The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure
Length: 496 pages, large page size, standard font size
I had a hard time deciding on my opinion of this book. On the one hand, it's supposed to be an interquel for Constantine's Wraeththu trilogy from some 15 years earlier, which I haven't read, so I'm probably missing out on a significant amount of background detail. On the other hand, Constantine said that making it accessible to people who hadn't read the trilogy was a goal of hers in the front matter, so holding that lack of background detail against it wouldn't be completely unfair. Ultimately, as someone who read this as my first step into the Wraeththu setting, it was fairly enjoyable, and if nothing else, it caught my interest enough to make me want to read more, so even if it wasn't anything remarkable in and of itself, it was above average enough to border on being good.
The book is set in an odd sort of post-apocalyptic world. Some time between 1945 and 1990, people got deep enough into genetic research (or something to the same effect) to create Wraeththu, post-human hermaphrodites with five clitorises (the author felt the need to not only point that out specifically but to also comment that human females would've been extremely envious of that trait, so I feel like I had to mention it) who can do magic (primarily when they're intimate with each other, though a few are just magical in general) and who are extremely emotionally dependent on each other, particularly after they've started having sex. Oddly enough, the process of being made into a Wraeththu (known as inception) only works on human males, so despite being hermaphrodites, they tend to lean heavily towards the masculine end of being androgynous, and the few who are more feminine are regarded as being very attractive because of it. Humans are still around in extremely scant numbers, and they're basically regarded as pitiful holdovers from a bygone era.
In events prior to the book, the immediate aftermath of Wraeththu's proliferation apparently caused a war leading to the downfall of most organized societies, so the survivors gathered up in tribes. Tribal associations essentially replaced races as a social construct, so instead of amazing <insert own race> and barbarous <insert race that was historically antagonistic to own race>, there are amazing Gelaming or barbarous Uigenna. A few individuals have taken it upon themselves to try organizing Wraeththu back into integrated sedentary lifestyles, though at the time of this book, such towns are mostly in their infancy and Wraeththu seem as likely as not to prefer living in roaming tribes, so long as nobody tries to forcibly assimilate them (and since I'm mentioning this, you've probably figured out that there is some forcible assimilation over the course of the book).
The plot starts off with a tribe in the deserts around what I figure to be the former area of Nevada/Arizona/New Mexico. While most of the tribe is having a festival in honor of their patron deity, one couple is going through what seems to be the first live birth of a Wraeththu in that tribe. The delivery is successful, but the baby is markedly more feminine than normal, leading the tribe's leader to cast it out as a death sentence. Some dude named Ulaume who had a grudge against some other dude named Pellaz is also feeling kind of depressed around the same time since he saw visions of Pellaz's death while performing at the festival, so Ulaume wanders off into the desert on his own in search of spiritual guidance or something. Honestly, it's not handled very well, but the bottom line is that Ulaume finds the infant and decides to take care of it.
Meanwhile, in some town that I'd guess was in the former area of California, a young Wraeththu named Flick is struggling with his mentor/lover Seel not getting along with a priest named Orien, due to the two of them having mixed feelings about Seel's crush Cal, who'd run off with Pellaz some time before the latter had pissed off Ulaume. As it turns out, Cal comes back to town, seduces Flick, and kills Orien before vanishing again.
If it seems like I'm throwing out a lot of names with only some light sketching of their relationships, that's because the book starts off in much the same way. Granted, Constantine does go into more details, so it's not quite so hard to follow along as the last couple of paragraphs probably were, but there's obviously a lot that the reader is expected to know about who these characters are, so as someone who didn't have that knowledge, it was a pretty rough start for me. Much of their histories do come out over the course of the book, but it would've been nice to have a primer to help bring newcomers up to speed (like the dramatis personae at the start of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel books or the glossary at the end of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books, both of which can give you a quick idea of who various characters are) or to write the opening few chapters in a way that fills in those gaps for newcomers (as Kim Harrison does in her Hollows books) to help with avoiding that early confusion.
Anyway, Ulaume, the rapidly-growing child Lileem, and Flick end up getting together in the remnants of a village in Mexico which just so happens to have been Pellaz's hometown. There, they hook up with Pellaz's surviving brother Terez (who's also Wraeththu now) and sister Mima (who's human). Some shit goes down, Mima drinks a bit of Lileem's blood, and everyone's world is shaken when this leads to Mima becoming a sort of Wraeththu as well. After some more shit goes down, the group ends up on the run from the tribe that had incepted Terez (the aforementioned barbarous Uigenna), and on their trek across America, they find out that the Gelaming have declared a guy named Pellaz as their leader who looks just like the same Pellaz that was wound into everyone's backstories. Lacking anything better to do, they decide to see if they can meet him and find out if he's really that Pellaz.
Further details of the plot would get into spoiler territory, so I'll stop it there. On the whole, a lot of the plot advancement is done in a way where things just happen and the reader is just expected to accept it. Granted, there's more reasonable character agency than what I went into in my quick summary, but there's also a lot of stuff that gets done just because the plot demands it, with copious helpings of coincidences that feel contrived enough to break suspension of disbelief. Maybe some of this wouldn't feel so forced to someone who'd read the previous books, but for me, it left a sense that Constantine was focusing on hitting certain points in order to link with those books rather than focusing on having a product that was complete on its own.
I've spend a lot of time going over characters in my previous reviews, but I don't think there's much purpose in doing that here. Aside from a couple of fairly superficial traits, everyone seems to be quite interchangeable in the sense that nobody really stood out in a memorable way. Even major characters like Pellaz, Cal, or Thiede all feel quite bland and underdeveloped. Everyone's horny for Cal because the book says they are, rather than really showing what makes Cal so alluring. Everyone's affectionate towards Pellaz (aside from Ulaume at the start, and even he comes around before long) because the book says they are, rather than really showing what makes Pellaz so lovable. The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure seems to be more a detailing of events within the greater Wraeththu setting that hadn't been shown explicitly before than a satisfying story of its own. Newcomers are given just enough information to follow along with the "what" of what's happening, but much of the "why" is left unsaid.
That all having been said, it's not bad. To a degree, the lack of information probably works to the book's benefit, since it adds a sense of mystery that helps to make it interesting where the material itself would otherwise be lacking. I don't think that was done intentionally, and I don't think it's something that'd be a consistent effect on different readers, but regardless, it did work for me, so I'll give some credit to Constantine for that.
Of course, that interest in the setting is part of what lead me to read The Shades of Time and Memory, which was not nearly as enjoyable, but I digress. At the end of the day, I did like The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure. It's not the sort of book that holds up well to repeat readings, but it's good enough to read once without feeling like it was a waste of time, particularly if you tend to prefer an event-driven plot over a character-driven plot.
Length: 496 pages, large page size, standard font size