There was an unsuspecting evolution that led to me reading a work of male/male original slash fiction.
It started when an online friend of mine recommended a book to me through Goodreads: Uprooted – a beautifully written, dark fantasy fairytale by Naomi Novik.
My friend I discussed this book extensively via Goodreads as I read it, and when I finished, I suggested we next read the same book simultaneously so we could discuss our reactions to it in real time.
The book we decided to buddy read was the popular YA fantasy A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas.
Both Uprooted and ACOTAR had two things in common. Firstly, the plots of both involved a girl being taken captive by a man: in Uprooted, this man was a wizard and in ACOTAR, a high lord of the Fae.
The second commonality – the thing that left me ripe for something different when the opportunity for such eventually presented itself – was that in both cases, the men didn’t harm these captured girls at all – not physically, emotionally, or sexually.
There was not even a hint of the likely danger such a situation would entail for a real woman under similar circumstances.
“Benevolent captivity”, my friend termed it when I complained to her about it.
To be clear, I don’t enjoy stories about women being abused. But I do like the books I read to be realistic, even when they are fantasy books.
I believe that art should either imitate life or recreate it entirely. In both these books, every other aspect of the story world was thoroughly gendered: women required dowries for marriage; respectable women solely wore dresses; men held traditionally masculine jobs; there were no legitimate female rulers or leaders.
This benevolent captivity premise felt even more affected given, in both books, a romantic relationship developed between captor and captee – a fact I’m fairly certain required no spoiler alert.
By the end of my buddy reading experience, I told myself I was done with captured girl romances – that I’d never read another unless it brought something dramatically different to the table.
As the saying goes, seek and ye shall receive.
A princely premise
In this particular case, no active seeking on my part actually occurred.
I’m not even sure how the book Captive Prince came to my attention. It was via a Goodreads “People Also Liked” list displayed on the sidebar of a search page – that much I can I recall.
But with its unassuming cover and even more retiring abbreviated author name of C.S. Pacat, I’m at a loss as to remember what specifically about it made me click the link.
When I did, however, I found myself fascinated by a premise that was both similar and different to what I’d been reading of late.
In a fantasy world based on Ancient Greece, a prince is stripped of his identity by his usurping illegitimate brother and given as a pleasure slave to the crown prince of an enemy nation.
Well that, I thought, is definitely something different.
And interesting, for how would the captivity trope with all its discrepancies of power (and likewise, the inevitable romance) play out when both the abductor and abductee were the same gender, in this case, male?
Read it and find out, I told myself. Why not? I’ll try just about anything once.
Under full sail
This wasn’t actually my first exposure to male/male fiction (although it was the first novel-length work of it I’ve ever read, and definitely the first trilogy, of which I’m currently midway through book 3).
Male/male a very common feature of fan fiction, which I’ve occasionally read off and on for years, and which I’ve previously written about.
(Admittedly, most of the fanfic I’ve read has been within the Transformers fandom. This involves characters – giant autonomous robots – that are ostensibly genderless, for all that it’s extremely difficult to write with an agender lens. Gender is a special sauce in which we’ve all been socialized since birth until very well done.)
According to TV Tropes, most fan fiction is written by women. Ethnographic research suggests this is in response to the fact that female tastes and fantasies largely unfulfilled in male-dominated, mainstream media.
A significant amount of fan fiction involves “shipping” – that is, taking two (or more) characters who aren’t a couple in the source material and putting them into a romantic (and often sexual) relationship.
Two of the oldest “ships” in the history of fandom are probably Kirk/Spock from the original Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes/Watson.
When a ship involves a same-sex pairing, it is referred to as “slash”, signifying the “/” that separates names of the shipped characters. “Slash” more specifically often refers to a male/male pairing, while female/female pairings are called “femslash”.
As previous mentioned, a significant proportion of fan fiction is comprised of male/male slash.
Another friend of mine, this one an offline pal, equates shipping to Fantasy Football.
/ ? (or, Why slash?)
Although it obviously draws inspiration from fandom, Captive Prince technically isn’t slash.
Slash involves placing pre-existing characters in a same-sex pairing in subversion of mainstream society’s larger heteronormative ideal.
To paraphrase the author herself, as a work of original fiction, the book was from the start conceived to feature a same-sex pairing. As such, there’s nothing outwardly subversive about it beyond its general existence amidst the dearth of same-sex pairings within traditional publishing.
I absolutely loved this book. For a story about a pleasure slave, it wasn’t particularly explicit. Or even overly sexual at all, which I’m never much into, regardless of the pairing.
More than anything, the book dealt with a host of succession politics and an illegitimate seizure of power, replete with all the court drama, scheming, double-crossing, backstabbing, and swordfighting inherent in such a storyline.
All the stuff I love (and incidentally am currently writing about myself) in historical and historically-inspired genres.
But I surprised myself by loving the male/male pairing as well.
I’ve often wondered why so much fan fiction contains slash pairings – why it is the predominantly female readers and writers of the stuff like that feature so much. Outwardly, I suppose it makes sense: if one is a heterosexual woman, if one man is good, than two should be even better.
In my own case, my enjoyment wasn’t quite owing to anything so prurient (not quite…).
Rather, it was the way in which, despite literally being in chains, getting beaten up, lashed, and subjected to a number of sexual indignities, the captive prince didn’t seem entirely disempowered. Not when all that befell him had more to do with the role he filled (a slave) than any fundamental facet of who he was as a person.
A world I want to know
In stories where women are victimized by men, as in real life, the violence comes to bear with centuries’ worth of gender-based violence, institutional marginalization, and societal disdain, all of which, in part, still exists to this day.
In stories where this marginalization is conveniently omitted from an otherwise unequal world, its absence hovers like a phantom limb. It does nothing to simulate an ideal world as it could be, but instead is as noticeable as yet another gender-based slur, exclusion, or wanton act of violence.
Men can be victimized too in society, although this most often occurs at the hands of other men, and is usually not for being a man in and of itself. Men are usually targeted for being a certain type of man – a black man, a gay man, a Muslim man, a man possessing too many qualities that are deemed feminine in nature.
Women, meanwhile, are often targeted for the very fact that they are women. Women also often feel like a captive trying to navigate the varied and numerous male-dominated institutions in mainstream society.
And so, in reading this slash series – my third story premised on kidnapping in the past two months – I found myself unexpectedly and blissfully liberated from much of the societal baggage and unequal gender power dynamics that are inherent in a plotline such as this.
The two main characters felt as close to equal as one of them being a slave made possible. This gave me the freedom to identify with whichever one I chose, and while do so, to enjoy a vicarious experience of a world untouched of the long shadow of gender inequality.
Which is the very thing fiction does best: transporting us to worlds we’ve never known in hopes that we can someday make that fantasy a reality.
How far are you able to suspend your disbelief in fiction? Do elements of the real world ever intrude upon your reading experiences? Have you ever read any type of slash fiction? Tell me about it in the comments.
A/N: There will be no new post on Victoria Day next Monday. Happy May 2-4 long weekend to all my fellow Canadians!