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The Book of Transformations & Transgenderism

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.


By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

27 replies on “The Book of Transformations & Transgenderism”

I’m a little confused. So is the character a hermaphrodite or a transvestite? Or are we just talking about t-girls. Forgive my ignorance on the subject, but google seems intent on directing me to pron…

No, she’s neither. She’s simply someone whose gender identity does not match up with their biological sex, and who has been living the life of that gender. During the book, she is treated by cultists so that her biological make-up then matches her identified gender. If that helps. Check out Cheryl’s post on gender, which I linked to, for a more thorough break-down.

That, umm, actually sounds kind of silly, no offence.

Anyway, I get what you’re saying. Born a dude, mentally a woman, magic/advanced science is used to change him into a her.

Ton of “stories” like that on the net actually. Though usually involving quite a bit of sexing.

BUT, remembering how you did the gay super solider and the impotent vampire, I trust you get it right. Looking forward to it.

I don’t mean it’s a silly subject. In fact, silly may have been the wrong word entirely. Perhaps odd? Strange?

Why all the taboo characters anyway? Not putting them down, like I said, I liked your super soldier, but my favourite character was easily the rummel investigater. (Can’t remember his name off the top of my head, had a wife, changed cities etc.)

Anyway, other than being a non-human, he was pretty “normal” and while I’m all for unique characters, I really enjoyed his chapters over the ones with the soldier worrying about how his men would react if they knew he slept with dudes.

Taboo – well, to be honest, they make interesting characters to write about. And I need to be interested in them if I’m going to spend a year with them in my head!

It’s interesting, bringing up the non-humans. I’ve always hoped that, in a world populated by other races, anything that might have been considered different in our world has a different context in this one. The rules for exotic or strange change completely.

I always thought the goal of reading was to see the world through another’s eyes? Even if it’s not our world or our time or…. you get the idea but all characters human or not are an exploration of humanity and seeing us humans through different filters and different lights.

I’m looking forward to reading and enjoying 😀

Sounds interesting – the genre hasn’t really done well in the past on these things. Come to think of it, I can’t even think of that many other mainstream fiction/genre books that deal with the subject.

Really gutsy and really pleased you’re doing this. SFF has spent generations showing what it is like to stand in the shoes of aliens/dragons/tribbles/orcs/space squid. I’m really glad that someone is taking that same effort and directing it towards other human beings. If our genre can’t do it, who can?

(Ok, that got a little Agincourt at the end, but you know what I mean. I’m extremely excited about the book.)

Mark – gutsy and I’m looking forward to it. Someone needs to push boundaries and SFF literature is a good place for it.

I’m particularly interested in the bit about humanity vs. other sentient creatures. In a world where there other species that are very different, I’d think that the differences within humanity would not be such a focus. It remindes me of Embyassytown and how Mieville plays with gender identity in it. Le Guin discusses it in her review in The Guardian and I mentioned it in my own review (if not half as eloquently as Le Guin).

Ever since I read the blurb on this I’ve been hoping the transgender character would be MtF. I’ve got friends/friends of friends we are at various stages of pre- and post-op transmen and transwomen and I’ve been looking forwards to a blog or news about the character.

Brynd was a fantastic character–my favourite, in fact–and I know I’m going to like Lan. It’s going to be a brilliant insight into these sorts of issues. I think the geek community is possibly the best place ror issues like this to be addressed in an approachable, casual (it’s not a transgender 101, she’s just a /character/ like any other) fashion, much like the anime/manga communities, where–in my experience–gender isn’t as steadfast a concept, and certainly not as important.

Absolutely cannot wait.

Thanks for the support and kind words, everyone! Means much when you write in isolation.

Leo – that’s an interesting point about manga/anime, though unfortunately I know too little about that particular world. I wonder if that’s a cultural-gender difference?

I definitely think culture has a huge impact of now gender is viewed. A massive difference. In some cultures, the differences between genders are so ingrained into their society and daily lives, that the grey areas of gender theory (primarily regarding gender identity, and sexual preference) are hard to pinpoint and understand.

The Japanese tend to be much more understanding of the differences and even crossovers of gender: this definitely shows through their anime/manga, and even though some of their music (i.e. some genres are permeated by men who dress as women, but retain full male identities, without being considered “drag queens”).

There’s definitely a lot to learn from how different cultural mindsets view gender and its intricacies.

I have a feeling Lan is going to be an absolute pleasure to read, and very enlightening!

I had a big post and lost it, and I won’t rewrite it as the earlier discussion seemed dead.

I’ll just back up what Leo said, in that I believe Lan will be a very important character at least within genre fandom. You’ve tackled other social issues well, and I have nothing but faith in your ability to pull Lan off.

And I want to give her a big hug. She might need it (Or will it be me who needs it? Huh.)

Book of Transformations just got put on my “must read” list. and not just because hopefully it can be read as a stand alone. don’t hate me too much, i haven’t gotten to the earlier books in the series yet!

I never understood why gender orientation and sexual orientation was a “check one box” type of thing. They’ve both always been pretty fluid for me.

Hi redhead – that’s no problem. I do indeed think it can be read as a standalone – in fact, I think there’s just one proper return character, and even that’s done to cater for those who might not have read the first book (he wasn’t in the second).

Well, I’ve wondered about that – but it’s so built-in to our culture – passports, driving licenses and so on – that I guess the binary outlook is unlikely to change soon.

This sounds like an interesting use of Spec Fic’s power to explore an issue through estrangement – magic in this case, tech when Sci-Fi does it. It certainly is one of the last taboos, and transgendered people can have a very difficult and painful time. Looking forward to reading the book, Mark.

Very intriguing, Mark. I wonder, though, why the Wiki article phrases it “List of unlawfully killed transgender people” as opposed to “List of Murdered Transgendered People” — as if there could be a lawful killing.

Ooh, this is interesting to me. I’m a trans person, and also an avid reader of SF/F. I’ve often been frustrated at how I so rarely see trans characters, or at least trans characters portrayed in a way that isn’t super frustrating to me (hint: if a trans character is an example of the “pathetic” or “deceiver” archetypes, I will be frustrated), or where the book isn’t All About Gender (that kind of fiction is great [see also LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness etc.], but sometimes I wish for characters that just happen to be trans) I will have to read your books!

Hi Violet, thanks for stopping by. I understand fully what you mean. Well, you can just jump straight into this novel without having to read the rest, but I certainly hope to have represented the character of a transwoman well enough.

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