So, I’ve been reading Elizabeth Kerner’s Song in the Silence series (or maybe it’s better called The Tale of Lanen Kaelar) because I picked up the next (last?) installment of it just recently. Just a warning, I talk in as vague terms as possible, but there are potential spoilers for both Kerner’s series and the manga Marmalade Boy. I’ve made it through the second book and I’m finally starting on the new one, so I’m excited to see how it goes. My main beef with the series, and it’s a small one at that, was that the whole “mating for life” the dragons did and the “ordained by the gods” love that the main characters had always struck me as a bit cheesy.
Fast forward to today, where I’m reading through an LJ post on BDSM spawned by a thread on Alas. What does BDSM have to do with Kerner’s books? Well, not much, although the thought of kinky dragons brings a smile to my lips. In the course of the debate one commenter, skelkins, was talking about the importance of human interaction, and how communication is just as inherent as power dynamics but is not eroticized: “In fact, there’s this weird cliche of romantic fiction that relies for its effect on audience consensus that communication itself is somehow inherently…anti-sexy?” And that got me thinking about the romance in the fiction I’ve read, and the way Kerner has treated it in her series.
I’m not going to rant over the way “romance” is used and abused in fiction of all sorts (I’ll save that for another day), but that comment struck a chord with me. I remember watching Marmalade Boy (the fansubbed anime, I read a translation of the manga a few years later) and really liking the build up of romance between the main characters. It was flirty, it was fun, but it was also shallow. And after they got together, the shallowness was exploited by plot arc after plot arc of them having stress in their relationship because they didn’t communicate.
After a few seasons that were always about their problems and never about their happiness, I felt that their relationship was held together by some false idea of “true love” that didn’t hold up against all the problems they had with trust, honesty, and just getting to know the other person. And, as much as I like the series, the final story arcs in the anime and the manga (they diverged at one point, so they weren’t exactly the same) left me with a feeling that nothing had been resolved. Communication had been deemed “un-romatic” (or at least un-dramatic) and therefore was never a true part of the solution.
Kerner’s lead characters may have been thrown together on the same premise of “one true love” (although I must point out that it is not the case with all of the cast; while dragons may mate for life, humans do not), but she doesn’t fall into the pitfall that I feel Yoshizumi (creator of Marmalade Boy) did. Their love may have begun as something shallow, but it is their abiltiy to communicate with each other, along with their continued development of friendship and respect, that ends up sustaining them in the long term.
As with all relationships, they have fights – sometimes terrible ones that don’t get fully resolved – but Kerner ensures that clear communication is used as the solution to the problem. And she also ensures that the bad is not the only part of what you see in the relationship, but rather takes the time to show the reader the joy that two people can take in each other’s companionship. Throughout the novels, the characters learn about each other not merely through strife, but also by the simple act of interacting with the other in day-to-day life.
It’s kinda funny that a novel that, when taken alone, seems to reinforce tired, and potentially harmful, stereotypes about relationships would, in the context of the series, turn out to present a balanced picture of a romantic relationship. To be fair to Marmalade Boy, it was one of Yoshizumi’s early works and as such she had a lot of pressure on her to conform to standards of what her publishing company thought girls would want to read. There’s also the cultural considerations (Japan’s popular culture versus America’s), the differences in novels versus comics, and that of the intended age; while Kerner’s novels have a more-or-less universal appeal, they are marketed as “adult” (not in the xxx sense, you perverts) fantasy fiction. But, from a strictly human interaction point-of-view, I think my critique is not a bad one. In real life, communication is the cornerstone of any good relationship (romantic or otherwise), so why shouldn’t it be presented as such in fiction as well?