8 thoughts on ““The Garden of Sons and Husbands”, by Alex Jeffers”

  1. Technical note – I’m in the middle of Pesach (Passover), and much more swamped than usual. I may not join in on this discussion until next week. Do carry on 🙂

  2. Jeffers has created a thoroughly entertaining story, smoothly written and with many strikingly colorful incidents. I don’t understand the plot, though: why on earth would being separated from his name make the Unnamed God start turning men into trees, and even more inexplicable, why would being reunited with his name destroy him? There is nothing, as far as I can see, in the "rules" for how this fantasy world operates that makes sense out of it.

    So according to the author, he was inspired by Clarke Ashton Smith’s "Zothique" stories here. I don’t recall having read any of those, but I am a little bit familiar with pulpy heroic fantasy. (I like C. L. Moore, but can do without Robert E. Howard.) Exotic settings are fun, and I like reading about terrifying necromancers and all, but one thing is bothering me — why did he have to bring over the elements of the original stories that normalize slavery? True, he did a race-swap with rich dark-skinned southerners enslaving pale northern barbarians, but still, it is just part of the furniture of the setting. He may have been trying to do a sort of counter-narrative by including one paragraph from the POV of the masseur but if so, I don’t think it’s effective, as that section supports the overall narrative and its priorities rather than adding any dissonance. I think there may have been a failure to examine why those old writers included slavery as part of their "exotic" settings, and race-swapping just papers over it.

    More noticeable, of course, is the gender-role reversal going on. The old stories were very insistent that objects of desire are female — indeed, to be desired defines femininity in their symbolic order. It is suitable for a gay writer to upend that thoroughly. The power relations are inverted too. Young men are scrutinized and evaluated for their beauty in this story, sold in marriage, bartered or kidnapped; women are merchants and rulers. The ending of the story is actually quite striking; the old order is gone and everyone is dead except two young men who up until then had played an entirely passive and powerless role in the story. This signals a fundamental shift because, unlike all the other relations previously mentioned, their desire for each other is mutual and equal — when they’re staring at each other there are mirror images in their eyes. Hopefully this is the beginning of a better state of the world.

    I enjoyed seeing this story through the eyes of Atsarem and the Holiest as they rather fumblingly (and unwillingly in the first case) carried out a quest which turned out to not be what they thought it was. The setting had so many details to savor, from the "cups of bitter tea and small sapphire-crystal glasses of a rare cordial that breathed mingled fragrances of northern heaths, southern blossoms, and incenses that might be favored by any god" to the Chandias custom of not giving their sons a name until they have a story to go with it. I do not think it is a great story, but I would definitely like to read more from this author.

  3. Charles Payseur has a good point about the ending: "They saw something of a scale that was boggling but in part because they didn’t know what it was they can dust themselves off and make their own future…. And if there is no real explanation there doesn’t need to be, because the point is that they get to make their own future, find their own names. " That is a bit different from the boy-with-no-name-yet having his future mapped out by his mother; even if, by Chandias custom, he could choose his own name, he didn’t actually have many options in life. From illusory choice to real?

  4. This one really didn’t work for me. The threat of "evil magician kidnapping innocents" just wasn’t compelling at all for me; it felt like Generic Evil (especially with any actual detail reserved for the very end). The main characters just didn’t interest me at all; I didn’t feel there was much personality to them, beyond "Stop The Evil Wizard/Save the McGuffin". Bringing in the Unnamed God as the Big Bad just seemed arbitrary; it’s not as though it was foreshadowed and built up to; it’s not like we cared particularly about the Unnamed God previously.

    There were some unusual elements here, to be sure, but I just don’t think they were used in an engaging way. Kind of a pulp story with some details switched out for some arbitrary weird ones. Ah well.

    1. I’m wIth you– such a wealth of splendid details lavished on a slight, arbitrary plot. In my opinion the lack of depth to the characters, which you mention, is not a flaw in this particular type of story, but the overly slow pace is; the classic pulp writers could have fit just as much color in half the words. I do think that what I wrote about gender and sexual power reversals is intentional on the part of the author, but nothing else is carefully thought out.

    2. I agree that gender-flipping the "innocent female sacrifices" is central here; I just feel like I’m past the point where "sexist trope is genderflipped" suffices to carry a story on its own,at least for me.

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