn’t shock me though; the sexual tension was built up so well, the actual sex just flowed naturally from it.
AJH: Oh gosh, I’m jaded. Maybe I’m just used to m/m being explicit-by-default. I noticed there was more sex than in typical YA fantasy but it’s … very sweet, isn’t it? Like I would be perfectly happy for A Young Human to read it. It felt refreshing to me — not flinching away from the fact that teenagers who love each other are probably going to have lots and lots of sex, but always grounding that sex in emotion and tenderness and comradeship and passion.
Elisabeth: Oh, I agree with you. It was lovely. And it’s definitely what I would have loved to have read when I was a teenager. It conformed a lot better to the average teen experience than the sweet kissing and fade-to-black scenes I recall. Or maybe I was just reading really tame stuff? And I don’t really read any YA now except the very popular things that get made into movies so I’m sure the standards have changed in the 20 years since then.
Willa: I think most mainstream YA is still relatively tame. But I agree, the sex scenes are lovely and appropriate. “Explicit” kind of has the wrong connotation, really.
AJH: Yes, it’s hard to know how to categorise it. I thought it was kind of important, in a way, because there’s a prevailing sense of queer-intimacy being inherently more … God what’s the word … challenging? than het-intimacy. Like you often see things getting classified differently if they’re queer. Or it’s perceived as somehow more harmful for children to learn about queer sex than it is for them learn about hetsex. And so on. But, errr, sex aside, how did you find it?
Willa: I thought it was an exhilarating read. The writing isn’t particularly lush or lyrical; its strength is in the dialogue, the characters, the exciting story, and the excellent pacing. The thrilling parts are balanced with dialogue and friendly interaction, the angst with humor
Elisabeth: I agree with you. The characterization of Kiram in particular was really well done, I thought. He’s clearly outside the structures of this other society. He doesn’t fit in, pretty much in any way because he’s a different race and he’s gay, which is normal in his culture, but very much not okay in the culture he’s found himself in. And he’s an intellectual rather than this very physical warrior-like guy like most of the other boys.
Willa: I loved that culture clash! Kiram has so much inner strength because of his background.
AJH: I also loved the fact he learns to be effective at the physical warrior-stuff as well. Not in a superhero way and he’s never going to be the toughest guy in the room, but I liked how it subtly deconstructed those sort of ideas about masculinity and strength. What makes you good in a fight is being taught how to be good in a fight. Even if you’re a slender, perceived-to-be-effeminate guy. Again, it reminded me a lot of Alanna learning to be a badass and how to play to her speed over her strength.
Elisabeth: I really enjoyed how, like Jonathan and Alanna in the Lioness books, Javier tutoring Kiram in horsemanship and fighting helps them to develop their friendship and, ultimately, their romantic relationship. Putting them in close physical proximity to each other doesn’t hurt, of course, but it also gave them both something to work toward–a mutual goal.
Willa: The tutoring also played into the school system of an upperclassman taking care of “his” underclassman; that aspect of the system allowed them to be together in a very intimate way, despite the strictures of Javier’s society. It’s almost like a built-in loophole.
Elisabeth: Plus, they’re roommates, which is convenient.
Willa: Yes, but they also get to be visibly, publicly intimate — such as when Kiram serves as Javier’s squire in the tournaments.
Elisabeth: I did start to feel a bit toward the end that the relentless disapproval of men having romantic relationships with other men started to get a bit tired. Especially when it came to some of Javier and Kiram’s other friends. I wanted to see them, I don’t know, get some acceptance from someone. I was quite sad for them.
AJH: Willa hasn’t read the second book yet, so I won’t over-labour it — but I do feel some of these issues were re-visited and sort of complicated over time. In the sense that although the Haldiim are open to same-sex relationships, they’re still restrictive in other ways (arranged marriage, for example). And there is clearly some degree of acceptance from some corners of Cadeleonian society. But it’s weirdly one of the difficult things about depicting social repression in imagined worlds. I think both cultures are very effectively constructed but … bigotry has a long and complex history in the real world, and it necessarily becomes simplified when you try to replicate it in a fully imagined setting.
Willa: And the setting is kind of cobbled together from various real world cultures and histories, I thought.
Elisabeth: I think there’s an element of that with a lot of fantasy. In the Lioness books (again, sorry) you get the Bazhir tribesmen, for instance. I guess it helps to be able to pin fictional elements to real-world knowledge? Though there’s also a danger of saying something you didn’t intend to when a story does that. For example, I found some of Javier’s comments on the Kiram’s coloring rather off-putting on occasion. It felt othering, which is, well, not so helpful in getting me to like him. And that’s just one example.
Willa: The characters clearly inspired by “gypsies” were uncomfortable to read about, as well.
Elisabeth: Yes. Did they have to be portrayed as “dirty” all the time? By both the Haldiim and the Cadeleonians?
Willa: And while we’re talking discomforts, there’s a lot of unpleasant references to fatness. People are described as “meaty,” “doughy,” etc. It doesn’t get up to Diana Wynne Jones levels of nastiness, thank goodness. (I love Jones, but I wish I could’ve sat her down for a heart-to-heart on that topic. Not that it would likely have done any good.)
AJH: Ah, fat people are always evil in fantasy. Urgh. I do see your point about the potentially-Gypsy-inspired people – although I think, at the time, I read it as kind of internal prejudice, if that makes sense? Since the more bourgeois Haldiim are equally dismissive of the priests. I just thought it contributed to a sense of Haldiim culture being more than ‘one’ thing–which, to me, is usually a sign of good world-building.
Elisabeth: And in general, the world-building was more effective for me in these books than the romance.
AJH: I enjoyed the romance, for sure, but as one part of this quite convoluted story. There is a lot going on in this book – many mysteries and plot threads. What did you find less effective about the romance?
Elisabeth: Honestly, I just wanted to like Javier more than I did. Here’s this rich, powerful, privileged, gorgeous, magical guy who pretty much acts like that kind of guy would be expected to act. And I felt like he never really got past that in a way. Certainly not in the first half of the book. I just couldn’t see what smart, beautiful Kiram saw in in him. Like, what was he getting out of that relationship?
Willa: My one line summary of Javier: He’s the kind of romance hero whose name will always start with a J. With him, we start to get into Cassandra Clare comparisons. He’s hot and cursed and tormented, therefore the hero.
AJH: I’m dying right now. Alphas, betas, heroes-whose-names-begin-with-J. But, to look at it more charitably, the J hero is clearly an effective type of hero for this kind of book. I mean he’s essentially the unattainable prefect, isn’t he? Or the boy equivalent of the prom queen or the head cheerleader. And we are kind of sitting here going “he’s rich, powerful, privileged, gorgeous, magical, cursed tormented … OMG WHAT DOES KIRAM SEE IN HIM.” I agree it’s not a balanced relationship, in the sense that, no, in actual “hey, will you do the dishes today” terms, I can’t see that relationship working, or Kiram getting much out of it (least of all the dishes done). But I think as a type of romantic hero, especially for a teenage protagonist, Javier works.
Willa: Oh, he worked fine for me. (For that matter, I love Cassandra Clare’s books.) And I do think there’s more balance than you might normally see in such a relationship. I love that Kiram’s experience, and comfort with his own desires, give him an edge in their sexual relationship. And he’s very strong and sure in himself in general. Javier would seem to hold all the power in their relationship, but Kiram continually asserts himself, sometimes physically pushing Javier back, other times pointedly talking about what he needs.
AJH: Yes, I liked that a lot. The balance of sexual experience between them and the whole idea of that ‘type’ of character being queered. It’s narratively satisfying to me, but not emotionally satisfying. If that distinction makes sense.
Elisabeth: And you know me, I’m not the kind of reader that demands perfect redemption from my romance heroes, but where there isn’t, I tend to prefer that their partner go into that relationship with their eyes open just a little wider than Kiram’s seemed to be. I couldn’t get over it.
Willa: Oh, I see Kiram’s eyes as very open. He knows he’s the one taking all the risks.
Elisabeth: I think that’s true with respect to the cultural ramifications of their relationship, but I’m not sure that’s true of the emotional ones. Javier has limits and Kiram didn’t really get that as well as I would have hoped.
Willa: That’s pretty much romance standard. Characters go in trying to protect their hearts, but it never works.Going back to what Alexis said before, I also really appreciated how much there is to the story other than romance. The fantasy, the cultural aspects, the quest — which I hope/assume will be carried out in book Two.
AJH: Again, I don’t want to harp on about book Two too much, but there’s definitely a lot more exploration of the two cultures. I felt the romance stayed on kind of a level though? Like it has a few ups and downs, as romance plots do, but I never really felt that any of the things Elisabeth mentions were … addressed, let alone resolved. Or, rather, circumstance temporarily renders them irrelevant.
Willa: That sounds unsatisfying. Maybe I should quit while I’m ahead?
AJH: I’m not sure unsatisfying is entirely fair. Like, I was happy with the way the plot went and the ending itself. But it wasn’t the second part I was expecting, if that makes sense? The first book is so very much a school story, so I was invested in that and looking forward to more school stuff, but the stakes are so much higher by book Two that they basically just have to get on with their lives.
Elisabeth: I don’t think I was reacting as much to wanting to get back to school (since it’s sort of like the end of Harry Potter that way), as I was wanting, maybe, a third book. One that showed who these two remarkable people become outside of this major crisis. And if their relationship can survive … dishes.
AJH: I wonder if that’s just the imposition of an adult perspective though. In the sense that I often have to stop myself asking those questions for YA and NA relationships because I’m … well … I’m thirty and my sense of what’s important is crazily different to what I believed about relationships when I was sixteen.
Elisabeth: Right. So in that way, I’m very aware of not being the audience for this book.
Willa: I guess I’m old enough that I’ve come around again! I was able to be in the story without thinking too much about potential futures, other than wondering how the hell they’ll manage to be together in this homophobic society.
AJH: Well, that’s the thing. The book deliberately makes you ask these questions. And we won’t spoil the answers for you. Do we have any final thoughts for people?
Elisabeth: I was just reflecting on how much the Tamora Pierce books meant to me as a preteen and I could definitely see these books filling a similar role for teenagers now.
Willa: If you enjoy school set fantasies and angsty romance, this is a lot of fun.
AJH: Agreed, I really enjoyed it. I wish I could go back in time about fifteen years and give it to myself.
It was wonderful to have Willaful with us today. And we hope you’ll join us in comments to talk more about the book.
If you want to read-along at home, next month we’ll be looking at: Girl Next Door by Amy Jo Cousins.
Elisabeth and Alexis