Thursday, October 18, 2012

Mars, God of Violence

SUMMARY: Eye of the Storm roars with promise but dies off too rapidly at the end. Still, it produces a very sympathetic character and some beautiful turns of phrase.

Like any large storm, Eskridge’s “Eye of the Storm” took its time with the exposition, and I loved it. It allowed me to get a good sense of the main character, Mars, before the rising action took place. And because Eskridge was careful to use metaphors apt to a small village existence--corn spirits, goats, etc.--I was able to suspend my cynical disbelief. The prose itself was so delicious, I read some of the lines over again to enjoy the details. The physical misery was so evocative that I was certain the author had either felt this pain, or had enormous empathy.

Mars, as the name suggests, was born of violence. He was conceived in rape, lost his first love to a mob, and decides he must learn violence in order to be accepted. So it comes as no surprise that his first sensual experience is through violence. Much as he originates storm-fighting by letting his opponent in too close, he himself gets so close to violence that it touches him. Thus, his ability to be violent actually diminishes: he’s brilliant at sparring, because it is consensual sex to him, but when a real fight happens, it’s like rape. In essence, he isn’t embracing violence at all, but the physical expression of belonging. Sparring with someone meant that he was accepted enough to play-fight. And when his companions figure out how to have sex with him, the minor tension about this form of sexuality is resolved.

But the larger arc of the story--the frame through which storm-fighting exists--isn’t as fully realized. Violence was a means to an end: the end was to be accepted by the Prince, commander of the armies of the violent. Mars dreamed he was the son of the prince, and would gain acceptance at the palace. As in other aspects of his life, going to the palace was like going to the center of the storm for him. In the way that he addressed the violence that created him by making it into a non-violent act, his arc with the Prince ended when she decided he would be her defender, mostly because he was polite and good at listening: non-violent acts. Mars sees the Prince dance, and realizes that they are kin in how they use physical activity to communicate. But the Prince remains completely unaware of Mars’s empathy. She does not join in the final sex act, and does not accept Mars as more than a guard, unless her knowledge of his proclivities is implied.

And there is the problem. Forced implications abound at the end of the story. It was very frustrating for me as a reader to have to see Mars’s companions suddenly know everything he was thinking from the looks on his face. They didn’t know before, and their knowing now keeps him from articulating his changed and climactic thoughts. The act itself isn’t enough: suddenly the reader is expelled from Mars’s head, and all of the rich considerations of the exposition are thin and brittle.

Other brittle areas at the end include Eskridge’s descriptions and dialogue. ClichĂ© phrases begin to creep in at the end, mostly from a military perspective, like the comment on page 38: “When Andavista says jump, I reckon it’s our job to ask what cliff he had in mind.” “Very touching” is used as sarcasm on page 46.

The Prince’s gender was poorly handed, as well. That her gender was a surprise to Mars was, in itself, surprising, considering he was a palace guard, and his fellow guards were neither surprised nor concerned with concealing the fact that she was a woman. In addition, the world itself appears to be a world without many gender lines—just look at Mars’s companions—so why was it important in the first place?

Another minor issue which suspended my disbelief was the setting itself. I wonder what Eskridge envisioned. There are blondes, and Mars is a Western name, but they also eat corn—maize, unless this is British and it’s actually wheat. The technology is decidedly pre-1492, so there can’t be any corn if it’s a European template. Sure, this is an alternate universe, but usually these things are consistent.

But enough griping. The story is still my favorite thus far in the book. Despite his non-normative attachment to sparring as sexuality, I had no trouble empathizing with Mars. Eskridge created a highly sympathetic character in her story, which is the most important goal of this collection. After all, if you can’t get a reader’s sympathies to grow beyond the binary, how can you hope to communicate anything else?

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