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Touched by Venom
Janine Cross
Roc, 353 pages

Touched by Venom
Janine Cross
Janine Cross has published short fiction in various Canadian magazines and was nominated for an Aurora Award in 2002. Her mainstream fiction has appeared in newspapers and a local anthology, Shorelines. She has also published a literary novel.

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A review by Donna McMahon

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There is one enormous advantage in being an occasional and usually unpaid book reviewer. I don't have to review books I don't like or don't think have any merit. I don't even have to read them -- I can just sample a few chapters and then toss them on the discard heap, rather than wasting a precious fraction of my life wading through something I can't stand. Regular paid reviewers don't have that choice, so it's no wonder they tend to become cantankerous.

At any rate that's my theory about the scathing Kirkus review of Touched by Venom from North Vancouver writer Janine Cross. Kirkus trashed the book as "wretched drivel," which is a harsh condemnation for a first novel. Now, I don't usually read other reviews, let alone quote them, but when I heard about this I became intrigued because something seemed to have hit a particularly sore spot with the Kirkus reviewer (and others).

Touched by Venom is certainly unusual. This saga of a girl brought up in poverty in a society that worships dragons, is a bit like the Dragon Riders of Pern set amid the untouchables in the rankest slums of Calcutta.

At the start of the book, Zarq Darquel is nine, and doesn't understand why her mother is an outcast, or her beautiful sister is sold into sexual slavery, or why it's such a bad thing to be a half-breed Djimbi. Nonetheless, when her mother flees the pottery clan, she discovers that life can be much, much worse. First they live in the Zone of the Dead with people who tend corpses, then they join the Dragon Convent of Tieron, where a small group of desperately poor women care for old dragons. There she is drawn into the rites and taboos surrounding highly addictive dragon venom, and begins dreaming of revolution.

On the plus side, I thought this book was reasonably well written. The story keeps moving, and the setting is exceptionally vivid. Cross has obviously spent considerable time and thought mapping out the hierarchies in her society, and the way in which they all ultimately hinge on dragon worship. This is one macabre world, too, steaming and pustulating with life and death. There's a fair bit of the other kind of steaminess as well -- and whether it's erotic or icky is simply a matter of taste. Personally, I didn't have a problem with the "bestiality" (does it count if the beast is purely fantasy?) though it's pretty clear that some reviewers did.

Nobody will accuse this Fantasy writer of romanticizing subsistence living. It's all there -- leeches, bugs, malnutrition, vomiting, exhaustion, mud and misery. Unfortunately what's not there is the other side. These people seem largely devoid of companionship, humour, fun, and kindness. I'd argue that it makes them less than realistic. It certainly makes them less than compelling to read about.

This is an unremittingly grim story in which the protagonist, unfortunately, does not move the plot. Since she's only a child for the first two thirds of the novel, this is understandable, but the result is a narrative in which one terrible thing happens to her, then another worse one, then another still worse one, etc.

Moreover, I never developed any empathy for young Zarq. I didn't find her an appealing or very interesting person, nor even all that realistic. And having persevered to the end, I discovered that the book is anything but a stand-alone novel. It might as well conclude with the words "to be continued."

None of this explains the level of vitriol in the reviews, however. So I'll point out some things that struck me about Touched by Venom.

First, while there is certainly a great deal of violence in this book, it's not the sort of violence that is generally found in Fantasy novels. Apparently it's OK to write about disembowelments with swords and wars that kill thousands of people, but readers are not ready for more mundane and realistic sorts of brutality -- the circumcision of the female protagonist stands out in particular. Lots of Fantasy novels feature women who are beaten, raped and sold into slavery and poor people who are exploited or starved, but not with this level of detail. Nor can I remember any other protagonist who is consistently so powerless for an entire novel. It's makes a disturbing and very uncomfortable read.

There's a blatant feminist message here, too, in the suffering of the women in this misogynistic society, and it's trowelled on thick, but, hey, Margaret Atwood did it in A Handmaid's Tale and that was applauded as literature. So I began wondering if there wasn't a bit of a double standard here. Men have written plenty of SF/F novels featuring graphic violence and heavy-handed political messages without seeming to arouse this kind of criticism from reviewers. Is this a shoe on foot thing? And are we all so accustomed to certain sexist tropes in the genre that we don't even notice any more?

I find it hard to guess how this novel will sell. It's certainly generating lots of controversy in blog land, which is probably helpful. But readers who pick it up at a store on the basis of a cover and title that suggest a bodice-ripping dragon fantasy, are liable to be shocked and disappointed.

Still, I was impressed by the world building, and Cross's attempt to portray poor and exploited characters in an unusually vivid way while dealing with real human themes. Trivial, exploitive entertainment like a Gor novel is drivel. Touched by Venom is a flawed first novel.

Copyright © 2005 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at http://www.donna-mcmahon.com/.


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