THREE STRIKES AND THIS SCIENCE FANTASY IS “OUT”
A Review of “God’s Toes” by the Akhundunese author JC Esnesonn
Trigger Warning: This Review contains excerpts of correspondence between this reviewer and the author, wherein one side engages in hateful, violent rhetoric (I’ll leave it to you to figure out who). First, though, I will share the original review (edited). And then I’ll append excerpts from our subsequent online exchange.
THE ORIGINAL REVIEW
First, fellow reader, a disclosure: I had never encountered any Akhundunese writing prior to opening this book. This was a conscious choice because Equatorial Akhundu was once an English colony that still (shamefully) used western English as its main language. I mean, I don’t speak Akhundunese, but I don’t want to read Akhundunese from ‘Western’ translators, either. Thankfully, Esnesonn is one of the newest generation of Akhundunese authors who, my understanding is, first writes their books all in Akhundunese before then translating them into subsequent English editions.
Nor had I ever encountered anything else by the mysterious JC Esnesonn; but, when an old friend from my MFA days turned me onto their work (“They’re LGBTIA+! And Akhundunese!”), I went ahead and downloaded their debut novel “God’s Toes”.
Then I did my research. Pro Tip: I like to use an old trick my favorite writing professor taught me, which is to click the >> button and skip all the way to the back cover, in order to read the blurb and any review excerpts that might be there. I often find that that—along with Amazon’s genre description and comments—gives me more than enough information about a book for me to get a read on it.
So I did all that. I have to say, the back cover just mentions the “super-imaginative” fantasy world and the protagonist going through a journey of self-discovery. A couple of blurbs compare it to Tolkein and LeGuin, both of whom I’d heard of, but had never read. All in all, it sounded like pretty standard stuff. But imagine my excitement after reading the following summary in one reader’s comment: “Picture Gandalf as a transwoman podiatrist, transported to a cis-topian High Fantasy world, where she has to deal with hobbits as bi-curious clients on a secret quest for shoe ware equity in a world with plenty of dragons, but no fashion industry?”
I mean, what an elevator pitch, amirite? Why didn’t they put that on the back cover, for crying out loud? As a “+” person who is more than a little bit sorcerous myself, I am always looking for representation in genre fiction. It was all enough to make me kick off my own pumps and settle in for a good yarn; but, first, of course, I had to check out Esnesonn’s social media presence.
And that’s when the first cracks in the book began to show.
First of all, there was only a Twitter account for the author. No Instagram. No TikTok. It was like Esnesonn was from the frikkin’ Dark Ages. That should’ve been a red flag, I suppose.
I spent the better part of a full morning (I estimate 3 hours) scrolling through nearly a decade of tweets from Esnesson (God, I can’t wait until they give me an AI that’ll do this part for me). Anyway, here’s the thing: I wasn’t able to find one single tweet about any lgbtia+ issues (!).
Yes, they list themselves as an “lgbt ally” in their profile; but, in over nine-thousand tweets, you’d think JC would put that front and center, you know? All of Esnesonn’s comments were made in support of mundane things, reaching out to family during their milestones, or praising the latest movie they’d watched. Concern about Global Warming/Climate Change. Like that.
At one point, I fell back on Google, to see what was up. I only found a few websites linking Esnesonn to a court case (apparently, they used to be an attorney) where they had written and filed a petition for Marriage Equality on behalf of gay couples in their particular state. But that was many years ago, right before the Supreme Court made it the law of the land. So, I didn’t see where that was relevant, now.
Discouraged but not dissuaded—that afternoon, instead of giving up, I doubled down. I decided to not just search Tweets and Retweets, but to also do a deep dive into their “Likes” on Twitter, too.
This took even longer, but my detective work paid off. Back in 2011, Esnesonn “Liked” a tweet from none other than the Patron Demon-Queen of TERFs, JK Rowling. Of course, the tweet-in-question wasn’t about any lgbt issues, either (Why would JC care about those?)—no, this was just Rowling saying something snarky about the superhero movie “Green Lantern”. JK said she probably wouldn’t see it. JC thought that was funny (JK and JC. Nice, hunh?).
So, I took a second look at “God’s Toes”. It was at that point I noticed that the cover calls it “Science Fantasy”. I mean—is that even a thing? I’ve been reviewing SF/F works for nearly five years and I’d never even seen that as a category on Amazon! And the bearded figure on the cover, at second glance, isn’t wearing any obvious make-up or feminine baubles. No earrings. Just a pointy hat and high heels. The face wasn’t androgynous…in fact, it’s clearly being portrayed as male (was that an adam’s apple?).
So…what? A white, male protagonist? I mean, another one of those is just what the industry needs, right?
Then I went to Esnesonn’s Wikipedia page. It turns out that, while both of their parents were from Equatorial Akhundu, JC and family moved to American when JC was a small child. Hm. Some of the comments on their book’s amazon page point out that the magic system in the novel apparently is directly based on the religion of neighboring Equatorial Khundu, and not Esnesonn’s native Equatorial Akhundu! Well, my goodness. I can just hear all of those Khundunese yelling ‘My religion is not your magic system!” Finally, get this: “J.C.” actually stands for “Jose Chung”. Now, this was just the ultimate cringe. Talk about cultural appropriation!
At this point, I felt like I was spending too much time on this review, already. I mean, enough was enough. No, I wasn’t about to be sucked into this. And you shouldn’t either, dear reader.
Vote on this ‘urban footwear fantasy’ with your feet and give this one a pass. I can give it only ONE STAR.
THE FIRST LETTER [STRIKE TWO]
After exhaustingly writing the above review, I considered the whole matter over with. Little did I realize that this would only be ‘strike one’.
After publishing this review in a eighteen-part Tweet on Twitter, none other than the author themselves decided to reach out to me. It was an email, which contained a link to their website, for the following post. I won’t recount all of it here, but I’ll excerpt the most hateful, explicitly violent part (which is the beginning):
“Dear Mr. Harbinger,
While I am grateful for anyone who takes the time to review my work, I must, respectfully, take issue with your portrayal both of me and of my debut novel.
First of all, my pseudonym is indeed “Jose Chung Esnesonn” as my parents were both X-Files fans, and Esnesonn is an anagram of nonsense—all of which is apropos of my twisted sense of humor. But, as my wikipedia page (and my own website) make clear, that isn’t my real name. And, as the actual pseudonym on the book covers is “JC”, I believe accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’ around that are silly.
Second, and more serious, is the idea that my magic system is also an appropriation of some kind. My novel’s magic system is not actually based on any one religion at all, as the text of the book makes clear. In fact, the fantasy world on the other side of the portal in my book, introduces the reader to creatures that speak and weave their magic to each character in that character’s own native religion. So, for example, those creatures use what appear to be Catholic-based spells for Catholics, etc.
But, even if that weren’t the case, why is any of this (the author’s nationality or their religion, neither of which is mentioned anywhere in my novel or my marketing) relevant? Must everyone write fantasy characters only from their own country? Can the magic (whether metaphorical or realistically portrayed in a fantasy) of any particular religion only be recounted by practitioners (maybe it is better to say “alleged practitioners”, since we all fall short) of that particular religion?
I do write from both experience and empathy. And my experiences with many different types of people do inform my work. But, ultimately, these are fictional characters and probably are best understood on those terms—that is, within the milieu of the world which I created for them, would’t you agree? I think you’d be hard pressed to find anything that furthers any sort of negative stereotypes against anyone in my work. But, if you can find something, I hope you will let me know so that I can be made aware and correct that in future works.
I must say, it does seem a lot of your concerns would have been addressed if you had actually read the book…”
And then their note goes on to invite me to reply to them on their website in a ‘fruitful and open discussion’.
Can you believe the level of hate?
Let’s start with the greeting: “Mr. Harbinger”. “Mr.”?! Let’s be clear: I have posted no preferred pronouns in my social media profiles—so starting off with this assumption of my gender, this “dead-salutationing”, was obviously inflammatory. Also, the posting of this on their website instead of on a safe space (like, for example, as a reply on my Twitter account—duh!) is a tell…obviously, they planned to engage in more violence and needed their own own forum to do so with impunity.
But then to question the relevance of their own lived experience in their writing? I’m sorry, but I had just never encountered that level of ignorance before. How could JC even call themselves an author with that attitude?
Anyway, I tweeted my displeasure at all of this; and, apparently, one of my Twitter followers did some more research and found out specifically where this hateful person lived. At that point, it was shared on various places on several different platforms.
So, the moral of the story is: See? There are consequences for actions!
THE SECOND LETTER [STRIKE THREE]
Then came this (I guess, final) missive from the erstwhile lgbtia+ “ally”…this was again, posted in another entry on their—no, wait, I’ll just say it—“his” (I’m still not sure, but it has to be a man, I’m thinking) website:
“Dear Sir or Madam or To Whom It May Concern,
After your account let others dox me and my family, I will obviously end all future communications with you.
But, before I do sign off: I am letting it be known, for my readers (and anyone else interested) that I call myself an ally because I have taken part in both personal and professional efforts to support the gay community [you already made reference to my legal work, which was the only accurate thing in your review] along with many other social justice causes. These include feminist, as well as labor issues and general economic inequality across the board.
It is my most fervent hope that you will sign off from your baseless tirades against authors (whose works you have apparently never bothered to consider on the merits of the their actual content) and, instead, try to do some good in the real world.
And, with that dear readers, this sorry chapter in the annals of literary criticism is done. I can only say Thank Goodness that we have platforms like Twitter to root out and expose such hateful people.
Tune in next week for my next review!
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