For no logical reason, I found myself thinking about Katsa from Graceling again.
I know I’ve written innumerable blog posts about Kristin Cashore’s works. I’ve mentioned my adoration for the romantic subplots in the series. But today we’re going to focus less on the romance and more on one character, at least to start off with.
Warning: spoilers abound. For the Graceling Realm series, for Scythe, and for the An Absolutely Remarkable Thing series.
Katsa begins Graceling reading as aromantic, probably asexual to boot. She had no idea that Giddon liked her until Po asked her what she would say when Giddon asked her to marry him. She had no desire to marry anyone, least of all Giddon. She befriends Po, but doesn’t realize that the feelings surpass friendship until they spend a lot of time together en route to Monsea, where it hits her like a punch to the gut.
Does this mean Katsa isn’t ace/aro? Well, I think it means she falls somewhere on the ace spectrum.
“Finding the One” versus the Asexual Spectrum
Ace readers don’t have a lot of overt representation. A lot of that boils down to the expectation of romantic subplots and the expectation that two characters with great chemistry will get together eventually. If they don’t, they simply haven’t reached the end of their character arc. The ace reader, however hopeful about a character that looks and acts like a fellow ace, must steel themselves against the likelihood of said ace character realizing that the charismatic side character whom they love to be around is, in fact, their love interest. Cue the unrelatable explosion of passion, etc., etc.
The most recent example I can think of is from Scythe by Neal Shusterman. I remember reading a review that felt the relationship was disappointing because the two characters seemed to fall in love too quickly and too randomly. This was a review I read while not that far into the novel (it was a bit slow-paced, and when I get bored, I either flip ahead for sneak previews or I read reviews. Tell me I’m not the only one.) and as a result, I paid a little more attention to the budding romance than I might have.
Look, some characters, no matter how long it takes for them to fall in love with the love interest, are definitively not ace. Maybe it’s in the fact that they’re actively searching for a romantic partner or they get caught up in another character’s appearances. It’s hard to explain, exactly. But ace/aro characters are usually oblivious, more preoccupied with the actual plot, confused when other characters get distracted. It’s quiet, it’s subtle, and sometimes, as I said before, you get it wrong.
Scythe is the first in a trilogy, and thus far, it’s the only book of the trilogy that I’ve actually read. Shusterman never stated that Rowan was ace, but it read that way with how he was more impressed by Citra’s skill and tenacity. There was never any comment or piece of narration that suggested he found her attractive. He fell in love with the way she sees the world and interacts with it. But, due to the nature of the plot, they were not given the opportunity to really explore their romantic feelings, which means there’s still plenty of opportunity for Shusterman to prove me wrong.
Katsa’s arc, on the other hand, is finished by the end of Graceling. She makes an appearance in Bitterblue, but it’s not her story, which means that although we get to see her and Po’s odd relationship in action, it just confirms what we already know.
Maybe the Relationship Isn’t “Unrealistic;” Maybe It’s Just Queer
Upon realizing that Katsa could be read as part of the ace community, I took to Google to see if anyone else shared my beliefs. If anyone does, they haven’t written about it, which is part of the reason I’m doing so now. Instead, what I found was an ace reader who’d gotten their hopes up with Katsa only to be disappointed that she got with Po at the end. All of those moments where she was oblivious to Giddon’s advances, where she insisted she did not want to marry, that being with someone would change who she was…. all of that, betrayed the moment she realized Po was The One.
Is it a matter of Katsa “finding the One,” though? I don’t think I can agree with the sentiment that Katsa was unintentionally queerbaiting ace readers because even at the end, loving a character with whom she has obvious chemistry, Katsa is still resistant to the idea of a “normal” relationship. It’s not like finding out she loves Po undermines all those feelings she had beforehand.
Friendships are incredibly important in the ace community. Barring physical intimacy, it can be difficult to determine if one’s feelings for someone is the ace version of a crush or if it’s just a person one wants to be really close friends with. Where’s the line? Things can get even more tangled when it comes to being gray-ace: demiromantic or demisexual feelings requiring a pre-established platonic connection before anything else comes into it.
An unintended irony that Katsa, a Graced character, may be a gray-ace one as well, but I have come to the conclusion that she could be read as demiromantic. (Whether or not she could also be read as demisexual probably also depends on how much weight you put into her focusing on the state of Po’s buttons at state dinners.) Katsa has few male friends with whom she can truly be herself. In fact, her options before Po comes around are Raffin (who’s out of the question for obvious reasons) and Giddon (who can be, to quote Katsa herself, “a horse’s ass.”) Is it really so surprising that, when Po comes around and she can truly be herself, that he’s the one whom she feels romantic attraction for?
Why, when she fought with him almost every day, when she knew every part of his body; why, when she’d sat on his stomach, and wrestled with him on the ground and could probably identify his arm hold faster than any wife would recognize the embrace of her own husband, had the sigh of his arms and his shoulders so embarrassed her? She had seen a thousand shirtless men before, in the practice rooms or when traveling with Giddon and Oll.Graceling, chapter 17, pg 200
I think that last sentence, more than anything, helps prove my point. Before Po, she hadn’t cared much about a person’s physical appearance. It wasn’t important to her. It wasn’t until, knowing Po’s Grace and fighting in the dark for the first time, eventually landing him in the pond, that Katsa realizes she does care about Po’s physical appearance. She cares very much. And she cares about Po, maybe enough to try their own form of romantic relationship.
More Explicit Rep?
It’s taken a lot of effort to increase visibility in the various storytelling mediums. But they remain an underrepresented community, and especially in SFF books, it takes some active searching to find any plot featuring, or even including, such characters. The “Books that Include Asexual Characters” lists are generally very short, and even if they include books with characters that could be read as such, the lists still don’t get very long.
One book that comes to mind is Hank Green’s A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, sequel to An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. I remember reading it and getting to the point where Andy is talking to his friend Robin (page 71 on my hardback copy, so not far in), and Andy asks about Robin’s love life. Robin is super cagey, saying “Dating has [always] been complicated” for him, and when Andy asked why, he said they’d talk about it another time.
It’s a very small scene and unimportant in the grand scheme of things. That “another time” never actually comes around for the readers, leaving people like me to wonder if we’re reading too much into a very minor exchange in a scene that adds very little to an overall plot. Robin is, generally speaking, a very minor character in the overall plot. It should not have hit that hard, reading that scene, but I remember taking to Google immediately to see if anyone else had picked up the same ace vibes that I had. Does that mean it’s disappointing representation, because it was never fully resolved? I don’t know.
But, like, the book is good. Hank Green is a really good writer. This is one of the many problems of very little representation. Books that are about representation tend to be hit or miss in terms of quality. For example, I was intrigued when This Golden Flame was said to have an explicit asexual protagonist. However, I probably would not have picked the book up if there hadn’t been–it’s sort of steampunk-y, but I’ve kind of stepped past my steampunk phase–and, as I expected, it wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t great. And, as a reader, if it was a choice between finding some book, any book, with ace representation (even if it means reading some low-quality stories) OR picking out a book that I know I’ll enjoy, in my preferred genre and with a decent rating on Goodreads/Storygraph, what have you, I’d much rather pick the latter.
I wasn’t really writing this to come to any sort of conclusion, but it feels weird to leave this open ended.
I think the question to ask ourselves now is what does good representation look like? The problem is that such a question is really difficult to answer, because asexuality looks very different for different people. Katsa’s character from Graceling and Rowan’s character from Scythe prove that. Because it’s not explicit, not everyone is going to pick up on the possibility of their queerness, not even within the ace community.
I recognize that there is commercial viability in the romance tropes we continue to see in the fantasy genre, and that the publishing houses will continue to push out what is commercially viable. It must be said, however, that there is a certain allure simply to romances that don’t fit the status quo. As Cashore writes in Bitterblue, “every configuration of people is an entirely new universe unto itself,” and even with characters like Fire and Bitterblue who are very much not ace, hope can be found in the nontraditional, messy romances attached to them. A character who finds someone to love her despite the fact that she will not have children? Yes, that’s a romance that’ll give ace readers hope. Even having a character like Bitterblue engage in a romance that was doomed not to last helps prove to ace readers that not all relationships work out, that there are some things that are going to stand between two people being happy together, and that’s okay, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying, or that finding someone with whom you can be happy is still possible.
But, again, “good” representation is hard to pin down. Oftentimes, the above paragraph feels like a band-aid, a substitute because that’s really all that’s available. As more authors try to incorporate ace characters into their fantasy books, I’ll probably continue to buy them, whether it feels like it’s my cup of tea or not, if only to prove to the publishers that there is an audience for such books. From there, we can only hope that there will be enough of an influx of books with ace characters that we’ll eventually get to pick and choose books based on concept, not just representation.