There are SPOILERS here, but about one character, and the spoilers here have to do with one really quite minor subplot of the novel.
So to follow up on my review of the previous book in this series, the prophecy did refer to Reyna and not Hylla. And most of this review will be about Reyna. (I don’t want to promise it, but maybe this book deserves another review about it more broadly.)
A conversation between Reyna and Apollo at the end of The Tyrant’s Tomb makes it sound like Riordan is suggesting that Reyna is asexual (405-406 for those following along). I thought so when I read it in January. A friend of mine in the community thought it too and mentioned it to me when she read the book later. I see it again re-reading the novel in September. But at no point in the text is the word used.
Finding confirmation took some digging. Searching for “Reyna Avila Ramírez-Arellano” brings up only one Wiki site on Google’s first page that mentions her asexuality being confirmed as a footnote. To find more sources of confirmation and the Tweet, I had to do a fairly specific Google search for “Reyna asexual.” Thankfully one Tumblr user, Hazel the Writer (and if you find this, your cosplays are fantastic, but I haven’t got a Tumblr to show my appreciation on the proper platform), had taken a screenshot of the Tweet from Riordan on July 3, 2020 confirming that he sees Reyna as romantic asexual. (I don’t know why… but as I write this Riordan’s Twitter feed has been cleared of anything prior to August 29, 2020).
When I first began this review I thought that a Twitter confirmation by the author would be enough to sate me, but I realized, writing this, that it is not. Most Wiki fansites (except thankfully the first one to appear when you search her name) and official sites are not reporting Reyna’s orientation. The tweet has been erased.
No one unfamiliar with the term “asexual” would do the search that I did to find the confirmation nor know that there was anything to confirm. I was in my late 20s before a friend mentioned asexuality on Facebook. (I’ve talked about this on the blog before.) If I had found the term earlier, I think it would have spared me and others pain. Asexuality just doesn’t have the visibility of other orientations and identities—and that invisibility hurts those aware and unaware of the term.
That said, I recognize that writing an openly asexual character presents a challenge with which too few writers have wrestled for me to have a clear idea of how it’s best done. Characters of most other sexual orientations can be identified by the relationships that they engage in, by the physical interactions that they have with other characters. (It occurred to me writing this that I’m actually uncertain whether the words “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual” were ever actually used in the text of Riordan’s books, and it would be an extensive and difficult search to see whether they are.) An asexual relationship may not include those same physical interactions (or they might; it is not the absence of physical affection that defines asexuality, as I understand it, but a lack of desire for such affection; some may be more willing than others to engage in those acts for various reasons).
“Hey, I’m asexual,” isn’t always the kind of comment that comes naturally in a conversation, and Reyna, a woman caught for a while out of time while on Circe’s island for however long and so a child of I’m not sure which decade, might be less comfortable than some with the term, which frequently spawns confusion in those of other orientations confronted with it and does not always win a person’s respect.
But conversations about sexual and romantic desire may be the only way to absolutely identify asexual characters that aren’t the POV characters. Reyna talks with Apollo after he offers to be her romantic partner. Nancy too becomes explicit about her expectations and disinterest when other characters begin to express interest in her in Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway (the only book I’ve yet read to use the word “asexual”). In The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue Mackenzi Lee has Felicity talk to her brother about to whom they are or are not attracted, and then Felicity, her asexual character, becomes her narrator in The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy. Lee confirmed Felicity’s orientation on Goodreads, but does not name her asexuality as such in the text.
The trouble is, without these conversations openly naming the orientation, they speak to those in the community and aware of the orientation, but not to those who don’t know or don’t understand. They might represent a shared feeling and give a reader a brief sigh of relief and that feeling of being seen, but they give the reader no term to go to further research, no recognition of that there’s a community for those who have this feeling, that there’s a name for this feeling; it remains an unnamed and un-nameable experience, though an acceptable feeling.
And maybe not every asexual character will be in a scene where such a conversation might realistically happen—or feel comfortable expressing themselves in such a conversation.
I appreciate Riordan’s desire to leave the interpretation up to the reader, but with an identity so poorly understood and so sorely underrepresented, I just don’t think it’s the most responsible option—especially for a writer of his popularity. Alex in his Magnus Chase series gets to name herself (himself, whichever is appropriate in the moment) as gender fluid and transgender. Why not Reyna too?
I’ve praised—and will continue to praise until corrected—Riordan for the representation in these books before (Riordan’s books include openly gay, bisexual, lesbian, gender fluid, and arguably pansexual characters), and I hope that other communities feel more seen than this almost representation has made me feel.
This book, this author could do so much for the asexual community by giving us this badass, already beloved heroine in a widely read series—but because of the orientation’s invisibility, I want him to do so explicitly in the text. Because there’s only more book in the series (released today actually!) and Reyna is not likely to play a large role in it and I think Riordan has said he will be finished with this Greco-Roman story arc after this last book, I have little hope of this.
And hey! in case you want to read up on asexuality, check out asexuality.org, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), to start.
And if you know of any awesomely written asexual characters that I should check out, let me know! I’m always looking for more.
I want it noted too… I have read this book twice now… but I have never read this book while feeling healthy. One day I will, and I wonder if then this book will earn another star.
Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo, Book 4: The Tyrant’s Tomb. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2019.
This review is not endorsed by Rick Riordan, Hyperion Books, or Disney Book Group. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.