Rowyn (rowyn) wrote,

The Rant about a Good Thing

Usually, when I want to focus narrowly on one aspect of a book, it's something that annoyed me. This is a rare case where I actually want to rant about something I liked in a novel.

As I've mentioned before, I hate the "love triangle" trope. I have always hated it; even when I was a little kid and had no idea that polyamory was even A Thing, I often wished that the love triangle would resolve by the lovers sharing.

But my dislike for love triangles goes well beyond my bias in favor of polyamory, and Libriomancer -- by portraying a love triangle I liked -- made me realize that.

What I hate most about love triangles is not just the insistence to choose one, or even the unexamined nature of the necessity of that choice (do you know how rare it is for a book with a love triangle to even acknowledge that not every long term relationship ever has been between just two people?) It's the way the focus of the relationship is on possession. If you have two men pursuing the same woman, odds are the men will spend the story competing with one another and trying to pull the woman away from the other. Often they will be consumed by blinding jealousy. All three people will be trying to make the decision that's best for them, personally. The idea of figuring out and doing what's best for the person they supposedly love is elided entirely. Controlling or suppressing jealousy? Also a non-starter. It is an unquestioned assumption that if X loves Y than (a) X is supposed to be jealous of anyone else who is interested in Y -- not behaving in a jealous and possessive manner would be unnatural and wrong! and (b) X is not allowed to consider that X might not be the best possible match for Y. It's not even "Of course I'm best for her!" The question does not arise. There is no need for an answer.

One of the reasons that Jane Austen's love triangles bother me less than most is that the characters don't act like spoiled children being denied a treat. Take Emma, for instance. Mr. Knightly has been a friend of Emma's father and a friend to her pretty much her entire life. At some point, Mr. Knightly fell in love with her, which he doesn't really recognize until he sees her involved with Frank Churchhill. Knightly's response to this? He makes a few grumbling comments about Churchhill's character not being all one might hope for. When Knightly can no longer bear to see Emma and Churchhill together, he leaves the vicinity to stay with his brother for a while and try to get over her. What he doesn't do? Labor to convince Emma that she should drop Churchhill and marry him instead. For her part, Emma realizes long before the climax that her flirtation with Churchhill is not serious on her side or Churchhill's. This is pretty typical of an Austen love triangle -- one half of the triangle will not be a serious relationship, although it looks like one from the outside. Moreover, none of the involved parties will be overcome by rabid jealousy. They don't indulge their passion in raving, possessive fits, even if they'd like to. So that helps.

Libriomancer does this one better. A little background: the book opens with the narrator, Isaac Vainio, being attacked by vampires and then rescued by Lena, a dryad with impressive wood-based powers. Lena had been the bodyguard and Dr. Nidhi Shah, the psychiatrist for the global conceal-magic conspiracy, and therefore the same psychiatrist who evaluated Isaac in a few sessions. It's soon apparent that Isaac is attracted to Lena, and that Lena feels the same (although neither is doing the romance novel "I can't think about anything but my overwhelming lust" thing, which is a relief.) Lena came to Isaac because Lena needs help. Nidhi was attacked by vampires and is now missing; Lena and Isaac both strongly suspect Nidhi has either been turned or killed.

A little later, Lena reveals that her situation is more complex and bizarre than this. Lena's race is actually from a book, specifically a trashy Gor-like novel where the dryads existed to be the perfect lover: not only will they love whoever they belong to, but their personalities are shaped by the desires of their love. Lena's nature compels her to have a lover. She had been Nidhi's. With Nidhi gone, Lena knows that she's going to, inevitably, bond to someone else, so she read through Nidhi's psych profile on Isaac (and presumably some other patients) and decided to ask Isaac to be that person.

This was something of a "REALLY?" moment for me, because it's such a Piers Anthony plot device and I did not expect Jim Hines, of all people, to be using it. This is not the blog of someone I expect to see giving female characters a backstory of "sex toy". It was so out of character that I went straight past 'wow this is offensive' to 'he must have something really interesting in mind to justify this.'

In fairness to the narrator, Isaac's initial reaction is more or less 'wow that sucks' followed by 'I have no idea how I am supposed to act on this information'. The characters also have the main plot of 'let's find out why vampires are trying to kill us all' to distract them, too. After a while, Isaac decides that Lena is what she is and there's nothing he or she can do about it, so he may as well accept it. Rejecting her just because her nature compelled her to find a replacement and she doesn't have much choice in the matter doesn't actually help her and it isn't what he wants ... so ... um ... okay then? I should note -- in fairness to both characters -- that Lena comes across as a person with her own ideas and opinions, and not as a sex toy. One gets the impression that even if she has been shaped by what her lovers want, none of them wanted her to be a compliant blow-up doll. Anyway, they are still in the middle of the whole 'trying to find out what's going on and not get killed by vampires' main plot, so they don't do much more than discuss Isaac's answer over breakfast. However, they are both, briefly, very happy about coming to an understanding.

This happiness is brief because Nidhi is, of course, alive and in terrible danger and they need to save her.

And this is where I get to see a love triangle I actually liked.

It's as much for the things the characters don't do as for the things they do. Isaac never tries to convince Lena to leave Nidhi. Nidhi never yells at Lena for looking for a replacement. Isaac does his best to save Nidhi and does not at any point consider 'well, hey, if Nidhi happens to get killed, great! I get Lena!'. Isaac even accepts that Lena will be willing to sacrifice Isaac if that's what she needs to do to save Nidhi, which is not a happy thought for anyone. In short, I got the distinct impression that Isaac genuinely cares about Lena and wants to do what's best for her; Lena demonstrates in various ways that she feels the same way. (The book shows very little of Nidhi, but one gets much the same idea about her.) It's not that Isaac isn't jealous -- he is -- but he doesn't let that become his dominant emotion.

As the book neared its conclusion, I realized that I was OK with any of the possible outcomes. I was not going to be disappointed if they saved Nidhi and Lena went back to her. Nor if Lena ended up with Isaac, either because they were unable to save Nidhi or for some other reason. Nor if, by some miracle, Lena actually persuaded Nidhi and Isaac to try sharing her. The important thing was not the resolution, but that the characters were doing the best they could for each other. All of the possible resolutions had drawbacks (even polyamory! No, really, I do not actually believe that poly is always the answer. Just because I think it should be a choice doesn't mean I think it must be the choice). But the key part was that the various parties were behaving with integrity and compassion.

For which, thank you, Mr. Hines.
Tags: books
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