REVIEW: The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit by Storm Constantine

Pellaz Cevarro has heard tales of the Wraeththu, a feared and ferocious youth cult, shrouded in mystery, that’s taking root in cities wracked by disease, disaster and conflict. Is Wraeththu a symptom of this decline, or something more? It is only when the enigmatic Cal arrives at the secluded Cevarro homestead that Pellaz discovers the unimaginable truth. Lured away by Cal to a different life, Pellaz discovers that Wraeththu are poised to replace humanity upon a ravaged world. Changed in body, mind and soul, Pellaz cannot escape a destiny that was set for him, nor the tragic consequences of his association with the dangerous and beautiful Cal.

Warnings: Violence, Misogyny, Jealousy Narratives, Mentions of Rape

Category: M/M*

The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit is the first book in the Wraeththu Chronicles, a series of queer science fiction/fantasy novels from the 80s. It follows the journey of Pellaz, a young boy who is initiated into a cult known as the Wraeththu. Wraeththu are an intersex species, a mutation of human men that is passed on by the drinking of blood in ritual inception. From Pellaz’s inception, he is then swept up into the world of cultish tribes, Wraeththu politics, and social/sexual relationships as he wanders the post apocalyptic world in the twilight of humanity.

*Wraeththu all use he/him pronouns but their gender is known as Har.

WRITING
The prose of the novel is very artful and unique. It’s written from the first person perspective of the main character Pellaz, and written as a memoir or a journal. Pellaz is a very studious narrator, and I very much enjoyed his voice. He gives a lot of hindsight observations into the events that transpire, and it’s a flowery kind of writing that is immediately engaging. Unfortunately, it is also often vague at times and lacking in a descriptive element that would make it more easily parsed. Dialogue is often very brief and stilted, and you have to glean more from what the characters don’t say than from what they do, which can make it hard to follow.

The events of the plot are not very sweeping, and the story ends up involving an exploration of the Wraeththu world and people more than any big events that propel them forward. There is the rumours of a larger plot that has it’s strings through the book, but it isn’t really touched on until the very end of it. I would imagine that the politics and movements of the Wraeththu people become of bigger consequence in the later books, but this one is more concerned with the journey and development of it’s main character Pellaz, especially given that it is a memoir of his inception and learning about Wraeththu. It explores gender politics, poly dynamics, and interpersonal relationships. There is some truly moral greyness to the narrative and the characters as well that make for an interesting read, and I really appreciated that the book doesn’t shy away from exploring people who are not necessarily altogether ‘good’.

EMOTIONAL ENGAGEMENT
I feel like this book unfortunately drops the ball on emotional investment. For a book as character driven and with such a main focus on relationships, we don’t actually get to know much of anything about it’s characters. None of them really have much in the way of a memorable personality, feeling like each character could easily be exchanged for another one. The author seems more taken with how beautiful and perfect and otherworldly Wraeththu are than with developing any of these characters into people that seem real. Even when characters do show some signs of a personality, it is often inconsistent, and not well explored.

Pellaz himself is an incredibly passive main character, never making any decisions of his own, and forever being pushed and pulled by the events around him and what others decide for him. He was incredibly difficult to relate to, a rather enigmatic person who seemed to lack any kind of agency both within the narrative and with his dealings with others, and yet everyone who meets him is immediately convinced that he is special. He is the Chosen One. He is different, smarter, wiser, can win people over, he’s easily lovable, and yet we never actually see any evidence of him being any of these things. As a vessel through which we, the audience, learn about the setting he is fine and even entertaining in his observations, but as a personality of his own he is rather lackluster.

WORLDBUILDING
Apart from it’s exploration of relational drama, the main bulk of the novel is taken up with exploring the post-apocalypse earth and the various Wraeththu societies. Wraeththu are both a race as well as a cult, and the exploration of more religious splinters of their people as well as tribes that have stepped away from the cult rules and ideologies is very fascinating. It’s a very interesting world, one that is growing up in the wreckage and decline of humanity, and as such it feels very bittersweet. It’s one of the more memorable settings I have ever seen and as it spends so much time in travelling about it, it’s setting and world and religions and races end up making much more of an impact on the reader than it’s characters or it’s plot.

The Wraeththu themselves can very much seem like an author’s wish fulfillment fantasy of perfection. They are beautiful, long lived, powerful, and they are above petty humanity. Then again, that is the picture painted of them in the beginning, but the longer the book goes on the more evident it is that they really aren’t much better than humans at all. All of the ways in which Wraeththu are meant to be more evolved than humans Pellaz ends up observing various Wraeththu communities leaving by the wayside, making one wonder what the point of them even is as a race supplanting humanity. Is the downfall of the Wraeththu then, like Tolkien’s elves, to be their hubris? Perhaps further books in the series will address this more.

There’s also a troubling amount of misogyny present in the text that I found difficult to set aside. Only men can become Wraeththu, and women are consistently referred to as some kind of evolutionary cast offs, a biological obsolescence. There are some conversations that attempt to circumvent this with some theological ideas about Wraeththu inheriting the feminine into themselves, but this does little to fix it’s misogyny issue despite how much the characters may wrestle with the concepts of male and female. (Not to mention what this offhandedly implies about trans individuals)

My last comment on it’s setting and world is that I wish the author hadn’t included so much in the way of words and terminology unique to Wraeththu; having to constantly refer to a glossary of fictional words in the back of the book to understand what anyone is talking about gets a little bit tedious when the author could easily have made more accessible terms for the world.

STEAMINESS
This book is incredibly focused on the development of various relationships and sexual lives of it’s characters. Wraeththu are a ployamorous race, with committed relationships being taboo and highly frowned upon. They have their own word for sex, aruna, and it is different than the human concept of sex, but it is not really clear how or why or if that’s just Wraeththu pretentious attitudes talking and it’s actually totally just sex. This is the part of the book that can feel the most pretentious; the flowery descriptions of aruna are so vague as to convey absolutely nothing about what is happening. Despite the book being filled with sexual encounters, I couldn’t grasp at all what was happening in any of them. Wraeththu commune in a spiritual way during aruna, and the text is very fluid, with long paragraphs about feeling his partners consciousness against his own rather than any kind of description of what’s actually taking place. This adds to the sense that aruna is more of a spiritual act than a physical one, and while I can understand this as a beautified way to think about sex, and perhaps a way to avoid the messiness of the physicality of sex if you are sex averse, personally I have too many hang ups surrounding religious doctrine that sex must be a mystical special and spiritual experience to really connect well to a portrayal of sex as even more mystical and special and spiritual.

The depiction of relationships is also fraught with drama, which is interesting because the whole point of Wraeththu avoiding committed relationships is to lessen drama. Love is considered a human concept, one that Wraeththu disavow. It is considered bad to feel jealous over one another, and yet the story is full of nothing but constant jealously and problems arising from avoiding or denying love. A commentary perhaps, but I’m not really sure what the end takeaway is meant to be. That Wraeththu are wrong about their teachings to swear off love? Or perhaps that they are right but lack the ability to truly practice what they teach? This is a fascinating part of the text, but one that is difficult to understand. If nothing else it lends itself to thoughtful rumination.

Altogether I wanted to like this book more than I did. I thought a lot of it’s ideas were very interesting, and the world is fascinating, but it’s execution fell apart a little bit. A lot of this may very well be due to the era in which it was written; I don’t believe that it’s gender politics have aged well but that it was likely groundbreaking when it came out. Much like first wave feminism, this was relevant once, and isn’t really any longer as our understanding on these concepts has changed a lot since then. As such I felt reading this was more of an exercise in understanding the history of queer literature, and it certainly has value on that front, but little I could connect with myself.

Have you read The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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