(Notes: This blog entry discusses rape culture, also, there are minor BBB&S spoilers.)
It’s April, which is sexual assault awareness month. So I want to take a second to talk about sexual assault in Bound by Blood and Sand, because, well, it’s in there. Jae, the protagonist, is a survivor of rape before the book begins, and she’s assaulted about halfway through, on the page. Jae also has PTSD (from the assaults, and from a lifetime of slavery), something which is, of course, still part of her in Freed by Flame and Storm.
I did not take the idea of putting rape and sexual assault on the page lightly. But it had to be there, because all of the themes of oppression and structures of power in the book happened because I wanted to write about rape culture.
Stories tend to come to me in flashes initially — an interesting scene, a piece of dialogue, something that I don’t necessarily know where it is or where it comes from. Sometimes that flash is all I get; sometimes it expands. BBB&S started with an image of two people — both male, at that point — who were in forbidden love, of course. It was forbidden by their society, because one from a ruling caste and one was from the bottom caste. How did they meet? Why did they fall for each other? I had no idea.
But somehow, they loved each other and wanted to be together, but couldn’t. The one from the higher caste kept insisting: “We can’t do this, because it doesn’t matter that you say you want to. If I say I want to, it becomes an order, and you’ll be forced to follow it — even if you change your mind.”
And from that I knew that it wasn’t just tradition or custom that meant the lower caste character would have to obey. It would be enforced by magic. The lower caste character would be compelled to follow an order.
Now, neither of those characters is really in the book, but that was the seed of the idea that became the Curse, which enslaves Jae and forces her to obey. And that was the question that underlies the whole story: if someone is unable to say no, does it matter if they say yes?
Rape culture is the culture we live in. It’s a culture that asks what a girl was wearing or if she was drinking the night she was raped; it’s a culture that tells women not to walk alone at night. I wanted to write to explore that and to work out my own anger about it.
And, of course, the book is about slavery.
Slaves can not consent. Period. (Teen Vogue gets it.)
One of the interesting things about BBB&S’s reviews (which I have only occasionally glanced at — I try not to!) is that they’re split between readers who dig the lack of romance in the book, and readers who are disappointed by it. Both views are totally valid, as far as I’m concerned, but, well, like that last paragraph said: slaves can not consent, period. Which meant that there couldn’t be a romance in BBB&S, at least, not between Jae and Elan, the enslaved protagonist and the high-caste stranger who shows up at the beginning of the book. Like in that original scene in my head, he holds absolute power over her. The Curse in the book’s premise forces her to obey him, even his off-hand comments he doesn’t really intend as orders. The bottom line is, there’s no way that they could have a romance, because there’s no way for Jae to safely refuse him.
And let’s be real, on top of that: why would she want him? Why would she trust him, or anyone who has that kind of power over her and her people? That power dynamic played a huge part in her rape. With that in her background, why would she get swoony over someone like Elan? So while the core is consent, it’s also about characterization.
By the way, none of this is to say that writing this came easily or cleanly or naturally. My own instinct was to make it all easy, to have the characters fall in love (a feat that required magic soulbonding — yeah, be glad you didn’t read that version), and to gloss over the darker aspects of the world I’d created. I’ve written about finally embracing that darkness before.
But adding on to that post… well, I knew I was writing about rape and rape culture. And I grew up reading fantasy novels where rape is used as a threat to place damsels in distress (a trope that is still way, way too common in YA), or where characters are raped to provide a trauma without much elaboration. I hate, hate, hate that. It’s a trope that plays directly into rape culture and I find that damaging, so I was writing in direct response to it.
To avoid erasing or minimizing assault it to be on the page directly, it had to be centered, and its effects had to carry through. There could be no hand-waving, and Jae had to be the focus. Not anyone else — not even the rapist. He has a name, but that’s about it. He has no backstory or stated motive, and there’s no sense of who he is or what his life is like. Because none of that matters in context. This is Jae’s story; all that matters is the way he abuses her, and — SPOILER! — the fact that she eventually kills him in self defense.
Jae gets to be a person — he doesn’t. But she still has to live with the consequences of his actions. Which meant, as a writer, I had a responsibility to show those consequences and how they affect Jae even after his death. In the second book, even as the scope of her world and the stakes of using her power expanded, her character had to remain consistent, and that included coping with PTSD. Which doesn’t preclude romance, but it did very much very much inform my decisions about whether to include it, and in what ways.
But, at the end of the day, it came down to this: I knew I was going to write about rape and its effects, which meant letting questions of consent inform the relationships through the rest of the series. There could be no romance between Jae and Elan in the first book, because there was no way for Jae to give meaningful consent in any of their interactions, and there’s nothing romantic about that. As for the second book, I’ll note that there’s no on-page sexual assault, but I won’t spoil how Jae and Elan’s relationship evolves. But Jae’s PTSD is still present, because assault and trauma are themes that require writers to handle with responsibility. They were not easy to write, but, I felt, important, and not something I would ever introduce and then ignore.