Dueling Review, Monster Mash Smashdown, Rant

Monster Mash Smashdown: Non-Humanoid Alien Week

I Married a Lizardman by Regine Abel (2021)

Heat Factor: Y’all remember when Khal Drogo needed to be taught how to do it face to face by Khaleesi and then their marriage did a 180?

Character Chemistry: “You may look weird, but I find you oddly attractive.”

Plot: Benevolent colonialism + how to start seeds + sexytimes

Overall: We have some THOUGHTS about the politics of this book.


versus


A Winged Embrace by S.J. Sanders (2021)

Heat Factor: “Let’s start this whole marriage thing slow.” *sees giant alien penis with alien penis accoutrements* “Just kidding, let’s bone against the wall.”

Character Chemistry: Fully 30% of the book is him embracing her with his wings.

Plot: Jewel thief agrees to be a mail order bride to get out of jail and ends up married to a gargoyle-alien cop. Freak outs and boning ensue. 

Overall: Fresh and fun, but you’ll never look at spaghetti the same way again.


Both of these books feature the same basic premise: a human woman agrees to be a mail-order bride to an alien, sight unseen. She is not entirely honest with her spouse about her background and/or motivations. Her apex predator partner is a giant cinnamon roll who wants nothing more than to please his new bride. And while both books end with love and alien babies, there are some glaring differences between how these books present the alien Other. Let’s dive in!


What do you think is the most salient information a reader should know before getting I Married a Lizardman?

Erin: I thought it was going to be like “Ooo lizardman alien sex!”, but it was very colonial and purity-culture centered? I also wasn’t very clear on what the central conflict was. Initially I thought it was going to center on the fact that Susan was chosen to change Olix’s culture, because that’s not great, but also everything she wanted to do was anathema to their culture. Then all these other things started coming into play and became a new problem. Every time something came up, it was resolved—or it seemed like a problem but then it wasn’t? So like…a very slow roller coaster. It wasn’t tense or dramatic.

Holly: For me, the most salient part of this book is how overtly colonial it is. The premise of the mating service that Susan uses is that the service is specifically bringing mates to “primitive” alien races who were introduced to technology in conflict with the rules of the Prime Directive. And the mating service is therefore going to help these backward aliens join the Galactic Empire. EXPLICITLY, that’s what the service is for. It was just so mind boggling—can you even imagine writing a romance about a dating service that sends white women to go marry Native Americans so that they stop hunting and go buy farms? Because that’s what this is.

Ingrid: I thought that there were a couple of ways that the author tried to differentiate her story from what happened in history, but it never fully got resolved in the plot, and never really got resolved between the characters. Even if you’re trying to read this from an out-of-history perspective, it didn’t get worked through for these characters in a way that was productive. 


What do you think is the most salient information a reader should know before getting A Winged Embrace?

I: For me, I think “how can you write an age gap book without ever giving up ages”. I cannot tell you how many times I was confused about whether Tar the Gargoyle was interested in Diamond as his partner or as his child. His physical description is that he’s silvery-grey (he’s a silver fox!). He likes petting her like she’s a child. People who like age gaps will think it was awesome. 

E: I love age gaps, but Tar was written as too naive to be, like, a stern brunch daddy. He seems like he’s supposed to be written as a sensitive nice guy, but he’s extremely paternalistic to a degree that it’s really a turn-off. And it also doesn’t make sense in the context of his cultural mooring in a matriarchal society. Then he’s shockingly naive—this woman about whom he knows absolutely nothing is his wife, and he thinks that she cares about the relationship as much as he does. 

I: The heroine is kind of an asshole, and he keeps chuckling at her. It’s one of those books where I see characters feeding into each others’ bad habits, and it’s not cute. 

E: He’s asking her (not really giving her an alternative option in the asking) to do things for her own protection, even though she is making it clear that what he’s asking is not something that is appealing to her by being a brat. 

H: I didn’t think it was that bad! I didn’t have any of the problems you guys had. I thought the sex needed to be cut by about 50% because the story sagged in the middle and the sex didn’t serve much of a purpose for the plot or character development. I thought Diamond was an interesting character and I understood her motivations. And so I didn’t notice the problems you guys had with Tar because I was focusing on Diamond’s journey. 

I: But didn’t the part where she spilled her feelings and said she’d stick by Tar and then immediately went out and stole his comm and didn’t loop him in at all make your head explode?

E: That whole situation was ridiculous bordering on nonsensical, but Diamond totally made sense in the context of her characterization. She just makes remarkably ill-considered choices.

H: I didn’t say she was smart. 

I think what really happened was that I read Lizardman first and had major problems with it, so when the set-up for this was this one was really different and compelling, I was predisposed to give it a pass. The first few chapters really drew me in, and then I was invested in Diamond’s journey. And now that I’m talking to you guys I’m like, “Oh yeah, he’s really paternalistic and she’s really stupid.” But the magic of romance…

E: The magic of romance…where you read something and sigh happily and then think about it or someone else says something about it and you’re like…oh.

I: I would have enjoyed it more if I liked age/maturity gaps, but I just don’t enjoy relationships where there’s a really deep power differential between the two, so it was a bit of an ick for me. 


Can we talk about colonialism and purity culture in Lizardman?

H: Susan is sent to marry Olix to teach his people how to farm so they can *save themselves* in the face of increasing contact with other alien races. So colonialism is baked into the set-up. But Susan doesn’t just bring farming; she also brings purity culture with her. She teaches them that shame about nudity is normal. She tells Olix that they can only have sex in missionary position. But the most shocking instance of this was that she told Olix her virginal hymen blood was a sign that she was honoring him, and so he preserved the bits of bloody sheet and MADE JEWELRY OUT OF HER HYMEN BLOOD. 

E: I thought it was interesting that the author included these ideas but then tried to excuse them by noting that the human colony began as a religious colony—so the laws controlling women’s bodies weren’t on the books anymore, it was more about custom. And there’s some internal contradiction on how Susan approaches sex and her body. Like, “Oh, we can only have sex missionary style” –HELLO–but then she has super sexy wedding night lingerie and a tiny beach bikini!

H: She was all excited to teach him about oral sex! Though she then conveniently doesn’t have to actually teach him because he watches human porn.

E: Yeah, her whole attitude about sex compared to what she says she’s wearing and how horny they are…it’s just…if she’s coming with all this baggage from a society where having sex prior to marriage has all these social and economic implications…

I: Just want to jump in to point out that I have known a good number of women who were more conservative in nature and loved bikinis and had filthy, filthy minds. 

E: Sure, that can be the case, but in this book the author is choosing what’s convenient in the moment to describe Susan’s reaction to sexy situations.

I: There’s definitely something incongruous and the sexual part of the relationship and everything else. Everything else was in one category (more modest, buttoned-up) and the sex was out of left field. To be fair you never really know how people are in the privacy of their own bedrooms. I did think that there was something really Midwestern about Susan; she never told him what she wanted, but she would hope for it. She hints and then she hopes. She’s not a very direct person.

But going back to the issue of the author excusing Susan’s actions—Abel explained away a couple of things and it did certainly make me pause. It’s not ok to change someone’s culture through manipulation and arrogance, but Susan just does her own thing and insists that if they tried it they’d like it, too. It would have been entirely different if she’d been open and forthcoming with her goals, or if she’d kept it as a hobby. I’m just not sure the WAY she went about trying to introduce agriculture was very honest. I understand the premise of her role on the planet but…it’s still a bit problematic.

E: And when Susan’s plan to convince everyone that farming is great didn’t work, she decided to manipulate how the clan worked at the market and they all made soooo much more money. It very much smacked of a white savior complex. 

I: Then the book ends with white women getting shipped in to work the farms and the potential difficulty is now that all of Olix’s people would want human virgin brides because he showed off his jewelry.

E: Susan seemed like she was meant to be a great nurturing savior character and Olix is this bumbling backwards person with a heart of gold, and there was no real accountability for how Susan significantly impacted the clan’s culture. It’s all treated like it was a good thing. That was the most disturbing. 

H: Abel also made assertions that they needed to learn about each others’ cultures when in practice Olix was the one doing all the learning about Susan’s culture. Susan gives lip service to learning, but doesn’t actually change any of her actions or ideas. 

I: It was also a bit off-putting for me that every time Susan ran into a cultural issue with Olix, she explained to him how things ought to be, like she was the knowing teacher and he was the ignorant student, when really he was the head of his tribe and likely had extensive knowledge and wisdom. 

H: And multiple people in his clan came to him about cultural faux pas that Susan was making and he never talked to her about it, simply excused her all the time because he’d been told she was going to save them.


Okay, so we had a lot to say about the colonialism in Lizardman, but what about the culture clashes in A Winged Embrace?

E: For me this boiled down to: Diamond is used to demonstrate the unacceptable elements of Tar’s culture. She’s a criminal, and she comes from a dystopian earth where non-violent criminals are sold on the Intergalactic (which should have been Intragalactic, but who’s quibbling?) Marriage Market so they can avoid Earth prison. Beyond that, Earth is the newest planet in their version of a federation of planets, so humans are considered to be primitive and backwards. And yet, every alien we meet on the space station (excepting maybe two) comes from an oppressive society. So yeah, Diamond might be a criminal sold into marriage, and Earth might be a cesspit, but she’s also the most free individual in her circle of acquaintance. 

Regarding Tar’s culture in particular, we understand that it is a matriarchal society—to the point that Tar, as a 40-year-old grown gargoyle, is still legally subject to his mother until he has a wife to whom he will also be legally subject, which yikes—and that in this matriarchal society it is not unheard of for females to engage in polyandry.

H: But not for middle class people! His mother doesn’t have multiple husbands.

E: Well yeah, but when Tar says that he also really wants to be Diamond’s only mate. Until that point, his mother is made to sound like an outlier. Then he started telling Diamond that poor families need multiple husbands for multiple incomes and the wealthy do it for status, and that middle class gargoyles usually only have one mate. So I wasn’t totally convinced that he was being a reliable narrator at that point because he was so invested in being Diamond’s only mate.

Anyway, eventually Diamond is the one who sticks up for Tar and calls out basically all the women in his family for trying to control him. So I felt like in this case, too, we have the human who is showing the alien culture the error of its ways.


All of the described cultures are described as either matriarchal or egalitarian, but none of that seems to be actually borne out in the text. What do gender roles look like in space? Can we actually imagine a truly non-patriarchal romance?

E: For background, in the case of Lizardman, Susan’s society is a matriarchy because the women own all the land, but if a man impregnates a woman, he’s effectively bought himself land ownership because of the importance of bloodline inheritance. So is it actually a matriarchal society if a man can get a woman pregnant and then is entitled to her land?

Olix’s society is explicitly described as egalitarian, and yet the social roles and Olix’s treatment and expectations of Susan are very much patriarchal in nature.

In the case of Tar in AWE, the females control everything in a sort of system that put me in mind of early 19th century Western cultures (think of all those Regency and Victorian men holding all their women as property), and yet Tar’s role as a male is to be a protector and provider. Like Diamond is going to be Tar’s legal owner when they’re officially married on his planet, and yet he walks with her wrapped in his wing so no one else can see her “so she’s not bothered”, he decides where she’s going to spend her days with this ladies’ group (which, also, made the space station just sound hugely paternalistic with this Bored Wives Society thing going on) “for her protection”, and he’s the sole earner. Is that actually what a man without power sounds like?

I: So, essentially we’re usually looking at a human woman (but not always!) being thrust into a situation where she’s either situationally forced into a close relationship with an alien/monster or chooses that path because she’s out of options. From that moment on, she’s dependent on the alien/monster—she is not familiar with the setting or the culture, she’s usually vulnerable and small. She needs saving, and the big alien/monster is the one who has to do the saving. Think Ruby Dixon’s Ice Planet Barbarian series—the ship with human women crash-lands on the ice planet. There’s no going back, they can’t survive the elements without committing to life on that planet, and they’re going to be paired with an alien out of necessity. 

In this scenario, I think a lot of writers attempt to level out the power difference by making the alien culture feminist or by making it super clear that the alien/monster is the one completely devoted and the human is the one hesitating to commit, but the general situation can’t really be fully righted with the human woman is almost always being forced into a dependency on the alien/monster male. This works because it’s just so damn satisfying to see someone take a HUGE risk and leap of faith with an unlikely hero and have it pay off so richly—the tension is built in. It also works because it gives the vulnerable human ample opportunity to rise to the occasion, which is in itself just so satisfying for the reader. In my experience, I tend to like books where this power dynamic is called out and addressed by the main characters. It becomes more raw and honest, and it kind of puts it all on the line—without red flags flapping about in a distracting way constantly.

H: Ingrid’s point about making the alien cultures feminist as a way to balance out the power and dependency rings really true to me. That way you can have a super-alpha domineering hero who also thinks women are just amazing and strong and powerful—but doesn’t actually have to take any actions to show that he would submit to a woman in a real political sense. 

E: It seems to be a hallmark of alien romance that there is gender essentialism. There seems to be little acknowledgement of all of the heteronormative expectations baked in. Heros are huge, culturally paternalistic but also nurturing. The heroes always have to figure out how to meet the heroines’ needs sexually, but the heroine has to fit into the hero’s culture. There is a huge focus on breeding and bloodlines and bloodline inheritance. A lot of the stuff we’re talking about today seem to be hallmarks of alien romance. 

I: The best way I can describe the dynamic in alien romances is “there’s a new girl at school trying to figure out how to fit in with the Greasers”. 


In theory, we’re talking monsters this month. Does alien romance fall into the monster romance category, or is it actually something else?

E: If we take Holly’s definition from our intro to the month then I would say that they are, because the extremely non-human “other” physical appearance of the protagonists doesn’t change based on whether they’re shifting or not. They actually have a completely unique physical appearance. (Tails!)

However, I feel like if we’re really talking about monster smut as a subset of romance stories, alien romance would fall under sci-fi, and monster romance would be more like something monstrous on earth, like an earthbound monster. A fairy tale scary thing—aliens are outer space scary things. 

I: I think you’d have to separate where they are from the actual characters. If the point is that it’s about physical appearance then it’s a monster romance, if the point is about we’re in space then it’s an alien romance.

E: In the alien romance context, the aliens exist in a completely separate society. In a ghost story or a beast story, the monster is an isolated character. Then again, next week we’re talking C.M. Nascosta, and her monster stories are all set in a world where mythical monsters are an integrated part of society so I don’t know.

H: I’m really torn about this question. Neither of these books felt like a monster romance to me… I’m going to suggest something, and I’m not sure if this is a hill I would die on, but maybe for it to be a monster romance, the non-human doesn’t just have to be different, I think they have to be scary in some way. So there are potentially alien romances that lean into that territory, but in the case of these two stories the aliens are not monstrous. They’re different, but they’re fun. Kissing a lizard is weird…but he didn’t have a forked tongue so it’s fine!

I: I think that speaks more to your tolerance level for weird. 

H: Fine, but to be a monster—the first impression has to be scary. Tar is intimidating but Diamond isn’t afraid that he’s going to eat her. 

E: Okay but that circles back to C.M. Nascosta and her gentle monster romances. Other monster romance authors I’m familiar with do seem to trend darker/scarier/more monstrous. So is it just natural that there’s a spectrum from, like, rom-com to dark within monster just like there is the greater world of romance, or are authors writing cinnamon roll monsters diluting the subgenre? 


Both books include several sex scenes (and the requisite fun alien genitalia). Are these books sexy? Do the sex scenes add to the plot or character development?

E: Winged Embrace was sexy until I got bored, but then I was wondering if it’s actually sexy, or if it’s just titillating because Tar’s penis is so out there. Would I actually be turned on by a penis that has waggly noodles coming at me? Because I’m not sure… 

I: I was in a state of dread from the moment those stupid noodles made their appearance. 

E: Tar was described as significantly more “other” than any other alien hero I’ve ever read. He’s very avian. I am not turned on at all by this birdsong situation he has going on. 

I: He’s described as a cross between a parakeet and a pitbull. 

H: I didn’t think they were sexy, but I think that is more a function of these two specific romances than of sex with an “other” in general. In Lizardman I was too caught up in all the other stuff going on, and in AWE I didn’t think it was sexy because they were boning all the time and I got tired of it. 

E: Not every sex scene has to do something, but there’s a limit to how many sex scenes to include. If the reader gets bored, it’s a pacing and plotting issue, not a sex content issue. 


Final Thoughts

We’ll be honest, none of us really loved either of these monster/alien romances.

But we did draw pictures of what we think they look like!

Tune in next week for our discussion of CM Nacosta’s two books: Girls’ Weekend and Morning Glory Milking Farm. Same bat time, same bat station. 


Buy Now: I Married a Lizardman | A Winged Embrace


Looking for something similar?

Aliens (some more monstrous than others)

Marriages of Convenience

Other Dueling Reviews

7 thoughts on “Monster Mash Smashdown: Non-Humanoid Alien Week”

  1. Wow, this was such a smart discussion! You all put into words thoughts I’ve been trying to untangle for a while. I DNFed Lizardman because all the problems you’ve mentioned.
    I don’t remember who, but I saw someone say that a lot of these alien romances are just repackaged “Native American” romances of old. I’m so tired of the gender essentialism. What’s the point in creating a new universe if you’re going to keep everything the same? I loved Ann Aguirre’s ‘Strange Love’ because she was actually trying something new, showing that sexual intimacy can be so much more than “wham bam” PIV. I’ve been chasing that high ever since, so I think Aquirre kinda ruined me for all other alien romances.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey, thanks for the comment!! During our discussing, I think we were all kind of flabbergasted because we hadn’t been seeing a lot of people reacting the way we all did. A really well-written book, and it’s obvious that it’s a hit–but those colonialism undertones were really hard to shake! Did you see Holly’s review of Strange Love? I think she felt very similarly…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Have you read The Fifth Gender by GL Carriger? It had some bits that I didn’t love (the relationship was a little insta and I thought it got a bit preachy), but it’s one of the few alien romances I’ve read that’s explicitly trying to explore a non-binary alien character.

      Like

      1. Holly, I saw your ‘Strange Love’ review and agreed with all your opinions. And thanks for the recommendation! It sounds just like what I’m looking for. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

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