The review I read online (from www.lurvalamode.com) was an explanation as to why the reviewer couldn’t finish reading Passion Play – and her reaction was a severe one:
“I don’t remember ever feeling this enraged or disgusted by a book… I wanted to hurt Passion Play. Throwing it at the wall wouldn’t be good enough, and my wall really doesn’t deserve to have the likes of that coming at it. In those first thirty or so minutes of shaky rage, I wanted to physically hurt that book. Dare I say set it on fire?”
Wow. I had to find a copy of this book to see if I had the same reaction…
…and after reading it, I do understand where the reviewer was coming from. Rape is heinous – especially the rape of a child – and I found it difficult to make it through some sequences:
“Her new duties became a part of the caravan’s routine, no different from breaking camp or resting the horses at intervals. When Brandt [the caravan master] judged her used to the routine, the four men [a day] became six. Sometimes he offered her during rest breaks, as a reward for work done well. Otherwise they kept her bound, and when the caravan passed near settlements, he ordered her gagged and hidden behind the pots in Ulf’s covered wagon. She lost track of the days, but she remembered other details. The curses the men used. The taste of their skin. The weight of their bodies atop hers. She remembered whether they took her fast and brutally, like Niko, or used her slowly, like Alarik Brandt…”
But that's just the very beginning of the story – Therez (under the name Ilse) eventually escapes the caravan and after living alone in the wilderness for weeks, comes to a town and fatefully meets Raul Kosenmark, a benevolent owner of a pleasure house. With his help, she recreates herself and finds a new reason to live...
The controversy associated with this book does raise an interesting question: is rape in fantasy fiction an acceptable topic, a narrative necessity – integral for character development, etc. – or should it be taboo, even though it’s categorized as fantasy?
But we’re talking fantasy fiction here. We discussed this topic briefly on the BarnesandNoble.com forums and one distinguished bibliophile put it fittingly: “Yeah, sorry Paul, but as a woman if I wanted to read books like this I'd read a history book. For a fantasy, hell no.”
It’s a complicated topic, however. A psychologytoday.com article published earlier this year (“Women's Rape Fantasies: How Common? What Do They Mean?”) reveals that rape in fantasy novels may not necessarily repulse some female readers:
“From 1973 through 2008, nine surveys of women's rape fantasies have been published. They show that about four in 10 women admit having them (31 to 57 percent) with a median frequency of about once a month. Actual prevalence of rape fantasies is probably higher because women may not feel comfortable admitting them.”
“Rape or near-rape fantasies are central to romance novels, one of the perennial best-selling categories in fiction. These books are often called ‘bodice-rippers’ and have titles like Love's Sweet Savage Fury, which imply at least some degree of force. In them, a handsome cad becomes so overwhelmed by his attraction to the heroine that he loses all control and must have her, even if she refuses – which she does initially, but then eventually melts into submission, desire, and ultimately fulfillment.”
It’s undoubtedly a volatile topic – and here’s my take as a longtime book reviewer. Yes, we largely read fantasy fiction for literary escapism but part of that experience is immersing ourselves in a richly detailed and realistic realm, one that may very well include allegorical elements and/or themes, symbols and images in which readers can glean some kind of insight or understanding through associations to our “real” world and our history. And, unfortunately, rape has – and still does – plague us as a people. Murder, genocide, and torture are all atrocious but I don’t hear an uproar from readers when Drizzt Do’Urden kills off a cadre of assassins or when the entire city of Windwir is wiped off the face of the earth in Ken Scholes’ Lamentation. There is something particularly reprehensible, something soulless, about rape that sends some people into a frenzy with the mere mention of the word…
That said: I’m okay with rape sequences in fantasy novels – just like I’m okay with murder, torture, genocide, etc. But here’s the thing: not only does it have to be integral to the storyline in some way but it also has to be written with discrimination and compassion. For example, why does an author decide to go into graphic detail involving a rape when he or she could convey the act to the reader through subtlety, insinuation or implication? In instances like this, I do think it’s a matter of a lack of taste.
If I begin to feel that an author has included overtly sexual or violent scenes just for the sake of sensationalism, I more often than not pan that book – but that wasn't the case with Passion Play.
I’m all for authors being innovative and “pushing the envelope” but if they decide to include a particularly graphic rape scene or any other socially explosive subject matter – child abuse, incest, slavery, etc. – in their storyline, they have to be well aware of the powerful backlash that it can create. Passion Play turned out to be an entertaining novel – especially the latter chapters and I’m very much looking forward to reading the sequel, Queen’s Hunt, tentatively scheduled for release in the fall of 2011. But how many readers didn’t get past the rape scenes at the beginning of Passion Play and never finished the novel? How many readers will (unfortunately) think twice about reading its sequel?
Have you ever read a novel where a rape scene has ruined the experience for you? Do you think the inclusion of rape in a fantasy storyline is generally unnecessary or is it thematic acceptable?
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for almost the last two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.