Top critical review
Unique Perspective, Troubling Undercurrents
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on July 31, 2021
"Why do I have trouble working with civilian society? What if everyone was as supportive and quick-to-action as folks in the armed services?" These questions run through the action packed buddy and then unit action and drama of the Ten Realms series. Two American former service members, a marine and a medic, go through intense loss and injury only to be transported to a fantasy land flavored like a Hong Kong action flick with Anime-inspired fight scenes and Daoist spiritual and alchemical cultivation. What follows next is a high energy video-game-like progression through levels and fight scenes but with a unique and ever present focus on the group instead of on a single main character. Eric and Rugrat always have each other and later on, the people they save and the communities they build - those people always have the group. They work together. They act together. They go through triumph and tragedy together. And many of them get names and reoccurring chapters on how they're doing in both military and civilian spheres.
Over time, Eric and Rugrat's adventures in taking care of each other through competitive self-improvement become as much about building a society that fosters those same values whether it is at peace or in war. And the Ten Realms series explores and supports those values in its extensive side chapters - Alvan society wouldn't be about the unit if we didn't know so many names and follow their struggles. It's a uniquely armed-services look into how an ideal society might operate when surrounded by villains from a Confucian epic.
And yet, for as much emphasis as the books place on caring for and supporting each other, on checking in on how you're doing - making sure you're sleeping, eating, taking a break - that you've got a purpose to carry you through life: for all this incredibly valuable support structure, the books sometimes turns life and death issues for women into object lessons about false accusations and unequal judgments of innocent men. It's just incredibly strange to see a book that understand how deeply people who've been through violence need support, but suddenly there's a minor side character who was disfigured because a woman wanted him, nothing happened, and she falsely accused him of rape as a punishment for his lack of interest. Given that only 2% of criminal accusations are false - no matter the type of crime and whether or not they find out who did it - it seems a startling betrayal of the book's own values that the focus isn't on giving survivors of sexual violence the same support and unity that the book gives to all other members of society and especially to other survivors of extreme violence.
Sure, Delilah is a well developed character with great power now, but it is still strange and disconcerting that her arc began with her apologizing to Eric because she thought his incredibly intense stare at the alchemy ingredients she was selling was his incredibly intense stare at her. It feels like maybe the author doesn't understand that prolonged staring is a sign of "this guy may actually murder me" for many women. This is a lady who already had a hot head with armed guards that regularly came by her shop (where she's obligated to be stationed) so that he could abuse his rank to harass her and ignore her control over her personal life. This is a lady whose actual ranking figure is an abuser who tricked her into a classic human trafficking situation by promising to teach her a trade, only to stick her in a mostly unrelated low skill job while he controls her entire life and withholds what he promised unless she provides him with sexual favors. Then some probably armed, heavily built, sand-caked creep shows up with a fifteen minute stare in her general direction (again, strong unwavering attention, especially from a guy who could easily overpower you, is a big red flag for "this guy may be planning on raping and murdering me") but the lesson is that the guy was actually just really into crafts and is a great person so you need to stop assuming the worst. But it doesn't feel like the book understand how much survival training not assuming the worst would break. Her sense for being in danger is acting up. Not to mention the lady is described as actively and regularly being subjected to the risk of life changing violence from men who have lethal power and rank over her. She's got no reinforcements and she's effectively alone. Of course she's jumpy. So even if her story is supposed to be about even handed justice, shouldn't it be much closer to a story about recovering from PTSD and learning to more accurately sort through what's a real danger and what isn't? Or maybe it would be about giving her the training to protect herself while giving boys the training to control themselves and conduct themselves like men.
This strange break in community support bothered me when it showed up in the second or third realm book, but I could brush it aside as Delilah's story progressed until this ruined Expert crafter story was thrown in like it was inconsequential background info. It's a really concerning bit of inconsistency there.