Man, I read a lot of crappy paranormal YA in high school.
The novel Elegy—coming out this year—is about how “in a small Australian town, the most epic love story of all time is unfolding…. again”. Two teenaged stepsiblings, Michael and Caitlin, turn out to be the reincarnated souls of every major tragic mythic love story of the past: Pyramus and Thisbe are named, Lancelot and Guinevere are highly implied, and many more are vaguely alluded to along with the sweeping mention that they have been gods, slaves, and rulers in the past. The novel’s decision to be deliberately and irritatingly vague about everything in place of actually building tension and mystery is a gripe for another day, because oh, I have so many gripes about this book, the biggest one being something that should by all means be an absolute dealbreaker in any romance, especially romance that crosses time and space, but somehow slipped through and got published:
I have no idea why Caitlin and Michael like each other.
In fact… they don’t. They spent their entire childhoods being standoffish with one another, largely due to Caitlin remembering that they’ve lived a thousand magical lifetimes before and Michael not, and the emotional gulf this created. Even once his powers emerge (because he has those) he and Caitlin quite blatantly don’t get on most of the time, until some magical moment of bizarreness happens and they… I don’t know, decide to embrace it? Their personalities don’t change, and indeed neither does much of their dynamic except that Michael is more open to accepting his powers and place in the universe, and so they fall back into the patterns of the past. They are deeply passionate and in love, as they have been many times before, as they are doomed to always be. Because there’s nothing more romantic than doom.
Are we, the readers, given any indication why they love each other? Why they even like each other? No. It’s just the way it is, and the way it always has been, and always will be, et cetera. And, I mean, perhaps if it was shown to me in more skilful writing I’d be willing to believe that your sudden memories of countless past lives where you fell in love every time would be enough to put a spark in an otherwise dull (at best) and antagonistic (at worst) relationship. Even if you were, um, stepsiblings. Which is the Forbidden and Tragic aspect of this incarnation. Not technically illegal, it is pointed out many times, but still kind of emotionally and morally gross. Should we believe that two horny magical teens raised as brother and sister in rural Victoria are on par with the epic tale of Lancelot and Guinevere? I think we’re being asked to. Oh boy.
Memory jogged by this cacophony of weirdness, I realised this was not the first time I’d seen either of these problems: Melissa de la Cruz’s Blue Bloods series, one of many aforementioned cheesy paranormal YAs I devoured as a teenager, features reincarnated vampire angels (I’m just going to leave that there) in elite New York society. Two of which are a twin brother-sister pair who end up making out all over the place because they were lovers in so many of their previous lives. Back in Ancient Egypt (because these things always start in Ancient Egypt, it’s the coolest of the ancient civilisations) it wasn’t uncommon for royal siblings to marry each other; it’s just more modern perceptions that are causing them trouble. They have a bizarre Lannister-ish twins-as-two-halves-of-a-whole thing going on, featuring the villainous incest and everything, but nowhere near as interestingly done as in George R. R. Martin’s books. Literally all I remember about Blue Bloods (I think I read about 4 of the 7 books) is the weird villainous incest, and the same went for two other friends I asked about it.
Evermore by Alyson Noel was a stalwart example of the other issue: we knew that the reincarnated, bonded pair had loved each other and lost each other tragically in past lives, but apart from that information we were given very little basis for the relationship. Why do they like each other? Well, they always have. The universe says so. The universe also says they’ve been separated by death every time they’re about to have sex, so they’ve never consummated their love, leading to a dreadful segment where the heroine (whose name is Ever Bloom; again, just going to leave that there) is tying herself in nervous knots trying to get emotionally ready to screw her immortal boyfriend because he remembers and he has been craving her sweet lovin’ for thousands of years, and even though she doesn’t remember she feels like she owes him. And it was awful, and again, one of the only things I remember about the series clearly (note: being an immortal named Ever Bloom is the most ridiculous thing I can imagine, but it doesn’t mean she deserved that).
Reincarnation can and should, by all means, be an interesting idea to play with. A love that transcends time, space, and physical form gives you infinite room to move and infinite room for diversity—their love transcends the body they’re in? They can be gay, they can be trans, they can be any race in the world. There is infinite room to move, and yet what these books tend to go for instead is “in one life you were a brunette, and in one you were a redhead, and now you are blonde, but I still love you and always will know it’s you… and yeah, you were a woman in every one of these lifetimes too, because the gender you start as must be the gender you are throughout eternity. Like Doctor Who. Because it’d be weird otherwise.”
Even the tragic, forbidden love aspect rarely (and by that I mean never, in my reading) addresses queer relationships, and there is untapped potential for that all throughout history. I mean, don’t fiction writers love tragic queer people? You could even tell the story of two lovers who have been condemned for their “perversion” in every lifetime, until they finally reincarnate in the semi-modern day where same-sex couples are finally more accepted in society and they can aim for their much-sought happy ending. Or the story of a successful and happy queer partnership from the past, because those also existed! Or, I mean, anything that even vaguely attempts to budge the apparently rigid heteronormativity of this archetype. Because, for all the potential to explore the fluidity of love it has, it tends to fall back into the same patterns: a boy and girl, one of whom usually remembers while the other doesn’t, resulting in a power imbalance, and a whole lot of capital P Passion and history as an excuse to not build up their relationship.
It subscribes to the idea that there is one person out there who is fated to be with you, and your enduring passion can cross lifetimes, and while that’s a sort of nice idea, in these series it caps itself off with “and you will meet this person when you’re seventeen years old and you’ll be set for life and any other affection you have for anyone else is paltry in comparison and also neither of you will be required to put in any of the realistic emotional work usually needed to create a functional relationship because reasons”. It’s just awkward. And this is all without mentioning the awkwardness generated by the mixing of ideologies that comes with reincarnation plotlines, given that it’s incredibly popular in Western YA and reincarnation as an idea generally belongs more to Eastern religions (also, vampire angels from Ancient Egypt? Just gonna leave that there). All too often these stories ignore the tools they have to play with and instead nosedive into a muddled, boring mess of things we’ve seen before and really problematic messages about how to go about a relationship.
You could have explored so much with this idea, and you guys went for obsessively straight, eternal vampiric incest. I don’t care how many past lives they’ve lived together, unless you show me that they have actual chemistry and a healthy dynamic I won’t believe in their relationship. All too often it becomes “He was a boy, she was a girl, can I make it any more obvious?” spread across millennia and your epic, transcendent love story becomes the reading equivalent of kidney stones. With bonus incest. I mean, really? Of all the “unconventional” love stories to go for, you pick that one? I suppose (straight) incestuous siblings get a shot at eternal love before gay people do in these universes.
Forget that. I’m just going to watch Soul Mates. At least that knows it’s silly.
Note: if anyone has read either Blue Bloods or The Immortals more recently than me and wants to rebut my claims/fill me in on other weird shit that happened later in the series that I probably missed, these thoughts are welcome in the comments.