Thank you to Tor Books for a copy of A Strange and Stubborn Endurance in exchange for an honest review.
Trigger warnings are going up top this time, folks; it’s impossible to separate this review from its trigger/content warnings and spoilers related to that.
A Strange and Stubborn Endurance contains on-page depictions of rape, as well as self-harm and suicide attempts. The rape serves as an outing that leads to a character being disowned. Other content warnings: sexism, strong orientalist vibes, body horror, death (human and non-human), queer death, arranged marriage, queerphobia, (consensual) sexual content and ableist language (perhaps used to reflect an old-timey vibe?).
“Stolen me? As soon to say a caged bird can be stolen by the sky.”
Velasin vin Aaro never planned to marry at all, let alone a girl from neighboring Tithena. When an ugly confrontation reveals his preference for men, Vel fears he’s ruined the diplomatic union before it can even begin. But while his family is ready to disown him, the Tithenai envoy has a different solution: for Vel to marry his former intended’s brother instead.
Caethari Aeduria always knew he might end up in a political marriage, but his sudden betrothal to a man from Ralia, where such relationships are forbidden, comes as a shock.
With an unknown faction willing to kill to end their new alliance, Vel and Cae have no choice but to trust each other. Survival is one thing, but love — as both will learn — is quite another. — from the publisher
Despite myself, I couldn’t put this book down; I finished it in one day — reading from 8 am to 6:30 pm. The story is gripping and Foz Meadows certainly knows how to create endearing characters. You’ll likely be rooting for Cae and Vel from the moment they meet. In general, A Strange and Stubborn Endurance does interpersonal relationships well. Those that should feel lived-in, do, and those that feel hesitant, do.
I can’t speak to whether the nonverbal representation in this book is good, but I enjoyed that there is a nonverbal character. Add to that, he has a love interest. The relationship is pretty off-the-page, but it felt like more than people with disabilities are often given. There’s also a fair amount of LGBTQ rep in this book, including trans/nonbinary rep, which we love to see.
But, when all’s said and done, I felt kinda gross for enjoying the book. Because, ooo man alive, is it problematic.
A Strange and Stubborn Endurance is a dual POV book. For some reason, Vel’s POV is in the first person while Cae’s is in the third. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. If anything, this decision created confusion.
I read a lot of queer fiction, which, of course, often includes narration rife with sentences with two same-gender third-person pronouns. It’s not hard to do this with clarity, but Meadows wasn’t able to (at least in the unfinished review copy I received). In general, the book was a tad long and could have withstood another edit.
I understand that many fantasy authors borrow from the real world when world-building. Meadows could have been more careful, though. Tithena feels sort of like when you read a recipe that’s described as “Asian” just because it’s got some soy sauce and ginger in it. For example, the capital city is named Qi-Katai. Qi is a very important concept in Chinese culture, while Katai is both a city in India and Japanese slang. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the book’s villains is named Killic, which sounds an awful lot like kılıç
I coud go on and on; having just one (or even a few) of these elements wouldn’t bother me. But when it’s case upon case upon case, it feels othering and orientalist. It doesn’t help that so much of Tithena is examined through Vel’s eyes (his culture is more “Western”). In this way, A Strange and Stubborn Endurance creates a monolith of the “East,” however unintentional it may be.
*Heavy spoilers in this next section*
Sexual assault isn’t something society takes seriously enough, but that is exacerbated when we’re talking about the sexual assault of men. I appreciated that examination — and the complex feelings Vel has about his assault. These are discussions that need to be had. That being said, there are moments within the text that verge on trauma porn — because there was an imbalance of showing and telling.
If the point of the book — which I believe it is — is to focus on Vel’s healing, then why show the rape on the page? Why not focus more on his reaction to touch after? There is no right way to heal, so my issue here isn’t with the time frame in which Vel is comfortable having sex. It’s that during his healing, we see him hate any kind of touch, then he tells us he’s ready for sex. And then we see the sexy times.
Practically the only times we get to see Vel being touched consensually prior to getting together with Cae is when he’s in panic mode. It just isn’t particularly satisfying (though the sex scene is).
And, finally. What’s with the way this book treats women? The number of times Vel says something super sexist and Cae doesn’t correct him makes zero sense. Tithena is supposedly an egalitarian society, so I don’t understand … like, I get that people are people and we all have flaws. It just really doesn’t fit with the utopic society Tithena seemed to be.
Should you read it?
Maybe? At the end of the day, I think this book means well. It sets out to tackle some tough stuff and show a healing process, which, in theory, it does. Am I being over sensitive? Maybe? Would I call this a problematic fave? No. But it’s definitely a “problematic enjoyed.”
A Strange and Stubborn Endurance is out July 26. 📚🗡