I don’t really like talking too much about the books on the blog, especially when it comes to explaining thoughts behind the writing; but if there’s one subject that I do want to discuss in terms of the forthcoming The Book of Transformations, it’s the character Lan – a transwoman (her biology does not meet up with her identified gender). First up, the blurb:
A new and corrupt Emperor seeks to rebuild the ancient structures of Villjamur to give the people of the city hope in the face of great upheaval and an oppressing ice age. But when a stranger called Shalev arrives, empowering a militant underground movement, crime and terror becomes rampant. The Inquisition is always one step behind, and military resources are spread thinly across the Empire. So Emperor Urtica calls upon cultists to help construct a group to eliminate those involved with the uprising, and calm the populace. But there’s more to The Villjamur Knights than just phenomenal skills and abilities – each have a secret that, if exposed, could destroy everything they represent. Investigator Fulcrom of the Villjamur Inquisition is given the unenviable task of managing the Knights, but his own skills are tested when a mysterious priest, who has travelled from beyond the fringes of the Empire, seeks his help. The priest’s existence threatens the church, and his quest promises to unweave the fabric of the world. And in a distant corner of the Empire, the enigmatic cultist Dartun Súr steps back into this world, having witnessed horrors beyond his imagination. Broken, altered, he and the remnants of his cultist order are heading back to Villjamur. And all eyes turn to the Sanctuary City, for Villjamur’s ancient legends are about to be shattered . . .
Though The Book of Transformations is the third in the series, again – like City of Ruin – I hope it can be read and enjoyed in isolation. Its focus is primarily back in the city of Villjamur, and on two characters: Fulcrom, who was a minor character in Nights of Villjamur , and Lan, who is someone new to the overall story arc.
Lan is a transwoman. This is shown right from the start.
Writing the character of a transwoman is dangerous territory for most writers, let alone a straight male, and particularly one who is not an expert on the subject. It could go dangerously wrong.
Researching this area was enlightening to say the least. The complexities of gender and sexuality were so layered and subtle that I was, quite frankly, staggered. The more issues I researched, the darker the world looked, too: from religion to legality, through feminism and sexism, to being one of the most discriminated-against sections of society, the paths and concerns of transgender folk are pretty much the most difficult anyone can follow in a civilised world.
For those of you new to such ideas, I really recommend reading Cheryl Morgan’s post on Gender 101. (Go there and you’ll see what I mean about the complexities of it all.)
At first I thought I could do something arty and clever; then I thought that’s probably the last thing the community needs. No, if I was going to write Lan’s story, I had to make her sympathetic and – well – normal of course. Lan should receive precisely the same treatment as any other character, though obviously not from other characters within the novel, because that wouldn’t really be realistic (whatever realism is in fantasy anyway). If I can make readers empathise and feel for her, when they may otherwise have found her character a point of humour or hatred (much like with Brynd), I will consider it a decent job done. I figure if no one at all makes the effort to write such characters, and attempts to write them in the right manner, then not much will change in popular culture. (Every little helps, right?)
So, Lan makes the journey from circus entertainer (a not uncommon path for transgender folk in the past, I understand) via a chance meeting with a cultist, so that she can complete her transformation towards being a female (as much as is possible). This happens very early on. What happens after that is that her abilities to withstand cultist magic/science are known – and she becomes useful to the Emperor, and absorbed into an elite unit of individuals with special abilities and powers. Her transformation is one of many within the book.
Cheryl actually helped me with a few pointers on issues relating to gender, for which I’m very grateful, so she has hopefully steered me from too much trouble… I’m bound to have made some mistakes, or perhaps been accidentally insensitive in places, but they are absolutely my mistakes an no one else’s. But I wanted to say I learnt a lot about the trans community during writing this book. I can think of no other faction of society that has received so much prejudice, both intentional and casual. This poor treatment is everywhere in culture, too (and this doesn’t even cover the horrific murders).
I started to notice it in conversations I overheard, the way transsexuals were made fun of, the way that they were targets. “Looks like a tranny!” or even terms to suggest freakishness. If you replaced ‘transsexual’ with even ‘homosexual’, most people would immediately see their error, and probably be horrified that liberal folk could say such things. Yet these slips seem breathtakingly ingrained in our culture.
So there we go; that’s just a little insight into this book. It seemed important to say something about it. Oh, and if anyone wants to know why I wanted to write about a transwoman in the first place, I’d give the same answer as to any other character: because they’re interesting, because there is a story to tell and, as a writer, I might learn something along the way.