Hidden Warrior by Lynn Flewelling. ★★★1/2
I’ve finally gotten around to reading Hidden Warrior, the sequel to the coming of age fantasy novel, The Bone Doll’s Twin. In my review of the first book, I noted that I was reserving judgement on how well gender is handled until I’d read the second book. And wow am I judgmental about how Hidden Warrior handled the themes it set out to explore.
To recap, in The Bone Doll’s Twin a king has taken the throne from his sister, the rightful heir. A long ago prophecy says the country will never be defeated as long as a woman of the proper lineage sits on the throne. Since prophecies are serious business in fantasy novels, the king starts killing off all female relatives who could be a potential threat. When his sister gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl, a wizard takes matters into her own hands to preserve the girl, the “true heir,” by using dark magic to give her the shape of her brother. Oh, yes, this also involves the death of her brother.
They name the heir Tobin and raise him as a boy, never telling him anything about the magical switcheroo. Over the course of The Bone Doll’s Twin, his parents die and a ghost, Brother, starts haunting practically everyone involved in this situation, which is totally understandable. I’d be pissed off if someone considered me an acceptable causality too.
The Bone Doll’s Twin ends with Tobin being informed that he’s “really” a girl and that he’ll need to assume his “true” shape for the good of the country. He basically blacks out (another understandable reaction), and the book ends there. There’s not much room for exploring how Tobin reacts to this news. That’s reserved for Hidden Warrior.
Most of my problems with Hidden Warrior come down to how it’s essentially writing about trans issues without acknowledging that trans people exist. It’s completely obsessed with gender being defined with what’s between your legs. Tobin’s narrative arc is him accepting that he’s really a girl like the people closest to him tell him. For most of the book Tobin is referred to with he/him pronouns. The pronouns switch to she/her right after Tobin gets a magic sex change to female. This choice just strengthened the “gender = body” narrative Hidden Warrior was presenting. It kept giving me serious first wave feminism vibes – obsessing with uteri, how women are special for being able to give birth and a bunch of other gender-essentialist, body-centric ideas. On the other hand, it’s important to note that I’m cis and that this book has resonated with some trans reviewers. So take what I’m saying with a grain of salt.
I have on other complaint against Hidden Warrior regarding gender. It does not acknowledge that queer women exist. Tobin has a crush on another boy, his squire. The book repeatedly makes it clear that gay and bisexual men exist, and there’s some significant queer male characters. However, Tobin repeatedly thought that his crush on his friend and disinterest in girls is because he’s secretly a girl. My reaction as a queer female reader was “WTF.” And the narrative never disproves Tobin’s thought process! The book could easily have included some gay or bisexual girls to show that Tobin’s assumptions were inaccurate, but nope. Actually, I can’t remember Flewelling ever including queer female characters. This is particularly striking in comparison to how many significant queer male characters there are in her books.
I have some other narrative complaints. The setting feels patriarchal, although I think it’s nominally not supposed to be. The entire plot is super reliant on prophecy, which has always been a pet peeve of mine. The villain is one dimensional, and I don’t care in the slightest about Arkoniel’s sex life.
But for all that, Hidden Warrior is really well written. It’s not an action packed book, but Flewelling keeps it snapping smartly along, interweaving small mysteries and questions that kept me flipping the pages. Even though I had a lot of issues with it, I did enjoy reading it, and I am planning on picking up the sequel. While this book fails in its attempts to explore gender, it remains a compelling coming of age fantasy story.