Wraeththu was one of my favorite books in high school so I decided to revisit it for nostalgia’s sake, and to examine what it is about the book that attracts me so much. After reading it again and reading others’ reviews of it, I realize it’s a little politically incorrect and the plot is pretty disjointed, but I still love the descriptions and characters. You may call me a mouth-breathing yaoi fangirl (as one reviewer so kindly put it), but I can’t help myself. You may want to skip this review and those of the next two books if you’re not interested in reading about impossibly hot guys boning with mutated genitalia.
Wraeththu takes place in a world where humanity is becoming extinct due to a race of men-turned-hermaphrodites called Wraeththu poised on the edge of achieving world domination. The Wraeththu start out as human boys and are turned by either swallowing or injecting blood from a Wraeththu who’s already been turned. The Wraeththu transformation, called “inception” is similar to a vampiric transformation, and reminded me of Louis’s transformation in Interview with the Vampire. At the end of the gruelingly painful process, the har (word Storm uses for an individual Wraeththu) wakes up even more beautiful than before, and possessing of a shiny new set of genitals, which looks like an orchid and can act as either a penis or vagina. Oh yeah, and they can use the energy they generate during sex as magic. Although we don’t see them using the powers for anything else other than having supernaturally amazing sex (in the first book, at least).
Our story follows a young farm boy named Pellaz who is visited by a mysterious vagrant named Calanthe. Pellaz has heard from his father about violent gangs of young men in the north who will induct young boys into their ranks, but for some reason his father lets Cal stay and sleep in the same room with Pell. Predictably, Cal seduces Pell with a kiss (which the Wraeththu call a “sharing of breath” and hold to be more intimate than sex), and without any further deliberation, Pell decides to accompany Cal on his journey to Immanion, the Wraeththu promised land.
One of the things that really hooked me about this book was the description of the farm:
Our town was just a farm, and to call it that lends it an undeserved glamor. Huts upon red dirt; there is little else to imagine. The cable crop, a hardy, stringy, tasteless vegetable, used for everything from bulk food to bed springs, straggled meanly over the parched ground. It did not grow high and its unattractive, pitted fruits burst with a sound like gunfire to release pale seeds in yellow jelly and fill the air with the odor of putrescence.
All the descriptions in the book have this sense of strangeness that’s just wonderful, although the volume of description can get tedious sometimes. This is not a good book for anyone who likes to ask “Where’s the action?” Unless by action you mean sex… in which case you won’t be disappointed! Cal and Pell have sex at almost every place they stop on their journey, usually with each other but occasionally with other hara (plural Wraeththu). Wraeththu have a kind of free-love social compact where jealousy over sexual partners is looked down on.
“Orien said there is only one kind of love,” I [Pellaz] said quickly. “And that is the universal kind. We love our race. Anything else is just a state of agreeable friendship colored over too hard by lust.”
Wraeththu are trying to create a future in which anyone is free to love who they want without restrictions, but the jealousy and possessiveness that results from close ties still causes problems for free love societies, much like it did for hippie colonies in the 60s (in Micah Perks’ Pagan Time and Dorothy Bryant’s The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You jealousy threatens happiness in a free love society).
Wraeththu tries to be an idealistic, non-violent society that values the female part of humanity equally to the male part, but there are a few things that cause it to fall short. The most glaring is that women cannot become Wraeththu (a woman named Kate gives a spiel about how women are only a rib from man and men can be mutated easier than women, but it makes absolutely no sense). There’s kind of internalized misogyny around Kate’s character. The first thing Kate says to Pell is, “I curse the day I was born a woman”. Considering that Wraeththu is a book populated entirely by men, it seems likely that Kate is a self-insert for the author. I can see where she’s coming from… I’m not entirely comfortable with being female either, because it means I’m smaller than men, which means I have less chance of coming back alive if I go on an adventure to somewhere dangerous/interesting. Being female is about as much fun as Horton had sitting on the egg, which can make a fantasy like Wraeththu where the gender binary is erased sound very appealing.
Another gender problem in Wraeththu is that while Wraeththu are half male and half female, they still refer to one another with masculine pronouns instead of using some kind of gender-neutral pronoun. I think that this is just laziness on the part of the author, or maybe gender-neutral pronouns weren’t as popular in the 1980s as they are becoming now. It’s also a bit odd that Wraeththu gain the ability to reproduce while women are losing it (it’s mentioned a few times that the remaining women are sterile).
While most Wraeththu are spiritually enlightened and practice a kind of mental magic, the Varrs and Uigenna break the mold by continuing to be violent and oppressive like the humans before them. The Uigenna are known for their propensity to rape and violence. The Varrs are building an empire similar to Rome or America. They keep slaves, wage wars far away from home, and live in a police state. They also have a strong binary between male and female gender roles – the male monarch, Tyrion, leads the country, while his consort Cobweb is mostly in charge of birthing and raising children.
There is something unique and special about Wraeththu sex though… I could be wrong because I don’t read much erotica, but I really enjoyed the way Storm Constantine handled the interplay of dominant and submissive (with partners switching roles sometimes) and used elemental imagery (electricity, water, darkness, etc) to express each character’s sexual style. It makes for sensual, immersive reading. There’s also a lot of talking in some of the more relaxed sex scenes, which heightens the intimacy between the characters.
Here’s an example of Storm Constantine’s decadent style. She brings this touch of the abstract to sex scenes which brings them beyond the merely physical. I won’t tell you who each character is, because it would be too spoiler-y:
“No!” I whispered, in disbelief, in denial, yet I still felt my body call to him. His teeth, his lambent eyes… taller. His hair was crackling with orange flames. It could have been Lianvis standing there; the elemental Lianvis of beneath the earth. He was naked, his body coursing with colors I had never seen before, that hurt my eyes. He was above me, hovering, crouching. I tried to move, but his hara held me down. I could see their teeth; they smiled. I screamed in agony, but then in ecstasy; his smoldering, smoky breath bringing me to the lip of the abyss that was lit at its deepest point by a star of pulsing red. Movement there; bats, ravens, demons, all the creatures of the lake of fire rose up to to claw my hair; their talons in my flesh that shuddered to a nameless delight. I wanted the pain, craved it; reduced to an animal fury. He filled me with the hot, smoking essence of his incomprehensible soul. It ripped me, scoured me, ate into me like acid. It was melting me apart, the sizzling rain of hell and I screamed, and I screamed again.”
Not all these passages are so intense; the next time these two characters have sex, the dominant one is still dominant, but he’s being guided by the submissive and the hellish and gothic imagery of this passage is replaced by a slightly calmer feeling and aquatic imagery.
The characters’ relationships show good development in the first book, especially Pellaz and Vaysh’s. Pell meets Vaysh when he’s incapacitated and Vaysh is charged with taking care of him. Vaysh is cold and distant at the beginning, but after he and Pell travel for some time together (and get in a few brawls) they settle into mutual not-hatred and eventually become dear to each other, even though they don’t fall in love. Pell and Cal’s relationship is interrupted by the Deus Ex Machina plot device, but it still evolves as Pell hears more about Cal from other hara.
Pell is the insecure but insightful protagonist, Cal is darkly charismatic and makes a great anti-hero, Lianvis and Ulaume are a good, scary pair of desert rouges, Cobweb is just adorable, Terzian is admittedly kind of dick but we haven’t seen much of him in this first volume, Vaysh is perfect, and Thiede is… probably the strangest character… the originator of Wraeththu and also their highest authority figure. He’s hard to understand because he never explains the reason for anything he does (much to the chagrin of the other characters) and doesn’t seem to give a fuck about anything.
All in all, the characters and descriptions are the highlight of Storm Constantine’s writing. If you want plot that isn’t dictated by authorial “destiny” or an intricately balanced and well-organized world (the map at the front doesn’t line up with any of the locations in the first book, and the geography in the text is not super well-defined), I wouldn’t recommend this book, but if you’d be excited to watch bishies in 80s goth-punk fashion get it on like a champagne supernovas in the sky… what are you waiting for?
It’s good fun.