The Other Side of Sorcery

1 Sep

This probably demands some explanation. There was a challenge, a while back, to gender-flip the main character from a story and see if it made any difference. I don’t think it would have done, if applied to one of my MIL-SF stories, but it definitely does when applied to a fantasy novel.

In this world, Lady Gwen was born George, the male second son of Lord and Lady Rudolf and Mary Crichton

George is five when he discovers his magic.

He is playing in the garden when the maid appears and begins to berate him for the state of his clothes. His father had ordered him dressed formally, so he could be presented to two of his business associates; the maid, charged with dressing him, is furious to discover that he has dirtied everything. His clothes are covered in mud. She grabs hold of him, intent on dragging him back into the house for a quick bath …

… When something cuts loose inside his mind. The maid is thrown right across the garden and straight into the far wall. She doesn’t move again. George, unaware that anything bad has happened, returns to his play. It isn’t until his parents run out to find him that he realises that something has happened.

His parents are proud of his magic. A magician in the family! Lord Rudolf is rich and powerful, but he has few contacts with the magicians … until now. George is flattered and spoilt, despite his older brother’s lingering resentment. No one cares about the dead maid.

[Historically, Gwen was encouraged to repress her magic as much as possible. George is encouraged to do the exact opposite. Perversely, this destroys his relationship with his brother.]

George is twelve when Master Thomas comes for him. Twelve is young to go into service – even sailors are expected to be older when they go to sea for the first time – but Master Thomas is desperate for a heir. George is taken to Cavendish Hall, set up in his own room and taught by a succession of tutors, including Master Thomas himself. His sense of being special grows by leaps and bounds as he learns that he is a very capable magician indeed, one of only two Master Magicians in Britain.

His first four years at Cavendish Hall are the happiest of his life. He makes friends amongst the other younger magicians, rapidly becoming their natural leader. They spend their days learning magic, then playing with magic. Camping trips to the countryside and long visits to Edinburgh, Paris and even Rome introduce him to a far wider world.

He loses his virginity at fourteen to a maid. It doesn’t bother him, later, that he never sees her again.

[George, being male, fits far better into Cavendish Hall than Gwen.]

George is sixteen when Master Thomas’s former student makes a very unwelcome return, sparking off an uprising that could easily lead to civil war. When George’s family is attacked, George goes on the prowl and catches Jack during an ill-fated attempt to liberate his comrades from the Tower of London. Jack is stronger than George, but George has the advantage of secrets Master Thomas never shared with anyone else. George holds him in one place until his master can arrive and, together, they end Jack. The series of uprisings do considerable damage to London, but they are put down without serious difficulty.

In the aftermath, George stumbles across a young boy with necromantic powers. Seeing a street rat with magic is alarming enough, but that particular talent? He kills the necromancer without a second thought, then incinerates the body. And then he walks on.

[Olivia wore male guise until she was adopted by Gwen. Jack never saw through the disguise – and wouldn’t really have cared if he had.]

Master Thomas doesn’t quite retire in the wake of the uprisings, but he does pass more and more of his duties onto George. George investigates a whole series of incidents, culminating in the murder of Sir Travis Mortimer, the negotiator of the Airship Treaty between Britain and the Ottoman Empire. But no matter what he does, George can neither explain how the murder was committed or catch the killer. The Airship Treaty is never signed.

[Sir Charles Bellingham, the murderer, never tries to get close to George, reasoning instead that it would be better to cut his losses and escape to France. This deprives George of the clue Gwen used to untangle the whole mess.]

George meets Raechel Slater-Standish in an ‘secret’ dancing hall. Their evening of dancing leads to a night of passion and a relationship … which comes crashing down, a few weeks later, when Raechel discovers that she’s pregnant. Her uncle insists – as does Master Thomas – that George marries her. George’s parents agree – Raechel is rich; whoever marries her will not only gain her wealth, but her family’s influence. They are married under the watchful gaze of both sets of parents.

It isn’t a happy marriage. Raechel is a free-spirited girl, even after tying the knot. George does not dream of allowing her the latitude he would allow a man. Their relationship dissolves into arguments and bitter fights, with George eventually deciding to practically keep her a prisoner in their home.

[George is very much a typical man for his era – he expects his wife to be soft, gentle and obedient. Raechel is not the sort of person who would take that without a fight, but legal right is all on George’s side.]

The war begins shortly afterwards. As George fights heroically to stop the French invasion force, Franco-Russian forces stab into Turkey and Afghanistan. The Ottoman Turks are pressed hard.

[Olivia’s death ensured that the Russians couldn’t get their hands on a necromancer, thus Russia never suffered a mad tsar and a collapse into civil war. Accordingly, the Franco-Russian alliance remains strong and the Russians attack Turkey while the French invade Britain.]

Master Thomas dispatches George to America shortly afterwards, knowing that the situation in the colonies has become increasingly dire. George fumbles it, however, and the Colonial Government finds itself struggling to contend with both a French offensive from the south and a growing American insurrection. George catches and kills the American Master Magician, only to discover that it’s the Viceroy’s son … the resulting chaos so unhinges the government that Britain loses control of much of British North America.

[George (unlike Gwen) doesn’t run into trouble during the Battle of Dorking because, being male, he commands automatic respect from the other officers. However, he still gets sent to America anyway. However, being more stiff-necked and arrogant than Gwen, he doesn’t make any friends amongst the Sons of Liberty – he certainly doesn’t form a relationship with Bruce. Accordingly, the Sons make their bid for freedom at the worst possible time.]

When George gets home, he discovers that his wife – newly delivered of a daughter – has been cavorting around with a dashing cavalryman. In a fury, he beats Raechel to a pulp and kills her lover in a very unfair fight.

That night, Raechel slits his throat and vanishes.


It’s funny, looking at this, how Gwen’s more positive traits can become utterly nightmarish if their owner doesn’t share her life experiences. George is far more capable than Gwen when it comes to using magic – he started to learn earlier, pitting himself against other magicians – but he’s also arrogant, imperious and more than a little cruel. He doesn’t stop to think that Jack might have a point, unlike Gwen, and he doesn’t attempt to save either Olivia or Lucy – the latter, just incidentally, depriving Britain of Healing Magic. And he has no sympathy whatsoever for Raechel, even though – perhaps because – she’s his wife.

The knock-on effects change the entire face of the war. Britain finds herself facing both the Franco-Russian alliance and a major insurrection in America at the worst possible time. It may be impossible to win the war …

4 Responses to “The Other Side of Sorcery”

  1. Stuart the Viking September 1, 2016 at 9:29 pm #

    I think you are right about Sci-fi stories, in general, being less affected by a gender switch of the main character, while Fantasy, by contrast, being more effected.

    I think it has to do with Sci-fi feeling like more of a “look ahead” into the future. I think we all like to imagine that humanity will grow beyond things like gender bias. So authors are already primed to write that way and we, as readers, are already primed to accept it.

    While Fantasy feels more like “looking back” into the past. Sure, it’s a past that never really existed with sorcerers and magic and unicorns (can’t forget the unicorns), but still it feels like the past because swords and knights in armor etc. even when the setting is explicitly “some other world somewhere”. Authors and readers are already primed to consider humanity’s past as the default setting. As you said, in that sort of setting, a male experience would be vastly different from a female experience.

  2. Big Ben September 1, 2016 at 11:51 pm #

    Yeah, the big difference with sci-fi is that technology is a great equalizer. Spaceships seem to take little physical effort to operate, whereas the overall operation of a coach-and-four, while vastly simpler in every way, would be much more strenuous.
    Or for a more individual comparison, a lightweight laser pistol vs. an old-school crossbow.
    What would be interesting (though it has been done and done well, by John Daulton among others) is to set a high-magical fantasy in a far future technological society. Instead of sending Emily back in time, send her 1000 years into the future. Or send her back to Earth with her magic intact.
    Gender biases in fantasy come into play because they are set in the “past,” in Chris’s case both SIM and Gwen’s story. Read most urban fantasy and the ladies kick ass right along side the men. Kate Daniels, Mercy Thompson, Anita Blake, etc.

  3. G September 5, 2016 at 6:11 am #

    Look at Burned by Magic by jasmine Walt for an excellent fantasy where female characters kick butt…it can be done well…

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