How Gary Jennings ruined my adolescence
Originally posted on ferretbrain.com, now defunct.
There’s a very special place in my heart for a little subgenre I like to call “historical-pornographic fiction”. It’s a dark, bile-filled corner of my heart, and a physician should probably remove it as soon as possible, but as long as it remains, I acknowledge that Gary Jennings (1928-1999) was the uncontested absolute grand master of the field.
Unless you’ve read Jennings, it’s hard to imagine how utterly depraved his novels are (and I don’t use that term lightly), or how unintentionally hilarious for how hard they try. In the Jennings brand of historical fiction, the history only serves as a backdrop for some truly bizarre sexual escapades. In the two and a half novels I’ve read, there’s only the vaguest ghost of a plot, and a slightly less-vague attempt at characterization that often just devolves into racial stereotypes. No, that’s not really why you read these novels. You read them with a kind of horrified fascination, wondering just how far Gary Jennings will go.
To demonstrate my point, I will treat you to a brief excerpt from Raptor:
The lecherous Hun so eager to violate him now took out a blade—no sword, just a belt knife—and carefully, almost delicately made a short incision in the optio’s belly skin, just above the crotch hair. Then the Hun tucked his knife away, lowered himself onto Fabius’s pinned-down body, thrust his fascinum into that slit and began pumping away as he would have done with a woman. (160)
This touching scene happens shortly after the headless body of the victim’s wife somehow manages to vomit out her baby. Perhaps I’m just a bad person, but this scene left me giggling rather than horror-struck. Yet the above passage tells you nearly everything you can expect from a Gary Jennings novel.
There’s a story behind exactly how I came about reading these books. In the seventh grade, there was a silent auction at my elementary school for students, but parents could bring in the material. One of the items was a big box of novels. Since no one else was interested, I bid a dollar without actually looking through the contents, and brought the box home the next day. Most of the books within turned out to be age-inappropriate and not really attention grabbing (I ended up tossing most of them). But there were three novels by Gary Jennings, and since those were historical fiction and the jacket flaps promised adventure, I read each one over the course of the summer. I’m pretty sure these books corrupted me beyond repair. In any case…
(Please be warned, the below summaries contain large spoilers, and a great deal of squick.)
Aztec is undoubtedly Jennings’s best-known novel. It actually has a semblance of a narrative and features a fairly compelling take on Cortez’s conquest of Mesoamerica from the side of the Aztecs themselves. I read this one first because the book itself was attractive: a nice, black cover, interior maps, yellowed paper with close-packed text. It even smelled nice.
The protagonist is a near-sighted Aztec scribe named Mixtli, and the book chronicles his life through to the Spanish conquest, framed as a final confession to a Spanish bishop. A great deal happens. There’s enough interesting Aztec stuff going on to counterbalance the some really quite sick other stuff that’s been snuck into the text.
To whit: at a young age, Mixtli’s older sister decides to bang him. Because he gets exhausted from their extracurricular incestuous sexing, he can’t shoot his semen as far as other boys in a jerking-off competition (yeah, I remember having those, don’t you?), so they hire a temple prostitute to get his mast up, and he ends up vomiting all over her. This is…not an uncommon occurrence in this novel. Some elements tip over into insulting: we meet one of Jennings’s first evil female bisexuals (there will be more!), who makes Mixtli sketch her nightly escapades with various lovers; lovers that she then murders and has made into statues by a pair of gay lovers, After Mixtli causes the death of one of these, the other becomes the main evil gay nemesis in the novel (there will be more!).
At other times, Jenning seems content with just insulting his readers’ intelligence instead of their sensibilities. It’s a ways in that you realize Jennings doesn’t really care about basic biology . There’s a scene at a festival where the locals sacrifice Mixtli’s daughter to honour him and a priest dances around wearing her skin. As you might guess, Mixtli’s just a little upset when he finds out, so he ties down the priest and lets the skin dry out and shrink. The priest’s outer members balloon to enormous size until he explodes. All for a detailed description of a bursting penis. Just lovely.
Wait, that was fairly tame, you say? How about this: Mixtli’s friend suffers an accident and has to undergo complete castration, balls and all, with only a hole left for the urethra. Later on, Mixtli and his friend are alone in the desert, an obvious opportunity for sexy-time. However, Mixtli uses his friend’s urethra as the nearest available orifice. I imagine the unrecorded part of the conversation just beforehand sounded like this:
“Mixtli! There’s two other holes that aren’t nearly as likely lead to infection and permanent loss of bladder control. Why not use those? Please? Pretty please?”
“No,” I said. “If I did that, I would totally turn gay!”
I’ll admit that urethral sex is indeed possible, if not advisable. What happens to Mixtli’s sister is most certainly not possible. In an unrelated adventure, torturers heat up her body and meld her skin and torso into an inhuman shape as if she were made out of so much play-dough. The only parallel I can think of approaching the extent of this procedure is the remade in China Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels. Except here, there’s no thaumatargy to help along the process.
The sins of Aztec against the reader would make a lengthy list, so I’ll stop here. While it’s hard to admit (or believe), there’s a fairly good book lurking under all the squick and ridiculousness. Jennings’s portrayal of Aztec culture is actually sensitive (surprising, I know, considering his insensitivity to just about everything else). Discussions of Aztec civilization in English scholarship too often focus on human sacrifice. Jennings presents human sacrifice as only one element of Aztec culture and puts other aspects in a positive light: law, trade, government, and the like.
Jennings also does an excellent job of drawing comparisons between the Aztecs and their European conquerors; Aztec civilization might have an ugly face, but that face is no uglier than the Spanish one. The same Catholic priests who recoil in disgust at Aztec priests ripping out hearts show equal zeal in burning alive those who keep the old faith. The actual representation of Cortes’s march into Mexico is both gut-wrenching and heartbreaking. Aztec is one of the few western historical novels I’ve read concerning the subject which doesn’t paint the Conquistadors as adventuring heroes and doesn’t shirk away from showing the complete devastation the Conquistadors wrought.
Deconstructing that particular heroic narrative and presenting the Aztecs as a thriving indigenous civilization instead of a decadent, dying den of runaway human sacrifice gives the novel a glimmer of merit. For those bits, Aztec gets a pass. I’m afraid the books that follow do not.
The Journeyer (1984)
This is a book about Marco Polo. Kind of. It’s very loosely based around the journeys of Marco Polo, and injects a whole lot of sex and unusual cruelty to Armenians. This is where Jennings starts to repeat himself, and where, after the success of Aztec, his publishers let him get away with even stranger crap. There’s still a clear narrative here, insofar as Marco Polo goes to China and comes back, but the adventures in-between involve elements that are, well, extremely distracting.
For the record, the racial essentialism here is staggering. All Arabs are homosexuals. All Chinese women are demure and obedient courtesans. Indians are lazy people living in filth, only deriving any dignity whatsoever from a previous civilization (Marco’s quest for the Buddha’s tooth is all kinds of offensive). Armenians are impulsive and have really big noses. There’s a Jewish sorcerer. You get the idea.
But you’re reading this to find out the terrible stuff that happens on the journey. Things aren’t actually all that bad until we meet the comic sidekick Nostril, who we first meet while he’s intent on fucking a small horse. In a future episode, this man will have oral sex with a baby. You read that right. And this is one of the good guys. We’re actually supposed to feel sorry for “how far he has fallen”. I tend to draw the line at boffing babies, though.
Well, stuff happens. Marco gets to Kublai Khan’s court and is set against Kublai Khan’s evil gay Arab advisor (I said there’d be more), who also end up as the lover of Marco’s uncle. There’s a very, very weird sequence with some drug or another where Marco Polo hallucinates that he’s an enormously pregnant woman giving birth. I don’t know why. It’s not like this incident’s ever mentioned again.
Anyhow, the same drug ends up defeating evil gay Arab because it’s supposed to make for amazing sex, and while Marco’s uncle agrees with that sentiment we find the Arab cumming blood in a…a pair of amputated ape-lips? I still have no clue what that thing was supposed to be. So evil gay Arab is defeated by blood ejaculate.
There’s also a pair of Chinese sisters that Marco teaches to be lesbians and then the older sister gets jealous because she wants her younger sister all to herself and tries to kill Marco and…oh look, another evil female bisexual. There will be more.
For all that, it’s not a very long book. I still finished it. But by then the horrified fascination was in full swing. For a few months, I didn’t touch the last book in the unholy trio. Then, with a shrug and a “what the hey”, I did.
I wish I didn’t.
This is the one I couldn’t finish. It’s also massive, over 900 pages long, and manages to pack in more density of fucked-up shit than the books that came before it.
Here, we follow Thorn across Europe immediately after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Now, Thorn is a hermaphrodite. Despite Jennings’s track record, he actually manages a balanced portrayal of how a hermaphrodite might get about in the fifth century and explores gender roles with astonishing finesse. No, scratch that. This is a a Gary Jennings novel. In truth, Jennings uses Thorn’s status as a hermaphrodite solely so the main character can have lots and lots and lots of increasingly strange sex.
The opening scene involves young Thorn as an orphan in a monastery getting raped by a priest. When the abbot discovers Thorn’s “secret”, he packs off Thorn to a convent, where Thorn immediately starts having sex with an older nun. After that’s found out, the abbot decides it’s time to set Thorn out in the world.
Some general things here: Thorn is a highly overpowered character. Not only is he (I’m going to use the male pronoun because Thorn self-identifies as a man unless he happens to fancy another man) a great warrior and a lover, he also has this super-cool hawk on his shoulder that makes him look like a badass. He travels the entire breadth of Europe and does all sorts of amazing things to liven up all the sex, sex, sex. There’s a huge problem, though, and as the book describes things, it’s probably the most unbelievable thing in it. Straight up: Thorn has no testicles. When in man-mode, he fluffs up his pubic hair to shield his vagina and make it look like he has a pair. When he’s in woman-mode, he puts a band round his waist to keep his cock restrained. Considering the types of sexual acts going on in this book, I can tell you now: there is no way this attempt at concealment would work. No way at all. But it does. Only three people find out Thorn’s a hermaphrodite after he leaves the monastery and convent.
Our first real enemy is, wait for it, an evil female bisexual. But she gets poisoned by a black girl with a toxic vagina, so that’s okay. Later on, we’ll meet a pair of Chinese twins with dual poison vaginas. I don’t recall any of the Caucasian characters having poison vaginas, though. Maybe my memory’s just trying hard to block out this novel.
Another point: Thorn picks up a comic sidekick named Maghib who also happens to be Armenian and also happens to have a giant nose. Then all the women are curious because, “you know what they say about men with big noses.” I’m not sure why Jennings, in two novels, chose to portray Armenians as buffoons with enormous noses. Maybe it was a personal thing?
In time, Thorn falls in with Theodoric of the Ostrogoths. He gets sent on a quest to find the homeland of the Goths, which is the exact same quest Mixtli was sent on in one segment of Aztec except that Mixtli was looking for the homeland of the Aztecs. As far as I can tell, it’s so Thorn can trek across poorly-researched Sarmatia and meet Amazons there (honest-to-God Amazons!). He meets another hermaphrodite named Thor who looks exactly like him except self-identifies as female (see, even their names are only one letter off! They’re perfect for each other!). Thorn and Thor have mind-blowing sex. But then it turns out Thor was evil and Thorn kills her. Yeah. So far, the gender issues are either poorly-handled or just plain ignored. Thorn has no problem fitting in as one gender or the other, but he still spends most of the novel as a man. I can’t say I blame him, since in Jennings’s fifth century Europe, women are either nuns, evil, or rape victims. Thorn only ever dons a dress when he wants to boff some guy or become a super-sexy assassin. The latter action has a memorable moment where Thorn continues fucking a guy after he’s already killed him. So, let’s add necrophilia to the list of “What were you thinking, Gary?”.
Yet even that entry in the list pales to one scene in particular: a Bacchanal where a mother rapes her sons. While wearing multiple wooden strap-on phalluses. There should be tearing and blood involved (it’s stated that the boys haven’t actually been buggered before), but this being history-according-to-Gary, there is none, and the boys end up enjoying it and fucking each other.
I’m not exactly sure where I quit on this one. There was a point when my twelve-year-old self decided it was all too much. I never did pick up a book by Gary Jennings again until I borrowed copies of the unholy three from the local library for this review. Ah, the library: still a good source for filth if you look hard enough.
Some Cursory Conclusions
I suppose the content of these books could be called “shocking”, but it was rather easy to inure myself to most of it until Raptor, when Jennings crossed the last of many, many lines. With each book, the sex and violence grew increasingly detached from anything resembling reality. I found scenes both cringe-worthy and laugh-worthy (“bodies don’t work like that!”) when I was young, and I guess if you’re really in the mood for a laugh, you could give these a shot as long as you can stomach the frequent descriptions of pedophilia.
As historical fiction, most of the history is rubbish. I’ve seen reviews talking about Jennings’s “meticulous research”, but he does a rather poor job of using any. There’s a huge amount of detail, sure, presented in the kind of infodump fashion found in other historical novels where the author attempts to impress the reader with historical knowledge. But in this case, after Aztec, Jennings just makes most of that detail up. This is very strange, since the end-note to The Journeyer tells me:
To write The Journeyer, he [Jennings] followed Marco Polo's route from Venice through the Middle East to China, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia by camel and elephant, on foot and on horseback, by junk and by goatskin raft. He was arrested in Turkey, shot at in the Golden Triangle, marooned by an avalanche in Karakoram, joined a band of smugglers in Afghanistan—but survived and is now in Europe, collecting experiences for a new novel.
…which sounds more interesting than what actually happens in the novel. For all Jennings’ travels and research, The Journeyer is rife with just-plain-wrong “facts” about medieval Venice, Baghdad, as well as Yuan and Song China. And Raptor…Raptor has Amazons. In fifth century Europe.
Strip down these plots, and they are also essentially the same: boy from a disadvantaged and unlikely background rises to prominence in some court or another and goes on some important quest (finding the homeland of the Aztecs, or the homeland of the Goths, or the Buddha’s Tooth), things fall apart and they end up in not-so-great situations at the end reminiscing about past glories. The prose is historical novel standard, nothing particularly special (there’s a really awful passage in Raptor about how men are “convex” and the purpose of battles is to make them “concave”).
I should also mention that Jennings’s main characters are fortunate to live in a time when STDs are exceedingly rare. Fertility rates are also shockingly low. I will at least concede that in Raptor, Jennings makes clear that Thorn can’t produce or have children. Though he would be an extraordinary conduit for STDs, that is, if there were any. Which there aren’t.
On that subject, there’s also Jennings's (odd, in relation to everything else that happens in his novels) aversion to sodomy and homosexuality. As in the aforementioned scene in Aztec, Mixtli goes to quite some trouble to avoid anal sex, which would undoubtedly be less painful for his friend than what he does end up doing. While there is a long spate of lesbian sex meant to titillate the reader, it’s a case of an evil aristocrat “defiling” another woman, and that aspect is played up to show how awful the aristocrat is. In The Journeyer, sodomy marks that “this character is lecherous, indolent or evil”; on a few occasions, Marco Polo finds himself about to receive anal sex, or offered it, yet he never actually does it. Because, apparently, that would make him evil. The situation is a whole lot worse in Raptor because, while Thorn navigates between genders, the only homosexual act he partakes in is a traumatizing one (his rape by a priest), and in future occasions, only distasteful characters take part in homosexuality. Thorn is simply unable to think outside of binary gender; he identifies as a man when fucking a woman, identifies as a woman when fucking a man. Thorn constantly makes reference to “normal” sex as opposed to the “disgusting” and “impure” sex of the Bacchanal. Any sign of non-heteronormative behaviour immediately means that there’s something questionable about the person doing it—though Jennings does seem to take great pleasure in describing such behaviour in great detail.
If you really, absolutely, must read a Gary Jennings novel based on the above, Aztec is probably the only one worth your time. It’s the template Jennings used for his later books, and, as I said, there’s actually some neat stuff in there if you’re willing to ignore the many problematic elements. The depiction of precolonial Mesoamerica is interesting, if not particularly accurate—it still does a better job than the books after it, and it’s still primarily a novel instead of a loose collection of dodgy pornography.
Raptor is something of an endurance test. If you really want to test how much misogynistic, racist, homophobic, squicky, offensive crap you can take down your gullet, go right ahead.
All in all, I have no plans to revisit my brief fling with Gary Jennings (at least after writing this). There are probably plenty of repressed memories of those books that shouldn’t, under any circumstances, be unleashed.