Storm Constantine, Wraeththu (Tom Doherty Associates, 1993)
The Apocalypse has come. The world of humanity draws to its end, sometimes violently, but for the most part, in the words of the poet, "not with a bang, but a whimper." In a northern city a mutant is born, a creature neither male nor female, possessed of strange abilities and unknown motivations, who runs away from his "normal" home at the first opportunity. Soon there are gangs of youths infesting the slums of the cities, violent, angry, hedonistic, of indeterminate sex and admitting no debt, least of all love, to their forebears. But out of ruin comes redemption, for the mutation can be transmitted through blood, and so a new race is born: Wraeththu.
Wraeththu is the omnibus collection of Storm Constantine's first trilogy, The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, The Bewitchments of Love and Hate, and The Fulfillments of Fate and Desire. It is the story of the beautiful peasant boy, Pellaz, lured away from his stable if uninspiring existence on a rural farm; Calanthe, the magnetic stranger who asks hospitality for a night; and the mysterious Thiede, a being who inspires awe and more than a little fear, the mastermind behind a new civilization.
The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit is told by Pellaz, from his first meeting with Cal through his education into the ways of the har, as the Wraeththu are known to themselves, through his murder and resurrection to become the Tigron, the king of the har in the fabled city of Immanion, built by the Gelaming, a tribe only rumored in the north, possessed of potent magic and bent on bringing the benefits of Wraeththu to the scattered tribes (by their own view) or world conquest (in the opinion of the beneficiaries of their efforts). The Bewitchments of Love and Hate is told by Swift, son of Terzian and Cobweb, whom we met in Pell's memoire; Swift is among the first of those who were born har and a prince of the Farrs, a tribe that rules much of the north and seems to incorporate all that was the worst of humanity. Terzian mounts an expedition to the south, where there are rumors of invasion by the Gelamings. Swift, in company with Cal and one of Terzian's guardsmen, Leef, eventually sets off in search of him. The Fulfillments of Fate and Desire is Cal's story of his wanderings after Pell's murder. Running from his fate, he returns to Terzian long enough to bear him a son, then travels the realms of Jaddayoth, a continent away from the Gelaming and from Pell. Eventually he makes his way back to Immanion and his reunion with Pellaz.
This is not a story heavy on action, although events unfold with sometimes dizzying rapidity, and there are enough surprises, and sometimes shocks, to keep us turning pages. It is much more about character, and the people involved are very real, people who are quirky and by no means perfect Pellaz grows from a spoiled boy, vain and often petulant, to a canny politician who discovers a level of compassion in himself that surprises him almost more than it does us, but he still has an ego and a temper. Cal, with all his darkness he has been a murderer, thief, and prostitute reveals a degree of selflessness that would be amazing if we hadn't seen it growing, but he's been through too much to become an angel. Even Thiede, whom we are more than willing to see as a black villain, is finally revealed as someone who, in spite of his power and vision, is really only a person like anyone else, brought down, like so many utopian thinkers, by his belief that he can mold people to fit his ideas without taking into account what people actually are, a kind of arrogance that is all too common in this world. The other characters are equally spiky: Cobweb, a strong seer and more than a little irrational; Caeru, Pellaz' consort, victim of a "marriage" arranged solely because he bore Pell's first son; Panthera, a slave and prostitute rescued by Cal they are all tough people who have been put through the wringer, become adept in a kind of emotional brawling that is sobering and often scary.
Some have labeled this work a "gay" fantasy, and it's obvious where the appeal to a gay audience arises. The characters could be the cast of The Boys in the Band brought up to present day. The har, although hermaphrodites, are psychologically male and refer to each other as "he"; they were, after all, created from boys and young men a comment, perhaps, on how our society shapes our ideas of appropriate roles. (There is also somewhat of a goth sensibility at work - haircuts are radical, ears are pierced, jewelry is omnipresent, eye makeup is a given, especially for evening, clothing concentrates heavily on leather, and entertainment is often raucous.) The physical type is more or less androgynous, youthful, slender but muscular what is known colloquially as a "twink." I think it would be a mistake, however, to identify this as "gay" fantasy. It strikes me that Constantine's new civilization is in many ways "post-gay" in that the identification is not with a culture that has grown from a particular sexual orientation that is widely repressed in the modern West, but with a culture that refuses definition, at least on that basis (similar to the attitudes of young men the post-Stonewall generation that baffled Frank Browning in A Queer Geography: Journeys Toward a Sexual Self). Constantine, by making the har hermaphroditic, which can be taken as building on what many consider the basic sexual fluidity of human beings, I think reinforces that interpretation.
There are several flaws in the execution of the story. For example, magic as an element never quite jells the har as a group are adept at magic, illustrated in several places, particularly those dealing with the Kakkahaar and the Gelaming, but the magic never seems to impinge on Pell and Cal except as something external, even though we witness Pell's education in its techniques. It never really becomes part of him or Cal, and it does seem that if one has special abilities, they would affect one's approach to problems. Likewise, there is another group of mutants, working behind the scenes, who have a key role to play in Cal's return to Immanion and, in fact, the ultimate climax of the story. Unfortunately, there are only one or two brief, throwaway references to them and so they look like a deus ex machina, although we know that Cal would have made his journey anyway. And, we are never really sure, in a society in which all the members are hermaphrodites, why Pellaz needs a consort.
Fortunately from the reader's standpoint, these are problems that crop up in retrospect. The story is fascinating, in many ways kaleidoscopic Constantine's vision is epic in scale the characters, with all of their "no trespassing" signs, are more than a little engaging, and the suprises keep coming. She is, indeed, a gifted writer, with a flair for touching the dark side of men's souls in a way that brings out the light.