Madhuri Blaylock

The Muddle of Love

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I'm reading the final book in the Sanctum trilogy, The Prophecy. The series has gotten better with each installment, always a nice surprise. And I haven't finished it yet, so we'll have to see how Madhuri Blaylock sews it all up into a tidy bow for us, but I'm certainly enjoying the ride along the way to completion. Halfway through the book, however, the aspect that has struck me the most is the number of couples portrayed in the plot, and just how different each of their love stories is. Also quite unexpectedly, this fantasy series is not following the usual (and beloved, don't get me wrong) patterns of paranormal romance or even urban fantasy. There are many more than one set of lovers, and certainly not all of them are going to get a traditional HEA, or perhaps even any HEA at all. But, as I love surprises, this is all good and definitely provides lots of material for me to think about and write about. Yay me.

In the interest of not spoiling the book for anyone, as well as for the benefit of those who read my blog but not the books I write about (an audience I will be trying harder to reach over the coming weeks and months, so stay tuned for upcoming changes to my modus operandi), I won't tell you which specific characters I'm talking about as putter along here.

There are many of sets of complicated couples in this book. And because all of these characters are supernatural, many of them have lived and loved through many human lifetimes. Something I really can't imagine (my husband and I will celebrate twenty years of marriage this year and that seems like quite a long time to me--can't think what a two-hundred year celebration would look or feel like, but I digress).  For some of these characters, it also means they've been locked in passionate battles for centuries as well. Can you imagine engaging in the dynamics of a dysfunctional relationship over that many years?  Yikes! 

But the most compelling thing about Madhuri Blaylock's characters is the authenticity of the duality of love that she portrays for each of her couples. One couple accepts that the other will share as many beds as they want, but that that relationship between the two of them won't be affected. Talk about an open relationship. Maybe that’s the way to make centuries of love last. Expand your horizons, so to speak. For this pair, it seems to be the difference between lust and love; sex with others falls into the first category, but for the two of them together, it's making love. This would be a bridge too far for many, but would also embody the definition of to each their own. It doesn’t go quite as far as Laurrell Hamilton, but it goes too far for my apparently provincial tastes. I’d be interested in your thoughts on the matter.

Then there is the couple in The Prophecy who have loved each other across multiple lifetimes but who have chosen, each in their own way, to leave each other in this lifetime. Except they still yearn for each other. And mostly stay away from each other, but not entirely. Sucks to be them for sure. I don't believe I could deny myself to that extent, and, honestly, it’s all a little too much Brief Encounter for me, but I will say this for Ms. Blaylock:  she does an excellent job of describing the simultaneous holding of mutually exclusive realities, which is really what life is about, isn’t it?  It reminds me of one of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver, In Backwater Woods, which exhorts us to hold on as tightly as we can to love, even knowing that the objects of our love are mortal and will pass from this earth and from us.  It is hard to reconcile such diametrically opposed realities, and yet that is what life calls us to do all the time.  The couples portrayed in The Prophecy reflect this difficult experience.

Another pair in the book has loved each other over the years—the long years of immortal lifetimes—and for each the other is the one that they call home, the one that they feel compelled to come back to.  And yet despite this bond, this durable magnetism toward each other, one is betrayed by the other in an undeniable and unendurable way.  Elements of Greek tragedy all over the place here, and then the real heartbreak unfolds when the one betrayed must kill the beloved who transgressed.  The whole scene was absolutely gut wrenching. And then, in the aftermath of the murder, there is an attempted suicide that was a visceral reminder that love doesn’t die in the face of betrayal, but is transmuted into something aborted and distorted.  It left me wishing for the possibility of an off switch or a reset button, although neither exists in reality nor in the world of the Sanctum. But when I think about love betrayed and the pain that is engendered by feelings that no longer have a basis in purity or joy, I find myself slipping into fantasies of “if only.”

For yet another couple in this book, there is the confusion that accompanies love divided.  The author describes the lingering touch of first love combined with the futility of ill-fated lovers mixed in with the certainty of love in the present moment.  What a hot mess that whole thing is. And I do mean in every sense of the word. Hot as in passionate, angry, sexy, dangerous, damaging, and compelling. All at the same time.  Who wouldn’t be confused?

But the thing about love is that it comes in all of these shapes and sizes in the real world, and it’s always interesting, thought-provoking and inspiring to read about its various manifestation in my beloved books.  It’s only my love of books that is completely pure and uncomplicated.  All the rest is mostly a muddle. One we can’t, and wouldn’t want to live without, of course, but a muddle just the same.

The Kindness of Strangers

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In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois declares that she’s always depended on the kindness of strangers.  This is a line my mother enjoyed repeating, and, therefore, it’s a line I’ve pondered over time.  I’m not really sure what Blanche meant, or maybe I am.  But I think I understand what my mother meant. And for the record, I don’t agree.  Shocked, you are, I’m sure.  But it’s an interesting concept, actually, and one I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. And I’m going to digress in the next few paragraphs (more shock, I know), but I promise I’m going to get back to this concept toward the end.

As I continue to look back over the past year, I’ve been thinking about the books I’ve read.  I’ve read some amazing books by well-established authors who I love, love, love, and about whom I’ve written extensively.  And I’ve also read some memorable books by new authors who are less well known. There are four books (or series) in this latter category in particular that I want to talk about: The Light Who Shines, by Lilo Abernathy; Jade, by Rose Montague; The Sanctum Trilogy (The Girl and The Boy, so far), by Madhuri Blaylock; and The Unelmoija series by Elle Boca (including The Dreamshifter and The Mindshifter, which are the two of the four that I have read so far).  All of these books have at least one common theme, despite many differences in the specifics of plot, characterization and world building.

The theme at hand is decency and generosity.  Each of the main characters in each of these books/series confronts adversity and reversals with open hearts, minds and hands.  And the openness of their beings is an important element in defining who they are.  I’ve written about this aspect of these works specifically twice here and here  and more obliquely elsewhere here; here; here; and here .  But now I want to say more about these books and their authors.

I have always assumed that individuals write what they know, on one level or another.  Thus, I believe that Thea Harrison and Nalini Singh know a thing or two about how to have successful relationships between strong-willed individuals. I’ve assumed that Laurell Hamilton understands, in a visceral and meaningful way, what family is, or should be, and what it means to find meaning in the minutiae of life. And I think Charlaine Harris, Jeaniene Frost, and Faith Hunter appreciate the soft underbelly of strong women, that which makes them human, even when they aren’t.  Perhaps I’m wrong about these amazing authors, but I don’t think so, and here’s why.

Over the course of the past nine months, since I began writing this blog, I’ve gotten to know Lilo, Rose, Madhuri and Elle a little bit through social media.  Sounds a little shallow, I know, and I might have thought that myself prior to my recent experiences, but it’s not. When I began my very tentative foray into Twitter, last summer, I made a commitment to putting out one tweet a day. No sooner than I’d started my very basic and bland one tweet a day with my brand new Twitter account (@truthinfantasy), I was discovered by Lilo, who added me to some sort of retweet list, and, boom, my Twitter life was launched in earnest. Shortly thereafter, Rose found me and promoted me to her followers, followed in short order by Madhuri and Elle, who also added me to their inner Twitter circles, retweeting me and favoriting my tweets and blogs, and in doing so, ensuring my success in the Twitterverse.

And the truth is, this was all about what these amazing authors write about:  paying it forward, turning the other cheek, offering the hand of friendship with no expectation of compensation.  These women are just like the characters and themes they write about, and this is why, based on my highly unscientific sampling of four, I am sure I am right about the other others I have read and loved.

I don’t think it’s possible to write books this good and talk the talk so authentically without walking the walk in one’s personal life.  I mean, after all, does it make sense to you that someone like Lilo, Rose, Elle and Madhuri would write about being compassionate in the face of hate, giving in the face of stinginess, and tolerance in the face of close-mindedness if these authors didn’t reflect these higher characteristics of the human condition in their own lives?  Even if these characters and characteristics are aspirational rather than descriptive, I applaud their intentions. I can only hope mine are as pure.

So, back to the kindness of strangers (I promised, didn’t I??)  For Blanche and my mother, the kindness of strangers meant in relying on the intimacy of the one night stand over the intimacy of a long term relationship. It meant the freedom to say and do things you would not otherwise do because there were no consequences of having to face the other person at another time. The kindness of strangers, for Blanche and my mom, was the ability to be all in--for a very finite period of time with no fear of repercussions later because there was no later. There was no disappointment because there were no expectations. There was no betrayal because there was absolutely no context. There was no tuning out because it cost so little to tune in temporarily. So, that is certainly one way to look at it—and then look what happened to Blanche.  Not so pretty (my mom, too, but that is the subject of another post).

But then contrast that with what I mean by the kindness of strangers.  I mean the ability to be generous because it elevates us.  The ability to be open and real because it feeds our souls.  And if we get something back, that’s the icing on the cake. But we don’t need the icing, because we’ve filled up on the spongy, vanilla goodness (I like vanilla better than chocolate, remember?  Here.  My faith in humanity has been validated again by the knowledge that these authors really are like the characters they write about.  And how awesome, amazing and lovely is that?

So, the kindness of strangers is a real thing, not another irony in a sad and pathetic life.  Depending on how you look at it, of course.  And I’m a half full kind of gal, dontcha know? Thank you Lilo, Rose, Elle, and Madhuri.  Write more, please, so I can continue to grow and learn through your work.  And thank you for reaching out the hand of friendship to someone you don’t even know—just because that’s the kind of women you are. Thanks for helping to make 2014 a banner year for me, and I look forward to even better things in 2015. Life is good. 

Signs of Change

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Today I'm going to jump right in. No digressions or distractions. Today's post is about transformation, and about what happens when something rocks our world and pulls the rug out from under us. What does the aftermath of these earth-shaking events look like? How does the landscape appear when the dust settles? The short answer is, everything changes. Sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly. Sometimes the changes are temporary and sometimes they last forever.  And sometimes they are obvious, but not always.

I'm thinking about all of this as a result of reading the second book in the Sanctum trilogy, The Boy, by Madhuri Blaylock. This offering is even better than its predecessor, The Girl, which I wrote about here. As a fantasy novelist, Ms. Blaylock is able to create the perfect construct to highlight this theme of transformation and its complex consequences. And here comes the spoiler alert--in the book, one of the main characters, Wyatt, is killed by a former brother-in-arms.

Wyatt is killed after he's had his life upended by the harsh realization that everything he believed about his life and the cause to which he's committed his life is a lie. He is killed shortly after he falls in love with the being he had been ordered to destroy. He is killed shortly after everything he knew to be ground truth was revealed as quicksand. But then, because this is fantasy, Wyatt is brought back to life. Mostly. The fragments of his soul are gathered and reconstituted and he is alive again—more or less. But he is changed, both physically and mentally. His once-blue eyes are now green. His memory has significant holes in it. He is not the same. And in his difference, his relationships are affected too. And all of this is a wonderful metaphor for the truth we find in similar—figuratively—situations in real life.

I love the way Madhuri Blaylock captures how, in reality, we have to gather the shards of our being and put them back together after a trauma or major life-changing event, like a death, a job loss, a major illness or injury. And I especially love that there is a physical manifestation of the change to signify the internal changes in Wyatt. I have wished in the past, after a death, for example, that people could see--actually see-- that I wasn't the same person anymore, that the changes that had been wrought by the circumstances of my life had transformed me to the point that I could no longer be related to in the same way, nor could I be assumed to react in ways that might be familiar to those who knew me before.

For me, though, as for most of us, that didn’t happen. For others, more unfortunate, perhaps, the changes are so profound, both physical and emotional, there are more obvious signs, like Wyatt's change of eye color. The world knows that someone is no longer who they were before when they’ve lost an arm or a leg or an eye, for example, through war or accident. And when the evidence of their transformation is as overt as that, we know to tread lightly, and to take care in our approach.

But maybe I’m being presumptive in suggesting that an outward manifestation of internal transformation is a good thing.  Wyatt certainly didn’t think it was a good thing when those around him, particularly Dev, treated him with something akin to horror, or worse, pity. So maybe it’s better not to wear our internal landscape in our outward appearance. Hard to say.  Maybe the grass is greener for all concerned in most situations, and it doesn’t really matter in the end.

And then we have the question of what happens after the transformation occurs and we are faced with the new reality of our world. Do we reject it, like Wyatt?  I know that I’ve tried that approach--cursing the Universe for leaving me bereft and vulnerable.  What happens when we can’t accept the reality of our transformation? Do we fight it? Collapse into ourselves?  Push others away who would try to help? I think many of us do all of those things when faced with major changes in our lives.  Are there better ways of responding to major transformation?  I believe there are, and that with practice, we learn to accommodate change in a healthy, constructive manner. But it does take practice, because the first time our worlds get rocked, it is unclear that the essence of who we are remains the same, regardless of changing circumstances, and regardless of how those circumstances change us.

After a trauma, it may seem that we are not the same people not only to others, but also to ourselves.  Getting to know ourselves after a major change is challenging, another reality that Ms. Blaylock captures perfectly.  Asking others to get to know us anew is even more difficult. And if we doubt, as Wyatt does initially, that the core of who we are remains unscathed, then the task is even more difficult. Fighting our way back from the brink of that doubt, as Wyatt does, is the work that we are called to do as we negotiate life’s vicissitudes. If we remain true to ourselves—if we know the truth of who we are—then we can shoulder the inevitable burdens of life. This is the truth that both Wyatt and Dev come to in The Boy, and it’s done with excruciating authenticity. As in life, it takes time, and effort, and perseverance.

But the result is worthy.  The result is valuable.  If we can come back from the brink of despair and desolation, no matter how bad the trauma and no matter how difficult the transformation, then we get back to ourselves.  We can reclaim the shards of our essence and return to life and to love. Not everyone makes it, I’ve seen.  But it is inspiring when it happens, just as it is to read about in The Boy. And it reminds us, or at least it should, to take the time to be confident in our essence, so that we can find our way back when the planet tilts for us and we must gather ourselves anew, and come back to who we are, and who we strive to be.

The Other as Hell Spawn

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I've just finished The Girl, by Madhuri Blaylock, an intriguing series opener with attractive characters and an original world. I'm definitely looking forward to how the author develops her concepts and characters. I love that this book dives deep into one of the more unfortunate aspects of the human animal, which is to deny humanity to our enemies and competitors. It is a well-documented fact that we humans like to demonize those we hate, to objectify them in order to make ourselves feel better about behaving badly towards them. So, in Ms. Blaylock's book, even her title points to a major theme of the story; the main protagonist is, in fact, just a girl, not the crazed and animalistic demon she is portrayed as being by the powers that be who seek to destroy her.

For the vast majority of the population, it would be unthinkable to kill another human being. But when we need or want to hurt or kill, literally, such as in war, or figuratively, such as in bullying or character assassination, one of the ways we make it easier on ourselves is to think of the "other" as being wholly alien from who we ourselves are. “Not like us” equals OK to demean, degrade, deprive, and destroy. 

How do soldiers prepare to kill fellow humans who happen to wear the uniform of an opposing force?  By making them sub-human and therefore worthy of death. In fact, all military and paramilitary training is designed to help human recruits overcome the natural reticence we all have to take another human life, and to live with the regret that normal, healthy humans experience when we do kill. In another example, we may wonder how whites in America were able to enslave and mistreat their darker-skinned brethren.  The answer is the same: by designating them as only partially human (three-fifths human, to be exact, a little more than half). How did Nazi officers kill Jewish babies in front of their mothers and then go home to play with their own children without a second thought? Because Jews were portrayed as being less than human and therefore in a completely separate category as the Aryan race. How do serial killers torture and kill their victims?  By seeing them as objects, not people. Do you remember the scene in Silence of the Lambs where the senator’s daughter tries to tell the crazed killer her name so that he might see her as human?  Didn’t work, of course.  He loved his dog a lot more than the “thing” in the pit.

And there are many other examples of this very ugly, very human phenomenon.  The rationale behind it must be that we are somehow biologically hardwired to recognize another of our kind and to see ourselves in them so that we are naturally reluctant to kill or damage them in any way because it feels like hurting ourselves.  Therefore, if we want or need to behave badly, we must first rewire our brains so that we do not recognize ourselves in the “other” so that we can destroy with impunity.

And lest we think that this activity is limited to others who take this tendency to the extreme, let me assure you that we are all alike in this way.  It is human nature to decide between two options:  generally, either we identify in or we identify out. So, for example, when we audition to join a new group, be it professional, personal, or religious, we must first decide—or have it decided for us—whether we are a good fit. If we are already in the group, it is up to us to determine whether the candidate is “one of us.”

Some groups are determined by like-mindedness or common benefit, such as special interest groups, hobby groups, or religious and political affiliations.  Some groups are determined by function or purpose, like labor unions or industry associations. Some groups are purely social, and exist mostly to distinguish between “us” and “them.” The Greek system (sororities and fraternities) and exclusive country clubs come to mind in this category. And, of course, not all groups adopt an exclusionary clause—I’m sure there are some groups that genuinely embrace a live and let live approach, but they seem to be the exception, not the rule.

We form groups to define ourselves, to provide a label that can tell us how to act and even how to think.  It is so much easier to color within the lines if we know where they are. We also seek to belong to groups that represent something bigger than we are so that we can remind ourselves that there is more out there than just us.  It’s lonely as a lone wolf.  We want to be part of a pack.  We are hardwired to this too.

Which would be just fine if we didn’t need to take that tendency a step further and promote our own affiliations at the expense of others.  Because while it is true that we can all stand taller on the backs of those who don’t belong, such positioning creates a shaky foundation for growth and authentic expression.  And when we take it to the next level and demonize the other, as The Sanctum does to the girl Madhuri Blaylock’s book, the results can lead as far as death and destruction, as it does in this story.  But Ms. Blaylock also shows us hope that at least some of us can overcome our tendency to exercise the exclusivity clause, and replace it, instead, with a more inclusive approach. I believe that when we overcome our more reflexive responses, and engage the more reflective aspects of our consciousness, we begin to walk the road of authenticity, which, as you know, is one of my primary goals in life.

We don’t need to fear the other.  We certainly don’t need to damage or destroy in our fear.  We can take a page out of Madhuri Blaylock’s book and choose to expand our group, to change our self-definition to include the other.  Because, in truth, we are the other.