Jennifer Ashley

When Dreams Die

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I've been dreaming lately. Daydreaming, eyes becoming unfocused and the world softening around the edges. It's a pleasant way to spend some time on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Often, I find myself thinking and dreaming about the characters in my favorite books. Today, though, I'm thinking about the nature of dreams themselves. We talk about daring to dream, and I think that is an accurate depiction of the risks involved in making an emotional investment in desiring a certain outcome. When we admit to wanting something, we also subject ourselves to the possibility of disappointment, which leads inevitably to pain. Because most of us avoid pain and even discomfort at all costs, assuming the necessary burden of vulnerability isn't the path of least resistance that most of us prefer to travel. The ability to dream is the engine of great achievement and advances. Dreams inspire and motivate us to work hard and make sacrifices on the altar of delayed gratification. Dreams are the manifestation of our hope. 

And all of that is well and good when our dreams come true and we get what we want, or perhaps even more than we imagined possible. It's even good right up until the time when we are forced to admit that it's just not gonna happen. That is the downside of dreaming, the part where we have to either acknowledge that a train we were desperate to board has left the station without us, or contort into Twister positions to convince ourselves (erroneously) that we might still make it. Because not all dreams come true, despite what we've been told by well-meaning parents, teachers and Walt Disney. There are no magic wands waving to any discernible effect in this plane of reality. And we can't always get what we want, more's the pity.

I'm talking about when we need to acknowledge the mortality of our deepest desires, which, coincidentally, coincides with the mortality of our bodies as they march toward death. For those of us leaving middle age in our dusty wake, there are dreams that we've been forced to abandon, whether we like it or not. Only the most cognitively challenged among us could persist in denying that the dream of everlasting love dies with divorce, or even early death. Some of us must give up dreams of parenthood or athletic achievement as the inevitability of biology robs us of opportunities open only to the young.

When I think about my beloved immortals and the "fact" that they need not attend to the physical indignities of growing older, it occurs to me that they are not immune to other effects of dying dreams. In Mate Claimed, by Jennifer Ashley, part of the Shifter Unbound series, Eric must acknowledge the death of his dreams of a single mating when he falls in love with Iona. Sookie Stackhouse of True Blood fame, while not immortal, mourns her status as a one-man woman when she takes a second lover.  And it is so sad when Mac Lane must acknowledge the demise of her dreams of getting married in her small southern town, raising her children alongside her beloved sister and growing old together because her sister was murdered.

Laurell K. Hamilton offers one of the best-written depictions of this phenomenon in the Anita Blake series. Over the course of almost 20 books, Anita grows and evolves and we see her hold onto and then begin to let go of a specific self image, which is the dream we all share, and which most of us must abandon sooner or later. For Anita, she must grieve the woman she thought she was and wanted to be, someone who would marry and live in a nice house and maybe raise a few kids. Yes, she might raise a few zombies while she was at it, but hey, she saw herself in as conventional a role as possible, given her status as a necromancer.

But Anita, like many of us, saw that dream die. It was hard for her as it is for all of us, and paranormal fantasy works best when it reflects our shared reality (and then adds a little something extra). I've had to let go of many dreams.  I've had to acknowledge the death of my dreams of a beautiful pregnancy and my visions of being a carefree young mother, happily attached to her baby, bonding and seeing the world through new eyes, etc., etc. That particular dream was incredibly well developed, as I'd had many years of infertility to hone its edges to a killing point. And when that dream dissipated like so much steam over a pot of boiling water, the sharpness of the blade just about killed me. That particular dream died very, very hard. And it left scars, much in the same way that the death of a loved one leaves marks on our soul to remind us of our love and our loss.

Perhaps my daydreams are a little weird. That's OK, I'm proud to fly my freak flag high, as I've told you before. Hopefully my rumination on the ruins of my dreams will help others bury their own dead and embrace the reality that lives. All my favorite paranormal characters do it, and so can we. 

Mixing It Up

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I'm still enjoying Jennifer Ashley's Shifters Unbound series. The characters are well developed, the world building is interesting, the plots move along nicely and the sex is hot. What more can I ask?  Not much, I'll tell you. In Ms. Ashley's world, there are several varieties of shifters, including Feline (cats), Lupine (wolves) and Ursine (bears). Each variety is a souped-up combination of species found in the wild, so each type of shifter already represents a mix. Then, when the shifters are brought in from the wild, they begin to mix with each other and with humans. Talk about your blended families.  This mixology got me thinking about the difficulties that ensue when people from different countries, cultures, religions, races, and ethnicities get together and try to make a go of marriage or committed relationships. I remember my mother warning me about the challenges of interfaith marriage (I don't think she could have contemplated an interracial marriage).  She told me that marriage is hard and requires a lot of work. She said that coming from different religions just makes it harder. I think I was five when we had this conversation. 

Fast-forward about twenty-five years, and the gist of what she was talking about began to make sense. My husband and I had a little Green Acres action going on (I know I'm dating myself with this reference to sitcoms from the seventies, but you already know how old I am). I grew up on Park Avenue in Manhattan. My husband grew up in rural Washington State, in a locale whose claim to fame was that it was first in line to get ashed when Mt. St. Helens erupted. My apartment building had a larger population than his hometown. Suffice to say that we had some differences in our experiences, our approach to life, our respective cultures, religions, you name it. And yet, while we had almost nothing in common on paper, we had everything in common that counted. Still do, in fact.

This phenomenon of mates who come together not in spite of their differences but because of them is a common trope in paranormal fantasy. In Jennifer Ashley's world, it's relationships between Felines and Lupines, but also between shifters and humans. In many of my amazing paranormal fantasy books, humans mate with all sorts of paranormal creatures and the supernaturals mate inside and outside of their own kinds. Interestingly, in many of these series, Ms. Ashley’s included, interspecies marriage is illegal (also in the Sookie Stackhouse series, where vampires and humans are not allowed to marry). I’m sure this is a commentary on what was the law of the land, but is no longer.  I wonder, given the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, whether this new reality will be reflected in my beloved fantasy books.  I bet it will.  But I digress.  Again.

Back to mixed marriages and all the questions they engender. To begin, what will they raise the kids?  Jennifer Ashley handles this question with aplomb, saying that if two kinds of shifters make a baby, the "cub" becomes the dominant form of shifter. In most of these books, however, interspecies breeding is rare, so when it happens, it’s usually an event that progresses a book plot. In some series, it's not possible for disparate species to make babies, so problem solved. In the real world, it’s a little less cut and dried when questions about how to honor and respect the heritage, history and customs of various cultures, beliefs and traditions need to be negotiated. For interfaith unions, there is the "December Dilemma." Do we celebrate Christmas, Hanukah or both?  Passover, Easter or both?  Or, do we do nothing and let the young ‘uns figure it out for themselves? How do we keep from confusing the children? Or ourselves? What about keeping multiple languages alive for the next generation?  Or teaching multiple history lessons at home?  Not to mention the faux pas we make when we don't fully understand or assimilate our mate's social mores or vocabulary into our everyday lives (have you ever heard a Gentile try to pronoun common Yiddish words and phrases?  Oy vey).  The whole thing is exhausting. And it can certainly lead to discord.

In my own household, even after more than two decades together, my husband is still dismayed when I pop the last bite of food in my mouth and there is none left for him. I assumed if he wanted some, he would have taken some off my plate. He expected me to offer. On the other hand, he’s consistently incredulous that I haven't yet learned that interrupting him to anticipate the end of his sentences is not an expression of my interest and love, which it is for me. For him, it's just rude and annoying. Go figure.

And then there is the issue that no matter how much we love each other and no matter now much we learn about each other, there are still aspects of ourselves that our partners may appreciate, but will never truly relate to. My husband is still slightly horrified by my misspent youth in 1980s New York City, while I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that he lived in such a homogenous town he had to travel at least an hour before he might encounter someone with skin darker than his, or someone who didn't worship Jesus. Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn't it?  

And sometimes, no matter how much we love our mates, we need to be with our peeps. You know, the ones who get us, not just because they love us, but because they lived our reality.  We may not even know these folks a long time but we feel an instant connection with someone and then bonded over similar geographic or cultural backgrounds. I love it when meet someone of my own species, New Yorkus Privilegus . It’s nice not to have to explain things sometimes,

So, paranormal fantasy authors gets it right when they explore the challenges and humor associated with dating and mating outside one's own tribe. The rewards are many, the least of which is avoiding having a family tree with no branches, but which also include expanding our horizons and perspectives and creating something unique and precious together. As always, we must ask ourselves, is the cake worth the bake?  If the love is strong and both partners have the courage of commitment, then yes, yes it is. If one or the other participant is weak, it may not work out so well. In the end, mixing it up may not be for everyone, but it’s amazing that everyone may now have the right to decide what works for each of them.

The Politics of Prejudice

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I'm enjoying a new author, Jennifer Ashley, and the first book of her Shifters Unbound series, Pride Mates. It's light and airy, mostly, and the perfect antidote to the marvelous but depressingly heavy Robin Hobb trilogy I just finished. But even when an author colors inside the lines of the paranormal fantasy genre, as Ms. Ashley does (and this is not at all a criticism, I read these books with a certain expectation of knowing what to expect), there is a depth to the best of the genre that transcends the stereotypes of strong, independent women, hot alpha males, hotter sex, and inevitable HEAs. In this case, Ms. Ashley writes about beautiful people, who happen also to change into feline and lupine alter egos (or alter bodies, really), and the decidedly not beautiful consequences of prejudice that attend their ability to transform. Ms. Ashley is not the first to explore the ugly underbelly of human hatred and the small mindedness of judgment before the fact attendant to the “other” in our society. Charlaine Harris explores the consequences of racial discrimination against the newly revealed vampires living among humans and what happens when vampires "come out of the coffin."  The inimitable Laurell Hamilton writes movingly about the prejudice experienced by those unfortunates who have been stricken with lycanthropy (the disease that causes a human to shift into a beast), and who now have no option but to let their animal natures out to play, and maybe to kill. Patricia Briggs expounds on the systematic internment of the Fae into mandatory reservations and the consequences of that decision by the federal government against an element of the population. Lilo Abernathy investigates, as a central theme of her Bluebell Kildare series, the civil unrest that occurs as a result of the antipathy between "norms," or non-magical humans, and their Gifted counterparts.

In each of these cases, the author explores the universal human need to identify a group, "them," for the sole purpose of more clearly defining "us." What a shame and a waste. But we humans do it again and again. That which is not "us" is, by definition, "them." Those who are "them" are, by extension and necessity, evil or, at a minimum, worse than "us." They are who we use to make us look and feel better about ourselves.

Are we hard-wired to hate? It seems so. Hatred of the other, which I've written about before, gives us unity, camaraderie, and a sense of shared purpose. It makes us feel like we belong—but it is a perversion of fellowship and community, not an authentic expression of fellowship. This phenomenon of human existence also serves to help some of us feel superior to others. We do this in a bizarre and seemingly nonsensical way (as if prejudice could ever have any basis in logic or reality, which makes makes sense in a twisted way, if you know what I mean).

In all of these distasteful scenarios, and quite explicitly in the world of Shifters Unbound, the non-human, supernatural beings are considered less than human. These are not beings with full rights because they are not considered full persons. They, like American slaves, along with Jews, gypsies and homosexuals in Nazi Germany before them, are fractional people, so that more than one is needed to make a whole. What a concept. Personally, I have trouble wrapping my mind around it, which is a good thing and I won't expend too much effort trying. It's not clear to me how someone or more than one someone, can look at a living, breathing entity in front of them who has two eyes, ears, arms and legs just like they do, whose faces form smiles and frowns and whose voices speak truth and beauty just like theirs do, and see them as less than human.

As you know, I love the world of paranormal fiction because it allows authors to explore ideas and philosophies in an exaggerated way to make their points. In Jennifer Ashley's world, shifters are herded into ghettos called Shiftertowns in different cities. These are analogous to internment and refugee camps or Native American reservations. After all, we need to keep them contained and accountable. If they are all forced to live in one place, we'll know where to find them, won't we? And then we’ll be able to control them, and isn't that what this little exercise in fear and prejudice is all about?  This way of thinking is very warped, but seems to be prevalent, nonetheless. In Pride Mates, not only are shifters forced to live in Shiftertowns, they are also forced to wear magical collars that supposedly keep their beasts in check. Talk about taking control to the next level. 

And, while the shifters (or any disenfranchised population) is corralled into ghettos and forced to wear symbols of their status, their captors (those would be the humans) like to practice deprivation. In Pride Mates, shifters aren't allowed access to cable TV or high-speed internet (controlling access to information, presumably), and they are not allowed to hold any job where they might come into physical contact with human (gee—not even as manicurists?).  This deprivation is partly preventive, because it ensures that the dominated population can never become too rich or too powerful, but it’s also punative—a punishment for being less thanas if those who are denigrated in this way have any choice in the matter. And while deprivation might serve to keep the population down, physically and psychologically, it is also, as we’ve seen time and again, a recipe for fomenting discontent and rebellion. Stupid is as stupid does.  Again, I’m talking about the humans in this scenario.

Because, of course, all of this says a great deal more about “us” than it does about “them.”  Anyone who would subjugate a population just because it’s different or because they can doesn’t actually deserve to be called human, at least in my book. People who enslave, or imprison or degrade others to prop themselves up are the beasts, the savages, the ones unworthy of the status of personhood.  That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to live or to do as they want—as long as what they want doesn’t involve putting and keeping others down. So, along with my light and airy read, my paranormal fantasy also provokes deep and meaningful thoughts.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.