Alison Goodman: The Two Pearls of Wisdom
Yesterday, I ended up in the library (oh, how I love the library! I would live in one if I could, and if it had a yarn shop and an industrial and well-stocked kitchen on either side) with 4 hours to spare. What? I worked for pay two days last week. I can arse around in the library for one day if I want.
Anyway, so you know how I have a habit of reading all my books in the library before buying them, and sometimes not even buying them (coughTippingTheVelvetcough)? Well, yesterday was a day like that. I found a book in the fantasy section that had been written by a woman, and, after rereading the end of Tipping The Velvet while leaning on the LGBT shelf, settled down in one of the comfy chairs for a long reading session. Actually I should probably review Tipping The Velvet. Or at least buy it. Anyway, but that’s not the book I wanted to write about. What I want to write about is The Two Pearls of Wisdom, by Alison Goodman. Incidentally, I’m going to be mentioning things that don’t form part of the blurb on the back of the book, so although I’m not exactly giving spoilers, you still might want to read The Two Pearls of Wisdom first, if you’re going to. It’s certainly a book I’d recommend. (It was published in the US under the title Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, and has been translated into various different languages already.)
I’m coming to the realisation that the plot device of “young woman in highly patriarchal society forced to act as male in order to pursue dream/ use talents/ do something that isn’t feminine” is a thing I’ve seen lots of in fantasy written by women. Coincidence, or something more sinister? Sometimes I think it’s a plot device that calls to female authors, seeing as a lot of them do just that themselves. In any case, that’s pretty much the synopsis of The Two Pearls of Wisdom. A young man called Eon with an astounding amount of magical talent is in fact a young woman. Drama ensues.
So far, so much standard female fantasy fare. In a way, it’s rather like reading every book Agatha Christie ever wrote about her fastidious Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, or like ordering your favourite pizza every time you go out – you know what you’re getting, but it doesn’t make it any less good. And The Two Pearls of Wisdom was a very good metaphorical pizza. As with any fantasy book that I approve of, there are enough women to make the story believable, and enough of those women have fully developed characters. It’s set in an empire with strong Chinese and Japanese influences, which made a nice change for me after rereading all of the Little House series. And, maybe most importantly, it had a range of characters that you don’t normally see represented, let alone represented sympathetically.
Over the course of the book, Eon – who herself has a badly damaged leg and finds walking difficult – comes into contact with a young man with some kind of speech or learning difficulty, a range of men who have been castrated and who almost form a third gender, and a trans woman. The eunuchs are an accepted part of that society, but the others, including Eon, all face the kinds of prejudices that we see in our own society. Now, the book isn’t perfect in this respect. Certainly there’s a couple of tropes I’d rather hadn’t been used (for the sake of not spoiling, I won’t say what they are). But I am glad that Alison Goodman wrote those characters in, and made them characters. She could so easily not have bothered. I was particularly pleased that a distinction was made between Eon’s experience of gender – having to perform a gender not her own in order to survive – and the trans woman’s experience – being able to express the gender she felt was her own.
Of course, all this would mean very little without a plot to go with it. In this case, the basic plot was fairly simplistic, as you might expect, but this gave Goodman the space to expand on her characters without losing the story. She judged pace well, keeping the story moving even during the quieter periods, never bombarding the reader with too much information but equally never giving the reader time to get bored. On the other hand, the book has a sequel, due out next year, and it was clearly written to be the first half of a two-part series. If you get impatient, as I do, to get to the end of the story, this will annoy you.
Personally, I felt that The Two Pearls of Wisdom has a lot in common with Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness series, albeit for an older audience. That is, in both cases, we’re reading about a young woman who feels she has no choice but to present as male, who is not as physically capable as most of her (male) peers, but who has inexplicably advanced magical skills. I suspect that anybody who enjoyed Pierce’s series as a younger teenager would also enjoy Goodman’s work. For myself, I could have read The Two Pearls of Wisdom when I was sixteen or so, although I don’t think I would have had quite the same reaction, or appreciated it as fully (“feminism” was a word I hardly knew, then). But I thoroughly enjoyed reading it from an adult perspective, in a way I don’t think I could enjoy Pierce’s books. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t reread The Song of The Lioness series, only that they’d be comfort books, and wouldn’t make me think as much. So. The Two Pearls of Wisdom. Read it if you like a good fantasy quest with a bit of magic thrown in. Don’t read it if you’ll get stroppy because you can’t yet get hold of the sequel, or if you don’t like dragons, stoicism in fight scenes or glib magical solutions to getting your period.