Under a Velvet Cloak — Piers Anthony

Dear Piers —
We were really close once — I read all your books. Literally. Race Against Time (with its problematic racial politics), Ghost Ship (….with its problematic racial politics), Tatham Mound (with its problematic racial politics…), the Geodyssey series (with its problematic… gender? politics (yay?)), the Xanth series (with its problematic gender politics), Virtual Mode (with its problematic gender AND racial politics, wtf?). But, we grew apart. I discovered feminist and anti-racist SF/F and my heart grew three sizes that day. I left behind you, your weird Firefly book, the Roundear series, and any hope of a satisfactory resolution of the Proton/Phaze conundrum. Sure, I checked in every now and then, but we’d both moved on. You were busy figuring out the color of Mela the Mermaid’s panties, and I was busy with Harry Potter fanfic. I won’t apologize for moving on, so long as you don’t blame me for growing up.

But! This past week, I decided to finally close out on the Incarnations of Immortality series. I knew Orb was now the Incarnation of Nature from Being a Green Mother, Luna was now a high-powered senator, and that Orlene was now God. Yay! An Incarnation of Good who understood that one could be a suicide, a bastard, and a rapist (all men are potential rapists, unless it’s a feminist saying so, amirite?) and still be a good person. Throughout this course of events, Nox had been an unseen actor — the Incarnation of Night no one knew a lot about, mysterious and sexily dark. I figured, hey, why not read a book about Nox?

For old times’ sake?

But, like Disney says, you can’t step in the same river twice. Now that I’m older, and thirteen doesn’t seem fabulously mature, I really have to question your choice to begin the novel with a thirteen year old Karena and a magic pussy fixing dildo, that both makes one’s vag capable of accommodating any cock and also “fixes” vulva vestibulitis, thus making ANY pussy a magically awesome pussy. I also really have to question your repeated use of a sexually precocious, aggressive pubescent girl seducing an older male caretaker figure, a motif seen in nearly all of your series, and your insistence that Karena, one of the most talented witches in the history of EVER, would need to rely on her body in order to become the Incarnation of Night. Plus, your frequent declaration that men are simply different from women and have no self-control when presented with cute girls showing flesh is simple male apologism. I’m over it, Piers. I was hoping you were too. In a series including wonderful female characters like Orlene (who almost makes me forgive you for describing Vita as having “a touch of the Negroid” about her) and Jolie (who, honestly, deserves her own book, instead of the perpetual sidekick role to which she has been consigned), Under a Velvet Cloak is a boring, painful travesty. I’ve had paper dolls with more interesting sex lives, and My Little Ponies with more complicated adventures.

With lingering affection,

Maria

PS: WTF is up with your constant use of state-of-being verbs and the complete lack of action in this conclusion to one of your most epic series? For a book centering on a girl’s quest to rescue her beloved, Karena spent a lot of time on her back. Seriously — the climax of the novel included a “battle of the sexes” involving fucking, pink and blue clouds, and a really bizarre version of capture the flag. Wasn’t that part of the Game in the Adept series, anyways? Only more interesting, because Sheen wasn’t playing with her own body?

PPS: I’m also not sure why the Incarnation of Night’s fellow Incarnation was the Incarnation of Darkness, and that he was presented as the ultimate male principle to her ultimate female principle…. none of the other Incarnations WORK that way. They’re the boss of their arena (War, Time, Fate, etc) and don’t NEED opposites to work.

Comments

  1. Firebird says

    a) Orlene is God? Awesome. b) the opposite of night is….day? c) I never managed to read more than 4 of the Piers Anthony books because he just talks too damn much. He claims not to believe in writer’s block and keeps writing whether he has anything to say or not – and I tend to think writer’s who’ve self-described as doing that always seem to be the ones who ramble on.

    d) I don’t have anything interesting to note about the gender politics in his novels. They sucked. I stopped reading them. e) I loved the format of your review. f) one scene from On a Pale Horse that still stays with me is the atheist suicide call that Death shouldn’t have been called to, and was. He sat with the guy and then tried to take the soul, but it fell apart in his hands because the man didn’t believe in the afterlife. I always thought it was poetic somehow.

    • Maria says

      NO!! The opposite of night is darkness!! :eye roll:

      :D I’m glad you like the review style. Maybe the next one I’ll do to a character in the book I’m reviewing, as like a “Dear John” letter.

  2. says

    Wow. I did not know this book existed at all. Like you, I was a huge Piers Anthony reader back in the day, and the Incarnations of Immortality series was my absolute favourite but… yes. 30-something me could not take it, I think. Harry Potter fanfic for the win.

    Thank you for reading this so I don’t have to!

  3. Patricia Mathews says

    You stayed with Piers Anthony a lot longer than I could! I dumped him at about “The Color of Her Panties.” The Xanth books gave off a huge whiff of the dirty-minded little grade school boy snickering “I see London, I see France…” in a man of his years, and yes, there is a huge reek of pedophilia about his works. A dirty old man’s fantasies of Lolita, yes, there is.

    Alas, Donald Kingsbury has a bit of the same problem; there are parts of the otherwise-brilliant Psychohistorical Crisis that I just wince at and pass over in disgusted silence.

    Need I say I totally loathe books that show Lolita-aged girls as sexual aggressors.

    • Anne says

      Especially because if the people who use the “Lolita-aged sexual aggressors” trope had actually understood Lolita, they’d see that pretty much all of the sexual aggression is on the side of the Humbert Humberts and their flawed perceptions of reality.

      And even if 13 year olds WERE sexual aggressors, if you’re an old dude, utilize that free will and don’t engage. Even if they come on to you, you’re the predator for taking advantage of that. Yuck gross.

      This just makes me glad I never got into Piers Anthony.

      • Maria says

        Part of his schtick, though, is that men don’t have self control when it comes to sex. That’s why Orlene (who becomes the Incarnation of Good, AKA God) gets transformed by the Incarnation of Night into a man, and then almost rapes her friend Jolie — so she can learn that men are naturally rapacious and that the moral code around sex has to be relaxed.

        • says

          *sound of record scratching*

          Say what?@! How come the people who believe men are just naturally rapacious never reach the conclusion men should be replaced with sperm replicating banks and top of the line insemination processes, then wiped out?

          • Elee says

            actually I am trying to write a story involving this idea (men are thought of as rapacious and unable to use their brains so women either form homosexual couples and get an in-vitro or hold them as trophy husbands). so far I am woefully failing. but damn, is it an interesing exercise in reverse society.

        • Charles RB says

          I’d have assumed a powerful magical entity that discovered half the population were naturally rapists might, I dunno, do something about it with their magical powers. I guess I’m not cut out to be a fantasy writer!

      • says

        IKR?! Like, wasn’t the point of Lolita that kids sometimes do things for attention and/or to try and figure out their place in a world where they are no longer children, but that DOESN’T make them sexual aggressors? And if you think that, you are actively a HORRIBLE PERSON who will/can ruin those children’s LIVES?? AND YOU DESERVE TO DIE???

        OR MAYBE I READ A DIFFERENT BOOK.

        AND WATCHED A DIFFERENT MOVIE.

        • Maria says

          And live on a different planet, where grown men choosing to kidnap, rape, orphan, and psychologically abuse little girls until they are forced to run away to another abuser in order to escape is a sign of TRUE LOVE.

    • Maria says

      Lord only knows. He’s got such a history in the industry that he might very well not, particularly since that …And Eternity came out when he was still very, very popular.

  4. Charles RB says

    I see the Amazon synopsis includes: “Morely teaches her fantastic magic, but when he mysteriously disappears, Kerena finds herself out on the street and must resort to prostitution to survive”

    Erm. If she has fantastic magical abilities – the sort of power that can warp reality and shit – why does she need to resort to prostitution? Wouldn’t magic power be in demand? That’d be like a spy story where a rogue Russian general has stolen loads of portable nukes and then works in a newsagents because nobody wants nukes.

      • Charles RB says

        If he REALLY wanted to write about medieval prostitutes, she could’ve hired herself out to the local guild/union/X-Men branch as bodyguard for hire, one-woman-hospital for hire, or both. “I can incinerate anyone who starts shit and heal your illnesses” would be jumped on by English/Welsh* prostitutes NOW, never mind 1500 years ago when nobody could’ve spelt “National Health Service” let alone use it.

        * I saw Arthur mentioned in the synopsis, so it could be Wales, I dunnoo

        • Maria says

          The thing is, I feel like her magic is specifically tied to the cloak her lover gives her? And also to her being a vampire? So I’m not sure how much of her magic was stuff she knew/did and stuff innate to her being/stuff she owned.

          The story you’re describing would be amazing!

          • Maria says

            I’m pointing this out because I think it’s important to note that she’s not even really shown as having her own magical prowess. Both Perry, the human version of the Incarnation of Evil, or Orb, the Incarnation of Nature, are shown as being good at magic. I suspect it has to do with her being a sexy semi-baddie?

        • Charles RB says

          “I’m not sure how much of her magic was stuff she knew/did and stuff innate to her being/stuff she owned.”

          And everyone else who isn’t semi-sexy is doing fine? Well isn’t that a “surprise”.

          Being a vampire would work here actually, cos then you’ve got an extra reason for offering heroine-for-hire services for prostitutes: she has to do night work! (Then you get jeopardy from the villains doing stuff in the daytime)

          Y’know, if this is meant to be set 500 years ago and is semi-Arthurian, why’s she called “Kerena”, a Scandinavian name (well, misspelling of one)? Unless he meant Carina, which is Latin and would make some sense during a decline of Roman influence. Or he could’ve just been going for vague fantasy names.

          • Maria says

            I think vague fantasy — the semi-Arthurian bit is really just a teaser, since Morgan le Fay is only on-screen for a chapter or two.

    • xfgha says

      “That’d be like a spy story where a rogue Russian general has stolen loads of portable nukes and then works in a newsagents because nobody wants nukes.”

      The comparison doesn’t hold, as I actually would love to read a book about a failed rogue general turned newsagent. The one by Piers Anthony, not so much. :-P

      • Maria says

        Heh, that’s because the one NOT by Piers would probably involve stuff like a plot and the person still being awesome — like how in RED the spies are all retired but still retain their skill sets and are still spies, just not active.

  5. cycles says

    Another ex-reader of Piers Anthony here, during middle school. I remember that he created fascinating and engaging worlds, which is what I think kept me devouring every word written about Phaze, Xanth and Incarnations during age 13-15.

    20 years later, I found myself with fond recollections of those books and wondering how they would stand the test of time, so I picked up my old copy of A Spell for Chameleon (Xanth #1).

    Just – no. Barf. That is all.

    Thank you for this piece. I’m honestly relieved to find out that other readers, on a blog I respect, have gone through Piers Anthony periods. I thought I just had embarrassingly crappy taste in books.

    • Maria says

      The worlds were fantastic! It’s just the plots and the characters that suck. :-/ They’re making ASfC into a movie now. :-/ On the one hand I’m glad because maybe someone will do an RPG module or something for it… but on the other it bugs me that such a problematic depiction of girls/women is getting a greenlight.

  6. says

    oh my god. If I were going to try to finish up one of his series, having started reading his books 20 something years back, it would have been this one, and I am so glad you took a hit for the team and read this so I won’t. They were my favorites of his, even after I outgrew all the rest and started seeing how fucked up they were.

    I could write whole essays on my complicated relationship to his work, and I am glad to see I am not alone.

  7. Jennifer says

    Wow. I hadn’t heard of PA before the Incarnations series, but I didn’t know he was a squicky perv until I read the God book and thought, “Uh… 18 year old who’s really 15 boinking an old judge, what now?”

    This book, however, sounds SO much worse. Dang. Not reading it now.

  8. Patrick McGraw says

    Maria, I’m another person who like Piers Anthony back in middle school. And I agree with everything you wrote here.

  9. Gategrrl says

    I donated my late-seventies copies of the first four books in the Xanth series to the Friends of the Library a few months ago–though really, I think I should have tossed them in the recycle dumpster. I skimmed through them during a book purge to clear off my shelves, and oh my.

  10. Under Control says

    I picked up Incarnations of Immortality at a rummage sale and found myself with time to read them all over the course of a couple of weeks. This had advantages as all of the plots were fresh in mind going from one book to another.

    I must say that I can’t agree more with your comment: “I also really have to question your repeated use of a sexually precocious, aggressive pubescent girl seducing an older male caretaker figure, a motif seen in nearly all of your series”. I had reached the same conclusion. The sex theme, especially with under-aged (but astoundingly-mature) girls begins modestly in the first book and arcs upward through the rest of the series climaxing (I know, I know) in this last book. Piers really wants buy-in to the idea that men just can’t help themselves and any sexual mis-step, be it rape, insest, or (his apparent favorite) sex with an under-age girl is the woman’s/girl’s fault – an idea that only finds wide acceptance in the more socially primitive cultures. I absently wonder how he explained his point of view to the women in his family (with condolences to him and his family for their recent loss). Perhaps the explanation is that “it sells books”; much like the answer from rap/hip-hop artists when questioned on their sometimes profane and hate-filled lyrics: “It sells records” Maybe this is a formula devised to shore up book sales. I genuinely hope that’s all there is to it. I really don’t want to believe the repugnant alternative that he really sees the genders this way.

    • says

      Uh, by socially primitive cultures, I hope you’re including the United States. While I was growing up in a world where juries were constantly expressing that even though rape had taken place, the bitch asked for it, so the man was innocent since men can’t control themselves and women are evil temptresses, I started sort of casually interviewing people about their, ahem, thoughts on this and have collected a shitload of anecdotal evidence over the years. Turns out the idea that men have control over their own bodies is embarrassingly new in human experience.

      So in answer to your question, the women in his family probably agreed that women like the ones he was writing are evil temptresses and men can’t help themselves, as so many women do believe. Are you familiar with the fact that district attorneys try to avoid women on juries in rape trials, while defense attorneys seek them? That’s because women are so quick to judge female victims: it’s an unconscious urge to distinguish themselves from the victim, so they can go on merrily believing “I’ll never be raped because I’m a non-sexual good girl who doesn’t wear short skirts/go drinking alone at bars/flirt with strangers/whatever.”

      I’m afraid this belief is far more widespread than it sounds like you’re suggesting. It’s painfully illogical, but then we haven’t exactly embraced critical thinking as a species.

      • Maria says

        I assumed the poster was referring to Anthony’s own work with the socially primitive cultures thing. One of the things you see over and over again in Anthony’s work is that “primitive” cultures (like the Native Americans in Tatham Mound or the early versions of humans in his Isle of Man series) have a “healthier” relationship to sex (IE men are more comfortable and receive social approval for having sex with kids). Like Jon Norman in the Gor series, Anthony blames the “modern world” for making “healthy” sex/sexuality a taboo.

        • says

          Ah, okay. But the rest of what I said applies – there’s no shortage of women supporting Roman Polanski, calling his crimes “not rape-rape” or implying his victim was a “whore” or, you know, whatever rationalization supports the idea that women are responsible for everything men do with their penises.

          • Maria says

            No doubt! That’s part of why I find authors like Jon Norman and Piers Anthony so strange when they criticize feminism or modern society’s beliefs about sex. It’s like, huh, so what you’re saying is, feminism has now so WARPED the world that teenage girls can act their age and not get accused of tempting men, sex is always consensual, and rape survivors are always believed, and it is now hard out there for the poor men? Have you LOOKED at a newspaper lately???

          • Maria says

            Think I should try the last two books of the Mode series? One of the main characters is a rape survivor and I’m trainwreck curious about how he concludes that character arc.

        • Josie says

          Replying to “Think I should try the last two books of the Mode series? One of the main characters is a rape survivor and I’m trainwreck curious about how he concludes that character arc.”

          NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. That was pretty awful, and that was even back when I didn’t have a clue about rape apologia and feminism.

  11. says

    Wonderful, wonderful article.

    I, too, read all of Piers Anthony’s books in junior high. In my dim recollection, lo, those many, many years ago, I didn’t pick out the racial and gender politics problems. Like I said, it’s been a while.

    Thanks for this review. It’s beautifully written and so astute. I might have been tempted to pick up those books again to re-read them for fun, but now I’ll stick to Harry Potter fanfic. (And, you know, other stuff.)

    Ew. I almost stuck those Incarnations books (my favorites) back in my head. Ew. I’m a little creeped out to think that their influence might still be lurking down in the cobwebby basement of my brain.

    TK

  12. Kalica says

    Former Piers fan here as well. Sometimes I wonder just how screwed up my world view might have developed into, as I first found his books during elementary school. I’d skip over the occasional sex scene, wrinkling my nose and hoping the teacher didn’t stop to see exactly WHAT I was reading in math class as opposed to the text book, and internalised the message from Firefly that buttsex would lead to immediate death. It kept me afloat through middle school where I was picked on, and high school where I began to inch away. Really, there was NO WAY I was gonna read The Color of Her Panties during lunch period in a high school.

  13. Kalica says

    Coming back to this article to say I thought of something that I really hope isn’t as horrifying as I think it is.

    Anyone else remember Letters to Jenny, a book that was made up of letters between him and a little girl in the hospital? I never got around to reading it when it came out, and now I’m looking at the premise of that book, looking at all the talk of girls seducing much older men, and…

    OH DEAR GOD NO.

  14. Tobird says

    I am certain that by this point, *everyone* has had My Little Pony characters with more interesting adventures…

  15. Jen says

    I’m another Incarnations of Immortality fan from way back. I never even knew he had written this book until recently and have been looking for it at 2nd hand shops because I know it’s not a book I’m going to keep so why pay full price? After reading your review I’m pretty sure I’m not even going to bother buying it at all. I thought the first few were good but was not keen on Being a Green Mother, For Love of Evil, And Eternity. Sad because it could have gone much, much better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.