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Ellis Peters made me sad.

Ellis Peters made me sad. published on

Books that are awesome recently: the Steerswoman series. Rowan and I are getting married, and neither you nor heterosexuality nor any other force of nature have any say in this, Rosemary Kirstein.

Books that aren’t: An Excellent Mystery, the eight kajillionth or whatever book in the Brother Cadfael series. This book has Sexual Politics, which I’ll talk about under the cut, my whole thing being just one big spoiler. (And I also gratuitously spoil book one (A Morbid Taste for Bones).)

I’m just going to list the Important Plot Things first, and put the drawing conclusions thing after that, because I’ve written a lot of bad essays in the past few weeks and don’t *feel* like having *cohesion* and *structure*.

– There is a former crusader (mid-forties) who got slashed just above his relevant parts and is slowly dying of it. He used to be Lord of Such-and-Such, but has now become a monk and is called Brother Humilis. Everyone loves and admires him.

– He has a pretty mute boy (appears to be in his late teens) called Brother Fidelis who follows him everywhere, attending to his wounds and being touchingly devoted and whatnot.

– Fidelis is, unbeknownst to Humilis, actually a woman – Julian (actually in her early twenties), Humilis’s fiancĂ©e whom he only saw once, and released from the betrothal when he realized he wasn’t going to be fathering any children any time soon. For him it was only a marriage of convenience, so she hadn’t made much impression on him and he doesn’t recognize her as Fidelis – but *she* was in love with *him*, and when she found out he’d cut off the engagement and was dying, she immediately set out to disguise herself as a monk so she could stay close to him. This has worked surprisingly well for about three years, and Humilis “loves him as the son he’ll never have.”

– Julian is referred to as “Fidelis” and “he” up until the very end of the book, long, long past the point at which all this has been made obvious to the readers. I’m going to do the same.

– Fidelis remains mute up until the very end of the book, speaking only after he has become Julian and has got her female pronouns back. Once gender-unbent, Julian never says anything about her life as Fidelis.

– There is Rhun, the pretty boy (mid teens) from the last book, who is pure and innocent and wise and beloved by all. He makes friends with Fidelis, and is vaguely aware that not all is as it seems with him, but doesn’t care. He keeps doing nice, nonsexual things for him throughout the book.

– There is Brother Urien (middle-aged), The First Gay Guy In The Series Ever. He is creepy and intense and ashamed. He is attracted only to cute teenaged boys. He’s gay because he had a wife who screwed him over really bad, and when he looks at Rhun and Fidelis, he thinks they look like her.

– Urien hits on Rhun, but is shamed by Rhun’s instant comprehension, and his compassion and pity for Urien’s horrible disfiguring gayness. Rhun keeps his shameful secret, and continues doing nice, nonsexual things for him throughout the book.

– Urien hits on Fidelis, whose love for Humilis, he realizes, is *not that of a son to a father*. (And Urien is the *only* one to see this pre-gender-revelation.) He thinks for various reasons that Fidelis killed someone, and appeals to Fidelis on the basis of their shared sinner-status. Fidelis glares, Urien grabs at him, Urien realizes he’s a girl, Urien threatens to reveal his shame if he won’t sleep with Urien, Urien stalks out. Fidelis remains mute through the entire confrontation. Urien continues to call him “Fidelis” and the narrator continues to use male pronouns.

– There is a single paragraph towards the end of this segment – after Humilis stalks out and before Rhun pops in to be innocent and wise – which is told from Fidelis/Julian’s point of view. There is only one other such incident in the book. Still using male pronouns.

– We also have Nicholas (mid-twenties), who was in love with Julian and is afraid that she’s been murdered. He and Fidelis run into each other frequently, but Nicholas doesn’t really notice Fidelis. Fidelis’s reactions to him are pretty subdued – he keeps pulling his cowl up, presumably so Nicholas won’t recognize him, though there doesn’t seem to be much danger of that.

– And we also have Julian’s former bodyguard, Adam (middle-aged), who helped her to run away and is completely devoted to her – to the point that he is prepared to be executed for having murdered her rather than say where she is. His eyes and Fidelis’s meet meaningfully at one point.

– It isn’t clear whether Fidelis knows that Adam’s life is in danger; he ought to, but it seems like he’s supposed to be going over the edge by the time Adam is arrested.

– Peters’s heroines are *not* allowed to break down in ways that put others seriously at risk – though her male heroes are.

– Humilis eventually figures Fidelis out, but his train of thought is never made overt to the reader. Just before dying, and completely in private, he tells Fidelis that he loves him “above any creature on this earth.”

And *still* only male pronouns.

– Cadfael eventually figures Fidelis out, but his train of thought is never made overt to the reader. A lot less of the book is told from Cadfael’s POV than usual, which, since Cadfael generally knows absolutely everything by the end, has the effect of giving the events a much more secret, chaotic, and guilty feeling than I recall getting in any of the previous books.

Which is odd, since for once, no one is murdered and no crime is committed.

And Cadfael is in perfect agreement with the omniscient narrator. After he’s solved the mystery, he’s careful never to think anything aloud – at no point in the book does anyone *ever* think or say outright, “Fidelis is actually Julian.” Cadfael is far, far more insistent about the need to keep this incident secret than he has been about anything else in any of the earlier books, and this includes the time he covered up a murder, stole Saint Winifred’s bones, and put the murdered man’s corpse in her casket. Then, an entire town knew what he’d done, and he manipulated things to make it look like the villainous murdered man had been bodily assumed into heaven. Here, he and the four or five other people involved are determined to convince everyone that that poor crippled boy Fidelis drowned during a thunderstorm – including Nicholas, who wants to, and probably will, marry Julian.

When Cadfael is sneaking Fidelis away at the end, it’s all done off-stage, while Hugh, Nicholas, and Adam are up front yelling accusations about hiring assassins and fencing stolen items and other such masculine things. We don’t get to see the scene where Fidelis realizes he’s been found out – we don’t see the moment when the pronouns switch and “Fidelis” becomes “Julian.”

And Cadfael’s only accomplices are Madog, the weird man who drags bodies out of the river, and who’s more comfortable talking to Cadfael than anyone else around because they’re the only ones who speak Welsh; Aline, Hugh’s wife, who keeps the operation from him until it’s over, and who has long prior experience with cross-dressing girls who hide in monasteries and with keeping bizarre secrets for Cadfael; and Sister Magdalen, who was once the mistress of a crazy old man for financial reasons. Hugh, Nicholas, and Adam do eventually do find out what’s happened, but only the Private People are actually involved in the action.

– To repeat – Fidelis never speaks until after he has become Julian, and even then, Julian never speaks about what she’s been doing for the past few years, not even in private. She doesn’t even need to lie – Cadfael has Sister Magdalen do that for her, in a letter. The conspiracy snips Julian off from Fidelis entirely.

Earlier in the book, Adam had told someone that Julian was dead – which he believed to be true, because she had become Fidelis. Now, everyone believes that Fidelis is dead, which the conspirators feel to be true, because he has become Julian. The conspiracy *needs* the divide to be complete.

– Just following Humilis’s funeral, Hugh publicly reads Sister Magdalen’s letter saying that Julian is alive. The Abbot says, “One life taken from us, one life restored” – but he isn’t in on the conspiracy, and should believe that two people have died. Fidelis is not only separated from Julian, but erased entirely.

– Urien is guilt-stricken when he thinks Fidelis has died, and Rhun, who has figured out that Fidelis was a girl, and trusts in miracles that she’s still alive, comforts him. And also tells him that he should never tell speak of it again, even in the confessional. The incident would bring shame upon the Order if it ever got out, you see.

– We *do* get to see *Rhun* switch from saying “he” to “she.” Rhun, being the holy innocent, can speak aloud about Julian/Fidelis – but even he says nothing about Urien.

– Urien and Rhun eventually see Julian dressed as a woman. Rhun recognizes her instantly. Urien doesn’t until Rhun tells him.

– Cadfael never figures Urien out, and neither Rhun nor Fidelis/Julian ever talks about him to anyone.

There’s a lot of stuff you can say about this, but I’m going to confine myself to a couple observations.

First, though Brother Fidelis is actually a straight woman, Peters wrote her as a homosexual man.

There have been other books in this series in which people had illicit sex – something that did not happen here – or monks specifically were accused of breaking their vows – which Humilis and Fidelis didn’t, couldn’t, and were never suspected of, even by Urien. None of the previous books had this obsession with secrecy, or this conviction of the shamefulness of the thing that even Rhun, the holy innocent, doesn’t question. There’s also the extreme care Cadfael and company take to separate the brave heroine Julian from her alter ego Fidelis, who is assumed to be somehow deeply shameful long before Rhun’s pat little justification that the truth would hurt the Order’s reputation. There isn’t any other explanation for these things; Peters’ disapproval of Fidelis is too different from her feelings about her seven million other star-crossed lovers.

Second – and I’ve kind of covered this already – to Peters, homosexuality is apparently something that you can *never* talk about, not even to God.

Cadfael has said repeatedly that he’s holding off confessing a lot of his sins – in particular, the ones to do with the murder over Saint Winifred’s bones – until he can do it to Mark, though he’s also said that he doesn’t regret any of them.

But then over here we’ve got Rhun making Urien swear never to go to confession, because even that might not be secret enough. Urien’s love is worse than all of Cadfael’s sins.

And Cadfael, who always knows all of everybody’s secrets by the end of the book, somehow misses Urien completely. Peters can’t let Cadfael look bad, and therefore can’t let him find out about Urien and get involved in that whole situation – because the way she handled it, she even made fucking *Rhun* come out looking like a creep for god’s sake, and I think she realized that. Fidelis may be too secret for the confessional, but Urien is worse – he’s too secret even for Cadfael.

I took three Cadfael books in the series out of the library, but now this one’s pissed me off enough that I don’t feel like reading the others. I read Cadfael stuff when I’m stressed out – the plots are always kind of predictable and the endings are all happy and Cadfael always gets along with everyone – and, well, they’re basically Mary Sue stories with all the dirty fingerprints wiped off, which is the most soothing type of literature you can get without actually involving puddle duckies saving Christmas.

But this time Peters was apparently out of Windex, and the dirty fingerprints made it to press, and now I know all these things about her that I didn’t want to, and I don’t want to read more of her stuff until I’ve managed to forget them somewhat.

(And that my children is one of the neverending stories of fandom.)

In related news, this dog here is completely retarded. What the hell, why is it you think corduroy would taste good, you retarded dog.