I’ve been meaning to read Sarah Jean Horwitz’s The Dark Lord Clementine for years, and I’m glad I finally did. It’s charming. Extremely charming.
I have complicated feelings about how the main character is constrained by forces outside her control, and how that creates what I felt was a gendered portrayal of empowerment, but… that’s what the story is all about. And on reflection, the feelings I had about the gendered story conventions were both correct and missed the point. The story beats which evoked those conventions are crucial to the course of the story, and crucial to the way its conclusion works so well and feels so good.
I don’t think the story could create the same excellence without them.
The Dark Lord Clementine is about Clementine, sole child of Dark Lord Elithor and heir to the family’s title and responsibilities: crushing witches and competitors, vying with other Dark Lords while maintaining evil status, and making the local peasants’ lives miserable. It’s about Clementine’s need to live up to her father’s expectations—as well as her own expectations, and those of her society. And it’s about her need to save her father from the terrible curses of his enemies, when he’s struggling to save himself.
It’s about more than that too, about relationships and manipulation and abuse, and friendship and betrayal. It’s about growing into yourself, and finding your way in the world on your own terms. It’s full of classic upper middle grade goodness.
I recommend it heartily. That goes double if you like middle grade fantasy at all, and it’s still true even if you don’t.
Now I’m going to pontificate about gender and genre fiction for a minute, before segueing into potential spoilers. Don’t worry, I’ll mark them clearly.
I should note, the Folding Ideas video on empowerment in Jupiter Ascending was very helpful to me in reflecting on this. The key question asked there is “do the characters take action within the story, on their own terms? Or are they solely acted upon by the story?” That was a useful framing device for me.
Classic adventure stories, the genre that I’m used to thinking of as my measuring stick for empowerment, don’t do a good job of encompassing social expectations and the way they impinge on characters’ lives. Protagonists in those adventure stories rarely have to explicitly juggle others’ perceptions of them (or their perceptions of themselves). More often, they’re forging new paths outside the traditional bounds of society, or casting off their expected roles—but doing so in a way that is expected by the genre, and by cultural expectations of (usu. male) heroes. They’re nearly always archetypically “manly,” and certainly not “weak.” Whatever that means.
Yes, those stories—presented as being ungendered—are culturally extremely male-gendered.
So when reading adventure stories, or genre fiction in general, I have several constantly running questions in the back of my mind: what social pressures are exerted on the protagonists? How aware is the protagonist of the social pressures they’re under? And do they question or act against or (usually in the academic sense) queer those pressures?
Slight digression: in my anecdotal experience, the less aware the protagonists are of these pressures, and the less aware the story is of these pressures, the more likely the story is to regurgitate and not question those old gender conventions. Relatedly, those stories are also more likely to be written by a man who hasn’t spent much time examining gender roles and their social impact, and generally hasn’t had a good critical think about how gender roles constrict people (of all sorts) in negative ways. For that matter, those authors are also more likely to be white or to have some other kind of unexamined privilege. Basically, it’s a solid clue that the author hasn’t had a good think about feminism, and the way in which cultural expectations constrain everyone—which is painfully obvious when those authors’ male characters are seemingly unaware of the constraints of the system while knowing deep in their gut that they must be “manly” at all times.
This (the unexamined-ness, or a story’s lack of awareness of gender roles) isn’t universally a sign of the author being unaware. Sometimes people write stories where those pressures aren’t as present explicitly because they want to imagine a different world, or don’t want to spend their brain power on our world’s conventions. It’s just a tendency I’ve noted, and which I continue to keep tabs on.
Tying that back into the previous thread…
When stories deeply invest lots of attention in social pressures and expectations, and constrain their characters with those things, they also often read to me—with my assumptions trained by old (male-centric) adventure genre fiction—as being gendered (gendered female, that is). And the empowerment that I see in those (”female“) stories often feels less empowering to me than the empowerment in old adventure fiction. It’s a whole noodle-y mess of ingrained cultural assumptions. And my narrative palate was well trained; for a long time, I appreciated stories that empowered characters by allowing them to do all those typically-gendered-male things far more than I appreciated the ones that showed protagonists working carefully within their social constraints. It’s been long slow work to counteract: expanding my narrative palate has taken time.
What’s more, expanding my palate hasn’t changed my fundamental issues with these gendered expectations around different flavors of genre stories. I’m still wrestling with how to write genre fiction that feels appealing and empowering, and which queers those gendered conventions of empowerment. I want to be able to write good stories that play with all sides of those gendered narrative expectations, and then go new places too.
Maybe that’s part of what I love about Clementine’s story.
Okay, now we risk some *SPOILERS*. I’ll keep things general, but… I’m giving away the narrative arc without giving precise details.
See, Clementine is extremely aware of her responsibilities, and feels the constraints on her life quite keenly (though she doesn’t question them much at first). She acts, taking initiative as best she can, but flounders in the process. And who can blame her? She’s trying to do the work of an adult (several adults, really) and is balancing far too many duties all at once.
All of these constraints wrap Clementine up tight. They felt suffocating to read. It was both awful and extremely effective storytelling.
And unlike the adventure stories I read when I was young, this story is less about our protagonist going out and forging some brilliant new path or performing acts of derring-do, and more about our protagonist finding the wherewithal to escape those constraints and reach the freedom to forge her own new path. Those oppressive constraints are key to her emotional journey. Without them, her struggle and growth would feel less meaningful and consequential. This is why my internal judgements—about how the story wasn’t empowering Clementine enough—withered by the time the story finished.
Clementine doesn’t go out and “do adventures” in the same classic (male-gendered) genre fiction way. She isn’t empowered in the same ways. But she absolutely is an empowered character. She’s able to choose and make decisions, and isn’t simply shuffled around by the plot without an opportunity to make her own decisions and try to act as she sees fit. Others have power over her at times, and she’s certainly not in control of everything, but she can steer herself and ultimately arrives at a place that feels more empowered because of her own choices, more able to engage with the world and its expectations on her own terms.
In some ways, this story feels like an exploration of the edge between two classically gendered narrative structures, moving from one to the other. It’s great.
I recommend it.