Bibrary Gender Identity and Expression Challenge: The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit by Storm Constantine
The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit by Storm Constantine
Vampiric homoeroticism with a David Bowie aesthetic: welcome to the world of Wraeththu.
I wanted to like this book. I really, really did. In fact, there’s a lot about it that matches up with my personal list of likes in fiction: a post-apocalyptic world. Modern mysticism. Androgyny.
In fact, on a certain level, I did enjoy it. Storm Constantine writes with more than enough urgency and hints at foreshadowing to keep the pages turning, and has a very good sense of when to end a chapter: on occasion, I felt myself going past the point I’d planned to read to because I just wanted to see what would happen next. I’d call Enchantments… a type of brain candy, the literary equivalent of a summer blockbuster, kind of like The DaVinci Code: if you can switch off the part of your brain that needs real nourishment, you’ll probably have a good time.
However, this reading challenge is about books that deal with gender identity, so it was impossible for me not to intellectualize it a little bit.
A brief plot summary: Enchantments… is the first book in the Wraeththu trilogy. It tells the story of Pellaz, a farm boy with somewhat creepy feelings for his sister (seriously, what was up with that) whose family is one day visited by a member of the the Wraeththu, a new, beautifully androgynous race that has been springing up around the country. After Cal the Wraeththu spends the night, Pellaz decides to accompany him in his travels, because… why? It’s never fully explained, and nobody in the book really seems to care. Pellaz spends a few paragraphs wondering about it, and there’s some talk about destiny, but in the end it all feels like a big shrug, a feeling of ‘well, if this didn’t happen, there wouldn’t be a book, so let’s just go with it.’ Eventually Pellaz becomes a Wraeththu himself through ritual transformation, gains knowledge, travels more, experiences a variety of sexual encounters, and gets caught up in the machinations of the race’s most powerful players.
The biggest issues I took were with the Wraeththu themselves. In many ways they were about what I expected: David Bowie-esque, mystical, graceful beings that spoke in flowery language and showed razor-sharp cunning. There are a few parallels drawn with vampires, the most obvious of which is that Pellaz has to drink the blood of a Wraeththu in order to become one. However, I found myself puzzled that, despite insisting that they were a new gender, something that both blended and stood outside of men or women, they all went by the pronoun set “he/him/his.” Perhaps I would have been able to overlook this detail if it weren’t the case that, in order to become a Wraeththu, you have to have been “born a man.” So you can become a member of this new race of graceful, gorgeous, paradigm-shifting, totally third-gender beings, but only if you were born with a penis.
This fact is brought up enough times, and Pellaz appears to question it enough, that I wonder if Constantine doesn’t find a way to address or correct this in parts two and three of the story. Still, if someone weren’t determined to finish the book for the sake of, say, a reading challenge, they might find themselves put off and abandoning the story.
There is also the fact that, in his travels, Pellaz discovers that some Wraeththu in places of power keep their servants “like women,” dressing them in feminine clothes and basically forcing them into the servile position of a second-class gender. I can’t help but wonder what Constantine was thinking when she wrote that. Was it that heteronormativity is so pervasive that it would even invade a so-called “idyllic” new race? Was it meant to show that Pellaz still had some sexist programming left over from his former life? I really don’t know.
Finally, although there are a lot of ways in which Constantine succeeds in a technical sense, there’s more than one time that she falls flat. For instance, some of the writing is downright clunky:
To the east of the desert, a long, straight road winds straight across the unrelenting plain. – pg. 123
If anyone out there can explain to me how a “long, straight road” winds – and winds straight, for that matter – I will bake you a pie.
We’re getting into real nitpicky territory now, so I won’t go any further. I may eventually pick up the other two books of the series: because I really didn’t hate it, because I’m curious to see where Constantine is going with all this, and because I enjoy a bit of brain candy every once in a while. But I will do it with a spot of trepidation, wondering whether the issues with the gender politics of the Wraeththu will ever be resolved.