The book is nearly ready. “Nearly” means at least two more months, as I am still finishing the second half while my editor is working on the first, then once we’re both satisfied the text will be sent to the proofreader, and only then I will really be able to announce the book’s completion. It’s been over a year so far, because I started in April 2019. (What a world we used to live in. You could shake hands and stuff.)
It is not a light, relaxing read. I’d describe it as similar to Storytellers, only darker, and with Gods and magic in it. Genre-wise I’d go with literary queer Nordic mythic sometimes-grimdark-but-mostly-not psychological a-bit-coming-of-age-but-really-not-YA sort-of-fantasy, which doesn’t appear to be an Amazon category for some reason. The tagline “it’s hard to be this good in a place this bad” is not an understatement.
There is a scene in the book that I have rewritten at least forty times by now and I’m still not 100% certain that I got it where I want it to be. I’ve had it looked at by more beta-readers than anything else I have ever written. I can see it being triggering enough that it might require a mention in the book’s description, which is why I will tell you what it is now, and continue after the skip – so, TW: it’s a sex (NOT “erotic”!) scene between a grown man and a naive fourteen year old. It’s the opposite of graphic, but very suggestive. Is it consensual? The point of the scene is to show why the boy can’t give consent, as he doesn’t even know what that is and that he is allowed to refuse it.
Click “continue reading” to continue reading…
It’s not right and it’s not OK
Magni, one of the two main characters, is a fourteen year old son of Thor. He looks almost exactly like his father – a massive, red-haired, bearded beast of a man – but just because he looks like a grown-up, that doesn’t make him one. The other man, Herjólf, knows who he is dealing with, including Magni’s age, and knows that it’s possible to shame and mock a kid like that into agreeing to things.
In Earth years, Children of the Gods takes place around 862-864 AD. I agonised over Magni’s age in the scene, changing it many times, knowing some could argue that in the 9th century a 14-year-old would be an adult and some would be shocked by how young he is. I’m writing for 21st century readers and, since the scene is written from Magni’s point of view to demonstrate what he’s thinking and how he is feeling, the number itself is not the most important part – the mentality is. Official age of consent ranges from 13 to 21 depending on geographical location, but it’s irrelevant in Magni’s case. Basically his age is “too young”.
My editor wanted me to completely remove this scene, or at least any mention of Magni’s age, telling me that it might make the reader uncomfortable. It’s supposed to. After I got feedback from one of my first beta readers, who said that it was “actually quite sexy”, I worked hard on removing any erotic component from it. It’s an examination of sex being an expression of power, of why “not saying no” is “saying yes”, how someone can be talked into not protesting against abuse, then remaining silent about it, or even defending the abuser. I suppose I don’t need to list the recent events I used as inspiration. What I am attempting to show is why in many of those cases the victims, no matter the age, seemed to be in the position to name and shame their abusers, but didn’t. Something kept them silent for years or decades. Sometimes threats and blackmail. Sometimes not.
The young God – literally
Magni is a son of a God and a God himself, and a fourteen year old with no sexual experience of any sort. He inherited his father’s – Thor’s – strength, but he despises his father and everything he stands for. Magni is also gay and unaware that anyone else like him even exists, thinking himself to simply be broken. When Herjólf, a grown man that Magni finds attractive demands that they undress in front of each other, Magni isn’t thinking of death; he’s terrified by something else.
He told me to take my clothes off too. I forgot. But that meant I would be naked and he would…see me. […] I have never felt more embarrassed. I prayed that that he wouldn’t notice my body betraying me.
“My body betraying me” is the most visual description in this scene, by the way, and again, it’s meant to be. Magni doesn’t even know how to think about what is going on, only that now someone else will know that Magni is “broken”.
Magni might be a literal young God, but he is not immortal; Herjólf is the one who will decide whether Magni lives another day. The event is completely unexpected. He doesn’t know what or why is happening, only that he will probably be laughed at, rejected, declared disgusting. At the same time, it seems like the dreams he never dared to have might suddenly come true. Herjólf, on the other hand, knows exactly what he is doing. He manipulates Magni into thinking that he was given a choice. That choice, which wasn’t even a “yes” but “not saying no”, is as deceptive as being asked “would you like to have a swim?” and, upon voicing agreement, being thrown out of a helicopter into an ocean. What? There’s water. You said you wanted a swim. You can swim as much as you like now. I am giving you what you asked for. What are you complaining about, don’t you think you’re being ungrateful?
“Sometimes,” he whispered into my ear, as my thoughts wouldn’t slow down even for a blink, “you can’t afford to wait for someone to make up their mind. Sometimes you need to help them make up their mind faster. Should I teach you a few more things? Yes or no?”
I don’t know, I wanted to cry, what other things, please, can we just kiss, but don’t hurt me, yes – no – maybe – later – can I think – but he just said I had to make up my mind – did humans just do things, how did they know without even asking…?
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Herjólf murmured.
When “a few more things” begin to happen, Magni blames himself. A well-proportioned mixture of shaming, mocking, and faux-asking keeps him quiet. It hurts, he thinks, but Herjólf is the one who knows what he’s doing.
I– I think I was crying, but I couldn’t, I didn’t… he told me to – I, no, I didn’t want, not this, no, I decided now but he said it was his turn and he was teaching me and it wasn’t his fault that it was hurting me because I didn’t say […]
At the end Herjólf suggests that Magni keeps everything to himself (“so that others don’t laugh at you”) and completes the damage by calling what just happened “bartering”. Not only is the word designed to be as painful as possible, but it also suggests that an exchange was done between two partners, two equals. Magni is an incredibly lonely, physically imposing child treated as an adult he isn’t, someone who has lost everything and everyone he ever loved or valued. His imagination has never gone past being hugged and maybe kissed. He is not equipped to understand what happened. He wanted something, he didn’t say no, even if he didn’t really say yes, so how could it not be his fault?
In 2020, in a world that is far removed from fantasy novels based on Nordic lore, we have built legal systems that are supposed to protect the victims and prosecute the abusers. Yet even despite the #metoo movement, the victims are forced to recall every smallest detail, questioned about each move made and word that was said, clothes worn, the place, time, circumstances. They are threatened into remaining silent, doubted for having remained silent for a long time, mocked, pressed to withdraw accusations. All that happens in cases that are absolutely, crystal clear, the abuse one-hundred percent unwanted, protests voiced loudly, sometimes with witnesses. Any twenty-first century lawyer would have Herjólf set free and turn Magni into a laughing stock.
How far would you go to stay alive?
Magni’s life depends on the results of a vote in a group consisting of four. Herjólf is the group’s leader. He tells Magni that the result of the vote was 2:2, and his “aye” prevailed. This would mean that out of the three others, only one wanted to keep him alive. If he were to try and confide in someone, he would have a 2/3 chance of picking someone who wished him death. At the same time, Herjólf’s declaration is impossible to check – it’s unlikely that the question “did you want me to die?” would get a truthful answer. Magni believes he owes his life to Herjólf, he owes him gratitude, complaining about getting hurt would be ungrateful. (The topic of gratitude for unwanted “favours” is one of those that appear throughout the book.)
Herjólf is a hard worker, intelligent, always willing to help, take on the most difficult tasks, more knowledgeable than all the others together. He’s a natural leader, charismatic enough that it takes a long time for any of the group’s members to voice their doubts. He’s indispensable and a sadistic sexual predator. He makes sure that Magni is clothed well, arms him and others, risks everything to help the group. He also casually dispenses well-aimed little jabs designed to remind Magni that he’s stupid and useless for anything else than carrying heavy things.
When Herjólf is accused of “being a sick fuck that wants to see people hurt, degraded”, it is Magni who jumps to his defence. The grooming process is complete – Magni is convinced that it is he who has to keep quiet, do his best to keep the relationship going, that what is happening is love, even if Herjólf would never use a phrase stronger than “getting attached”. The boy both wants and doesn’t, he’s happy and unhappy, and convinced that since he “agreed” to something, it’s only obvious that it will happen again and again, and he has no right to change his mind. Magni got broken – or, a lawyer would ask, maybe he agreed, maybe he wanted to be?
(I have very strong opinions regarding lawyers who defend sexual predators.)
Write what you know
I think I was about thirteen myself when my stepfather performed something that in Polish law would be described as “other sexual activity” on me in presence of another adult. That adult didn’t react at all. Today, 29 years later, I understand the reason was most probably shock. At the age of thirteen I didn’t even know that I was allowed to react at all, if yes – how, but it was the other adult’s passiveness that made it absolutely clear to me that what happened was perfectly normal. It only happened once and never again, and today I think that the other person probably did say or do something once I was no longer in the room.
I was 22 when I briefly dated someone not dissimilar to Herjólf – certain parts of this scene could be a memoir. I haven’t received any form of sexual education at school and all I knew from the media was that as a gay man I was a disgusting abomination. The man was rich, well-dressed, a charming businessman who took me to an expensive restaurant, bought me a CD I wanted, took me for a ride in his car with an open roof. Then, at his house, things happened. I didn’t know how to tell him that what he was doing to me was painful. I wanted this other thing, but not that, but since I haven’t said anything it was really my fault, he probably didn’t know…
Do you know what was the hardest part? He asked my permission! Sort of. Before anything began, he asked if “I was ready for this”. I thought I knew what I was about to be ready for. I said yes. He knew that if he were to ask and explain what exactly he was going to do, I would have never agreed. I literally ran away, stuck in the part of town I didn’t know, way before the invention of GPS. I had no phone to call a taxi, no money to pay for it, and I was being consumed by shame. After all, he asked and I agreed, he spent money on me, he was a rich man with an expensive house, car, suits, and I was just…me.
I met up with him one more time. I escaped again when it occurred to me that what he was doing could literally kill me. I felt absolutely horrible about myself, because now I told him that I didn’t like this or that thing and he apologised and said he wouldn’t do them again. He did exactly what I asked for and kept all his promises. Instead he did other things that made the previous “date” a walk in the park, but I never asked him not to do those and it didn’t matter that I didn’t know they existed. Clearly, I gave consent. And he cooked! What was wrong with me? It took me years to understand that it wasn’t me that there was something wrong with, and that just because I was 22 it didn’t mean I understood what I was apparently agreeing to.
My editor pointed out that the relationship between Herjólf and Magni is toxic (that’s putting it mildly) and that I should perhaps balance it with a healthy M/M relationship. “If you can find any healthy relationship in this book, let me know,” I answered, “so I can remove it”. Herjólf and Magni are not representative for all gay men any more than Harvey Weinstein and Rose McGowan – an average straight couple.
Later in the book Maya, my other protagonist – asexual and aromantic – asks, rather sourly, “if what this man and you shared was ‘love’ that Freya keeps harping about, what exactly am I missing?”. Magni only comes up with the answer when the conversation has moved on:
Teeth were involved each time Herjólf kissed me and he might have not said anything about love, I might not have dared to say it myself, but I knew. If it wasn’t love, there would be either no biting or no kissing.
It’s not up to me to decide what the readers will feel, but I believe that in a book that has quite some graphic violence present in certain parts this last sentence is the most terrifying.