facetofcathy: multicoloured faceted shapes (Prism)
facetofcathy ([personal profile] facetofcathy) wrote in [community profile] facetsoftext2011-04-29 01:27 pm
Entry tags:

Arcane Asylum by new_kate

(The story discussed here contains depictions of sexual assault, torture, violence, murder and psychological abuse.  Characters in the story routinely conflate mental illness with violence.  The story is focused on the oppression of a minority.  This review discusses these themes.)

I do this thing where I go to the AO3, click on works, select m/m as a category and filter to that, then sort by word count highest to low. 

The point is to find long stories in any fandom I might possibly read and I usually find a few likely suspects.  What I'm usually after is some kind of romance or something I can immerse myself in as a reader.

In this way I found Arcane Asylum by [archiveofourown.org profile] new_kate . 

I'm almost certainly more than a day late and a dollar short in finding this one, everyone who would have read it, likely has, but you never know. 

The Fanlore article on this story is not bad, but like most Fanlore pages on fanworks, it never really tells you what the story is about. 

It is a modern AU, which in Merlin fandom usually means that Uther is King and Arthur the Prince of Wales (or occasionally some corporate equivalent), and Merlin is someone who wanders along.  The thing nearly always left out of modern AUs is either magic altogether, or the idea that mundanes know about magic, and prohibit it. 

This story takes a totally different approach and centres the canon allegory of magic users as a persecuted and oppressed class and puts that in a modern context.  While canon uses this fact as nothing much more than a convenient source of conflict, this story is about how a construct of inequality molds a society and how hard that is to overturn. There is a whole history here, touched on in the story, but never with any infodumpy badness, of how magic users gradually became this hated and feared and imprisoned minority.

It is also a prison AU, which can sometimes mean a kind of hur hur sort of excuse to indulge in some dubious portrayals of sex and sexuality and consent.  The original prompt, and this story was most surprisingly a kink meme fill that grew, even contains that charming turn of phrase, 'prison bitch'. 

But while there is graphic depictions of a sexual assault as well as violence and psychological abuse and torture--the story opens with a waterboarding--this is not a hur hur sort of consent issues as a kink story.  The usual fanfic acceleration of events takes place, and the aftermath of the sexual assault and of other traumas is sped up along with everything else.  It is not, however, ignored or used as fantasy fodder.  In fact, one of the primary themes of the work is figuring out how to forgive unforgivable sins.

The depiction of Arthur as a privileged man, the son of the man who is the champion of persecuting the magic users, is particularly good because we see from the get go his privilege, his casual ignorance of the realities of his society for its underclass and his blundering determination to be the hero.  This last bit is particularly well done.  We see Arthur white knighting all over the place, and we get to watch him learn when that's wrong but still keep trying to help. 

Merlin is not hiding in Gaius' workroom in this story.  He is the most powerful sorcerer in the land and everyone knows it.  He is a reluctant wielder of power, not all that good at it at times, and much more willing to sacrifice himself than anyone else. 

And neither of these guys is the lone hero saving the day, there is a whole web of people making choices and acting or failing to act that turn the plot on its path. 

However, what this story and the X Men franchise and almost every Vampire story ever told is doing is this problematic thing of telling stories of oppression and revolution and liberation without having to tell the stories of chromatic people or queer people or lower class people.  In a lot of cases, the metaphors of Vampires or mutants or magicians more closely map onto LGBT people, and in this story we have discussion of and depiction of passing.  We see the horrible toll trying to deny your nature has on people who have no power to choose differently.  We see people accepting imprisonment as a viable alternative to living the lie.  We even see a very little bit of overcoming homophobia, but we get this allegorical representation without any queer community, Black community, South Asian community or any of the other real oppressed groups in the UK today.

I saw a blog post recently talking about some white guys who liked to do a sort of cosplay of historically accurate American Indian conflicts with whites.  They played the Indians.  This kind of desire by white people to experience these events without troubling themselves with actual exposure to the people whose lives have been shaped by those events and often without acknowledging their own privilege casts an unfavourable light on these allegorical stories that do something similar.

This fic is very well told in its examination of themes of inequality and abuse of power.  No one is a simple hero or villain, and no one saves the day by themselves.  But it is representative of a genre that I think we need to question the appeal of.  The movie and television industry thinks we as an audience must have attractive white male heroes to identify with.   It's never a bad idea to check to see if maybe we haven't fallen for the idea ourselves as fans. 

I'm not blaming this story or this author for the flaws in the genre or canon the story draws on.  I do think that in sticking 100% to canon characters to populate the modern world with, the author has missed an opportunity to show this fictional struggle for freedom and equality alongside those other real struggles a more representative picture of the modern UK would allow.  There is a scene in this fic where Edwin explains to Merlin his own oppression, in the way of one fish trying to explain the sea to another.  It is brilliant and chilling and effective. But I have to ask myself first, am I responding so well to it because they don't look like the guys who really populate prisons in the UK today?