I want to talk about a book called Scrivener’s Moon, by Philip Reeve, which I reread a couple of days ago for the first time in absolutely years. This isn’t a review of the book itself (I’m terrible at book reviews) but a review of one of the relationships within it, and therefore is a total spoiler. However, half of you won’t care and some of you might have read it and if you have an aversion to spoilers you are entirely welcome to stop right here.
Several reviewers, on Goodreads and elsewhere, have approached this relationship in a manner that is frequently negative, often ignorant, and sometimes blatantly homophobic. They’re not the majority, by all means, but they saddened me, and I wanted to refute a few of their issues.
It’s a relationship between Fever Crumb (a female Engineer who has been taught since childhood not to feel emotions although she previously succumbed to feelings for a young man named Arlo Thursday, in the previous book) and Cluny Morvish (a girl from a Northern nomadic tribe whose beliefs are wrapped up in superstition and everything Fever thinks is silly).
I greatly admire Fever Crumb. As a female character, she’s something we don’t often see: scientific, intelligent, calculating, she makes her way in a male-dominated field even within the novel itself and holds her own. She’s not only clever but well-educated, and although she’s brave it’s not necessarily in the stand and fight way, but in a more cerebral way.
Imagine my disappointment when, in book two, Fever behaved exactly like every other female teenage character I’ve ever read and fell in love with a dashing young man who built flying machines. (Okay, maybe not the last bit.)
Isn’t it a shame? I thought. Isn’t it a shame that this wonderful character that I admired and looked up to turned out to be straight as a ruler?
And then, in the third book, she sees Cluny riding on a mammoth and feels something. It’s a throwaway line, but I noticed it. And I thought, I ship it. Of course, I was fully under the impression it was just wishful thinking, because it was so long since I first read the book that I had no memory of what came later, and for a futuristic world in which morals and societal values are so different, Reeve’s creation was looking just a little bit too straight for me.
Maybe a lot too straight. So wasn’t I delighted when, as the book progressed, it became apparent that Fever really did have feelings for Cluny?
People have raised objections in their reviews to this relationship, which I’d like to address.
1) It was out of character for Fever to ‘fall in love’ because she wouldn’t see it as ‘rational’.
This, in its current form, doesn’t actually make sense within canon: Fever has already shown herself to be capable of having feelings for Arlo. What many of them mean is that Fever’s rational approach to something like procreation would prevent her from entering into a relationship with a girl – but they must remember that Engineers don’t marry or have children, since that in itself is irrational, and therefore Fever probably doesn’t link love with biological children instantaneously. Besides, this is a futuristic world in which they can build resurrected soldiers. I’m sure there are ways around it if it came to that.
Fever’s been through immense character development through the series. Her reference to knowing that Charley was a traitor thanks to ‘just a feeling’ shows how far she’s come since the first book, when ‘feelings’ were out of the question. She’s grown up, and she’s also developed the capabilities for love, both familial and parental. I mean, her experiment with calling Dr Crumb “father” (for the first and last time) is perfect evidence for how her attitude has changed.
Also, please, if Cluny is out of character then so was Arlo, and I don’t see you saying that.
2) Fever ‘fell in love’ too quickly. Reeve should have built it up more slowly.
Many have cited Fever’s confusion over her feelings for Arlo as evidence that her realisation of her love for Cluny was unrealistic, but I think they’re totally wrong. Mainly because she reminds me exactly of how I felt. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Fever was never actually in love with Arlo. Not because I want to insist she’s gay, because that’s bi erasure and for all I know, she could totally be into guys as well. But because it fits all the facts. She greatly admired Arlo and what he was building / inventing on his island, and she had intellectual respect for him. She was also, probably, physically attracted to him. That doesn’t mean she was in love with him, but as someone who has been taught to repress feelings, she probably wouldn’t know how to deal with it. (It’s also remarkably similar to my experience a few years back.)
Then she meets Cluny, and I don’t know what these people are talking about that it was sudden because I shipped them from the moment they met, and throughout their friendship as it developed I just saw more and more hints that they would be perfect together. The way the narration referred to Cluny as she tended Fever while she was wounded – all of it was wonderful. Is it Reeve’s fault that they’re too blinded by their heteronormativity to notice? I bet if that had been a straight romance, they’d have picked up on all the signs.
But there was something amazingly realistic about Fever’s realisation of feelings.
She felt attracted to Cluny from the moment they met but, perhaps still conflicted about Arlo and unaware that she was thataway inclined, was in denial for a while. Right? Not consciously in denial, perhaps, but pushing the feelings away. Not to mention the fact that her mother just died and so she’s dealing with grief as well. IT builds and builds and builds; they become friends, Cluny’s looking after her, she admires the other girl’s courage and strength and then, suddenly, it bubbles to the surface and it hits her: I’m in love.
Unrealistic? No. Too realistic. Because that’s pretty much exactly what happened to me, minus the brutal slaughter of a parent. In fact, that is exactly what happened to me. Fever is the only fictional character even to come close to reflecting my own experience.
3) LGBT content isn’t suitable in YA fiction.
I literally saw this in a review. Let’s rewind a moment: I just mentioned the brutal slaughter of a parent. Her mother gets sliced in half by a resurrected mechanical soldier right in front of Fever’s eyes, and you have no problem with that. But she has feelings for a girl? Noooo!
If I had (re)read Scrivener’s Moon a year ago, it would have been the greatest comfort to me I could have found. Instead of the numerous narratives where queer teens said they ‘always felt that way’, ‘always knew’, and were fascinated by sex and other biological cravings, Fever’s story is one that I can identify with on a deep and personal level. It’s the kind of thing that makes a confused queer teenager feel validated.
I didn’t ‘always know’. I’m not fascinated by (or even particularly interested in) sex. I found somebody attractive, denied it for two months, and then suddenly realised I was in love and I needed someone to tell me that was all right and the fact that I didn’t figure it out when I was twelve didn’t mean I didn’t have the credentials to be queer.
If this kind of content isn’t suitable for teenagers then you’re condemning an untold number of other young adults to the same fears and insecurities that I felt and nobody deserves to go through that. Nobody.
4) It’s weird that Fever immediately thinks Cluny doesn’t / won’t feel the same way.
Dude. Dude. Really? Every crush you’ve ever had, you’ve instantly thought, “Well, of course they’re going to like me back”?
Fever’s not got the world’s strongest grip on emotions. She was taught to ignore, hide and repress them, rather than to read them. She has no clue how to understand her own feelings, let alone anybody else’s, because she doesn’t have a reference point – so if there’s any hint that Cluny feels the same way, she’s the last person who is going to pick up on it.
She’s also dealing with her first occasion of being attracted to somebody of the same gender, who is from a backwards and ‘traditional’ culture. Fever’s rational brain that tells her love is just chemical means nothing to superstitious nomads so she’s instantly going to assume the worst about their attitude to such a relationship.
And I think she’s trying to avoid heartbreak. By trying her best not to get her hopes up, she’s ensuring she isn’t later disappointed and heartbroken. Which is incredibly realistic.
Fever Crumb is the fictional character I wish I’d ‘met’ a year ago because that was when I needed her the most.
It’s left ambiguous whether they ‘get together’ in the end. Personally, I like to think they did, because it would be adorable and they make such a cute couple, the Engineer with her stilted emotions and the ‘mammoth girl’ with her damaged eyesight, helping each other to make their way in an unfamiliar world. I like to speculate on what happened next.
But even if they don’t and the last time we see them they’re just friends, it doesn’t matter, because it happened and Fever, that brave strong female character that I admired, was queer.
“We must find you a new boyfriend, Wavey had kept telling her, but what if a girlfriend was what Fever needed? She felt as if she had opened the door to a room she had never noticed in a house where she’d lived all her life.”
Yes. That’s how it felt. That’s how it felt. Okay, in my case the room was terrifying, dark, and full of potential obstacles and I spent a really long time hovering in the doorway and even when I went inside I was (a) too afraid to turn the light on and (b) too afraid to tell anyone else I’d been in, but that’s how it felt. The door belonged in that house. The room belonged in that house. But I’d never seen it. And once I did, I had a whole new space to explore.
Even if there were some spiders in the corners.
Thank you, Philip Reeve. Thank you for giving the queer female protagonist I’ve wanted for so long, even if it took two and a half books to reach that point. Even if the whole of the rest of your series was amazingly heteronormative for a world that was otherwise so fascinatingly full of possibilities. Even if she was the only canonically queer character: thank you for Fever Crumb.
PS: I think the ‘books I own with a canonically queer character’ total has now reached 8. Out of 320. But it’s an improvement on the original five, right?