Asexuality in fiction: Quicksilver (review)

Today I’m going to review Quicksilver by R. J. Anderson.  You might remember her as the author who wrote the post about writing an asexual YA heroine for the November 2012 Carnival of Aces.

This review necessarily has spoilers for Ultraviolet, and although I’m trying to keep it as spoiler-free as possible for Quicksilver, I will be quoting sections of the text and talking about plot elements.  If you want a relatively spoiler-less summary, scroll down to the “So, basically.”

Also, it’s worth noting that I read the book on a Kindle, so all my citations will be percentages of the way into the book rather than page numbers.

Also also, I’m sorry this review is so long, but I JUST HAVE SO MANY FEELINGS ABOUT THIS.  I tried to condense it, but feelings are hard to condense.  Please forgive me.

(And, yeah, I know, two reviews in three days.  But I didn’t know Quicksilver was out until I’d already posted the first one, and then I read it and had SO MANY FEELINGS that I had to write a review.  So.  That’s my excuse.)

Synopsis: 

Tori thought she had left her past behind when she and her family started a new life in a new city.  But then Sebastian Faraday reappears in her life to tell her that she’s not quite as safe as she thinks: the relay is still operating and a genetics lab is trying to track her down to figure out the secret behind her unusual biology.  Tori is going to have to use all of her considerable technical expertise to escape her past and live the normal human life she’s always wanted to have.

About the book as a whole:

I would say that I enjoyed Quicksilver a lot more than Ultraviolet.  Ultraviolet was a good book, but I felt like it suffered because all the sci-fi elements were crammed into the last 20% of the book.  Quicksilver‘s pacing is much better.  The sci-fi elements seem much less crammed in, and everything’s a lot smoother.  I also had to suspend my disbelief much less often than in Ultraviolet (the entire climax of Ultraviolet had me going, “SERIOUSLY?” a little bit), although I think a lot of that ties into the better pacing.

Can we talk about my love for Tori?  I would totally be friends with her.  She’s far from a perfect person–she has a tendency to turn prickly and curt when she gets scared, and she has more than a bit of a temper on her.  Her people skills aren’t the best, and she’s not always good at letting other people in.  But she’s brave and loyal and smart and an engineer (I mean, honestly, how many female engineers are there in YA?) and tries to be kind even if sometimes she’s a little bit socially awkward, and she does recognize her weaknesses and tries to fix them over the course of the book.  Also, she stops a wildly careening bus and solders things with speed and precision, thereby irrevocably winning my heart.  Basically, she is all that I could ever want in a YA protagonist.

In fact, all of the characters are pretty great.  The author deals with some pretty complex issues over the course of the book–racism (Milo, Tori’s best friend, is Canadian-born Korean), sexism in engineering, culture clash, sexuality (obviously)–but I never felt like any of the characters were being reduced to Being The Token [Whatever] Character or that the narrative was getting preachy.  I could write pages about how much I enjoyed the family dynamics in Quicksilver (something that you very, very rarely see in YA), but I promised I would keep this review shorter than the book I’m reviewing.

I do have some relatively minor complaints about the book, though.  One major plot point and a few minor plot points are tied up a bit too neatly in the end.  It looks as though that’s so it can lead into a sequel, so I can’t really complain that much.  (Okay, I can actually complain a lot, but I won’t.)

I had to read the climactic scene three times before I figured out what was happening.  I think part of that is that I thought the plan was different than it actually turned out to be, and part of it is that the narration gets kind of disjointed (for good reason) during the climax.  Also, one part of the climax had me wincing and hoping everyone was up on their tetanus boosters.  Eek.

My one major complaint with the book (which was also one of my complaints with Ultraviolet) was…Sebastian and Alison.  I just cannot see it.  At all.  The pairing squicks me out so much–he manipulated her and used his fake-position as her fake-therapist to get close to her and ew, no thank you.  Although the narrative does recognize that their relationship is far from perfect, the fact that there is so little honesty and communication in their relationship scares the bejeebers out of me, and I really, really want them to break up.  Really.  I don’t think that’s what the author was intending when she wrote them, to be honest.  Fortunately, Tori is also pretty confused by their relationship, which made me feel a little bit better about anti-shipping them for the whole book.

The sad thing is that Sebastian’s such a complex character, and his motivations are really interesting, and I feel like I would have been much more intrigued by him if I wasn’t so freaked out by the havoc he was wreaking on Alison.  Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on your point of view), it looks like any sequel that will be written will most likely be about Sebastian.  Which could be a good thing (if I could finally get inside his head and figure out a way to not be creeped out by him), but also could mean an entire book of me wanting to kick him in the face every time he shows up.

Okay, I could write a whole lot more about the book as a whole, but let’s instead get to…

About the portrayal of asexuality:

Wow, how do I even start?  Let’s put it this way: I almost just copied and pasted the entire coming out scene, because I loved it that much.  Then I almost copied and pasted most of the asexuality-related sections of the book.  Fortunately, I then got over my giddiness (and remembered copyright law), so I have decided to not quote the entire book in my analysis.  If you want to read it in its entirety, you should get a copy.

I’ve already swooned over Tori a little bit, but let me reiterate–she is an excellent YA protagonist.  Throw her asexuality into the mix, and I am falling over myself in excessive affection for her.  What’s great about her is that she is not solely defined by her asexuality.  While Kevin in Guardian of the Dead was an okay-ish ace character, he didn’t…actually…have much personality outside of his asexuality (and his asexuality was kind of there to Be a Plot Point).  Tori has a lot of personality outside of her asexuality–heck, you don’t find out she’s asexual until almost 40% of the way into the book!  (Or, conversely, if you read this review.  Whoops, spoilers.)  She felt to me like a real person who just happened to be asexual, rather than the Token Ace.  (Also, she struck me as wtfromantic, which is pretty unusual in terms of asexual characters in media.)

How is her coming out (and her being ace) handled?  Does it appear only at opportune moments to add drama to the story, or is it a constant throughout?  Well, I am pleased to say it’s very consistent and isn’t merely thrown in as an Issue to Raise the Stakes.  Also, it’s clear that the author has done her homework, because, wow, the coming out scene was whacking my emotions left and right.  When Milo asks for an explanation of her previous relationship:

“I went out with Brendan because it was what he wanted,” I said.  “I thought if I tried to act like a real girlfriend, maybe I’d start to feel like one.  That I’d want him to kiss me and put his hands on me, instead of counting the seconds until it was over.  But…I never did.”

Oh,” said Milo.

“I mean, it didn’t help that he was a selfish pig who wouldn’t take no for an answer.  I would have broken up with him anyway, even if I’d liked the physical stuff.  But going out with him made me realize that I wasn’t shy or uptight about sex.  I simply wasn’t interested.” (39-40%)

OOF, RIGHT IN THE FEELS.

Also, here’s a lovely bit where Tori demonstrates that aesthetic attraction is not sexual attraction:

“They are excellent biceps,” I said.  “I’ve noticed.”

That got me a double take.  “You have?”

“I’m in your bus shelter, messing with your worldview,” I said, elbowing him.  “Yes, I’ve noticed.  I’m asexual, not blind.”

Milo scratched the back of his neck, clearly at a loss.  “So…what exactly are you noticing, again?”

I wanted to laugh.  “Stop fishing for compliments,” I said.  “Yes, I like the way you look.  I’d even say you’re attractive.  Just because I don’t have the urge to tackle you and rip your clothes off–“

Please don’t say things like that,” Milo moaned, and now I did laugh. (40%)

Can I please have a shirt saying, “I’m in your bus shelter, messing with your worldview”?  Please?

Anyway, let’s talk about Milo!  He’s Tori’s…person.  People keep mistaking him for Tori’s boyfriend, since they’re so close, but:

“That’s not what I mean,” I said, fighting to keep the anger out of my voice.  Because it wasn’t Milo I was angry at, it was the whole stupid world.  A world where relationships like the one I’d had with Brendan were normal, and the one I had with Milo was not.  “There’s no such thing as just a friend, Milo.  Friendship is one of the most important things there is.”

[…]

“I’m serious,” I insisted, stepping in front of him so he’d have to look me in the eye.  “I hate it when people talk like friendship is less than other kinds of–as though it’s some sort of runner-up prize for people who can’t have sex.  I had a boyfriend once, but I never liked being with him the way I liked being with you.”  I held his gaze, refusing to falter or look away.  “You’re one of the best friends I’ve ever had, Milo.  And that is everything to me.” (39%)

Oh, hey, friendship!  It’s actually pretty amazing!  We’re going to actually acknowledge that!  (Also, welcome to part one of the reason why I think Tori is wtfromantic.  To find out parts two through a million, you’ll have to read the book.)

Then, due to complicated plot reasons, they have to pretend to be dating:

“So let me get this straight,” Milo said as he joined me.  “To the people at the makerspace and to your parents, we’re going out.  To my mother and between ourselves we’re not.  Everybody else gets to make up their own minds, because we aren’t saying one way or the other.  We’re like the Schrodinger’s Cat of relationships.” (40%)

Wait, Schrodinger’s Relationship?  Where have I heard that term before?

Anyway, I was hopeful, but still kind of skeptical.  Would the book actually manage to pull this relationship off?  Or would Tori realize halfway through that actually, no, romantic relationships rule all the way and friends are for suckers?  I was also pretty concerned about Milo, to be honest.  After all, he’s pretty clearly attracted to Tori, and I’ve read way too many bad acefic where the allosexual partner winds up coercing the ace partner into something and it’s supposed to be very romantic but it actually winds up creepy as all heck.

Fortunately, my fears wound up being unfounded.  Milo’s actually a pretty good guy!  He doesn’t pressure Tori into doing anything (except, perhaps, telling him the truth, and I can support him in that endeavor), and checks to make sure she’s okay with everything that’s going on, even when she initiates.  I won’t spoil the ending of the book for you (even though I want to quote the last few paragraphs AT THE TOP OF MY LUNGS OFF ALL THE ROOFTOPS), but their relationship ends up in a satisfying place without losing its Schrodinger-y quality or sending Actually Friends Are for Suckers messages or implying that ~love will save the day~.  Mixed relationships are hard, and the book doesn’t gloss over that but neither does it tend toward doom and despair.

That’s not to say their relationship is perfect.  They do have some serious rough spots, but almost all of them are caused by them failing at communicating with each other (well, Tori failing at communication, mostly) rather than because of their mismatched sexual orientations.  In fact, the necessity of communication and honesty (in all relationships) is a major theme in the book.  (As is being true to yourself, another theme I can get behind.)  Actually, let me just quote one of my favorite scenes:

I got up from the chair with difficulty–the seat was deep, and it hadn’t been built for short people.  I walked behind Milo and slid my arms under his, hooking my hands up around his shoulders.  Then I leaned my cheek against the warmth of his back and said quietly, “I’m sorry.  You deserve a better pretend girlfriend than me.”

“I didn’t know we were still pretend-dating,” he said, trying to sound offhand.  But I could feel his heartbeat quicken, and I knew I’d startled him.

“I don’t know how to be anything but pretend,” I replied, and it ached in me how true that really was.  “But if I could be real, I’d be real for you.”

He turned slowly, looking down into my face.  He didn’t kiss me, but I knew he wanted to.  All I had to do was tilt my head up, raise my eyes to his, and it would happen.  Mouth to mouth, skin on skin, an intimacy I might not even mind too much as long as he didn’t slobber like Brendan.  It would make Milo feel good and me less a failure.  If I couldn’t give him the truth he deserved, at least I could give him this. 

But I was tired of dishonesty, and kissing Milo now would be just another kind of manipulation.  There was only one truth I could offer him right now, and I wasn’t even sure he’d appreciate it.  I bowed my head against his chest and drew a shuddering breath. (71%)

WOW, CAN WE JUST LOOK AT THESE FEW PARAGRAPHS FOR A BIT?  Can we talk about how there are characters IN A YA NOVEL who recognize that kissing your way out of a conversation will not actually solve anything and that you can deceive someone even if you love them?  And that manipulating people is bad, even if you’re manipulating them with kisses?  Can we talk about how much I love this scene?  Because, wow, I could write an entire essay on this single scene, good gravy.  There are no easy answers here and no instruction manuals, and relationships are hard, you guys.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten overemotional on you, here are some other random (asexy) things:

So I gave in.  Because, well, it was cake. (55%)

THEY GO TO A CAKERY, OKAY?  I don’t even know if this in an in-joke or what, but I found it excessively hilarious.

Also, Tori’s alias is Nicola, as in Nikola Tesla.  Who is not only an apt namesake because of his engineering expertise, but also because of his (assumed) asexuality.

So, basically, although I think the book has some (relatively minor) issues as a whole, I was very pleased with the way Tori’s asexuality was handled.  I was also very pleasantly surprised by Tori and Milo’s relationship, which, to be honest, I was expecting to be a massive train wreck.  Although it is not lacking in train wreck-y moments, the narrative does not romanticize its problems, and both characters instead actively work to build a healthier and more communicative relationship.  I was definitely emotionally invested in the characters and their relationships to a degree that I’m not normally invested in YA books, maybe because this is the first time in my life that I’ve been able to so fully empathize with a character.

There will inevitably be some aces who will not like the portrayal of asexuality in the book because Tori is too repulsed or too willing to try new things for Milo or too unable to understand other people’s desires or too whatever.  But, frankly, my take on the matter is that Tori represents a single individual who is asexual, not the entirety of the asexual spectrum.  As an asexual person whose own experiences have paralleled aspects of Tori’s quite closely, I thought she was an excellent addition to our (small, but hopefully growing) collection of ace characters.

About queenieofaces

QueenieOfAces is a graduate student in the U.S. studying Japanese religion. She is a queer asexual. She also blogs over at Concept Awesome and runs Resources for Ace Survivors. She is never quite sure what to write in these introduction things, but this one time she accidentally got a short story on asexuality published in an erotica magazine.
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15 Responses to Asexuality in fiction: Quicksilver (review)

  1. Jo says:

    Wow, this sounds AMAZING!!!! Thank you so much for writing this review, reading those paragraphs you picked out has made me kind of teary. Good teary! And I’m right there with you in the feels department. My library better have this.

    • queenieofaces says:

      Trust me, there will be many tears. At the end of the book I started crying and laughing simultaneously–it was perhaps the strangest emotional reaction I’ve ever had to finishing a book. But the final few paragraphs pack one heck of an emotional wallop.

  2. morethanx says:

    I too found my eyes leaking at some of the quoted passages, especially that part about friendship being An Important Thing. I’ve just bought a copy of Ultraviolet and Quicksilver, and I fully expect there to be copious amounts of book cuddling in my future.

  3. Sciatrix says:

    Have just finished both books! (I wanted to read them before commenting here. Interestingly, they’re not available in all of the US–Barnes and Noble won’t have them for a month, for example–and a friend of mine informs me they won’t be in the UK until May. I got mine off Amazon so I could read it.)

    I was not really a fan of the sci-fi aspects of the plot or the worldbuilding, but the characters and the relationships between them were very well done. Definitely agree that I like the way Tori is portrayed as an ace, and I’d love to make friends with Tori herself. Overall, I have nothing to criticize about it from an ace perspective.

    Re: the Schroedinger’s dating thing, I was actually thrown a little bit by that reading because it happened so fast–my experience of that sort of relationship is that for me it tends to build up slowly over a period of months, and I read Milo and Tori as developing their relationship very quickly over a period of days or maybe a couple of weeks. (I may have been confused by the timeline–the pacing and the plot itself were a bit hard to follow at times.) Of course, that’s me, not everyone, but it made me think about the the speed at which relationships form and how I think about that.

    • Jo says:

      I’m finding it really hard to get a hold of the book as well. 😦

      Sciatrix, what you said about the relationship developing too fast for you is interesting! Timeline pacing aside (it’s probably longer that you expect), I’m in a platonic relationship at the moment that still astounds me on how utterly quickly it escalated. Within the space of a month, really, all this stuff was happening, and I started to care for this person more than I have for anyone before (people I haven’t know for years, that is), it was really quite exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time. It’s been the best thing ever, because pretty much from the outset we both knew where we stood, and it’s just gotten deeper and more complex, but still firmly in that spot.

      Haha, sorry, didn’t mean to go on a sentimental rant. But I previously thought that relationships like that would be really slow as well, and now I’m being shown that they don’t have to be. 🙂

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  5. Amy Pond says:

    Thanks for this! I’ve hoped to see an ace review of this for a while, to decide whether I wanted to buy it or not.

  6. swankivy says:

    This is cool, and I’d like to say that if anyone who reads this wants to read a book about friendship (between a straight man and a straight woman, NOT an asexual couple), you should read The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale. The bit where you quoted the protagonist as saying friendship is super important made me think of it. Both characters in Shannon Hale’s book are married, but they become friends, and everyone (including them) are trying to figure out How Can This Be A Thing. It’s FANTASTIC and I absolutely 100% recommend it for any asexual people who have sometimes felt dismay over friendship being belittled in our society.

    • queenieofaces says:

      IIIIII should clearly check that one out! I’ve read some of Shannon Hale’s other books, but I somehow missed that one.

  7. Pingback: Review of Quicksilver by R. J. Anderson | The Illustrated Page

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