Subtext and Intertext: (Re)inventing the canon in KJ Charles’ Band Sinister

Photo by j zamora on Unsplash

Today’s post is about KJ Charles’ Band Sinister, a regency-set story which, in addition to the central romance between Guy and Phillip, features queer and polyamorous relationships with a broad range of inclusive representation. In doing so, it offers readers a new way to think through the romance genre’s complicated relationship to its own past. For those who haven’t read it, a quick summary from the book’s back cover copy:

Band Sinister by [Charles, KJ]

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)
Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.
Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.
In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet—but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Links to author’s website here. A comprehensive list of CWs can be found at the end of Love in Panel’s excellent review here

So much of romance thrives on referring to other texts in the genre : the very concept of a beloved trope (enemies to lovers! there’s only one bed!) or character archetype (cinnamon rolls! difficult heroines!) is predicated on a callback to previous iterations. On the other hand, there’s also been a lot of interesting work done recently about how to deal with the more problematic elements of romance’s past [1].

Band Sinister definitely leans hard into referencing previous canonical texts. Perhaps the most talked-about is the work of Georgette Heyer, but the referential universe of this text is much broader. So I want to take a close look the opening passage to show how Band Sinister conceives of current romance’s relationship to its predecessor texts.

Hist! There! Look!” Sebastian whispered, and pointed down into Darkdown Hall’s extensive gardens. Araminta knelt by him to peer out through the leaded windows, fearful of discovery yet aflame with the realisation that at last she would learn the secret of Darkdown Hall and its sinister guardians.

      Lord Darkdown stood at the centre of a stone circle lit by flaming brands, his handsome face twisted in terrible pride. Around him stood the men whom Araminta feared more greatly than any others: Sir Peter Falconwood, whose ungodly knowledge had trapped her in this nest of devils, and Darkdown’s nameless, cruel-eyed brute of a henchman. The torchlight danced and flickered over these three evildoers, like the hellfire they invoked in the very name of their blasphemous society, and over one thing more. A young lady clad in nothing more than a thin close-fitting white shift, her heaving bosom the sole sign of life, lay deadly still on a stone slab at the centre of the circle.

      Araminta’s heart stopped as Darkdown took a step forward and raised a knife—

      Guy read on frantically, page after close-scribbled page, reached The End in a rush of adjectives and relief, and yelped, “Amanda!”

      He didn’t have to shout. His sister was on the chair opposite, pretending to sew while carefully not looking at him. Nevertheless, shouting seemed appropriate.

      “What?” Amanda enquired, raising her head with an innocent look that fooled nobody.

       “This—this—!” Guy gestured at the manuscript he held, for lack of words.

      “It’s quite long, dearest. Which part do you mean?”

      “Which part do you think? What about the part where the hellfire club descends on a virgin in that—that lascivious manner!”

      “It’s all perfectly decent,” Amanda said. “Or at least, if it isn’t, the indecent parts are only hinted at, which means they’re in your head. I can’t be held responsible for your thoughts going awry.”

      “Oh yes you can,” Guy said with feeling. “You are publishing under a pseudonym, aren’t you?”

      “Yes.” Amanda spoke with understandable annoyance, since Guy had asked her that before.

KJ Charles, Band Sinister. 2018.

Excluding and including through narrative voice

Band Sinister opens on a note of confusion. It begins with a passage from Amanda Frisby’s fictional gothic romance The Secret of Darkdown: a fact which readers will only realize once they’ve reached its end. The novel is narrated in the 3rd person, focusing on Araminta’s perspective. It is, however, deliberately constructed to hide knowledge that both Araminta and the narrator share from the reader. A quick survey of things the reader has incomplete information about :

  • “the secret of Darkdown Hall”
  • “more greatly than any others”
  • “ungodly knowledge had trapped her”
  • “the very name of their blasphemous society”

Because we don’t have access to the rest of Amanda’s novel, it’s possible some of these questions were answered earlier. But for the purposes of Band Sinister, that doesn’t matter. What matters is the effect: the reader is excluded, placed in the position of an outsider.

As we pull back to discover the main plot featuring Guy and Amanda, the narrative voice changes to one that creates intimacy rather than distance. The narrator describes Guy having “reached The End in a rush of adjectives and relief” and “yelp[ing]” at his sister. We know from Guy’s dialogue that he’s sincerely scandalized by Amanda’s story. The narrator, however, seems to enjoy Darkdown  (“a rush of adjectives” lovingly highlighting it’s flowery nature) and find Guy’s reaction to it a touch overblown (the word “yelped” connoting a more comedic brand of shock than a more assertive verb might). The next line, “He didn’t have to shout,” also brings the readers into complicity with the narrator, who suggests both that Guy’s reaction might be a bit excessive, and that he doesn’t (yet) understand why.

I think of the narrative shift from Darkdown to Band Sinister in terms of a kind of zoom lens. We start off in the same position as Guy, as readers of the same gothic novel, both outsiders looking in on narration we don’t fully understand. Then we zoom out, and become readers of novel where Guy is the hero. At the same time, the narrative voice shifts to a more inclusive one, which let us understand things that others in the scene might not.

There are some obvious parallels here to the romance genre’s relationship to its canonical texts. For a long time, readers like Guy sat on the “outside” of narratives that didn’t represent their experiences or sexuality. Band Sinister turns those readers into the heroes of their own stories, while also ensuring that we, the real-world readers of Band Sinister, feel included rather than excluded by the narrative voice.

But when it comes to a relationship with canonical fictional texts, Band Sinister doesn’t stop there. There’s a whole second layer of reference between The Secret of Darkdown and Band Sinister that deepens its reflection on canonical predecessors.

Fictional intertexts

The most striking similarity between Darkdown and Band Sinister is their opening dialogue. Darkdown starts with three single-word exclamations: “Hist! There! Look!Band Sinister does as well, though not one right after the other: “Amanda!” “What?” “This-this-!” However, Band Sinister does not uncritically adopt Darkdown’s style. In addition to the funny and inclusive narrative voice, The Secret of Darkdown is characterized by a “rush of adjectives” (177 words, 15 adjectives), while this bit of Band Sinister decidedly is not (167 words, 2 adjectives). With just these two examples, we see how Band Sinister builds a relationship of referentiality, but also significant difference, from its fictional counterpart.

The idea of referencing other fictional texts is crucial to Band Sinister’s entire project, and this is where I want to introduce a new term: intertextuality. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the complex interrelationship between a text and other texts taken as basic to the creation or interpretation of the text.” Basically, it’s a catch-all term for when any text refers to another, whether that’s through parody, pastiche, epigraphs and quotations, a character mentioning a book they’ve read, etc.

Band Sinister has several layers of intertextuality. Some of its intertexts are “real” novels : it references not just Heyer’s body of work, but actual published gothic novels, and regency romances from Austen right up to the present. But it also has an intertextual relationship to a fake book in Amanda’s The Secret of Darkdown.

What does it mean for a book like Band Sinister to have a relationship to both “real” and “fictional” intertexts? Personally, I think it highlights how nearly all of the canon the romance genre is built on is a constructed fiction, one that for a long time excluded characters like the queer, multiracial, multi-ethnic, and religiously diverse cast of Band Sinister.

In fact, Band Sinister actually contains some discussion of how that exclusionary fictional world gets perpetuated in the face of a much more diverse reality, once again through the device of Darkdown as a novel-within-a-novel. One of Darkdown’s main characters, Sir Peter Falconwood, is extremely close in both physical aspect and personal character to Sir Philip Rookwood, their scandalous neighbor and Guy’s eventual love interest. Amanda’s novel is (perhaps even unbeknownst to her) inspired by the queer, multicultural reality of her society- in this case her own neighbors. And Band Sinister is explicit about the societal and publishing pressures Amanda would be under to not write a book that represents that reality. She can’t publish her work under her own name, but instead publishes under the Austen-esque pseudonym “By A Lady.” Even the hint of sexual content in her work risks ruin for her and her brother. Thus, the queerness of her source material largely disappears into a subtext, the kind of subtext where Guy will initially struggle to place himself: 

 “That has been one of the worst parts: the youthful hero Sebastian in a dungeon, bound and helpless at the mercy of the dastardly rake Sir Peter Falconwood with his ‘strange cruelties and velvet tortures’ for several chapters before Araminta rescued him. It wasn’t entirely clear what the book had meant by ‘velvet tortures,’ since the whole sequence was a mass of allusion and implication. That had been both a relief and – in a way Guy had no intention of considering further – a disappointment.”

KJ Charles, Band Sinister. 2018.

 Through Amanda’s role as a fictional writer of intertext, Band Sinister gestures to the societal pressures that reduced the diverse reality of history to subtext at best, absence at worst, in so many canonical literary works.

There are so many layers to how Band Sinister deals with both the benefits and pressures of maintaining a relationship to a long-established fictional canon. The mere mention of a “heaving bosom” in the Darkdown passage recalls the playful way romance readers can use stereotypes about the genre as a kind of insider reference (see also this great thread on bodice-ripping as in-joke). Illustrated covers like Band Sinister’s are their own kind of referential paratext:

Band Sinister by [Charles, KJ]
Image source: http://kjcharleswriter.com/books/

This cover takes what other romance intertexts have taught us to read as a “love triangle” where two straight men vie for the affection of one woman, and applies it to a novel where gay and polyamorous relationships are the dominant paradigm.

Ultimately, by opening with a fictional intertext, Band Sinister reminds us that all of the intertexts of romance are inventions, and that the best novels know which elements to borrow, and which to entirely re-conceive.

Thanks for reading- and get ready for this Friday, when I’ll be returning to my regular feature asking you to share your favorite words of the week!

[1] For just a few examples, see Felicia Grossman’s article or Alexandra Sterling’s piece on the problematic legacy of Georgette Heyer, Fated Mates’ work on our relationship to the “books that blooded us,” or Asha Ganesan’s guest post for SBTB on diversity in historical romance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s