Friday, September 4, 2015

The Wind Dancer—Iris Johansen

I'm a bit late on this front, but better late than never? That's a thing people say, right? Anyway, the life has been a bit crazy, not to mention a bit emotionally exhausting, so I've been procrastinating on any number of things that generally keep me sane. For what reason I know not. But I'm hoping to catch back up, taking notes that I made while reading the books and molding them into coherent blog posts, catching up on the 15 or something that I've postponed.

I read The Wind Dancer as a precursor to Storm Winds (the second book in this series) which was the Vaginal Fantasy alt for July. I should've just skipped it, as I realized after dialoguing with some other VF readers and Felicia (who mentioned that she read the summary for this first book, and thought it looked stupid and realized that it was unnecessary to the plot of the second one, which was really chosen for its placement during the French Revolution, the theme for July). But I only made that realization after actually reading it. It started off promising, and then devolved steadily from there.

Sanchia is a lowly street rat/slave/thief, working for a man who copies documents and books in Renaissance Florence. While dealing with the drunken anger of her owner, she also protects three children that she's assumed care of. But that carefully balanced act is thrown for a loop when Lion enters her life, and steals her away from her previous owner in an effort to utilize her skills as a thief to regain ownership of a family heirloom: The Wind Dancer, a statue of a horse. (Okay, it's described much more romantically and even magically in the book, but really, it's a statue of a horse. And it has little to nothing to do with the plotline in the end anyway.) But something intrigues Lion about Sanchia, and he just can't seem to keep his hands off of her. Even when she asks him to. Because the man has literally no self control. But we'll get there. Of course, they eventually get the statue back, after everyone decent has died from the plague.

Obviously this was a really uplifting read, as you can tell from the outcome. I have a lot of vitriol in my heart for this book, so let's just jump right in. Sanchia. We barely see her thief skills, and in fact, the first time—aka the only time—that we see her thieving, she almost gets caught. Not exactly the great example of her acclaimed abilities that one would hope for. I liked her protectiveness over the other children, although I don't really understand the point of laying all that out when they disappear for her life (almost forever) in the first 25 pages of the book. Then we find out that Sanchia also has this photographic memory, which is convenient, and not used that much either. There's all of this development and setup for Sanchia to be just a badass lady, and then the exact opposite happens. Like many other reviewers on Goodreads, I felt a bit disappointed that Sanchia seems as though she's going to be an independent, skilled, compelling character, but then quickly falls flat when she gets sold to Lion.

Also, Lion? Really?

Of course, Lion falls immediately in lust with this 15-year-old girl—even though he's at least twice her age—because that's how they did it during the Renaissance, folks. But even barring that little detail, this book gives 50 Shades a run for its money where abusive and unhealthy relationships are concerned. The power dynamics of him literally owning her, and her being submissive, I had a big problem with. It made me reflect on something like Kushiel's Dart, where she is a sex worker but has agency in her work. Here, Sanchia has no control over how or why Lion treats her a certain way. As we'll see later, this leads to a particularly emphatic form of Stockholm Syndrome.

When Lion realizes his lust for Sanchia, he tells her that he's going to wait for her to want him, but then doesn't actually wait for that point, and engages her in romantic liaisons before she is really ready. (I'd argue that she's not ready for any sort of intimate entanglement with the messed up man that is Lion, but whatevs.) As I mentioned before, he has literally no self control, and indeed makes this clear to Sanchia—along with making clear that he's her owner, so he can make her do whatever he wants, with or without her desire, and shouldn't he get a pat on the back for not forcing her to do those things? Here's his first speech to her about her duties: "I'm going to touch you whenever I like." He slipped the material of the gown off her shoulders. "When it pleases me, I'll bare this pretty flesh and fondle you. No matter where we are. No matter who is watching." (58) In a situation where the power dynamics are different, this might have been a hot statement. Not so here. And here's Lion introducing Sanchia to his lack of self control: "My appetites are great. Sometimes it's like a frenzy, a madness. You must not fight me or I might injure you." (86) And another: "When I need you, then you must take me into you. There will be many occasions when I won't be able to wait until we find a bed." (104) I have no words.

Beyond that lack of interest in Sanchia's consent or enjoyment, Lion says some pretty creepy things. Like when they're engaging, he says to her, "You're so small it was like handling a child and yet you're a woman here." (93) Ugh, dude. Could you be any more grotesque?

Eventually, Sanchia actually starts to be into the romantic encounters (aka just sex, nothing romantic about it), but then is kidnapped and tortured when they are attempting to recover the Wind Dancer. After her three day confinement, when she is rescued, she emphasizes that she doesn't believe it's right for one person to own another person—even though that's been hammered into her throughout her entire life by everyone in her life, and even though that was perfectly acceptable given the time period. Three days is all it takes to change lifelong beliefs. Noted. It's after this point that Lion thinks to himself, oh, this is unacceptable. I paid for this girl and I will get my due. He refuses to listen to her when she says that she's not interested in sharing his bed anymore, and makes him so desperate that he even proposes to her in order to get her to succumb to his "charms." Finally, in an effort to convince her, Lion says, "It must be love. I told you I had feeling for you. What else could it be?" (269) Um, horniness? Jackassery? Rape tendencies? Then there's this romantic proposal: "I want you to live in my home and sleep in my bed, not only now but for the foreseeable future. I wish you to bear my children. In return I will give you your freedom, honor, and respect. What do you say to that?" (222) What a deal! He adds later, "I suppose you're going to try to leave me again. Well, I won't permit it. If you want me to tear up your bondage papers, you must wed me." He glanced away from her. "It will not be a bad life. If you do not anger me, I'll try to be gentle with you." (342) Oh well, I'll work hard on trying not to anger you. I definitely don't have anything else in life to worry about, like the plague that's sweeping the continent. And you have such an even temperament, I'm sure it won't be a problem.

Even the other people who are observing this relationship basically tell her to get her shit together and just give into him. Lion's long time friend, and someone who Sanchia admires, tells her that the house she's occupying (which used to house Lion's father's mistresses) could be hers "if you'd stop worrying about being free and start worrying about how to please Lion." (187) Oh, I knew I forgot to put something on my to-do list.

Spoiler alert: she realizes that she "loves" him (aka, finally succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome) and they leave Italy for France, in order to escape all of the death and destruction behind them. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that basically everybody who is a halfway decent human being dies of the plague? Great. Sanchia's youngest kid from Florence is kidnapped by the bad guy, exposes him to the plague, then sends him to Sanchia. That kid dies. Then all of Lion's family dies, including his golden child brother, Marco, and Lion's wife and mother. (Oh, also, Lion is married. Not a big deal, guys. Everyone was having affairs back then. Plus, she's "simple" as they used to say, and she's in love with Lion's brother Marco. So it's not like they even had a real relationship. Because real relationships center on sexual interactions, everyone knows that.)

We deal with issues like this skewed power dynamic a lot in romance and specifically in Vaginal Fantasy. This book felt like an extremely heightened version of it, and to be fair, it wasn't even a pick for Vaginal Fantasy, but rather the first in the series of the alt pick. Tertiary to the club at best. But it makes me wonder again what women find appealing about a "relationship" like this. The average rating of this book is 3.96 stars (out of 5) on Goodreads. That's quite good. Are readers willing to forgive some questionable treatment because it takes place 500 years in the past? Is this a type of safe wish fulfillment, that women want to see what it would be like to be completely submissive to somebody else? Is it an overly exaggerated version of the manly, dominant man that woman "want"? Further, Lion's lack of self control when it comes to sex perpetuates stereotypes of men who don't know how to human and can't control themselves; who, without restrictions in place, would devolve to raping and pillaging at will. By and large, these books are read predominantly by women, so it's not catering to the perceived male desire for female submission. I find the whole thing fascinating, in the most disturbing and destructive way possible.