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Smugglivus 2012 Guest Author (& Giveaway): Kate Elliott

Welcome to Smugglivus 2012! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2012, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2013.

Who: Kate Elliott, veteran author of fantasy and science fiction, with a romantic twist. Thea started reading Kate Elliott two years ago (with the publication of the first novel in her Spiritwalker trilogy, Cold Magic), and instantly fell in love with Kate’s writing style and characterizations.

Kate Elliott Cold Fire (final)

Recent Work: The second book in the Spiritwalker trilogy, Cold Fire, came out in September of last year. Thea loved it, and eagerly awaits the release of Cold Steel in 2013 (heck, it’s one of her most highly anticipated books of the year and made our recent Kirkus list!).

Give it up for Kate, everyone!

I would like to thank Ana and Thea for giving me this platform to talk about sex.

In 2012 I thought a lot about sex.

To be more precise, I thought a great deal about how sex is portrayed in fiction and how I wanted to write about sex in my own fiction.

There is so much variety in how sex is portrayed in novels. Some stories don’t involve sex or sexual feelings. Others refer to it only tangentially or keep the feelings chaste or never allow more than an oblique reference or perhaps a kiss. In some fiction, all sex takes place off stage, while other stories introduce sexual situations and foreplay but draw the curtain before any hardcore action takes place. Finally, of course, some romances and erotica portray explicit sex scenes, some of which have a function in the plot and others of which seem to be smut for the fun or titillation of reading it.

That quick synopsis only references depictions of sex and sexual feeling without addressing how sex and sexuality fit within the story. Who is having sex and how are they having it? Is sex part of the main plot of the novel (as in a romance)? Is it an important element but not the only crucial one? Is it a side plot, a reward for the hero, an afterthought, a problem, a nightmare, or a moral lesson?

There has been a fair bit of online discussion about how epic fantasy in particular too often portrays (usually heterosexual) sex in a non consensual or commodified manner, with a lot of sexual violence, sex work, rape, prostitutes, sluts, camp followers, and other such roles in particular for women but also on occasion for men and for children of both sexes. There seem even to be some readers who think that consensual positive sex has no place in an adventure story, as if it is not exciting enough to make for a real plot or is merely a sort of feminish wish fulfillment because manly adventurous men don’t fall in ugh mushy love much less want to read about it.

I propose that the opposite is true. It is *easy* to use sexual violence to push the adrenalin and action, to create a sense of peril and pain and victimization. Television and film are filled with depictions of men (and occasionally women) rescuing or failing to rescue or inflicting damage on terrified and abused women. We’re used to the story of sex bound up with fear and pain. We know that language too well, and frankly I don’t think there’s anything edgy or challenging about it, not any more.

As writer N. K. Jemisin said in a Twitter conversation on this topic, it is important for writers to portray positive sexual encounters between consenting adults. When so many sexual encounters in fiction are negative, violent, coerced, or frightening because that is seen as “proper” narrative tension, it is doubly important to depict positive sexual encounters as part and parcel of an exciting tale.

By that I do not mean every story must have sex in it; not at all. Rather, I mean that when appropriate to the story such positive sexytimes be seen not as escapism or wish fulfillment (and thus denigrated) but rather one element in a wholistic portrayal of a full range of human experiences.

So I am here today to talk about sex in five different books/series that I read in 2012 (not necessarily published in 2012). I read other books with good and interesting and fun and sexy depictions of sex and sexuality in them, but I have specific reasons to highlight the ones below.

Susanna Kearsley’s The Rose Garden is a fairly traditional love story with an historical twist. I love Kearsley’s writing for its beauty and its evocative description and especially for the way she builds so much emotion in the relationships between people. She is never dependent on violence and fear to create tension, which is not to say that violent and frightening things don’t have a place in fiction but rather that sometimes writers can start relying on them to the exclusion of more nuanced portrayals of human interaction. I can’t stop reading her stories because I become so invested in the characters that I have to find out what happens to them. The Rose Garden is no different. It is a love story between two level-headed adults with an unusual obstacle to overcome. I found it both heartfelt and deeply satisfying.

The Rose Garden Huntress

Malinda Lo’s Huntress is another fairly traditional love story, this one in a fantasy setting with magic and a perilous quest. While marketed as a YA, I would call this a book that falls between YA and adult, with its close attention to the emotional journeys into full adulthood of the two main characters. Lo does a wonderful job evoking the tremulous stirring of young love, of how shyness and reserve can create obstacles, of how each touch and look creates sexual tension. Good kissing can be difficult to pull off in a way that isn’t bombastic but rather real, and Lo writes good kissing indeed. The journey is truly dangerous and the romance is really sweet. It’s the way I remember young love. I particularly liked her resolution.

As I mention above, too often these days I find disturbing and often violent portrayals of heterosexual sex, as if only non consensual or skeezy sex is “dramatic enough” to be included in a novel or as if a wounded past is the best way to establish a heroine’s bonafides as a tough gal. I also have read, even recently, sexual encounters in fantasy novels between men and women (or men on women) that seem steeped in a kind of resentful and “uncontrollable” adolescent male heterosexuality. There are all too many sexy scheming women who have their way with sex-crazed but weak-willed men, or accommodating Playboy-style courtesans who make their way in the world with their breast-baring clothing, or victimized women subject to endless sexual violence, as if the only narratively interesting way to depict sex is when it is violent or demeaning. Not only do I find these depictions of women disturbing, but I find these depictions of male heterosexuality equally disturbing because healthier depictions of the male libido fall by the wayside and then people begin to argue that this is “how men really are deep inside” rather than “these are depictions of unhealthy male sexuality.”

I found an excellent antidote to this tired and unpleasant attitude in Ben Aaronvitch’s Rivers of London urban fantasy series about young London constable Peter Grant. (The first volume is called Rivers of London in the UK but Midnight Riot in the US.) I don’t recall Grant’s age being specified but I would guess him to be between 23 and 26 years old. He is a good looking and charming young man, even if he must say so himself, and it’s clear that women genuinely like him. He certainly likes women. He checks women out; he gets erections when he feels aroused; he has sex. He is young, male, and heterosexual, and that sexuality is captured in the first person narrative, but at the same time mostly he goes about doing his job as a constable and learning magic in the modern day London of the series. Most of his interactions with women have nothing to do with sex, and it is clear he respects women–even the ones he is attracted to–and treats them as people in the same way he treats men. What a pleasant change of pace that is!

Rivers of London Midnight Riot

Last winter term my daughter took a class in Chinese Vernacular Literature at university, and she called me and demanded that I read along with her the famous epic novel Dream of Red Mansions (aka Dream of the Red Chamber, aka The Story of the Stone) by Cao Xueqin (mid 18th century). I was skeptical. Old classic, many volumes, probably worthy and dull. To my surprise, it was anything but (we read the David Hawkes translation). It resembles in some ways the modern telenovela, with comedy and tragedy and humor and melodrama and poetry contests. It is a page turner. I mean that literally, as the author will end a chapter with the oldest trick in the book which for all I know he invented: “She opened the door and there on the other side . . . but you have to read the next chapter to find out.” The story is filled with women and follows one main male character as he grows up in the women’s quarters of a Qing dynasty household. One of the really interesting things is how completely matter of fact it is about sex. People have sex, and all kinds of sex: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, between people of equal status, between people of unequal status, coercive, passionate, problematic, sweet, you name it. The ways the characters think about sex and what behaviors may be shameful have less to do with sex itself and more to do with social relations within and between clans. It is never coy and thus makes for a refreshing read.

The Story of the Stone Banner of the Damned

Last, I want to mention Sherwood Smith’s magnificent Banner of the Damned, a finely-wrought fantasy novel with a complex plot, beautifully observed details of food and clothing and culture that matter to the plot, and any number of emotionally fraught relationships and love stories. However, the narrator and heroine of the story is asexual. I don’t consider that a spoiler; it matters but not in the way you might think. It is so rare to depict an asexual person who is competent and social that I realized I am not even sure how many other books I have ever read that have depicted positively and centrally an asexual character. I was really delighted to read this one.

As for pleasing and consensual literary sex in 2013, I’m hopeful there will be lots of it. I have tried to do my part with Cold Steel (the third volume of the Spiritwalker Trilogy), and I quote (for those who haven’t read the books, Bee is Beatrice and Cat is the narrator, her cousin Catherine):

“Kisses!” exclaimed Bee. “When was there kissing? Cat!”

Here I emulate the master, Cao Xueqin, and say, “June 2013.”

Are there trends or tropes in literary sex that you particularly dislike or particularly appreciate? What literary sex did you enjoy in 2012? What are you looking forward to in 2013?

Thank you, Kate!

Giveaway Details:

Cold Magic Spirit Gate

Thanks to Kate, we have ONE of her previously published books up for grabs! These include: Cold Magic or Cold Fire (from the Spiritwalker trilogy); Spirit Gate, Shadow Gate, or Traitors’ Gate (from the Crossroads trilogy); or any one of the volumes from the Crown of Stars series. The contest is open to ALL (we will select one US and one International winner), and will run until Sunday January 6 at 12:01am PST. In order to enter, use the form below. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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  • Anne Lyle
    December 29, 2012 at 1:26 am

    Dammit, Kate, more books to add to my TBR pile! 🙂

    I totally agree, though. I’m constantly appalled by certain sectors of (usually male) fandom who think it’s fine to include non-consensual sex in a fantasy novel but not consensual sex. Ugh, girl cooties!

    One of the many reasons I love Joe Abercrombie’s novels is that they are very conventional epic fantasy in some respects, but the majority of relationships shown are consensual (if not always healthy). The one attempted rape shown so far (I haven’t finished the first trilogy yet) was summarily punished in a way that had me cheering for the good guys. By contrast, I find the matter-of-fact acceptance of rape in George R R Martin’s ASOIAF to be deeply depressing, to the point where I can’t read it any more.

    Of course one is sometimes constrained by historical reality (my current trilogy is set in the Elizabethan era), but as someone said recently, writing a book with a sexist setting doesn’t mean you have to write a sexist narrative.

  • Gerd D.
    December 29, 2012 at 3:58 am

    I’m terrible with reading sex scenes, I’m afraid the older I get the less use I have for them. 🙂

    As such I have to say the (actually non-existent) sex scene in “gray moon mountain” by S. M. Reine was what I probably enjoyed most this year – she leaves no doubt about what happens between the characters, but she doesn’t write about it and rather keeps it to the before and after moment which gives it a cuteness I dearly miss in the more graphic descriptions I came upon throughout the year.

    I also notice that violence, especially sexualized violence, is getting harder to shrug off for me these days – why I try my best to avoid such reads. But I do notice that there’s more sexualized violence reemerging, and that authors seem to become more cavalier about using it, it feels like the seventies all over again in that regard – but that may be less of a new trend and just be owed to changing reading habits.

    There’s no sex whatsoever in 2013 that I’m looking forward to – I think. But Kat Falls YA novel is on my must-have list, and given the current trend in YA, there may after all be some. 😀

  • Amy @ Turn the Page
    December 29, 2012 at 4:08 am

    Love love love this. Kate Elliott has already become a favourite author for me this year, in fact I’m off to my local bookstore today to pick up a book of hers I have reserved, and I like her even more after this piece. One of the reasons I couldn’t stand to read beyond the first book of Game of Thrones was because of the way he writes about sex. A couple of these books are on my wish list so I think I’m going to check them out even sooner now 😀

  • Nathan
    December 29, 2012 at 7:03 am

    Big fan of Kate Elliott, ever since I found her ‘Crossroads’ trilogy. I have off and on read ‘Crown of Stars’ as well. As for sex in my books, knowing that it is there is usually good enough. Most sex scenes just don’t work for me. Rape doesn’t always make me drop a book(though it has in extreme cases), but it always makes it harder for me to recommend it. A lot of authors need to find a new crutch for bad guys to use.

  • Rebcca
    December 29, 2012 at 7:37 am

    I love this post. And the thoughtful comments.

    In my opinion, the portrayal of violence against women is becoming too popular of a trope in fantasy, and a disturbing one. The portrayal of rape in a novel can be a deal breaker for me. That might just be me, but I don’t need to read about that.

    So thank you for more excellent recommendations!!!

  • Bibliotropic
    December 29, 2012 at 7:55 am

    Literary sex is a real hit-or-miss thing for me. Mostly what bothers me about the sex in the books that I read is that it’s a tired and somewhat insulting cliche, an event undertaken by a strong-but-vulnerable woman and a muscle-bound somewhat misogynistic man. Boring, trite, and I can’t relate to it in the slightest, which means any hotness it may have is totally lost on me. Give me consenting sex between two interesting characters who actually respect each other!

  • Stephanie T.
    December 29, 2012 at 8:02 am

    Hi Kate,

    I recall that the Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey had an asexual best friend in it that was portrayed pretty well! Its YA but the story was really good 🙂

  • Greg
    December 29, 2012 at 8:57 am

    The trend over the last hear that I appreciated the most was the croud funding trend…. when a published has dropped an author for low sales or not increasing sales over time (like as happened to MK Hobson and Tobias Buckell) I am happy go see that now fans can make books happen that would not be published otherwise.
    Maybe I’ve been reading too much YA but I can recall really no literary sex over the last year …. Hmm must go read Game of thrones again I guess…
    Oh there is so much to look forward to…. but the novella Six Gun Snow White be Cat Valente comes right to mind…

  • Estara
    December 29, 2012 at 9:21 am

    *grins at Ana* I have to just repeat that I really liked Andrea K Höst‘s YA science fantasies – The Touchstone Trilogy (whose omnibus came out this year) has no romance in the first book (the heroine has other things to worry about), in the second book she has enough of a grip on what is happening to really start to see possibilities (and be quite shy about it, because the man she’s interested in doesn’t seem to return the interest) and in the third book where the relationship is real from the start there’s the dealing with familial expectations and with the main plot threads that make for difficult times for everyone. I loved the slow development (especially because I’ve never enjoyed forcing my love onto others – ‘no, thank you’ should mean the same on both sides of the relationship) – and wallowed in the free Gratuitious Epilogue ^^.

    Ana already quoted my very favourite awkward first time sex scene this year in her review of And All the Stars.

  • Sara Gunderson
    December 29, 2012 at 10:13 am

    It sometimes feels like the primary female characters in fantasy either have to be sexually promiscuous/aggressive or the victim of rape either in the past or in the present. I wish I could say that I only run across this in works written by men, but I find it all too often in fantasy written by women.

  • Liz
    December 29, 2012 at 11:20 am

    Great post! I love coming across thoughtful discussions of sex in fiction, because there are definitely some disturbing trends going on.

    Seanan McGuire had a rather great response to a fan who told her that the fact that none of her characters had been raped was unrealistic:

    I cannot wait to read Cold Steel! I have been looking forward to it since book 2 came out.

  • Jamie
    December 29, 2012 at 11:29 am

    I feel like a big part of the problem with sex in historical fiction is the idea that many people have that historical times were barbaric; that men (and women) throughout the ages thought women were for men’s pleasure, that women were incapable of pleasure. Yet, looking at the historical information, we know that this is not true in many cases and in many eras. Yes life was hard for women, but there’s a reason stereotypes of “mysterious” or “seductive” women exist; sex was power, and women who could use it elevated themselves to a position of equal power to men. It’s not about being superior, it’s about persuading people of both genders that women can be equal in a very important way; sex. It’s more difficult to treat a good, empowered lover with disrespect than one who doesn’t take her (or even his) sexuality seriously. Anyone except dyed-in-the-wool sexists will be a little more accepting despite cultural norms if everyone is empowered sexually. And pity the sexists, they are missing out on a lot of fun.

  • AH@badassbookreviews
    December 29, 2012 at 11:29 am

    I discovered Kate’s books last year and while I jumped unknowingly into book 2, I fell in love with the book and can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

    With regards to sex in books, I don’t mind it if it moves the story line forward. I’ve read several books where it was done well and others where I just got fed up and the sex was just gratuitous to the point of ridiculous. Just how many times can the main characters have angry sex? Doesn’t it get old after a while?

  • Anne Lyle
    December 29, 2012 at 11:46 am

    I have to confess that the paucity of consensual sex in fantasy just makes me want to write more of it. Not erotica-level in quantity or explicitness, just a bit less of the fade-to-black when appropriate. Treat it like the normal activity it is, not something squicky to sweep under the carpet…

    Anyone who doesn’t like it can avoid my books, the way I avoid the ones with gratuitous sexual violence.

  • Christopher
    December 29, 2012 at 11:48 am

    Love the dialogue in this post. The question should be raised as to what is appropriate in the telling of the story? A relationship between characters that are involved in life threatening situations can create a bond and tension that can lead to sexual attraction. Whether they do have sex or not depends on the situation. Amazing, it’s just like real life.

    The disturbing rape issues I don’t like. I find the descriptions overwhelming. And for that reason, I agree with Anne, Martin has lost me also.

    Anticipation of 2013 for sex in books, if it arrives unexpectedly and is not gratuitous, I’ll be good with that.

  • de Pizan
    December 29, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Stephanie T, I was really excited for Guardian of the Dead because of it featuring an asexual character. But when that character spends almost the whole novel in love/sleeping with/obsessed with another character…it kind of makes his asexuality a moot point. And yes, I realize he was under a spell so he didn’t choose it. But it’s kind of like Disney’s Princess and the Frog–a big deal is made about her being the first African-American Disney heroine, but then she appears as a frog through 2/3rds of the film. So that vital characteristic is kind of obliterated in both cases.

  • Suz Glo
    December 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    Cold Magic has been on my “I want to read that!” list for some time. Thanks for the giveaway!

  • Gerd D.
    December 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Hey, thanks Liz for that link.
    I’ve been considering Seanan for some time but I’ve grown a little wary of UF for exactly that reason. Good to hear there are some authors left out there who are safe to read. 🙂

  • jenmitch
    December 29, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    great post! first, i have to say, the sex in cold fire was just great. (along with the extras on her website!). it wasn’t published this year, but i also thought the sex scenes in graceling were really well done too — understated and filled with longing — and…. consensual! oh oh, and also the song of achilles.

    i’m glad to see other people mentioning george r r martin’s books — i’ve followed the books for a long time, and don’t intend to stop, but the sex scenes tend to be just gross. filled with violence and seen entirely with a male gaze. i don’t know if i minded when i read the first books years ago, but at this point, most of his sex scenes just make me say “ick”.

    anyways, i’m really looking forward to checking out some of the books on the list in this post. thanks for writing it!

  • Summer
    December 29, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    I was reading an urban fantasy novel in one of my favourite series (Faith Hunter) and all of a sudden was hit with a totally unexpected “forced” vampire feeding that made me feel as if I had read a really explicit rape scene. I was surprised that it brought up such strong feelings in me but I almost couldn’t finish the book. I felt like there should have been a trigger warning! I realise that it’s not sex, but I feel like the sort of “he couldn’t help sucking her blood even when she said no” thing can take the place of sexual violence in a really nasty way in urban fantasy books.

    Thanks for the giveaway!

  • Kelsey
    December 29, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    This year, I finally got around to reading the Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and it was indeed spectacular, one of my Top Reads of 2012. However, I’d only give the Wise Man’s Fear a 3 out of 5 stars at best, mainly because of the depictions of sex. It all seemed like such a heterosexual adolescent male fantasy, with Kvothe suddenly having so much prowess. And the Felurian. I can’t even begin to describe what a chore it was to slog through the Felurian bit. Though the worst part came just after the Felurian, at the end of Chapter 107.

    Anyway, I hope that the untitled third book will do justice to the promise of the first book. Perhaps it will be published in 2013 (unlikely)?

  • Summer
    December 29, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    @Gerd — *definitely* try Seanan’s books. Her characters are fantastic and her writing is beautiful.

  • Melinda
    December 29, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    I have recently spoken to Kate about my admiration for her portrayal of Sanglant (Crown of Stars) the way she wrote him as a character and his tenderness towards the other lead character Liath. I fell in love with their relationship due to the way Kate depicted their individual background stories and their obvious attraction and sexual tension. Violence wasn’t needed in order to make each chapter about them craved to be read. Rereading the whole series again .. Although I love George R. R. Martin’s books, the sexual scenes are a bit over the top and forceful.

  • bn100
    December 29, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    Nice post. Noticed there are more books where it involves more people now

  • mk
    December 29, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    My 2013 release TBR pile is huge
    but I think the one I’m most looking forward to is the next is Karen Marie Moning’s Dani novels, and teh next Patricia Briggs

  • Victoria Hooper
    December 29, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    I have to admit I haven’t read anything by Kate Elliott but now I certainly will! I agree that there seems to be too much rape and violent sex in fantasy at the moment, and that sex that’s both consensual and pleasant seems to be treated either as icky or ‘oh noes girl stuff’. Getting really tired of the ‘historical justification’ argument too. It only goes so far when the book is fantasy rather than history, and as Anne said, you can write about a sexist time without actually writing a sexist book. Hoping for less of the violent sex in future, and more of the mutually-enjoying variety.

    Thanks for the giveaway! 🙂

  • JenP
    December 29, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    Nice, thoughtful post. I hate the ‘I just met you, now jump into bed’ scenes.

  • Kelley B
    December 29, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    Very interesting post. Thanks for the giveaway!

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    December 29, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    […] You can find my guest post at Book Smugglers. […]

  • Stacy Stew
    December 29, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    I’m looking less sex and more story. The sex should be natural not forced.

  • Nikki Egerton
    December 29, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post. I mostly read YA, where there isn’t so much of the sex. The way you describe Rivers of London rings true with me for many books that I have read, in that normal sexy feelings are omitted from books in favour of mind blowing, overwhelming feelings of ‘love’. While insta-love can be really annoying, insta-lust is totally understandable and doesn’t happen very often in books, especially if not immediately followed by true love.

  • Ashley Wade
    December 29, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    I don’t really think much about the sex (or lack there of) that I read. If it’s there, it’s there. If not, it’s not. I rarely have an opinion on whether or not it was well done unless it was gratuitous (ie. the Sookie Stackhouse novels have A LOT of sex) and I don’t think I’ve read any like that this year. I also don’t struggle deciding what to put in my own writing (as it seems a lot of people do).

  • JenM
    December 29, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    In general I’m annoyed by sex in novels that is gratuitous (i.e., doesn’t advance the plot or further the development of the characters). I’m almost coming to resent it, especially in UF because it seems like pages that could be used for those things are instead sacrificed just to throw in an extra sex scene, although at least UF isn’t usually as bad as PNR in that regard. As for straight fantasy, for the most part, I’ve stopped reading it because of the misogyny and the subservience of women. Kate’s books sound like a welcome change from that and I’ve got them on my wishlist.

    Regarding memorable sex scenes, one that stands out for me was in the lovely novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. The two lead characters are “mature” – Major Pettigrew is a retired English army major in his 60’s and Mrs. Ali is a Pakistani widow in her 50’s. The scene fades to black, but it’s so lovely and so emotional, and so rare to see a positive depiction of sex between older characters in our youth driven culture.

  • Mary Preston
    December 29, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    I don’t like it when the ‘hero’ is nothing but a brute.

  • LisaC
    December 29, 2012 at 7:55 pm

    I found the scenes in The Haunting of Maddy Clare very moving.

  • LisaC
    December 29, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    There are some moving scenes in The Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St. James.

  • JoannaNY
    December 29, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    Another excellent Chinese novel with matter of fact depictions of sex is The Plum in the Golden Vase. If you liked Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber) you will like Jin Ping Mei (Chinese title) too!

    Also, lol at your description

    Old classic, many volumes, probably worthy and dull.

    I was pleasantly surprised myself. And the English translation of Jin Ping Mei is so good you will want to learn Chinese so you can read it in the original.

  • Kate Elliott
    December 29, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    These are such great comments, you guys.

    The sex/no sex debate is a good one. One reader said, “I think of characters as my friends and since I don’t want to see my friends with their clothes off, I don’t want to see characters with their clothes off!” I think this is a completely legitimate perspective.
    For my part, I like a good sex scene, but for me as a reader it has to fit in with the story and I have to want to see that intimacy for a reason other than *just* the mechanism of sex.

  • Llehn
    December 29, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    I haven’t read any book that had any sort of sex this year so I’m unable to comment on that.

  • rachel
    December 29, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    I never need sex scenes but I appreciate a great build-up. I think “Divergent” by Veronica Roth has great romantic tension. To me, that’s totally sexy.

  • Kate & Zena
    December 29, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    I especially dislike the trope of rape being something that women asked for in literature. IT ISN’T SOMETHING WE EVER ASK FOR and when it’s included in a novel I just want to punch the author. UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGH, I can rant all day about it!

  • Kate Elliott
    December 29, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    Jamie and Anne bring up good points about sex in historical settings.

    I have run across this idea (not often, thankfully) that somehow the past was a country where women didn’t get sexual pleasure and where men didn’t ever bother themselves with women’s pleasure. Obviously such people have never read Sappho or women poets or Chaucer, etc.

    Like Anne, the more I hear complaints about all that icky romance stuff, the more I want to write it into epic fantasy. In a balanced, appropriate way OF COURSE. 😉

  • Kate Elliott
    December 29, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    JoannaNY: Ha! In October I was at Powells Bookstore and was looking at The Plum in the Golden Vase, but I decided to embark on Monkey’s journey instead.

  • Kate Elliott
    December 29, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    Yes, that Seanan McGuire post is excellent. So creepy that someone wrote that to her, and such a great reply by her. Very much agreed with all the commenters on the reckless use of rape in fiction. I think there are stories where it happens and times it matters to examine it, but in my opinion it should be a weighty decision and not a casual one.

  • Kate Elliott
    December 29, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    Thanks for the recs, you guys.

    Echoing Rachel, I love a great build up.

  • sk.
    December 29, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    i hate how sex is often not discussed openly in YA novels. It is considered sinful or the teens only make the decision but only with their “one true love.” These types of ideas send the wrong messages to teens.

  • SonomaLass
    December 29, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    While they aren’t sexually explicit, two authors who I think depict healthy sexual relationships are Lois McMaster Bujold and the late, great Kage Baker. And to give a hat tip to a couple of male writers, Jay Lake and John Scalzi have both written books that I’d put in that category.

    Thanks for focusing on this important issue in your post, Kate!

  • Keslynn
    December 29, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    Really interesting post that’s making me think. Thank you!

    When I first started thinking about sex in fantasy, I couldn’t even think of any outside the ick factor rape/prostitution/coercion. Thinking more of it, there is some closed door sex in Wheel of Time. There is also some coercion involved though the main case I can think of is Mat/Tylin where Mat (the man) is the one being coerced.

    Now I’m going to have to think more about other fantasy books I’ve read. I’ve mostly been reading a lot of paranormal romance lately, which of course, has sex as a part of the plotline. There is also rape but I feel like it’s handled in a lot more of a nuanced fashion than just to make the heroine a certified badass. I’d like to give a shoutout to Kelly Meding’s Dreg City books and Patricia Brigg’s 2 werewolf series kudos for handling rape in a nuanced and sensitive fashion. It was (unfortunately for our heroine) a natural progression in the plot and not gratuitous at all. Plus, it deals with the ramifications and healing process. Maybe this is because of women writers? This is not to say that male writers can’t handle sexual violence in a nuanced way, but it seems to be more rare in my experience.

    Lots to think about!

  • Hannah H
    December 29, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    Good question!
    I’m highly skeeved out by anything even tangentially related to incest. I couldn’t finish City of Bones because of it, although it turns out they’re not actually related? I have the same issue with rape, the commonality of prostitution, and, especially in high fantasy, the trope of the scheming woman getting ahead because of her sex appeal. However, those tropes are common enough that I can’t just throw a series away whenever they come up. (God, sometimes I want to smack an otherwise competent writer upside the head and say “This? Read this back to me and tell me it’s not idiotic and disrespectful. Go ahead.”)
    That said, I would like to add the caveat that if its a) necessary to the story, b) respectfully and realistically done and c) absolutely vital to the story and characters and done with women who are respected, more than these tropes and not objectified in any way then maybe it’s ok. However, there is no excuse for the amount of fiction featuring these.
    I also wish not so much importance was placed on virginity for female protags and love interests. Too often, a novel goes out of its way to point out the narrator’s “purity” and inexperience, while contrasting it with alluring boys who are well versed in the ways of the sexytimes.
    Please. Just once, I’d like to see it switched around, especially in a YA.

  • Summer
    December 29, 2012 at 11:04 pm

    @Hannah — “Unspoken” by Sarah Reese Brennan is a really good YA novel with a guy in that situation (all the romances in that book arwe handled superbly IMHO)

  • GoddessCarlie
    December 29, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    Thank you for this timely article. I am actually writing a book at the moment and it is very challenging to me in terms of sex. It includes all kinds of sex, including a polyamorous relationship, but also rape and it is quite brutal in society’s treatment of women. I am hoping to show how two strong women survive in the world I depict which is somewhat like our own. I think of my story as being different as it is told in the point of view of the women, and I will show healthy (if different) sexual relationships as well… Anyway, this article gave me a lot to think about, thank you.

    Oh, and I love Kate Elliot’s Spirit Gate series, I really need to read the Cold Magic one!

  • heather
    December 30, 2012 at 12:39 am

    it depends on the details of the scene

  • Almaeron
    December 30, 2012 at 7:46 am

    It’s been a few years since I started thinking about this, but in Anne Aguire’s Sirantha Jax novels (a sci-fi series) there’s some pretty graphic consensual sex. I wasn’t really prepared for it, since pretty much all fiction I’d read prior to that left the sex undescribed. At first it seemed like it was too much, a little jarring to me, but I think that’s mostly because I’m not used to seeing it in the books I read, and thinking more about it, the sex scenes really weren’t just for titillation, at least I don’t think so, as it added to the growing relationship between the two main characters, which really became a central conflict in the plot. I do think it would be good to see more of it, because consciously or not, I’ve taken a lot of queues from the fiction I read, and when sex is just glossed over in fiction, I wasn’t really prepared for it in real life. I always was interested in romance, but sex was just sort of something I sort of… glossed over, I guess.

  • Tiffany
    December 30, 2012 at 7:54 am

    I like Anne Bishop’s Black Jewel Trilogy, it has everything in it; the bad and ugly side but also the good and sweet side that fits into the story line very well.

    And I love Spirit Gate, and am very excited for the newest one!

  • Dovile
    December 30, 2012 at 8:01 am

    I’ve read too few literary sex scenes to know what I really dislike.If I’m reading a romance, I’m prepared for lots of explicit sex, but in other genres it sometimes can be distracting, and I don’t like when there are graphic sex scenes that contribute little to nothing to the overall plot.

    BTW, I love Kate’s Crown of Stars series! I’ve all but the last book, and I can’t wait to read it too.

  • Meghan M.
    December 30, 2012 at 8:24 am

    An interesting question! I dislike unrealistic sex scenes and the silly language some authors use – I’ve read a fair amount of romance – and just about every other genre there is – and of course, the sex scenes cannot be brutally realistic every time, they have to fit the book they are in. Still, though, sometimes I’d like to read a sex scene and think to myself, ‘Yeah, this could work.’
    In 2012, I did not really read much literary sex – because of my job, I read a lot of children’s literature this past year.
    In 2013, I am definitely looking forward to the start of a new series from Gail Carriger as well as the new Neil Gaiman novel!! I’ve never read anything by Kate Elliot before, but with everyone here singing her praises, I’ve been feeling rather inspired to go and pick up one of her series. Would love to win a copy of Cold Magic and start that series!

  • Larry Lennhoff
    December 30, 2012 at 8:36 am

    For an asexual leading character try Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarion.

  • Tasha Turner
    December 30, 2012 at 9:40 am

    What a great article. You’ve added a bunch of books for me to check out. I complain about the way sex is used in books and how degrading it is to both men and women to my husband all the time.

  • ruth
    December 30, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    these were some great recommendations to add to my ever growing TBR pile. I’m fine with any amount of sex in books as long as it advances the plat and isn’t unnecessarily rapey.

  • Dana
    December 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    I love Romance so I encounter a lot of literary sex. One of my least favorite tropes is “the virgin heroine” – as though to make the pairing complete the heroine must explore sex exclusively with the hero. This, of course, is never true for the hero, who, mostly in these novels, is highly experienced. ugh.

  • erinf1
    December 30, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    I guess I just want it to flow well. Sometimes unnecessary “naughty” words jar me out of the scene or too much description of their bodies.

  • sarac
    December 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels books took the graphic sex just one step too far, I thought.

  • Hann1bal
    December 30, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    I just don’t want gratuitous sex, really. If it’s important to the characters, plot, and/or setting, go ahead, do it, just (dear authors) don’t feel obligated to squeeze sex in for no damn reason.

  • Amanda @ Late Nights with Good Books
    December 30, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    I wouldn’t say there are particular tropes of literary sex that I like. I just like any sexual situations to be believable, consensual, and to read it with a feeling that this encounter makes complete sense in the world with the characters. I don’t want to read a section and feel like the author perhaps felt it was necessary to keep reader’s attentions. I would be interested in reading some books featuring more asexual characters. I enjoyed Jessica Darling’s thoughts on sex in Sloppy Firsts this year and am looking forward to reading her future thoughts in the rest of the series as I continue with it next year. I also loved how Kristin Cashore portrayed sex in all three of her Graceling Realm novels.

  • Alexandra the Great
    December 30, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    In Andrea K. Host’s And All the Stars, Host managed to make the one sex scene really sweet, while still conveying the awkwardness (and weirdness) of sex.

    Least favourite trope: the experienced hero “teaching” the young, virgin (or at least inexperienced) heroine.

    Favourite romance novel: Rose Lerner’s A Lily Among Thorns, which has a relationship based on personal (not necessarily sexual) compatibility. Huzzah!

  • Kay-Kay-Bay
    December 30, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    I’m interested in seeing more asexual characters. There was one in “The Guardian of the Dead” by Karen Healy, which I read recently and appreciated. But I still don’t see them very often. Gratuitous sex scenes bug me a fair bit. As does gratuitous romance in general, actually. Something I greatly appreciated about “Code Name Verity” was that it was about two very close friends, and romance didn’t need to come into it at all.

  • Kate Elliott
    December 31, 2012 at 1:55 am

    I also find gratuitous sex scenes distracting or at times off putting, although I’ve of course run into readers who think any form of sexual tension or growing romantic feelings is gratuitous (or even borderline offensive!). Otoh, people have very very different ways of approaching fiction and different things they want out of it.

    Thanks for the recs. You know, my TBR pile isn’t nearly high enough . . .

  • Amanda W
    December 31, 2012 at 9:37 am

    I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book with an asexual hero/heroine (although I’ve certainly read some where that doesn’t come into play at all), but I think it would certainly be refreshing and interesting! I definitely get tired of male sexuality being portrayed in a “well, he’s a man so he just can’t help it” kind of way. Not only does that contribute to a disrespectful attitude toward women, but it’s very disrespectful to men. Kind of like how in tv/movies dads are so often portrayed as dumb/clueless/incompetant, even though there are a lot of really great dads out there. I’m also a fan of the less is more approach to sex scenes — give me all the tension and meltiness and swoon without giving me an anatomy lesson.

  • Mia
    December 31, 2012 at 10:34 am

    I mostly read YA in 2012 and by default sex tends to be talked about more than actually acted upon. I did enjoy the depictions of sex in Courtney Summers This is Not a Test. The sex, just like every other part of that book, really added to the complexity and character growth in the novel.

    I did read the first three Song of Fire and Ice novels by George R.R. Martin and while I thoroughly enjoyed them the constant talk of, threatening of, or actual rape that happens in those books make me want to scream.

  • Mia
    December 31, 2012 at 10:36 am

    Oh, forgot to say that Cold Fire is my number one most anticipated book of next year. The first two quickly became favorites and I cannot wait to see how Cat’s story ends.

  • Jennifer
    December 31, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    It quite depends of the kind of novels. I don’t really expect and don’t want to see gratuitous sex. And I am usually ok of the one that is just suggested or talked.
    And for this year, I don’t really remember liking a kind of literary sex, probably since when there’s a relationship, I notice more if it is realistic, sweet, romantic, belieavable…
    In 2013, I am looking forward to read The Runaway King and probably to enjoy some already praised enough books, instead of randomly picking some. Too many books. Not enough time.

  • Maureen
    December 31, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    I do like Susanna Kearsley’s writing and I enjoy stories like hers that show positive relationships.

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  • Lillian
    January 1, 2013 at 1:50 am

    I don’t mind sex in novels, but I prefer it to be something developed over time. The main focus should be the plot and exploits of the characters. However, if two of the characters should come to fall in love, I have no problem with their sexual relationship being portrayed. Consensually, of course.

  • lostrack621
    January 1, 2013 at 6:47 am

    I’ve limited myself to historical/regency romance pretty much exclusively for much of the last year as I’m working on my thesis, but I did take some time to read a few SFF novels here and there (problem is I get distracted by the plot and end up reading too late or not doing the work I need to do!). I’ve sampled many authors over the last year and the romance writers I realize I’m drawn to are the ones who use sex as a natural progression of the plot (key word: plot!). Some of the books I’ve enjoyed reading recently are by Stephanie Laurens, Tessa Dare, Nicola Cornick, and Lisa Kleypas.

    I’m really looking forward to Cold Steel coming out later in 2013! Also, I’m looking forward to getting back to my heavy doses of SFF once my thesis is done.

  • Serena
    January 2, 2013 at 12:00 am

    I, too, hate the “virgin heroine” trope. I could go on for a quite a bit about the repurcussions of this trope on sexuality and its portrayal but also, inevitably, once the sex scene does arrive, it is very unrealistic with regards to the virginity aspect of the experience. I have always loved Juliet Marillier’s novels for the expert way she handles this subject, both the brutal aspects as well as the lovely and touching.

  • Lauren
    January 2, 2013 at 9:40 am

    I also love the way Kristin Cashore portrays sex — just graphic enough to be exciting, but each encounter is consensual and sweetly done. I also enjoyed Libba Bray’s Rebel Angels series — it was written several years ago, but I just read it this year. I like that she makes her heroine feel awkward about her sexuality (it is the 19th century, afterall), but also allows her to feel unashamed about those feelings, and wanting to explore it.

  • Emma
    January 2, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    I like to see women’s sexuality fairly represented. I enjoyed how this was portrayed in Graceling.

  • Alpa
    January 3, 2013 at 4:45 am

    You know I don’t enjoy literary sex if they are included for no reason. If there is absolute necessity (yes, i dont reject the possibility of necessity), I enjoy positive scenes.

  • Lozza
    January 3, 2013 at 9:47 am

    I read a lot of romance, and thus a lot of sex scenes. When I first started reading romance, it was really frustrating to read all these scenes where the woman has zero sexual experience and yet is able to get really into it, feels no pain or awkwardness, and is able to orgasm. I remember finding it very refreshing to read a depiction of awkward and uncomfortable (so much so that they give up before finishing) sex in one of Lisa Kleypas’ Hathaway books, and continue to appreciate it when first time encounters are less than ideal.

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  • Kate Elliott
    January 4, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    Again, I want to thank everyone for these great comments. I have added a couple of books to my TBR now.

  • Robi
    January 5, 2013 at 8:05 am

    A trope that I dislike is romantic triangles. I admit that I seldom find them very believable.
    I like couples that trust each other.

  • Michele Tracy Berger
    January 6, 2013 at 8:44 am

    A great and thoughtful post. I find it really hard to read sci-fi and fantasy work that has an overabundance of sexual violence and casual commodification of sex. I will check out the books that you recommend. I also think of authors Charles De Lint, Octavia Butler, Sherri Tepper, Margaret Atwood and Melissa Scott who manage to write interesting sexual relationships into their work that are compelling.

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  • Juliet E McKenna
    January 11, 2013 at 6:12 am

    Coming late to this so I haven’t read all the comments – apologies. Has anyone already mentioned Janet Edwards’ Earth Girl (debut novel 2012) which has, tangentially, believable and positive portrayal of emerging teen sexuality.

  • jmb
    January 19, 2013 at 8:48 am

    “Le donne, i cavallier, l’arme, gli amori,
    le cortesie, l’audaci imprese io canto”
    – the beginning of the great Renaissance foundational fantasy epic Orlando Furioso, “Of ladies, and knights, of battles, and of love/Of courtesy and courage incomparable I sing”- romance was always part of the adventure story tradition, sweet “mushy stuff” and all. Only recently has it been deemed “unmanly” to include it, let alone have it driving the plot.

  • Elisabeth Tilton
    April 16, 2013 at 3:15 am

    I quite enjoyed your reviews of books with more positive themed sex in them. Since I write fantasy fiction and my characters have both positive and negative sexual situations I found your perspective refreshing. I had been criticized for the positive scenes before because some people felt if someone wasn’t getting hurt then it was not moving the plot forward. I think sex scenes can be used not just for enjoyment but to reveal bits of the plot, background information, and to show development of the characters.

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