Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mill, Spell of Passion or Fear (2012)

T.C. Mill, A Spell of Passion or Fear. Dreamspinner Press, 2012. Pp. 162. ISBN 9781613723517. $4.99.

Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad

A Spell of Passion or Fear, the first novel written under the byline of T.C. Mill, is a male/male romance in a pseudo-Ancient Greek setting released by Dreamspinner Press, prolific and sometimes controversial publishers of gay romance. This is a broadly steampunk novel, with machines and intelligent automata based on internal combustion engines in the setting of a Greek polis of indeterminate geographical location; as alternate history, this story imagines that Plato’s Καλλίπολις, as described in his Republic, was established and lasted at least several hundred years; this story takes place many generations after the philosopher’s time. Kalliopolis is a soviet-style orthodox dystopia, albeit not one presented as particularly grim or terrifying for its inhabitants. Rather than the politics, the story focuses on the illicit romance between a redundant human former Guardian, and a young Squire, a flirtation that begins as a somewhat by-the-numbers, semi-predatory encounter, but over the course of the book blossoms into a believable, tender and affecting love affair.

The first thing that strikes the reader upon beginning this book, even before the slightly pedestrian encounter between a brooding older man and inexperienced but passionate boy, is a certain amount of anachronism in the setting of the story. I’m not talking about the sort of anachronism that steampunk revels in—a pre-industrial historical setting polluted with science-fictional (or magical) technologies, creative and epoch-changing machines that fulfil the role of weaponry, transport, labor-saving devices or information technology in our world, populated with modern mindsets and liberated 21st-century values; all that is to be expected in steampunk, and is part of the fun and the value of the genre. But the anachronisms that bothered me in Spell of Passion were careless interpolations from our world into the historical setting of the Greek world. The action opens in a village church—in a Pagan city in a world with apparently no Christianity—during a “service”, with “pews” and “stained-glass windows”; all features and concepts absent from ancient Greek temples and religious practices. Later, peasants are described learning their “catechism”. Back in the city, our hero buys a “sandwich” at the market. These are pedantic and petty complaints, to be sure, but to a reader with even a passing knowledge of the classical world, they are egregious enough and frequent enough (especially in the early parts of the book) to really break one out of the world of the story.

Both of the protagonists have tried and failed to flee the repressive city of the Philosopher-Kings. Ariston is a trained Guardian, one of the warrior caste who serve the Philosophers and protect the city (and keep its populace in line), made redundant when the invention of intelligent robotic automata renders human soldiers inefficient and unnecessary. He is depressed by this loss of his career and self-worth; he considers suicide, tries to leave the city but, although he is pretty much ignored by the state, is too morally weak to get further than the rural church where he sees another young runaway being captured and taken back by one of the animated steel Guardians. Phaleas is a young squire, servant and mechanic to the Guardians, who is not allowed to flee because he is too important to the running of the Citadel, the city within the city where Philosophers and Guardians rule. It’s never clear why Phaleas fled, as he only gradually comes to doubt his training and the inherent rightness of the utopia he serves, and he is later one of the most trusted Squires in the city. His relationship with Ariston comes out of an anonymous encounter in the market, and leads to secret assignations whenever he can get away from the Citadel, which is seldom. Eudaimon is the metal warrior who brought the young Phaleas back from his flight from the city, and is the Guardian he services and maintains. We never see inside the head of this intelligent automaton, but he is an important character to all of the others: beloved, almost a father-figure to Phaleas; a source of jealousy for Ariston; a constant danger to them as they transgress against the norms of their society and the roles assigned to them. In the end we get a hint of character development that is potentially more radical and interesting than either of the human protagonists, but sadly we never learn very much about it. This is not Eudaimon’s story, as it would be if this were really a science fiction adventure.

Above all else, however, this is a romance novel. Most of the action takes place in Ariston’s bedroom, where Phaleas sneaks out to meet him, to be gently wooed and eventually passionately seduced and fucked with clove-scented oil in a steamy affair that drives them both to unprecedented pleasures and desires. The sex scenes are not explicit (my description in the previous sentence is more ribald than most of this novel), but they are tender, creative and powerful. Although early on the couple discuss philosophy—they are both Citadel-trained, after all—their relationship soon becomes almost entirely physical, as various discomforts and risks lead them to avoid talking about anything important or problematic. It is a credit to Mill’s writing that by the time the plot turns later in the book, this silent, physical relationship has quietly but convincingly morphed into a lasting love, robust enough to carry the rest of the story on its back.

The city of Kalliopolis (names are another oddity in this story: why Kalliopolis not Kallipolis as in Plato? Why a temple of Athna rather than Athena? But I suppose if it really is several centuries after the classical period, language might have evolved and names morphed) is a fairly benign dystopia, as far as we can see from the narrative. People do not seem to live in fear, no one except the protagonists is seen having to hide their love or censor their speech. Inside the Citadel we see some signs of the more repressive regime: corporal punishment is rife, and when an outsider flies into the city there is a robust and defensive response bordering on panic. I get the feeling that Plato’s Republic is meant to be modelled on the Soviet Union, with its patronizing repression of the populace “for their own good”; the Philosophers even explicitly express the hope that once the citizens have developed by living in the Good City into virtuous individuals, there will be no more need for Philosophers to rule them and Guardians to enforce standards of good living. In the meantime repression, censorship and careful control is needed to forge these good citizens. Contrast with a “free” city (“Not all of us demand complete agreement”), accentuates this comparison. In some ways this is a short-cut to defining the Evil Totalitarian Regime, because the story was not about atrocity and repression, but needed the backdrop of of such a regime for the central conflict to come out.

This is a lovely book, sensitively written and in an inventive and fascinating world that I’d like to see more of; Kalliopolis and its neighbouring cities could easily be home for many more adventures for the citizens (and sentient machines) of this steampunk world. The anachronisms highlighted above will probably not bother most readers, and the politics are a relatively shallow backdrop for the important events of the story. The romance between Ariston and Phaleas, the real heart of this story, is very nicely handled, especially after the somewhat clichéd unequal relationship at the start of their affair. As a whole, this book is both sexy and affecting, with likable characters, enough moral complexity to keep the reader guessing, and very competent writing.

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