The Loinfire Club reads.... Covert Conception

Covert Conception, by Delores Fossen

Natalie Sinclair was stunned to discover she'd been drugged -- and impregnated. Even more shocking was the identity of her baby's father: Rick Gravari, her sworn enemy. Now the only way to uncover the truth and reveal the mastermind behind their mysterious one night together was to join forces with the one man who was completely off-limits.

As the peril around them intensified, Natalie realized the dangerous men on their trail were nothing compared to the tender emotions provoked by her baby's father. But could she trust her once formidable foe's determination in his role as hard-nosed defender?

One year is an awfully long time. Enough to read an awfully large number of very bad novels, but the Chronicler had other things to write about. Excuses can take up another post, for the moment, she will again take up the metaphorical pen and tell you of the Loinfire Club's exploits reading this particular book...

Almost Jesus read out the blurbs for the possible books we could read and Pillywiggin mimed out the version for the hard of hearing. Whilst very amusing, this largely visual gag does not translate well to the writeup, so suffice to say it happened.

For various reasons, the conversation derailed to methods to sabotage the Baker's funeral. He has apparently promised his life's fortune to the one who best manages it and even with such meagre incentive, his friends were happy to oblige. The current favourites in terms of plan is to sneak into the funeral home and wrap the deceased in tin foil and rosemary. The Seamstress was then to show up at funeral in a bridal gown with a shotgun, demanding to be married to the deceased.

There are very many books. And there is consequently, much discussion. The news that the blog has come to the attention of Lucinda Betts, author of Moon Shadow and that she even left us a comment.

The Loinfire Club decided upon Irish Moonlight, mostly to inflict pain on the Pillywiggin (it, after all, being her homeland) but the unfortunate volume has apparently disappeared.

The Club was then torn between the Desert King's Pregnant Bride and Covert Conception.

Big L: "I haven't had one with a Desert King in it yet. I feel like I'm missing something."

In the name of Moon Shadow, one of our new members has stuck the label of "Brown Worm" onto one of the bottles. From this he gains the nickname of Ginger Worm and all is well.

Other additions to the Club are the Seamstress, the Frenchman and Boundless Rage (who would have been Impotent Rage but the Pedant is in a forgiving mood.)

Almost Jesus reads (and for some reason, chooses to begin with the author's biography):

Imagine a family tree that includes Texas cowboys, Choctaw and Cherokee Indians, a Louisiana pirate and a Scottish rebel who battled side by side with William Wallace.

The Chronicler: "Then you're thinking of a fictional family tree."

With ancestors like that, it's easy to understand why Texas author and former US Air Force captain Delores Fossen feels as if she's genetically predisposed to writing romances. Along the way to fulfilling her DNA destiny...

Almost Jesus: "Would any of the biologists in the room like to question that?"

...Delores married an air force top gun who just happens to be of Viking descent.

(The Chronicler wonders if this is just a funny way of putting "has an ancestor who came from Scandinavia.")

Pillywiggin explains the concept of standard categories to the uninitiated. The Chronicler attempts to explain the origins of the game on the inimitable Mrs Giggles' romance novel review website (sadly no longer there).

There follows here an anecdote about Almost Jesus' deviant past. Mostly about the time he almost got thrown out of a gay bar.

Almost Jesus reads out the cast of characters, as appearing in the front of the book.

Natalie Sinclair – Someone drugged her and her nemesis, Rick Gravari, so they'd have sex. Now, pregnant with Rick's child, someone wants them both dead and Rick is her only hope. Can they overcome a bitter past and work together tos save their child?

Rick Gravari...

Almost Jesus: "That surname is unusually difficult to pronounce."

Big L: "It was clearly meant to be Ricky Gervais."

The Pillywiggin shudders in horror.

Dr Claude Benjamin – Creator of the Cyrene Project, a plan to produce genetically superior babies.

Ginger Worm: "Does that plot itself count by itself as a Medical Complication?"

Dr Isabella Henderson – She also worked on the Cyrene Project...

Big L: "She's a woman who's not the heroine. We don't care."

...but now vehemently objects to it.

Seamstress: "I assume that to create these babies they have to rape women"

The Baker: "Because if they consent, it taints the DNA."

Almost Jesus: "Because genetically superior people are frequently not attracted to each other. Inconsiderate beings."

Boundless Rage: "If you're working on some sort of genetics project, can't you build some sort of pheromone system into it?"

Troy Jackson – A product of the Cyrene Project, he holds a grudge against Rick and Natalie.

The Balance: "This is not just a genetically modified baby... it's a Cyrene Project genetically modified baby."

Brandon Steven – He has the answers that Rick and Natalie need...

Azrael: "And two first names!"

Almost Jesus expresses his frustration at such first-name abundant people since it throws his name recognition skills.

And then the book begins...

Chapter One.

San Antonio, Texas.

"You're Pregnant, Natalie."

Pillywiggin: "Direct and right to the core."

(Little did she know how incredibly repetitive the book will get after this point.)

Natalie Sinclair blinked, stared at her sister, Kitt and then waited because she was certain that Kitt was about to deliver the punch line of a silly joke....

..."I haven't had sex in over a year," Natalie admitted.

Pillywiggin: "Not a slut!"

Though her sister no doubt already knew that.

Big L: "Due to her many secret security cameras planted throughout the house."

Pulling in her breath, Natalie set her teacup aside, the delicate bone china rattling against the saucer. Some of the Irish blend splashed onto a pair of entwined hand-painted yellow roses.

Pillywiggin cringes: "What is Irish blend? An Irishman has chewed some tealeaves and spit it back out again?"

"Dr. Benjamin did the pregnancy test," Kit continued...

Big L: "What and then gave it to her sister?"

"He called when you were in the meeting with the antique broker and when I pressed him about what was wrong with you, he finally told me...

Almost Jesus: "In flagrant disregard of doctor patient confidentiality."

In fact nothing about Kitt's ultra-solemn expression changed.

Frenchman: "So, sort of like hyper-solemn?"

Azrael: "So solem you can't even see it."

Natalie shook her head. "The test is wrong."

Big L: "This scene has continued for too long."

Kitt did some head-shaking of her own. "The doctor used your blood and urine samples to repeat it. Not once. But twice. And he repeated it again at my request. All three times, the tests were positive. Based on the physical he gave you and those test results, Dr. Benjamin thinks you're about four weeks pregnant."

Pillywiggin: "I don't care. That's a medical complication, I need a drink."

The Pedant: "It's complicated medicine."

"You remember a couple of months ago I hade surveillance cameras installed throughout the house?"

"Of course, I remember. Some items were missing, and we thought someone on the staff might be stealing from us."

The Chronicler notes this piece of clunky exposition. Of course, I remember, sister, which is why I'm going to tell you about the thing that both you and I remember, just to remind anyone who happens to be listening in...

"I didn't have the cameras removed after the problem was resolved... After I finished my conversation with Dr. Benjamin, I went through the surveillance tapes for the past four weeks."

The Loinfire Club bursts out laughing. Especially given Big L's previous joke about Kitt spying on Natalie with surveillance cameras.

The Chronicler: "Why would you do that?"

Big L: "Well, she had too much time on her hands... and is an obsessive stalker."

Almost Jesus: "That must have been one very long meeting with the antique broker if Kitt can have all those tests done and go through four weeks worth of tapes during it."

"...I found something..."


Almost Jesus: "You mean you were watching me all this time?!"

That nearly stopped Natalie's heart.

Pillywiggin: "Medical complication."

The Club drinks.

"Explain something," Natalie insisted.

Almost Jesus: "Well, the internal combustion engine..."

Kitt typed a code on the keyboard, and Natalie instantly recognized the video feed that appeared on the screen. Nearly a month earlier.

Almost Jesus: "But not quite a month, since you're only four weeks pregnant."

The night of her surprise twenty-ninth birthday party.

Almost Jesus: "Was she surprised that she was twenty nine?"

Pillywiggin: "Because it's secretly your 40th birthday!"

She'd arrived back in San Antonio from a week-long antique-buying trip in Ireland...

Pillywiggin twitches: "It's a shit place to buy antiques. I'm starting a new category: abuse of my homeland."

The Balance (referring to the book Irish Moonlight, which mysteriously had vanished): "So this was the second secret Irish option."

The doctor had done some lab tests and given her prescription meds... Only instead of bed, she'd discovered that her mother had assembled three dozen or so of her close and not-so-close friends for a surprise birthday celebration.

"Are you saying this is when the so-called pregnancy happened? ... because, trust me, I would have remembered something as monumental as having sex with one of the guests."

Almost Jesus: "Or with a passing tramp."

Seamstress: "She's not a slut because she remembers when she had sex."

...that some of the night was a complete blur. She blamed the big blur on the prescription meds. Of course, the fatigue from the business trip hadn't helped, either... She'd felt like a zombie throughout the entire party.

The Pedant: "Medical complication."

"Even with Kitt fast-forwarding the event..."

Big L: "Kit's already seen the good bits."

Rick Gravari.

Almost Jesus: "It's really difficult to say."

Big L: "Just call him Gervais."

Rick had a way of monopolizing space as well... wearing jeans and a white shirt, he appeared to be his usual self. Aloof. Surly.

The Frenchman: "Who wears jeans and white shirts to parties?"

Azrael: "Someone who's aloof and surly."

Her mother had no doubt invited him...

The Pedant: "I know what, I'll invite some twats to your party!"

...but he definitely fell into the unwanted guest category.

Ginger Worm: "There's a whole category of unwanted guests?"

Almost Jesus: "Over there, yet another unwanted guest."

Natalie dismissed her surly, jeans-wearing nemesis...

Big L: "Her surly, jeans-wearing nemesis may well have to go down as a quote."

As the guests idled by the front door, she managed to locate herself.

Big L: "Holy Crap! I found myself!"

She definitely wasn't in the throes of having wild sex.

The Pedant: "We're glad she's that observant."

"Something went wrong with the surveillance equipment at this point... I'm not sure what. But that's not the only camera we had in operation that night. The lighting isn't very good, but here's some footage taken from the hall outside your bedroom."

Pillywiggin: "And when that failed, we have hired a small boy to watch you."

The Pedant: "This is just a PowerPoint presentation she's pre-made."

The hall was indeed poorly lit. And empty.

Ginger Worm: "Plot twist! You were impregnated by an empty room!"

"There's no camera in your bedroom so this is all we have," Kitt explained.

Pillywiggin: "That's what she says now."

She latched onto her Texas A&M coffee mug...

The Pedant: "There's some kind of crockery porn moment..."

The Chronicler: "She is an antiques dealer..."

The Baker: "She's speculating, it'll be valuable by the time she's dead."

Seamstress: "I thought she was drinking tea a moment ago."

The Pedant: "No, it was the other one who was drinking tea."

...took a long drink of the heavily scented espresso, and that's when Natalie noticed that her sister's hand was trembling.

Big L: "Maybe you should stop drinking espresso."

The Baker: "It gives her extra time to watch the surveillance footage of her sister."

Natalie couldn't see the faces of the couple, and without audio, she couldn't tell who was approaching her bedroom door...

Almost Jesus: "What an oversight."

She had absolutely no recollection of being in the hallway that night though she was certainly aware it'd happened. After all, she had woken up in bed the following morning.

Almost Jesus: "That would be a good indication."

The Balance: "Dammit! I wanted to teleport!"

Still, hadn't she had a feeling that something was wrong?

Almost Jesus: "I remember all of my intimate feelings from four weeks ago."

There follows a debate about whether or not one would notice feeling different in the morning after a sexual encounter. That Natalie doesn't feel different at all results in speculation that perhaps there wasn't sex and, in fact, only a syringe was involved.

During the course of this conversation, it is revealed that Almost Jesus knows too much about the Pedant's sex life.

Natalie moved to the edge of her seat, closer to the monitor. And she studied every inch of the screen...

Pillywiggin: "Windows task bar... windows task bar... bottom of image..."

The person walking beside her had his arm looped around her waist... It was definitely a man.

Almost Jesus: "That would help to explain the pregnancy."

A whole turkey-baster problem is brought up again by the Balance.

When she reached the door, she staggered forward and her arm rammed into the wall.

Pillywiggin: "It's almost stop-motion..."

Sweet heaven, she acted drunk.

Almost Jesus: "Sweet heaven! She's acting drunk in her own birthday party."

But she knew for a fact that she'd consumed no alcohol that night.

The Pedant: "Well, I suppose she was on meds."

Big L: "But surprise party. Thrown by her mother."

Almost Jesus: "If I was shattered and attending a surprise party thrown by my mother which my nemesis gatecrashed... I'd definitely want a drink."

The only thing she'd had to drink was a glass of sparkling fruit juice that someone on the catering staff had gotten for her after she arrived home.

Seamstress: "It sounds like a plot point?"

Almost Jesus: "Sparkling fruit juice. Well known for hiding rohypnol."

Kitt froze the image. Not that Natalie needed a second look to know who he was.

Boundless Rage: "She's clearing been fapping to this if she's got this frame perfect."

The man taking her into her bedroom was the one person on earth she considered her enemy. Rick Gravari.

Almost Jesus: "A note for life. If there is only one person on life you hate, is it really that difficult to tell your mother not to invite him to your birthday party?"

Seamstress: "Well, clearly she's one of these experiments, genetically programmed to fuck this other guy. Part of the Arian supremacy program."

To be continued...

The Great Grand List

It's been a little while and I've been neglecting this blog (but then the Club hasn't exactly been having dozens of meetings since the last update), but I was reading Let Them Eat and was having a good rummage around my brain as to why romance novels annoyed me so much and I though I'd have it out once and for all, before the individual nit-picking overtook any sensible discussion of why I'm continuously disappointed in the genre:

1) I want it to show the diversity of love.
I want cultural differences. I want to be shown all the different sorts of relationships build across time and space (and all those fantasy lands). I want to see people conducting relationships in a way different from my own.
But instead, it only shows the same Perfect relationship in all times, in all places, in all settings. Instead of showing me cultural and personal variation, the audience is shown that all cultures and all Perfect Couples conduct their relationship more-or-less the same way and the setting is only wallpaper.

2) I want it to revel in imperfect love.
It's what always warms my heart. A relationship in all its little, bittersweet (but mostly sweet) imperfections. It's the little irritations that make it seem real and solid and human.
But instead, it only shows me more-or-less the same flawless relationship, where the Perfect Couple are simply telepathically perfect in bed, flawlessly work together and never, ever disagree trivially. True Love is shown to be completely effortless. For example, the hero, once he's found the heroine, is incapable of finding anyone (male or female) attractive ever again.

3) I want them to be honest.
The rhetoric around romance novels annoys me. The way the novel is discussed, reviewed, presented. It's the way the novel is presented as an examplar of Perfect Love as opposed to simply an instance of love, however flawed but true. It's not even presented as a fantasy, as something that is decidedly undesirable in reality. Kresley Cole's A Hunger Like No Other begins with what is essentially a rape fantasy. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having one and writing one, but it would be nice if she and the readers showed some self-awareness when it comes to discussing it. Perhaps I'm very used to the rhetoric of "safe, sane and consentual", but the framing of the relationship as desirable, as "true love" and the hero's actions as justified all repel me.
I am quite capable of saying that I like reading about imperfect, functioning but really-fucked-up relationships. Time Traveller's Wife is probably a prime example in which the narrative itself admits how really rather messed up the whole thing is. Though, to be fair, I'm not going to go read any reviews; It'll probably just annoy me.

4) I want the setting to do something more than just prop up and excuse the audience's desires for the same old configurations and the same old prejudices.
I want it to be well thought-out. I want it to not be built around the author's desire to write about a string of Alpha men in a series. And I really don't want to hear the same old about the Importance of Virginity.
Opinions, perceptions and manifestations of love and desire differ throughout the ages. I want to read about it. Really ties back into point-number-one.
But this feeds into a larger point about how work is gendered and the sheer invisibility of women in fantasy fiction doing anything else other than generically rebelling, being housewives or being "ladies." Though that said, this is slowly, slowly changing.

5) It seems to deny that people can have a complex sexuality.
It seems to deny that people can have quite a different sexuality than their regular selves. It seems to deny that nice, quiet people can be dominant in bed (or vice versa). The Hero's extreme Alpha personality is a sign of how dominant he is in bed. Less alpha men are shown to be less sexually capable and less dominant in the bedroom.
Perhaps I'm just rather too aware of how geeky the kinky community can be (being a regular reader of Mistress Matisse and Twisted Monk), but it irks me that as opposed to showing the complexities of human sexuality and how surprising it can be, romance novels are wont to confirm first impressions, as though we all wore our "bedroom face" on our sleeves. Equally, the paired trope in which the sexual self is seen as the True Self is highly problematic.

The Loinfire Club reads... Tempt Me with Darkness

Tempt me with Darkness, by Shayla Black

He’s an immortal knight hungering for satisfaction. . . .

As soon as Marrok sees Olivia Gray, he’s sure they met in eons past. He’s felt her soft, gentle curves writhing in pleasure beneath his own powerful body. . . Morganna! For centuries, towering Marrok, once the mightiest of King Arthur’s warriors, has endured a terrible curse the witch cast upon him when he spurned the witch.

She’s a modern woman about to discover ancient magic. . . .

Olivia shares a mystical—and irresistible—connection with brooding Marrok. Soon after the sexy warrior appears in her erotic dreams, he abducts her, demanding she uncurse him. Their intense passion is more powerful—and intimate—than either of them has ever known. Olivia may be the key to unlocking the diary that will break Morganna’s hold on his life. But in the wrong hands, the book also holds the power to destroy magickind. As they search for answers, a ruthless wizard returned from exile is building an army of evil. When he discovers Marrok and Olivia have the diary, only their love—with the help of a powerful group of magical Brethren—can save them.

After the Pillywiggen refreshes our memories with a grand declaiming of the rules of the drinking game and BoneGeek is reading:

BESIDE THE LUSH BANKS of a pond, a woman beckoned, familiar.
The Chronicler: "A pond is not sexy. Really."
Cathed: "Ponds make me think of ducks and I don't think there's an unsexier animal than a duck."
There follows a discussion about which is the unsexiest animal: ducks, slugs or frogs.

Yet Marrok of Cadbury had never seen her face in his life.
The Loinfire Club: "Cadbury?! "
The Anthropologist: "Did they just looked for something English? It ends in bury, so it must be quaint and English."
(The Chronicler wonders if this woman googles names before using them. Even if Black lives in a cardboard box in Texas surely she knows that naming her hero after the world's largest confectionery manufacturer is a mistake?)

 A cityscape towered in the background. None of that held his gaze rapt. Her bare-to-the-skin nakedness...
Cathed: "To the skin? What other kind of nakedness can you have?"
The Anthropologist: "Bare-to-the-cardigan nakedness?"
The Pedant: "Oh, those sexy bare-to-the-ligaments nakedness."

The woman’s sable hair swept over one pale shoulder, curling under the swell of a generous breast topped by a berry nipple
Cathed: "So, we've got the Cadbury guy and a berry nipple... this sounds like a desert."

...and framing a birthmark he knew well.
She no longer possessed the platinum tresses into which he’d once thrust his hands.
Azrael: "It sounds like he's torn out all her hair out accidentally..."

Her new face was delicate—higher cheekbones, pert nose, pillowy mouth...
Azrael poses with a pillow to demonstrate. He flips it around for the "unhappy" face. It's probably funnier if you were there.

Acid hatred mixed with clawing desire. He tried to look away, but his gaze caressed her small waist, her curved hips, the moist flesh between her thighs glistening...
Cathed: "Get in there, gaze!"

Morganna bewitched him more now than she had on their wind-drenched night of shared pleasure an eon ago.
The Chronicler: "Wind does not drench. You need moisture for that."

The strawberry mark low between her breasts brought back memories of pale moonlight surrounding them as he’d succumbed to temptation and tupped her senseless.
The Anthropologist: "Tupped? We'll need a category for Ye Olde Englishe."
There followed a brief description of the etymology of the word "tupped", its relation to goats and if could be used sexily in earnest.

For that mistake, he’d paid dearly.
With the last fifteen centuries.
The Pedant: "Everyone goes to sleep after sex."

Mist swirled around her like the mystical fog of legend, as if caressing her.
Luca: "Fog is legendary, now."
Pillywiggin: "What she means is, mist swirled like mist."
Azrael: "No, what she means is, mist swirled like cheap cinematic mist made of dry ice."

Though she was deadly, Morganna in this new form captivated him. Today, society had clinical terms for his obsession.
The Anthropologist: "He has some sort of medical problem.... I'd like to call it Evil."
Then followed a discussion about M. Scott Peck's  proposal to add Evil to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

 To yield would only mean further torture. But his body betrayed him, inching closer, his cock swelling painfully. Cursing, he closed his eyes.
The Anthropologist: "They do that a lot in these books. No one has reliable bodies, ever... wait, inching? Like a caterpillar?"
Bonegeek: "I was thinking that too."
Azrael pictured it more like an earthworm, but agreed that the caterpillars move in a more "inching" manner.

Perhaps due to an overdose of House-watching in the household, there occurred here something of a differential on Marrock's condition.
The Anthropologist: "I think he's got some kind of dissociative disorder."

Marrok opened his eyes as a fresh rush of desire slammed him.
The Anthropologist: "Again, like a battering ram? Or a line of invisible American Football players pummelling him repeatedly throughout the conversation?"

Want was a luxury; this woman he needed. The feeling was as new as a baby’s first breath…and as welcome as the plague.
Azrael: "A good bit of juxtaposition again. Neither are things you really want to think about when it comes to sex."

(The Chronicler later wonders if anyone could possibly compare anything – let alone sex – with the utter devastation of the Black Death if they had actually lived through it. After all, this man is fifteen hundred years old. Or maybe he's just completely sociopathic.)

 And likely illusory, merely one of Morganna’s tricks.
Cathed: "She's really good at that illusory breath play."

...then she waved her hand. Suddenly, she clutched to her naked breasts the ornate red book he knew meant the difference between his life and death...

The Anthropologist: "Oh no! She's a communist!"

Bonegeek: "Nay has a line all to itself."
The Anthropologist: "Like an Ye Olde Version of the Darth Vader thing."
Cathed: "Doth not want!" 

Marrok launched himself at her. They fell to the ground in a tangle of breaths, arms, and legs.
Cathed (mishearing): "Entangling breasts, it can happen.

Her plea spiked his fevered lust.
The Anthropologist: "Medical complication."

He ached to sink deep into her.
The Anthropologist: "Medical complication."

But he had to resist this fatal woman.
The Chronicler: "Not sure that one counts."
The Anthropologist: "She has malaria."
Bonegeek: "Or plague. On her breath. That would make her fatal."

He was on fire for her. A heartbeat from explosion.
The Anthropologist: "Like that episode on House."
("A guy takes his heart rate, and the number he comes up with makes him either about to die or bad at math. They wait a bit, and since the guy doesn't die, House concludes that he sucks at math; he writes the patient a prescription for StickyBear Math Town." from Television without Pity)

As she wriggled under him, lightning chased across his skin.
Bonegeek: "The caterpillar metaphors haven't gone away yet..."
Pillywiggin (showing us all her picture): "We have the cock-a-pillar."
Cathed: "But what does it turn into afterwards?"
The Pedant is reminded of something creepy in
Pan's Labyrinth.

Later, he’d remember all the reasons he could not.
Cathed: "I'll remember those later."
Pillywiggin: "Maybe he needs a mnemonic."
The Anthropologist: "Oh, yes, yes, she's actually a man.... how could I possibly forget!"
Cathed: "Maybe I should write it on my hand."
Pillywiggin has drawn the Fucker-fly, the next stage of the cock-a-piller.
The Anthropologist: "Is that what people mean when they say butterfly kisses?"

Marrok dropped his hands to her thighs and pried them wider.
The Chronicler: "As though she was resisting... how rape-like."
The Loinfire Club also makes a series of unoiled hinge noises.

“If you tempt me thus, you will take what I give you. All I give you.”
The Anthropologist: "I don't think that's how it works under the British legal system."

From one instant to the next, his clothes melted away and he poised himself at her entrance.
Pillywiggin: "What? His clothes melted?!"
The Pedant: "Well, he shouldn't have worn candyfloss then, should he?"

With a wave of her pale hand, Morganna unlocked the volume. The cover fell open, revealing a hint of its pages, as she faded away.
The Anthropologist: "Is it wrong that the book is described in more flirtatious terms than the woman?"

“Give it to me!”
He shouted at fog. She—and the book—were gone.
Again, she’d used her power against him. Desire sizzled deep but he was, as ever, cursed.
The Anthropologist: "Damn you, Mao!"

“I am the key.” Her soft entreaty swept through the wind. “Find me.”
Marrok dragged himself to his feet, suppressing a primal scream. He must hunt her. That cityscape behind the pond he recognized as London.
The Anthropologist (who is quite familiar with the city): "Oh, is this set in London then?"

Around him, something rattled. Marrok sat up with a startled gasp, his bed rumpled, eyes wide.
The Anthropologist: "Eyes wide... he's been eating flumps."
The Pedant: "He's been chomping down on Santa's North Pole..."

(The Pedant had bought some flump-knock-offs – essentially long thin marshmallows – that were called "Santa's North Poles." The innuendo was, of course, not missed and it became a theme for the rest of the evening. As Cathed was eating one, the Anthropologist remarked that her pupils were dilating, much to our alarm.)

Panting, he scanned his surroundings. Bare walls, carved bed. A sword beside his hand. Glock under his pillow.
Azrael: "A glock?!"
The Anthropologist: "Is that like a flump only more so?"

There is some discussion about whether or not the author means a gun, but then, the first things American gamers (or at least, in White Wolf setting documents) are told about England as a setting is that we have much, much stricter gun control over here.

His cottage, not a mist-draped clearing. No Morganna.
The Chronicler: "That'd be a very expensive cottage in London. That said, he could be a cotter and therefore his dwelling – no matter what it looked like – would be a cottage. But I'm quite sure the back of the book says he's a knight."

The book! Marrok whipped his gaze around. On his bedside table rested the leather-bound tome. The vehicle of his never-ending torment, the key to his freedom, was still here and still locked.
It had been but a dream.
Or perhaps a message? Though it had been centuries, Morganna had once enjoyed reaching from her exile to taunt him in sleep.
The Chronicler is utterly sick of modern portrayals of Morgan le Fay as a slutty evil woman and rants about it loudly. It's not even the evil that gets on her nerves, it's the combination of slutty, evil, beautiful and sex-centric plans. There will, no doubt, be a post itemizing her hatred in greater detail in the future.

Shadow and torment her he would...
Azrael: "Sounds almost Yoda-like."

A sharp rap against the cottage’s front window startled Marrok
Cathed: "Why is our Alpha Male hero who sleeps with swords and guns being startled by loud noises?"
The Anthropologist: "He just had a freaky dream about his cock turning into a caterpillar, cut him some slack."

He hadn’t had a visitor in a decade, and preferred it that way. Guests were both unexpected and unwelcome.
The Anthropologist: "In the middle of London, bloody hell!"
The Chronicler: "What? No door-to-door salesmen? No junk mail? Where does he live?"

As he slid around the corner, his heart raced with the anticipation of impending battle. [...] If someone had come to take the book from him, he would greet them with bloodshed.
Azrael: "Not the shedding of their blood, just bloodshed."
Cathed: "Maybe it's like Love Shack, but better."

Marrok crept forward, crouched for attack. The shadow disappeared.
The Chronicler: "I'm sure he's supposed to be all hardcore, but he only comes across as paranoid right now."

Heaving an annoyed sigh, Marrok yanked the door open to find a nightmare nearly as bad as the one that had awakened him. Golden hair spiked above sleek brows and wicked blue eyes. A glittery Hollywood smile...
The Anthropologist: "I'm still not convinced this man isn't batting for the flump team."

“If today is your day to conduct beheadings, count me out.” Bram flashed the million-dollar smile that had seduced magickind into seeing things his way for four hundred years.
Bonegeek attempts some sort of accent for this voice and there are many humorous attempts that the written medium simply cannot reproduce. We discovered in due course that the motherland of humanity is Pakistan due to it being where all accents drift to in the end. Bonegeek finally settled on a Welsh accent for this character, which gives him rather likable, laid back air which rather endears him to the Loinfire Club. That and Bram is only a letter off from Brad, the name of the Loinfire Club's favourite accountant non-hero. 

The Chronicler feels that the date of four hundred years ago may be significant and wonders if Bram was involved the Reformation. The Anthropologist is less optimistic and condemns it as simply a number Black picked out of thin air. 

Bram would not go away until he spilled his secret, though Marrok cared little what the wizard had to say. He must find Morganna in her new guise, then force, coerce, or beg her into unlocking that accursed book and setting him free.
Cathed: "So rape, rape again and ask nicely."

Marrok stared at his rumpled chinos.
The Anthropologist: "He wears chinos?!"
Bonegeek: "Sexy sexy old man chinos."

“Did you come all this way to be my mum?”
“If you need one…” Bram shrugged, mischief lurking in his eyes.
There is something about flump being the new euphemism of choice.

“To talk to you,” Bram said through the door. “You know that only something gravely important could bring me to the Creepified Forest.”
The Anthropologist makes a face at the stupidity of the name.
The Chronicler is reminded of the Creeping Brain for no good reason.

“All right, then. I am the only living being who knows of your immortality and still speaks to you.”
The Anthropologist: "Is that meant to be in a Gollum voice? Smeagols wills speaks to you..."

Marrok grunted and reached for his toothbrush. “I am not interested. I must hunt.”
“The local market too civilized for your Dark Ages upbringing?”
Azrael: "I'm going hunting with my toothbrush! I'm bored of hunting with this whole knives and guns thing!" 

Though the wizard loved to antagonize him, Marrok knew the darling of magickind would not visit without cause.
Pillywiggin: "Stop using the word magickind! It offends me!"
Bonegeek: "You don't have to say it." 
The Anthropologist: "I'm wondering if the darling of magickind is some kind of special title. Maybe elected."
Azrael: "No, more likely it's something that magazines would name every few years."

 Vision. Being in the same room with anything or anyone magical was enough to give him hives. Having Bram around was like a permanent case of leprosy.
The Anthropologist: "As opposed to those impermanent cases of leprosy that people get all the time."
Bonegeek: "I was out last night and my finger fell right off. Just a touch of leprosy."
The Chronicler again wonders at the flippant use of these diseases that in the middle ages was really rather serious.

The Chronicler reviews the rest of The Darkest Kiss

The Darkest Kiss, by Gena Showalter

After the Loinfire Club struggled through the first chapter of The Darkest Kiss, the Chronicler picked it up (always the masochist when it comes to terrible fiction
) and decided to finish it. Here follows a report for those who are curious about how the story about Anarchy and Death live happily ever after...

First of all, The Darkest Kiss is really quite a bad book, but it doesn't suffer from the stereotypical problems of normal romance novels. The heroine is more free of the classic I Am Not A Slut complex than most (with one or two incredibly annoying and notable exceptions, but I'll get to that.) The hero isn't full of rape and ravishment threats, doesn't stalk the heroine, invade her personal space and call it love.... And yet all this doesn't stop it from being really quite an annoying book.

The World Setting

The Chronicler is that most of The Darkest Kiss' readers probably don't care about the metaphysics of its fictional universe and exactly how it all operates. Given that it's the second book in the series, perhaps it should not be expected to lay down the setting with introductory simplicity. And yet it makes no effort to advertise it's Not-the-First-Book status.* That said, the Chronicler really doubts her problems with the setting are answered in the previous book.

The setting is riddled with sweeping statements and loopholes. For example, the origin story is mind-boggling:

Once upon a time, there was Pandora's Box (aka dimOuniak) and in it were lots of demons. These warriors, led by one who felt insulted he didn't get to guard it (?!), opened the box. As punishment, they were made into living prisons for the demons.

Now, this story seems simple. Or at least. Showalter thinks so. But it's not. She's vague as to how much our version applies. Was the pre-box-opening free from Death, Pain, Promiscuity, Lies and all that? Are these simply demons of the concepts as in they are the physical embodiment of them, free from personality and scheming or are they more sophisticated? Were they physical, as in, after release, did the demons personally kill/rape/torture/lie to everyone in their way or did they just possess people and make them do so?

The Chronicler really wants answers because it's actually relevant to the plot. Galen, the Keeper of Hope... wait, Hope is a good thing, right? It was in the original. So why was the demon of it imprisoned in the box along with the other demons? Was the pre-box-opening world also free from hope? And if it's a good thing, should he be allowed to go about and do his work, keeping people's spirits up despite all the death, promiscuity, lies, doubt, defeat (etc) that is happening all over the place?... Sorry, derailed myself there. Galen, who has demon of Hope imprisoned inside him, is running around being the leader of an organisation that busies itself tracking down the imprisoned demons** and killing them all, because the blame the demons for all the shitty things that happen.

The main characters are justified in not knowing what would happen if the imprisoned demons are killed, but they seem phenomenally uncurious about the effects of their death. Baden, Keeper of Distrust, has died and the world doesn't seem to be devoid of distrust, but you can't really fault the hopeful warriors of Galen to keep trying. I'm really okay with them being selfish about their own death versus the world being painless forever, but can they not at least consider the possibilities? What would answer my question is a description about the pre-box-opening world, but Showalter just doesn't want to share.

But then we get to other metaphysical problems. The Greek deities are real. Fair enough. And they differ somewhat from legend, which is again, fair enough. Though it would be better if Showalter actually acknowledges these differences and addressed them, since of all the pantheons the average person would have heard of Greek is quite high on the list. But the immediate question that follows is: Are any other pagan pantheons real? They certainly aren't geographically confined to their original continent, so where is everyone else? They don't have to exist, but it's just really odd because there is a Christian heaven and hell, where some select souls get to go after death (very select, I'll come to that), and yet there are no other gods. Showalter doesn't even feel the need to say, "I know the ancient Greeks believed in an underworld that's different, but that's because they're wrong and were off their tits on mushrooms." Most books employing an existing mythology in its world-building puts in a line or two, the standard: "What a silly superstition you humans have about garlic and vampires. We fear it not."

The Anthropologist suggests perhaps that Showalter simply doesn't realise that other religions have a different vision of heaven and hell. But then she does as she mentions Hades later, but it doesn't seem to feature in any great way.

It's just weird to try to fuse the two.


Lucien, Incarnation of Death

Which really quite neatly brings me to Death Himself. Now, beauty is the eye of the beholder and all that, but it really defeats the point of having an ugly hero if the heroine finds him irresistible. The point of Beauty and the Beast is that Beauty grows to love him despite his appearance and eventually grows to love his appearance as well (the latter part surfaces in modern retellings and I quite like it.) But if she thinks he's walking porn to begin with, then he might as well be walking porn to everyone else.

He scrubbed a hand over his face, the scars so puckered they abraded his palm. Had they scratched Anya?

Anya's over-the-top attraction to Lucien comes across as delusional. His descriptions of himself as horrifically scarred don't add up to her descriptions of him. He wonders if his scars are scratching her but whe

n we're reading from her point of view, Anya hasn't even noticed, which is weird considering how much attention she was paying to him.

Now that I think about it, who is the man on the cover? He has the mismatched eyes of Lucien, but he lacks the horrific scaring. Also, as the Anthropologist notes, MrCoverModel is incapable of ever moving his arms since it would distort his carefully placed shoulder tattoo.

Lucien's insecurities are ridiculous. He obsesses about how Anya is perfect and how he is so scarred all her attraction must be feigned... but what is most annoying is that he possesses the ability to see emotions with his damned SpirtEye. He saw her passion. But after this one use of his magic power, he doesn't really use it again in the book. He doesn't even use it to see if Anya's faking it. Seriously.

In this spiritual realm, Anya’s passion appeared a blazing pink. Real. Not faked, as a part of him had assumed. That pink trail glittered with a dazzle unlike anything he’d ever seen.


Lucien, Keeper of Death

But that's not really the bone I want to pick when it comes to Lucien and his job of soul-ferrying. He insists he hates his job and that he finds the taking of innocents distasteful, but he never really articulates this hatred as anything other than (as Azrael puts it) the hatred one has for an exceptionally dull desk job. If he believed that his own death would stop death forever in the world and if his existence was really that joyless... wouldn't he try to end it? Why doesn't he have some sort of philosophical stance on the necessity of death, if only to justify to himself his existence and not feel like a bastard?

Now he was charged with the responsibility of collecting human souls and escorting them to their final resting place. Even if he opposed the idea. He did not like taking innocents from their families, found no joy in delivering the wicked to their damnation, but he did both without question or hesitation

One isn't really sure how free will and the gods (keepers?) interact. Is he personally responsible for the deaths of his victims or not? He didn't chose to have the demon of death stuck inside him, but then if he believes what he's doing is truly Evil. He mysteriously thinks he is, but he arrives at the scene and sees the mangled bodies of the soon-to-be dead. (The Anthropologist notes a quick comparison thing to Death of the Pratchett's books, who sees his job as a necessity but doesn't see any reason to make it any worse for the people concerned.) Lucien thrusts his arm into the chests of the dying, retrieves their soul, teleports to the gates of either heaven or hell and tosses them in, all rather unceremoniously. I understand he's on a tight schedule, but really, it can't be pleasant. Nor does it seem very Greek since they have ideas about Charon, the ferryman of Hades.

He was still at a loss as the pearled gates opened wide, revealing golden streets and bejeweled, arched lampposts hanging like diamond-studded clouds. White-clothed angels lined the sides, singing a melodious welcome, their feathered white wings gliding gracefully behind them.

I can't get over how Christian heaven and hell are. Pearly gates with golden streets is very specifically Christian. It's straight out of The Book of Revelations, "The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate being made from a single pearl." There is nothing of this in Greek mythology and it is jarring. But that isn't what is getting to me.

“Lots of people die. Every minute. Every hour. Why don’t you have to escort all of them?”
“Some remain to wander Earth, some are reborn and get the chance to start anew. Some, I think, are escorted by angels.”

That practically makes him redundant. I know that he can't be too tied up with this whole soul-ferrying business since he needs to have time for being with Anya and hanging around with his heterosexual friends, but it really diminishes the character when we find out he doesn't deal with all death, that he's just one soul-collector amongst many.

HE WAS KNOWN AS THE Dark One. Malach ha-Maet. Yama. Azreal. Shadow Walker. Mairya. King of the Dead. He was all of those things and more, for he was a Lord of the Underworld...

The other odd thing is what qualifies as evil enough to land a soul in hell.

The man’s sins suddenly flickered through the demon’s awareness and in turn through Lucien’s. As the man had already proven, he had considered himself above the law, slaying anyone who got in his way—men, women, children—all in the name of a better world.
Maintaining a strong grip on the protesting spirit, he flashed to the entrance of hell. Not Hades—that gloomy underworld was reserved for those who did not deserve either the tortures of hell or the glories of heaven. This man deserved the flames. Though the gates to the fire pit were closed, Lucien could feel the intense heat radiating, could hear the symphony of tormented screams inside, the demonic laughter. The jeers. The stifling scent of sulfur permeated the entire area, enough to make a man gag.

Firstly, as the Anthropologist points out, considering himself above the law isn't really more than what Anya is doing in her daily life. Given how many legal systems Lucien must have lived through, it seems odd that he would attach that much significance to any actual law code.

But more importantly, this man wasn't just working for a better world. He was working for a world that is devoid of pain, suffering, death, war, lies... He is working for paradise on earth. I'm not saying that I feel this means he deserves heaven, I'm just saying that in his paradigm, it's justified and I'm uncomfortable with the idea that this man deserves eternal torment. I'm uncomfortable with the adamance with which the hero thinks this. I'm not saying that I personally believe that the ends justifies the means every time, but there are many things that have been done in the name of the Greater Good and these things do include the American War of Independence (picking an example that most Americans would like to think of as a Good Thing) and the French Revolution and the Cultural Revolution.***** Perhaps again it is that Showalter doesn't think that the audience may disagree on this point, that her reader won't read that and feel uncomfortable. It's that the Universe judges it so with Absolute Morality, not simply the hero's personal morality.

Two bodies lay on the floor, a man and a woman. The man, Lucien instantly knew thanks to his demon, had wrongly suspected the woman of cheating on him, had shot her and then turned the gun on himself.
Bastard, he thought, then stilled.

Now, I'm not saying that killing your girlfriend for cheating on you is morally right. But again, I'm uncomfortable with the idea that it deserves eternal torment in hell. Eternal is a very long time, like seriously. And he did kill himself afterwards. I'm not saying that I like him or that he deserves heaven, but eternity in hell?

Furthermore, what did that woman do to deserve heaven. Again, I'm not saying she necessarily doesn't, but what differentiates her so very much from everyone else since this is a setting where only a select few get into heaven.

She  [the dead spirt] saw him and gasped. “Naked,” she said, staring at him. “Am I in…heaven?”
Should have dressed first. “Not yet.”

Can you really respect Death who goes to work naked?


Anya, Minor Goddess of Anarchy

Yes, minor. 

“You are the minor goddess of Anarchy.”
“There’s nothing minor about me.” Minor meant unimportant, and she was just as important as the other, “higher” beings, damn it.

No, minor means she wasn't widely worshipped, which she wasn't. She doesn't have a cult, let alone a widespread one. She has no temples or shrines dedicated to her. She's minor and none of her quibbling is going to change that. Her petulant, foot-stomping tantrums come across like a six-year-old insisting that they're all grown up, because being a child is unimportant. She doesn't hold power in the divine courts of the Greeks, uninvolved in godly politics. She seems to serve no function in the everyday running of the world. I'm not sure you can get more minor than that.

When she’d first come to earth, she hadn’t known how to control her rebellious nature. Gods had been able to protect themselves from it, humans hadn’t. Besides that, she’d been almost…feral from her years in prison. A simple comment from her—you aren’t going to let your brother talk to you like that, are you?—and bloody feuds erupted between clans. An appearance at court—perhaps laughing at the rulers and their policies—and loyal knights attempted to assassinate their king.

Showalter has no idea what anarchy means. When Showalter describes Anya's deep need for anarchy, she describes pyromania and kleptomania. Anya controls her instincts to anarchy and disobedience by stealing, and whilst that is anarchic on a personal level in that she is disobeying the law that tells her not to steal... kleptomania just isn't anarchy. Neither is doodling moustaches on the original Mona Lisa. And really, it's quite unremarkable and dull.

Eventually she’d learned that if she fed her need for disorder with little things—petty theft, white lies and the occasional street fight—huge disasters could be averted.

What immediately came to mind as something she could be doing is feeding her desire for anarchy by inciting rebellion against tyrannical leaders across the world. She would justify to herself that many of the riots she incites may not succeed, but that freedom is a cause worth dying for. She would tell herself that she has a need to incite rebellion so she should at least do it in a place where she knows there is an unjust dictator. She could work ferrying equipment to guerrilla fighters and pass messages. She probably won't get personally invested in any cause too much, but she'd hang around salons  and bitch about dictators, though she wouldn't put much store in political idealism. Would that cut a little close to home for escapism? Perhaps, but it would make her so very much more interesting. That heroine is one I can root for... pit she only exists in my head.

“Once I attended a masked ball and dressed as the devil. Doesn’t sound like a big deal, but the year was eighteen-nineteen and I created quite a stir, let me tell you. When I asked Baron something-or-other to sell me his soul, he tried to stab me with a butter knife.”

It was great when Showalter finally decided to tell us a little of what Anya was doing for the last few millennia, but why she doesn't talk nostalgically about past rebellions? I disbelieve she wasn't there for the French Revolution, wasn't involved in the English Civil War or the Glorious Revolution, didn't care about the leaderless state of medieval Iceland.****

Showalter's blindspot really cripples Anya's potential as a character. She seems so very petty when compared with what she could be doing. Self absorbed and really... well, what claim has she in being a goddess when she isn't doing anything to affect the world? She's hardly the embodiment of a force if she isn't involved in places where anarchy is at its zenith. Surely not all rulers deserve their thrones? And not all laws are just?


The Goddess of Lawlessness and Sexual Sin

Dysnomia is really obscure a figure, usually coming in lists of personifications. She is named daughter of Eris...

"But abhorred Strife [Eris] bore painful Toil [Ponos] and Forgetfulness [Lethe] and Famine [Limos] and tearful Sorrows [Algea], Fightings [Hysminai] also, Battles [Machai], Murders [Phonoi], Manslaughters [Androctasiai], Quarrels [Neikea], Lying Words [Pseudea], Disputes [Amphillogiai], Lawlessness [Dysnomia] and Ruin [Ate], all of one nature, and Oath [Horkos] who most troubles men upon earth when anyone willfully swears a false oath." (Hesiod, Theogony 226; as quoted on Greek Mythology Link).

Now, in the context of that list, it is quite easy to see that Dysnomia is not associated with promiscuity. She is lawlessness in the sense of chaos and anarchy. She is lawlessness as in the world turned upside down. The opposite of ordered, stratified Greek society. She is by no means an important figure, but the reduction of her to some slutty goddess (which isn't really true in Hesiod, at least) who sleeps her way around Olympus seems a bit of a slap.

Her kiss had been sinful. Delightfully so. But the woman he’d held in his arms had not seemed evil. Sweet, yes. Amusing, absolutely. And, shockingly enough, vulnerable and wonderfully needy. Of him.

The whole novel is firmly set in the moral framework that views sex as sinful (the standard of romance novels) and it's really quite jarring. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the Greek pantheon would know that they hardly adhere to our sexual standards. A classicist would be able to describe all the nuances of Greek sexuality, but suffice to say it is hardly identical like our own. Read Thornton's Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality, for example. No, we don't know what it was like exactly and there is hardly critical consensus, but they are not exactly like us. If they were, it would be really dull. These are immortal warriors from the dawn of time, can't they at least think a little differently?

Why did he have to look so sexy standing there? The sun was acting like his lover, caressing him, weaving an angelic halo around his dark head. Yes, angelic. He was a fallen angel just then, causing her pulse points to throb and her stomach to quiver.

Even more perplexing is the constant reference to angels. At first the Chronicler simply thought it was metaphorical (which is odd since they don't exist in Greek Mythology) but then references to real angels happened. The reader is never told how they fit into the hierarchy. Presumably with the existence of demons there are also angels, but who are they working for? What purpose do they serve?


Anya the Warrior Princess

Showalter allow Anya to fight competently when it comes to the various combat sequences, but why does she dress her in the literary equivalent of cheesecake? I know she's busy bucking trends and expectations, I know she doesn't really need mobility since she can teleport but...

"Despite what you seem to think, I am a powerful being, and I choose whether or not to endanger myself." [...]
Finally, he looked at her—and immediately regretted it. She wore a white gossamer gown with gold threaded throughout, and was even lovelier than he remembered. With the golden glow of moonlight crowning her and emerald plants framing her, she was an ancient queen straight out of a storybook.
The top layers of her pale hair were piled on her head, the rest tumbling down and begging for his touch.

Firstly, he was there in the ancient times and he hardly has time for storybooks, so maybe she should be "an ancient queen like that one he saw in Sparta" or something.

Secondly, her comment that she is a powerful being is really rather undermined with the gossamer gown. Maybe mortal armour is useless for her and she likes the way it looks but Showalter never justifies Anya's battle wear, especially since she doesn't blast them with her lasers, she actually enters the melee.


The Canonical Characters were Mean to Me

The Darkest Kiss, as the Anthropologist pointed out, is a lot like Knight of Darkness in that the author is writing about a setting she seems to despise. Kenyon dramatically recast the Arthurian setting to conform to her ideas of manliness and relationships and ideal worlds, keeping almost none of the original concepts.*** Sandra Hill did the same to the Viking era and Showalter is doing the same now with Greek mythology. She uses so very little of the classical Greek religion, the big names of the pantheon barely make an appearance. Her use of Christian heaven and hell points to a world setting badly thought out. When gods from classical myth do turn up, it's only be mean to Anya and call her names in goddess-training-school. Showalter just doesn't seem to care about her source material.


Inexplicable Pop Culture References

The Anthropologist wondered about the pop culture references and the tendency for these books to feel dated really quickly. It doesn't make Anya any more connectable. Or likable. Where did she pick up all that slang anyway? Surely hanging around valley girls and chavs is hardly feeding her anarchic desires.

Shortly after, he’d found her a second time and threatened her with the Lords. Now here she and Lucien were, about to go Halo 3 on each other. Score one for Team Cronus.

What does "about to go Halo 3 on each other" even mean? Does it just mean "perpetrate some sort of violence"? Or is the hero going to be permanently stuck in some suit of power armour and aliens will descend from space? It's a shooter game and most of the violence in The Darkest Kiss is even gun violence....


To be continued... on the subject of The Darkest Kiss...
How Not to Write Sexual Tension
Distancing the Reader: Revelations of Backstory
Romance Novel Curses
The Other Keepers



* Perhaps it's publishers wishing to appeal to readers who shy away from reading books out of order, but this decision to not imprint a large number on the spine really does impair one's ability to understand the world setting and actually get into the book. MrsGiggles has complained on many an occasion about the false advertising of non-standalone books. And every dedicated Harry Potter reader is well sick of Rowling's insistence on reiterating the plot of the previous books in her first few chapters.... So, a compromise is need. This the Chronicler well understands. But the point is: two pages of things-you-should-know situated just before the beginning of the story really can't be that much effort to produce. Or maybe they feel it'd scare away readers who want to just leap into the romance and feel uncomfortable with needing to acquire prior knowledge.
But that is the crux of the problem: pretending the book can stand alone when it can't. 

** Why are they called "Lords of the Underworld" anyway? They don't possess an underworld, which presumably is Hades, but this setting has a curiously Christian afterlife. There's a heaven, complete with pearly gates and a sulphurous hell. What is the Underworld, in that case? And why does being a walking prison make them lords of it?

*** To be fair, every era does this, but the Chronicler is often annoyed when a thing goes from being interesting to boring and nonsensical.

**** Some anarchists hold that medieval Iceland is the closest thing to a realised ideal system in their book. A government where there is only one paid official (the lawspeaker) and regular gatherings to settle issues. Minimalist government, eh?

***** I'm not happy about the things that happened in the Cultural Revolution. It was horrific. Thinking about it makes my uncomfortable. But I'm not going to say I believe that everyone who participated in it was evil with a capital "E" and deserving of hell.