Poison Study by Maria V Snyder tells the story of Yelena Zaltana, who begins the tale awaiting execution for a murder that she did commit. The society in which she lives is one in which murder is murder and there is no leniency regardless of what her motivations might have been and so she refuses to explain herself or offer excuses. She is granted a last minute reprieve if she agrees to serve as the Commander’s poison taster. It is a position that is considered to be a death sentence but given the choice of certain death and a chance to live she takes the latter. Yelena’s story is interesting on many accounts, not least because she is a woman of colour in a land of fair-skinned northerners, but I am not going to discuss her here.
Instead I’d like to discuss one of the secondary characters, Commander Ambrose, who is the ruler of Ixia, the country in which the story takes place.
The Commander is a charismatic leader who organised a military uprising and overturned a corrupt monarchy by rallying the masses and arranging to have the Royalty assassinated. He installed a military based government in its place.
It is a harsh society, where the people’s lives are ruled by The Code of Behaviour, a document that dictates every part of their lives right down to their employment, their residence and even the uniforms that they must all wear. But it is also an egalitarian society, where women and men are treated equally, and merit is rewarded regardless of gender or social status.
There’s a scene in the book where a twelve year old student, Mia, is dragged in to see the Commander by her tutor. The tutor demands the girl is whipped, disciplined and reassigned as a servant, calls her a troublemaker for contradicting him in class and doing her lessons the wrong way. The Commander listens to the tutor and then sends him on his way, turning to the girl and asking Mia her side of the story. On hearing it, rather than punishing her, he offers her the chance to prove herself and assigns her to a position of responsibility where her talents will be better used.
In Yelena’s words:
I marvelled at the Commander. Being compassionate, hearing Mia’s side of the story and giving her a chance were the exact opposite of how I imagined the encounter would play. Why would a man of such power take the time to go that extra step? He risked upsetting Beevan and the coordinator. Why would he bother to encourage a student?
It is, of course, because he deeply cares for all of his people and has a great sense of right and wrong. His is a land that claims no extreme poverty, where all are fed and clothed and provided with medical care regardless of their station in life. He provides schooling and opportunities for everyone, if only they prove themselves willing to work for it.
Commander Ambrose is also a fierce, highly intelligent warrior. He is the sole person to have killed a Snowcat, the most dangerous creature in all of Ixia. He did it, not through a show of brute strength, but through cunning and patience.
He is a nuanced individual, neither good nor bad. A charismatic leader, a man who believes so fiercely in justice that it blinds him at times, who refuses to allow the letter of his laws to be bent least he becomes corrupt. He is a man who despite being in a great position of authority refuses to take advantage of that for personal gain and lives a rather spartan lifestyle.
Commander Ambrose harbours a secret, one that is unknown to any, not even his closest companions. This man who was born into abject poverty, who sought to overturn the injustices of his society by organising and leading a rebellion to overthrow a corrupt government, was born a woman.
It’s a common fantasy trope, the woman who disguises herself as a man so that she can overcome the sexist limitations of her society and fight and it’s a trope that has a basis in fact. Women did go to war dressed as men; they did enter male professions in disguise. But Commander Ambrose lives in a society where he has personally leveled the field. Women fight alongside men in his armies, they can rise to the same heights of power, and they are treated equally in every way. He is not a woman who has disguised himself as a man; he is a man who views his female body as ‘his mutation’.
I finished Poison Study thinking that Commander Ambrose is one of the best trans-gendered character that I have read in fantasy literature. While not the main character, or even one of the central characters, his presence is vital to the book.
It was a breath of fresh air to read of a transgendered character who did not spend all their time angsting about their condition, and while it did have some influences on who he was it was just one facet of his existence.
And then I read the sequels. FUCK IT!!!
Maria Snyder slapped on a stupid magical explanation. How actually he was right, he’d been born physically male, his mother had died in childbirth and she had loved him so much she stuck around and her spirit transformed his body into that of a woman.
I felt so angry with that explanation. I felt so frustrated with the scenes where the Commander allows his mother’s spirit to possess his body, dress as a woman and act as a diplomat.
I am certain that the author had her reasons but for once I would just rather not have the ‘a wizard did it’ explanation. There was at least no big reveal; his secret remained secret, there was no sudden magic solution.
Which isn’t to say that he wasn’t still an interesting character, I just felt that the magical explanation destroyed some of what made him special. It felt like a cheap gimmick that was once more reinforcing the fact you just can’t have transgendered characters in fantasy literature. There always has to be a reason, a purpose behind including such a character, they can’t just be.