Fantastical Acceptance: A Review of A Strange and Stubborn Endurance
Misha Grifka Wander
A Strange and Stubborn Endurance. Foz Meadows. Tor Books, July 26, 2022.
One of the thrills of writing fantasy is making worlds unlike our own—worlds where, for instance, queerness is commonplace and people have the guaranteed right to declare their own identities. But sometimes the frisson of societal transgression is fun, too. Foz Meadows attempts to thread this needle in A Strange and Stubborn Endurance, a new political fantasy/romance. Velasin, the gay youngest son of a noble house, is arranged to marry a foreign noblewoman to ally their two countries. When his sexuality is discovered, the envoy suggests he marry the noblewoman’s brother instead, and off he goes, to a foreign land far more permissive of his sexuality than his own homeland. A married-to-lovers romance, a political coup replete with assassination attempts, and a culture shock narrative weave in and out to form the thread of the book’s plot, and the combination is handled deftly. This particular combination of plot tropes was what enticed me to read the book with enthusiasm, and I finished it in a day, though it is not particularly short. Still, the fantasy falls a bit short, in ways that touch on bigger themes within speculative and queer writing.
Meadows is an excellent character portraitist. Every character, even very minor ones, seem vivid and unique. Neither Velasin nor his new fiancé Caethari are bland poster-board romance heroes, and their attraction seems natural. I was particularly impressed by Velasin, whose socially conservative background inflects his narration, making him sound like a Regency or Gothic protagonist at times. He suffers a great deal of trauma, reacts reasonably (not stoic, but clearly suffering), and also is shown to have talents and commitments that keep him from being the “delicate” half to Caethari’s more traditional masculinity. In fact, Velasin’s trauma may be difficult for many readers: while I was given the fluffy romance the premise hinted at, it was accompanied by suicidal ideation, sexual assault, and abuse. The topics were dealt with sensitively and realistically—Velasin does not recover immediately, but does slowly heal with the help of people who care about him—but trauma plays a large part in the book nonetheless. Even the best-friend character, Markel, has a traumatic backstory, though happily his muteness is not part of that trauma, but rather an asset, and only one portion of his characterization. Everyone in this world has suffered, it seems; but almost all of them have maintained their humor, strength, and full humanity, which is not always the case in fiction.
It does seem that Meadows is responding to traditional modes of portrayal, “fixing” them, bringing them up to current social expectations. The more traditionally masculine person Caethari also comes from a progressive background, for instance, avoiding the association of masculinity with rigidity and tradition. There are people of color, queer people, disabled people, polyamorous people, trans and nonbinary people, and more. In the book’s best moments, these categories dissolve into the background, leaving a joyous diversity of interesting characters who live their lives as they please.
On occasion, though, it feels a bit too invested in the surface ideology of diversity, without delving deeper. Tithena is in every way a contrast to Ralia: there are constantly people exclaiming, “Oh, we don’t have rules against that!” whenever Velasin mentions some social rule. Gay marriage? Absolutely fine. Divorce? Of course! Trans or same sex partners who want to be parents? Obviously that can be solved by magic! Racial differences? Not even mentioned, outside noting appearances. It is a liberal utopia. Even at the climax of the story, it is revealed that the villain just thought they were being mistreated, and everything would have been fine if some good old honest communication had taken place. It’s a disappointingly neat resolution for a story with nuanced, complicated characters.
I’m a queer disabled person myself. Sometimes I enjoy imagining a world where prejudice does not exist, where gender, sexuality, and so on are simply descriptors and not bases for discrimination. But there are deep historical, social, and biological reasons why these prejudices have formed. Traveling from Ralia into Tithena felt like traveling to Avalon: unreal, pleasant, and insubstantial. Especially for a book at least nominally interested in politics, there was little thought given to why politics are the way they are, and what would be required to make them otherwise.
This, unfortunately, is not an uncommon problem with speculative fiction and queer fiction—it fails to consider the underlying structures when changing the resulting cultural output. Some writers do, of course. But there’s a lot of grubby, horrible, depressing history to wade through before you can understand the ways in which bigotry and prejudice are developed, sustained, and protected, and I understand why some people do not want to do that. They just want to write a world in which queer people/nonwhite people/disabled people can thrive. And that’s not an unimportant goal.
In the end, A Strange and Stubborn Endurance is an enjoyable read, with occasional flashes of superb character writing, and a nicely-paced romance at its heart. Just don’t expect the political intrigue to hold up to inspection.
Misha Grifka Wander is a Midwestern artist and writer currently pursuing a PhD at Ohio State University. Their major research fields are video game studies, comics studies, and speculative fiction studies, using a ecocritical and queer lens. Their work focuses on queer experience, speculative futures, and the environment, themes they explore through comics, poetry, criticism, game design, and prose. Misha lives in Columbus with their partner and two very soft cats. You can find them on Twitter.
This review was commissioned by an internal pitch; the author is an ARB editor. It was edited by Zachary Gillan and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.