Bound in Flame
by Katherine Kayne
October 28, 2019 · Passionflower Press
Sorry friends, unfortunately this is not going to be the kind of F grade review where we all get to giggle over an especially prodigious number of tentacles or the shared discovery that shifter Rudolph’s nose is cold and wet in his human form, too. Bound in Flame by Katherine Kayne is grounded in imperialist tropes that are deeply distressing, especially because it is dressed up as a book written to celebrate Hawaii and its culture.
Leticia Liliʻuokalani Lang or Letty is a half-White, half-Native Hawaiian woman with a fiery nature to match her red hair. Also, she’s got flames. Not shooting out of her eyes (which is my dearest wish for my own superpower), but a near constant (but invisible) sensation of flames that lives in her lower back. They tell her to act when there is trouble. Basically, instead of lighting a flame under her butt, her magic is her own personal lodestar that points her in the direction of righteous action and bids her to be courageous.
Letty is 18 years old with her 19th birthday on the horizon. Because of her impetuous nature she has spent the last three years of her life in a boarding school in northern California, learning discipline and diplomacy along with the more standard math and sciences. She loves animals and wants to be a veterinarian despite the fact that in 1906 that would have made her one of the first women with such a degree. Having grown up on a horse farm, she’s also an expert in all things horses and is generally a lover of animals. She also would have been a Hawaiian princess if not for American imperialist actions toppling the Kingdom of Hawaii. As it is, her godmother is Princess Kehokulani, the woman who would have been the Queen of Hawaii.
Her love interest, Lord Timothy Moran Rowley, sucks. Ooops, I mean he’s an Englishman that has sought his fortune in Hawaii because he wasn’t content with the usual life of a younger son. For declaring his desire to be a farmer to his father, he was disowned. Timothy is only a few years older than Letty at 22 years old and walks with a mysterious limp. Letty and Timothy meet upon her return to Hawaii to celebrate her 19th birthday. Aboard the same ship as Timothy’s new horse and groom, she witnesses the attempt to winch the horse from the ship to the dock. Instead of safely getting the horse to dry land, the straps holding the horse snap and he is dropped into the ocean. Blindfolded and hobbled, the horse has little chance of making it to the shore safely, so Letty jumps into the ocean, saving it. Upon making it to shore, Timothy claims the horse and Letty immediately tells him about himself:
“You!” Shoving her body between the man and the stallion, her weakness evaporated. This time anger held her upright. “You don’t deserve this horse. You and your fool groom just nearly got him killed. You are an ass and a moron, and you shall not have him.”
The groom came with the gifted horse and the actual groom was attacked in the street by another guy who stole his identity because he was on the run for killing some people and generally not being a good person.
But Timothy still sucks. When he requests assistance from Princess Kehokulani to help break two colts, she sends Letty, along with another man. Timothy immediately objects to her presence because she is a woman and then when she does an excellent job as promised, his internal voice complains that she was a bit bossy and annoyingly competent. When he’s not being salty about Letty being better at things than he is because she’s being doing them her entire life, he’s openly ogling her body.
But even then, Timothy and all his effortless and uncritical embrace of patriarchal nonsense are not the most frustrating parts of this book. What I could not get past was the handling of Native Hawaiian characters and explanation for why ancient Hawaiian magic has returned.
Basically, this book groups its characters into three different groups: Native Hawaiians, Native Hawaiians like Letty that are hapa (defined in the book as half White and half Native Hawaiian) and White. All Native Hawaiians speak in a pidgin that to my ears/eyes doesn’t seem quite right:
“You no look yet.”
“This right color for you,” Miyako purred. “Princess say green, but this better.”
‘“You some doctor, Miss Letty,” said Freitas, his admiration evident. “I will take care of the rest. Sunflower, she good horse. You some doctor!”
Native Hawaiians that are hapa speak English in the same way that White characters do, except they sometimes throw Hawaiian words in the mix:
“My, my, Pele’s flower, the lehua.”
“In ancient times, we believed it possible to think someone to death with strong intentions, the puleʻanāʻanā.”
“What seemed lost was the power of good intention. Manaʻo pono, righteous thinking.”
My issues with the handling of language are two-fold. First of all, the use of pidgin is highly racialized, which is to say that in this book, to be Native Hawaiian is to speak pidgin. There are no Native Hawaiian characters that speak standard English and there are no hapa Native Hawaiian or White characters that speak pidgin. We never see a hapa Native Hawaiian code switch by speaking one way to White people and speaking another way to Native Hawaiians. I am not Native Hawaiian and definitely not a linguist, but that racialized division between language is one that doesn’t feel realistic. It was jarring to observe the sharp boundaries between the way various characters speak.
Beyond that, the way that the hapa Native Hawaiians spoke didn’t feel naturalistic either. While I am not Native Hawaiian, I am half Mexican-American and have been exposed to the way native speakers combine languages in conversation. I have never heard anyone say, “I am going to my house, la casa.” It’s usually more along the lines of, “That pinche front door! Your brother promised to fix it weeks ago!” or “It’s getting dark in here, prende la luz.” I really struggled with how language was deployed in this novel because it’s clearly oriented to an audience that cannot be trusted to use the appendix or to figure out what a word means from context, which renders conversations stilted.
My real issue here was the central conceit around the resurgence of magic. The old school Hawaiian magic is said to have declined and is now experiencing a resurgence, but only because of the mixing of blood. There is a prophecy which revealed that nine women, the Gates, will guide Hawaii into the future. These nine have the power “because of the mixing of the blood. All the young women we have found with potential are hapa” and have been granted the gift from the land itself.
This trope–requiring a proximity to whiteness to fully understand indigeneity, while also deploying mixed race people as a means through which to claim legitimacy to land and to culture–is part of a pernicious tradition frequently present in the American historical consciousness. Moreover, it is used to justify and erase violent colonial/imperialist acts both in mainland U.S. and in Hawaii and Alaska.
During various periods of American history, intermarriage between Whites and Native Americans was encouraged (or at least those between a White man and a Native American woman!) as a means through which to assimilate and erase the indigenous population, while also granting a legitimate claim to the land. These types of interactions were never about blending European and indigenous culture, but about “civilizing” native populations. The reason why the differences in language between Native Hawaiians, Native Hawaiians that are hapa, and White people is so concerning to me is because it makes visible this belief in the way the characters speak. Hapa Native Hawaiians have become civilized, speaking like the White characters, while Native Hawaiians are left speaking pidgin. Hapa Native Hawaiians never speak pidgin, as if once accessing whiteness, they’ve crossed a boundary they can never return to.
The relationship between Letty and Timothy is one that is focused on Timothy and his journey towards legitimizing his claim to kinship with the Hawaiian culture and land through both his ownership of land and his relationship with Letty and her magic. Ultimately it is Timothy and not Letty that learns how to fully control her magic so that they can have a physical relationship. After learning that Princess Kehokulani cannot have a physical relationship with the man that she loves and experiencing first hand why when kissing Letty, Timothy searches for a solution. He finds one in the midst of a bender after returning to London to deal with some family issues. Timothy meets a blue-eyed Indian (South Asian) man named Sir John Woodruffe who claims to be a master of esoterica. Timothy brings his newfound knowledge back to Letty, who had already decided that being in a relationship was impossible. He insists that he knows better than her about the magic that lives within her body and the lost history of her own culture. And, once they have sex, Timothy feels like he is a true Hawaiian and they return to Hawaii an as engaged couple.
A narrative that asserts that magic can only return through the creation of hapa Native Hawaiians and through White intercession does an incredible amount of work to excuse White imperialist actions because it asserts that without the conquering and annexation of the islands, Hawaiians would have never regained their magical connection to the land. I had truly hoped to read a story that introduced me to a fun spin on romantic fantasy tropes within the framework of a culture I had little exposure to, a heroine who was strong and clever, and a hero that I did not want to punch in the face. Unfortunately for me, Bound in Flame was a fairly insensitive and ignorant recitation of imperialist apologia that never seemed to realize that, while it claimed to be about Native Hawaiian culture, all it was really about was centering Whiteness.