Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Book Review: Xianne by Jayce Grayson

Xianne by Jayce Grayson is a science fiction story following a group of more or less bisexual characters, and our asexual narrator, as they sign onto a spaceship for a journey into SPACE. And sex. Space sex. Icky space sex that the poor asexual character has to keep averting his eyes from, and then being surprised when they take time out from sex to be nice to him. That... kind of sets the tone of the story.

I had major problems trying to review this book, because it sets itself up for something impressive, but really, really doesn't follow through, switching into a completely different kind of book after the introductions. To be honest, I think if it had been clear from the start, I would have liked it better.

Not actually a 'lesbian' book, this is more of an LGBTQA friendly book. Our narrator is a man, but wait - don't run screaming yet. Set a few centuries into the future, when Earth has discovered space travel but humanity is still heavily concentrated around Earth and influenced by recognisable cultural references (more on that later), our protagonist is an asexual in a world of sex maniacs sexually promiscuous people. This was the first book in a proposed series. It could become really interesting, and I can see how it would work, but I put it down feel exasperated and cheated. A lot of that was because I started reading something really different.

About the story

As mentioned, James Street is an asexual. A romantic asexual, based on his dreams of love, and his squish on one of the other characters.This makes him extremely unusual, and he has a lot of trouble fitting in as normal social interactions frequently involve a lot of sexual content and intentions.

We don't ever get to see Earth itself, as the story picks up when James applies to the ship and focuses mainly on him and his interactions with six other people. This means that it's difficult to really absorb the changed cultural norms as being 'the new normal', and it could have simply been this group of people was particularly outgoing. Yeah, the sex part is a major theme. There were enough little details to back up the fact that they were normal by future standards; James says it is, and there are things like the Ask/Tell policy. There are references to the culture essential being equivalent to the porn industry (age of consent, everyone is familiar with porn, sexual content dominates peoples' lives), but there's no moral judgement on that. Most people are very sexually free, but the sex stuff isn't for him, he just has to put up with it. There is no nudity taboo (although there is some awareness that some few people may not be comfortable they are the odd ones out) and equally, no sexual taboos.

Asexuality in the Story (and other stuff)

 James' personal discomfort has a strong element of unreliable narrator, as he's clearly uncomfortable around sexual behaviour. But he has an apparently justified fear of being approached sexually, being regarded as odd, or being forced to sit through other people's sex marathons. While the others are generally respectful and kind about his asexuality, most of them clearly consider it abnormal, if only in a handicapped or 'weird choice' sort of way. There's at least one conversation in which he is asked personal questions about his sexuality and directly compares it to 'this is how they used to treat gay people'. As a person, he's pretty withdrawn and expects to be shunned, and is slightly confused by his ready adoption by the rest of the cast.

The Ask/Tell policy, a deliberate inversion of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, operates on the assumption that most people are up for sex, so there's no reason to hide your preferences and it helps to avoid misunderstandings when approaching people. This is both a very clear sign of changed norms, and yet... the selections are Straight, Bi, Gay and N/A. This is both the minimum level of practicality (which makes sense for bureaucracy) and sidesteps a lot of the wider or more complicated definitions, including gender issues. It implies that, either there is no longer any particular judgement attached to, or barrier to, things like gender reassignation, or that, as long as you fall roughly into one thing or another, nobody cares about the details. That, or Earth isn't much more accepting than it is today, only officially acknowledging the four main labels.

N/A ("nay") apparently stands for asexual; I figured it was a more catchall category, but everyone seemed to treat it as asexuality, and there was even a reference to a Nay colony. But it is a rare thing and, while there wasn't really any prejudice amongst the characters, there was certainly misinformation and unfamiliarity.

For some reason we got a lot of descriptions of everyone's clothes; it started off quite interesting as the narrator clearly was more interested in the clothing than the physical appearance (although we got a lot of that as well), but later on the sex aspect intruded more and more (mostly in the form of erect nipples and the minimal wardrobes the other characters favoured). I guess it wandered from showing he didn't really notice things like that into him actually noticing, and then just telling us that he didn't notice.

Quick Plot Summary:
Our characters are all signing up to work on the super special spaceship of a superrich and mysterious man, and the whole thing starts away from Earth. After a bit of scene setting and bumping into each other, all the characters are selected. It turns out that they're the only crew, basically, and that the only other people on board are the owner, his wife and the ...well, the old guy who is basically the janitor.

And that's when the story stops, and switches into 'we're just going to not really go anywhere while the cast takes turns pairing off (or tripling...) in various combinations and we all get to know each other'. Getting to know each other is fine, but you need an actual story to go along with it!

Our main character spends most of this time either being introspective to himself, or accidentally walking in on people and promptly leaving again (or excusing himself). There's also the significant squish he has on the Doctor/owner's wife, which... also fizzles out in importance as she shifts from gorgeous and mysterious to sexy times lady.

One of the well done aspects of the story was the camaraderie between the characters (with our narrator being the awkward exception, sort of a stiff and proper guy get glomped by excited puppies). The general promiscuity and easy integration of the characters worked well.

I'm just... not sure that it should have. The main conflict/story opportunities here were either between people, or in external plot, and both were missed.

Anyway, the book ends with foreshadowing *whoo* of arriving at the next place to pick up some more people. I hope that they're a bit more varied, as this crew really, really need a bit of variety. And depth. And people that actual make something happen.

Length & pacing:
The book wasn't that long; the pacing was definitely off. We had the long, thoughtful set-up, with character introductions and tantalising hints of interesting characters and behind the scenes machinations... and then it just turns into characters happily bouncing off each other in a sort of sex physics reaction diagram, with our main character constantly trying to dodge out of the way of their trajectories.

There was no real story or overreaching narrative; the whole book seems to be a set up to the series, leaving you hanging, wondering when the story starts.

This is definitely a storyline that could work well over multiple books though; sitcom episode style. Just... make sure you know what you're picking up!

This is a lesbian book blog, so this is actually a really important part of this review, and unfortunately, one of the bits that really ruins the book. The women were terrible characters. This really stood out for me, as the male character were all distinct people in their own right, with flaws and stories and personalities. The women? I could only tell apart by the narrator's reactions to them.

I had trouble telling the two younger girls apart, as the main difference was that one was slightly more forward than the other. The other woman, the doctor, older but just as attractive in all the same physical ways, was a much more distinct character.

Now, one thing I didn't like was the fact that all the women appeared to be sex maniacs, but it was ... well, I'm not sure if that was fair. I think it came down to all three women being gorgeous and bisexual and very sexually free, while the four men were asexual, old & heartbroken and effectively asexual, lecherous but marriedish, and sex maniac. But more to the point, none of the men were gay or bisexual (that we ever see in the story). I'm not sure if this was a side effect of the women being more available, but it did start to grate after awhile, and lend that 'kissing each other to be sexy' impression to the girls. The girls were at least as open about being attracted to each other and the men as the men were to the girls, it was just that there wasn't really any attraction between the men. And while you could argue that this was a deliberate, "porn culture" choice, it was never mentioned as one, and ...well, gay porn is pretty prevalent, there's no indication that that should have suddenly vanished.

Other thoughts
Now, I'm always hyperaware, when reading the first few novels by an author, that the characters are probably based on them and their own opinions. But I also know that they may not be, and it can be difficult to figure out the line between 'this is an interesting and well developed character that I love or loathe' and actively judging the author. This may be a reviewer problem, as overthinking can come with the territory, but I do spend too long trying to figure out whether it's intrusive author voice or me projecting into a story.

In this case, the author pretty much admits that the lead character is based on him, but the setting is obviously not real (though I feel like certain events might be). So in a way, it is a fictionalised biography. But it's not intrusive (or is so much part of the book that it doesn't stand out), and I only really know that it's based on him because I read the author blurb first, so in this case, the narrator speaks with a voice of experience rather than 'the author's voice'.

It has some major things going for it: it deals with asexuality, and is science fiction, two rare topics in the LGBTQIA genre, especially combined. It opens up some very interesting questions, and starts out quite quite highbrow and literary, so to speak, with references to interesting personal backstories, Earth politics, the movement out into space and cultural history (from some great 20th century science fiction authors, such as Asimov, to entirely fictional events). It really grates on me when a 'futuristic' book tends to skip all the intervening history and rely on events and name dropping from, well, the author's time, so I was pretty impressed with the way this one was handled.

It also wandered far into discussing cultural norms and so forth enough that I was expecting this to be developed and continued. Mostly the 'porn culture' aspect, of course, but not entirely. There are some really interesting discussions to be had there, many of which were touched on enough to make me think the author could, and would handle it: the assumption that porn was the driver of cultural change, the exact ways it would effect change, the conflicts with different cultures, the ways it would actually be reflected in people's behaviours... Unfortunately, it was mostly a set up for half the book being an ongoing series of sexual interactions. Without the sex scenes. Talk about the worst of both worlds!


Basically, I'd have been happy with a highbrowish science fiction book with a character that steadfastly ignored all that sex stuff while an actual plot went on. Or a trashy sexy romp. But the weird attempt to force an asexual, deliberately sex-avoidant character into a story made almost entirely of sexy romps... well, that could also be interesting, as it's a built in conflict, but it didn't work.

I'd pick this up for the number of boxes it ticks (and the lack of decent reading in this area), and for ideas about stuff that could be interesting and worth pursuing (the world building, the ideas behind the story), but I wouldn't pick it up for the sex, or the women as characters, or the story itself. I fell like the author was trying to do something, but I think it would have been a far better story if they'd just kept going the way it started out. Also, I get really grumpy when I get my hopes right up for a book.

That said, there's a second book out, and if you read them together, it may work rather better, and have less of that 'introduction book' feeling. And of course, it can be pretty enjoyable in places. The writing itself isn't bad - It's just that if you're going to wander into this sort of territory, you need to do it so well that readers don't care about the flaws, or you need to pull out a basic checklist of story elements and major pitfalls around stereotyping characters and make sure you have avoided them all.

You can buy Xianne in both Kindle and paperback from Amazon

Looking for really awesome lesbian science fiction sex? Aurora Awakening by Thalia Fand [review] is still one of my favourites.

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